How To Buy The Best Bicycle For You (Basics For Any Bike)
The process of purchasing a bicycle can be daunting with all the various brands, cycling disciplines, and component technologies out there. It doesn’t have to be when you know what you are looking for. In this article, I’m going to show you how to choose the right bike for you to buy. Now let’s get straight to the point.
The best overall bike for general riding is a mountain bike from the previous year on sale. The best deals are generally available at the end of a season in fall or in spring when the current season’s equipment becomes available. A local bike shop can offer helpful advice for sizing and components at your pre-determined budget.
Notice I wrote “general riding”, as in no one specific cycling discipline. A mountain bike has the most range of riding conditions and uses. With that being said, in this buyer’s guide, we will talk about how to find the perfect bike for you, depending on your specific needs. So I won’t go into detail for special-purpose bikes like in my folding bike buyer’s guide.
This is unbiased advice from my personal experience with all sorts of bikes. It’s not a list of bikes I want you to buy, but rather an informational piece to help you find what’s most optimal for you before you go out and look at “best-of lists” for the category you are deciding to go after.
How to buy a new bike
First of all, there is no perfect bike. If there was, I would only own one but I have four. I may be an enthusiast, but it’s also true that you need different bikes for different purposes.
Now, if you just want one bike for general purpose riding, arguably the best thing for you to do is go to your local bike shop, where they do their own service, and buy a new bike from last year‘s models at a discount.
It’s cost-effective that the bike comes serviced with all-new components because repair costs can easily be more than the purchase price of the bike if you buy something used or buy something over the internet.
I have bought bikes online a couple of times now from reputable direct-to-consumer brands. I wouldn’t recommend it unconditionally for everyone tho. The only time buying a bike over the internet (or used for that matter) makes sense is if you’re either a bike mechanic or someone who really likes reading detailed instructions and doesn’t mind spending your free time for assembly, tuning up your bike regularly and getting it ready to go.
The main rule of buying a bike is to buy the bike you need today, not the bike you think you’ll need next week or next year. It’s a waste of money to buy more bike than you need and it’s a waste of money to buy less bike than you need.
What you should consider when buying a bicycle
People get really confused about which bike to buy. Mainly because they don’t have their own requirements clear in their mind. Let me start off by stating this:
You’re going to waste money if you buy more than you need, and you’re going to waste money if you buy less bike than you need.
Let me explain what I mean by that. If you only need a bike to ride a mile to school every day, then a $300 bike from your local bike shop is probably fine.
On the other hand, for someone like me who bikes 50 to 100 miles a week up and downhill, that same $300 bike would be a complete waste of money because I would shred it to pieces in about two weeks. It’s just not designed for that kind of volume. And that’s okay. There are bikes out there for any imaginable purpose. Even the ridiculous-looking fat-tire bikes have their righteous place.
What’s perfect for me, isn’t necessarily what’s perfect for you. A high-quality multi-thousand dollar full suspension mountain bike that goes uphill and also handles rough downhills well is right in my wheelhouse, but maybe not relevant for someone else. Even further down the extremes is my downhill mountain bike, which is purpose-built for downhill tracks, but can’t even ride well in flat terrain; let alone uphills.
Any of those options are complete overkill for someone who is going to just ride it to school or work and back. So, it depends on your personal use. Don’t buy a more capable bike than you currently need and don’t buy the bike you think you might need tomorrow. Instead, buy the bike you need today.
People start thinking: Well, what if I want to enter a race someday I’m going to need a carbon fiber race bike. And you know they end up talking themselves into a $ 3,000 bike when they don’t even know if they will even like riding bikes.
Buy the bike you need right now.
Used bike buying considerations
Let’s talk about buying used bikes. New bikes have been around $ 1,000 and up for a while now. With sharply increased demand over the past years, prices have climbed even further up. At the same time, the used bike market has gained in popularity as well. It’s still possible to get one for $ 400 on craigslist (or your preferred second-hand marketplace). Or better yet, there are more and more online direct-to-consumer brands you can order from directly to your doorstep for $ 700
What you don’t realize about bikes is the purchase price is only one piece of the puzzle. The more features and moving parts the bike has, the more expensive the maintenance becomes. This is how maintenance on bikes can get unexpectedly expensive. Just as with cars, regular required maintenance keeps you on the road and prevents mechanical issues at inopportune moments.
Because bikes are by design lightweight and only strong enough to do the job they are meant for, they tend to need a lot of maintenance and that’s expensive. Even more so if you can’t do it yourself and need a bike mechanic for it.
If you get that thousand-dollar bike on craigslist used for $500 that’s great. But there’s a good chance you’re going to have to take it in for an overhaul and get some new wear-parts like a new chain, a new cassette, get brake serviced, a suspension service, bearings greased, and maybe new pedals. Guess what: You’re up at $1000 and you have a used bike instead of a new one.
This is why you really have to take maintenance costs into account. If you are very handy, have the tools, are good at reading instruction manuals, and want to do all your own bike maintenance, you have a clear advantage here. While doing your own maintenance takes a lot of time, it’s worthwhile. Not only for money savings but also for the knowledge and skills that are invaluable in case of a malfunction during a ride. You gain the comfort of knowing that you can be your own breakdown service.
But if you don’t want to do that, you’re not saving money by buying a used bike or bike over the Internet; which you have to assemble and service yourself as local bike shops can refuse bikes not sold by them.
A used bike is almost never a bargain unless you are a bike mechanic.
The best bargain is to go to your bike shop, find the bike you want and buy last year‘s model. Those deals are typically 15 to 25% discounted and often times a bike shop will give you free tuneups for a short period to keep you as a long-term customer. So factor it all into account when you’re trying to decide where to buy your bike.
Now to the part where you find out what bike you actually want and need.
What type of bicycle should you buy?
Road bike or mountain bike
The first decision you’ll have to make is between a mountain bike and a road bike. Despite its name, a mountain bike can be used on and off-road. That same logic isn’t true for a road bike due to its rigid frame, body position, and lightweight, more fragile design which is more prone to damage from a bumpy ride.
If you are unsure what’s more to your liking, try to find a friend who has both and you can borrow for a reasonable time to try out for yourself firsthand. One is not necessarily better than the other. Many people think you only need mountain bikes if you plan on going off-road, which is not at all the case. Most bikes around are considered mountain bikes and most have some kind of semi-slick tire to help with rolling resistance on tarmac. A similar kind of compromise can be made with gravel bikes. Think road bikes with wider, off-road oriented tires and stronger frames.
I use all kinds of bikes: A road bike only for conditioning training, bike touring, and quick trips for groceries since it has bike bags. My mountain bikes are pure fun machines for riding trails through the woods. Sometimes I use the full suspension MTB (mountain bike) for leisurely rides around town with maximal comfort. MTBs are just much more durable and comfortable on roads with potholes or cobblestone. Not only because of added tire volume and suspension but also due to the more upright body position.
Speed or comfort
I said before that road biking is exercising for me. It’s simply faster on the road so I can go longer distances in the same time and leave farther from my house. It makes training more enjoyable, but not necessarily more effective. Faster is not really better or worse for an exercise bike. What difference does it make if you’re going faster when your goal is a certain training goal. It all depends on your personal goals. Thinking about it, a low-maintenance single-speed bike could actually be considered better for exercise because you have to work so much harder with only one gear.
For other purposes, speed is your number one criterion. Likely if you need to go great distances in a certain amount of time. For example, say your workplace is 20 miles away and you want to use your car less. If a bike becomes your secondary mode of transportation, you need a really fast road bike or you’re going to spend all day road biking to get to work and back.
That’s a great example of when you need a fast bike, but for most people who are just going to get exercise, have fun and be mobile without a car, a mountain bike is a much better option since you’re more upright and you can look around to enjoy the ride more. On a road bike, your head is naturally pointed to the pavement and that’s pretty much all you see. The pavement in Austria looks pretty much like the pavement in America: not very interesting.
What to look for when buying a bike
Now, after you’ve decided what kind of bike you want – road bike or mountain bike – the next thing you gonna be faced with are the bike dealers with a whole bunch of options on offer. The abundance of variations can seem really confusing. Let me break it down for you to the basics.
Great bike manufacturers and bike brands are easy enough to spot. They are often listed on the storefront and banners. But when it comes to comparing between brands, it’s actually really difficult. The same is true even for different models from the same manufacturer. This is because components make all the difference. A frame is a frame. It doesn’t matter that much. Bike manufacturers have pretty much figured out optimal frame geometries for each intended purpose. This is why road bikes tend to look alike, as do trekking bikes, cross country MTBs, enduro MTBs, and so on.
It’s what components are dangling from the bike frame, that make all the difference.
Help yourself here by making a list of the components on the bikes you are interested in. The differences between frames (for the same purpose) are smaller than between different component setups. And you don’t need a carbon fiber frame. Aluminum frames have gotten extremely close in weight, besides the weight is seriously not that important on a bike. Think about it: If you weigh close to 180 pounds (or 80 kg) what’s 1 pound (0.5 kg) difference on the bike? Nothing. You could lose that in a week of dieting, or one after-coffee session on the toilette – no problem.
If you want to be lighter on your bike, start where it’s easy and cheap to spare weight and save the thousand dollars premium to get a sexy carbon frame that’s a pound lighter. That’s silly. The frame itself should not be your focus, what you’re really buying are the components.
The most important bike components
The drivetrain is arguably the most important group of components on any bike, regardless of discipline and purpose. And understandably so: A drivetrain is what gets the power from your legs to the ground. It’s made up of cranks, spindle, chainrings, chain, cassette, shifters and derailleurs. So this rear part of a bike is where your most important look should go when you’re comparing bikes.
Let’s look at an example of the biggest bike component manufacturer out there, which equips all kinds of bikes from road bikes to mountain bikes and everything in-between: Shimano. What they and every other manufacturer (SRAM being the second big dog) do is group components of different quality into their own branded tiers.
All those parts mentioned in the first paragraph will bear the groupsets name somewhere on there. Easy to spot places are the shifters, cranks, and rear derailleur. Next to Shimano, SRAM, or any other manufacturer, you’ll find something like SLX, Deore, XT, XTR, or another trademarked name. Unbranded components are usually an indication of lesser quality and possibly hard-to-find spare parts.
These are indicators that are relevant to all kinds of bikes and bike manufacturers. All a manufacturer does is build the frame and select third-party parts that get mounted to it. So, feel free to look up what the names mean on the component brand’s website. Check their rankings, which consist of up to 12 different quality levels of components listed in order.
On mountain bikes, XTR is Shimano’s highest tier component range and on road bikes, Dura-Ace is the highest tier. I can say this with such confidence because these names rarely ever change – but the latest components bearing those names do! Think of these tiers as car model names, that get updated every few years but keep the same name.
Disc brakes or rim brakes
One major consideration besides the drivetrain you really need to think about are the brakes. Especially when you want to go at a quicker pace or carry a lot of weight like bike trekking equipment. These ankers are your number one safety feature and the only parts slowing you down. The shorter the stopping distance, the better in any situation.
The short version: Rim brakes are low-maintenance and low-performing, while disc brakes are the opposite. Especially hydraulic ones, they bite like not even the best rim brake can.
If you’re a heavier rider, going fast on a road bike, or like doing downhills, disk brakes are a must. Doing any of that with powerless rim brakes is not advisable. With good, affordable disc brakes available, I can only see rim brakes being used on bikes for short distances and leisurely rides.
With increased weight (from yourself or the baggage) higher potential energy is needed to slow you down. The more braking power needed, the hotter the brakes (or rims) are going to get. While disc brakes are designed to handle power and heat, rim brakes are quickly come to their natural limits and may even heat up your tires. Both of which lose your braking power and you’re gonna be in trouble.
The only way to go with a road bike if you’re over 200 pounds total (bike + rider), in my opinion, is with one that has disc brakes.
So when you’re comparing bikes and you’re unsure start with comparing the drivetrain components and the brake set. These are a good indicator of the quality of the entire setup. Of course, the same method also works for other component ranges like brake sets, suspension, and wheels.
At a similar price, the one with the highest quality components is a much better deal because the frame is simply a place to hang expensive components.
Components are what you’re really buying, so I would use them to decide which bike to get.
While frame designs have tended to become more and more similar, so have frame materials. With that being said, while aluminum and carbon fiber are the most popular frame materials, the old-school like titanium and steel ones are still around and alive. But this is more of an enthusiast topic rather than critical to functionality.
Steel is indestructible. Aluminum is indestructible. Titanium is indestructible. And carbon designs have become more indestructible too.
Honestly, the frames don’t make that much difference in my opinion. To me, it’s not worth it to pay twice as much for a frame that’s a couple of ounces lighter. On some frame designs that are made in aluminum and carbon, the weight difference is even negligible if not in favor of the aluminum frame. That’s how far metal manufacturing has come. Also, carbon frames have tended to get thicker (more layers) in material because the thinner ones just haven’t proven to be reliable enough.
Wheel sizes & dimensions
Wheels are an entire conversation on their own. One I will only touch on here, because wheel sizes by themselves don’t actually tell you that much about a bike. There isn’t even a real choice for you to make or think about. On top of that, the wheel size is no indication of the actual frame size. So sizing is dictated by the frame geometry, not the wheels.
There are a couple of standardized wheel sizes for road and for mountain bikes. Road bikes typically come in narrow 28″ or 29″ (700C) wheel diameters, while mountain bikes come in wider 27,5″ (650B) and 29″ wheels.
That’s it, short and simple. Don’t overthink the wheel size debate. For any questions on bike tires and dimensions, feel free to check out the dedicated FAQ page or a deep dive into an explanation of MTB tires.
Bodyweight considerations for bike buying
We touched on body weight briefly. Let’s get more in-depth and cover something really important for those of you who are over 200 pounds and looking into buying a bike.
The problem with bicycles is that since everyone in the industry seems obsessed with bike weight, they make them as light as possible. This means that often heavier riders are too fragile and will fall apart more quickly. It’s very difficult to get a bike that’s appropriate for someone who’s 250 pounds.
With a regular road bike, I would suggest staying on the road all the time because what you’ll find is that the wheels will quickly fall apart. The spokes will loosen and the wheel will start wobbling in your toes so what do you do if you’re a heavy rider. If you’re over 200 pounds I would strongly advise that you get a mountain bike, because bikes, in general, are only designed for 180-pound people.
So what makes mountain bikes better, then? Good question. MTBs are designed for people with that weight who are putting it under more abuse by jumping over stumps and going through rocky terrain. If you just plan to ride on payment, an MTB can hold 250 to 300 pounds without a problem. So that’s the easiest solution if you are a heavy fellow.
For those of you who really want a road bike to go fast there are a couple things you can do
Let’s skip the frame entirely. Don’t worry about the frames, any frame is strong enough. Titanium tends to be the best frame material for heavy people because of its stiffness so you won’t feel it flexing like a pretzel under you.
The most important consideration with a road bike for a heavy person are the wheels. A normal wheel you will destroy in two months and it gets really expensive fast. To prevent this from happening, there are two things you can do.
First: Get one of those aluminum rim sets and get the high tension spokes rather than the traditional round spokes. I found those are very reliable for heavy loads.
The other thing you can do is have the local bike shop put tandem wheels on it. These custom wheels are designed to hold twice the weight. That’s also a great idea for a travel bike to handle all the heavy gear.
But if you’re a heavy rider just be warned: it’s going to be very difficult to get a bike that will handle your weight reliably because of the industry trend to favor lightweight designs over sturdy ones.
Car vs bike commuting
Let’s close the circle, by talking about the price of bikes again. As discussed at the beginning, you can get a really solid bike for 1,000 bucks. Which can seem like a lot, especially if you don’t have a clear picture of how you would use a bicycle.
Now, spending $ 10,000 to get a reliable used car is much more common. It’s ten times the initial investment, but a staple in most households. The costs don’t end with the purchase though. Annually, calculate $ 1,000 a year for insurance, $ 2,000 a year for gas, and on average $ 1,000 a year in maintenance. When you look at the big picture, a bike can be really cheap, if you can find a way to use it instead of an automobile.
Now, I know not all of you can or even want to do that, myself included. My car is the mode of transportation that allows me to travel in complete freedom. It’s even the transport for my bikes using a car bike rack. Without my car, biking wouldn’t be nearly as fun or exciting. It’s what enhances my riding.
But I still manage to save on gas expenses, if nothing else, by only turning on the car for long distances. Some of you can even manage to find a way to use the bike for transportation and then use Uber for the times they absolutely need a vehicle and save money. While others simply want to take the bike more often and leave the car in the garage.
Even if you can’t do without, just using the bike for doing errands can save you a lot of time and frustration in cities, where parking is such a big hassle.
If that’s something you could see yourself using a bike for, just get a bike that can mount a rack to put some panniers on it to carry your stuff in. I got a pair of water-resistant roll-up bags from Ortlieb for all kinds of storage on my bike. Here they are on amazon if you’re interested.
Just try to take the big picture in mind when you’re thinking about the price of your new bike. It’s not (only) a toy, it’s a transportation vehicle for yourself and everyday items.