BY JOHN SALERNO
In this third article on Bicycling Iowa, I wanted to share my thoughts on how to purchase the right kind of bike for folks who are either new to cycling or who haven’t bought a bike in many years.
These days we have the largest variety of bicycles ever to choose from. In fact, bicycles today are more trouble free, maintenance free, safer, and easier to use than bikes manufactured ten years ago.
How to Choose
Before you run down to your local bike shop, ask yourself these questions: What kind of riding do you want to do? Do you want to stay strictly on pavement, or ride on smooth dirt paths and pavement? Or rugged mountain trails? How far do you plan to ride—recreational short trips under 10 miles or more frequent rides of 10 to 20 miles or longer? Last, but certainly not least, how much can you afford to spend?
In searching for quality bike equipment, keep in mind that better bike components contain less steel and more aluminum alloy. This makes them lighter, stronger, smoother operating, and, yes, more expensive.
Frames Make the Ride
The frame is the heart and soul of any bicycle—and the most expensive part. The frame’s design and composition determine how the bike rides and feels.
Manufacturers choose frame materials based upon a cost-to-weight-to-strength ratio. The vast majority of quality bicycle frames are built from one of three kinds of materials: high-tensile steel, chrome molybdenum steel, and/or aluminum. High tensile steel is strong and reliable, but physically heavier. Chrome molybdenum steel has a higher strength-to-weight ratio, so it can have thinner-walled frame tubing and still maintain its strength and superior road feel. Aluminum frames can be roughly one to two pounds lighter than an equivalent steel frame and not be vulnerable to rust, but many can be stiffer than steel, and a little harsher riding.
Nowadays, top-of-the-line racing bicycles are usually made of carbon fiber or titanium. These rustproof materials have the highest strength-to-weight ratio but are also the most costly to manufacture.
When it comes to riding comfort, perhaps no bike component is more important than the seat. Many beginners look at the lighter streamlined models today and wonder how they can be comfortable. Well, a lot depends on the type of riding you do. If you have a sport touring or road racing bike with a dropped handlebar, your “bend over” aerodynamic position will naturally distribute your body weight more evenly from back to front of the bike, so you will have less body weight bearing down on your rear end and more on your arms. For this kind of riding, a larger soft saddle is not as necessary as it is for the city commuter, who often has a more upright handlebar position and less need for aerodynamics.
Nowadays, most quality seats have softer gel materials that significantly increase comfort by absorbing road shock as well as being lighter and more flexible.
One essential but often overlooked area of bicycle componentry is wheel quality. Aluminum alloy wheel rims are a vitally important feature on bikes with hand brakes, because tests have shown that they can stop faster than steel rims. Aluminum alloy rims are lighter, more rigid, and often stronger than their steel counterparts. Moreover, their lighter rolling weight makes easier pedaling.
The better quality wheels also come with stainless steel spokes. They are carefully built and trued by expert wheel builders in order to be the most durable.
Better hubs (again, aluminum alloy) and bottom brackets (crank spindle) allow the bearings and axles to roll more smoothly and last longer. Many hubs and bottom brackets today are also more sealed from dirt and water—an important consideration if you commute when it rains.
For those who are still mystified by the bewildering number of gears on new bikes, let me simply say that having more gears will help you exercise better and ride smarter. You will be able to maintain a more natural and consistent pedal cadence. An adequate gear range helps to minimize premature rider fatigue, muscle strain, and impact on ankles and knees.
The total number of possible gears is calculated by multiplying the number of gears in the front of the bike times the number of gears in the rear cluster. Many novice riders don’t realize that although they may never use all of those 21 or so gear combinations, having more allows you to shift more precisely and smoothly.
The Five Major Bike Types
Let’s briefly discuss the five major types of adult bikes in use today: the hybrid bike, sport touring road bike, road racing bike, commuter bike, and recumbent. Please keep in mind that there are gray zones that often blur the distinction between these different categories.
Mountain bikes are the most rugged, with stronger components (especially wheels) and frames. They are intended for rougher, off-road riding in rugged terrain, although they are often used on-road. Their distinguishing features are fat, knobby-tread tires for more traction and cushion, 26-inch wheels, flatter-profile handlebars, and ultra-low gears for the steepest hill climbing.
Nowadays, most have suspension forks in front and sometimes rear suspensions for greater shock absorption all around.
For riders wanting the ultimate “off-road experience” on a bike, prices usually start above $800. Alternatively, if you’re not as serious about riding off-road, you might want to consider a trail bike or light-duty mountain bike, with similar looks and features but usually not as light, rugged, nor expensive. They’re fine for trail and road use, and ideal for casual riders, college students, commuters, and family riding. Prices will start around $200.
Road Racing Bikes
These machines are built strictly for smooth pavement riding and speed, speed, and more speed. They have smoother, narrow racing tires with the lowest rolling resistance and dropped or turned-down handlebars for both increased aerodynamics and hand comfort on longer rides. They are lighter on average than any other type of bike and have a shorter wheelbase length for more nimble response. Prices usually start above $1,000.
For those who want many of these racy features at a lower price, the sport touring bike, with prices beginning above $400, is a good bet. Also, if you do more long distance loaded touring on the road, the loaded touring bike has a longer wheelbase for increased road-shock absorbency, cantilever brakes for greater stopping power, and loaded panniers and threaded eyelets for attaching carrying racks.
Hybrid or Cross Bikes
Recognized as the most utilitarian commuter bike these days, hyrid or cross bikes generally have 28-inch diameter wheels and ample 21 to 24 gears. The hybrid combines comfortable bike seating and more upright handlebar position with wider tires. They can also have shock-absorbing seat posts and “straight-across” handlebars (causing riders to lean slightly forward). More expensive models can have front-telescoping shock-absorber forks. Prices usually start around $300.
For the more casual recreational rider and commuter who does not intend to buy a whole stable of bikes, this is perhaps the wisest choice for all-around use.
Recumbents are reported to be one of the fastest growing segments of the bike market. Most have 20- or 24-inch wheels and the longest wheelbase for a smoother, Cadillac-like ride. They allow the riders to sit in a reclining position and pedal with their feet forward, which improves aerodynamic efficiency. Seats are more like lounge chairs. You sit lower to the ground. Although most are heavier than comparable road racing bikes because of the greater length, they are surprisingly fast. They are generally more expensive—prices start at $800—but many club riders and recreational riders find that they’re worth the price.
Commuter or Town Bikes
These practical bikes are also reported to be top sellers. They have gone through a renaissance, and today’s bikes are lighter, easier shifting, quicker braking, and all-round more comfortable and fun to ride. Designed for both the serious commuter and casual rider, they generally have a 26-inch wheel with moderately wide tires, a more upright handlebar position, a very comfortable sprung saddle or suspension seatpost, and often a suspension fork on higher priced models. To shift gears, they use derailleurs or an internal geared rear hub. Many models come equipped with fenders, racks, chainguards, and other accessories often required by the well-appointed commuter.
The most practical accessories to purchase immediately are a helmet (safety first!), a small frame pump (to carry with you in case of a flat), a spare inner tube and patch kit, and a floor pump with a tire pressure gauge to allow you to regularly pump your tires to the ideal pressure. In fact, once a week you should pump bike tires up to the pressure imprinted on the sidewalls—more often for higher-pressure road bike tires. Why? Because all inner tubes gradually lose air over time, much faster than a car’s. When bike tires are kept properly inflated, they last longer, wear better, and are less prone to punctures.
Commuters and tourists need racks and bags, depending on how much they carry. Commuters often ride in their dressier clothes, so good fenders are a wise choice. If you ride at night, headlights and taillights are an absolute must. For security, a good lock is an indispensable accessory—lock it wherever you go.
Visit Your Local Bike Shop
The ideal place to test bikes and receive helpful expertise is your local bike shop—not department or toy stores, which often carry the lowest quality bikes and accessories and do not provide any follow-up service.
But before you rush out, do more research into the information I’ve discussed here. Talk to friends at the local bike club or read buyer’s guides in bicycling magazines. Test ride bikes you’re considering to find out how different models feel and what fits you most comfortably. Overall, you should be in for a more pleasant riding experience, as the bicycles today actually give you more bike for your money than the old bikes of yesteryear. Happy pedaling!