5 steps to buying the right bicycle

“Which entry level bike should I get?”

This is a common question on every bike forum on the global interweb. Generally the poster is a bike newbie and is looking to buy something for 100-200 euros. I know because I was one of these noobs just two short year’ ago. Ok, well this might well help get you started – here’s some tips for the decisions you have to make.

1. Get a realistic budget (or go 2nd hand)

Money, money, money!If your budget of 200 quid is not realistic, unless it’s pounds Sterling we’re talking about. If you really have a hard limit then 200 quid will buy you a very decent 2nd-hand bike, or a piece-of-sh!t from Argos and plenty of change. I strongly recommend going the 2nd-hand route if you do have to stick to your small budget. One option is to go to a police bike auction. In Dublin it’s held around twice a year, and although this October’s one wasn’t great, there were a couple of good bargains to be found. Otherwise try your local adverts website or Craigslist.
Once you’ve done some research it’s obvious that to buy a new bike you’ll need to up your budget to at least 300eur (~$350). It helps to remember that you’re spending money on a well engineered machine that will help your fitness and can substitute for your car.

Did you factor the accessories into your budget? I’m talking at least 35eur for helmet and 20eur for lights, 20eur for a lock and that’s the basic models. It depends on yourself and your local laws but if you cycle in the dark without lights you’re dumb and if you go without a helmet, well, it’s your choice and hopefully you won’t fall and hit your head.

2. Decide what type of bike

Now that you have a realistic budget you need to decide the type of bike you want. This choice is dependent on what you will definitely be using the bike for, and what you think you may use the bike for. You might want to lose weight, or commute to work, cycle with your kids on the weekend or get into road racing or triathlons. Three months after buying it you might suddenly decide you want to go on a bike tour to France. It helps to be a little prescient 🙂Sergio - a really nice Italian guy we met on his way to Chartres

The main type of bikes you’ll be looking at in the entry level arena will be mountain bikes and hybrids. Proper road bikes (aka “racers”) are way out of your budget – you’re looking at 700 euros for a Trek 1000, the de facto standard of entry level (this, like all things, is debatable – post a comment). Also out of budget are well spec’d touring bikes like the Trek 520 (nope, I’m not on commission from Trek, it is the de facto standard for entry level tourers – at least until they go AL this year). So back to what is in budget, the mountain bikes and the hybrids. (If you really do want a road bike post a comment or follow one of the forum links on the right.)

Why buy a mountain bike? If you’re a heavy rider -weight or style- or maybe you will be travelling on bad road surfaces, perhaps you think you’d like to try some trail riding, or want to be able to treat your bike mean and have it come back for more.

Mountain bikes are made to take a hit more than your average road bike, though don’t try full-on DH or 12 foot drops on your new Specialized Rockhopper. Entry level mountain bikes are generally suited to XC or cross-country style riding. Although they’re not rigged for it mountain bikes can make great commuters if you put some slick tyres like the Continental Sports Contact 26×1.3s on, and either lock out the suspension fork or replace it altogether with a rigid fork.

If you do want to hit the trails keep the standard tyres and the entry-level suspension will keep you going for your first couple of months until the upgrade-bug kicks in. Good suspension is expensive, entry level is crap. Do not buy a full suspension bike mountain bike – get a hardtail first off. If you can get a rigid fork and some cash off the sale that’s even better – you can buy a decent fork for 200-1000 quid later when you need it.

On the flip side you should get a hybrid if you’re going to be exclusively on road and want a faster and smoother ride. Hybrids come geared and with better tyres for road riding. Hybrids range from aggressive “road bike with flat bars style” Claud Butler Levante to the more relaxed and upright Ridgeback Velocity. They generally come set up as commuters or light touring bikes. How to be uncool: if you’re ever going to be commuting in the rain put mudguards (fenders) on there. Yep, they look very uncool, but first time it rains you’ll be very glad you did. You won’t look cool with a black stripe down your back. If you really want to look cool on the sunny days buy some of the plastic clip-on ones and you can leave ’em at home (and pray that’s not a thunderstorm you spot in the distance).

If you’re still not sure what type of bike you want then ask online – post on the relevant forum on bikeforums or on the boards.ie Cycling forum or simply post a comment here and I’ll help you best I can.

3. Test ride potential bikes

It’s really important, particularly for your first bike, that you try it out at the bike shop. Fitting your bike correctly is important because the capacity for injury or strain is there due to the repetitive nature of the exercise. You’ll learn some important things from trying out a bike at the shop – you’ll find out if you get on with the staff, you’ll find out what size bike you need, and you’ll get an impression of the different types of ride available. This should help you decide what you’re buying.

4. Call around for quotes

I called 5 shops asking for quotes for my Trek 4300. The first guy said “370 euros, and it’s the best you’ll get. Call around and find out”. Good advice, and he was dead right – I was quoted from 420 to 480 at all the other shops.

Guess who got the 370eur plus the 170eur on accessories plus the Ridgeback Velocity I bought there with my girlfriend, plus the Ridgeback Velocity I bought there with my housemate, plus the Trek 3900 I bought there with my cow-orker plus the Ultegra-spec’d Surly Cross Check he’s building up for me right now. Quick calculation shows I’ve spent or influenced the spending of more than 3000 euros in that shop to date. I guess he made his 50 quid’s worth back since then, eh? 🙂

5. Buy the bike, negotiate on everything

Your first time buying you’re better off buying at a shop. If you’re going to get accessories like lights, lock, helmet, gloves, mudguards, rack, panniers then now is the best time to get them. When you buy the bike be ready to ask them to do some work on it there and then e.g. fit the rack/mudguards/lights/rigid fork/slick tyres that you want. This should be free. Ask if they do 1 year/2 year/lifetime service for free. 99% of shops will give you a free 1st service 1-3 months after you buy the bike.

You can negotiate on the accessories, they should offer you a discount anyway, but in case they don’t then ask for one. They’ll either say yay or nay. One of my favourites is to calculate the total cost, and then say to the guy “ok, so that all comes to about [insert 85-90% of actual cost], right?”, he’ll pull out his calculator and figure out how much I’m taking him for and agree and we’re all happy. It’s a fun game to play, and like I mentioned above, the guy knows he’ll get his money’s worth. I think he’s gonna throw in a free pump with my new bike 😉

Ok, well that’s the end of my tips, this is such a vast subject that I could write for hours and hours. In fact I’m definitely unhappy that there’s plenty I’ve skimmed over and others I’ve ignored altogether. Yet it’s good enough info to point most people in the right direction. I’ll be revisiting this one. If there’s something you disagree with, you spot something that’s patently false, or you have any questions or suggestions then please leave a comment.

Update: some potential candiate bikes for you.

Mountain bikes 300-400 euro: Trek 3500 (cos it’s rigid fork and very cheap), 3900, 4100, 4200, 4300 (best bang for your buck). Giant Boulder. Specialized Hardrock (very similar to 4300).

Hybrids: Ridgeback Velocity (more relaxed geometry). Claud Butler Levante (aggressive road-like hybrid)

Road bike: Giant SCR 3. Trek 1000. (if you’re getting a road bike do a lot more research)