I had always been a bike purist. Up until recently, I’ve been riding the same bike I got for my 10th birthday. Sure, it still got me where I needed to go, but it was definitely time for an upgrade. As a total beginner, I discovered picking the right bike isn’t as simple as I thought. From frame size to extra features, here’s how to find your perfect ride.
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Choose the right bike type based on your needs
When I walked into my local bike shop and they asked what I was looking for, I had no idea what to say beyond, “a really cool bike.” I didn’t know where to start, so I told them I just wanted something for riding around the neighborhood. Even then, I discovered there were options.
The National Bicycle Dealers Association (NBDA) lists the general types of bikes you can find at most stores here. You probably know the difference between a mountain bike and a cruiser (pictured above), but there are a few types in between. Here’s a quick breakdown:
- Mountain bikes: Rugged and meant for off-road use, but you can use them on pavement, too.
- Road bikes: Meant for pavement use, like riding around in the city. Built for speed.
- Hybrid bikes: A cross between mountain and road bikes. Not as fast as road bikes, and not as rugged as mountain bikes, but good for commuting.
- Cruisers: Casual bike for, you know, cruising. The kind of bikes you see people ride around boardwalks near the beach.
This infographic also does an excellent job of breaking down the different bike types for beginners. Of course, there are all sorts of additional, specific types of bikes: tandem bikes, BMX bikes, fixed-gear bikes. But for us beginners, these four are a good place to start. I wanted a good transportation bike, but maybe even one I could take on nearby trails, so the salesman suggested a hybrid.
Calculate how much you want to spend
It goes without saying that bikes can be expensive. Those prices range quite a bit, though, from a hundred bucks to several thousand depending on what you buy. Ebicycles.com says beginners can expect to at least spend a few hundred bucks, and CostHelper breaks down the price points (emphasis ours🙂
- The low range is $80 to $300. Usually these basic metal frames are just functional, though often still stylish. Target sells low-range models by numerous brands, including Huffy and Forge.
- Mid-range bikes cost $300 to $1,000. These aluminum or lighter metal bikes are the best bet for everyday riders because their higher-quality wheels, chains and pedals increase their durability.
- High-end bikes cost $1,000 and higher. These models are usually made of the lightest metals, including carbon and titanium, and are designed for more rigorous, everyday use or light competition. Riders can build their own model in a store or online by choosing from several different frame sizes, colors and wheel type.
You can also find decent, affordable bikes second-hand. For example, the store I visited, Around the Cycle, specializes in recycling people’s old bikes, so there were plenty of mid-range options between $200-$300. Bicycle Blue Book can help you figure out what kind of used bike you can get for your price point.
Once you know what kind of bike you need and what quality level you’re looking for, it’s time to dig into the specifics.
Make sure your bicycle fits you
I’m not a tall lady, so my juvenile bike did the job, but it was still way too small. Not only did I look ridiculous, it was also uncomfortable. It was tough to find an adult bike, though, because most of them were really big and tough for me to maneuver. As Around the Cycle explained to me, the bike’s frame size has to be just right, otherwise, it can be uncomfortable and hard to control.
Your ideal frame size is based on the type of bike you choose, your height and your inseam (the measurement from your crotch to the ground). Here are some frame sizing charts that can help you pick the right bike frame based on all of these factors. Or, even better, use this calculator to determine your bicycle frame size.
And here’s a quick rule of thumb: the frame size should be about .65 times your inseam. If you have 25” inseam, you’d need a bike with a 16” frame.
Most bike stores will tell you what the frame size is, but maybe you’re buying one from Craigslist or at a garage sale, and the owner has no idea. You can at least get a rough estimate by standing over the bike frame and measuring roughly how many inches come between the bike and your crotch, as Bicycle-and-Bikes demonstrates in the above video. And eBicycles further explains:
If you have an inch or so between the frame of a racing, touring or hybrid bike and your crotch it should be about right. For a mountain bike the distance to the frame should be greater. For children the best way to ensure the frame is the correct size is to have the child sit on the seat and be able to place the balls of their feet on the ground and reach the handlebars comfortably. You should also ensure they have a 25-50mm clearance between the bar and their crotch if they are standing over the center bar.
Handlebars matter, too. You want to be able to reach them, after all, so make sure the reach between your seat and the handlebars is comfortable. According to REI, the farther the seat is below the handlebars, generally, the more comfortable the ride. But higher handlebars let you apply more power to the pedals. The shape and position of your handlebars also depend on the bike you get.
Here are some common handlebar shapes and what they’re used for:
- Drop bar: Found on most road bikes. Lightweight and aerodynamic, so ideal for fast riding. You are in a lower, hunched over position, which can be uncomfortable for your back.
- Flat bar: Common on hybrid bikes, sometimes on road or mountain bikes. They allow you to sit upright in a more comfortable position that reduces strain on your hands, wrists, and shoulders.
- Riser bar: Common on mountain bikes. They extend slightly upward and back and allow you to sit farther back to see ahead and maintain steering control.
- Mustache bar: Found on some road and hybrid bikes. Kind of like drop bars but the drop isn’t as deep. According to REI, “they give you a variety of hand positions while allowing you to sit more upright than with drop bars.”
Once you decide what type of bike you want and the fit you need, it’s time to decide what you want out of its features: gears, wheel size, suspension, and brakes.
Know Your Gears, Suspension, and Brake Type
When I was a kid, 10-speed bikes were the fanciest you could wish for. These days, bikes come with all sorts of gears, and there’s a lot that goes into it—enough to write an entirely separate post. As a beginner, though, here’s what you need to know, according to REI:
To keep it simple, the most important things to consider are your fitness level and the terrain you’ll be riding. If you’ll be riding lots of hills and you find climbing challenging, then you’ll want to opt for more gears. If you’re a strong cyclist or you only ride flat terrain, you won’t need as many low gears to power up a hill so you can get away with fewer gears, which will keep your bike light.
You may also want to consider your bike’s suspension. Suspension is meant to keep you well, suspended, if you’re riding in a rough, rugged area. If you’re looking for a mountain bike, you probably want one with full or at least front suspension. Full suspension helps you maintain control and increases traction. Front suspension absorbs impact and makes for a smooth ride, and it’s ideal for hybrids, too. If you’re getting a road bike, your bike may not include any suspension at all.
Finally, there are the brakes. There are a number of different types of brakes, and they all have pros and cons. Here are the most common:
- Rim brakes: Pads that grip onto the rims of the wheel. They’re simple and easy to maintain, but they can wear out the wheel rim and they might be less effective if the rim is wet or muddy.
- Disc brakes: These are brakes that are attached to and grip onto the wheel hub. They can be more complicated to inspect and replace than rim brakes, but they work better in different weather conditions.
- Coaster brakes: These are the brakes that work when you pedal backward. There’s not much maintenance involved, and they’re good for kids, who may not have much hand strength. They may not be ideal when you’re biking downhill, though.
- Drum brakes: Integrated into the wheel hub. They’re low maintenance and weather-resistant. If the drum wears out, though, the hub and wheel may need to be replaced, too.
Depending on the bike, you might not have much choice over the brakes, but it’s good to at least be familiar with what kind of brakes your bike comes with.
Adjust the fit and go for a test ride
When I picked out my bike and the salesman adjusted my seat, I was confused. My feet could barely touch the ground, and that didn’t seem right. He explained to me that they shouldn’t touch the ground, though. Ideally, my knees should only be slightly bent when pedaling and my leg is all the way down. Bicycle Universe explains why:
When you’re pedaling and your leg is all the way down (pedal is in 6:00 position), your knee should be slightly bent. If your leg is straight (knee locked), your seat is too high. If your knee is very bent… your seat is too low. Either problem can hurt your knees, and a seat height that’s too short robs you of power and makes it harder to ride…Also, in normal riding position with the pedals parallel to the ground, your front knee (from almost the front edge) should be directly over the pedal spindle (the middle of the pedal). This avoids knee pain.
They add that your seat angle also shouldn’t tilt down. Even though that might feel comfortable crotch-wise, it’ll cause you to lean forward and put stress on your hands, arms, and neck.
Take your bike for a test spin. When you do, there are a few important things to look out for, per eBicycles:
- Comfort: Are you comfortable with the posture of the bike you picked? If it’s a hybrid, are you okay with sitting upright? If it’s a road bike that you’re going to use for a commute, will you be comfortable pedaling in the amount of time it takes you to get to work?
- Ability to handle the terrain: Ideally, you should test ride your bike on different surfaces. See how it handles corners, hills, and descents.
- Carrying capacity: If you plan on carrying stuff with you on your bike, you want to see how it handles when you’ve got a load on you. If it’s a lightweight bike, you might find it difficult to ride. As eBicycles suggests, you may need accessories, like a tow trailer, or you might just need a heavier hybrid or mountain bike.
You may also want to test ride multiple bikes to get a feel for different styles. There’s a lot to choose from out there, and the process can be complicated if you’re not a bike enthusiast. These are just the basics, but they should help you get started and pick a bike that’s perfect for your needs and your comfort.
This story was originally published on 6/23/16 and was updated on 10/3/19 to provide more thorough and current information.