How to Choose a New Bike

There are types of bikes for every need, so consider your options to find the best ride for your money.

new bike

You can find a reliable ride that will take you places, without any gasoline.


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Maybe the gleam of aluminum and shiny rubber broke your “thriftbone.” Maybe that rusty old Western Flyer finally gave out on you. Maybe you'd just like to use a saddle that hasn't been broken in by someone else's butt. For whatever reason, you've decided to purchase a new bike.

Great idea! For about $450, you can snag yourself a reliable vehicle that can take you as far as your legs can manage. That may sound like a lot of money up front, especially when you can get a new bike from Wal-Mart for less than $200. The key term, though, is reliable. Bikes sold from discount stores are, by and large, poorly made and sloppily assembled; often they can’t even be repaired. Buying a new cheap bike every year or so (to replace a broke one) versus buying a solidly built bike that can last decades quickly becomes a losing proposition. 

And besides, that $450 is, for the most part, a one-time expense. That a new bike won’t require any $4 a gallon gas, ever. Beyond routine maintenance and the occasional repair job, you’ll have a fun, reliable ride for the long term. The more you ride it, the more you’ll save and the better shape you’ll be in. 

If new wheels aren’t in the cards for you right now, odds are you can find a quality used bike.

Answer Me These Questions Three

Before you slap down your hard-earned money for a bike, though, ponder why, where and how you're riding or want to ride. Answering those questions will help you figure out what bike will best fit your needs.

So, why do you want to ride — to exercise, commute to work, run errands or just for leisure? Where do you want to ride — potholed city streets, open roads, gravel bike trails, maybe a mix of environments? Finally, how do you like to ride — in an upright position, leisurely paced or always leaning forward, in race mode wherever you go?

Mountain Bikes

If your main terrain is pockmarked streets and/or bike trails, a mountain bike will probably be your best bet. Chances are you won't need a dual-suspension bike, but you would feel better on a hardtail with front shock absorbers if the streets are especially bad. My main commuting/errand running/around town bike is a hardtail mountain bike with a right (non-shock absorper) front fork and semi-slick tires. Semi-slick tires grab blacktop better than knobby mountain bike tires, so if you’ll be riding in town, get a pair of those. Kona, Specialized, Trek and many other manufacturers make excellent mountain bikes that sell for $500 or less. Check out Mountain Bike Review for ratings on the latest models.

Touring Bikes

If you take to the open road more often, you'll probably want a road or touring bike. These feature drop handlebars, larger wheels and narrower tires than mountain bikes, and have different frame geometry than other bikes. You know the noodle-looking handlebars that were on most ’70s Schwinns? Those are drop bars, but modern drop bars are more comfortable than those oldies. The price on entry-level road bikes can be a bit higher than entry-level mountain bikes, but check around at your local bike shop(s) — they may have a previous year's model on sale for cheap. Road Bike Review has ratings on the latest models.

Cruiser & City Bikes

If you're just into leisurely riding around town and like the upright riding position, check into a cruiser bike. These are curvalicious, fairly heavy balloon-tired bikes with swept back handlebars that are fun to ride as long as the road is more or less flat. Many of them come equipped with stylish yet functional fenders, which is one less accessory to buy (see below). 

A closely related bike style is the city bike, which is a bit lighter than a cruiser, with narrower tires and more/higher gearing. Ask your local bike shop about these styles, and see if any pique your interest.

Choose Weight Wisely

The frame style is important, but that's not all you're buying. You're getting a whole heap of components that connect the frame and the road to your butt and hands, plus help you go and stop. Most modern bicycle components — shifting levers, brake levers, brakes, derailleurs, cranksets, etc. — are high quality and durable. The main difference between high- and low-end parts is weight. The more you pay, the lighter (and, generally, slightly more durable) the components. Having lighter stuff on your bike makes it easier to push up hills, but the components really shouldn’t be the deciding factor in your bike purchase.

Regardless what material the frame is made of, how feather light the action on the shifters is or whether the tires leave trails of real flame wherever they go, you're not going to ride the bike if it's uncomfortable. Fortunately, most frames — as long as they're appropriately sized for the rider's height — can be made to fit almost anybody's particular body geometry. This is, of course, absolutely specific to each person, so the only way you're going to figure out what’s best for you is to sit on a few bikes and see what's comfortable and what needs adjusting (handlebar height, saddle height, etc.). Most bike shops will help fit the bike to you; some will even loan you a bike for a day so you have time to figure out if it's right for you.

Useful Accessories

Once you have your new bike, hit the road. But it may not be long before you want a few accessories, particularly if you're using the bike for commuting. Full-coverage fenders are a virtual necessity, and a rack with pannier bags can be a convenient relief from wearing a backpack while you ride. A bell is handy and fun to ring at squirrels. Lights are a must if you ride at night or early morning. If you have a caffeine monkey on your back, you can even buy a handlebar-mounted cupholder. Finally, it goes without saying, but buy (and use!) a bike helmet. They save lives. 'Nuff said.

Break it In

All right, you bought it and tricked it out. Now ride it. But be aware that the components on the bike may give you trouble a little sooner than you expect: brakes might stick, you may be unable to shift to the lowest or highest gear, the wheels may feel too "flexy," etc. These are pretty much normal symptoms of your bike breaking in, and they typically happen within the first 200 miles or so of riding. Once your bike starts to feel a bit off, take it back to the shop where you bought it. Most reputable bike shops will do post break-in service for free. Even if it's not free, the small charge to get it done will be well worth it in the long run. (And if they do, be sure to become a loyal customer.)

Basic Maintenance

So all that's left is to ride it and, heaven forbid, fix things if they break. Taking the bike into a knowledgeable mechanic is fine, but it can get expensive. Learning to perform basic maintenance (tire changing, chain lubing,) is fun and can save you money. Here are a few great online resources: Park Tool’s repair help section, articles from the late bike expert Sheldon Brown and the Bicycle Mechanics section of Bike Forums. 

Sometimes though — like, speaking from experience, when you're in front of your half-disassembled bike with hands coated in grime and grease and your wife won’t let you in the house (much less near the computer) — you need a hardcopy helper, so here are some excellent paper-based references:

Zinn & the Art of Mountain Bike Maintenance

Bicycling Magazine's Basic Maintenance and Repair

Bicycling Magazine's Complete Guide to Bicycle Maintenance and Repair

3/28/2014 9:43:12 AM

I see this article was originally written in 2008. $450 will not get you a lot of bicycle today in 2014. Yes, there are many bikes available for less than that but they are not quality bikes. Good components cost money so if you are shopping on a budget the key is to buy a simple bike with quality components instead of a fancy bike with very cheap components. You will not get a good bike with suspension and disc brakes for $450. However you can get a good basic bike for $500. Some examples: You can also save 50% of more by buying used. Many people buy a bicycle for $1000 or more and never ride it. A couple of years later you can buy it for pennies on the dollar.

3/19/2010 8:03:24 PM

Recumbent bikes are nice, but they are also very pricey. This article also overlooked another category of bike that is probably the best choice for most people. That bike is the Hybrid. At first, a hybrid may appear to be a mountain bike, but a closer look would tell you that this is a unique combination of features from road and mountain bikes. The hybrid has the upright riding position, which is the reason many people buy mountain bikes. The hybrid also uses the 700c sized wheels that are higher than the mountain bike's 26" wheels. This means that you go farther with each revolution of the wheel. The tires on a hybrid are also an "in between" typically 35 to 40 mm wide. That is right between the 22 mm skinny tires found on road bikes and the 2.5" fat tires on mountain bikes. The result is more stability than a road bike, but less rolling resistance than a mountain bike. While a hybrid is not designed for heavy off-road riding, it can easily handle packed trails and pock-marked streets. In my experience, the hybrid is the perfect balance. The only. The only people that I don't think would like a hybrids are the die hard road riders, or heavy off road riding.

thomas schildman_1
3/19/2010 10:40:10 AM

You left out recumbent bikes! A big part of the new biking world.

11/12/2009 8:39:50 AM

Just reading this article a couple of years after it was written....I couldn't agree more with most of what said. Tho I regularly ride a long wheelbased recumbent, I wish ya'll could try one out, it can be expensive to by new, but there are many used out there for similar prices as the "1895 safety" bikes on todays market. One thing about helmets, I agree with the man who said "Helmets are not a simple "nuff said" proposition"...tho I totally disagree with his claim that helmets are a 'social issue' - no, No, NO! Helmets are a SAFETY issue. Yes, there are programs out there that teach "skills training" and every single one of them stresses wearing a helmet (the Texas Bicycle Coalition, TBC, has an exemplary course - check it out for your community) I personally owe my continuing life to helmets, while I may ride defensively...the auto drivers just don't seem much (talking on cell phones, eating, drinking, shaving, applying lipstick, reading...all while driving) or are just "bike blind". I've had a car turn right in front of me, had one back/zoom out of a blackened drive late at nite...I did everything correct but still had to dive to the side. as for that man's ending "I'd rather be bare headed and skilled in riding in traffic than uninformed and helmeted." All I can say is, which is the same thing I say to motorcyclists who don't want to wear helmets: I just wish that you had to pay for your own neurological care, instead of your insurance, when the worst happens

thomas bailey
6/22/2009 7:04:51 AM

I am now on my twentieth bike, having lost 18 to theft, all heavily used. The other two fell apart from heavy use. Three of the stolen bikes were falling apart. Most of the bikes cost less than $100 each, the most expensive was $350. The bike I have now costs about $100. Two weeks after purchase, the right pedal broke off. Five months later, the rear wheel became severely bent, five spokes broke, and 14 were loose. Also the axle broke. I bought it at Wal-Mart, big mistake. The Next Ultra Shock, sold at Wal-Mart, has been recalled because the front wheel often falls off, causing injury.

bill shenk
5/15/2009 3:09:02 PM

Don't forget recumbent trikes. Yes, trikes. Particularly for folk who have not been on a bike recently, or for folk with back, knee or balance problems. They are a far cry from the old-style upright single speeds of the past. Good and bad, as with all bikes/trikes, but well worth a look. Check them out in your browser.

kevin @ utah ebikes
5/15/2009 10:30:33 AM

I saw no mention of electric bikes. I know they are probably not for most of this crowd, but my observation is that the majority of people who have bikes rarely use them. Having an electric motor to assist your pedaling may be just what some people need to leave their car behind. There are even scooter-style electric bikes: they look and handle like a scooter yet they meet the federal criteria for electric bicycles (thus avoiding the need to register or license in most states). I'm biased--I liked the Veloteq scooter-style ebikes so much after buying one for me and one for my wife that I have since become a dealer; but any brand may be of some interest to the "environmentally conscious yet not very athletic."

keith britton
5/15/2009 9:11:26 AM

Nice article but you forgot 5 essential items: seat bag, tire tube, tire irons, pump, and ability to use them. Don't leave your house with out these items.

2/13/2009 5:32:35 PM

If you want to put a lot of miles on a bike I would suggest you learn mantainance and repair skills. Luckily I was taught as a child how to do this, for those who are not that mechanically inclined but want to learn. I would get an old bike, people toss bikes out on garbage day all the time or you probably know someone who has one that they are willing to give you. Take that old bike pull it apart and put it back together, once you have a understanding of it you can feel safe about working on your real bike. You can save a small fortune by taking care of your own bike, I have 8 year old bike with thousands of miles on it. It still looks like new and I have probably spent $30 on it over the years and half of that was buying some tires that luckily were on clearance, otherwise they would of cost $40 a piece.

7/18/2008 11:42:51 AM

John - I agree absolutely that the best way to avoid harm is to be skilled. Everyone who wants to cycle should learn to do so well. That is best for each individual, and for all on bikes (in that it helps keep pedestrians and drivers, e.g., from resenting or hating cyclists). I disagree with your implication that being skilled and wearing a helmet are mutually exclusive. How is that the case? Answer: it's not. An optimal solution is to be a skilled cyclist AND wear a helmet. Happy trails!

john lieswyn
7/16/2008 5:24:32 AM

A. Helmets are not a simple "nuff said" proposition. Wikipedia helmets to find out more. There is an entire social issue - many people riding to work or for very short trips are seriously inconvenienced by helmets, and far more protected from injury by learning cycle skills. B. Why is it that the panacea seems to be wear a helmet when the best way is to avoid the crash in the first place (skills training) rather than mitigate the results of a crash? Remember, a helmet will only protect your head up to impact speeds of 23 km/h. I'd rather be bare headed and skilled in riding in traffic than uninformed and helmeted.

7/14/2008 5:52:42 PM

Nice article on buying a bicycle. Several points to add though: 1. Do not forget to look at the recumbent type of bicycle. These are the bikes where you sit in the seat and not on it, much like a kicthen table chair and the pedals are in front of you. This type of bicycle is very good for those with back problems. 2. I use my mountain bike only on the road as a communter for going to work and because I work the afternoon turn once in a while need a good light system. DO NOT be afraid to go to the local PEP boys or other auto parts store and buy a driving light kit. You will also need a battery and charger ( I would recommend a battery tender which is automatic)and a tail light. The tail light should be a blinking safety beacon in amber color since some states do not allow red or blue blinking lights on bicycles. The tail light can be obtained from Allelectronics for $10.00. By building your own light system you will have something better then can be bought. When I built this light system it cost me less then $100.00. To buy premade would cost over $200.00 3. Ride. Ride. ride. Have fun. Do learn the safety rules.

bennett gordon (utne reader)
7/14/2008 4:41:24 PM

Oh yeah, and I thought the same thing about the Zinn versus Zen thing, and then I saw the book in REI this weeked: So, Nate was right!

bennett gordon (utne reader)
7/14/2008 4:39:47 PM

Thanks for this article. With your help, I bought myself a shiny new bike this weekend. I ended up buying a city bike from REI, because I know that they've got a great policy on repairs and things. I pedaled to work this morning with a huge smile on my face. Now all I need is a bell.

brian alexander
7/14/2008 3:40:43 AM

A good comprehensive artical, but I think you mean zen, not zinn. Now if I can just find the balance to actually ride a bicycle... .

7/12/2008 8:40:28 AM

Thanks for the great article. Perhaps you could have used the word "spouse" in place of "wife" in that last bit, just so you don't alienate the women who would also like to purchase a bike.

7/11/2008 4:06:01 PM

Thanks for the article here....shouldn't the book reference be spelled "Zen" instead of "Zinn"?