May 22, 2009, 06:29AM

How To Buy a Bike, Pt. II

In which a couple of widespread misconceptions about bike ownership are forever upended.

Old bike.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Photo by pasotraspaso

Read Part I here.

It’s easy to go into bicycle purchasing with lots of stupid preconceptions, several of which I will debunk here:

Curly handlebars: I have unpleasant childhood memories of trying to ride my dad’s ancient Canadian touring bicycle, a very large steel bike that featured drop handlebars. I assumed you had to put your hands in the drops (that is, on the lower parts, within the curve of the bar) for the whole time you were riding it. This put me in an uncomfortable position in which I could barely balance, looking straight down at the front tire, barely able to pedal. Part of this was because I had the saddle adjusted badly (saddle tip: your knee should be just slightly bent at the lowest point of the pedal stroke), and part of it was because I didn’t really know how to ride a bike and was locked onto the bars like a limpet. Anyway, this made me think that drop handlebars were generically a bad idea; they’re not. Drop handlebars offer more potential hand positions than flat bars—it’s not necessary to cram yourself into the drops like you’re coming down the Alpes d’Huez for the entire ride. You can rest your hands on the top, or on the brake hoods, both of which will feel like heaven after trying to stick to the drops exclusively. Flat handlebars are great if you plan to be bicycling around the evil death vine from The Ruins or other things that will snag you; otherwise drops do the same as flat bars and more.

Mountain Bikes: Some are turned off by road bikes because they seem to be the exclusive domain of colossal jerks wearing neon bodysuits and sweating until they achieve a generally leathery appearance. This is kind of true, but there are also plenty of fatties and borderline fatties like me who enjoy road biking, and one can now purchase the skintight spandex anonymously over the Internet, which is a considerable advantage. People seem to think that if you want a bike it ought to be a mountain bike, with big knobby tires and possibly, as I covered above, with a sophisticated suspension. If you’re riding on pavement or (god forbid) sidewalks you really don’t need a mountain bike—the big knobby tires are great for soft surfaces like dirt or piles of fine Egyptian cotton towels, but actually provide worse traction and performance on pavement than skinny road bike tires. And the frames are much heavier than road bike frames, which means you have to do more work and will show up at the Quiznos all sweaty and red in the face.

Saddles: Big, soft saddles are comfortable only for short, as in less than a mile, trips. You want something firm and supporting, like a German. Don’t buy a gel saddle cover, it will only make things worse; do buy shorts with a padded chamois in them, and do wear them without underwear, no matter how considerable your initial revulsion to the idea is.

Frame materials: Usually you will have your pick of carbon fiber, aluminum or steel frames. Carbon fiber is the most expensive and, supposedly, the highest performance. If you need to shave seconds off a ride to the WaWa then carbon is for you. Aluminum is usually the least expensive and has many of the same stiffness qualities as carbon, without the ability to flex and absorb moral and road-based shocks. Many aluminum bikes now feature carbon-fiber seat stays, which significantly reduce road vibration and also mean that the bike has a critical part that could, at any minute, explode irreparably. Steel is the oldest-fashioned frame material and, when done well, gives the smoothest ride. It’s easy to repair too, in the sense that welding things is easy, and you can stick magnets to it if you are afraid of vengeful artificial intelligences. There’s also magnesium, which if I remember my middle school science correctly will burst into flame at the slightest contact with moisture.

So, novice bicycle purchasers, there you have it. If this tendentious guide to a tiny fraction of the potential bicycles out there hasn’t helped you figure out what you want and need, then you are welcome to go to hell.

  • sorry ari, but this article is really not good. while most individual that actually need to read this kind of article would be happiest with the bike in your photograph, you do nothing to help them get there. Instead it is merely a summary of every bike magazine out there. You may as well have squeezed in a sentence or two about energy drinks while you were at it. sorry to be rude about it.

    Responses to this comment
  • That's harsh, Jersey Life. But I have a bike: I'm waiting for Ari to write an article on vintage typewriters, the next rage.

    Responses to this comment
  • Sorry you didn't like the article Jersey. If I were truly summarizing bike magazines this article would have been only 150 words long with many huge pictures, and I would tell you to spend at least $4,500 and get a Trek or Specialized, and also that you should be eating all your meals in energy-enhanced jellybean form. If you want a totally sweet European city bike like the one in the picture, go for it - it's the perfect bike for tooling around a city or campus. My main editorial point was that people shouldn't be afraid of road bikes, and that they might not want to invest in heavy-duty full suspension mountain bikes unless they're planning to do a lot of mountain biking.

    Responses to this comment
  • Magnesium bicycles: Spontaneous bicycle combustion. Good to know. Thanks for this article. Except I already have a bike and now I'm worried I have the wrong one. What's the best bike for riding the bus or subway or fitting into the trunk of a cab?

    Responses to this comment
  • I was also less than happy with this article. You can buy a road bike for as little as $80 (usually at a coop like Working Bikes in Chicago), and while it won't be as good as a bike you could afford with a cardiovascular surgeon's salary, it... well... works. Not only that, but if you put in a little time, and a little more money you can build up a bike from used parts that can pass those Trek chumps on the bike path any day of the week. It does require a little bit of know-how, and love, to fix-up and maintain your own bike, but there is an awesome, accepting community of people that learn and teach bicycle maintenance at open workshops (like West Town bikes... also in Chicago). Getting your hands dirty and taking charge of your own transportation is a rewarding and empowering experience, and I'm disappointed that it wasn't even alluded to in your article.

    Responses to this comment
  • You only THINK you're having an empowering, rewarding experience putting together your own road bike from a vintage steel frame and elegant, refined Campy parts from the 1970s. If you really loved and understood bicycling you would know that you NEED a bike costing at least $5,000 and completely covered with corporate logos to have a good time. I feel so sorry for you.

    Responses to this comment
  • I didn't mean to initiate a fury of negativity. I just thought that summarizing the different types of bikes out there is useless, when in reality, anyone needing this article would simply be happiest on a "city bike" or even a "hybrid" if they are buying new. You could have simply broken down why that is the case. Comfort, relatively fast, heads-up posture, affordable, racks, panniers, lights, locks, how to lock a bike. I don't expect you to explain, how, with a little patience and the willingness to learn, someone can get into a very nice used classy bike for the streets. Thats too complex for the virgin rider, and most will end up with a POS. However, this country needs more bike culture, and the best way to do that is to get people on easy bikes that allow them to live their daily life with a bike.

    Responses to this comment
  • I'll continue: I would have suggested bikes for them. I think that Giant has a nice commuter lineup in the "lifesyle" section on their site. Trek has a very cool belt driven commuter (no grease on the pants). I would have said for people to stay clear of bikes with lots of gears. Anyway, i'm rambling. Bikes are amazing, and this kind of dialog is good to have. keep it up.

    Responses to this comment

Register or Login to leave a comment