Bicycle Buying Guide

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Bicycle Buying Guide

The Basics: Bicycles

Thinking of buying a new bike? If you haven't set foot inside a bike store recently, you'll be amazed at how much has changed in the last few years. Fully suspended bikes are now commonplace, drivetrains and braking systems are more sophisticated than ever, and bikes have features and parts that you couldn't have found on a bike of any price just a few short years ago.

Two of the biggest emerging trends are the re-emergence of the road bike, in various forms, and the surge in women's specific bikes. Women's bikes feature parts and frame sizing specifically fitted to a woman's proportions. Women have proportionately smaller hands, longer legs, and shorter torsos than men, in general. They don't weigh as much and derive more of their pedaling ability from aerobic ability (endurance) rather than strength.

Women's bikes feature parts fitted to a woman's dimensions, and some nicer models feature women's-specific suspension forks with lighter compression. A central feature of the new women's bikes are women's seats, which you'll likely find much more comfortable than those available just a few years ago.

The road bike is also back, and a new form is the flat-bar road bike. A flat-bar road bike is a fast, efficient ride made for enthusiasts, but the mountain-bike-style flat handlebar is a more comfortable position for many riders.

Other trends include better suspension at all price levels, a new influx of inexpensive but excellent disc brakes, and better frame materials, including various exotic combinations, such as aluminum and carbon fiber.

When you think about buying a bike, consider what you'll use it for: A road enthusiast who is interested in long tours will appreciate the efficient, fast rolling road bike; if you want to try the dirt a little bit, consider a hardtail mountain bike or hybrid. And if the off-road is your real calling, strongly consider a full-suspension mountain bike.

How to Shop

Identify your use and your price range. Visit a number of stores that carry different brands to get a feel for what's out there. The shop should narrow your options quickly to no fewer than three models.

Test ride if you can. It's the best way to find out if the bike fits you well and if you like the feel of the controls, the suspension, and its handling. Put a bike through its paces as much as you can on a test ride. Ride it up a hill hard, slalom along a twisty bike path. Brake hard. Shift through the entire gear range to see if there are problems with the adjustment.

At the shop, look for signs of good (or bad) build quality. Brake pads should squarely contact the rim and not squeal during braking. Shifting should be smooth and crisp. There shouldn't be any clunks or rattling noises. Tires should be properly inflated. Shifter and brake cable ends should be neatly cut and capped. These are signs you are in a good shop.

It will be hard to haggle on the price, because many shops don't make a good margin on bikes; service and accessories are where they have more room to bargain. Ask about discounts on accessories - most shops will give a margin discount on extras bought the same day as the bike. Inquire about the bike's service plan - what's included, what's extra? Get the service plan in writing.

If you're interested in learning more about how to work on your own bike, ask about classes the shop offers. Ask about anything of which you are unsure. If the salespeople don't answer sincerely and completely or if they give you a hard time, take your business elsewhere; just like car dealers, there's usually more than one shop in your area carrying a particular brand.

If a bike is close but not perfect for example, the stem is too long or you don't like the seat - ask the shop about swapping it. Most shops have a good policy about these kinds of changes, which can make the difference between a customer walking out with the bike or not.

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