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We guide you through a simple 5-step process to buying your first bike.
Covering everything you need to know from figuring out what you need your new bike to do, through determining a budget, and finishing with what to do after you’ve bought your bike.
Walk into any large bike store as a prospective first-time bike buyer…and the first thing that you’ll likely do is turn around and walk straight out again.
Because bike stores can be intimidating places, can’t they?
With row after row of shiny bicycles with scarily high price tags, racks of strange looking bike components, and staff who you’re convinced are sneering at your apparent lack of cycling expertise…they can be terrifying to set foot in.
But, thankfully we’ve already built up all the background knowledge we need for choosing how to pick a bike:
- We understand what the main parts of a bike are and what they do
- We also know what the most common types of bikes are and what they’re good for
So, let’s use this understanding to determine what to look for when buying a bike.
Our 5-step Bike Buyers Guide will walk you through the process from “no bike” to “I’ve got my first bike! Wahoo!!”
Ready? Then, let’s go.
Decide what you want to do with your bike
The first decision to make when deciding what bike to BUY for beginners is what kind of cycling you’re planning to DO.
This is very important because, as we’ve seen, different types of bikes are best for different situations.
(At this stage, you may not actually know what sort of cycling you’ll be doing – that’s fine! I’ve got recommendations for great all-purpose bikes for you below)
To make this easier, let’s consider a number of “use cases”, example situations, and what types of bike might be great for them.
Compare yourself against each one and decide, does this sound like the kind of cycling you’re planning to do?
Racing on pavement or road; generally going fast on smooth surfaces
There are two main bike types that are great for this situation: road bikes (AKA “racers”) and a type of hybrid bike known as a “fitness bike”.
Both of these bikes work well for speedy cycling because they’re built to be aerodynamic, have light frames and components, and typically higher gearing than bikes like mountain bikes.
The difference between the two types of bike is:
- The rider’s body position on a road bike is usually more forward leaning, whereas on a fitness bike it would be more upright, and
- Road bikes have drop handlebars, unlike fitness bikes which have straight bars
If you want to go fast on pavement, how do you choose between a fitness bike vs road bike?
On average, road bikes will allow you to go faster than fitness bikes.
The forward leaning body position and ability to get “into the drops” (i.e. the lower curved part of the handlebars) means that you’ll feel less wind resistance and consequently go faster as you’ll be more aerodynamic.
But this comes at a cost – the hunched position on a road bike can get uncomfortable quickly if you’re not used to it. Plus you won’t have the same ability to see obstacles, such as city traffic, with your head lower down.
It’s also worth considering electric bikes. E-bikes with smooth tires on large wheels will allow you to go faster (up to 28 mph on a Class 3 ebike) with less effort than on a regular bike.
Trails and off-road riding deep in the backcountry
If you plan on getting off the beaten track and riding on trails, then a road bike with smooth tires wouldn’t be the right choice for you.
Don’t worry! There are four other great bike types that are ideal for trail riding.
Hybrid bikes / Dual Sport bikes
These are hybrid bikes that look similar to mountain bikes and have suspension on the front forks. They’re ideal if you want to dip a toe in the water of trail riding, but without spending too much money. They’re called “Dual Sport” bikes as they work well for all types of regular cycling from light duty trails to park rides and even urban commuting.
Hardtail mountain bikes
You might be starting out but, if you plan on getting a little more stuck into singletrack trail riding, then it’s worth looking at hardtail MTBs.
These have a rugged mountain bike frame, chunky knobbly tires for grip, and front suspension forks to soak up the bumps in the trail surface.
A good quality hardtail will likely be more expensive than a dual sport bike, but much less than a full-suspension MTB.
Full-suspension Mountain bikes
If you’re really going to throw yourself into mountain biking then it’s worth getting the best tool for the job.
And that’s a full-suspension mountain bike.
For singletrack with jumps, berms, drop-offs and other obstacles that will put a grin on your face and get you pumped with adrenalin, full-sus is the only way to go.
Quality full-suspension bikes have super-strong frames, gnarly tires, a suite of high-spec components and the pièce de résistance, the rear suspension. Rear sus is fantastic as it allows you to stay in the saddle more, which gives you better control through demanding terrain.
In recent years a new option has become popular for trail riding and that’s gravel bikes.
These are an intriguing blend of road bike looks, often with stronger steel frames, thicker-than-road-bike tires, and flared drop handlebars.
What makes this so special?
Well, turns out that this combo gives the ideal bike setup for those smooth gravel trails and forest tracks that the backcountry seems to be covered with. Mountain bikes (whether hardtail or full-sus) are a little overkill for these trails – they’re smooth, so suspension isn’t needed – and they’re also typically much slower than a gravel bike with its road bike styling.
Oh, and whilst we’re on this particularly trail it’s worth noting that gravel bikes perform surprisingly well for pavement and also for touring (whether that’s on roads or trails).
A true all-rounder? Quite possibly.
Touring or bikepacking
Multi-day cycling adventures can be enjoyed on a very wide variety of bike types.
Typically it will come down to three factors:
- What bike you’re used to riding
- What terrain you’ll be cycling on
- How much gear you’ll be carrying
What bike you’re used to riding
Comfort is critical when you’re in the saddle hour after hour day after day.
For that reason, if you’re happiest on a hybrid, don’t suddenly go out and buy a road bike for your first cycle tour.
A different type of bike might have some apparent advantage over the one you’re used to (say, speed) but if you’re in pain riding it, then you won’t enjoy the journey.
What terrain you’ll be cycling on
For touring on pavement or road, bike types including hybrids, road bikes, gravel bikes, e-bikes and, of course, specific touring bikes, will work great.
For bikepacking (i.e. tours in the backcountry on trails and tracks), mountain bikes (hardtail or full-suspension depending on how gnarly the trails!) or gravel bikes hit the spot.
How much gear you’ll be carrying
When you’re planning a bike tour one of the key considerations is the amount of gear you’ll take with you.
This will range across a wide spectrum from:
- Nothing except a credit card, to
- Everything that you own
I told you it was a wide spectrum.
If you’re at the ‘credit card’ end of the range, then in theory any bike will do as you won’t be carrying anything.
In practice, however, you’ll need to have a bike that has fixings for a couple of water bottles and a small saddle bag with basic tools, some snacks, and a cycling jacket.
At the ‘everything you own’ end of the range, you’ll need a sturdy bike that either has multiple fixing points for pannier racks and bags – this is where touring bikes come into their own.
Or, for packing even more gear, you’ll need a bike that you can fix a trailer to.
Hauling kids or cargo
Many people need to haul stuff around the place and a bike can be a very practical, and certainly eco-friendly, way of doing this.
But, what bike is best?
Well, it depends on the volume of cargo you have…and how wriggly it is.
For non-wriggly cargo, such as groceries, then a bike such as a hybrid with a low-step or step-through frame can work really well. These bikes are sturdy and the lower crossbar means you won’t need to tilt the laden bike to one side to mount or dismount. Choose a bike that has integrated racks rear and front for the most capacity.
For wriggly cargo, such as taking the kids to school, then hybrids will also work great. Cargo specific bikes will likely give even more storage capacity too.
Bear in mind that these bikes, particularly when laden with wriggly or non-wriggle cargo are likely to be heavy and therefore tough to pedal up slopes or over any kind of distance. Because of this a very practical option is to choose an electric cargo bike. These have all the storage capacity you need and give your legs the power of ten tigers in order to tackle any incline or distance.
If you’re goal is to improve your fitness then cycling is a great way of doing it.
It’s important to pick a bike that will help you meet your goals though.
A light hybrid (known as a ‘fitness bike’) with large wheels and narrow tires will enable you to travel fast and do it comfortably.
You’ll have fun riding a bike like this and so you’ll be more motivated to get out and ride. Burning calories…rather than sitting on the couch consuming calories.
Look for bikes that have simple drivetrains and a smaller number of gears (preferably with a 1x drivetrain i.e. rear derailleur only). These will likely have fewer maintenance issues, allowing you to spend more of your free time riding and less time and money fixing stuff.
Bike commuters need three main things from a bike:
- Carrying capacity
Reliability – because we never leave quite enough time to get to the office, it’s important that we have a bike that we know is going to work when we wheel it out the garage.
Speed – because we continue not to leave enough time to get to work, we need a light and speedy bike that can get us there quickly before the boss realizes we’re late…again. It’s worth considering ebikes for commuting as these can give us a massive boost of speed.
Carry capacity – whether it be a packed lunch, travel mug, laptop, or a change of clothes, commuters normally have plenty to carry. Look for commuter bikes with integrated front and/or rear racks.
Of course, you may be looking for a bike that’s a do-it-all multipurpose bike.
Something that’s great for casual exercise, park rides, everyday family trips, riding around town and just plain ‘ole recreational riding.
You know, a normal bike.
If so, a hybrid bike or electric hybrid bike is the perfect tool for the job.
Hybrids come in a range of different forms depending on whether you’ll be doing a little trail riding (if so, go for a dual sport bike with front suspension). Or, if you’ll purely be riding on pavement (where front suspension on your hybrid is optional).
A basic bike for adults like this doesn’t need to cost the earth. A few hundred dollars will be enough to get a good bike that you can easily outpace the kids on.
Consider your personal requirements
We’ve looked at where you might be planning on doing your cycling and how this impacts your choice of bike.
Now, let’s turn our attention to YOU so we can see what styles of bike are best suited to you.
Sizing and Fit
Getting the right size bike for you is critical.
If a bike is too large, it may be dangerous as you won’t be able to reach the pedals or safely get on or off the bike.
If a bike is too small, you may not be able to turn the pedals without bashing your chin. Or get the most leg power into each pedal stroke.
Finding the right bike size is fairly easy though. Grab a thickish book, a wall, a tape measure, and (ideally) another person to help you.
Stand with your back to the wall with feet about shoulder width apart. It’s best if you’re wearing the sneakers or other shoes that you’re planning on cycling in.
Grab the book by the spine and hold it between your legs so that the spine is just below your crotch.
Measure the distance from the floor to the book spine.
This measurement is your ‘standover height’.
With this measurement you can now consult the bike size charts that most online retailers have on their websites (and bricks ‘n’ mortar stores will certainly have).
You’ll want to pick a bike size where the standover height listed is around an inch or couple of centimeters below your own standover height. This applies to bikes with horizontal crossbars (often called Men’s or Unisex). With lower crossbars (Women’s, Low-step or Step-through) this won’t be an issue.
Also check the size charts, and/or ask the bike store staff, what rider height the bike is suitable for.
Finally, where possible, always take your chosen bike out for a test ride before you purchase.
That way you can do a final check to make sure that’s it’s comfortable to ride.
Bikes are great for health, but health can also have an impact on the style of bike that’s right for you.
If you have arthritis or suffer from pain in your hands and wrists, then it’s a good idea to choose a bike that takes weight off those points. Road bikes can be bad for this as you’re hunched over the handlebars. Whereas more upright bikes (hybrids for example), recumbent bikes, and adult tricycles can put the weight balance back over your saddle. Taking pressure (and pain) away from those sensitive areas in your hands.
If you’re leg suppleness isn’t what it used to be and you’re breakdancing years are behind you then traditional horizontal crossbars can be a challenge. So called “women’s” bikes, which of course anyone can ride, can be very useful as the crossbar is either low down (for low-step bikes) or completely gone (step-through) bikes.
Older riders (and many younger people too) can suffer from impaired balance. This can make riding a two-wheeler daunting. But two wheelers aren’t the only option for cycling. Adult tricycles (particularly with an electric battery and motor) and also regular adult bikes fitted with training wheels can get the wobbliest of us onto wheels.
I’ve mentioned ebikes a number of times and there are many folk that these are a great choice for. If you’re fitness isn’t what it used to be or you find climbing hills something of an uphill challenge, then the reassurance of having that electric motor can make all the difference.
Nail down your budget
So, how much do you need to spend on a bike?
Bikes can be gotten from anywhere between zero dollars (and, no, I’m not talking about stealing them) to well north of $10k.
That’s a big range, isn’t it?
The best place to start is to decide what type of bike is right for the riding that you’re planning to do (based on everything we’ve looked at so far).
Then, look at your own finances and decide what minimum and maximum figure you’d want to spend.
Minimum is important because you want to make sure that you’re getting the right quality of bike with the features that you need.
Maximum is important (probably even more than the minimum) because once you hit the bike stores or websites, it’s easy to get carried away with shiny expensive bikes that have features you don’t even need.
As a rough rule of thumb, here are some guideline budgets for new bikes:
- General occasional riding = $400 to $1000
- Daily riding, occasionally challenging = $1000 to $3000
- Regular riding, always challenging = $3000 to $6000
- Elite riding, “Go hard or go home” = $6000 to $12000+
Remember when you’re setting your budget to make an allowance for any accessories that you might also need to buy.
Where to buy a good bike?
There are plenty of places to go buy your new bike. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each.
Quick tip – it’s worth considering WHEN to buy your new bike. This can have a big impact on the price that you pay or the specification that you can afford.
For example, new bikes typically come out in the Spring or early Summer. These bikes will be more expensive to buy as they’re in ‘this season’s colors’.
However, it’s worth checking to see if stores still have any of the previous year’s bikes available. Whilst these might not be in the latest color, they might well be priced much more affordably as the stores try to free up storage space by shifting old stock.
The best time to buy a bicycle like this is the period between Fall/early Winter through to late Spring.
There are bargains to be had if you look hard!
Local bike stores
IMHO these should always be your first port of call.
Not only do they bikes in store that you can physically sit on and take out for a test ride. But they’re also staffed by bike experts who can help to match you up with the best bike for you.
Maintenance and repair is unavoidable when you own and ride a bike and so it helps to establish a strong relationship with your local bike store (it also helps if you bought the bike from them as they’ll know that brand and model intimately).
Online bike stores
Online stores, whether they’re bike retailers (such as Trek Bikes), outdoor gear retailers (e.g. REI), or retailers who sell everything (Amazon, Walmart and the rest).
These can be great options if you want to snag a bargain or choose from the widest possible range of bikes.
Unfortunately what you can’t do is actually test the bikes out of course and that’s significant downside.
Used bike platforms
One of the best ways to get a bargain deal on a bike is to shop secondhand.
Many people buy fancy new bikes with the full intention of using them daily…and six months later you’ll find that bike stuck in a corner of the room with a pile of wet laundry drying on it (Gus, I’m thinking of you here).
Lots of these fancy machines then end up being sold for a knockdown price on sites such as Craigslist, eBay, or Gumtree.
If you want a great bike and don’t mind the odd scratch or scuff then it’s worth checking out some of these sites.
Just make sure you do your due diligence to make sure a bike hasn’t been stolen. And also be aware that you’re unlikely to get any after-sales support on a used bike.
Make sure you do this after your purchase
Finding your perfect bike and purchasing it is, of course, just the first part of your new cycling adventure!
Once you get your new bike home it’s important to familiarize yourself with all the moving parts and how to operate brakes, gears, and adjust the saddle to the correct height and angle for you.
Then, go ride your bike.
After you’ve been riding regularly for 6-8 weeks you’ll often find that the brake and gear cables become a little stretched and won’t be as ‘crisp’ as when the bike was boxfresh.
At this stage it’s worth booking your bike into a local bike shop for a quick tune-up. Many bike stores offer this free of charge and it’s worth confirming before you make the original purchase.