There’s a lot to consider when investing in a bike. Fitness writer Miranda Larbi breaks down everything you need to know before breaking the bank.
Purchasing a bike can be rather intimidating for novices. What was once a simple decision of picking the one in your favourite colour as a child, now involves so many other considerations. What’s the difference between a road and hybrid bike? Should you have fixed- or multi-gears? Is it really necessary to spend over £400 on something you hoped would save you money? Shopping for a bike can seem as complicated as shopping for a car if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Which is why we’ve come up with this comprehensive guide to buying your first ride.
First things first, there are many different kinds of bikes out there designed to suit different terrains, journeys and activities.
Before you do anything, think about the following questions:
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What’s going to be your bike’s primary purpose?
Do you want something to commute to work with or are you looking to cycle for sport? Perhaps you plan to cycle 100 miles a week to and from the office, as well as going on long canal path rides at the weekend. Think about the surfaces you’re predominantly going to cycle on – road or off-road (trails, grass, gravel).
How much money do you have to spend?
We’ll get to prices in a moment, but it’s a good to have a basic idea of how much you’re prepared to spend before you start looking. If you’re just looking for something to get you to the local shops, you probably don’t need to spend much. If you’re planning to cycle across London in all weathers with your gym kit, it might be worth spending more - especially if you’re planning on taking longer rides at the weekends too. You might be thinking about triathlons or duathlons and again, that kind of goal is going to take you into a different price range.
Have you seen something you like?
Riding a bike is more than simply getting from A to B. Most of us are emotional about what we buy and if you’re planning to spend time on your bike, it’s important that you fundamentally enjoy it.
Don’t know what you like? Explore Instagram and Pinterest for ideas and take photos of the bikes that grab your fancy as you go about your day-to-day life.
What type of bike do you need?
If you’re planning to cycle across town every day and you tend to carry a lot of stuff, a sit up Pashley-style bike with a basket is best. Perhaps you intend to train for a race or go on long bike rides in your spare time, in which case a road bike is going to be more suitable. Mountain bikes are going to be easier to navigate off-road riding.
Here are your main players:
Road bike: light frame, drop down handlebars and thin wheels that are designed to go fast on roads.
Hybrid bike: perfect for commuting and riding on various surfaces.
Fixed gear bike: no gears, few parts - just a sleek frame for smooth riding (ideal if you live somewhere with flat roads).
Mountain bike: bigger, wider, knobby tires for taking you over rocky, uneven and uphill terrain.
Electric bike: comes in various styles but with a small, lightweight electric motor - perfect for navigating hilly areas.
Fold-up bike: does what it says on the tin - folds up into a small little package. The classic model is a Brompton.
Triathlon bike: more aggressive rider position to optimise aerodynamic qualities (may take some getting used to).
Does it matter what materials my bike is made of?
It’s not really a matter of which material is ‘better,’ but what’s best for you, for your plans and your budget.
You’ve got three main options:
Steel: it’s heavy, but has a springy quality which makes long-distance cycles more comfortable. Steel bikes are durable, easy to repair and likely to be your cheapest option. If you want to cycle in all kinds of weather and you’re happy to canter along, steel is your best option.
Aluminium: relatively light and cheaper than carbon. It’s also arguably, more sturdy, so if you’re planning to ride a lot, an aluminum frame could be a good upgrade. Aluminium can last for years, but it can also corrode so it’s worth thinking about storage options.
Carbon: significantly lighter in weight (think of having to carry your bike up a flight of stairs back to your flat every day) and because of that, comes at a pretty hefty price. It’s not always obvious when damaged so if you have a crash, it’s worth taking your bike to a shop for the once-over.
What size frame do I need?
Getting the right bike size is going to make your ride so much more comfortable, efficient and fun – and it depends on the type of bike, your height, riding style and preference.
The simplest solution is to go into a bike shop where an expert can measure you up and tell you exactly which frame size you’ll need. However, if you’re buying a bike online or second hand, there are plenty of online measurement guides. Evans, for example, has six bike sizing guides depending on the type of bike (e.g. road, BMX, electric).
If you’re committed to DIY, first measure your height and your inside leg. Stand against a wall, mark the top of your head with a pencil and then measure from that point to the floor. For your inside leg, stand against a wall with a bike held between your legs across your groin area. Measure from the book to the floor.
Once you’ve got the bike in front of you, you want to have a minimum of 2cm standover height (when you stand over your bike with a foot each side of the pedals, that gap is between the frame and your crotch), and that when you’re seated on the saddle, you’re not over-stretching to reach the handle bar.
Decide your budget
Bikes can end up costing thousands of pounds if you’re looking for the fastest, lightest, most advanced model. If you’re buying your first bike, however, there’s probably no need to spend over £300. Most simple high-street models start at around the £100-150 mark and go up to £600-700 for more advanced cycles.
If you want to ride relatively short distances, a basic bike from Decathlon will do (starting from about £149), while Liv Cycling’s city ride – Alight – goes for £399. You can get beautiful bikes from TokyoBike for £700. Check to see if your workplace offers a Cycle To Work scheme as this can save you big bucks (sometimes up to 35 percent).
Where to buy
With everything being so accessible online, it’s really tempting to simply order a bike from a website. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but you may run into a few difficulties. For one thing, most bike retailers will send you a bike semi-assembled so you’ll need to take the bike to a bike shop anyway. Secondly, you can’t try the bike out before you buy it and a test ride is arguably the most important part of buying a bike. Similarly to taking a car for a test run, how will you know a bike is right for you until you start pedaling?
Do your research online, but if you can, head into a bike shop and talk to the experts there about what you’ve found and what you want. Look for somewhere that offers a fitting service – whether that’s your local Cycle Surgery, Evans or trusted local supplier.
Second-hand versus new
If you’re shopping second-hand, be wary. Of course, it can be a great way to snap up a bargain and reduce your carbon footprint. Before you part with your cash, however, make sure you know what you’re buying.
Check that the bike is what you actually want (and that you’re not just compromising because it’s cheap), that it matches your specification and crucially, that you can take it for a test ride. Unless you’re buying from a cycling expert, remember that you won’t be able to get anywhere near as much information about the bike as you would from a reputable retailer.
Questions to ask the seller when you’re buying second-hand bike:
● Why is the bike being sold?
● How long has the seller had it for?
● What’s it been used for? (i.e what kinds of distances, journeys, surfaces has it ridden?)
● Are there any maintenance issues that need to be fixed?
● Is it already security registered? Data tagging means that if the police find the bike, they can trace the owner. So, if that owner isn’t you and the bike is in your possession, you might find yourself in a tricky situation. If you get a sheepish response to questions about security, you might want to walk away.
Other things to consider:
In a city, there tends to be bike shops on almost every corner so don’t worry about having to fix your own puncture on the way back from work. However, if you’re planning to go out of town on your cycle, it might be worth knowing a little basic bike maintenance. There are plenty of guides online (like these from British Cycling and this one from Cycling UK) or you could do an online maintenance course for £6.50 on Wowcher (a ridiculous bargain down from £379!).
Transitioning to a new model
If you’ve ridden a bike before and are thinking of buying a totally different type now, ask for a test ride to see that you feel comfortable riding it (as you would a new car). A fixed-gear or road bike might look cool, but are you comfy with shifting your weight forward if you’ve only ever ridden a shopper model?
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Cycling shouldn’t mean you’re hobbling around bow-legged in pain for the rest of the day. Remember, you can always change the saddle. A lot of road bikes will come with a standard cheap saddle and that might put you off because they tend to be quite thin and uncomfortable. Give it a couple rides – if you don’t instinctively know what feels good, don’t be afraid to go back to the shop to ask for a replacement. The people working there should be able to suggest a model that’ll be more suited to your shape and style of riding.
If you don’t fancy lugging your work stuff, gym kit, lunch or shopping in your rucksack all the time, think about how you might carry things on your bike. Get a rack, basket, or panniers if you’d rather share the load. You’ll need to find a bike with frame holes which let you attach a rack in the first place, so ask which models have that if luggage is a big consideration.
Where are you planning on storing your bike and with what kind of lock? Fancy bikes are more likely to get stolen – that’s a fact, so if you do want something expensive, make sure that you’ve got somewhere to store it both at work and at home. For street parking, it’s best to buy two locks for attaching to the frame and wheels. The easiest way to judge the security of a lock is to check its Sold Secure Rating – these come in Gold (the highest level of security), Silver and Bronze. The most durable lock tends to be the D Lock, but you’ll probably need a chain lock to secure your wheels as well.
And before you get on that bike, don’t forget to purchase a helmet!
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Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.