Buying a bike? There's a lot to think about from what type you need, where to buy it and what extras you'll need. Here's our step-by-step guide to getting the right bike.
(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Michael Summers/Flickr)
Decide what you are going to use it for
There are nearly as many ways of using a bike as there are bike riders. People and the bikes they ride can be put into general groups, but everyone really is individual (stop yelling “I’m not” at the back).
For example, you and your neighbour might want a bike to ride to work, but if you’re a cycling novice planning a steady pootle to the office and she’s already a serious sportsperson in another activity like running who wants to cover the distance as quickly as possible, you won’t want the same bike.
It’s not just what you’re going to do with your new bike that matters, then, but how and where. Think about all aspects of your needs:
Do you want to go fast on Tarmac? Then you probably want some sort of drop-handlebar road bike.
Prefer an upright riding position? You probably want a bike with a flat handlebar such as a hybrid or even a mountain bike.
Need to carry luggage? You want a bike with mounts for racks, usually in the form of threaded fittings on the seat stays and rear dropouts.
Going to ride in the rain? Unless you enjoy being cold and wet, you want to be able to fit mudguards, so you need fittings on the dropouts for them.
How hilly is it where you’ll ride? If you’re in Sheffield you’ll need a wide gear range. In Cambridge, not so much.
Going off road? For steep, rocky trails, you want a mountain bike, but for easy tracks and dirt roads a hybrid might do just as well, and works better on the road if you want to mix it up.
Planning to load up and head for the hills? You might want a touring bike, or if you prefer a more leisurely pace and upright position you can tour just as well on a hybrid with a rack or racks.
Commuting by bike and train? A folding bike can come with you if the bike parking at the station is non-existent or insecure.
Set your budget
A bike worth having will cost from about £300. Between £300 and £1,000 the quality of frames and components rapidly improves, bikes get lighter, more reliable and more fun to ride.
Don’t be ashamed of spending more if you feel like it, though. It’s very rare for anyone to regret buying a bike that was ‘too good’ for them.
Check the sales
Unless you’ve absolutely got to have the latest and greatest, you get more bang for your buck by shopping for a deal on last year’s model. They’re often 20% cheaper than the equivalent current-year model, sometimes even more. The road.cc Dealcatcher often features bikes at great prices, and can steer you toward a wide range of bargains on bikes and more.
Check out Cycle To Work
The Cycle to Work Scheme allows you to save at least 25 percent off the cost of a new bike by paying for it from your pre-tax income.
Recent changes to the rules allow you to buy accessories too, so don't think of it as a bike-only one-off.
You pay for the bike or equipment through salary sacrifice, generally over 12 months, and you save on income tax and National Insurance on the payments.
Visit bike shops
(CC BY 2.0 Frank Hebbert/Flickr)
The best place to buy your first good bike is a bike shop. You’ll get a better selection of bikes to choose from and salespeople who can help steer you toward the right bike for you.
Bike shops vary in their emphasis and areas of expertise. Some focus on mountain bikes, some on practical, round-town bikes and some on high-zoot road bikes with eye-watering price tags.
There’s also a difference in culture between shops. I’ve had tiny local shops dig through the spares bin for an obscure sub-part and then refuse to take payment for it, but seen others completely fail to explain the difference between two models after ignoring a customer for 10 minutes. Hang out a bit, chat to the staff and find a shop whose vibe you’re comfortable with.
If you possibly can, shop local. If you get at all seriously into cycling, your bike shop’s staff will be people you’ll want to consult often and you can’t do that if they’re 100 miles away.
(CC BY-ND 2.0 jun.skywalker/Flickr)
Once you’ve found a simpatico shop, it’s time to make a purchase, and that means dealing with a bike shop salesperson. Bike shops tend to be staffed by enthusiast cyclists, who may know lots about bikes, but are sometimes a bit hopeless at getting it across. They're fond of showing off their hard-accumulated knowledge but forget than many of their customers are normal, well-adjusted people who cannot recite Shimano part codes. (That was one of my party-pieces when I worked in a shop.)
The trick to dealing with folks like this is to state clearly and simply what you’re going to use the bike for and how much you want to spend. Don’t expect salesman-type leading questions from bike shops; most bike shop staff wouldn’t know a structured selling technique if it bit them on the leg. This lack of sophistication can be an advantage, though; you’re unlikely to get a hard sell and more likely to actually be helped by someone who is genuinely into bikes, and who wants to spread that enthusiasm.
Stay out of supermarkets
Yes, you can get a very cheap bike from a supermarket or other non-specialist shop, but there’s a reason such bikes don’t cost much. Super-cheap bikes almost always have very heavy frames and wheels and components of such poor quality that they don’t work very well or don’t stay that way if they can be initially persuaded to function adequately. Combine all that with heavy, slow tyres and pointless features like suspension that absorbs your pedalling effort more than road bumps and you end up with a bike that’s slow and hard to ride.
It’s not snobbery that leads to these things being called ‘bicycle-shaped objects’; they really work very poorly. Pay less for a new bike than around £150 and — with very rare exceptions — you might as well not bother. These bikes aren’t designed to be ridden, they’re garage wall ornaments designed to hang next to the mower and the strimmer.
If your budget is really limited then check out eBay and Gumtree for a secondhand bike.
Determine your size
The size you need is dictated by your inside leg. You need to be able to reach the pedals from the saddle, and stand comfortably across the bike when stationary. The only way to be sure of getting this right is to try bikes in a shop.
Take a test ride
Any shop worth its salt will let you take a bike you are considering buying for a short test ride. With bikes being desirable items in the eyes of thieves, you should expect to leave cast-iron security with the shop. If you want to take a test-ride, have with you a credit card and other proof of identity, or, best of all, the value of the bike in cash or equivalent.
Take the bike for a ten-minute ride in some quiet streets where you can concentrate on how the bike feels rather than on dodging traffic. Check if the bike fits, and that the reach to the handlebars feels comfortable. If it feels slightly long or short, ask the shop if they’ll change the handlebar stem.
Is the saddle comfy, and if not will the shop swap it for a different model, or are you likely to get used to it? (Note, there are different saddles designed for men and women - find out if you’re sitting on the right one).
Most importantly and least tangible, does the bike feel good? Does it respond to your input at the pedals and handlebar, or does it feel dead and sluggish? You can’t expect a basic bike to feel like a World Championship racer’s bike, but you can at least expect it to go where you point it easily and pleasantly.
Decide on tweaks and extras
Your new bike is unlikely to come with everything you want, or to be set up perfectly for you. Here are some things you might want to have your dealer adjust or customise.
Saddle height: Your saddle should be at a height that produces a bend in your knee that’s 25-30° from straight when your foot is at the bottom of the pedal stroke. To measure that accurately needs an angle-measuring device called a goniometer which a good bike shop will have, or will have someone experienced enough they can help you set your saddle height. While they’re helping with saddle height, have them sort out your saddle’s fore-aft position too.
Handlebar position: To get a comfortable, sustainable and efficient back position you need to adjust the reach and height of the handlebar. Being able to get help with these aspects of fit is a very good reason to buy a bike from a bike shop, rather than online.
Lights: A legal requirement if you’re going to ride at night, and just sensible too. A flashing rear light is now almost a sign of a bike; many riders like to pair a flasher with a constant light because it’s easier for drivers to track the position of a steady light on dark roads. Up front you have a huge range of choices from small lights that will get you seen to high-power systems that light the road for many metres ahead.
Mudguards: Spray from the tyres makes a big contribution to a winter soaking, so if you’re going to ride when there’s a chance of rain (all but a few days per year in the UK!) mudguards will keep you a lot drier. Clip-on mudguards can be fitted to road bikes with tight clearances, while if your bike has more room in the frame you can use full-coverage bolt-on guards.
Rack & luggage: If you want to carry stuff while you ride you have two options: panniers that clip on to a rack bolted to the rear of the bike; or a rucksack. Panniers are more comfortable and allow you to carry more, but are awkward off the bike. A rucksack is easy to carry off the bike, usually has lots of compartments to help keep you organised or lose your keys in, but will give you a sweaty back. You decide your priorities and make your choice.
Pedals: Many bikes, especially better quality road bikes, come without pedals, or with very cheap plastic-bodied pedals that are only there to make up the numbers. For a beginner the best options are flat, BMX-style pedals you can use with any shoes or double-sided ‘clipless’ pedals. These use a mechanism to hold a special shoe in place on the pedal, but you can still walk in them.
Tyres: Our recommendation these days is simple: fit the fattest tyres the frame will take unless you have a very good reason to do otherwise. Fat tyres smooth the ride and good quality ones don’t slow you down. Most road bikes will take 25mm or 26mm tyres, but the latest designs have room for 28mm tyres or even fatter. The same applies to hybrids and even mountain bikes, though in some cases you’ll want to leave room for mudguards.
Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.
Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.
Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.
The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.