How to buy a bike

Critical_MassJust about every day I get an email saying, hey, I want to get a bike! I want to ride around town, do some shopping, maybe ride to work. I’m a little scared. I haven’t had a bike for a long time and I want to be comfortable. What should I do?

First, the brief affirmation: YES you DO! You do want a new bike! A bike that makes you want to ride, vs just good enough to get you there. A bike that will save you money and time, keep you healthy, and make you  beautiful (this is not marketing hype: I personally have never seen an unattractive person riding a bike). You’re not looking for a product—you are looking for a relationship. A good bike will be your partner, and it is something you cannot afford to not afford. Find the right bike and the world will open up for you in ways you might never have imagined.

SO: about that bike. In an ocean of bikes, how to you find your true love?

You can shop for a bike in a second-hand shop or on Craigslist if you know what you are looking for. I am a raging anti-consumerist and almost everything I buy is second-hand, including bikes. BUT, if you are not fully bike savvy, i totally recommend going to a good bike store where you will get knowledgeable support and a full service warranty. Your bike will be brand new and fitted to you, in perfect working order, and it will have been assembled and tuned by a safety-conscious professional bike mechanic rather than by an ape in the basement of Canadian Tire. A new bike bought from a reputable shop can end up costing you a lot less money in the end than buying a lemon and working backwards.

Here are a few pointers for finding the Bike of your Dreams:


Mountain bikes are for riding on mountains (as opposed to leisurely trail-riding). They have smaller wheels, fatter tires, and usually front if not dual suspension. Don’t buy one.

Cruiser bikes are ponderous beasts with fat balloon tires and no speeds. They are for very occasional riding on totally flat terrain. Such terrain does not exist in Vancouver. Don’t buy one.

City Comfort bikes are upright-style bikes, generally with limited gear range. They are good for people with physical limitations or limited needs. I won’t say don’t buy one but if you want to ride across town or commute to work, at least compare one to a performance hybrid. Ride it up and down some hills. If you don’t sweat buckets and it feels like a dream come true, it might just be The One.

Step-Thru/”Ladies” bikes are City Comfort bikes with a low crossbar. They tend to be low-quality, heavy, and lacking in gear range (although there are some exceptions). Their geometry is not suited to distance riding or steep hills, and they can be difficult to attach accessories to. They are really great if you have very tight hips, balance difficulties, or very short legs… or sensitive dangly bits… in fact, they’re really well designed for MEN. If you don’t have these issues, don’t buy one, unless you frequently ride in a pencil skirt.

Road bikes are ‘racing’-style bikes, with drop handlebars. They are fast and light and can be fine commuter bikes, if-and-only-if you are comfortable riding in the drop position. If so, then there are some good drop-bar all-purpose commuter bikes on the market.

Commuter or Performance Hybrid bikes are broadly speaking, the most practical and versatile bikes if you intend to commute or to ride the bike as practical transportation (i.e, be able to ride comfortably in most situations). Although it is optimized for pavement riding, you will still be able to ride this bike comfortably on paths and light trails. It may also be the perfect ride for light or even long-distance touring.
-Get a performance hybrid with a wide gear range; you’ll need em on the hills (more gears=smoother and easier ride).
-Your posture will be fairly upright (you will be able to look around in all directions), but slightly inclined for most efficient pedaling power (read: ease of hill-climbing)
-The bike will have sturdy medium-wide tires (1.25-2″), straight handlebars, and places to attach fenders & rack etc. (which you will need for commuting).
-It will probably be aluminum frame, for lightness and durability, although some commuter bikes are steel-framed. You do not need carbon-fibre.
-Disc breaks are fantastic for wet pavement riding and durability


Size is ABSOLUTELY important – there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all bike! DO NOT order a bike off the Internet without test-riding it. Different models of bikes size differently so you need to have the bike sized and then test-ride it to know. Bikes are like pairs of pants; just because a size 7 fits you in this style doesn’t mean you won’t take a size 9 in another.

Once you have the right size frame, which suits your leg-length and reach, the most important thing is to correctly adjust the height of the saddle. If your  saddle is too low you will hurt your back and knees!

That being said, everyone’s body is different, so you might need to modify with a longer/shorter/more upright stem, different handlebars, etc. But these are last-resort solutions. First, try to get a bike that fits your body as exactly as possible.


If you are considering a used bike and it meets requirements 1) and 2), make sure it looks well loved and cared for. Look carefully at the frame to ensure it is not damaged or rusted. Check tires and drive train for wear – if it is very worn it can cost you $300+ to get road-worthy.


PLEASE NOTE: I am NOT saying that you need to drop a big pile of cash to get a good bike, or that you have to have all the latest and greatest snazzy stuff. It is entirely possible to find a good bike that suits your needs for well within your budget. But I do not want you to spend money on a bike you will not enjoy riding. A bike you will not ride is a bad deal at any price.

A decent new commuter bike in a reputable shop will cost between $500 and $1500 plus tax and accessories (in BC there is no PST on a new bike, so you only pay 5% GST – hooray!). If you are seduced by a low price tag into buying something that is uncomfortable or not suitable for your needs, you won’t ride the bike. A bike that is practical and FEELS GOOD to ride is worth the investment. Remember, you’re not just buying a shiny new toy. You are investing in a machine that can change your entire world.

There. So go get yourself  that bike and start livin your freedom NOW!

3 Comments on “How to buy a bike

  1. Reading through the piece I am wondering why you haven’t mentioned folders and electric bikes. I recently invested in a pedelectric , that’s one that the power assist as you pedal. Mine has a range of nearly 100 miles on the economy setting. As for folders I started with a Bike Friday a 20 inch with a trailer hitch. It still is my favourite touring mount. But for folding, the Brompton has no equal and I recently toured in Australia , using busses and trains, I guess they may be a bit pricy in north America .
    Just a plug for a magazine A to B which covers these bikes and lots more.

  2. Very good advice.We live in a Golden Age of cycling and there are hundreds of good choices both new and used.Almost all of us have a friend(or a friend of a friend)who might be able to help with a wise choice.If the initial price seems daunting remember how much you spend every week on gasoline now.Your good bike,with regular maintenance will last decades,assuming you do the wise thing and buy a good lock as well (and use it religiously).

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