The ground is still smothered in a layer of snow, but, although it has been a cruel March, things are bound to change for the better.
And that means it's time for the annual "back in the saddle" lecture.
Spring is a time when many people decide to get a new bicycle, or dust of and repair an older one they already own. Either way, they are often faced with a substantial expense. To make sure that you get the best value for your money, and the best use of your bike, consider the following.
What type of bike?
The question "what is the best bike?", is still best answered by "it's the one that's best for you". Think about how you intend to use your bike. Are you a recreational rider, and plan to use your bike occasionally in nice weather, or will you depend on it for your daily commute or errands? Do you have to cary children or cargo? Is your commute very long, or do you wish to combine biking with transit? Do you prefer a lightweight, speedy bike, or is comfort a more important consideration? Do you need a bike that has to serve two or more distinctly different purposes? Where do you plan to store your bike?
With the exception of very specialized types of riding, most bikes can be successfully adapted to most urban riding styles. However, these questions, and many others, will help you and the salesperson you are working with, zero in on the features that are most important to you, and help you select the most suitable bike for your particular needs.
Fix the old or buy the new?
If you already own a bicycle which is in sound condition, fits your shape and riding style, and generally offers you enjoyment, the best thing you can do is get it tuned up and keep riding. We can also adjust minor fit problems through relatively inexpensive alterations.
You should consider a new bike if the one you own doesn't give you what you want. A racing frame that is too big is never going to be made shorter; a mountain bike might be frustratingly slow on a long commute; a comfort cruiser won't let you keep up with your fitness-riding friends.
If your bike is very worn or in total disrepair, chances are the cost of a thorough repair would exceed its value (except any sentimental value, of course.)
Does the bike fit you?
As a rule, bike manufacturers make several frame sizes of each bike model. Those sizes are based on certain assumptions about the rider's size and proportions, and these assumptions tend to correspond to a male physique more than the female. Men generally have proportionately shorter legs and longer arms and torsos than women. Therefore, if you are female, or a male who falls outside of the "average" build, you may need to modify your bike to achieve better fit.
There are several aspects of bike fit:
- Standover height. This refers to how much clearance there is between your body and the top tube of the bike, as you straddle the frame with your feet flat on the ground. There should be 1.5 to 2 inches of clearance. With some road bike frames, you may be able to get away with a tighter clearance, but you should not buy a bike that presses into your body as you stand over it.
- Seat height. When you have found the correct frame size, adjust the seat level. When seated, only your toes should be able to touch the ground. If you can plant your feet firmly when seated, the saddle is too low, and you will strain your knees. When pedaling, only the ball of your foot should rest on the pedal, and you should only have the slightest bend in your knee on the downstroke.
(An important exception to this rule are "flat foot" and "crank forward" bikes available from select manufacturers, which are designed to allow you to put your feet down while seated.)
- Extension or reach. This refers to the forward reach from the saddle to the handlebars, and affects how upright you will be while riding. It can also be the hardest part of fitting a bike. Women often find that when the frame size and seat height are correct, the extension from seat to handlebars is too long. Some men feel that a frame that gives them enough stand-over clearance doesn't provide enough extension.
Fortunately, these problems can usually be solved through minor alterations, such as replacing the existing handlebar and/or stem, and manipulating the seat adjustment. The cost of such adjustments depends on how extensive they need to be, whether you are buying a new bike and swapping out parts, or modifying a bike you already own.
- Frame geometry. Some people have a hard time getting a good fit on a particular type of bike. In that case, you may consider another brand. Different manufacturers offer slightly different frame geometries, and you may have better luck. You may also try a bike from a different category (eg. comfort hybrid instead of "urban" hybrid). Rider position -- and your comfort -- can vary quite a bit from one type of bike to another.
Chances are, you will be spending a substantial amount of money when you purchase a new bike. Take the time to find a bike shop that will work with with you on finding the best bike for your needs, and the best fit. Don't buy a bike that doesn't fit you, even if it seems like a bargain. It won't seem that way anymore after you haven't ridden it all summer.