I gave a presentation recently on biking and bike trails at the Rotary Club of Cumberland’s weekly meeting. Following the meeting I received a very nice email from one of the members saying that my talk inspired her and inquiring as to what she should consider when purchasing her new bike?
I am flattered to be anyone’s inspiration (thank you for the kind words Sally) but do not consider myself an expert. I do however have some opinions on what to consider when buying a bike.
I look at a bike as an investment and tend to lean towards the utility and practicality of my bike. I want something that will work on all rail trails and some easier mountain bike trails, as well as the times for when I must ride on the roads.
The first step is to ask yourself what type of riding are your looking to do?
Mountain biking is for riding on very rough trails. Mountain bikes are heavier and have shock absorption systems made to withstand the rigors of rougher trails. The tires are also larger with “aggressive” tread patterns and their handlebars tend to be a relatively straight upright bar. Mountain bikes, while great for the before mentioned rougher mountain trails can be uncomfortable for longer rides.
Road bikes are lighter with slimmer tires. Road bikes are for riding on highways and smooth pavement. They typically do not have suspensions and their drop handlebars can create discomfort when riding.
A hybrid bike is for everything in-between. They combine the lower gearing of a mountain bike into a bike that is comfortable on the road or on easier trails. Most hybrids also have an upright riding position. If you add fenders, like I recommend, shock absorbing suspension, upright handlebars and a wider comfortable seat (picture your old Schwinn) and you will have it! Since this missive is on a blog titled midlatlanticbiketrials.com, I am going to assume that most of our readers are looking for something to ride on rail trails, paved paths, and secondary roads….a Hybrid!
While it is possible to purchase a bike online after doing some research, the few dollars of potential savings are not worth it for most folks. Discount retailers like Walmart are an option, but I have found that you get what you pay for. The quality along with the recommendations and individual fit to your size, and the adjustments and inevitable repairs required of your bike after the purchase, make giving full consideration to your local bike shop for your purchase. Aside from the many benefits of buying local, a good bike shop with knowledgeable and helpful staff can not be beat. And make no mistake, as in any industry, I am sure there are some bad bike shops out there who give ill-informed information or will sell anything to anybody…I just am not aware of them.
Biking like a lot of facets of the recreational industry has its fads and trends. Visit a bike shop and you will likely be met with a dazzling array of different types of bikes of all prices.
A $10,000 carbon fiber road bike with a super skinny bike seat that reminds you more of a type of floss for your rear end, that you can cycle the roads of Europe, and it can be yours for just $500 down! Or how about a neon orange retro bike reminiscent of the “spider bikes of the 1970’s for just $1000! Ignore the fads and go with what makes sense.
A hybrid bike is for everything in-between. Hyrbids combine the lower gearing of a mountain bike into the ease of ride of a road bike.
Just as cycling has evolved, so have bike shops. Where they once catered to the spandex-clad crowd road bike type or the serious Mountain Biker, (never met a mountain trail I can’t handle type), there is enough serious demand from recreational rail-trail enthusiast and the occasional riders, to warrant attention to that growing market. Bottom line, bike shops want and need your business.
Be honest of your skills, how much you wish to spend, and where you will do most of your riding. I look at a bike as an investment and tend to lean towards the utility and practicality of my bike. I want something that will work on all rail trails and some easier mountain bike trails, as well as the times for when I must ride on the roads.
For me, it was a fairly easy choice. After riding an LL Bean Mountain bike for years, I rented a Specialized hybrid bike in Bethany Beach (DE) and was amazed at the difference. I was in need of an upgrade, loved the ease of riding of the hybrid and soon after visited my local bike shop. I was both surprised and pleased that they recommended the same Specialized hybrid bike I rode in Bethany. I have since evolved to a Trek Hybrid, but still get out the Old Specialized every now and then.
My neighborhood bike shop assisted me in selecting the right size frame and adjusting the bike seat and handlebars to my size. (I am amazed at the number of riders I see whose seat is not adjusted properly for their leg length, as well as those who ride a frame ill suited. If you have never rode a hybrid bike with 700cc tires and a frame and seat adjusted to your size, do so…you will be amazed at the difference! Many bike shops have rentals where you can experience the benefits of a proper fitted bike, and I encourage you to do a “test-drive”, before you make your purchase.
To keep it simple, the most important things to consider are your fitness level and the terrain you'll be riding.
Gears: If you'll be riding lots of hills and you find climbing challenging, then you'll want to opt for more gears. For almost all of the rail-trail type trails found in the Mid Atlantic, I recommend 27 gears. Anything else is probably overkill.
Suspension: While shock absorbing suspension adds a little weight, you will find the slight added weight well worth it for all trails except the smoothest paved trails.
Tires: Most hybrid bikes utilize a 700c wheel size, which is ideal for absorbing smaller bumps on pavement and trails. They tend to be thicker than road bikes and less prone to flats.
Brakes. The newer disc type brakes add cost to your bike but are self-adjusting. Manufactures of disc brakes claim that you no longer need to worry about wearing out bike rims from brake pads (In 30+ years of riding I have never worn out a bike rim from braking too much). Manual brake pads do require occasional adjusting (for me once yearly) and inexpensive replacement every couple years. Disc brakes are fairly expensive to replace. Recommendation: Get the bike that is most suited for you regardless of brake type.
Bike frames on hybrid bikes are mostly made from aluminum although one can purchase the slightly heavier steel or very light and expensive carbon fiber. For most riders the pricing and selection of aluminum frame bikes will be tough to beat.
Bike Seats on most hybrids tend to be well padded and wider than the thin saddles found on road bikes. After 60 miles on the bumps and ruts on trails like the C&O Canal, you will be most thankful for the additional support.
Handlebar Shape. Generally speaking, the farther the handlebar is above the seat, the more comfortable the ride experience. Most hybrid bikes are set up this way. Handlebars that are lower than the seats, will allow you to ride in a more aerodynamic position and apply more power to the pedals. You can go faster, but it may be a pain the neck and back (literally and figuratively).
Hybrid bikes come with handlebars in several styles. The important thing is to find that which you can ride comfortably. My experience is the upright style riser bar (think of your old Schwinn again) is tough to beat. And while my oldest son prefers the drop (racing style) style handlebars for aerodynamics and the ability to be positioned to “pump harder and faster when desired,” he is also 35 years younger than me with a much stronger back.
No bike is complete without a kickstand and surprisingly many bikes come without one (for that rare time when you would prefer to lean your expensive purchase up against a wall). I also highly recommend fenders if you are one of those individuals who do not find mud and road grit on your legs and up your back an enhancing addition to your apparel and skin. Yes, I know fenders are not stylish or trendy. (I still can’t get past what passes for stylish with some bikers… multi-colored synesthetic layers that make one look like a day-glo condom.) Fenders are functional and inexpensive. Try them…you will thank me. Add a water bottle holder and a cargo rack for carrying extra stuff and you are ready to ride!