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How to Buy a Good Transportation-oriented Bicycle

Updated: Oct 10

Like a car or other major purchase, you’ll want to give a good amount of effort to ensure that your bike fits your needs and desires well, especially if you want to use it for multiple trips a week and/or expect to use it for years, even decades. An improper bicycle choice or fit, no matter how expensive it is, can be debilitating to keeping a habit of biking for transportation. When I was a college student, my groin accumulated pain quickly every time I got on my bike (purchased used from a graduating senior) with a poor-fitting saddle and flared more and more as I rode. After a typical ride, the pain would linger so I’d need to take a break for more than a day to reset it to the default level. Various parts of our bodies will ache more quickly from riding a poorly fitting bicycle, making it painful instead of the fun, joyful, and freeing experience it should be. Here are the recommended steps to help you choose a good one for you:

  1. Have a clear idea of the riding you'll be doing

  2. Set an appropriate budget

  3. Seek help from a trustworthy expert for bike recommendations

  4. Test ride, test ride, test ride

  5. Choose your accessories

  6. Post-purchase - completing the initial setup


1. Have a clear idea of the riding you'll be doing


You don’t need to make sure that this is absolutely perfect, but clarity on your desired rides will make a big difference on how well they will go. Without it, you can expect the likelihood to match a great bike for you to be similar to trying to shoot a target blind and without having any sense of where it is.


Come up a few kinds of rides you’ll like to ideally go on with your bike; they may include commuting to work, school, or a classroom building, getting groceries, running errands, and/or meeting up with friends. Then think about frequency, consistency, and importance of those trips. What kind of paths will you take? Are they on paved, light dirt, or bumpy surfaces? Do you want to be riding at a high speed or ride at a relaxed pace? Do you want to carry various items with you? How far into the future do you want to be riding for? How far will you be riding on your most frequent trips?


The answers to all of that will help you and any bike experts you may seek for help pick the right one for you. If there seem to be a lot of varying conditions, I’d recommend starting with the kind of bike that would serve best on most of the trips you’ll be taking on your bike and think about getting another bike in the future for the remaining types of rides you want to go on.


For example: Let’s say you want to commute along a nice trail to work at ~9 miles each way and go for pure joy rides (some on paved paths and some on mountain trails) on some weekends. Select a bike first for your commute, which a commuter, hybrid, or touring e-bike would likely be best for. If the distance is significantly shorter at something like 5 miles, a non-e-bike version would also be easily viable to keep riding as a habit. Later on, consider a mountain bike for the mountain trails.


2. Set an appropriate budget


Depending on your answers to the previous questions, aim to set a healthy budget for how much value it’ll bring you and how it’ll impact you, not simply going for the most competitive price. If you’re simply looking for a bike to ride for commuting 2 miles each weekday for 3 months, you can set a much lower budget than a bike for commuting 6 miles each weekday comfortably for 5+ years. Instead of asking how much it’ll cost, ask how much value (e.g. $/time savings, better health, less frustration, more joy, etc.) it’ll bring you based on how you use it.


Make sure that you also prepare the resources needed to help you make switching to riding your new bike a success like you would with ensuring that a new plant gets the adequate sunlight, water, and nutrients it needs to grow and thrive. Bike accessories (e.g. helmets, lights, panniers, etc.), time for new trip planning and evaluation, a friend, colleague, or coworker to ride with, and maintenance all greatly impact your experience.


Like any other piece of valuable equipment - your bike will need good care (maintenance/service/repairs) to ensure that it continues to serve you well, so budget that as appropriate. Learn more about a few things on good bike maintenance from great guides below and ask your local bike shop about bike maintenance information and the right service schedule for you:

  1. Basic Pre-ride Check by the League of American Bicyclists

  2. Fixing a flat by REI

  3. Chain cleaning & relubrication by Dave Rome of Cycling Tips

Here are a few things to avoid:

  1. Sub-$150 department store bikes - they are typically made to be sold, not ridden. The usual maintenance costs will likely exceed the selling price and it’s hard to seek help to get the appropriate measurements for you which makes a big difference in riding comfort.

  2. Buying second-hand bikes without an expert who has experience maintaining/repairing bikes and physically fitting bikes to people. The bike you get can turn fun while riding into pain quite quickly.

  3. Buying low-cost “beater” bikes if you can afford nicer bikes along with some forms of passive security. The unappealing visual factor works on not only potential thieves, but you as well.

3. Seek help from a trustworthy expert who knows how to fit various kinds of bikes to people


A trustworthy expert can be a friend, family member, or someone at a local bike shop. They need to know how to take your measurements to select a well-fitting bike and a comfortable saddle and have had experience fitting various bikes to people. Fortunately, bike shops are considered essential businesses for many states that have issued health orders in the US.


Let them know what kind of riding you’ll be doing. They’ll ask about it before choosing for a bike to fit you.


Here’s a brief overview on the most common bike types:

  1. Road - good for speed & light weight; ideal for paved trails and roads

  2. Adventure/Touring - good for on-road and light trails without large chunks of gravel; good for carrying belongings

  3. Hybrid - good for general use on-road and light trails; good for carrying items

  4. Folding - great for storing and carrying; not ideal for long-distance riding beyond 10 miles at a time.

  5. Cargo - oriented for carrying lots of items/weight. They are quite heavy and slower than other types of bikes - think the pickup truck of bikes.

  6. Mountain - great for various trail riding, especially on rougher terrain. Typically avoid for transportation riding unless you need the stability of wider tires and you’re planning on commuting over mountain trails as they are heavier.

  7. E-bike - something with pedal assist is great. Great for being easy on your knees, longer trips, and carrying more things on your bike. E-bikes and cargo bikes are the most difficult to lift.

They’ll also ask about taking your measurements, take your sitting bones width, ask you to stand over your bike, ask you to mount the bike and put extend one leg so that one pedal is all the way down, see how comfortable it is for you to stay mounted and holding your handlebars, and ask you to give it a test ride.


4. Test ride, test ride, test ride


All the information and specifications will not really connect and make sense until you try out riding the bike. Play with brakes, gear shifters (if you have any), and try going up/down hill. If you get the opportunity to, do it with all your accessories mounted as well to see how they affect your riding experience.


Consider visiting 3 bike shops or test riding 3 different bikes recommended from experts you trust before purchasing, especially if you’re expecting to ride it frequently and for a long time. Renting for a short period of time can help you identify the bike you want to keep. Ideally, spend at least ~20 minutes on each bike you would like to test on the trip you would typically expect to ride it on and rent it first if needed. If you are just looking to try it out or need a bike for a few months, a rental or getting to one that seems to fit you well will serve you well enough without the comparison research.


5. Choose your accessories


Some accessories can be as essential to you as heating and air-conditioning on very cold or hot days.


Here are several important categories and ones to consider:

Visibility and Safety

  1. Helmet - Get one that fits you well and meets CPSC certification unless you're only taking off-road bike paths and not going fast or in an area where at least hundreds of people ride without a helmet. See the League of American Bicyclist's guide to helmet fit.

  2. Reflectors and lights (front and rear) - These are crucial for your safety when you ride out on the road, especially at night. Most drivers are looking out for other cars/large vehicles, not smaller moving objects like people on bikes. Lights help you be seen and identify potential hazards in front of you. In the state of California, when you ride at night or in the dark, your bicycle is required to equip...

  3. “a lamp or lamp combination, emitting a white light, attached to the operator and visible from a distance of 300 feet in front and from the sides of the bicycle”,

  4. “a red reflector or a solid or flashing red light with a built-in reflector on the rear that shall be visible from a distance of 500 feet to the rear when directly in front of lawful upper beams of headlamps on a motor vehicle”,

  5. “a white or yellow reflector on each pedal, shoe, or ankle visible from the front and rear of the bicycle from a distance of 200 feet”,

  6. and “a white or yellow reflector on each side forward of the center of the bicycle, and a white or red reflector on each side to the rear of the center of the bicycle, except that bicycles that are equipped with reflectorized tires on the front and the rear need not be equipped with these side reflectors.” - CVC 21201 subdivisions (d) and (e) You can ask your bike shop or a trusted bike expert to help ensure that your bike meets these requirements or the requirements of your state, province, or country.

  7. Chain guard - If you want to bike around with pants that are loose around your right ankle and not wear a strap to prevent it from getting stuck in the front gears, consider getting a good chain guard installed on your bike.

  8. High visibility clothing - bright and reflective vests, jackets, pants, gloves, shoes, and straps also make you more visible to others at night. Some kinds even light up!

  9. Gloves help keep your hands warm in windy or cold situations. They can also protect the skin on your hands from being roughed up too much in the unfortunate case of a fall. Some gloves are also highly reflective to help others see you and your turn signals at night!


6. Ankle strap - some pants can be quite baggy and loose around your right ankle. If your bike doesn’t have a chain guard, you can use a strap to tie it close to your ankle and not risk getting it caught in the chain and front gear(s) which can lead to a nasty fall.



Security

To keep your bike safe, you should use passive (set up once and go) and active (every time you park) tools so that you can safely expect to see your bike again right where you leave it after going into work, school, the grocery store, the library, etc. The security level that would be recommended can vary depending on the area you park your bike in and where it is. For example, in an area with low crime rates, a cable lock might be enough to keep your bike safe. As for an area with high crime rates, 2 U-locks and a few passive security installations would be the minimum though lockers and restricted rooms would be recommended.

To determine which part of the spectrum your area is in, you can look at bikes parked - are there any parts missing? What locks are being used? How are the locks being used? How are the bikes positioned?


For passive security tips, see this guide: How to Add Passive Security to Your Bicycle


As for active security, popular items include cables, u-locks, locker-access cards, and storage room/cage access-cards. Cable locks are typically non-factors to thieves in areas with a lot of bike theft as they can be easily cut.


For more on active security, refer to our guide on it.


If you do not like bringing your own lock(s) and key(s) or do not want to buy personal locks and keys, you can try to find lockers or private secured rooms and/or space inside your destination or ask if you may take your bicycle inside.


Maintenance Tools

  1. Bike floor pump - for typical easy optimal tire pressure maintenance. Usually has a reader that tells you exactly what the pressure level is at, typically in PSI.

  2. Portable bike pump - for emergency on-the-go inflation needs.

  3. Multi-tool - contains a variety of Allen/hex keys, a chain tool, Phillips and flathead screwdrivers, and other tools for assembling/disassembling parts on your bicycle.

  4. Tire levers - to help make removing and putting back on a tire easier.

  5. Spare tube - for large tube punctures that can’t be covered with a small patch.

  6. Patch kit - for minor tube punctures.

Carry-ons


Water bottle holders are great for any trip. Adequate hydration is crucial for good mental and physical health and performance.


U-lock mount(s) can make it easy to carry them without holding them in a bag or around your body.


A rack mounted on your bike’s rear and/or front wheel can be a great option for carrying panniers for light-medium loads under ~40-50 pounds. It’s a great way to store snacks, water, clothes if you need to change for work or going to the gym, groceries, an emergency bike maintenance kit, etc.

If you need a lot more space to carry more/larger objects, a bike trailer that is mounted to your bike’s rear wheel is also another great option!

Child seat mounts are also an option!

Comfort

  • Fenders - great for keeping you and your clothes clean while riding in wet and rainy conditions.

  • Phone/GPS Mount - good to keep track of where you are and where you’re headed.

These are just some of the most commonly used accessories. There are more out there for other uses you may want!


Post-purchase - completing the initial setup


If you got your bike at your local bike shop, ensure that they have recorded the serial number. Ask for a copy and record it so that you can register your bike! If you’re buying it used, ensure that you’re not getting a stolen bike and ask the previous owner to transfer the registration to you if they’ve registered the bike already. You can find the serial number engraved on your bike frame, typically on the underside of the bottom bracket.



If it is not there, BikeIndex has a guide to find other serial number locations. If there isn’t a serial number or the frame appears to be worn off where the serial number should be, I’d recommend against buying that bike as it’d be very difficult to prove that that bike belongs to you.


It’s free to register your bike on BikeIndex and 529 Garage, two of the most widely used bike registries in the U.S. and Canada, along with local registries like SFSafe.


Further Reading

  1. How to Add Passive Security to Your Bicycle

  2. Pre-ride check: Basic Bike Check by the League of American Bicyclists

  3. Active Security Guide


Thanks for reading and happy riding!