Here’s the God’s honest truth: choosing a bicycle can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. If you like the sound of simple, you’re in the right place. This guide is meant to get you from right here to the right bicycle as simply as possible. If you love researching and analyzing and comparing and contrasting, then you will love Grant Pederson’s Blahg or Rivendell’s Blug or Sheldon Brown's Website. Those guys will give you everything you could ever want to know and if that's still not enough...Reddit.
Ok, but back to simple. Remember how we were talking about The 90% Rule last time? The things that usually hold people back from enjoying that favorable percentage are:
- The bicycle won’t go where I want to go
- The bicycle can’t do what I want to do
- It isn’t comfortable for what I’m doing or where I’m going
And most of that comes down to three things:
Gears help you go faster, further or climb steeper hills with less energy. Fewer gears creates simplicity (and cuts cost usually) but limits where, how fast and how far you go. More gears add complexity but allow for a wider range of rides.
Riding around the neighborhood with one gear is great but crossing town can be exhausting. Eight speeds will get you around a city easily but might come up a little short touring the country. To be fair, people cross the country on one speed all the time (just ask Jay Barre from Topanga Creek Outpost) and others have 30 gears for riding around town (although they probably only use 6 of them). So, use this as a starting point but don’t let gears hold you back.
"Choosing a bicycle can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be"
Here’s a quick guide to the common gear options:
1 speed Single speeds are usually geared right in the middle so they’re easy enough to pedal up slight inclines but have enough teeth to ride at a decent pace. There is almost nothing to break down on you, no shifting needed and it’s lighter for carrying up stairs, onto elevators and hanging in a loft. It will, however, start to limit you on longer rides or steep hills. This is a great bike for urban riding, short distances and flat roads.
3 speeds Designed to be almost as simple as the single speed but with a little more versatility, the three speed adds a higher gear for a little more distance and speed on flat paths and a smaller gear for hills. This is a great for areas with a little more variety of terrain or if you want to ride more than short, urban blocks.
Everything beyond three speeds is about adding to that spectrum. You get higher highs and lower lows and more steps in between for smoother transitions and more optimal efficiency.
6-8 speeds This is sort of the minimum for longer rides where you care about how long it takes (think commuting over 10 miles).
10 – 21 speeds This is the range for more aggressive road riding, mountain or dirt road biking with climbs or long weekend leisure rides where you’ll encounter a lot of different terrain.
21+ speeds This is more for touring where you want a big enough gear to cover long flat stretches quickly but need some low gears for steep, extended climbs.
There is very little downside to going higher. It may be unnecessary, more expensive, heavier or more complex than you want, but it won’t prevent you from doing anything.
2. RIDER POSITION
On one side of the spectrum you have a road bike where the rider is hunched over in a crouch-like position. This is for power and aerodynamics, like a track runner crouched at the starting line. On the other end of the spectrum, waaaay over there, is a beach cruiser where the rider is sitting upright, kind of like they’re taking a leisurely walk. This is ideal for looking around and having a conversation.
Comfort is different for everyone, but it’s much easier to identify if you align your position with your purpose. Time to refer back to that list you made of the things you want to do on your bicycle. Will your rides be more about the performance and the accomplishment or the scenery and the experience?
Unless you only want to do one very specific activity, you’re probably going to want a bicycle that gives you options. There are few things that will make your bicycle way more versatile, especially for the kinds of adventuring that we love.
If you want to use your bike on a variety of terrains (even urban ones), you’ll want to have bigger tires (or you’ll at least want the option). Bigger tires allow for lower pressure which creates more surface area (traction) and better absorption of bumps (comfort). Yes, they’ll slow you down a little bit, but not as much as you think. If your bicycle has a lot of clearance, you can have your pick, Goldilocks- skinny tires, bigger than skinny tires, great big knobby mountain bike tires.
Knowing how much tire clearance a bicycle has is not quite as straightforward as you would think, but we'll save that for its own blog post. For now, to get started, check with the manufacturer or ask the shop you're buying from. Handsome, Surly and Rivendell are all known for building bikes with a lot of clearance and versatility (one of the many reasons we love them) so you can also start there if you'd like. Here's a quick translation of what the tire numbers mean:
28mm or smaller is primarily for fast road cycling on smooth surfaces
32-35mm is more for city riding or touring where you want to keep a good pace but are dealing with rougher or hard pack dirt roads.
38-42mm is for city, touring and looser dirt roads, gravel or trails.
42mm+ is for really rough roads, dirt road touring, mountain biking, looking sexy and so on.
And, when in doubt, go bigger.
Oh, the accessories. Fenders so you can ride through puddles and not turn your clothes into a Jackson Pollock, baskets to carry your lunch and your laptop, racks so you can add bags and crates to carry treasures.
There are a lot of accessories that can add to a bicycle's functionality and versatility, but you’re going to need mounts to install most of them. While not all companies build these in, there are a whole bunch that do. Handsome, Rivendell, Surly, tokyobike are all built with mounts (another one of the many reasons we love them), as are All City, Soma and Salsa bicycles.
If you've already got a bicycle and it doesn't have mounts, don't fret. There are handlebar mounted baskets like these or saddle mounted bags like these or even burrito rolls like these that can mount to your handlebars or your saddle.
"Comfort is different for everyone, but it’s much easier to identify if you align your position with your purpose."
And there it is- the long and the short of it. There are a lot of options out there, but, when it comes to the right options for you, now you know what and how to look for that perfect bicycle. You'll probably hear a whole lot of opinions along the way and that can make things confusing so just remember one thing- if you like it, if you feel good on it, if it takes you where you want to go, then that's the one. You'll know it when you ride it.
all photos by Heidi Zumbrun