Finding the right bike

Walk into any good bike store, and its overwhelming. Bikes of all shapes, sizes and colors just screaming to be taken outside and ridden. But when it comes to actually buying a bike for yourself, how do you know which will be the right one for you?

The answer isnt that simple.

First you have to decide what kind of riding youll be doing. Then how often youll be riding (be realistic) and how much money you have to spend. (Be fairly realistic, but come on, you deserve it.)

Know these answers before you head off to the bike store, so your search will be more focused once you get there. Youll also want to have a little background on the other choices that await you.

Styles of bikes

While bikes have become more specifically targeted over the last few years, the first decision youll need to make is whether to buy a road or mountain bike.

Road: Once the overwhelming favorite, road bikes have become a small minority in new bike sales, although were starting to see a little more of an upswing, particularly among comfort bikes (more on those later). Road bikes are designed to be ridden on paved roads. Theyre light, responsive and fast, but riding those skinny tires on dirt would be like taking your fine china on a picnic.

Apart from your standard road bike, youll also find triathlon bikes (with slightly different frame geometry, aerobars and smaller wheels), comfort bikes (a pretty ambiguous category, but generally emphasizing comfort and fun over speed and weight) and hybrids (considered a mix between a road and mountain bike, designed for both the road and moderate trail use).

Your biggest decision with a road bike will be how much youre willing to spend to get a lighter frame and better components to achieve a smoother, faster ride.

Mountain: This is the category that most people are buying, so youre given a ton of choices. Do you want front-suspension? Dual-suspension? How many speeds? 16? 18? 24? 27? Once again, go back to how youre going to ride the bike. Are you serious about taking the bike off-road? And if so, what kind of riding will you be doing? Lots of serious downhill over rocks and fallen logs or that woodchip path along the river?

While there are tons of gadgets and upgrades you can do without, dont go too cheap on a mountain bike. Youll get your moneys worth, avoiding the $200 bike in favor of a $500 bike. Of course, you could rationalize your way up to a $4,500 titanium-framed pro model that way, but buying a decent bike from the start will do a world of good in getting you to actually use your investment.

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Frame style

Once youve decided on where youre going to ride, the next decision is the frame.

Youll hear a lot of people talk about the feel of a bike. This has much to do with the frames materialand while we can generalize about those materials, each person really must get on the bike to decide what they like.

Aluminum: These frames are generally regarded as stiff, strong and light. Theyre responsive and have become popular over the last couple of years because theyre lighter than a comparable steel frame. But theyre also less forgiving for riders who like a smoother ride, particularly on smaller framed bicycles.

Steel: The oldest frame material has a well-deserved reputation for a quality ride. Its not as popular as aluminum, but its worth a test ride if you can find it. Look for double-butted, crome-moly frames, which offer thicker tubes at the junctions for strength, but narrower tubes elsewhere to save weight.

Titanium: While discussing my next bike purchase at a race, a fellow rider on a titanium mount told me, You may as well buy titanium, since youll eventually end up there anyway. And when you look at the upside, you see his point: Titanium is more resilient than steel. Its light, durable, resistant to corrosion and just cool. The downside is priceyoud be hard-pressed to find a ti-framed bike for less than $2,000, and most are much more than that. I guess that rider didnt realize he was talking to a writer.

Carbon Fiber: Its strong, lightweight and doesnt corrode. Its also as expensive as titanium.

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Sticker shock

Most mountain bikes (and even a few road bikes) now offer at least front suspension. The cost of suspension has come down quite a bit over the past few years, making it affordable for most recreational riders. The latest trend is dual suspension, which certainly has some benefits, but isnt necessary for most off-road cyclists.

A bike with suspension gives the rider some additional comfort, since it absorbs much of the impact going over bumps, rocks, trees, etc. It also keeps the tire connected to the ground, which gives you more control. But a suspension system adds weight and price to a bike, and if youre not riding over obstacles, you wont notice much of a difference.

For riding mountain bikes off-road, front suspension is usually a worthy investment. But unless youre riding some serious terrain, including difficult downhills, think twice about the necessity of rear suspension. Rear suspension also absorbs energy that you put into the bikewhich means you have to work harder to keep moving forward. If youre willing to make that sacrifice for comfort, fine. Just know youre making it.

Another feature once reserved for the pros is disc brakes. These offer better control on braking, especially in wet weather or when your rims get covered in dirt. Theyre superior to the usual rim-huggers found on mountain bikes, but youll pay more for them.

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Getting fit

All of these generalities go out the door when it comes to the most important part of buying a bikethe fit. This is why its important to go to a bike store with trained sales people who can fit you correctly. For a mountain bike, the general rule is for 1 to 3 inches of clearance between you and the top tube when you straddle the frame. When pedaling, your leg should be slightly bent when the pedal is at its lowest rotation. You should be able to reach the handlebars comfortably while bent slightly at the waist. You can adjust your handlebar and seat heights slightly depending on the type of riding youll be doing and what works best for your body.

On a road bike, fit is even more crucial. Youre in a more compact position on a road bike, so a poor fit can lead to poor performance, muscle cramps and injuries. Your leg should be extended almost fully on the downstroke, but your hips shouldnt rock. As much as a few centimeters can make a difference, so even if youve ridden road bikes in the past, its worth getting fitted by a shop.

Try several different brands, since each have a slightly different geometry that may or may not mesh with your own.

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The components

Depending on your level of sophistication, you can either try and follow along with the alphabet soup of components offered on bikes, or you can let the price of the bike be your guide. Most bikes come with components made by Shimano, which this year offers (from low-end to high-end) the Sora, Tiagra, 105, Ultegra and Dura-Ace groups for road frames. They offer (also from low-end to high-end) Acera, Alivio, Deore, Deore LX, Deore XT and XTR groups for off-road bikes. You could read pages describing the differences between each group (and many people do), but you basically find the higher-end groups become more durable, lighter and more expensive. As if that wasnt enough to follow, manufacturers will mix different component groups on a bike. So while they may tout Ultegra components, that doesnt mean it includes the entire group.

You can also find high-quality components from other companies, like Sram (makers of Grip Shift) and Campagnolo, which have just as many letters to remember. Most people tend to buy for the frame and fit and then buy the best components they can afford. If you get a high-quality frame, you can always upgrade components as they wear out or you outgrow them.

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Final tips

Now that you know what youre looking for, here are a few more tips to help you walk out with the right bike:

Shop for the store: Buying a bike isnt all about the price. Make sure the store youre buying from is a good one. Are the sales people knowledgeable? Will they be able to service the bike and meet your other needs? Can they tell you about places to ride and groups to ride with? Are they interested in seeing you on the right bike, not the most expensive bike?

Dont bother haggling: This isnt a car youre buying. The amount of money a store makes on your bike purchase is ridiculously low compared to other consumer goods. They really dont have room to go down from the asking price.

Take advantage of freebies: While they cant go down on the price of they bike, many stores throw in some added-value for choosing their store, including free tune-ups and check-ups.

Test ride: Most good stores will at least let you take the bike for a quick spin around the neighborhood. See how it feels outside the showroom.

Dont forget: Youll often walk out of the store with a new helmet, shoes, spare tubes, CO2 cartridge, jersey, glovesits very easy to go over budget. Realize that you need some of these other things when youre coming up with the budget of what you can spend on your bike.

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Mountain

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The Trek 6000 ($570) is a great first mountain bike. The aluminum-framed, front-suspension bike is one of the countrys most popular models. You wont get all the high-end components for this price, but youll get a good ride and solid components that will let you find out what mountain biking is all about.

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The Schwinn Moab 3 ($720) continues to be a steal at this price. The responsive aluminum frame and solid components offer the same great ride as many of Schwinns more expensive models. You wont get the disc brakes, and you have to add clipless pedals if thats what you prefer, but you still get a bike with superior performance.

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The GT XCR 4000 ($1,087) is a great bargain for the GT XCR technology. The dual-suspension frame features something they call an i-Drive, which tries to solve the problem of losing energy to your rear suspension. While providing 4.6 inches of rear travel, the rear suspension isnt as active when pedaling. Go for a test ride to see how it works.

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The Specialized FSR Enduro Comp ($1,400) just looks ready for adventure. The front and rear fenders add to the look that this bike could go anywhere. The classy dual-suspension frame rides like a dream, and it includes a feature that allows you to adjust the head angle to suit your ride. And with disc brakes, youll be able to stop no matter what you ride on.

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At first glimpse, the Cannondale F900SX ($1,800) looks like its missing something. On closer examination, you realize that its Cannondales Lefty fork, a radical one-legged fork design thats getting rave reviews. But the fork is only part of what makes this bike memorable. This hard-tail aluminum frame is one of the best available.

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The Gary Fisher Supercaliber ($2,500) is a great racing bike with top-of-the-line components. The Genesis aluminum frame design features short chainstays, which help to maintain traction on uphills. For riders looking for a quality hardtail, this bike is tough to beat. Added bonus: room for three water-bottle mounts to help keep you hydrated.

Road

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The Specialized Allez A1 Sport ($1,140) offers a great aluminum frame with 18-speed Shimano 105 components. Its a great bike for someone getting into road racing or more serious road riding, with the same frame as their more expensive models.

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The LeMond Buenos Aires ($1,530) comes standard with the double front chainring or with the triple for an extra 30 bucks. Either way, you get the comfort of the Reynolds steel frame in this American version of a traditional European design.

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While not as pricey as its better known sibling the Paramount, the Schwinn Peleton ($1,630) offers a solid ride and good value. The steel-framed Peleton offers the same geometry of the Paramount, with 18-speed Shimano 105 components and Ritchey Pro Wheels.

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The Jamis Eclipse ($2,000) offers a lot of what youd find in a more expensive racing bike in a solid, steel-framed find. The Shimano Ultegra components and Mavic Helium wheels highlight this package that will be turning heads of racers this year.

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You can get Cannondales best road frame in the R2000 ($2,167) the same one used by Team Saeco/Cannondalewithout the pro price tag. Cannondales well-known aluminum frame comes with 18- or 27-speed Shimano Ultegra components and offers a very responsive ride.

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Did you watch Lance Armstrongs victory at last years Tour de France? The Trek 5200 ($2,620) features the same OCLV carbon-fiber frame that the US Postal Service Team rode to victory. With either 18- or 27-speed Shimano Ultegra components and the lightest production frame in the world, the 5200 offers a comfortable ride with stable handling.

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