As a junior bike racer in the late 1970s, I worked at the shop that sponsored our club. Like most shops at the time, Maple Ridge Cycles carried road bikes—called "10-speeds" back then—and kids' bikes, and nothing in between. I earned enough money to buy a Nishiki Landau bike with Weinmann clinchers and promptly rode away from everyone in the club century. I was on cloud nine.
Of course, walking into a shop these days is a far cry from what it was like even 10 years ago, never mind 30. From the cruiser festooned with glittery objets d'art to the 15-pound road monster, there are more categories, brands and models than ever. Here are some tips that will make the shopping experience less overwhelming.
First, think about why you want to ride, as well as the type of riding you will be doing. Will you pedal on bike paths? Paved or gravel? To work? Only in nice weather or in all conditions? Are you trying to improve your fitness? Pulling your kids in a bike trailer? Would you like to race someday? Write down the answers to these questions and bring them along.
Shop for a Shop
Bike company websites can have an array of confusing terminology—one brand's "comfort bike" could be another's "hybrid." Also, within a single line there are often subtle differences that can make the models difficult to compare. Unless you are an industry product manager, analyzing spec lists down to the hubs and handlebars can become a never-ending and mystifying exercise.
Instead, ask friends, coworkers and cyclists in your area where they bought their last bike. If someone had a good experience at a particular shop, get the name of the employee he or she worked with, then call the store and ask for that person. See if you can set up a time to meet. If you can't make an appointment, try to go during an off-peak time, such as first thing Sunday morning.
Share Your Story
When you get to the shop, the salespeople should ask the same sort of questions you thought about earlier, and depending on your answers, indicate which type of bike would be best for you. If they try to skip or minimize this step and point you straight to a brand, head for the door.
Size and Seats Matter
The number-one reason people don't ride more often is comfort, no matter what level of bike they own. Good shops will have employees who are trained fitters and an area dedicated to fitting customers. Ask if you can try out some different saddles. The most comfortable seat for you may not be the one that comes with your bike. Again, if you're not getting good sizing and fitting assistance, stop the process and move on. Once you find the bike you love, chances are you'll ride more often.
Alex Stieda, the first North American to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour de France, with 7-Eleven in 1986, leads tours and skills camps (stiedacycling.com).