How to always select the right bike
November 23rd 2019
After years of thinking about it, you’re finally getting a new bike. Not a hand-me-down clunker or the cheapest bike you can find, but a good, reliable bike that’s a perfect match for your needs.
What are those needs, and where do you start? Here’s a quick guide.
1. Riding style: What type of rider are you?
There is no single correct riding style. How we ride is as different as the types of bikes we choose to ride. Which position looks more comfortable to you?
With the exception of the step-through frame for the last bike, other elements of riding style–like the reach (or lean forward), bar height, and seat type–can be adapted to your riding style with most bikes. But it’s important to know your end goal from the start.
2. Purpose: How will you use your new bike?
Just like there are driving differences among a sporty convertible, a multi-purpose SUV and a rugged off-road vehicle, the main uses for a bike uses can be thought of in the same three ways:
• Narrow tires for minimum resistance on roads.
• Five possible hand positions on bars for minimum shoulder and back fatigue on long rides.
• Lowest hand position is highly aerodynamic for maximum speed.
• May have too much forward lean for some riders, especially those with back issues.
• High-pressure tires require regular inflating to avoid pinch flats.
• Narrow tires have minimal surface area and may not grip in wet and grimy conditions.
• Ridable on nearly all roads and paths, with a wide range of gearing for all terrains.
• Good for hauling equipment or carrying/stopping with a lot of weight.
• Higher hand position helps with back or neck issues.
• Single hand/shoulder position makes a rider’s shoulders tired after about 60 miles in a day.
• Wider wheels and tires make the bike heavier than a road bike.
• Lack of knobby tires makes the bike less effective than a mountain bike on steep, muddy slopes.
• Can run at low tire pressures for maximum grip on any terrain.
• Have a front shock to take the impact out of jumps and path obstacles.
• Gearing is optimized for extreme climbing.
• Heavy, knobby tires create friction and are tiring when ridden for long distances.
• Front shocks add at least two pounds to the bike.
• Gearing is not suited to fast, long rides on pavement.
3. Convenience: How well can you move your bike?
How much value you get out of your bike investment depends on how much you use your bike. And that largely depends upon how convenient it is to move around.
Weight. The more your bike weighs, the more work you’ll need to do on hills. The ideal weight that you’re looking for depends upon what your bike is made of, and what you’re using it for; a thin-tire road bike will weigh much less than a thick-tire mountain bike. From lowest to highest, here are some good general targets for non-electric bikes:
• Carbon fiber or titanium: 17 lbs to 25 lbs
• Aluminum: 22 lbs to 32 lbs
• Steel: 25 lbs to 35 lbs
If the bike you’re considering is at the low end of a range, they’ve done some intensive design and production work to cut that weight. If no weight is listed, that’s a major flag.
A note about electric bikes: When a motor is doing the work, weight sometimes becomes a non-consideration and is often not listed. This is why some electric bikes top the scales at a beefy 70 lbs. (For reference, a bag of cement weighs 60 lbs). Will you ever need to lift this? If you’re looking to keep weight down, a bike can usually be outfitted with a motor and battery for about 15 lbs additional weight.
Portability. A typical bike is about 5 feet long and 2.5 feet wide. How do you get that to good riding places? Where do you put it when you’re not riding?
From most expensive to least, here are four approaches to bike portability. What will you factor into the cost of your new bike?
- Get a vehicle big enough to carry bikes inside. From pickups to SUVs to crossovers, this is a popular way to carry bikes. If you already have one, it’s cheap. If you’re buying one, it’s going to cost you many thousands. This still doesn’t help with storage between rides.
- Get a rack. These attach to a trailer hitch. Depending upon whether you need to add a trailer hitch, this option can cost anywhere from $400-1000. This also doesn’t help with storage.
- Get a “flatten your bike” kit. This combination of folding stem and pop-off pedals turns your bars 90 degrees and removes our pedals in seconds. This helps greatly with storage, but not with transport (although you can fit bikes together easier on a rack). Cost: $125.
- Get a full-size folder. This type of bike looks and rides like a regular bike—all of the bikes shown above are full-size folders—but folds in half to fit in any car trunk, apartment, or cubicle. Flatbike has these in road, rugged hybrid, and MTB versions at equivalent prices, so the additional cost for portability is close to zero.
4. Gearing: Make your pedaling convenient for your needs.
Once derailleurs appeared on bikes, especially front derailleurs, gears multiplied like rabbits. The lowly 5-speed became the iconic 10-speed simply with a second chainring added in the front. Another sprocket in back (with two chainrings in front) turned the bike into a 12-speed. And a triple chainring turned that into an 18-speed. More speeds, more power!
Today, the focus is going the other direction; how few gear changes can you have and still get the range you need to do what you want? For mountain bikes, that means lots of low gearing (small in front, big in back). For road bikes, lots of fast, high gearing (big in front, small in back). A hybrid needs some of each.
As a general rule, if you’ve got 20 more combinations, you’ll be able to find what you need. And if you’ve got two or fewer chain rings, you won’t need much shifting to get there. If you want more detail, here’s a way to compare gearing range across bikes with different combinations of gears:
- Climbing ability (lower number is better). Divide the teeth on the smallest chainring by the teeth on the largest sprocket in the back. Example: For the CHANGE 812 folding MTB, 24/42 = 0.57, or just over half wheel revolution for each pedal turn.
- Speed ability (higher number is better). Divide the teeth on the largest chainring by the teeth on the smallest sprocket in the back. Example: For the CHANGE 811 folding rugged hybrid, 44/11 = 4, or four wheel revolutions for each pedal turn.
As a final word on shifting, look for indexed shifting, with two levers–one for shifting up, and the other for shifting down. This method of shifting moves the derailleurs from gear to gear in a smooth click, eliminating that old grind of being half in gear, and is one of the most popular upgrades to older bikes.
5. Sizing: Fit your bike to your body.
When finding the right size bike for you, some dimensions can be changed. Others cannot. It’s important to know the difference.
- Top bar height: This is the measurement from the floor of the top bar, typically 5 inches forward of the seat—where you would land if you jumped off. This cannot be changed. You always want the height of this bar to be less than your standing height (inseam to floor). If in doubt, go with a smaller frame.
- Frame size: Frames are sized by the seat tube. This distance really doesn’t mean anything, since the seat height can be changed so easily, but with a good fit table, this notation is an effective way to list different sizes of frames.
- Reach: This is the distance from the seat to the bars. Frame size affects it, but you can also change it later with different selections in stem or handlebars.
- Seat height: This is easily changed. You want your seat to be at a height where you are just on the balls of your feet when sitting on the seat. Then, when you are riding, your legs will be at the perfect angle to apply force to the pedals.
If you are in a bike shop for an in-person fit, you’ll want to stand over a bike frame and check for appropriate top tube height. Also lean forward to grab the bars and see if the reach is appropriate for you. A salesperson or technician should be able to offer guidance about any necessary customization.
If you are ordering online, a good fit table should tell you which is the appropriate size frame to order. If you already know what type of rider you are from the illustrations above, this will also provide useful guidance about any stem changes to match your riding style with the specifics of the bike you are considering.
Whichever method, riding style, and bike type you select, remember…this is your bike. Adapt it to your needs, not the other way around, and you’ll have the bike of your dreams.
Bob Forgrave is president of Flatbike, an
ecommerce company offering full-size folding bikes
and kits to make any bike take up half the space.