How to buy a bike on the Internet
November 16th 2022
So now you need a bicycle–and not just any bike. Maybe you know exactly what you want, or maybe you know just the reason why you’re buying it, and what exactly bike will meet those needs still needs some clarity. Can you buy a good bike safely on the Internet?
The answer is Yes–with some preparation.
First, congratulations on doing your internet research first. The more questions you can answer upfront, the better match your bike will be for you . . . as long as you don’t slip into analysis paralysis. And that’s where we can help, separating actual decision factors from the many ways an internet search process can end up in random birdwalks through jargon and technical concepts that–while accurate at some level–don’t actually affect the decision process.
This article covers:
- The five big questions every bike purchaser should ask.
- Putting your answers to use.
- The basics of bike sizing.
- Choosing a reputable dealer.
- Terms for non-techies.
- Terms for techies.
The five big questions every bike purchaser should consider first.
Ultimately, when you’re buying a quality bike, you’re not really buying just a bicycle. You’re buying into the concept of great riding experiences and low maintenance. And that process starts with your own expectations. Even with no knowledge of modern bicycles or components, you should be able to answer these five big questions early in your search:
1. “What do great riding experiences look like to me?” In your mind, you already have images of success–and your ideas of success may be entirely different from those of other bike riders. That’s OK. This is your goal, so your answer is the “right” one for you. Which of these appeals most to you?
- Bike commuting to and from work and never having to drive to the gym (or pay for one).
- Relaxed riding in scenic, relaxing areas with beautiful vistas and no cars.
- Amazing vistas in the mountains that I have to work for (before descending at high speed).
- Secondary transportation to carry stuff easily to and from my RV or boat.
2. “Where do I want to ride?” This is partly a natural follow-up to Question 1, but it gets to what type of tires your bike will have, and maybe what gearing. Mountain tires will be wider and knobbier for more grip; Road tires will be narrower and smoother for more efficiency.
- Mountains and other off-road experiences.
- Rolling hills and gravel trails.
- Anything that avoids hills or gearing.
- Anything that keeps me on paved roads.
3. “Who am I as a rider?” This question is about comfort–both physical comfort (back, arms, wrists, neck) and your mental relationship with speed.
- Speed is not important. I prefer to sit as upright as possible and be comfortable.
- Speed isn’t very important. I prefer to be generally upright with some weight resting on my arms to relax my back.
- Speed is sometimes important. I like to lean forward at times and ride aggressively.
- I like to push my limits. I need to be aerodynamic or I can’t be my fastest.
4. “Why am I getting a bike now?” As kids, we often get a bike just because we’re at that age when getting a bike is the thing to do. When we come back later, it’s with a purpose in mind.
- I need effective, low-cost exercise, and bikes are great for that.
- I need low-cost transportation. The more I can replace my car and gas/parking/maintenance, the better.
- I need more excitement in my life, so I’m going to enjoy new places on a bike.
- My friends are doing this. If I had a bike (like theirs), I could join them (with their type of riding).
5. “How will my bike fit into my life?” This is an often overlooked part of bike ownership, until there’s a need to carry your bike around, or your bike gets stolen. You’ll want to keep it convenient for your intended usage, but inconvenient for bike thieves. You may have multiple answers:
- It needs to go places in/on my car.
- It needs to come inside at night for security.
- It needs to fit into tight spaces for storage or transportation.
- It needs to be rugged enough to deal with bad roads/heavy loads/me.
Putting your answers to use.
Now let’s talk bikes. Finally! Here are four general types and their usages.
Mountain bike (MTB)
A true off-road mountain bike is designed for both climbing and descents–low gearing for getting up steep inclines, and front shocks for absorbing hard impacts and maintaining control on the way back down. Knobby tires help MTBs grip dirt, gravel and rocks both uphill and down.
Road or gravel bike
Many folks treat a gravel bike as halfway between a road bike and a mountain bike, because it shares components from both worlds. But road bikes and gravel bikes are more similar than the hype indicates. (For example, the first gravel bike world championship was won by . . . a road bike.) The important things here are the drop bars for aggressive, lean-forward riding, and the brakes and shifting systems that result from that bar choice).
Halfway in-between road and mountain bikes is the hybrid bike. It combines all-around gearing like a road bike with the straight bar of a mountain bike, making it equally at home on rolling dirt and gravel trails or on fast, smooth pavement. If you like occasional speed with more upright riding, this is a good mix.
A comfort bike is never about speed. The goal is to ride completely upright and relaxed, with a larger seat to take over the added weight when arm support approaches zero. This style is often used with few gears in flat places like the Netherlands or Denmark. (This particular bike was a folding one-speed we built for a customer in the Marshall Islands.)
The basics of bike sizing.
Ultimately, sizing is about fitting your bike to you, both physically and the way you ride.
But even at the same height, not all riders are the same proportions; some may have longer legs and and a longer torso, while others have the proportions reversed. There is a correct bike for everyone. Getting to it requires more than just a measurement from the top of your head.
At Flatbike, we use Height and Inseam. Height gets you in the ballpark for what is likely be your bike size, and Inseam offers a maximum height of the top bar. Our first goal here is to keep you from ever having a Bad Day–defined as the moment when you jump off the seat in the front and meet the top tube before your feet hit the ground. Oof! Never happening at Flatbike.
Does this get you to a perfect fit 100% of the time? Not quite. It gets you within the adjustability zone of a perfect fit every time. While the height and length of a bike frame can’t be altered, the height and length of your interactions with it can be. Cycling experts call this “dialing in” the fit.
Ways to adjust the height of your bike:
- At the seat: Raise or lower the seat height by opening/closing a clamp.
- At the handlebars: Raise or lower the handlebars by moving compression rings above or below the stem, adding an angled stem, or in more significant cases, adding a vertical riser under the stem.
Ways to adjust the length of your bike:
- At the seat: Slide the seat forward or backward on the rails, using a hex wrench.
- At the handlebars: Move the bars forwards or backwards with a shorter or longer stem.
Two technical terms you’ll sometimes hear are Stack (frame height) and Reach (frame length). Except…those terms are just about frames–the height and length of the frame itself, before adding seat, handlebars, or even the wheels. While these describe a lot about the dimensions of the frame, and how a new frame compares to a frame on an existing bike of yours, they provide zero guidance about whether a bike will actually fit you well.
Hence . . . Height and Inseam for Flatbike. If you need higher bars to sit upright more, you won’t be getting a different frame and causing inseam problems; you’ll be adjusting the front height of your bike with variables like an angled stem or vertical riser.
Choosing a reputable internet bike dealer.
The internet may have all levels of business quality, but you can also get a lot of information about a dealer’s reputation with just a few quick checks:
Is there a physical presence?
If not, the company could be drop-shipping from another country, with only a shared warehouse presence for stuff before it gets moved to customers. Look for a location in the real world that is bigger than a post office box, along with contact information by e-mail and phone. Social media is great too, although that can be run from anywhere on the internet.
Reputable businesses don’t sell your data to other companies. It’s just wrong.
What do other people say about the dealer?
First, any e-commerce company out there should have some published customer feedback on the internet. If not, that’s a red flag right there. But what kind of reviews are they? Is it a bunch of glowing 5-star reviews culled from the company’s self-hosted internal rating system, or completely transparent ratings from a company like TrustPilot?
Another good source of independent customer feedback is the Better Business Bureau.
How does the internet bike dealer demonstrate customer focus?
There are so many ways to do this, it’s hard to know where to start. Here are several:
- a commitment to timely resolution of product/buyer mismatches, such as a 30-day moneyback guarantee.
- Some effort to discount shipping and not make more money off of it.
- Standing behind bikes with a warranty and post-purchase service.
- Some public dedication to quality work processes, such as a published quality checklist.
That last item may require some additional description, as it’s important but not very common. At Flatbike, we won’t ship a bike until we have completed the following 16-point quality check:
1. Check for scratches, dents & scuffs (frame, wheels, fork).
2. Test operation of both folding locks (top and bottom of seat tube).
3. Unpack CHANGE bike accessories, check for all expected items, including CHANGE manual, warranty, and carrying case.
4. Inventory and prep any add-on components:
- Carbon downtube protector
- Seat bag for pedals
- Hex wrench set
- Flat-resistant tires
- Rear rack
- Rear rack adapter
- Bottle holder
- Folding stem
5. Add axle to front wheel and spin on frame.
6. Turn bars to right and check for free-spinning wheel (cable length test).
7. Pump tires (and air shocks, if MTB) and check for tire leaks.
8. Verify crank arm tightness.
9. Lube pedal latches and verify tightness.
10. Test front and rear brakes for tightness and rub.
11. Verify tightness of rear wheel.
Check & adjust shifting operation on all gear settings.
13. Assemble seat & post. Insert for fit.
14. Perform vertical stress test for frame creaks and fork tightness.
15. Test operation of shocks (Mountain bikes only)
16. Repackage for secure shipping.
That’s a lot of work! But the end result is less work for you and a better overall riding experience.
Does the internet bike dealer have a specific area of expertise?
This is nuanced, but self-evident when you think about it. In the physical world, who would you expect to offer a better bike-fitting experience: a big-box department store that sells sporting equipment that includes bikes and bike-shaped objects, or a bike store that sells only quality bikes?
Similarly, if you have two e-commerce shops focused on cycling equipment, and one is Mega House O’ Bikes (Supersale on now!) while the other is focused on specific customer issues and needs, that second one will do a better job of fitting your new bike to your life.
At Flatbike, for example, we focus on rugged, full-size folding bikes. If you ever wanted to enjoy a mountain bike, gravel bike, or hybrid without leaving it outside your house, car, truck or RV at night or when you’re transporting it . . . that’s our expertise for solving customer needs. And surprise! Every bike shown in this article can fold in half for easy storage and transportation.
Terms for non-techies.
Decades after it was drawn, this typogram of a 1980’s 10-speed by Aaron Kuehn is still the best description we’ve ever seen of the specific parts of a bicycle. It provides a quick shorthand of terminology so cycling novices and cycling aficionados can use a common language.
The more you look at it, the more you understand why people ask basic techie questions. Stem length? That’s about how far forward you’re leaning. Chainstay length? That’s about how much room you have between rear-mounted pannier bags and your heels as the pedals come around.
Terms for techies.
This is just a glossary, not a frame geometry analysis. Once you get into the analytics of one frame over another, pre and post-components, you can spend a long time here. All of these terms have their uses in frame design, but in aggregate they add complexity the bike decision process, rather than simplifying it.
But first, where it all starts . . . the Geometry table: A table that quantifies many common variables among frames (often while leaving out others).
The big 9 bike geometry terms and what they really mean.
Use these terms sparingly, to solve specific riding issues. In case of analysis paralysis, seek professional help:
- Bottom bracket height: Distance from the center of the crank to the ground. Can help determine if your pedal will hit the ground on pedaling turns (if so, get a shorter crank arm, frame with a higher bottom bracket, or just don’t pedal in the middle of crazy-sharp turns).
- Effective top tube: How long the top tube would be if it weren’t so slanted on MTBs and modern road bikes. It’s an attempt to make the bike conform to a rectangle. Later replaced by Reach. This outdated term is in here to remind folks that actual tube length (for any tube) isn’t as useful as others might think. People have been looking for alternatives for a while…
- Head tube angle: The angle between horizontal and your head tube (in theory), as measured from behind. In practice, with tapered head tubes, it’s best to measure from the top of the fork, above the frame. Shallower (slacker) angles are easier to steer; larger angles are more responsive. But all of this is meaningless if the fork is heavily curved or angled forward (called fork offset), simulating a slacker headtube.
- Reach: The horizontal distance between the center of the bottom bracket and the center of the top of the headtube, at the theoretical spot where it intersects the horizontal line. This common frame term isn’t at all people-focused, so “Reach+” and “Handlebar Reach” are starting to represent the vertical distance in a human-relatable way.
- Seat tube angle: The angle between the seat tube and horizontal, as measured from the back. The lower the angle, the more the seat and rider weight move back–very important for downhill racers! For the rest of us, the Seat Tube Angle is reminder that we’re measuring Reach from the bottom bracket, not anything seat-related; so the smaller the angle, the less a quantified Reach is a useful proxy for human reach from the seat.
- Stack: The vertical (height) distance between the center of the bottom bracket an the top of the head tube. This common term isn’t at all people-focused, so “Stack+” and “Handlebar Stack” are starting to represent the vertical distance in a human-relatable way. Still in the absence of wheels, though…
- Stand-over height: The vertical distance between the ground and the top tube as measured . . . somewhere. This came so close to being really useful. At Flatbike, we measure the stand-over height 5 inches (13 cm) forward of the seat tube junction–about where a rider would land when slipping off the seat to the front. And call it “Inseam”, to keep it people-focused.
- Trail: Not that kind of trail. This is about fork design. You know how the front wheels of a shopping cart automatically know which way to turn with the cart? That’s Trail. Basically it’s the same focus as Head Tube Angle, but reversed; more Trail is easier to steer and track on rough ground, while less Trail is more responsive (until it gets twitchy).
- Wheelbase: The distance between the two tires touching the ground. It’s like the length of a kayak. A longer one keeps going the same direction better; a shorter one turns faster.
Put all these together, and what they primarily tell you is whether a bike frame is likely to be smooth and self-steering or responsive and hyper-steerable. Did we miss anything?
And…that’s a wrap. If you’re buying a bike on the internet, then know why you’re buying it, know your height and inseam, and choose a reputable dealer with a history of customer focus. And if you have questions, ask them. You’ll do fine. Easy peasy.
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.