How to Buy a Decent Bike (No Homework Required)

Four simple things to consider before you get to the bike shop

Among the things that are possible in life is the act of going into a bike shop and coming out with your first road bike without knowing a bottom bracket from a crank arm.

While frequent visitors think bike shops smell like new tires and chain grease, most first-timers smell the distinct whiff of intimidation. That’s normal, but it doesn’t have to be. The fact is, it’s more important to know about your psychology than it is to know about, say, the vertical compliance of carbon tubing.

Here’s what to know before you go into a shop:

1. What do you want to do on your bike? Are you a first-time rider who wants to finish a few sprint triathlons a year, or are you looking to ride century rides and be a little competitive about it? “No bike shop owner knows this,” says Erin Sprague, women’s product manager at Specialized. “The shop can help you with the technical details. But only you understand what drives you and what kind of experience you’re seeking.”

2. Do you like to tinker with things? There’s always confusion around whether you want a fancy bike that you’ll “grow into” or a more entry-level model. And there’s no single answer. A good way to help yourself make the decision is to consider how you feel about tinkering. “Think about what’s more valuable to you: Investing upfront to have a machine that will serve you for a while, or having something that you can upgrade later and reinvest in,” says Sprague. If you like to fiddle with things, then you may want to spend more on a frame and upgrade the components (shifters, wheels, etc.) once you get more invested in the sport.

3. Who will you be riding with? “Cycling isn’t an individual sport, and for most people, the desire to have a bike is peer driven,” says Dan Thornton, chairman of the board of the National Bicycle Dealers Association and co-founder of Free-Flite Bicycles in Georgia. So when you go into a shop, it’s worth knowing what your buddies are riding. “If they’re on $3,000 road bikes and ride 50 or 60 miles, the last thing you’ll want to do is be on a hybrid bike. I’m not trying to sell someone a more expensive bike, but they’d be at a huge disadvantage if they did that. You’d have to be one heck of an athlete to keep up with your friends.” Of course, you don’t have to spend what they do. Plenty of great bikes come in at half that or less. But when the shop knows what you’re up against, they can help guide you to the right ride for you.

Just be aware that one bike can’t do it all. “Unfortunately, there’s not one bike that can get you on a fast group ride as well as have you ride on the trails by your home and commute to work,” he says. Think about what you want to do most, and let that guide you.

4. How much do you want to spend? You don’t have to lay out $10,000 to get a good bike (but of course, you can if you have it). What do you get for more money? In a sweeping generalization, you get a bike that’s more efficient, meaning more of your effort gets translated into speed.

There’s no magic number other than the one you come up with. Have a feel for how much you want to invest, and realize that “investing in equipment also empowers your ride,” Sprague points out. Factor into that spend the cost of a helmet, padded shorts, and gloves as well as clipless pedals and shoes, if you’re going that route.

And be sure to save about $150 or $200 of that outlay for a bike fitting. Having a bike that works with your specific build is critical to your having a good experience riding it. “People assume that their neck and back should hurt because it’s part of a new sport,” says Thornton. “But those pains and others don’t need to happen if you have a good fit.” That $200 can sometimes make the difference between wanting to ride this weekend and wanting to put an ad in the paper to sell the thing.

Most bike owners will tell you that they reached a bit for their first bike, meaning they spent at the top of their range. And they’re not sorry. Thornton agrees, “I don’t ever want to upsell someone, but I do know that people don’t come back to us saying they wish they had bought less of a bike than they did.”

That said, if you really want to go to the shop armed with every technical detail in the book, you can. Or you can save that for your second, third, and fifth bikes. “With cycling, the growth never ends. You can go faster, you can go longer, or you can try different types of riding,” says Sprague. “First, you need a bike that fits and is safe that can power the incredible sense of discovery that we think cycling offers.”

Of course, the bike buying process is as much about finding a shop you like as it is finding a bike you like, so think about who you want to deal with. Buying a bike is usually the start of a relationship with the shop, not the end of it, because you’ll go back for fit tweaks, equipment, upgrades and maintenance. You don’t have to rush your decision: According to data from the research firm Leisure Trends Group, the average road bike shopper visits a store four times during the purchase process.