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Bike buying 101

The basics of shopping for a new (or used!) bike

2015 Biking Guide 

May is a busy time of year for Minneapolis’ bicycle shops, when even on a rainy weekday afternoon there’s a steady stream of customers pushing through the door of Penn Cycle’s shop on Lake Street.

If they’re looking for new bikes — and with months of fair cycling weather ahead, many are — store manager Tim Larson will typically open with the same two questions: What are you going to use it for? And how often do you plan to ride?

Oh, and one more: “Do you want to spend $500 or $10,000?”

Yes, you’ve probably seen bikes for sale at the big-box retailers for under $150 — cheaper than almost any new or even used adult bike goes for in a dedicated bicycle shop. And if you’re going to store that bike at the cabin and ride it once or twice a summer, maybe that’s good enough.

Just don’t expect to commute to work on that bike, cautioned Dave Bruning, a sales associate at Freewheel Bike’s West Bank store, because it could quickly push the cheaper parts to the breaking point.

“Those components aren’t designed for the wear and tear of everyday riding,” Bruning said.

The selection of quality bikes, expert advice and the chance to test-ride a few different models — essential to finding the right bicycle — are what set the bike shops apart from the big boxes.

“We’re going to make sure the bike is fit to you and adjusted to you and ready to ride when you go out the door,” Bruning said.

Selecting a style

“This is your really nice ‘just a bike,’” Larson said, pulling out a Trek FX 7.3 with a light, all-aluminum frame. “You can do 5 miles around the lake or you can do a 30- to 40-mile ride pretty easily.”

For many riders, that’s plenty, and new hybrid-style commuter bikes start around $500 or even a little less. There are plenty of commuter-bike options that offer a more comfortable, upright riding style, including the Electra Loft for sale at Penn Cycle, but just keep in mind they’re less suited to longer rides, Larson said.

Sleek road bikes and burly mountain bikes are designed for specific and very different types of riding. At the low end, a decent road bike can be had for as little as $600 or $700, and Larson said the break point for a good mountain bike is typically around $1,000.

Options for both the tank-like fat tire bicycles and cyclocross bikes — basically road bikes reengineered for off-road riding — also start around $1,000.

But don’t forget why you’re buying a bike in the first place and how you plan to use it. A road bike that sails on a century ride isn’t going to be as comfortable on a 2-mile commute, and a mountain bike’s stubby tires could feel slow on paved streets, Larson said.

Fit and feel

Once you know what style of bike you’re shopping for, the best thing to do is try a variety of bikes in that category.

“You’ve got to try a couple of different brands,” Bruning said, because different brands manufacture frames with different geometries. You may have had your eye on a Trek but then test ride a Giant that feels more comfortable, or vice versa.

“You put those two side-by-side and it shows you where you want to be,” Bruning said.

What’s the frame made of? Steel, titanium, aluminum and carbon fiber frames all vary in weight and cost, but their different attributes also affect the feel of the bike on the road. For instance: steel is heavier but has some shock-absorbing qualities, while cheaper and lighter aluminum makes for a stiffer ride.

Brakes, shifters, derailleurs and other bicycle components are a major factor in the feel of a bicycle, and all come in a range of options. Top-of-the-line components can catapult a high-end bike’s price into the stratosphere, but those lightening-fast gearshifts are worth it to serious riders.

Bruning’s suggestion: Test ride bikes up and down a manufacturer’s line to get a sense of what separates the components at different price points.

Used vs. new

There’s new, and then there’s new-to-you. At Recovery Bike Shop in Northeast, mechanics refurbish somewhere between 600 and 800 bicycles each year, and usually by late spring they’re close to sold out, owner Brent Fuqua said.

“Most of the bikes in here do the same job,” Fuqua said, and it’s this: getting riders from point A to point B on city streets and paved trails over mostly flat terrain — which is 99.9 percent of what most bicyclists encounter within Minneapolis city limits, give or take.

If that’s what you want, you could buy one of Recovery’s used bikes instead of a new bicycle and save a couple hundred bucks. But it’s not all about saving money at Recovery; for many shoppers, it’s the retro style and cushier ride of vintage lugged-steel frames, something they’re willing to purchase at a premium.

“It’s about the aesthetic,” Fuqua said. “It’s about the way they built them then.”

Just keep in mind: If you’re buying a bicycle from the ’70s or ’80s, they typically come with components several decades out of date. That means no disc brakes and slower gear changes, but many riders are fine with that.

“It’s a different riding style,” Fuqua said. “You just don’t shift (gears) as much.”