Thoughts

Complete Guide To Buying a New Bicycle

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If you’re in the market for a new bike, the available choices can be quite bewildering. This is especially true if you’re new to biking or have not bought a bike in a long time. The new widely available bike categories are proliferating so fast, we’re running out of ideas for what to call them: Hybrid? City? Urban? Asphalt? Cross? Gravel? Adventure? Whatever you call them, most contemporary bikes offer off-the-shelf utility and a versatile range at a reasonable price.

But the question "what is the best bike?" is still best answered by "it's the one that's best for you." Therefore, this guide is less about giving you advice on which type of bike to buy, and more about arming you with information so that you can make the best choice for you.

What this guide is NOT

This guide is not going to help you if you’re looking for a highly specialized bike to use for any kind of racing, competition or endurance event. Rather it is a no-nonsense compilation of our many years’ experience of helping customers find the right bike for their needs. We hope it will help you too find a lifestyle bike that you may want to use around Chicago for transportation, recreation, adventures or riding with your family.

Should you buy a new bike?

Bicycles are quite durable, so if you already own a bike, you may be trying to decide if you should really be getting a new one, or if it makes sense to keep the old one going a little longer. We have these conversations with customers all the time, and we’ve compiled the salient points into this summary:

Fix the Old or Buy the New?

Lifestyle and use considerations

Try to anticipate where and how often you will be using your bike. Think about how the bike will be used. Some questions that may help you along:

  • Will it be a dedicated urban bike, or will it double your vacation or adventure companion? If it’s a bike that has to serve multiple uses, you probably want something more versatile than a single-speed.

  • Will you ride strictly on pavement, or on unpaved trails as well? Choose a bike with tires that are suitable for a variety of surfaces.

  • Will you wear a skirt or carry children? You may consider a step-through frame that won’t force you do swing your leg over the bike to get on and off.

  • Do you plan to ride in inclement weather, or need to wear professional clothes? Consider a bike with internal gears, a chainguard, and fenders.

  • Will you have to store your bike in a small space or carry it up the stairs? Will you be combining biking with public transit? A folding bike can work very well in these situations.

Types of Bikes

Below we highlight various types of popular bikes with some insight into their best intended use. But don’t get too bogged down with bike categories. These days there is a lot of crossover between different types of bikes, and —with few exceptions— most bikes adapt very well to a variety of uses. Don't be too concerned about the brand either. Within a given price range, most manufacturers of mainstream lifestyle bikes offer comparable value, as far as the quality of the frame and components (This may not apply to specialty manufacturers of higher level, and custom bikes, but that’s not what this guide is about.)

Comfort & Fit

We’ve put together a common sense Guide to Bicycle Fit to help you understand what to look for when test-riding new bikes, and request modifications on a bike you may want to purchase.

How much will it cost?

In an era when most of our purchases are either completely disposable, or expected to become obsolete after a season of use, a quality bicycle is remarkable for its longevity. We’ve talked a lot about the relationship between bicycle price and bicycle value, and we hope these articles will give you some perspective on bike pricing, and how much you should reasonably expect to spend on a bicycle you may enjoy for decades to come.

Deciding to buy

We believe that a successful bicycle purchase is not the end, but the beginning of a relationship.

What's a fair price, and how do you know it's a fair price?

YIKES!!

YIKES!!

Everyone knows that the best way to find out how much something should cost is to ask Mr. Google. It doesn't matter if Nice Bikes Company tells you their Urban Steed model retails for $759. If Mr. Google can find someone advertising it for $699, that's the price you'll fix in your mind. Unless of course you repeat the search a few days later, and there's someone out there who decides to go lower yet. Now, you won't want to pay a penny over $675. You're getting the best deal. That's a good thing, right?

Maybe. It's assuming that an Urban Steed is an Urban Steed is an Urban Steed. But what if it's not? You know, kind of like when you go to your local Fresh Farms store (for those of you not from Chicago, it's like a giant United Nations of farmers' markets) and it’s August, and they have about 17 different types of peaches. A peach is a peach, right? Not so fast! These Georgia peaches are nice and round and rosy, and they're $1.29 a pound, but when you pick one up, it has the suppleness of a coconut. Yikes. However, over here are some Michigan peaches. They're small and kinda yellow. The price tag says and $1.99. What's with that? You walk closer, and gently squeeze. The fruit gives a little, and pushes back, invitingly. At the same time, peachy aroma tickles your nostrils, and before you know it, you've bagged a dozen at top dollar, and -- never mind whatever else you came here to get -- you rush for the register, because you can't wait another minute to sink your teeth into this fragrant, fuzz covered flesh. Mmm-m.

OK, but what does this all have to do with bikes, you're thinking, wiping peach juice off your chin and licking your fingers. And why is the same Urban Steed at Jane's Friendly Bike Shop around the corner $779?!

OK, since you asked.

Even though this Urban Steed pictured in your Google search looks just like the one on the floor at  Jane's store, they may be as different from each other as those peaches you were squeezing at Fresh Farms. Let me underscore the first difference right here: both peaches were there for you to, er... experience. However, while the Google bike is merely an arrangement of pixels on your computer screen, Jane has taken it upon herself to stock the bike at her friendly bike store, so that you can, in fact, touch it, size it up, even give it a test ride.

Before that bike hit the showroom floor, Jane took some trouble to educate herself about her supplier's offerings and put together a balanced purchase order, based on what she expects her potential customers will want to buy. This probably means that she also has other models for you to compare with the Urban Steed. It also probably means that she had to fork over not a small amount of her hard earned money to get this nice-sized order from her vendor. The Google bike will probably be drop-shipped from some warehouse when the faceless clerk on the receiving end of your money presses the appropriate button. You will be told the bike will arrive pre-assembled, to which I can only say: HA!

Meanwhile, to assemble the Urban Steed, Jane has hired a competent mechanic, who has trued the wheels, expertly adjusted the derailleurs and brakes (you know, so that you can safely stop), and ensured that everything is tightened to correct torque. The mechanic may even have corrected some things that the factory or the pre-assembler did improperly (minor fork and frame alignments, thread repair, etc. are not uncommon). Jane may then herself, or with the help of another senior mechanic, safety-check the bike, and correct any remaining issues. (BTW, the three paragraphs I just wrote describing all this are alone worth $25.)

The day you decide to visit Jane's Friendly Bikes Shop and kick the tires on the Urban Steed, she's ready for you. She may consult with you about your biking needs personally, or she may have a knowledgeable salesperson assist you to make sure you get the right frame size, correct saddle position, and comfortable reach to the handlebars. Either way, you're getting good advice, pal. Will your anonymous, button-pushing clerk behind the Google picture do this? NO!!!! Jane and her entire staff are taking their valuable time to circle around you like planets around the sun, and help you make the right choice, and that time is worth something. This is how they make their living.

But why can't they make their living on $675? The other guy does. Look, if you're still not convinced, go and buy the Urban Steed from that anonymous guy. Just do Jane and me a favor: don't come and test-ride it at her store first. OK? If after your purchase the crank arms fall off, or the brakes rub, or the gears skip, Jane will take care of you with a smile at her standard labor rates.

If, on the other hand, you're still with me, let's continue shopping here at Jane's. Now that you've decided to take the Urban Steed home with you, she will have some really great suggestions about other accessories or upgrades you may want to add to get the most out of your bike purchase. Sure, she wants to make more money (isn't that why you have a job too?), but she also wants to make sure you don't drive off into the sunset only to realize you have no way to lock up your bike. So trust her, for heaven's sake. She'll most likely also include follow-up maintenance service for a period of time with your bike purchase.

It turns out that Mr. Google may not have all the answers. Price comparisons are meaningless unless you also compare the full value of the item being sold. To many casual consumers, a bicycle is a bicycle, and they don’t give more than a passing thought to bicycle assembly. But bicycles are fundamentally different from any other commonly purchased retail product. Unlike jeans, books, or even Ikea furniture, they require thorough, professional assembly to function properly and safely. An internet or mass merchant bike may seem like a bargain, until you add the cost of assembling, correcting improper assembly, and follow-up maintenance. Like Jane, we have been doing this for a long time, and that’s why service and value are part of every bicycle purchase you make with us.

2018 Interbike Impressions: The Bad and the Ugly

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Last week, we summarized the best trends we saw at the annual Interbike trade show: cargo bikes, adventure bikes, bikes made-to-order, and efforts to raise professionalism standards among bicycle technicians.

Unfortunately, not everything about our industry is uniformly encouraging. There are many things that could use improvement, and a few that need an overhaul. So, without ado…

The Bad and the Ugly

Like many others, the cycling industry is in the midst of trying to adapt to a shifting marketplace. Not only have we been mired in a long period of stunted growth, we are facing a tremendous challenge in the form of new tariffs on almost all products (helmets being the notable exceptions) coming from China. We can debate all day long whether relying on Chinese imports is good or bad. Perhaps we should work to change it, but —at present— it’s simply the reality of the American marketplace. And anything that leads to increased pricing in an industry that is less than booming is a cause for grave concern.

Not enough cohesion

So, in my naivete, I was kinda hoping for the bicycle industry to come together and rally around some common causes. Personally, I was encouraged that, after decades of being staged in Vegas, Interbike finally relocated to Reno, with quicker and better access to recreational areas of unsurpassed beauty. How disappointing that the vast majority of the industry’s major players elected to sit out! Trek has long stopped attending trade shows. But absent this year were virtually ALL major bicycle companies, including our mainstay Kona.

Not enough true support for the Independent Bicycle Dealer

I can’t help but conclude that these companies simply don’t place enough value on their relationships with those of us who actually sell their products to consumers. True, a number of those companies, including Kona, host dealer events at their own facilities and on their own dime. However, such events (a) require retailers to travel to several different locations at different times, rather than having everything under one roof, and (b) are often by-invitation only, and smaller shops often get bypassed in favor of larger-volume players. We are expected to project our purchases for the upcoming season, taking considerable financial risk, without the opportunity to preview the products we’ll be selling.

Too much money being pumped into e-bikes

E-bikes are clearly a growing market that’s here to stay, but there are way too many players fighting over what is still a relatively small slice of the pie. E-assist is a terrific option in some applications, especially cargo bikes. However, the industry is making the “me-too” mistake of adding e-assist to virtually everything, which results in skyrocketing number and variety of products pumped into the marketplace, before a solid customer base to support those products is in place.

This is bewildering not only to consumers, but to bicycle store personnel as well, and makes it difficult to know which products to stock and recommend, and which of the rapidly proliferating companies are going to be around in a few years to continue to offer support for their product.

… and “enthusiast” categories.

Actually, this “me-too” approach is nothing new in the bike industry. While it makes sense that new trends (fat bikes, gravel and endurance racing, bikepacking, etc.) drive innovation, the enthusiasts who fully participate in those categories and purchase high-end products are relatively few. Nevertheless, such trends result in rapid proliferation within those enthusiast product categories, while the needs of everyday and lifestyle cyclists go largely unmet. This is why I believe cargo bikes and bikes for everyday adventures have been so well-received: they answer the needs of individuals and families who are not looking to enter races or endurance events, but simply seek to do more of their transportation and recreation locally and without a car.

Not enough emphasis on kids bikes

For an industry that’s always crying about dwindling ridership, the bicycle industry does a woefully pathetic job of developing, showcasing and promoting children’s bikes. With the exception of a handful of specialty companies, such a Cleary, Frog, Woom Bikes and the like (for whom it may be financially prohibitive to exhibit at Interbike), few bicycle manufacturers give more than passing attention to developing future riders (riders, NOT racers!). Unfortunately, partly because of economies of scale, and partly because of quality, these few specialty companies don’t deliver products that meet most parents’ expectations of what kids’ bikes should cost. On the other hand, the large established bike companies seem more interested in chasing and investing R&D dollars in the uber-enthusiasts, who arguably represent only a minuscule segment of the cycling public, rather than on fostering future generations of every-day cyclists.

We would welcome at least a portion of that investment going instead to developing lighter, and still affordable, children’s bikes with more attention paid to proper fit across a wider range of ages, particularly for pre-teens who fall in the uneasy area between 24” juvenile bikes and adult bikes, and for whom it is notoriously difficult to find a well-fitting, well-priced bicycle.

Deplorably poor marketing of the value of the bicycle

Finally — and this goes back to the splintering of the industry I mentioned at the beginning — we seem to be more interested in promoting particular agendas than in coming together as a whole to promote common interests of the industry.

I have worked in the bicycle industry for 25 years, and tried to (and watched many others trying to) maintain a viable business at 35% margin on bicycles. Almost everyone in the bike industry agrees that this margin is not sustainable, particularly since most independent bike shops can’t make up for low margins with higher volume, and since many bikes end up being sold at a discount. So we supplement with accessories, parts and labor, all of which command higher margins. In the end, and under the best circumstances, those who keep a neat house can make a living wage and a small profit.

However, there’s a problem with this model. The cost of living has gone up, while the same is not true of bike prices. With the rise of online selling in particular, manufacturers who distribute bikes through conventional channels scramble to compete on price and drive the average price of a bicycle down. It doesn’t take a math whiz to figure out that 35% margin on a lower price bike yields fewer dollars than the same margin on a higher price bike, and we’re not selling more of the lower priced bikes to make up the dollar shortfall.

As a result, we’re trying to sustain our businesses with lower margin dollars (on average), while the cost of virtually everything — rent, utilities, wages, insurance, credit card processing, etc. — has gone up. In know I’m repeating myself when I say that, yes, bike manufacturers continue to produce higher priced bicycles for the enthusiast, but we have not done a very good job of convincing the everyday consumer and the novice rider of the true value of a quality built and quality assembled bicycle. Almost every day during the season we have turned away a consumer looking for a <$300 bicycle.

The solution is NOT making more <$300 bikes. That is simply an unrealistic expectation of what a safe and durable bicycle should cost, and what a reputable bike store can sustainably sell. No one expects to buy a $100 full-featured smart phone. Similarly, the average consumer should be aware that a respectable everyday bicycle should command the price of somewhere between $750-1000.

Yes, it’s a hefty price tag. But consider that a quality bicycle is a versatile, environmentally friendly vehicle for both pleasure and utility, an exercise machine, is supremely economical and efficient to operate, and, in the era of planned obsolescence, is remarkable for its sheer longevity. Marketing something based on its lifetime value rather than the newest technological innovation may not be sexy, but marketing on value and setting proper consumer expectations may result in not losing those consumers to Walmart, or turning them away from cycling entirely.