Thursday, October 9, 2014

So you want to ride a bike? First step: Find the right fit.

A friend has asked me to put together some information that would be helpful to someone who is interested in getting into cycling but doesn't really know where to start.  I have been riding bikes for quite some time - really it started in 1985, however there have been periods that I have not really been cycling much.

That being said, I've been consistently cycling since returning to Greenville in 2005.  Started with my mountain bike, then more recently onto a road bike.  Between my wife and I we have 9 bikes.  Some are ridden more than others of course, but they span the range from a vintage Schwinn Tandem to a high end full carbon road bike and includes various other road and mountain bikes.

So, how's that help you, maybe not much right now, but my experience with bikes is what I hope to share with you so you can make some sense out of the whole bicycling scene.  You see, selecting a bike (new or used) starts with finding the right fit.  The right fit is really about three things:
  • Your lifestyle and the type of riding you want to do.
  • How much money you wish to spend (how does the purchase fit your wallet)
  • Your physical size and fitting the proper frame size to you.  
The very first thing I want to encourage is for you to find all of the local bike shops in your area.  Forget about bikes from big box stores (especially from places like Wal-Mart, Target, KMart, etc.) and steer away from even the big box sporting good stores (locally we have Academy Sports, Dick's, etc.).  The key point here is you want to find a place where the people are VERY knowledgeable about bikes.  The local bike shop is your very best source of information and for quality bikes.

1.  Your Lifestyle and type of riding
So, let's get started on fitting you to a bike.  First you need to consider what type of riding you wish to do.  There are a TON of different types or styles of bikes out there, just check out this page from Bicycling Magazine.  I count 28 different styles of bikes on that page!!

However, even with 28 styles of bikes, you can still create a smaller number of groupings.  Clearly, even Bicycling Magazine has broken it down to a certain extent.  Just within the Road and Mountain categories are a total of 18 specific styles.

Since this post is intended for a new rider who's interested in getting fit, I'm going to try to keep it  relatively simple and break it down into only three Categories:  Road, Mountain and Hybrid.

Road Bikes:
Road bikes are generally a skinny tire bike that obviously goes best on the road (and generally quite fast).  Think of Le Tour de France.  While those bikes are true race bikes, most 'roadies' are riding bikes quite similar to what those Pros are riding.  Generally these bikes have a total of 20-22 speeds (gears) and a body forward riding position.  Depending on where you are with your fitness, this body forward riding position may be difficult for you. 

Here's my personal road bike.  While it doesn't fit into Bicycling Magazine's category "Road - Dream", it really is just about my dream bike (Pinarello ROKH):

Bicycling Magazine actually puts that bike in the Road - Plush category.  Why it falls into this category is a good reason for you to go visit your local bike shop - they can help you sort out the many different styles of Road Bikes.  If you are interested in a road bike, read the reviews of the bikes in the "Road - New Rider" category.

The bikes found in this 'New Rider' category are going to have frames mostly of aluminum, but there may be a lower end carbon frame in this bunch.  Component group (see your local bike shop... ;) will be lower to mid range as will wheels, saddle, handlebars etc. 

Getting involved in road riding is pretty easy.  Every local bike shop here in Greenville offers an opportunity for group rides - it's pretty much common everywhere.  They'll have a group ride for just about every level of rider available.  You should also support your local Bicycling club - they are working to make roads safe and to promote bicycling as a mode of transportation, not just for kids.  If you don't know how to find out about a local club.....yes, go talk to the folks at your local bike shop.  They'll point you in the right direction.  

Mountain Bikes:
Another category to consider are the Mountain bikes.  These are 'fat tire' bikes generally with gearing.  Some of these are fully rigid (no suspension) while others may have just a front suspension and then there is a crop of full suspension bikes.  They'll weigh more than a road bike and they won't be near as fast (on the road) but you get that back in comfort.  Of course, these bikes are made to handle off road terrain, so this opens up a whole new experience that Road riding can't touch.  The riding position is generally more upright and the bike will feel quite plush (as compared to a skinny tire road bike) - especially a full suspension bike. 

The variations on mountain bikes are massive.  Today you can get a mountain bike with 26" wheels, 27.5" wheels or 29" wheels.  There are plenty of people who will tell you one is better than another, but read up on the reviews a little and talk to the folks at the bike shop.  They'll help point you in the right direction.  I have three mountain bikes in my personal stable.  Single speed rigid, a front suspension multi geared bike and a full suspension multi-geared bike.  Here's my Surly 1x1 (single speed, rigid) and my full suspension Kona. 

Each bike has it's purpose, and for me it's all just for fun.  For you, the bikes in the mountain bike category (look again for the "Mountain - New Rider" category) will provide a comfortable mount for you to get around town or out on your local trails.  

Take note:  Mountain biking requires a level of skill beyond that needed for riding on the road.  If you choose to buy a mountain bike and wish to take it off road, please check into meeting up with a local IMBA chapter - see this information for a local chapter.  Folks in these organizations frequently offer up group rides and may cater to beginners.  If you don't have a local chapter, well, go talk to the folks at the local bike shop from which you purchased your bike - they'll be able to help you find opportunities to get off road in a location that best matches your ability. 

Hybrid Bikes:
Hybrid bikes are generally more oriented towards the road with skinny(ish) tires, but offer the comfort of an upright seating position.  From the Bicycling Magazine link above, check out the "Commuter and City" bike category. 

These bikes will move quite well on the road and handle some minor dirt or gravel conditions.  Generally these bikes have gears which make getting around much easier.  They'll be easy to attach a rack or a basket and in fact may come with some of this stuff.  Not much more to say about this category except - go see your local bike shop!

2.  How does this bike purchase fit your wallet?
This is a tough question.  Clearly if you go to Walmart or one of those types of stores you can find bikes for extremely cheap.  YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR!!  Please do a little research and purchase a quality bike - the kind that you find at a local bike shop.  You can buy new or used, but the value of quality groupset (shifters, derailleurs, brakes) makes a HUGE difference in how much time (or money) you'll spend on maintenance.  

You can see that bikes in the categories I've linked to above range from about $400 for the lower end bikes in Commuter / City and Mountain Bike new rider categories (about $600 in Road New rider)
and up to about $1400 for Mountain bike new rider, $1900 for Road New Rider and almost $5000 in the commuter / City category. 

Once you find the type of bike you want to ride, look into finding used.  Your local bike shop may have a bulletin board, online bike Forums, Craigslist, e-bay, etc.  All are good sources to find quality used bikes.  If you're not comfortable looking at a bike to asses it's condition, check with your local bike shop to see if they offer a service where they would check the bike out for you.  If someone is selling a quality bike, they should understand if you'd like to have a professional check it out for you.  Always check first with the bike shop, then suggest that the seller meet you there so you can look at and ride the bike. 

3.  Find the right bike frame size for your body. 
I can't stress how important this is.  There are some very detailed measurements that are taken when one goes to a professional bike fitting.  These measurements are intended to help the pro adjust your bike to fit you.  However, I don't recommend paying for a professional bike fitting at this stage, wait until you've found your inner cyclist and have decided that you really want to upgrade to a higher end bike.  That's the time to pay for a fitting (these can cost $200 or more and take several hours). 

However, since you're just getting into cycling, you'll have to do the best you can following the advice you'll receive from your local bike shop or from friends who are into cycling.  MOST IMPORTANTLY, ride a bike before you buy it.  Adjust the seat height and have a quick lesson on how to use the shifters.  Try to ride for more than just a few minutes.  If you're buying from a bike shop, they'll be able to set the right seat height. 

A couple of things to watch out for: 
  • Don't 'reach' too far to the handlebars.  This can cause strain on your lower back and it indicates that the frame is too big for you.  Even in a body forward style road bike, you need to watch out for this.  Your core has to support your body when you are riding - you don't want too much weight on your hands (regardless of type of bike).  
  • Seat height - your leg should not be fully extended but you don't want too much bend when the pedal is at the bottom of the stroke and the ball of your foot is on the pedal.  Just a little bit of bend is what you want.  Watch out for a seat tube that is extended all the way out or conversely seems to be all the way in.  All the way out could indicate that the frame is a little small, all the way in could indicate the frame is a little big.  If your knees are hitting the handlebar it's pretty likely the frame is too small.
Hopefully this information is helpful in getting you started on finding a bike.  Cycling is a fun, low impact exercise that you can enjoy with friends and family.  Additionally, cycling gives a great mental boost - it can really make you feel like a kid again. 

Of course, once you choose a bike, you'll have to outfit yourself with appropriate equipment and clothing.  I will say that you should purchase a helmet when you get the bike.  Nothing more important than protecting your head.  Next time we'll talk about other stuff you'll need to make your ride more enjoyable and safe. 

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