How to Buy a Bike

Among the many things to consider when buying a bike are the following:

  • What type of bike you want
  • Your budget
  • Fitting your bike
  • Frame material(s)
  • Other components

Types of bicycles range from the ridiculous to the sublime:

  • Road bikes
  • Mountain bikes (off road)
  • Hybrid bikes (on/off road)
  • Town bikes (city cruisers)
  • Tandem bikes (built for two – or more)
  • Recumbent bikes 
  • And a whole host of specialty racing bikes for time trials, triathlons, track racing, etc.

Let’s limit our consideration for now to road bikes and their variants. Cost can range from a few bucks for a used bike to a king’s ransom for an exotic or custom-built bike. There are great deals to be had on used bikes in the classified ads, eBay, Craig’s List, etc.

Caution – be sure you know what you’re looking for, and most importantly, make sure it fits you.  Otherwise, even the best bargain can turn into a disaster!

You can find lots of nice bikes from well-known manufacturers these days for from less than $1000 to $2500… sometimes even less if you catch them on sale. If you have $3000 - $3500 to spare, you can buy pretty much all the bike you’ll ever reasonably need. If you have really deep pockets or just want something really special, you can easily part with $4000 - $10,000 or more.

This is one of those areas where logic doesn’t always prevail.  Most serious cyclists at one point or the other buy equipment that far exceeds their capabilities as riders.  But, hey… if you’ve got the money, why not go first class?

“To be truly happy as a cyclist, you should get a bike that’s fast and pretty”
-- John Cobb – Aerodynamics Guru

Fit.  Just as a good realtor will tell you that the three most important factors in buying real estate are Location, Location, and Location, the three most important factors in buying a bike are Fit, Fit, and Fit.

Far too many good, expensive bikes end up as garage wall ornaments when their well-intentioned owners give up riding them because they don’t fit properly. Many bike shops are not really equipped (or not interested enough) to do a thorough job fitting their bikes, especially if a rider is outside the “average range” (between 5’ 2” and 6’ 2” with no medical or unusual physical considerations). Even shops with a fair knowledge of bike fitting aren’t usually interested in fitting a bike not purchased from them.  (A notable exception in San Antonio is Joe Van Arsdall at Joe’s Pro Bikes, who is very conscientious about fitting bikes, whether he sells them to you or not.  Expect to pay a fee for the fitting – but it’s worth it).

Critical elements in bicycle fitting include seat tube length (often referred to as frame size), top tube length, saddle height and position, stem length and angle, handlebar width and shape, shoe/pedal positioning, and (to a lesser extent) crank arm length and wheel diameter. Not all bikes follow the same rules as regards fitting – the road bike that provides comfort and efficiency for a long ride will seldom make the best time trial or triathlon configuration.

Homework: Do some research before you fall in love with a bike. Check out sites like the following to get an idea of how to take your own measurements:


Bicycle frame design has changed remarkably little in the last 100 years. Frame materials, however, have undergone significant changes in weight, strength, stiffness, aerodynamics, durability, and cost in fairly recent history.

Steel is the quintessential “old school” frame material.  Pluses include durability, ease of repair, road feel (“steel is real”), and moderate cost.  Minuses include weight and being prone to rust. You will still see some steel bikes around, but they are steadily slipping from the mainstream in favor of newer materials.

Aluminum is a light, stiff frame material that is economical and rust-free.  Aluminum frames are reasonably durable, but don’t expect an aluminum frame to survive a serious crash, since repair of a bent frame is virtually impossible.  There are many aluminum frames sold today in moderately priced bikes, and even some high-end aluminum bikes are still used by the pros.

Titanium was not so very long ago considered to be the ultimate material for bicycle frames, since it has most of the positive characteristics of steel and few of the negatives.  The knock on titanium has always been its high cost to produce and fabricate.  Its use has diminished somewhat (especially in the pro ranks), but there are still some nice ti frames around.

Carbon Fiber has become more or less the current material of choice for bike frames in the last few years.  Because carbon is super light, stiff yet compliant, and able to be fabricated in an almost limitless array of shapes and sizes, most pro teams choose it for their racing bikes.  Even the most ardent manufacturers of traditional metal frames now have carbon bikes in their product lines because of public demand.  Many modern bike frames are an amalgam of carbon and metal parts, hoping to exploit the benefits of each material.  It should be noted that carbon isn’t perfect, however. Although relatively durable, carbon has been known to break under sometimes mysterious conditions of material fatigue, and in a serious crash it doesn’t bend, it pretty much disintegrates.

Other components include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Wheels
  • Crank sets and cog sets
  • Shifters, brakes, and derailleurs
  • Saddles
  • Pedals

Wheels are usually something you have little choice about when you purchase a new bike since they are part of the package. If you do have the option, or if you’re looking to upgrade your current bike, there are precious few things that will make more difference in a bicycle’s performance than a really good set of wheels. Weight, durability, and aerodynamics are primary factors.

Homework:  Check out web sites such as the following to learn more about wheels:


Crank sets and cog sets used to be something nobody really thought about. They were just two round things with teeth (crank wheels) that the pedals were attached to and that connected the chain to a bunch of round things with teeth (cogs) on the back wheel.  The crank set almost always had the “standard” number of teeth (39/53) and crank arm length (17.25 cm), and the cog set had either 9 or 10 cog wheels with a mysterious number of teeth, and that was that.  Then road bike riding became more popular, and more and more folks who had trouble climbing hills (who doesn’t?) started wondering if technological change could help make that odious task easier. The result…

Triple chain rings, a mainstay of mountain bikes, began appearing on road bicycles.  They were (and still are) very effective, but added weight, had a lot of redundant gear combinations, and definitely detracted from the “cool factor” of road cycling (after all, you never saw Lance Armstrong riding a “triple”). 

Compact crank sets enjoyed a rebirth with roadies.  They were usually even lighter than the old double cranks, allowed for more efficient gearing, and how much cooler could you be than Tyler Hamilton winning a stage of the Tour with a compact (well, before he was caught doping anyway)

If you have a choice in the matter (and you often do nowadays) it will pay big dividends to figure out whether one of these drive train options is right for your new bicycle.

Technically, the appropriate crank arm length is not only a function leg length, but also depends on the ratio of the two primary leg bones and foot size.  In the practical sense, crank arm length is usually factored into the size of the bike frame.  Sizes range from 140mm to 185mm, depending largely on your height.  If you are considering getting a special crank set, however, also consider the type of pedaling you will normally do (spinning at a high cadence is more efficient with a shorter crank arm, whereas pedaling a time trial or tri bike usually calls for a longer crank arm).


Homework:  Count the number of teeth on each of the cranks and each of the cogs on whatever bike you’re riding now.  Divide the number of crank wheel teeth by the number of cog teeth for each combination and multiply each of the numbers you derive by 27.  This will give you a group of index numbers called gear-inches.  The lower numbers will be your climbing gear combinations and the higher numbers will be your speed gear combinations.  As you practice climbing, descending, and riding on flat roads, keep track of the gears you use, and if you need some help in any of these areas that training won’t completely solve, you may want to look at a different cog set or crank set or both.

Shifters, back in the old days used to be simple levers located on either side of the down tube, which controlled the front and rear derailleurs.  Nowadays, they are remarkable,  ergonomically designed sets of shifting/braking devices conveniently located on the handlebars.  There are currently three major manufacturers which make quality shifters at multiple price points:

Shimano currently has most of the component market.  Their products are ergonomic and easy to use, but are not always compatible throughout the price range options and are not, for all practical purposes, rebuildable.

Campagnolo invented the derailleur technology and has been around the longest.  Their products are solid, reliable, repairable, and have all that Italian panache.

Sram is the new kid on the road bike block, but has a history of great mountain bike component manufacture.  They have an innovative shifting process and design that in many ways captures the best of both their competitors’ products.


Saddles and Pedals are the main points of contact between you and your bike, and are therefore a large part of the key to comfort, speed, and efficiency. Choosing the right saddle or pedal system is a highly personal and subjective matter. Your choice of pedals, moreover, will often dictate which type of cycling shoe is right for you. A few general rules:

Saddle weight helps, but not at the expense of comfort.  Try out as many types of saddle as you can.  Don’t be fooled by looks. For many folks the crazy-light minimalist saddle can be the most comfortable, and the cushiest looking and feeling saddle can end up being agony on a long ride.

Many medical reports about saddles are grossly overstated.  That politically and medically correct saddle with the middle part missing may end up not supporting you at the right points and putting pressure on your sensitive parts.

Pedals and shoes need to be fit just like the rest of the bike.  Unequal leg lengths, leg and foot bone structures, and pedaling motions can make the difference between a comfortable, efficient ride and a painful one if not taken into account when setting up your pedal cleats.

Homework:  Check out the following sites: