Where to Look for a Bicycle
Before you start visiting bike shops to look at specific bikes, do a little preliminary research—particularly if you don't know much about bicycles. Though a good bike shop and a helpful salesperson can teach you a lot about bikes, brushing up on some bike basics beforehand will only make you better able to distinguish a sales pitch from legitimate advice. Start by asking the advice of experienced riders or by flipping through some cycling magazines to find product reviews and consumer reports.
When you begin checking out bike shops, pay close attention to what each store offers. Buying from a good shop can make a huge difference in your bike riding experience. Don't just settle for the shop closest to your house; a good bike shop is worth traveling a bit farther to find. Ask friends and other riders to recommend a good shop, and if you can, bring them along with you to help. And don't just go to one shop. Visit as many stores as you can to compare quality, selection, and price; and take the time to find out as much about each store as you can. Spending a little extra time looking for the best bike shop will pay off in the long run if it means you purchase the best possible bike.
Only visit bike shops that have a good reputation with experienced bikers. Many of the best bike shops are small Mom and Pop businesses that offer more personal attention, have a friendly atmosphere, and sometimes carry the best brands. Depending on where they are located, some small shops are geared toward a specific customer. Shops in college towns, for instance, cater to the needs of students and may not be the best places to find family bikes. You'll have an easier time finding your bike in a large store that has a wide selection of quality bikes, though you may not get the same customer service. But of course, any bike shop, big or small, that carries the kind of bike you want could be the right bike shop for you. Look for shops that have a decent selection of accessories and a clean, well-stocked repair area. Not too clean and well-stocked, though, because that could be a sign the shop doesn't get any business!
Salespeople should always be friendly and helpful; avoid those shops where employees look down on beginners. Beware of salespeople who work on commission because they may encourage you to buy a higher priced bike or a part you don't really need. Also watch out forsales advice from serious bikers who have a prejudice for or against certain brands; though they probably give honest opinions, they may not look out for the best interests of beginners. Above all, look for salespeople who can answer all your questions about the bikes on display.
Good bike shops will offer repair and maintenance service, including a free tune-up and adjustment after thirty days (very important because bikes have a period of breaking in), and regular free checkups at least through the first year. Buying from a small shop can be an advantage. In order to compete with the big stores, many small shops draw buyers by offering great service plans, including free labor for bikes under warranty. By all means, take advantage of these offers. Some shops offer a warranty for parts and service in addition to the warranties provided by the manufacturer. When you buy a bike, shops may also throw in extras such as a water bottle or a new seat or stem. And if they don't make such offers, it never hurts to ask.
From lack of experience, many first-time bike buyers find themselves shopping in a department store. They are attracted by the seemingly large selection and the low prices. Certainly if you are looking for the cheapest bike you can find—and will be happy with anything that has two wheels and a seat—department store bikes are perfectly fine. But anyone in search of a quality bike that will last and provide a smooth, efficient ride will find most department store bikes lacking. Most of these bikes are mass-produced and improperly assembled using cheap metals. They therefore lack the precision, strength, and quality of bikes found in shops. Also, department stores will not offer repair and maintenance service and probably will not even let you have a test ride. Add to that the fact that many bike shops won't repair department store bikes because they feel it wastes parts and effort (repairs often cost more than the bike!), and the low prices of department stores no longer seem so appealing.
When you already know exactly what you want, buying a bicycle through a mail-order catalog can be a bargain. Mail-order companies usually charge less than stores because they don't have the overhead costs of salespeople and rent. Buying directly from a manufacturer's catalog can be even cheaper because the middle person (in this case, the shop) is eliminated. Catalogs can also be convenient: there's no bike shop hunting, no sales pitch to hear, and no need to leave your house.
But unless you are 100 percent sure what you want—and most bike buyers aren't—shopping from catalogs can be like shooting in the dark. Catalogs offer no sales assistance, no test rides, no fitting, no adjustments, and no repairs or maintenance afterward. Bike shops provide very important services, without which finding the right bike can be nearly impossible. Beginners should make sure they know what they're getting—and what they're getting into—before they buy through mail-order catalogs.
Like used cars, used bikes are much cheaper than new ones. If you can find a used bike in very good condition, which may not be difficult to do, you may have a real bargain. Good bikes that haven't been misused by their previous owners tend to stand up pretty well. There are two potential disadvantages, though, to buying older bikes: first, they may lack the latest developments and materials, and second, spare parts may be difficult to find if the bike is no longer being produced. You could find yourself needing to replace a whole group of components just to fix one broken part. Fortunately, most bike components are widely interchangeable, so it is unlikely that you would experience too much of a problem.
Closely inspect used bikes when shopping. For the most part, you can use the same techniques you use for finding a new bike: look for the right type of bike, take it on a test ride, make sure the bike fits your body, look for a quality frame and components. But also look for signs of wear and tear: rust, bends or dents in the frame or wheels, loose nuts and bolts, frayed cables, worn out chainrings. As you take the bike for a test ride, listen for any squeaks, creeks, or pops that could indicate worn or loose parts. Beware of frames that are cheaply made or have a limited life span. Before you buy, ask the shop to replace any parts that look worn out, and make sure you have a guarantee on any work done or new equipment added to the bike. Some problems can be hard to detect initially, even for experts. Have a qualified bike mechanic (preferably someone who doesn't work for the shop) do a complete inspection of the bike for you. And once you've purchased a used bike, be even more careful to take care of it and tend to any problems as they arise. At the same time, don't be too paranoid. Bicyclists who are constantly fixing bikes never get to enjoy riding them.
Used bikes sold by individuals, such as at yard sales or through an ad in the newspaper, are even cheaper than used bikes from bike shops. However, you will probably not be able to have any repairs done or parts replaced before buying, so be even more careful when you inspect the bike. Any work you'll need to put into the bike should be reflected in a lower buying price. Beware of individuals who offer very good bikes at what seem like extremely low costs or who seem to have a number of different bikes for sale. Unless a seller can show you a receipt for the purchase of a bike or an official bike registration, there's no way to know for sure that the bike isn't stolen. Do everything you can to avoid buying a stolen bike. It not only encourages criminal activity but it could cost you if the rightful owner recovers the bike.
For a complete reference to buying used bikes, including information on specific models and their worth, Louis Deeter's Used Bike Buyer's Guide is a great source.