Bike Curious: A Buyer’s Guide -The Toast

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This piece brought to you by friends of Katie, known cyclist and queer lady, in honor of her birthday.

You never thought this would happen to you, did you? I mean, it’s not like you have anything against it, you just never though you’d be the kind of person who rolls that way. But lately, it seems like the harder you look away, the more you see them everywhere – hanging around on your way to work, leaning nonchalantly outside cafes, zipping past you through downtown traffic…

I mean bicycles. Why, what were you thinking of?

Just like the gay bar, entering your first bike shop can be an intimidating experience. No amount of online research can quite prepare you for the sight of multiple grown men in neon spandex, but knowing what you’re looking for can help you walk out satisfied (or at least not in tears.) First, I’ll give a quick primer on styles of bikes and cycling, then I’ll discuss tips for buying new vs. used, and finally, talk about fitting a new bike to your proportions.

Despite being a relatively simple machine, bikes have become remarkably specialized in the 200 years since their invention. There’s a specific bike for every conceivable type of terrain and application, but for our purposes, there are 5-6 basic categories that your new bike could fall into.

Mountain bike (abbr. MTB): Although it’s what most people (and department stores) call their generic geared bikes, “mountain” actually refers to bikes specifically designed for mountain and trail riding. They have wide, mud-shedding tires, heavier frames and can have suspension in just the front, or throughout the bike. Good for: mountains & trails, casual riding, winter riding.

29er: A mountain bike with 29-inch wheels. These are relatively new, but have quickly become standard, as they’re easier to control on tough terrain. 29ers tend to be more expensive and have more technical features. The bigger wheels may be helpful in sloppy or icy conditions, but road salt is going to wear out your bike fast. Good for: mountains & trails, weekend warriors, rich winter riders.

Road Bike: This is what Lance Armstrong rides. They are expensive and uncomfortable, meant to go as fast as possible and weigh less than the rider. Unless you’re the type of person who runs marathons for fun, you probably don’t want one of these. Good for: racing, crazy workouts, spandex enthusiasts.

Hybrid: This is the correct term for your generic geared bike. Hybrids range from grandmotherly comfort frames to almost-MTBs, and are meant for casual city riders. They’re more concerned with comfort and utility than weight or performance, but most can handle getting a bit muddy. This category isn’t entirely strict and sometimes overlaps with city bikes and the lowest-end MTBs. Good for: casual riding, commuting, some winter riding.

Commuter/City Bike: Sometimes lumped into hybrids, commuters and city bikes are intended for a frequent city rider who’s usually on pavement. These are styled after road bikes, so they often have skinnier wheels with low clearance, and aren’t great in mud or snow. Commuters tend to be lighter and more utilitarian, while city bikes go for classic looks and comfort, but this is definitely not a universal distinction. Most single-speeds and fixies fall into this category. Good for: commuting, casual riding, hipstering.

Cruiser: These steel behemoths are designed to look stylish and retro, and not much else. They’re heavy and slow, but they can be really inexpensive. Good for: very casual riding, pin up modelling, old-school greasers.

BMX: Don’t get a BMX, you are not a monster-chugging 15 year old.

No matter what type of bike you choose, the quality of your bike is going to make a significant difference in how pleasant your ride is. If you end up with a totally rusted-out piece of shit with busted shifting and sloppy brakes, you’ll spend the whole ride compensating, adjusting and generally being frustrated. A good bike feels natural and comfortable to ride, like an extension of your body. When I have a good ride, I feel directly connected to the road and my body’s power – like I’m actively experiencing my city in a way that driving a car can never show me. This is partly because I’m a nerd, but also because my bike the opposite of a total piece of shit.

The best way to ensure that your bike is not a total piece of shit is, buy one that is new. It should cost more than $400 and be purchased from a reputable local shop. If you’re not sure where to go, find a hipster coffee place and ask the cute barista. She’ll know, and now you’re having a conversation with a cute barista. (You’re welcome.) New bikes are expensive, but if you take proper care of one, it can last for years with only minor part replacements. The best time to go buy a new bike is anytime, but if you’re looking for a deal, go between Christmas and the first major thaw. In my part of the world, this means mid-April, but I’ve been told there are many places where it never snows at all. I’m skeptical of that, but it’s still generally true that manufacturers make their major shipments in early spring. Post-Christmas, shops are selling off their old inventory to make room for next year’s models, so take advantage of it and get yourself something nice.

If you’re broke, the best way to make sure your bike is not a total piece of shit is by being somewhat informed. Don’t even bother with Sportcheck or Canadian Tire, a new bike from a department store will often end up costing you more in the long run. Large retailers buy cheap and mass-produced, and as a result the components they use are sometimes not industry-standard, meaning you’ll have to replace incompatible parts in clusters instead of individually. They also don’t employ professional bike builders in their stores, so the quality out of the box is extremely variable. If you absolutely must buy that $100 fixie, take it to a shop immediately and get them to tune it before you even think about riding that deathtrap. A better bet is buying used. Police auctions and internet classifieds are great resources for finding a cheap bike, but you’re going to have to do some sifting in order to find something good. If you’re really, truly broke, many community bike shops will give you parts and frames for free if you DIY, but that’s a topic for another day. In the meantime, here’s how to buy a used bike.

When you’re looking online, try searching by brand. Most people trying to sell a bike online have no idea what information is relevant, but most people can read the label on the frame. Search something like “Giant” or “Kona,” and then google the resulting model names for specs, reviews and reports of thefts in your area. This will help you weed out scams, department store crap, and people who are selling large lots of stolen bikes. If you have a particular style in mind, try that too. You’ll mostly find these results are bike nerds downsizing their collection, so the descriptions will be more useful and the bikes will probably be in better shape.

Never, ever buy anything sight unseen. I hope this would be obvious, but you need to make sure the bike actually exists, it fits you, and that it hasn’t been rusting out in an unheated garage for the last 20 years. First, have a look at the frame for rust and obvious damage, like warping, cracks and dents. Even a small crack in the frame could lead to it shearing apart suddenly under stress, so the initial inspection is really important for your safety.

Labelled bikeWhile you’re inspecting the frame, check for the serial number. It’s usually stamped on the underside, on or near the bottom bracket (see above.) Very old or custom frames may not have them, but if it’s been filed off, the bike is stolen and you shouldn’t buy it. You should also make sure that the seatpost is moveable. If it’s seized, nothing short of a blow torch and a lucky dice roll will get it moving again, and it’s pretty likely that the bike has other problems too. Unless it fits you perfectly and it’s a crazy good deal, it’s probably not worth fixing.

Next, have a look at the components – you will likely need to replace dried-out tires, cracked or worn brake pads, or fraying cables, but if it’s just one thing it’s not too expensive. Check out the gear assemblies, and make sure they’re not worn out or missing teeth. No matter how many gears there are, the teeth should be more trapezoidal than triangular. Gear teeth and chains wear at the same rate, so a new chain often won’t work on very old gears, meaning you’d need to replace the whole drive train if something broke.

Gears (worn)

(these are worn gears)

Gears (new)

(these are new gears)

Also, try to wiggle the wheels, handlebars, and crankset back and forth. They should spin or turn easily, but not rattle or move laterally. Getting the rattle out of a wheel or handlebar* is fairly cheap ($10-20 for minor adjustments), but if everything is crazy stiff or totally wiggly, there’s certainly bigger issues. You should NOT ride a bike where everything is super loose, or if the crankset wiggles at all. If a part breaks or the bolts were not tightened correctly, you could lose control and get hurt.

*It’s actually the hubs and headset that get adjusted, respectively.

On a similar note, don’t buy anything with a cotter pin crankset! COTTER PINS ARE THE WORST!!!

Cotter pin

(this is a cotter pin)

First, they mean your bike is too old to be anything other than terrible. Second, you have to pay for new ones anytime your crankset comes off, because the only way to remove them is to destroy them with a hammer.  Mechanics hate cotter pin cranks, don’t make us work on them!

In the same vein, center-pull brakes are also THE WORST. They are awful to work on, awful to replace, and make removing wheels a complete pain in the ass. Additionally, if you’re not a serious bike nerd, and not planning to go downhill at unreasonable speed, disc brakes are probably overkill. While they do have more stopping power and perform better in sloppy weather, they’re also much more expensive and intimidating to adjust than rim brakes. Aside from center-pull, rim brakes come in three main styles. I’d recommend V-brakes or caliper brakes for ease of service, but cantilevers will also do the job.

centre pull brakes

(these are centre-pull brakes, you don’t want that)

disc brake

(these are disc brakes, you don’t want that)


(these are V-brakes, you want these)


(these are caliper brakes, these are good too)


(these are cantilever breaks, these are…meh)

Looks good so far? Ok, now it’s time to go for a test ride. This goes for new bikes too- any good shop will let you test out a few bikes, with your ID as collateral. Ideally, you should test it for 10-15 minutes in the same conditions you’ll use it in, but most people get a little antsy if you take their bike around the block without paying first. Make sure you do a few hard accelerations and hard stops – if you’re on a used bike be conservative with the braking until you’re sure it actually works – and do some tight turns to get a feel for the handling. If you’re on a geared bike, make sure it shifts smoothly and doesn’t skip or change randomly. If you’re on a used bike, the shifting may not be perfect, but it should be pretty close. Minor adjustments are inexpensive and easy to do yourself, just avoid anything with major issues.

While riding, take note of the fit. Ultimately it’s about whats comfortable for you, but there are some general guidelines. While standing over the bike, the top of a normal frame should be 1-2 inches below your crotch.

frame sizing

Your leg should be straight but not locked at the bottom of each pedal stroke when you ride, and you should comfortably be able to reach the handlebars without overflexing your wrist or stretching.

riding position

Seat height can be adjusted easily, and if you find the handlebars are slightly off in any direction, you can swap out the stem or bars, but that’s about it. Very small and very wide people might find that a “Women specific” frame fits better – these are proportioned for people with shorter arms and torsos, and lower centers of gravity. The top tubes are often lowered too, so that riding in a skirt doesn’t turn into a peep show. If you’re very, very short, you can probably score an awesome kid’s 24-inch bike for cheap, just stick to higher-end brands, like Specialized and Giant. You can find these online for less than $200 and they’re often as good as a cheap hybrid if you can ride them comfortably.

A note about seats: it is generally worth it to splurge an anatomy-specific saddle, particularly if you are a vagina-having human, or are planning on riding in a forward-leaning position.  A badly fitted seat hurts, and it can also mess up your sexual sensitivity over time, since aggressive riding can put your weight directly on the fun bits. Find your local specialized dealer, and go get your butt measured – they market their seats with a measuring tool for an exact fit. You don’t need to buy their anatomical saddles, just take note of the number and bring a tape measure with you when you go looking. The Specialized saddles are measured at the widest part in millimeters, so just make sure the seat you pick is wider than your butt measurement. Oh, and while you’re there? Pick up some chain lube, tubes, tire levers and a multi-tool, because the next installment is all about fixing bikes!

Dana Burkett is a dirty bisexual and professional bike mechanic from Winnipeg, Manitoba. She runs a polyamourous punk-house with her long-time partner, and is a volunteer mechanic at The Bike Dump on Monday evenings.

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