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How to Choose the Right Bike
by Sandy Bourne
Price of gas have you down? With nice weather on the horizon, maybe it's time to ride a bike. Here's a handy tutorial on the different types of bikes available.
Cars are convenient and practical, but they're also rolling environmental disasters. Automobile emissions are big contributors to global warming, ozone depletion, and acid rain. They require enormous energy to build and maintain and cause us to clear more and more land for roads. According to Sierra magazine, every gallon of gas burned spews 19 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
When you bike instead of drive, you're not only strengthening your heart, lungs and legs, you're keeping all sorts of nasties out of the air. That means you should have a bike you enjoy and want to ride. Because the more you bike, the better off we all are.
How to Find the Right Bike
First, decide what your particular needs are. Are you going to travel long distances on hilly terrain? Will you be riding on dirt roads and trails? Unless you can afford two or three bikes, you need to decide what your priorities are. Below are some of the types of bikes seen on the roads and trails today, along with some basic definitions about the differences between them.
A road bike is primarily built for blacktop use. This category includes racing bikes, touring bikes, and basic recreation bikes. All three are typically equipped with dropped &racing& handlebars to allow the most efficient form for covering distance at speed. Racing bikes are the lightest, fastest and most delicate of the road bikes. They are generally set up with a narrow range of gear ratios and very skinny high-pressure tires.
Recreation bikes have easier-to-pedal ratios for riders in reasonably good physical condition and slightly wider tires. Touring bikes usually have gears, brakes, and handling that allow comfortable, safe riding with additional weight.
These two wheeled human-powered jeeps are built mostly for off road use. Mountain bikes are typically equipped with 26 inch wheels, fat tires, and flat, straight handlebars which give better control than dropped bars. These durable bikes come with wide range gearing that allows riders to climb steep trails in the woods and powerful cantilever brakes to keep things under control on the return trip.
A hybrid results from the marriage of a mountain and road bike. Being mongrels, they are tougher to define: some use flat handlebars with thin tires while others have dropped bars with fat tires. Generally they have the same mechanical parts as mountain bikes, except for the wheels which are usually the same diameter as those used on good nonracing road bikes. Their frames accommodate somewhat bigger tires and they roll over hard-packed dirt and blacktop significantly better than mountain bikes do.
If the roads between your home and job are paved, the ideal commuter bike would be a traditional touring bike with wide-ratio gearing and powerful cantilever brakes. If your journey finds you on dirt for some portion of the ride, you will probably need a somewhat larger tire size (27 x 1 3/8 or 700 x 35C). In Oregon, some of the best roads for bike commuting are lightly trafficked dirt roads and trails (except during mud season). Hybrids are in their element on these roads. Mountain bikes also work well, although their fat knobby tires will really slow you down on the hard-packed dirt and blacktop. A compromise tire-tread pattern will give you more speed. If you want to leave the knobby tires on so you're ready for weekend adventures, add a little extra air pressure to the tires; you still won't be as fast as a roadie, but you'll always be ready for anything.
Good bikes start at around $250 (about $350 for mountain bikes) and the best values are found in the $400 to $650 range (although the upper limit can be argued). When you compare the comfort and technology of a good new bike with that of a used bike or a department store bike (both discussed below) you'll see -- as with most products -- that you get what you pay for. A good bicycle shop run by people who care about bikes can give you the best value. Its staff will not only make sure you get the right bike and the right fit for a good price, but they can give you advice and service to maintain your bike and make biking more enjoyable.
If You're on a Tight Budget
If you have less than $200 to spend on a bike, I'd recommend buying a good-quality used bike rather than picking up a $79 or $119 special at the department store. There are real drawbacks to using `toy bikes' as transportation. First of all, you'll waste hard-fought horsepower on a heavy low-grade steel bike that simply won't propel you well. Secondly, even the best bike mechanic won't be able to make some bikes safe, let alone enjoyable to ride. Thirdly, if you find you enjoy biking and want to upgrade or improve on your parts, you won't have anything worth modifying.
If money is tight, you're better off buying a good used bike for somewhere between $50 and $150 and modifying it (as necessary). Over the past 20 years, bicycle technology and machinery has seen some major innovations and an explosion of options, but the basic simplicity of a bicycle's design means a quality ten or fifteen year old bike is likely to still be very useable.
Japanese machinery is the easiest to upgrade. And while there are still some European classics around, make sure you know what you're getting into before buying one. Repair parts for some early European models are becoming obsolete (although a good bike shop can generally find pieces &out back&). Just remember that although everything from tires to gears and frame can be modified, if you need to change too much you might as well buy a good new bike.
Whether you have a three-speed that requires heroics going up hills or the latest twenty-one-gear model that allows you to cakewalk up inclines, make sure your bike fits. If you don't have the right frame size, the motor (you) can't work efficiently or comfortably. Note that generalizations about the relationship between your inseam and seat-tube length don't always work. Your best assurance of a good fit is to visit a bike shop that has experience fitting all sorts of body types and will allow you to take a test ride.
Sandy Bourne is the owner of Specialized Sports, a full-service bicycle shop in Brattleboro, Vermont.
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