Bike Buyers Guide for first time buyers, first time riders

Buying a bike is like completing a university degree for experienced riders, while its a piece of cake for first time riders.

First time buyers generally get the cheapest bike from a supermarket, thinking its a good deal, because it is cheap, and has two wheels anyway.

Cheap bikes sold in supermarkets are the most expensive bike you can get, because almost %95, they are ridden only once, and left to rot. In that sense, even a $10.000 road bike is probably cheaper, because you ride every day, and that changes your life, and makes you a healthier person, both physically and psychologically.

Another downside of getting a junk bike is, you never feel the joy of riding a bike, so you don’t ride anymore. I had many hobbies in my lifetime, and as a rule of thumb, I started with the best equipment / gear I can afford. When I got my first aquarium, I got all the chemicals available, Eheim external canister filters, air pumps, Jager heaters. While first-timers lose a lot of fish, I did not, in fact, fishes were breeding like crazy. Then, I quickly went up to 7 aquariums, no air filters, made DIY filters that replaced canisters, started making my own fish food. Still no dead fish. I was selling fish, because I was running out of space.

Now I can ride a 20′ kids bike, and enjoy it for a while.

For first time riders, picking up a bike is easy: they pick up the color they like, and change the saddle for a softer one. And %99 of the time, it’s a clumsy MTB, which is not even road-safe.

What’s the best bike for first time buyers?

Though many people, internet and bike media suggest an MTB to first timers, I won’t.

The best bike for new riders is hybrids, or city bikes without any suspension at all, with very good quality tires. Forget any other thing, especially brakes.

Ideal bike would be a 27.5′, 2×10 or 2×11, rigid fork, aluminium city bike.

I advise against any hardtail or full suspension MTB’s: they’ re heavier (assuming you won’t buy a $15.000 full-suspension racing spec bike), they roll harder. On a crappy hardtail MTB, your pedalling effort, which is not much at the moment, will be wasted by suspension, big, heavy and knobby tires, and excessive weight. Also, most MTB’s nowadays have funny angles which is not meant for road use, or casual riding. Assuming you won’t participate in a muddy, downhill race on your first run.

Road bikes will not fit first time riders too. You’ re probably not flexible enough to gain advantage of riding a road bike – if you’re riding on a raised bar, on hoods %99 of the time, your body is trying to tell you something.

For smooth asphalt, nothing beats a road bike, but you are not prepared to know even a small obstacle like a pebble can be an immense threat. It’s like driving an F1 car: a normal driver cannot even manage the clutch, if they can, they probably went out of way and hit the barriers because it’s non-forgiving, harsh, need immediate reflexes, etc. Road bikes are harsh. They are twitchy to operate, and needs getting used to it. But once you get a grasp of it, it feels like flying on a flat road.

Frame material: steel, aluminium, carbon fiber?

This is a topic that many people are touchy about.

For a casual rider, the choice is obvious, which is aluminium. Gazillions of alternatives are available, aluminium bikes are cheap, lightweight, and contrary to popular belief, they are very strong, reliable and comfortable.

Yes; that annoying “aluminium buzz” is real: aluminium is not very good at absorbing at some oscillation frequencies, that’s why I ride carbon bars. If you go for carbon fiber seatposts, at least really good ones, you’ll experience no buzz at all. I do not use carbon seatposts, because they’re not suitable for my riding routine. Also, there are some DIY solutions to make them even better.

When I was a child, steel was the only material available to make a bike. Aluminium frames started to be mass produced at early 90’s, yet very uncommon in my country where bike imports was a rarity until late 2000’s. Luckily, most of the European based manufacturers outsourced their production here, there are many domestic brands, some are rebranded Chinese white labels, some are producing their own frames. Bikes are abundant and cheap now.

I fell in love with a Peugeot road bike which a friend gave me for a while. It was a bike that pro’s ride at the time, every bit of it was high-end. And it looked gorgeous: Shiny Campagnolo groupset with artistic carvings everywhere, and a lugged, probably Reynolds steel frame. My ultimate dream about bikes is to build my steel frame myself one day. I love its simplistic and elegant look. It’s purely irrational to love a steel bike in 2021. No matter how high-end you go, they are heavier then aluminium ones. Yet, steel bikes have their use, too: if I ever go on a world tour, I’d buy a steel bike due to its ease of repair. Other than that, steel bikes have no advantage besides their gorgeous looks.

How about carbon fiber? Time to time, terrible ideas become mainstream. Like the times when women use lead to make them look pale, which caused terrible skin diseases, dementia, canver and obviously, lead poisoning. Carbon fiber bikes are simply abominations. They just have to be used on races, and their production and common spread use should be banned. Carbon fiber production is extremely energy inefficient, and abnormal amounts of energy needed for production. They cannot be recycled. Epoxies used in production are highly toxic. Carbon cloth must be cut in special vacuum tables with special respiratory equipment, because filaments are very light, and highly carcinogen. It’s the asbestos of 21th century.

Carbon fiber bikes are not trustworthy, because carbon, due to its nature, is very stiff. Stiff materials break without a warning. Carbon fiber production is still quite labor intensive, so faults happen.  There are various horror stories about the carbon fiber bikes or wheelsets – do not think that these are counterfeit items, or cheap Chinese replicas: some of them are the brands everyone knows, and thinks they are superb.

Carbon bikes are not suitable for “real life”: motorbikers with common sense throw away their helmets if it drops to the ground slipping away from their hands! I’m not talking about an impact, or motorbike accident. Why? Because they can crack internally without any visible sign; compromising structural integrity. It’s the same with carbon fiber bikes, or wheelset, even bars: you need to find an expert with an X-ray to check if your bike or carbon fiber parts are perfectly safe, which is next to impossible or very expensive, depending on where you live.

Except top pro riders having unlimited bikes at their disposal, most racers use aluminium bikes for training; because even a trivial fall may mean their bikes are not safe anymore. Buying second hand? It’s safe as sharing your insuline needle with a junkie.

Which size?

Bike market is pretty strange here. Before late 2000’s, only kids or older people in villages or small towns rode bikes (if they couldn’t afford to buy a motorbike). Bikes were also a bit common on seaside places; when people go their summer houses, their children or grandchildren, under 18, rode bikes. It was norm to start smoking when you reach 16, and quit biking. Funnily, I couldn’t recall anyone, aged between 20-40, riding a bike, except some early bird roadies who are mostly expats. Things changed suddenly. When I was a child, “local bike shops” are ran by former bike thieves who became old enough to quit stealing and give themselves into religion. Or, old man who are bored at home, and can use a screwdriver, adjustable wrench (tops). As I might have guessed, they were not to be trusted, either they are crooked, or knew nothing about bikes. Funny things is, I learnt patching inner tubes when I was 10, or maybe 11, because these guys was taking 1/3 of my pocket money, stripping me from my daily menu which was biscuits and 2 small bottles of sour cherry juice. I was watching what they were doing, and asked my father to buy me a patch kit. He was happy to hear that I was doing something useful, and bought me one. I paid no money for it obviously, and that made me buy more biscuits and sour cherry juice. This was the first investment I made in my life!

Obviously, they are trying to sell what they already have, so it’s quite normal to see a 12 year old kid (trying) to ride a 54cm road bike, or 50 year old guy with a BMX! There is nothing about bikes to educate people, too.

With the bike boom and the internet, people buy their bikes from internet, because only a few people trust bike shops, and internet is cheaper. There is a huge demand for bikes, but we do not have big shops, except a handful of ones in big cities.

Getting the bike that really suits you is a hard task. Do not fall into generic claims, like “if you’re 1.75, get 54cm road bike”. In every person having the same height, reach (how long your arms are) and leg length is different. A shorter legged person with a high reach will be more comfortable in a bike having long reach but lower seatpost, for example. Or vice versa. I won’t get into details of “bike fit” here, but be aware that bike fit matters most.

Your first bike necessarily wouldn’t have to be your last. You can buy second hand, ride it for some time, sell and buy another. You’ll settle when you find that fits you – then, you can upgrade it if you want.

A bike you tried at the shop may feel good, but don’t fall to it. You won’t be that uncomfortable when you sit on a rock for a short while, right? I think there is no “bike at first sight”, so you need to ride a bike long enough to see if its you. For example, it may be comfortable for your rear end, but your hands may be getting numb fast, because you’re leaning too much. Ideally, if you have a friend at your size, ask him/her to try his/her bike.

Yet they are not absolute guides to choose a bike, have a look at the size charts. At least, you’ll know for sure that a 60cm or 46cm road frame would not fit a 1.75 person.

What bikes to avoid ?

Finding a good deal is a dark art, considering how many components does a bike have, and you’ re not a veteran (yet) – most mid-range bikes are is a mix of high(ish) quality parts with low end parts; low-end parts being the ones mostly hidden from eye. So, don’t be so happy to find a Shimano SLX crankset on a budget bike, if the bottom bracket is a Chinese one that will fall apart in a few rides. Check every component, especially minor ones that most people don’t care about, like bottom brackets, headsets, chains, cassettes or hubs.

It’s a good practice to spend your money on a good wheelset especially if you’re heavy. It’s almost impossible to find a budget bike with decent tires, even high-end ones generally comes with crap; because its an obvious cost-cutter for manufacturers.

The bike you choose will probably have MTB compatible hubs: which is either 135, 142 or less likely, 148mm. 135mm will completely vanish soon, and you’ll probably left alone with cheap Chinese knock-offs, or boutique brands that are highly expensive. Unless it’s not a superb deal, go for the frame that accepts 142mm thru axle hubs, so you’ll be safe for quite a while, at least.

If you’ re going for top-tier brands, make sure they are not put together with proprietary parts. For example, some Scott bikes have non-standard forks. These type of bikes own you; you don’t own them. Stay away from these. They are very expensive to repair or upgrade if possible.

I suggest a fixed fork. Suspension forks are either much more heavier than your frame, stem, bars, headset, seat and seatpost combined. You’ll come across a lot of useless crap at budget to midrange bikes. Don’t expect decent suspension performance, if they work at all. Suspension forks rob your pedalling power, but almost all of them are lockable, and when they are locked, they effectively act as a fixed fork. Problem is, every suspension fork, regardless of quality or price, will eventually fail. On cheaper suspension forks, which are generally coils, lockout function will fail much earlier. If you’re insisting on a cheap and heavy, low end suspension fork, at least buy a coil one. Coil suspension rarely fails, except the coils go soft and lock mechanism will break. Cheap air suspension is very flimsy, will fail very soon, and most likely you won’t find any spare parts – because the factory in China will be producing new and incompatible models and created a new “brand” already.

Even good forks like Fox, Rock Shocks, DT Swiss or even Manitou, needs maintenance and will fail regardless how you take care of them. With correct tires, you won’t need shocks in moderately rough terrain.

Mind you, not all Chinese parts are crap, in fact, some of them are quite decent.

A word on groupsets: I think the sweetspot for a hybrid bike is, Deore; Deore M5100, to be precise. This is a noteworthy and interesting groupset: what makes new Deore interesting is, Deore SL-M5100 shifter. Like 2s,3s selectable front derailleur shifters, these can be set for either 10s or 11s cassettes! Pair this one with Deore RD-M5120 rear derailleur, which is both 2×10, or 2×11 speed. Perfect combo so far, but what about crankset. Never seen anything compatible amongst 2 different speeds before, but you’ll also need a crankset. Shimano says FC-M4100 is 2×10 speed, while FC-M5100 is 2×11. I’d buy this set with FC-M4100, along with 10 speed cassette and 11 speed non-Shimano chain and non-Shimano cassette! Why? Because 10s and 11s chains are almost identical. However, price difference between the 10s and 11s cassettes, or 10s Deore cranksets vs 11s Deore cranksets is not absymal. So, that would save me a bit, and when 11s cassettes got cheaper, all I have to do is to change the cassette. Some may think 10s chainrings will wear with 11s chain. Probably yes. Thing is, even so, it will outlast a few cassettes, and when 11s goes cheaper, its worthy to change the chainrings, too. Meanwhile, they’ll get cheaper, too!

What to improve / upgrade?

Almost everyone I saw who got a new bike immediately changes the seat first. With an extra wide, gel one, of course!

Why? Because their backends hurt.

Forget everything about the saddles. Your backend will hurt, no matter what. There are various factors that can ease the pain: lose weight. wear padded shorts (absolute must – and no underwear, don’t forget!). and get used to it.

You’ll suffer less in time. Finding a better position, a more fitting bike will help a lot. Saddle matters, but not much as you think. Frankly, I wasn’t less comfortable with a full carbon, zero padding and narrow saddle I used to have. So-called “gel” saddles is only good for half an hour, maybe a bit more.

Finding a good saddle is no easy tasks. I can’t remember how many saddles I’ve tried, but still haven’t found “the one” yet.

Good tires will give you the best bang for the buck, next to nothing. If you’re shopping from a big bike dealer, you can buy decent tires by paying an extra fee, instead of full amount. If you’ll be riding on paved roads and asphalt (I bet you will) do not buy knobby tires as these will slow you down. Slicks are best bet almost every surface except off-road, but I know people are scared to ride them. At least, get a one with less useless pattern. Get tires at least 35mm wide, and 40 tops. Anything wider than 40mm will rob a lot of power, and anything less then 35mm is harsh, except on asphalt. Do not go tubeless. They’ll tell you its very safe and easy. No. You’ll need a special pump or compressor to inflate those tires if something goes wrong, and there are quite a lot. Tubeless liquids will go bad in 6 months at best, your tire may have a large leak it cannot plug, it can be cut, or lose air so much or so quick that liquid won’t work. Even, rim may have a hairline crack. Get nice inner tubes, a nice patch kit and a good, high volume pump you can comfortably carry. And learn to fix inner tubes in a safe place.

Here’s some typical items that needs to be upgraded, especially when you buy a cheap or mid-range bike:

  • Pedals

Pedals are a joke on most bikes. Reason being, they can be very cheap, like 2-3$, or up to 150$ or even more for very good ones; but for a 50$ or less, you can get a pedal that nothing to be complained of.

Pedals are often overlooked. People doesn’t seem to care things they press on. But cheap pedals means trouble. Once, I have to ride about 20km’s without a pedal, because plastic sleeving broke and I had to ride on pedal shaft. It was not a blissful experience. Though I was lucky that pedal shaft didn’t snapped, which can cause very serious accidents, injury or even death.

Buy flat pedals having a large enough surface and grip. A good pedal is rebuildable: Cheaper pedals have generally riveted shafts to pedal surface, so since you can disassemble them, they will not hold well together with DIY tools. On medium to premium pedals, everything is held together nicely, closed (cassette) bearings are replaceable. Some have cup and cone bearings, which is harder to service because correct torquing of screws needs some getting used to.

Do not buy clipless pedals. They are hard to use even for the seasoned rider, and very unforgiving for starters. Clipless pedals are good for immediate and huge power changes, like a pro rider sprinting. You’ll not have that kind of power when you start cycling.

  • Tires

Do not try to save on tires. Tires can make a difference even if you’re riding on 2 wheels attached to a iron pole.

Never get a tire over 500-550 grams, each. Heavy tires are for world tourers, or beater bikes that is ridden in rural areas. They tend to be indestructible, as tanks. You wouldn’t want a pedal driven tank. It’s not about bike’s total weight. A 12 kg bike is faster and lively then a 8 kg bike with 1kg tires attached on each end (if that’s possible), because its sprung mass.

Do not buy knobby tires, especially gravel tires, which suck at flat. A 700×32 tire with some thread is a very good option. (Did I tell you thread is useless on flats?) For smaller rims, like 26 or 27.5, go for a little wider tire; because you should compensate for air volume, as air in tires is a suspension system, and the best one, because it also flattens “micro vibrations” that suspension systems cannot handle! Thing is, since 26 and 27.5 is the MTB realm, 27.5 also somewhat gravel, you’ll be limited in tire options drastically, if you need slicker and thinner tires, compared to 29 (or 700, same thing).

Get a high volume floor pump, and a hand pump to carry with you. Buy a patch kit, and at least, one spare inner tube. 2 is better obviously.

It’s nice to have conversion adapters if you have Presta valves. These little super helpful things are bolted over your Presta valves, practically converting them to Shrader, AKA car tire valves, so you can pump your tires at gas stations, which is super handy.

Presta valves are superior to Schrader’s in every sense, except you need to have these adapters to use gas station pumps. If your rims are designed for Schraders, use Schrader inner tubes, though Presta’s can still be used. Presta’s have 2 major advantages: you don’t need any tool to blow off air, for example when patching tires, or going into wilder terrain where you want lower pressures. Second one being, they need smaller holes on rims, which makes rims stronger.

  • Grips

Get yourself nice, padded grips. While seeking for a good riding position and fit, your hands will get sore, and good grips will help a bit.

Other Equipment

You’ll definitely need a helmet, preferably a nice one. Do not buy cheap, seek for others’ help, but do not trust reviews on internet unless they’re “real” people. I never go out without a helmet.

Get yourself nice, padded gloves, also. Do not spend a fortune. I got quite expensive, boutique brands but they are almost the same as cheaper ones and become useless in 30-40 hours. “Gel” is not a super special substance, it’s just closed cell foam. Do not fall for fancy marketing words.

If you ride in dark, dusk or dawn, get good headlights, and rear lights. Cateyes are mandatory for bikes leaving the factory, but they are crap. They have to get some light at SPECIFIC angle to work. They get dirty, which nullifies their poor performance. Do not forget that drivers are more prone to sleep or careless in dawn and dusk. I never ride in dark unless absolutely necessary.

Lastly, you’ll need padded shorts. Get the best ones you can buy. Best doesn’t mean the most expensive.

Folding bikes ok?

No! My first “real” bike was a folding bike. It was very popular at the time, and very easy to produce. I thought it was absolutely perfect until I get a “real” bike.

Contrary to popular belief, they are harder to balance, ride and control. They are generally heavier then the proper bikes at the same price level. Gearing is not so good. Some folding bikes have proprietary parts that are very expensive.

Actually, folding bikes have lots of disadvantages but easy to carry around. It’s an invention for marinas – you couldn’t keep a full-size bike in your already cramped boat. And they serve their purpose well, because the longest distance you’ll cover is a few km at most. Looks like some people find it versatile in cities, folding / unfolding it a few times while taking underground, or even a bus. If you have a car, there are lots of rack models and varieties to carry your bike(s), so they don’t have much use, IMHO.

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