STEERING YOU TOWARDS THE RIGHT BIKE
Buying a new bike should be fun. It's a gift that keeps on giving – mile after mile, adventure after adventure. But before you reach for your credit card, you need to be clear about what you want to use the bike for. Commuting with laptop and suit? Meandering to a country pub? Doing the weekly shop? Dropping your toddler off at nursery? There are different types of bike to suit all these (and more).
Though most at home off-road, mountain bikes can go anywhere, should be pretty durable, and have a good range of gears for hills. The downside is they're usually quite heavy and their knobbly tyres are harder work on roads, meaning you go slower with more effort. At the opposite end of the spectrum are sleek, lightweight road bikes (what we used to call 'racers'). Their thin, high-pressure tyres and their lightness mean they require minimal effort to go fast. The downsides are that they rarely accept mudguards (so you get a stripe of road-splatter up your back), they don't like rough terrain and they're not designed for carrying pannier-racks.
With their tiny wheels and high handlebars, folding bikes can look a bit comical, but they tick a lot of boxes. They're easily carried onto buses and trains (or popped in the boot of your car), and easier to store in the house. Decent models have gears for hills, (limited) luggage-carrying ability and a comfortable riding position.
One type of bike that's often overlooked is the tourer. With drop handlebars it looks like a racing bike, but has the advantage of being designed to take mudguards and heavy loads. Decent tourers don't come cheap, but they're a great option if you've got a lot of miles to cover. Fast, tough, go-anywhere cyclo-cross bikes are good all-rounders, though they're at the top-end price-wise; cargo bikes are great for carrying two or more kids. Single-speed or fixed gear bikes offer high style and low maintenance, but are harder work on hills.
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Of course you don't have to get just one bike, assuming wallet and storage space permit – those bitten by the cycling bug often have three or more to suit different purposes.
But for most people, most of the time, one bike will do it all: the hybrid. As the name suggests, these combine the best bits of several different types of bike. They have some of the sturdiness of an off-roader, making light work of potholes and cobbly-bits. They're usually fairly lightweight, but can be fitted with mudguards and pannier-racks. The riding position is generally more upright and more comfortable than a road bike or tourer, but they still have a good spread of gears to help you tackle Bristol's notorious hills.
Once you've settled on the type of bike to suit you, you need to decide how much you want to spend. Compared to cars, bikes are cheap as chips. But don't be tempted by false economies – expect to pay at least £300 for a new bike worth having.
Beware the 'BSO': the dreaded Bike Shaped Object. Usually bought at a bargain price from a catalogue or out-of-town supermarket, these are uniformly useless. The components are cheap and unreliable, and they often come only part-assembled.
Unless you really know what you're doing, it's easy to end up with a bike that's less than roadworthy. Even perfectly assembled, the BSO is likely to be dangerously knackered inside 18 months. Repairing it may end up costing more than the bike's worth. 'Buy cheap, buy twice' as the saying goes.
If you're on a really limited budget, consider second-hand – you should get a better bike for your money. But there are dangers, particularly with classified ads or online auction sites like eBay. The bike may be stolen – watch this space for a feature on bike crime coming soon. Wear on used bikes can be hard to spot, and you can end up spending a good deal more than you bargained for to make it roadworthy. If you're confident in your mechanical knowledge, go for it. Otherwise it's a better bet to buy from a reputable shop – then you know the bike's safe to ride, and you'll often get some kind of warranty.
Buying new is more straightforward – you should get a year's guarantee as standard, and good bike shops will throw in a free tune-up service too. If you're in paid employment, check whether you can take advantage of Cyclescheme – this allows you to buy a new bike and accessories tax-free – most people save more than 30 per cent of the cost. It works via a clever salary-sacrifice system, whereby you pay in manageable monthly instalments, and the tax and NI contributions are deducted from the price of the bike. If your employer's not signed up to the scheme, give them a nudge – there are financial benefits in it for them as well.
Another vitally important consideration when buying a new bike is will it fit you? A bike that really suits your body size and shape is a joy to ride; one that doesn't can be purgatory. Although there are bargains to be had online, it's much better to take a test ride before you buy. A good bike shop will talk you through the fitting process – finding a bike whose frame geometry suits your particular body shape. They'll also encourage you to ride a few different makes and styles around the block before you decide. Bristol is blessed with many good bike shops, so shop around.
Above all, try to enjoy the new-bike experience. It's a time to think about you – and what you want. Get it right, and it'll be a treat every time you ride.