BUYING A BIKE ... advice from Bruce Masterson, NBW

Every Spring news groups and cycling magazines are full of advice on buying a bike. I generally agree with most of the advice given; however, as with any advice, it is personal. All the advice I have seen has been given from the point of view of the consumer. The POV of the sales person and vendor must also be taken into account. Not all bikes, bike shops or salespeople are created equal.

Fit is very important.
An experienced rider will know what fits and what doesn't. A less experienced rider may not have as good a jumping-off point. There are rules of thumb concerning bike fit but no hard and fast rules.

For example I was fitted with a FitKit™ a dozen or so years ago. Very careful measurements were taken of my bike, and of me. All I learned was that I was already set up right. As the years passed I changed things like crank length, and stem length but things remained very close to what I had been riding for 20 years.

A newer rider may get shoe-horned onto a bike that is a gross mismatch, but generally a quick ride will tell you if you are way off base or not. It is up to the rider to have an idea as to what is needed, or risk being pushed into a fit preferred by the sales person. An extensive fitting, although impressive, is often not worthwhile for an inexperienced rider. The rider must come to the table with an idea of what is needed or there is no way to know if the fitting is right or not. If you are happy with the riding position on your old bike there is probably no reason to change it. Start by duplicating the position and change gradually as you gain experience.

Are you spending a lot of cash?
Any bike these days cost a lot of money. It is difficult to find a performance road bike for less than $1,000.00. They are out there but you have to look. If you are buying a complete bike, not building one up from a bare frame set, the bike will come set up for an "average" rider. The stem may be too short or too long for you etc. If the bike is on the less expensive side of the range, it is less likely that the dealer will be able to do much to fit the bike to you without seeing his/her profit evaporate. Just because bikes are expensive doesn't mean that they are a high margin item. Expensive bikes (for argument's sake, $2,000.00 and up) have even lower profit margins. But because of the amount of money spent and the higher likelihood of being able to sell swapped out parts, dealers can often afford to fit the bike more carefully. That being said, you still have the right to get what you want and need. Don't buy a bike that doesn't fit because it is a deal. Don't convince yourself that you will "get used to it". If you find a bike that you like and the fit is close, talk with the salesperson to see what can be done to make it better. Under no circumstances pay for swapping seats, stems or pedals that are of equal or lesser value.

You can get custom fit without paying the $2,000.00 for a custom frame set. An off-the-shelf frame set, $600.00-to-ridiculous, offers superior fit, once you and the sales person have decided on your type of riding, top tube need, frame size etc. Building up a frame from scratch is a very good way to go. It's also fun. You can choose crank length, handlebar width and drop, specific components, every option can be weighed and considered separately -- the only constraint is how much you want to pay. An excellent bike shop is necessary for doing this unless you are a superb mechanic. This will cost you $2,000.00 minimum.

Not into a multi-thousand-dollar super bike?
What's wrong with you? Nothing. Don't let the salesperson make you think there is. Not everyone is wacko, er, I mean keen enough to sink huge dollars into a bike. The recreational/casual bike market has good bikes starting at a couple of hundred dollars.

You can get an aluminum frame, Gripshift ® equipped, suspended bike for less than $300.00. These bikes are great for casual day touring, bike path riding, and even the around-the-block type riding. These bikes are designed for the latter style of riding but can do much more if the rider is up for it. In the "comfort" bike category models jump up in about $100.00 increments. What do you get for each additional c-note? Generally the same frame for the first couple of c's. At individual increments you'll get lighter more durable components, better wheels, and generally an easier pedaling bike.

A good chunk of the price of newer "comfort" bikes is suspension. Many offer "boinger" seat posts and suspension forks as well as sprung saddles and fat tires. All this stuff will take the edge off bumps. It also adds weight and cost, as well as robbing some efficiency. Marketing types decided that we wanted suspension so now are stuck with it. To keep a bike's price down and still offer rubber baby buggy bumpers, other things are scrimped on. Decide if you really need shock absorbers for your type of riding. If not you may opt for a rigid bike that is more efficient and a better equipped bike all around

Who are you buying your bike from?
Most shops have at least one person who actually rides. Talk to that person. That person may have cycling interests different than yours but that does not mean that they cannot be a great resource. Cultivate a relationship with your bike shop and do most of your business there. You may pay a shekel or two more sometimes but the goodwill from a good bike shop is invaluable. Don't shop around too much. If you shop by price only don't expect shops to fit the shoes you bought elsewhere for free or expect a free brake tweak from a shop other than the one that sold you the bike.

Buy out of season if possible.
During the Fall and Winter shops can afford to spend more time with you. They also like to have some cash coming in during the lean months so deals are often available. The danger of this tactic is that there are fewer bikes in the warehouses. You may get a great deal or you may find out that the bike of your dreams is sold out.

Customer service
I've sold hundreds, maybe thousands, of all types of bikes in my years in bike shops. Relatively few of those bikes were sold to keen riders. Most days are spent answering questions for the thousandth time, keeping kids from stealing water bottles, selling cheap bikes, and humoring tire kickers. Too many customers hem and haw over the purchase, shop around too much, get confused and turn from customers to tire kickers. Don't expect the same attention on your sixth visit to discuss head tube angles as you got during the first five. You may think you deserve it but human nature dictates that you will probably not get it. Do your homework, narrow it down to a few options, ride'em, ask your questions, then buy.

Don't haggle.
Most shops run on a tight margin, most of their money is made not on bikes, but on accessories, and repairs. Haggling or asking for free stuff will get you nowhere. If a shop will haggle they are probably still charging too much. I have had people offer me half of what the bike sold for. The vast majority of bike shops are not out to screw you; they just want to make a decent living too. Go out for dinner the night before you buy your bike, ask the waitperson for a deal on your meal. If it works in the restaurant try it the next day at the bike shop. If it's a no go, leave your bargaining skills at home.

Ride what you like.
Don't worry if your setup looks different or you like odd components. (Lance Armstrong will only use a discontinued Shimano pedal, like the ones I tossed 6 years ago.) It is hard to go too wrong with all the nice bikes out there now. Remember, you are buying something that is supposed to be fun -- keep it fun, keep your sense of humor, and shopping for a bike should be enjoyable.

Once you buy it, ride it.

Bruce Masterson [Narragansett Bay Wheelmen]