Safe Cycling 101: Buying a Bike

This is the second article in a ten article series on Traffic Skills 101, the League of American Bicyclist's premier vehicular cycling course.  For more information, please contact the author, visit MoBikeFed's Bicycling Safety and Skills Page, or visit the Bike League's website.

When it comes time to buy a bicycle, the number of choices can be daunting.  Fortunately, it's not difficult to choose the right bike provided you have an understanding of how you plan to ride.  Today's article takes a look at what you need to know before you lay out your hard eanred cash on a sweet, new ride!

Types of Bikes

Although there are literally dozens of bicycle styles geared towards unique market niches, most fall into one of the following three categories: road, mountain, and hybrid.
Road bikes are designed to be ridden on paved surfaces. They can be used to race, tour, cruise or commute. They are lightweight machines that typically come with skinny tires. They might have drop handlebars. If you want to use a road bike as a commuter or touring bike, be sure it has “braze ons” which will allow you to install racks, panniers and fenders. Most Cyclocross and Triathalon bikes as well as recumbents are typically categorized as road bikes.
Hybrid commuters like Kona's Rove model are at home on pavement, gravel and more rugged terrain.
Mountain bikes are designed to be ridden on uneven terrain. The tires are wider and grip well on a variety of surfaces. Gearing is set up different to allow you to pedal up the steepest hills with ease. Many new models are as light as road bikes, but if you ride primarily on pavement this is probably not your best choice.
Hybrids, or comfort bikes, fall in the gray area between road and mountain bikes. They behave well on paved surfaces but are equally at home on the trails. If you want one bike that you can use to commute during the week and tear up the singletrack on weekends, it’s probably going to be a hybrid.  

Size and Fit

Often overlooked by many riders, fit is one of the most important factors to consider when buying a bicycle. Fit determines comfort and that, in turn, determines how much you’ll ride.
To determine fit, straddle the top tube and use the handlebars and saddle to lift the bike off the ground.
You should be able to lift a mountain or hybrid bike 3?-4? , a road bike 1?-2?.
A quick and easy way to determine frame fit is to straddle the top tube with both feet on the ground, shoulder-width apart. With one hand on the handlebars and the other on the saddle, lift the bike off the ground.  There should be 1"-2" of clearance with a road boke.  With a mountain bike or hybrid, 3"-4" is about right.
You’ll also want to get a feel for saddle and handlebar fit, so get on the bike and ride it! Adjustments can be made here, so don’t be shy about asking the salesperson to help you set it up just right.   How does it feel? How will it feel after an hour, two or six of riding? If you have to extend or stretch the fit isn’t right.  It should be natural and comfortable.
All bikes are different, so there’s there’s going to be a little wiggle room with regard to fit. The most important thing to remember is that it should never hurt to ride a bicycle!


Bikes are available at vritually any price from next to nothing to thousands of dollars. Free bikes are often advertised on Craigslist and similar websites. Racing frames made from space age materials like titanium or carbon fiber can raise the price beyond that of many used cars.
Unless you're racing, Cromoly steel frames are hard to beat.  They offer durability and reliability at a reasonable price.
Quick release levers make changing tires, raising or lowering seat height
and making other adjustments on the fly a breeze!
You should spend what you’re comfortable spending. Unless you’re going to race, you probably don’t need the marginal weight savings (and cost) you’ll gain from an exotic frame. Cromoly steel or aluminum will be just fine. It’s more important to pay attention to the quality of components like drivetrains, derailleurs, and brakes. Higher quality components are generally more reliable.  You’ll have fewer maintenance problems and you’ll enjoy riding more.

Where to Buy

Big box retailers sell far more bikes than local bike shops and often have the lowest prices, but they don’t always provide much in the way of service.  You’ll probably have to fit the bike yourself and they may not know the relative quality of components on the bicycle you’re purchasing. They likely won’t ask you how you intend to use the bike, and as a result you may not end up with the best bike for your intended use.
Local bike shops create value by helping you navigate the sheer number of choices available. You’ll probably pay a little more, but if it’s a good shop you’ll leave knowing that you bought a bike that’s right for you and will offer years of enjoyment.  Many local bike shops accept trade-ins, so you might be able to stretch your dollars by buying a used bicycle.

Other Considerations 

Many newer bikes have quick releases that make adjustments a snap.  These are nice to have, particularly if you have a flat tire far from home.  Some saddles can be adjusted laterally in addition to vertically.  These  aid in comfort and getting fit just right.
Last but not least, never buy a bicycle without riding it first. There’s no other way to determine how the bicycle feels and that’s what matters most of all.  The better your new bicycle feels, the more you’ll ride it.


Bob Sharpe is a League of American Bicyclists Certified Cycling Instructor and founder of Bike 5, a movement that encourages people to bicycle for short trips of five miles or less.  You can reach him directly through the Bike 5 page on Facebook.

This article is one of a 12-part series on the basics of riding on the road and covering the primary topics found in the League of American Bicyclists Smart Cycling course.

Read all 11 articles in Bob's Safe Cycling Series here.

Find more resources for better bicycling on our Bicycle Skills and Safety page.


Improving safety for Missourians who bicycle, walk, and drive is one of the primary goals of MoBikeFed's Vision for Bicycling and Walking in Missouri. Work to educate and inform Missourians about important safety and skills topics such as those found in this series on safe bicycling is an important part of that effort.

Your ongoing membership and generous financial support help turn our Vision into reality!