I have many loves: aviation of course, cooking, French impressionism (not sure how that one got there), but one of my lifelong loves has been bicycling.
I think I've had a bike almost as long as I've been old enough to ride one. Like most suburban kids of the 1960s I started out with training-wheels, then got the "banana-seat" bike with the tall handlebars that were all the rage back then. Somewhere along the way I upgraded to a my first "grown up" bike, a three-speed from Sears back when they sold bikes under their own brand.
I got my first Schwinn 10-speed when I was in High School. Kept it all the way through my senior year in college before some bastard cut through a 3/4 inch cable to get it.
Unlike many people, I didn't give up my love of biking once I got my driver's license. To this day I still ride for the exercise and the sheer enjoyment of it.
Now I'm sure there's somebody here who rode in the Tour de France or has managed a bike shop for the last 30 years. If so, by all means listen to them.
This thread is for the people who were thinking about getting a bike and maybe never had one or haven't had one since they were a kid. I'm gearing (heh) this diary for those people. The folks who ask me "what kind of bike should I get?".
Why get a bike?
They don't run on fossil fuels.
A bike is faster than walking but can go places a car can't.
Riding is good exercise but fairly easy on your joints.
What's the best bike? The simple answer is, the one you like to ride. Because that means you'll ride it. It does you no good sitting in your basement collecting dust.
The more complicated answer is, the one that meets your needs. If you've been away from bicycles for a long time, they've become pretty specialized. I can't suggest what to buy until you tell me what you want to do with it.
Let me give you two pretty good rules before we get deeper into this.
Rule #1 - Don't by the $80 bike from the big-box store.
Unless your only goal is to ride around the block with your kids, it just won't do. Most of them are cheap junk and they won't hold up. Entry level price for a decent bike is in the $400 range. This is one of those times where you actually get what you pay for.
If money is tight, I'd suggest looking for a decent used bike that fits your needs. There's no shortage of them on the market. I'd rather have a used name-brand bike than a "Brand X" special from you know where.
The other problem is the clerk at the big-box store probably doesn't know any more about bikes than they know about lawn mowers or patio furniture, which they're also selling.
I would highly recommend going to a reputable bike shop. If that's not an option I'd at least go to a sporting-goods store.
Rule #2 - Make sure the bike fits you.
This is very important. Bicycles are not "one size fits all". Bike frames come in different sizes and a decent bike shop can fit the bike to you. If it doesn't fit you, it will be awkward and possibly even painful to ride. You're not a kid any more. You won't "grow into" a bike that's too big. It will always be too big.
OK, now that we've got that out of the way, let's see what type of bike you need. It all comes down to what you plan to do with it.
Are you going to use it for commuting, recreation or both?
Will you be riding in the city, on roads, trails or completely off-road?
How often do you think you'll ride and how far?
Are there hills where you live or is it relatively flat?
What kind of physical shape are you in?
It's a matter of picking the right tool for the job. Sure, I could ride my much-too-expensive Italian road bike down a mountain - exactly once. That would be one very pricey ride even before we got to the hospital bills. Likewise you could probably pedal a full-suspension mountain bike 50 miles but it's not going to be much fun.
So let's take a look at some different types of bikes. I'll start with the general purpose and go to the more specialized.
Here's the do-everything hybrid bike. Most of the time I recommend people buy something like this.
Hybrids are the jack-of-all-trades of the bike world. They're not the best at any one thing but they can do a lot of things well. They're kind of cross between a road bike and a mountain bike. They have an upright sitting position so they're relatively comfortable. They have multiple gears for helping you climb hills. They be ridden a fair distance on the roads or they can be ridden on trails. Add a luggage rack and you can commute on it.
They lack the big tires and advanced suspensions of a full-fledged mountain bike so keep them off the really rough stuff.
This is the bike I recommend to most people. I had one of these for years before I started doing really long rides (50+ miles) and got a road bike. Even then I hung on to that hybrid and used to throw it in the back of the KC-135 when we went on deployments.
Hybrids mostly follow the same pattern. A fairly lightweight frame with moderately sized tires and multiple gears. Beyond that there's a lot of variation. Some are practically a road bike with straight handlebars while others are much closer to the mountain bike end of the spectrum.
Here's a good example of a city bike. Note the fenders and chain guard. This is a woman's model with a step-through frame.
If you're my age, these are the kind of bikes that were popular when we were kids. Travel to Amsterdam and they're all over the place. They seem to be making a comeback here. I like them because they're cool and retro looking.
These bikes have no off-road pretensions. They're meant for riding around town and looking good while you're doing it. They often have some nice features like full fenders and chain-guards that let you ride them in street clothes. They can be had in the standard (men's) frame or step-through (women's) frame, in case you were planning on wearing a skirt while riding.
There seems to be a lot of variation in city bikes. Some look like hybrids with fenders added while others have more of that old-fashioned look. Some have as many gears as a road-bike while others have only one. Some are pretty affordable while some cost as much as a high-end road bike.
Here is a pretty typical road bike. This one has an aluminum frame and is sporting toe clips on the pedals.
When I was a kid we called these "10 speeds". That's because they had 10 gears back then. Today they have more. Sometimes a lot more. I'll explain later.
Road bikes are meant to go fast and to go long distances. How fast? I average around 15 mph and I'm usually getting passed by people. I hit 30 once on level ground but I was being chased by a very large, angry dog.
How far? I've done 100 miles in a day. Some people have done a lot more. My average weekday ride is probably 20 miles but I may do 50 on a weekend.
Road bikes are built for speed rather than comfort. They're built as light as possible, and that includes the seat (actually called a saddle). That's why we wear the dorky looking padded shorts.
There is a fair amount of variation between road bike frames these days. Some are geared more for racing and some are a little more set up for comfort. Frames can be made from steel, aluminum, carbon fiber or even titanium. More on that later.
Keep in mind that you're mostly buying the frame, as the other components all come from different manufacturers.
Touring bike doing its best impression of a pack mule. Under all that stuff is essentially a road bike.
A touring bike is basically a road bike that has attachment points for racks and saddle-bags. These are favored by people who like to go long distances and then camp out. If you're going to bike across the country this is what you'd need. They do make decent commuter bikes however because of the luggage capacity.
Here is a full-suspension mountain bike. If you live in Moab Utah you probably already have one.
I've only done a little bit of mountain biking so I'm hardly an expert. Mountain bikes are the Jeeps of the bike world. They're meant to be sturdy and to handle rough terrain. They have wide, knobby tires and some have very sophisticated suspensions. Generally the more suspension it has, the greater its capabilities (and its price tag).
They're not much fun to ride on the road because of the knobby tires. The suspension also causes some of your pedaling efforts to be wasted just making the bike bounce up and down instead of making it go.
In short. If you think you want a mountain bike go talk to someone who really knows mountain bikes.
Beach cruiser bike. Lots of style and fun at the expense of being very heavy.
Cruisers are those almost cartoonish looking bikes you see people riding at the beach. They have big fat tires that let you go over sand. They're built for looks and comfort but not much else. Fun for a day at the beach but not my first choice for commuting or going any distance.
A "fixie". If you want one of these you probably already know it.
A "fixie" is mostly an urban phenomenon. They usually look like a road bike or a city bike but they only have one speed. A true "fixie" can't even coast. The pedals are turning as long as the bike is moving. Some don't even have brakes. Stopping is accomplished by forcing back against the pedals, or I suppose running into something.
These are favored by bike couriers for their simple, rugged design. They're also favored by hipsters for the same odd reason that makes them drink Pabst Blue Ribbon.
If you want one of these you probably already know who you are. Personally I think brakes were a good invention.
I call this the "Easy Rider" style recumbent because it looks like a chopper.
Recumbents are well, different. People who like them swear by them. There are a lot of variations but I mostly see two main types: the kind that look like something out of Easy Rider and the kind that look like a go-cart with bicycle wheels.
The idea behind a recumbent is to get greater comfort than on a conventional bike. The seating position ranges from laid back to almost laying down. I would guess that some of the low profile models can go pretty fast due to less wind resistance.
The disadvantages are: hill climbing can be tough because there's no way to stand up for greater pedaling power. They usually have some extra low gears to offset this.
Some of them sit so low to the ground that they would probably be hard to see in traffic. Transporting them can also be a problem because they often won't fit a standard bike rack.
I guess if it has three wheels it's technically not a bicycle. This is an advanced looking recumbent that sits low to the ground.
Tandems run the gamut from built-for-comfort to built-for-speed. I'd say this one is somewhere in the middle.
I've never ridden a tandem but they look like fun. They can go plenty fast. I've certainly been passed by enough of them. Hills can be a little tough because it's tough to stand up unless you and your partner really know what you're doing.
Since they're so long, they can also be tough to transport.
Tandem bikes run the gamut from casual cruisers to full fledged racing bikes.
Cyclocross - If you like mud here's the sport for you!
If you need one of these you already know it. Cyclocross is a weird form of racing that involves biking over various terrain and often dismounting and carrying the bike. They look like road bikes with off-road tires.
Once again, if you're doing triathlons you probably don't need to be reading this. The main difference between a triathlon bike and a road bike is the frame geometry. I'm told that Triathlon bikes are set up so that you use different muscle groups than what you'd use for running. Otherwise they look pretty much like a road bike.
I think that covers the major types of bicycles. Now let me give you a quick primer on what's changed technology wise since you last had a bike.
Steel was the go-to material for years. I still have my old steel framed road bike and I think it has a better ride than my newer carbon-fiber bike. Steel is heavy, however.
Aluminum became popular in the 90s and is still used today. Aluminum is lighter and stiffer and makes for a very responsive bike. I have found aluminum frames to be rough riding although using a carbon-fiber front fork can improve the ride a lot.
Carbon fiber is now a popular material, at least for road bikes. It's supposed to offer the lightness of aluminum with the flexibility of steel. My carbon fiber road bike is light as a feather but I don't think has as supple a ride as my steel bike.
Titanium. Ti is very light and very expensive. Titanium framed bikes are big dollar high-end bikes and if you're shopping for one you probably don't need to be reading this.
More properly called a "gear set". One question I'm frequently asked is "do you use all of those gears"? Yes and no. I use some a lot more than others.
I'm going to spend a lot of time on this because, after the frame, the gear set is the most important part of the bike. It's what makes it go after all.
In short, the human body is only efficient pedaling around 90-120 RPM. In general you're better off pedaling faster (spinning) in an easier gear than "plodding" slowly in a harder gear. Why? Because one is aerobic and the other is anaerobic. You know how you can only lift a heavy weight a few times but you can do a whole lot of reps with a light weight? It's the same with riding a bike. You can spin all day but you can only plod for so long before you wear yourself out.
This is kind of counter-intuitive. Novices equate pedaling slowly with "easy" and pedaling fast with "hard" but it's actually the other way around.
Now the idea behind having multiple gears is to be able to keep your body in that "sweet spot" over a wide range of speeds and or road conditions.
Back in the day if you were cool you had a 10-speed. They had 5 gears in back and 2 chain-rings up front. 5 x 2 = 10, hence 10 possible gear combinations.
Today my bike has 11 in the back (these go to 11!) and 2 chain-rings giving me 11 x 2 = 22 possible combinations. My older bike only has 9 in the back but it has a triple chain-ring for 9 x 3 = 27 speeds.
There are a few combinations that are off limits. Trying to use the rightmost chain-ring with the leftmost gear puts a lot of stress on your chain. So while you technically won't use all those gears you'll use most of them.
It sounds complicated but it's really not so don't get intimidated. If you shift the wrong way and it gets harder to pedal then go the other way and it will get easier!
Now the cool part. Most gear sets today used what's called indexed shifting. If you remember the old 10-speeds you had to hunt to get it to shift just right, with the chain going ka-chunk! ka-chunk! ka-chunk! the whole time. Not any more. Now you can just click click click from one gear to the next. If your gear set has been properly adjusted it's almost fool proof. Mind you nothing is fool proof to a sufficiently talented fool.
I've noticed that some city bikes have their gears enclosed inside the wheel hub like the old 3-speeds did. The good thing about this setup is that the works are protected from the weather. No muss no fuss. I've even seen 11-speed internal hubs (these go to 11!).
Most of this stuff is made by a Japanese company (I won't name any brands). There is also an Italian company that's been around a long time and an American company got into a few years back. I'm fond of the Italian stuff, but it's just personal preference. I'd rather start an Apple vs PC or a Star Trek vs Star Wars flame war than Campy vs Shimano (oops I said it).
There is a lot of variation within the brands. Cheaper bikes come with the cheaper Japanese gear sets and more expensive bikes tend to feature the more expensive Japanese sets. I can't tell you what to buy, but with most things I avoid the cheapest and the most expensive and pick something in the middle.
Most Cruiser bikes still have the old-fashioned "coaster" brakes. Press backwards on the pedals and it applies the rear (only) brake. It's simple and works well enough at beach-Cruiser speeds.
Most other bikes use "caliper" brakes that squeeze the front and rear rim independently. These work pretty well unless they get wet. Oh, and be careful with that front brake. It is possible (difficult but possible) to launch yourself over the handlebars. I tested that theory once years ago.
Mountain bikes and some of the high end city bikes are starting to use disk brakes. These work a lot better in wet conditions.
Whatever brakes you have, make sure they're properly maintained and adjusted. The laws of physics can be harsh.
You may notice that higher end bikes are pictured without pedals. All that money and you don't even get pedals! That's because higher end bikes are normally ridden with "clip in" pedals and shoes. Your shoe has a metal cleat that locks into the pedal, letting you pedal on the upstroke as well as the downstroke. More power! Twisting your ankle will cause your shoe to unlatch from the pedal.
Forget to do this at a stop and you fall over. We've all done it. What's that? Just me? Really? Sigh.
I actually use a mountain bike pedal on my road bike because the cleats are recessed into the bottom of my shoe. That way if I get off the bike I don't have to walk like an elf. Personal preference.
Now if you want to just wear your street shoes I'd suggest either old-fashioned toe clips or just skip it altogether and use regular pedals.
That's about it. In summary:
Avoid big-box stores.
Get a bike that fits you!
Get the right bike for the type of riding you want to do.
Keep your bike properly maintained. Take care of it and it will take care of you.
Know the rules and follow them. Don't be the person who makes drivers hate us.
Wear your helmet. Please.
Oh, and if you see the guy who stole my Schwinn in 1984 tell him I want it back!