Tuesday Tips: Buying a Bike

Everyone seems to be talking bikes these days, whether it's to be more green or to cut back on gas. We've even started treating bikes like cars with new self-service bike rental programs like SmartBike DC and bank loans for bikes. Makes me want to run out and get my own set of wheels. So I talked to a local bike salesman on what to look for whether you're buying new or used:

Tip #1: If you're looking to ride a bike to and from work, consider a fitness hybrid or a cyclocross bike. The fitness hybrid is in between a road bike and a beach cruiser, according to Chris Peguese, who sells bikes at Spokes Etc., a bike store in Alexandra, Arlington, Ashburn and Vienna. It's recommended for commuting because "it puts you in a little more upright position so you're able to keep your eyes on what's going on around you instead of tucked down," he adds. This bike also offers a wider tire for stability for hopping curbs. "In terms of urban ride, it generally makes cracks and bumps more comfortable," says Peguese. The cyclocross is for people who want speed and efficiency but also like to beat up their bikes. These bikes also tend to have racks attached to them for carrying things like a briefcase or a laptop.

Tip #2: If you're buying a bike to ride with a group of friends, pick the same type of bike they have. If you have the wrong bike, you might not be able to keep up with them.

Tip #3: The best time to buy a bike is at the end of the year when many retailers have sales to get rid of old inventory. Peguese says bike manufacturers have already told them that prices of 2009 bikes will be going up 15 to 25 percent because of gas prices and higher demand for bikes.

Tip #4: If you're going the used route, Peguese recommends Craig's List, as well as Phoenix Bikes, a non-profit organization in Arlington that trains kids how to fix bikes. They sell used bikes that have been fixed up.

Tip #5: If you're considering a used bike, take it for a few spins around the block to make sure it doesn't feel too big or too small. You could also go into a bike shop to get advice on what size bike would be good for your frame. If the bike frame is steel, check for corrosion like rust. "You want to stay away from a bike that has visible rust because if it's on the outside, there's a good chance there's quite a bit on the inside," Peguese says. If the bike has an aluminum frame, check for dents. You'll also want to stay away from those. With a carbon frame, you'll want to run your fingernail along the frame to check for scratches, which could mean that the bike has a hairline fracture -- also a no-no in buying a used bike.

Tip #6: Some bikes can be about as expensive as a small car. So Peguese says one way to cut back on the expense of a new bike is by going with a single speed, which requires less maintenance and will give you a better workout. A fixed-gear bike also requires less cash but you have to stop the bike with your feet rather than using a hand brake. This bike offers even more of a workout, says Peguese. "If you have a 10-mile commute, you're pedaling the whole way," he says.

Tip #7: If you're buying a bike for a child, make sure they can sit on the seat and comfortably reach the ground with their feet. The smallest bikes have 12-inch wheels and training wheels and can accommodate bikers as young as 3 years old. Once they turn five, you'll want to bump them up to 16-inch wheels. And then once they're around 7, they'll move into 20-inch wheels. These bigger bikes don't accommodate training wheels so you'll want to make sure they've learned how to ride a two-wheeler before moving them up to a bigger bike.

Do you own a bike? What are your tips for buying one? Where are the best local spots for buying a bike? Post a comment below.

By Tania Anderson |  September 9, 2008; 12:05 AM ET Tuesday Tips
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

While Craigslist can be a source of cheap bicycles, purchasing a used bike is paramount to buying a used car. You really need to know from a technical standpoint what you're looking at or you could end up spending more money in repairs than you would had you bought a new bike at a reputable bike shop.

And Cyclocross bikes are a great recommend, but they're not usually equipped with racks - that's more a touring bike or bikes sold as urban commuters. (Trek Portland as an example).

Additionally you seem to lump single speeds and fixed gears together. Yes on a "fixie" you're always pedaling, but single speeds have the coaster hubs we remember as kids, and usually have brakes.

Posted by: Roger | September 9, 2008 11:17 AM

Racks shouldn't be a concern when purchasing a bike. You can easily buy these "racks" (panniers) and put them on any bike you choose.

I recommend Conte's Bicycles in Arlington near Ballston, or Performance Bike, which has several locations in the DC area.

Posted by: tia | September 9, 2008 11:28 AM

Tip #7 is stupid. 1) It is easy to buy a brand-new, reliable, multi-gear bike for less than $600. 2) A one-speed will surely give you a workout... More likely you will injure yourself mashing up hills, or worse, you might die in a downhill crash because your cheapo bike can barely stop you on level ground, much less at 25+ mph.

Posted by: Dan | September 9, 2008 12:11 PM

Whoops. Tip #6 is stupid, not 7. I quit reading after 6.

Posted by: Dan | September 9, 2008 12:12 PM

To elaborate on the description of cyclocross bikes: while they don't typically come with racks installed, as Roger says, they do usually have the built-in mount points for racks and fenders, whereas a more fitness or racing-oriented road bike usually doesn't (If you're concerned about this kind of feature, ask about "braze-ons" when you go to a shop). Cyclocross bikes are also built to have better handling for tight maneuvers than typical road or touring bikes, which can be an advantage in the city. I use one for my 13 mile commute into DC every day, and it works great for me.

I also highly recommend that if you want to buy a bike to start commuting to work, see if you can find a friend who will lend you theirs so you can try it a few times. You'll discover what you like and don't like about that bike, and what you need for your particular commute and riding style. Then, when you go to make your own purchase, you can make a much more informed decision!

Posted by: John | September 9, 2008 12:21 PM

Hi, U did an article on 8/14/08: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/shoptoit/2008/08/finding_the_unpredictable_in_t.html

I'd like to know if u would happen to know the name brand on the carrot cake cookies?

Thanks a million !!!

Posted by: kenniesmail@yahoo.com | September 9, 2008 3:09 PM

Cost is no reason to mandate that one purchase a single-speed bike. Even more affordable bikes come in multiple speeds. I'd only recommend a single-speed to someone who's either a hard-core cyclist looking for a different sort of exercise, or someone who's literally looking to only ride a couple blocks at a time. Otherwise, you'd end up wherever you are panting and sweaty.

Posted by: stef | September 9, 2008 3:15 PM

Last year I wanted to buy a bike for myself, an overweight 30-something woman. I found the price on new bikes to be extremely outrageous! I was shopping in Ashburn and Sterling, VA. I would have loved to have bought a bike from a bike shop but their prices were just way too high for me. I refused to pay over $1,000 for a bike. I went to Toys R Us and bought one for $150. The seat wasn't comfortable, but I was able to buy a new seat for $20. The bike has multiple speeds, I didn't see any single speed bikes for sale. I see that this article doesn't list any specific prices for bikes. That would be more helpful.

Posted by: zebeagle | September 9, 2008 4:05 PM

Buying a used bike can be worse then buying a used car. At least with cars you can easily get blue book prices. I'd recommend checking this site for original price and specs. http://www.bikepedia.com/QuickBike/Default.aspx
I have no vested interest in the site but find it useful.
I've seen people try to sell used bikes for more than the cost of a new one on Craiglist. When checking out a used bike, if you aren't knowledgeable about bikes bring along someone who is.

Posted by: tomt | September 9, 2008 4:37 PM

If you purchase a "bike" at Toys R Us -- well, take a hint from the name. You're buying a toy, suitable for maybe a season or two of reasonable use. You'll end up spending more on maintenance and upgrades; you'll still end up with a vastly inferior product than even the cheapest bike sold & tuned by those who actually know what they're doing, rather than some kid in the back room getting paid on how many units per hour he can assemble.

That said -- if you are so blind as to be unable to find a bike in a bike shop for under a grand, you probably won't notice your current ride falling apart underneath you either.

Posted by: adam | September 9, 2008 5:26 PM

ADAM - What's the name of a bike store in Ashburn, Va that sells a bike for women for $200 or less? The bike that I got from Toys R Us last year is performing just fine for me! No problems so far.

Posted by: zebeagle | September 9, 2008 5:38 PM


Agree with Adam. Toys R Us is for toys. Although Bike stores usually specialize in higher-end bikes, I think the selection at Spokes is quite good, even for more moderately-priced bikes. A better solution might be sporting good stores, such as Dicks or Sports Authority. Generally don't have the higher-end equipment found in the Bike shops, but their inventory is much better quality than what you will find at TRU, and you can likely find something for less than $200 (or thereabouts).

Posted by: Bill | September 9, 2008 6:05 PM

BILL - I went to Dicks & Sports Authority in Sterling, VA. Neither one had bikes for less than $500. I searched the bike stores for 2 months before I finally had to go to Toys R Us.

I'm not joking. You can look this info up on the internet. I was looking at the beginning of the summer, so maybe their prices were hiked up.

Next May I'd like to see the Washington Post do an article on bikes and list prices that they find at various stores.

Posted by: zebeagle | September 9, 2008 6:23 PM

Buying bikes from toy stores = bad idea. They do not have mechanics. They have teenagers who have no vested interest in putting your bike together properly. Furthermore, when you spend around $150 on a used bike three things are guaranteed to be under quality: (1) the drive train, (2) the brakes, and (3) the wheelset. The first means that you will be replacing chains, chain rings and cogs more rapidly than if you spent even $150 more. The second means that when it is critical to stop, there is a good chance you won't be able to. Most toy bike companies (including the Schwins you see in Target) are designed for children or teen use, meaning their weight tolerances are lower. A full-grown adult may find the brakes not powerful enough for an emergency stop. Third means that small bumps, pot holes, even larger cracks can cause the wheels to fall out of true. When that happens the wheels tend to rub the brakes (which makes them prematurely wear), rub the frame at the seat- or wheel-stays (which can actually cause a catastrophic frame failure), and wear down the tire (which is also extremely cheap) and lead to puncture flats. It's a good bet $150 spent on a bike means you didn't take the time to learn how to change an inner-tube, either.

On another note, it doesn't really matter what you spend on your bike, but it may matter a great deal what you spend on your helmet. Helmets range from $15 to $300. Unless you are putting 200-300 miles a week on your bike, it's probably a not necessary to spend $300, but I would never recommend spending the bare minimum on a helmet. In a crash (and remind yourself that most impact-tests for AUTOMOBILES are done at 30-35MPH - a speed bikes can easily reach) the only thing between your gray-bits and the pavement, car trunk, or bus bumper is a thin layer of bone and a little thicker layer of foam. A quality helmet is a must. Snell or ANSI, 'nuff said.

Posted by: J | September 9, 2008 6:37 PM

Sorry, previous post, first paragraph, "used bike for $150" is supposed to read "new bike for $150"

Posted by: J | September 9, 2008 6:39 PM

J - You're right, I don't know how to change an inner tube or do any maintenance on my bike. But I do live 5 minutes away from one of those expensive bike stores. If I have any problems, which I haven't had in the past year, I could easily take my bike there to be repaired. I do wear a helmet but I didn't pay $300 for it. I bought it at Walmart so I think I paid about $20 for it.

Posted by: zebeagle | September 9, 2008 7:29 PM

chiming in another agreement that TRU bikes are not a good idea for commuting.

We got ONE bike from TRU when my daughter was 3 or 4. Ugh, When we looked there when she was older, we realized that you can't even change tires easily if you ever get a flat. Also I don't think you can switch out gears or chainrings.

Last year when she was 10, we went to our local bike shop and bought her a Raleigh mountain bike for $250. 26" tires.14" (?) frame. We can tinker with it as needed. Definitely worth the expense.

Posted by: slacker mom | September 10, 2008 6:41 AM

some good tips...

and the comments expanded on the tips

definitely stay away from the box store bike
bikes should be purchased at bike stores

used bikes?
an improper fit is not a good deal
who cares if you got a suit on sale if that suit does not fit

sadly the single speed or the fixed gear bike will not save anyone any money
there is a less expensive bike with gears in that same bicycle shop

as great as cyclocross bikes are...
they have an expensive starting point

and kid's bikes
fit is also important
too many parents see the price tag and get the bike that is too large thinking that the child will grow into it

I am not sure if you mentioned helmets

a bicycle blog in washington dc

Posted by: gwadzilla | September 10, 2008 8:08 AM

It should be noted that even buying a good quality bike is a sound investment, particularly if you are going to be riding to work every day. Given that merely one cost component of owning a car - the insurance - can easily run $800 a year, investing that amount in a bicycle which can easily last 10 years with proper maintenance is a relative bargain. When you start to add other car ownership costs - gas @ $1,200 a year, oil changes @ $50 a pop, a new set of tires for $400 - suddenly a solid, reliable bicycle starts to make a lot of sense at any price!

Posted by: disgruntled biker | September 10, 2008 9:51 AM

Cyclocross bikes can be wonderful commuter bikes. In Portland, Ore., one commuter bike with a fanatical cult following is the Surly Crosscheck, a sturdy but lightweight cyclocross model. One reason it's popular is that it's also good for long-distance touring and bike-camping. It does come with rear rack bosses, which are the holes that accommodate racks for saddlebags. Not all bikes have those (my road bike doesn't), and that kind of rack is a lot more stable and will carry more weight than one you'd have to mount from the seatpost.

My daughter switched to a Surly after she wore out the frame on her Fuji road bike. The cyclocross bikes also have slightly wider and thicker tires, and don't get as many flats as road bikes do. You do need to be okay with down-turned handlebars, though, and I agree hybrids are a better commuting choice for people who aren't.

Posted by: Joan | September 10, 2008 9:58 AM

another resource is WABA, Washington Area Bicyclist Association. they can put you in touch with area stores, clubs, people looking to sell used bikes, and people interested in helping get others into cycling and bike commuting. see WABA.org.

Posted by: s | September 10, 2008 9:59 AM

i bought a used road bike, which i use to commute my 7 miles to and from DC (from old town), for about $150 on Craig's list. This bike has saved me over 1K in metro fees in its first year. Go for the used bikes!!!! I can leave this one locked up on the street for the week end anywhere and no one touches it. If you get something new, you lose the flexibility to leave it places.

Posted by: laurie | September 10, 2008 10:06 AM

To the person with the Toys R Us bike: I just bought a new performance hybrid bike from a bike store. Though my bike wasn't cheap, I just helped my girlfriend buy a low-end Fuji commuter bike for $250 at Performance Bicycles. The bike even included a kickstand and a bell, and it has all the typical features of a legit bike. The best part is that her bike would blow any bike from a toy store out of the water.

I find it very confusing when people assume their bike should be cheaper than their TV set, cellphone, iPod, etc. Why should a vehicle that could last you 10 years or more cost less than these items? People will pay $500 for a TV, $350 for an iPod, $300 for a PDA phone...but won't pay $250 to $300 for a bicycle? Talk about misplaced priorities.

Just try riding a bike from a bike store, and compare it to riding your toy-store bike. You'll soon find that you got exactly what you paid for.

Posted by: jcabana | September 10, 2008 10:19 AM

I had a big-box store bike for a couple of years and I have to agree with everything negative that has been said about it. I got it when my daughter was learning to ride, and it was fine for that--slow speeds, suburban sidewalks and roads, no particular distance or elevation changes. But once I started riding it longer distances, I realized what a piece of junk it is. Even though it's aluminum, it's *heavy* and doesn't manoeuver well. No quick release on the wheels, so God help me if I get a flat. You feel every single vibration and bump from the road. And the third time out on a trip of greater than 10 miles, the front derailleur siezed up.

I left it on my porch and took my old steel touring bike to a bike shop and got it back in working order. It was a quality bike to begin with, and although the cost of the parts and labor to get it back on the road was more than some people want to pay for a complete bike it was worth it. This bike is nearly 20 years old, but for $400 I have the equivalent of a new Surly Long Haul Trucker and now commute 13+ miles one way to work. I don't think the Target special bike would have made it to work more than once.

Posted by: Sarah | September 10, 2008 10:22 AM

I decided I wanted a bike a couple of summers ago. Buying from a local independent shop is definately the way to go. I spent $350 for my bike. I not only got a good bike, I got a bike that fits my needs. I hadn't been on a bike since I was a kid. I knew nothing. I got a comfort seat, and handle bars set for me to sit up. Go LOCAL

Posted by: Alexandria | September 10, 2008 10:28 AM

Posted by: will | September 10, 2008 1:55 PM

Having commuted downtown over the years, I have some comments. First, unless you are only going along the river, get gears. Washington is on the fall line, and full of hills. You will be far better off with a slightly heavier (cheaper) frame, but gearing that allows you to pedal more efficiently.

Second, get the bike fitted properly. Not only the height - which is the common number - but also the length. Different manufacturers will feel differently. Stiffness is another consideration. Ride several bikes to get a feel for what feels best for you.

Finally, spend a little extra if you have to to get quick release wheels and seat. If you intend to commute, consider pannier bags instead of a backpack - you will be more stable and safer. And make sure you know how to change a tire and do routine maintenance. Bikes are simple, but things still go wrong,

Posted by: AlibiFarmer | September 10, 2008 2:34 PM

Anybody train their kiddo with a balance bike? I've seen wooden ones on One Step Up/Ahead (innovative and $$$ catalog for parents) and I'd like to hear if it's a good idea, and if you really DO skip training wheels altogether with teaching a preschooler to ride a bike.

Our family (2 parents, 2 teens and 2 under 3) rides bikes and we're trying to figure out the next step for teaching the little ones. The little ones both ride behind the adults in seats right now.

Local bike shops are great. They sell bike helmets that fit our kids with big heads (gave away the baby ones that never fit!) Our (current) local shop is Princeton Sports.

Posted by: slazar | September 10, 2008 2:34 PM

Hey everyone! I bought a Schwinn Voyageur a couple months ago from a bike shop for a bit less than $300 and it's been great. Some folks can probably do fine with TRU bikes, but I would *strongly* advise not skimping on your helmet! It's far to easy to take a serious tumble even on a flat service -- especially if something runs in front of you. Here's a link to Consumer Reports' bike helmet ratings for some reliable information: http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/babies-kids/school-age-kids/activities-sports/bike-helmets/bike-helmets-606/ratings/latest-ratings/index.htm

Posted by: Ellen | September 10, 2008 3:26 PM

I'll echo the comment about panniers (saddlebags) instead of a backpack. In addition to the reasons already mentioned, in the summer a backpack just adds to how hot you are! I commute year-round and recommend a touring-type bike. I also recommend REI as a good place to shop for bikes. Their prices are good and they have great mechanics on staff. And be sure to get a helmet. The biggest difference between the $35 basic and the $300 special is weight, not safety.

Posted by: Larry | September 10, 2008 3:42 PM

Two years ago I bought a Trek sport hybrid at Race Pace (in Columbia and Ellicott City, Md.) and love it. I ride it on relatively quiet streets in Clarksville, on the Baltimore-Annapolis Trail, and at rides like She Got Bike at Oregon Ridge and Seagull Century (66 miles) in Salisbury. I replaced the original seat with a more comfortable one. I'm a 55-year-old woman.

Posted by: JEM | September 10, 2008 4:15 PM

I agree with your views. I too am looking to do some around the block or bike trail riding and am horrified at the price of bikes in the speciality stores. I find a much better bargain in Walmart or similar places. I bought mine from Costco. Having had one of these bikes for a couple of years now, I really haven't had any problems but then I only do short rides for about a 1/2 hour at a time.

Posted by: Dick | September 10, 2008 4:51 PM

Before you buy a new bike at either a bike shop or a big box store check your garage. Earlier this summer
I took my 1990 Schwinn Mesarunner down from its ceiling hooks where it had been a garage pinata for a few years. After a bike store tune up (quite reasonable) and some new tires and tubes I was happily pedaling again. A pair of panniers and a light and a new helmet (PLEASE replace helmets every 2-3 years; they grow weaker with time) and I have a first class errand runner and a fun way to burn some calories and strengthen my heart. I figure I will amortize my total investment in about 4 tanks of gas i didn't have to buy to run errands and I'll feel environmentally virtuous doing it. A tip to bike shops: not everyone who walks in to buy a bike is Greg LeMond. How about pricing some bikes and some gear for the common individual who just wants a little fresh air without spending this month's mortgage?

Posted by: irv1 | September 10, 2008 6:34 PM

A want to second the article's recommendation of Pheonix bikes--I've not been there but its sounds similar to Velocipede in Baltimore. One of the glories of bikes is that if well taken care of they can last for decades. Often people discard or donate real gems. These volunteer projects rebuild quality bikes and offer them cheaply (at Velocipede you can even put volunteer hours towards earning a bike). No, you won't end up on the latest hot steed ready to win the tour du france, but they will put you on a ride more than suitable for commuting. Trust me, anything you get at such places will be loads better than anything you can get at walmart or Toys are us, albeit probably not as shiny. Plus you can glory in the fact that you are recycling even while saving gas and money.
In sum: cheaper than bikestore, better quality than box store.

Posted by: some guy | September 10, 2008 7:32 PM

Fixed gear (or single speed) bikes are only for those who are very fit and/or live in flat areas.

To the poster who was upset because she was unable to find a bike in her price range: if you wanted to live in an apartment, and found the prices higher than you wanted to pay (but not higher than you could afford), would you purchase a sleeping bag and live in a tree house?

Come on, stop being a troll, or realize you haven't purchased a bike, you've purchased a toy. If you're really trying to get fit, the you'll have to purchase suitable bikes anyway, real ones that will last more than the few rides you're going to get out of your bike.

No one has to spend a fortune to own a good bike, but no one should think they are purchasing a suitable bike - one that's going to offer the ability, for example, to help someone lose weight - when they shop at a toy store.

Posted by: Dave | September 11, 2008 2:56 AM

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