The Chainlink

Please don't flame me for posting this, but I am looking for help in picking a bike and learning how to ride a bike safely in the city. I am a mom and I work downtown. I would like a bike for casual riding, possibly with the ability to carry a kid or two, and maybe for commuting to work if I can get the hang of it.

I need help!

What kind of bike should I get? Not able to spend a fortune but willing to invest in a good, safe, well-built and reliable bike especially since I might be transporting children on it.

Where can I take a bike safety class on traffic rules, proper locking techniques for the city, etc?

How can I learn the best and safest route from home to work? 

Thank you! 

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Thank you, everyone, for all the help and great advice. I am working on getting a bike, and I signed up to get a biking buddy. I really appreciate all your help and suggestions!

Re: safe routes. Looking at Google, etc, is nice, but feeling safe is a matter of personal preference. The most important thing is to have an idea of where you're going and what intersections might cause you problems. The last thing you want is to freelance and wind up on a street like Ashland or Western.

Starting out, sometimes it's just easier to take less busy streets and see how you feel. There's no shame hopping the neighborhood streets, but just watch out for uncontrolled intersections with traffic. I used to ride Ravenswood a lot instead of Damen, and it had more than a few tricky intersections to cope with.

Of course, another way to learn routes is to ride with some people and see how they like to go. Comfort in traffic is learned, and it'll come along, so don't feel bad if everyone says you should be comfortable on route X and you're not.

And, of course, The Chainlink is great for discussing/questioning routes!

I hate that everyone immediately defaults to road/cyclocross bikes with drop bars around here.  Not everyone races their bikes on the weekend or needs to fly around town at top speed.  Sure, I ride a cyclocross bike, but it has flat bars and v-brake levers on it.  Heck, I even have a kickstand.

My suggestion would be to find something comfortable and reliable.  A Wal-Mart or Target bike will work for awhile, but they're built with really low-quality parts that won't last very long or work very well.  I would suggest something more upright like a mixte or Dutch-style bike, which are comfortable, reliable, and stylish.

A car analogy I like to use is: You wouldn't buy a car from Wal-Mart or Target, you would buy it from a dealership.  It is the same with bikes.  Stick to bike shops and co-ops and you should be fine.  They sell better-quality bikes, have the experience to give you informed advice, and have full mechanic services should your bike break down, or just need a tune-up or tweak.  Most bike shops will give you the first tune-up free if you bought the bike from them, which is a $50-or-so perk that's nice when you've had the bike for a year and all the cables have stretched and things aren't working tip top anymore.

Some things to think about: Linus makes a nice range of city bikes that I think pretty much any shop can order for you.  The Mixte 3 on that page has a 3-speed hub (the gears are fully enclosed, so no worries about the chain falling off), full fenders, and rear rack as standard equipment.  If that's too expensive, you can visit one of the shops Yasmeen mentioned (I personally love Working Bikes) to try to find a nice used bike.  Alternatively (watch me get flamed for this) you could check out the Windsor lineup from BikesDirect.com.  They are well-made but will need to be assembled by a professional mechanic, so tack on an extra $50-100 for a local bike shop to build it up.

Hey Gecko, I am not going to flame you but I will say this, if you can afford a nice bike, buy locally rather than online. Here's why:

1. Building a relationship with a local bike shop is important for maintenance and advice. 

2. Buying locally supports your local businesses and community.

3. We have a lot of awesome local bike shops, why buy online? Just a better experience.

4. Bike fit. Buying online doesn't give you access to a bike fit professional, buying locally does.

5. They can talk with you about the best gear for your bike e.g. fenders, racks, bags, etc.

e.g. Linus and Surly are sold at Johnny Sprockets. Public Bikes at BFF Bikes. Bianchi at BFF, On the Route, & Boulevard Bikes.

Don't get me wrong, keeping it local is a high priority of mine as well, for all the reasons mentioned above.  My personal favorite local shop is Smart Bike Parts because they're super close to my house and because I have a good relationship with most of the guys that work there simply because I go there a lot.  They are also very competitive on price, and often cheaper than most other shops.  Also, when I order stuff they are usually very good about letting me know if it came in quicker than expected (which happens a lot) or if there was an issue and the shipment got delayed for some reason.

HOWEVER, if cost is an issue (why I brought it up in the first place) and you know what you're looking for, you can get a decent bike online and then have a shop build it and maintain it for you.  You would still be supporting the shop, and will most likely develop a good relationship with them eventually if you keep going back. I build all my bikes myself, so my local shops are there for emergencies, impulse buys like accessories, or ordering a special part that I can't find somewhere else like custom-length spokes.

I was simply offering a different viewpoint, but I certainly wouldn't recommend going out and buying your first bike online.  There is a lot to think about when choosing a bike, and a good shop will be able to help identify all the things that need to taken into consideration.  If a certain bike doesn't come with the particular accessories you need, they can point you in the right direction and sell you those also.

I have a problem with bike fittings for non-racers.  I think finding your ideal GENERAL bike fit is a good idea, but measurements and science do not always mean a certain bike will fit you well.  Just because I CAN (and according to my inseam, SHOULD) ride a 54cm frame with a long top tube doesn't mean it's the most perfect fit for me.

I'm going to disagree on your comment about bike fittings being for racers. I really don't think having your bike fit is only important if you race your bike. If you do any significant amount of miles on your bike, it can really hurt your back, knees, etc. if your bike doesn't fit you correctly. That can make riding a bike be a bad experience and then you may not want to ride anymore. If you found your right fit on your own, that's great, but not everyone is able to figure that out on their own.

Sorry, I still respectfully disagree.  I do see them as a benefit if someone is having a truly difficult time finding a bike that fits, or if they have some previous injury or disability that needs special attention, or if they're a racer looking for an edge.

For the average Joe, it is not hard to find a bike that fits reasonably well and will be comfortable for short to medium rides (which I consider 30 miles at most).

I'm not saying everyone should figure it out on their own either.  A shakedown ride at the shop with a mechanic making a few tweaks here and there (I would expect any reputable shop to do this) will get most people 75% comfortable, and often the last 25% is "getting used to it" for people who haven't been on a bike in years.  Many mountain bikes only come in XS, S, M, L, and XL sizes for that reason (and it costs less to manufacture less sizes of frames).  You can fit almost any bike to almost any body type or riding style just by adjusting the seat height, seat angle, seat rail/clamp location, handlebar orientation, and stem reach.  All of those are easy to change, usually with a single wrench, and the only new part required would be a different length stem (as a last resort) to alter the reach.

I mention the 75/25 thing because after my broken ankle, I was off the bike for a couple months, and in that short time everything atrophied.  For many months afterward, any time I tried to take a ride more than a few miles, I was sore in places that hadn't been sore in years.  Suddenly I had pain and pressure points again, on a previously 100% perfectly dialed-in bike that I had been riding comfortably for years.  Now that I'm riding more (after many months), that's thankfully all gone away, and I still haven't changed a single thing about the bike setup.

What I'm trying to say is that if someone says a bike is uncomfortable, it's most often either the rider mistaking their lack of saddle time for bad bike fit, they need a slight tweak to one of the above adjustments, or they have some underlying condition causing the pain.  Only the latter might benefit from a bike fit; for the former two, they need more saddle time or a small tweak to truly tell, and a full-on pro bike fit at this stage is probably just a waste of money.

My advice to Citymom is to test ride as many bikes as you can, and if you feel that one (or a few) stands out from the bunch, go back once or twice more and keep narrowing the list.  You'll eventually end up with the one bike that you feel is the most comfortable, which is probably the right choice as long as it fulfills the rest of your criteria too.

I'm getting a bit tired of hearing that I should support my local bike shop. Just because they are near me I should give up my hobby and give them my money?

For me in the SW Suburbs there are no "awesome" bike shops. Some are OK at certain times. Mostly they are just trying to sell you something in a hurry. Start shelling out hundreds or thousands and they are your best friend. I like some of the guys (only guys seem to work at these stores) at some of the shops but most are condescending. They act like if you want to work on your own bike then you are a horrible person and surely you must be doing a bad job and risking your life foolishly. For me, working on my bikes is at least half of the fun. Mostly, I cringe to have to go to a local bike shop for something. I believe my local bike shop should support me and if they do then they get my money. They can build a relationship with me!

For my new bike I bought my frame local and also local for some accessories. I bought online for many items. I am willing to pay hundreds more to avoid most bike shops. Two of my online providers have brick and motor stores so really how local should I be? If it's California is that OK?

Fortunately I have a couple of guys that will help me with some things that I don't have tools or time for, and they do it with appreciation- Gracias a Dios

What kind of bike did you ride as a kid?  Mine was a hybrid like bike with low top tube, thick tires, and straight handlebars.  I think you would be more comfortable with straight or cruiser handlebars which most people are familiar with.  Low top tube will be easy for you to mount especially if you want to transport kids.  I agree with Yasmeen.  While a bike from Target/Walmart at under $200 is tempting, don't do it!  They're often uncomfortable and make you hate riding before you even start.  Working Bikes/Westtown Bikes are great options for used bikes.  Only thing I would be wary of is there is such thing as too vintage.  My '63 Schwinn has weird size wheels that nobody makes so upgrading wheelsets were tricky for me.  Ask the volunteers make sure your parts can be easily replaced.

Start easy, rides less than 4 miles.  I started by riding on weekends when there was less car traffic, just 2 miles to the library or grocery store, routes that had bike lanes.  Gradually, you will be more used to being a cyclist in traffic.  I  

I have few ideas I have formed during years of city riding, trail riding and commuting.
For someone to start but feels strongly that the first bike will be THE bike for years of riding and needs to be a solid and versitle platform. In todays market the solid names all offer good options for this 'entry' level bike and if you're lucky and willing to explore the wider marketplace the many viable options can be eye opening.
As an old and wise (that line itself dern near disqualifies the value) rider I would suggest exploring the ranks of the 'city bike or hybrid' style. For riding in the city and in traffic the more upright position makes visibilty a bit better and if properly fit (and as time goes on components can bne changed for better performance and fit) while not compimising the effective distance to be comfortably navigated. I was lucky to have found a great model offered as a lost leader by a sports chain that just don't pop up that often. It is a well made aluminum frame that is lightweight and despite aluminum's notorious stiffness is a forgiving steed when ridden with a proper balance of weight between hands and feet and buttocks. This bike was spec'd out (the components) with no front derailuer but a 9speed SRAM twist grip rear shifter. This minimizes potential problems with thingies mechanical but offers options for adapting gears to needs on road like loaded weight and the mild rises in the terrain...that bridge over the river or the driveway into the grocery store. I have a Burley trailer (Travoy...cargo only, no passengers) and it handles it well. For 2 kids depending on size there are rider trailers and seat options available.
Any good mid level city bike by a big name company (Trek,Schwinn, Specialized and others) sold by a local shop with an eye for sales and last year model pricing will find you a good mount. The issues in any shop is the attention the people are offer to get you fitted for 'riding compartment' which places t5he 'reach' to handlebars and pedals and the spec's for the type of riding you're doing (number of gears, type of shifting) plus small details that are personal to each rider. Some riders are dicey about coming to a stop if the pedal ground clearence is too high and they have too hopp off the seat unless they are dexterous. Others prefer a low clearance so they can stay in the saddle (which can be hazardous if you have a child in a bike seat as the kids weight needs to be balanced as well.
I also have a road bike in my stable (an old reworked schwinn) and a Fisher Mountain Bike (for playing in the dirt) so I like to have the right tool for the task.
You can find the right tool but don't get cheap if you want to be happy in the long term but spending way too much can be disappointing in a different way especially since you don't sound like you have the needs for racing bike high end techno-goodies and must consider life in the city with road conditions and potential theft of glitzie high end equipment.
good riding...and keep your feet moving in good lil circles...
JM CHGO

Chicago Bike Buddies links people who want to bike in the city with experienced riders. You can check them out here... http://chicagobikebuddies.com/

Hi Everyone. Thanks so much for all the replies. I really appreciate it! 

I didn't meant to start a debate about buying locally (or anything else). I did find a great gently used bike at a good price at a family-owned shop, but it's in Milwaukee. Not sure if that qualities as buying locally or not since it's not here, but there you have it. It's a dutch bike, which is what I really wanted, and I had the chance to ride the same bike here and loved it. Probably a nicer bike that what I really need, but it's well made, heavy and I think I will feel good about putting my kids on it when I get comfortable enough to do so. 

As soon as I get it and get a chance to practice a little, I will sign up for one of the classes you mention. I also wrote to the Bike Buddies and hope to get connected with someone, if not now then in a few weeks. 

Finally, can anyone recommend a rear child seat? I have a 1.5 yr old and a 3.5 yr old. Not sure if there is a seat they could both use safely at these ages?

Thanks so much for the helpful and supportive responses. 

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