Like many avid cyclists, I have unwittingly assumed the role of "resident bicycle expert" at my workplace, amongst my family members, non-cycling peers, etc.
While flattering, I personally find it to be a frustrating, thankless and ultimately futile job (like the guy at the BMW factory who installs turn signals).
The absolute worst part of being the resident bike expert (RBE) is when a non rider (or new rider) asks me to recommend a new bike for him or her to buy. It's gotten to the point where I die a little on the inside whenever I'm approached with this question. This is because I know that regardless what I say, the person is most likely going to ignore my recommendation, and in doing so, needlessly waste money, learn a few lessons the hard way, ultimately wind up with a bike that collects dust, not discover the joys of cycling, and there's nothing I can do to stop it.
I've thought about this a bit and while I don't remotely have a solution, I feel like I've at least narrowed down the causes. Here's my theory:
Perception vs. Reality
I feel like the main reason new riders have a tough time purchasing a bike is that lots of things about bicycles are counter-intuitive. For example, in some instances running a lower tire pressure can actually make you go faster. Spending a season riding a single speed might make you better at using your gears.
The bulk of counter-intuitive things on a the bike, however, seem to do with the topic of comfort. The most obvious example pertains to what makes for a comfortable saddle.
Anyway, after 10 years of serious cycling, I've come to believe that if you're going to ride frequently and/or ride long distances, a comfortable bike possesses the following qualities:
But perception says otherwise. To a new rider (or a rider who hasn't ridden since childhood), perception says one needs a gel saddle big enough to land an airplane on (bonus points if you have a gel cover over it). Equally vital is one of those pogo stick seat posts and a mountain bike-style suspension fork. Extra crucial are knobby tires ("for potholes" and "for jumping curbs") and a riding position so upright, the cyclist is practically leaning backward.
Ok, before anyone gets riled up, let me just stop and say this: If a rider is elderly or legitimately has an injury or a physical condition which dictates the need for (what the bicycle industry calls) a "comfort bike," and that bike enables that person to ride comfortably and enjoy cycling, then absolutely that is the bike that person should choose.
But my personal theory is that the bike industry offers comfort bikes not because they want to, but because the market dictates their existence based on the "perception" of what makes a bike comfortable.
So, for anyone tempted by the allure of supposed, perceived plushness, Let me clear up what I believe to be myths.
All in all, the cushy stuff they put on comfort bikes adds weight and complexity to the bike, while reducing pedaling efficiency. It also adds cost, meaning that the bike company has to compensate by putting cheaper, heavier components elsewhere on the bike in order to meet the price point.
In other words, these components (installed in the name of "comfort") make it harder to pedal the bike. When a bike is hard to pedal, to me that's the very definition of uncomfortable. And when a bike is uncomfortable, you don't ride it as much.
I would conservatively say that 75% of the serious cyclists I know ride a variation of the same bike. To be clear, I'm not talking about their race bikes or bikes specifically for mountain biking or other special purposes. I'm talking about the bikes they ride to work every day, on long weekend trips, and in some instances across the entire country. These are the bikes they'd choose if they could only own bike.
That bike is often steel-framed and has drop-style handlebars and semi-slick tires of a moderate width (700x28 or 700x32, oftentimes). To the casual observer, it looks like a road bike but is actually derived from the sport of cyclocross. If you stand on a street in Seattle or Portland during rush hour, you'd see dozens upon dozens of commuters on these very same bikes, generally outfitted with full-length fenders and saddlebags. I own a variation of one of these bikes myself.
Typical examples include the Surly Cross Check, Bianchi Volpe, All City Space Horse, Gunnar Crosshairs and the Soma Double Cross. The big manufacturers have caught on and recently added sensible offerings like the Trek CrossRip, Specialized Awol and the Giant Anyroad. You can run skinny or fat tires on them, strip them down or outfit them with racks and fenders. They are the Swiss army knives of the bike world and they are about the safest recommendation I could ever offer to a new rider.
The trouble is that these bikes generally retail for around $1250. To an avid cyclist that's a solid value. To a non cyclist, that's highway robbery. Also, new riders run for the hills when they spot the drop handlebars, skinny-ish tires, rigid fork and the minimally-padded saddle. Therefore, my suggestion gets brushed aside and talk returns to the such and such that's on sale at the big box retailer.
The funny thing is that a person can, without blinking, drop $40,000 on an SUV or $3,500 on a bedroom set...but balk at $1,250 for something that will bring you years of fitness, enjoyment and utility.
Like everything else, you get what you pay for with bikes. I'm not saying you can't get a solid, functional bike for under $1,000. But if price is your primary criteria, and you'd rather save a few bucks than get the bike that best suits your needs, put your wallet away because either that bike will be collecting dust in your garage in a few months, or you're going to outgrow it and buy the bike you should have bought the first time around.
The Fitness Barrier:
Ever go for a jog after a long layoff from running? Remember going to a Yoga class for the first time? Jump into a pickup basketball game after not playing since high school? You felt like crap, right? That's because these sports require specific types of fitness that you don't focus on in everyday life. You get over that fitness barrier by doing that activity on a regular basis.
The same holds true for cycling. It's a sport, after all. A bike is not a chair. It's a machine that requires you to actively balance and propel yourself forward. So when a new rider perceives a bike to be uncomfortable, what's actually causing the discomfort is a lack of bike-specific fitness. It's not the bike.
Getting to the Point:
If you're going to appoint me "RBE" and ask me my recommendation, at least do me the honor of considering my advice. What is my advice? Glad you asked.
Lastly, use some common sense. If the serious cyclists you know all ride bikes with narrow saddles, slick tires and there's not a suspension fork or pogo stick seatpost in sight, think for a moment why that is...and then think why you're about to drop hard-earned money on something that bears no resemblance to what they're riding.
About the Author
Brett Ratner (firstname.lastname@example.org) began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums and gravel for The Bonebell.