There are more bike choices than ever for 2014. Travel, wheel size, geometry – it's confusing stuff. And to add to the decisions you have to make about the bike itself, you have to decide where to buy it.
Traditionally, you went to a bike shop, but buying online from brands that sell direct is becoming an increasingly popular option. It's not hard to see why – with an extra layer of price markup taken out of the equation, you end up paying less, or getting more bike for the same money.
The downside is that you're unlikely to be able to get a test ride first, and if anything goes wrong then after-sales service tends to involve reboxing the bike and sending it away somewhere. Not to mention the negative impact on those ever useful local bike shops if no one buys bikes from them.
Shop bought – pros and cons
The key advantage of buying from an actual physical shop is face-to-face advice, both in terms of buying the right sort of bike and also when it comes to fit and sizing.
For example, Trek's Fuel EX 29 6 is available in six sizes, some of them very close together. You're very likely to need the help of a shop to choose between 17.5 and 18.5, or 18.5 and 19.5. That's the sort of sizing decision for which being able to actually sit on the bike and have someone else there to look at you really helps.
Most shops also offer a free tune-up after a month or two to iron out any niggles that may crop up as parts bed in. And if anything goes wrong, warranty issues are more easily dealt with by returning to a shop. A first service and warranties can of course be handled by an on-line retailer too, but you'll need to send them the bike which isn't always practical.
Apart from the fact that you're likely to pay a bit more, there aren't many downsides to shops. The main one is that, while there are lots and lots of bike shops, really good ones are more thinly spread, and a shop with a good reputation that also stocks the brand you're interested in may be some distance away. And even a big shop may not have the exact model and size you want, meaning a return trip later on.
Direct buying – pros and cons
There are a couple of flavours of ‘direct’ buying. Some manufacturers, like Polygon (sold through bicyclesonline.com.au), ship bikes straight from distributor to customers – Polygon's based in Indonesia but bicyclesonline.com.au is the only middle-man in the equation, yet is still there for help and support.
Then there are mail-order shops with their own bike brands, like Cell or Reid Cycles. Cell and Reid are both prominent online, but also have a growing bricks and mortar retail presence. You'll also find some shops with exclusive deals with manufacturers, with those bikes only being available from that retailer (although the retailer doesn't actually own the brand).
Whichever way it's set up, the major benefit of buying direct is a simple one – price. Because there are fewer intermediaries between you and the manufacturer, there are fewer additional layers of margin getting added on to the price. You can expect to pay less for an equivalently-specced bike or, conversely, get better kit for your money.
There are downsides of direct buying, of course. A test ride, or even just sitting on a bike for size, is a challenge unless you can get yourself to a suitable demo day.
Clued-up direct sellers are good at helping out with size and fit, and if you've had a few bikes and know what suits you then you're well-placed. But if you're less sure, you're more likely to make a mistake. Returning a direct-bought bike isn't usually that challenging, though – put it back in the box, call the supplier and a van comes to get it. You do have to be in, of course.
If you're a relatively inexperienced rider, on maybe your second bike, or don't feel that you have a particularly confident grasp of fit and geometry, visit a shop for your new bike. The direct suppliers make it as easy as they can, but phone calls, emails and Skype chats can't match face-to-face advice
On the other hand, if you know exactly what you want, going direct is certainly tempting. It's hard to ignore the startling value of the likes of Cell and Polygon, with the caveat that buying online does represent a small gamble (even if what you're mainly risking is a bit of inconvenience).