Beginners’ guide to buying a bike

Get the right bike for your needs

The cycling boom of the past few years has meant there’s more choice than ever before in your local bike shops, and more other places selling bikes too. Let us guide you through buying the right bike.


Set your goals

If you can describe what you want to do with your new bike, you’ll make things much easier for yourself and the salesperson who’s helping you choose. Form follows function, and that’s especially true of bikes. Different bikes are intended for different types of riding and some are very specific to their purpose. However, most bikes are pretty versatile – you can ride to work, to the shops and round the hills on the same bike.

One of the most common aims is simply to ride to work, replacing the crush of public transport or the cost of burning dinosaurs with the bike’s traffic-nippiness and freedom. People commute on a range of bikes, but experienced commuters go for tourers – drop-handlebar bikes with mudguards, racks and tyres that are a bit fatter than the very narrow ones favoured by racers.

Many bike commuters prefer the more upright position provided by a flat handlebar, though. They go for hybrids – bikes with the same large, fast-rolling wheels but with bars and controls more akin to those found on fat-tyre mountain bikes. Hybrids and drop-bar commuter bikes are also great for exploring country lanes and bike paths at the weekend.

If your goals are a bit sportier, but still on tarmac, then you should be looking at road racing bikes, or their slightly less purpose-specific brothers, sportive bikes. Both have drop handlebars for a variety of hand positions and aerodynamics, but a sportive bike will have a more upright riding position and usually a wider range of gears.

If you want to head out onto the trails, then a mountain bike is the way to go. Perhaps you’re already into outdoor sports and you want to get deeper into the countryside, or you fancy zooming round your local trail centre or bikepark. Either way, you need an upright, wide position for control, fat tyres with lots of grip, a big range of gears, and powerful brakes.

Not confident of your fitness or want a little help getting up the hills? Take a look at electric bikes. The latest advances in battery and motor design mean that electric bikes offer a genuine advantage especially when it comes to easing hills and zipping away from the lights.

If you’re planning ‘mixed-mode’ trips, like a commute that involves a train ride, then a folding bike may be perfect for you. While folders are usually a bit slower and heavier than regular bikes, nothing beats their convenience or ease of parking. You can’t sneak a full-size bike on a rush hour train or under your desk. At the luxury end of the market, lightweight folders with suspension are almost as quick and comfortable as regular bikes.

If you’re not going very far, and you live somewhere flat, the classic English roadster is a viable option. Upright, sedate and dignified, they’re perfect for simple transportation. Similarly simple and suited for round-town riding are the ultra-hip bikes known as fixies. Based on bikes used for racing on wooden indoor bike tracks, fixies don’t have a freewheel: if you’re moving, you’re pedalling.

Younger riders will need specific kids’ bikes. It’s worth buying quality if you possibly can. Cheap kids bikes tend to be extraordinarily heavy and very poorly made, whereas if you spend a bit more your child gets a lighter bike that holds its resale value when he or she outgrows it. Older kids are back in love with BMX bikes, and there’s nothing better for building bike-handling skills and all-round having fun.

Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions – bike shop staff are a fount of useful knowledge and advice.:
Steve Behr

Most bike shops stock a wide range of bikes, which can make it difficult to decide which one is for you

Set your budget

Real bikes cost from around £200 upwards. You can get bikes that cost less, but they’re almost always poor quality. A bike costing £200 or more will be relatively light, so it’s easy to load into the car or carry up to a flat; it’ll have brakes and gears that work well; and its wheels will be straight and will stay that way. Most importantly, it will be durable. The Achilles heel of cheap bikes is that even if they work well when they’re new, they rarely stay that way.

You should expect to wheel a bike out of the shop fully assembled and ready to ride. Cheap bikes often have to be assembled by the buyer. This requires a level of knowledge that consumer programmes such as the BBC’s Watchdog have found is beyond most people. The result is a home-built bike that’s actually dangerous.

You’ll find good bikes in specialist bike shops. Steer clear of supermarkets, and other general stores like sports gear shops; they’re the worst offenders when it comes to offering super-cheap, low-quality bikes.

Choose a shop

Decent bikes come from specialist bike shops, and such shops all have their own personalities. A shop that focuses on high-end road racing bikes for local club riders isn’t the best place to start, unless you enjoy being bamboozled by jargon. A shop that’s friendly to beginner riders will have staff who talk clear English, and will ask you what you’re planning to do with the bike – and listen to your answers – rather than rattle off a stream of buzzwords.

Browse a few bike shops before you think about buying. Listen to the way the staff deal with other customers, and get a feel for the type of bikes they sell. Because bikes need maintenance, and replacement parts like tyres and tubes down the line, you’ll very probably be back.

As well as expert advice a real bike shop will make sure the bike is put together  properly. Bikes come from the factory in varying states of disassembly, depending on the manufacturer, and the right tools and knowledge are vital to make sure the bike is fully safe and roadworthy.

A good bike shop will also offer a post-delivery check-up, typically after a month, so they can make sure everything has bedded in properly and is still working well. Buying a bike can be the start of a long retail relationship!

Time for the credit card…: time for the credit card…
Steve Behr

If you buy from a bike shop, the relationship doesn’t end when you hand over your credit card details

Choose your gears

Most modern bikes have lots of gears. Systems with 16, 20, 27 and even 30 gears aren’t unusual. The idea here is to provide you with a wide range of gears so that you can ride comfortably up or down anything, so it’s not the number of gears that really matters but whether the range fits the terrain you’ll be riding in. If you’ll only be riding on flat roads you don’t need the super-low gears of a typical mountain bike, but if you have to tackle hills you can’t have too low a gear.

Most gear systems use derailleurs – mechanisms that move the chain around the sprockets. They’re light and efficient, but exposed to the elements and vulnerable to crash damage. Gears enclosed in the rear hub – unsurprisingly called hub gears – are enjoying a comeback on practical bikes. They’re available with between three and 14 gears, operated by a single simple control on the handlebar. Hub gears are a little heavier than derailleurs, but their ease of use and tidiness makes them attractive to many riders.

Some riders have abandoned gear mechanisms altogether and ride singlespeeds – bikes with just one gear. These bikes make great, simple urban transportation in flat areas, and off-road versions provide a challenge for experienced mountain bikers who enjoy not having to think about gear choice. The ultimate super-simple urban bike is the fixed-gear bike. This is a singlespeed with no freewheel: if the bike is moving you have to pedal. Currently wildly hip, fixed-gear bikes take practice to master, but provide a unique feeling of being connected to the machine.

Make sure the bike shop shows you how the gears work, and then take the time to get familiar with them. Find a flat, traffic-free spot like a car park and click your way up and down the gear range. You’ll probably find the lowest gears feel far too easy on the flat. That’s how it should be – you’ll be glad you have them when you’re tackling a hill.

Get the right size

One of the many reasons to buy a bike from a specialist bike shop is that they’ll make sure you get a frame that’s the right size. Just like trousers come in different lengths, so bikes come in different frame sizes to match your leg length. Bike size is quoted as the length of the seat tube (the frame part where the saddle is mounted) or in T-shirt style from extra-small to extra-large. Getting the size right is important. A bike that’s too large will be ungainly and possibly dangerous, while you won’t be able to get the saddle high enough for comfortable pedalling if the bike is too small.

You should be able to stand over the frame of it with your feet flat on the floor and a few centimetres’ clearance between your body and the bike. You need more clearance if you’ve chosen a mountain bike and you’re going to ride it off road, so you have space for rapid dismounts. You should be able to raise the saddle so you have a comfortable reach to the pedals with your knee just shy of straight when the pedal is at the bottom of its rotation. The tube supporting the saddle is called the seatpost and will have a mark to indicate its maximum safe extension. Don’t raise it above this. If you need to raise the saddle this high, you need a larger frame.

Frame size doesn’t just indicate how tall the bike is. As frames get bigger, they also get longer, so if a bike is the wrong size for you, the reach to the handlebars will be too short or too long, both of which quickly get uncomfortable. It’s tempting to go for a very small mountain bike frame to maximise clearance, but this proportionality means you may find a small bike is too short and the bars too low.

A spin round the block will help you decide if a bike is right for you:
Steve Behr

Correct sizing is important; a spin round the block will help you decide if a bike is right for you

The suspension question

Mountain bikes intended for real off-road use have shock-absorbing systems. Bikes with suspension just up front, in the fork, are known as hardtails, while bikes with front and rear suspension are referred to as full- or dual-suspension bikes. Copying the look of these bikes, some cheaper mountain bikes and even some hybrid bikes also have suspension forks. Unfortunately, inexpensive suspension systems work poorly and add weight and complexity, so it’s best to steer clear of them unless you’re spending £600 and up.

Take a test ride

When it comes to testing it out, there’s no substitute for a spin round the block or car park to get a feel for the fit and handling of your potential new bike. Expect to leave cast-iron security with the shop: a credit card, other proof of identity or the value of the bike in cash. Many manufacturers organise demo days, where you can ride a range of their bikes. Ask about these at your  local bike shops, especially at the beginning of the year when new models are being introduced.

Alternatives: Second-hand and internet shops

A lot of the best deals available on bikes new and old are to be found on the internet. Now that purchasing online is done with barely a flicker of concern, you should be able to find plenty of good deals that could save you money while helping to keep the parcel delivery industry afloat. But make sure to set aside at least £30-£50 to get things sorted mechanically during the first month because, unlike purchases made at your local bike shop, you won’t able to send a web-bought bike back for its first service. Consequently, any problems or tweaks will most likely have to be dealt with at the local shop.

You also miss out on the personal touch if you buy online, so if you don’t have an expert friend to offer advice, or you’re unsure of what you want and need, you might be better off with a bricks-and-mortar bike shop. eBay and other auction sites are another obvious online option. However, we’d only recommend purchasing here if you’re an experienced mechanic. If you’re looking at buying secondhand, it’s best to do so in a situation where you can wheel the bike over to a shop for a professional assessment.


Want more beginner tips? Then make sure you pick up On Your Bike! Your Complete Beginner’s Guide to Cycling.