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Bike to Work Guide
By Paul Dorn/Roni Sarig

Image of Bike to Work Guide cover


Here are a few considerations I generally offer prospective bike buyers. These are entirely subjective, based on my years of cycling and bike commuting experience. You'll likely encounter many other veteran cyclists with alternative ideas, strategies, or philosophies. Consider them all, and determine which bits of advice work best for you, and then weave together your own "bike philosophy." What follows is an over-simplified over-generalization. In the final analysis, you should trust your instincts: Do you like the feel and ride of the bike? That's all that really matters, right?


The most important factor to consider when buying a bike isn't price, but comfort. If you purchase a quality bicycle and store it indoors, maintain it regularly, and replace parts as they wear out, your new bike could easily last for 10-20 years. Think of buying a bike as making a "lifetime" investment. It's far better to get a bike that fits well and can offer an enjoyable ride for decades, than one that happens to be cheap at the moment. Today's bargain can become tomorrow's aggravation. It's also easier and less expensive to buy exactly what you want and enjoy it, than to buy something less suitable and try to "adapt" it to your needs (changing tires, components, saddles, etc.)

Cost isn't the most important factor when buying a bike. Bikes are inexpensive, period. You can usually find a great bike for less than the cost of making just one car payment.


My advice to people new to bicycling or resuming cycling after several years is to buy a new bicycle, for many reasons. New bikes come with full warranty protection, in the unlikely event of problems. Newer bikes are less prone to mechanical failures, and most bike shops offer a 90-day "break-in" period where they'll make minor adjustments. You can find just the right combination of color, fit, style, and options buying new, where you have less choice buying a used bike. Bike technology has also improved markedly in recent years, especially shifting, braking, and frame materials -- newer bikes simply work better.

It is true that you can often find great deals on a used bike. I've enjoyed finding those great older bikes and fixing them up into outstanding vintage cycling machines, as I did with my older Trek touring bike. However, buying a used bike, just like buying a used car, is risky. If you don't know exactly what you want or if you lack the mechanical skills to adapt a used bike to your needs, then you should buy a new bike. Again, the most important consideration isn't price, but comfort. Get the right bike.


For new (or returning) cyclists, my best suggestion is to visit a local bicycle shop. These specialty retailers are usually listed under "Bicycles" in your local yellow pages. If a bike is a "lifetime" purchase, then you will be interested in a "partnership" with the entity that sells you the bike. Acquiring the bicycle is just the start of this relationship.

Generally, the most important resource offered by specialty bike dealers is their helpful staff who can assist you with selecting just the right bike. The better bike shops will also offer various accessories to make cycling more enjoyable, offer bike maintenance and cycling skills workshops, serve as community centers where you can network with other local cyclists, and provide the best advice on local cycling conditions, routes and destinations.

Of course, there are other places where you can buy a bicycle, such as the Internet, department stores, sporting goods retailers, and other outlets. My strongest advice is NOT to be tempted by the low-cost bikes sold by "big box" mass merchants such as Wal-Mart, Target, Sportmart or Toys R Us. Not only do these stores lack the service that a specialty bike retailer offers, but the bikes they sell are cheap junk, just barely rideable, and are the surest way to guarantee that you won't enjoy cycling.

In recent years the Internet has emerged as a retailing venue for all kinds of products, including bicycles. Many bikes are sold on E-Bay, to name just one example. Unless you are a knowledgeable and experienced cyclist, my advice is to avoid any bike you haven't test ridden. Getting the "wrong" bike will make cycling less fun, and you won't continue biking for long.


My thinking regarding bike material is basically this: Steel is Real. For more than a century, steel was the material of choice for bicycle manufacturing. It's durable, flexible, and malleable. Even today, when most bikes aren't made from steel alloys, the riding quality of a steel frame bicycle is the standard against which other materials (aluminum, carbon fiber, titanium) are compared.

Most bikes sold today are aluminum. It's cheaper (and more profitable) for bicycle manufacturers, but there are issues with aluminum. Namely, how stiff and inflexible it is. For short rides, no problem. For longer rides, aluminum could be brutal, with a harsh ride even on the best pavement. Again, this is an over-simplified opinion; some bike makers have been able to create a more comfortable riding aluminum bike--using thicker tubes, different geometry, suspension seatposts, carbon fiber stays, etc. (For the record, I have several aluminum bikes, including a Jamis Commuter, Bianchi Boardwalk, Giant Halfway, and Specialized Stumpjumper.)

One approach to making a stiff, harsh-riding aluminum bike more comfortable is to use shock absorbing forks, rear suspension and/or seatposts. This adds weight and complexity to the bike, meaning additional maintenance and potential breakdown problems. Another way to "comfortize" the ride of an aluminum bike is to use fatter tires, which help "cushion" the ride. This does add some rolling resistance, though not necessarily a lot. Another tactic is to use a thickly cushioned or springy seat, which adds weight and saps cycling energy.

Anyway, I could go on, and there are infinite nuances regarding material choice, but I hope I've made my point. Certainly, great bikes can be made with aluminum -- or with budget busting materials such as carbon fiber or titanium. However, there is a reason bikes have been made out of steel in a classic diamond frame for more than a century: It works!

The steel diamond frame bike was essentially "perfected" decades ago. But bike marketing requires "novelty" and "innovation" and "bottom line" thinking. Hence the trend toward more profitable aluminum bicycles. But when asked, my recommendation is to go with the tried and time-tested steel bike. Steel is real. And in recent years steel bicycle frames have made something of a comeback, especially in the higher-priced models.

There are basically two kinds of steel used in bike manufacturing: Cro-Moly (or sometimes "Chro-Mo" or such) and High Tensile (or "Hi-Ten"). Cro-Moly is a strengthened steel alloy alloyed with small amounts of chromium and molybdenum, allowing the tube walls to be thinner, meaning a lighter bike. It is the preferred steel for high-quality bike frames. Hi-Ten is a cheaper but serviceable variety of steel, used for inexpensive bikes. Often less expensive bikes will use Cro-Moly for the main tubes with Hi-Ten for the seat and chain stays.

Anyway, this is a broad topic, and other cyclists would have their own differing opinions. But my subjective advice is to find a good steel bike: Specialized, GT, Schwinn, Bianchi, Fuji and other quality makers continue to offer some steel models (last time I checked, anyway.)

Buying the right bike for commuting - Bike Commute Tips Blog
Get comfortable on a new bike - Bike Commute Tips Blog
Buying a Bike: New or used? - Bike Commute Tips Blog
Is the bicycle industry waking up? - Bike Commute Tips Blog
Urban Bikers' Tricks & Tips: Low-Tech & No-Tech Ways to Find, Ride, & Keep a Bicycle

Related Articles by Paul Dorn

" Bike Commute Tips Blog - my continuing experiences
" Pedaling to Save the City - the Critical Mass bicycling movement
" Car reliance is roadblock for California - op-ed published in Sacramento Bee
" Baseball, Apple Pie, and...Bicycling? - Bike facilities lacking at California ballparks
" Cycling in Osaka, Japan - the use of bicycles for transportation in Japan
" Class and Traffic - the often overlooked costs of auto-dependency
" Hydrogen Fantasies - new fuel for vehicles, or just hype?
" Paul Dorn's Bicycles - reasons, considerations and rationalizations on bike types
" Cycling in Davis, CA - the most bike-friendly city in the US

Comments? Suggestions? Contact || Updated 10.26.10