Sunday, 11 December 2011

Buying a bike - part two

So, having looked at some of our needs, it seems to be a good idea to look at bikes in general, what is available, and the sort of choices other folks have made. Which leads to the more general question: what bike is the "best"?

It is easy to flick through web pages of exotic, expensive cycles, and form the impression that the more one pays for a bike, the better it must be.
However, one must also think of the mode in which the cycle will be employed.
A lightweight, carbon-framed, racer with super-skinny tyres is hardly the best bike to go shopping on!

I used to work with a man called Shaun who had two bikes - a fancy £5000 (c.$8000) bike he used for amateur time-trials etc., and a £500 (c.$800) bike he used for riding to work, and that workplace had CCTV cameras in the car park, and 24/7 security staff. Several of the folks at the site where I used to work had similar, £500 ($800), bikes for commuting, and they came from a "high street multiple" retailer, and were bought on a cycle-to-work scheme where, in essence, the users buy the bikes in installments which are deducted by their employer from their wages/salaries (the legal and tax situation is slightly more complicated, but, for a user, a lot of that detail is taken care of by their employer).

I used to know another man, called Colin, who had one of these
£500 ($800), bikes that came from a "high street multiple" retailer. He used to commute on it. then one day he parked it near his mother's house quite late in the evening, securely padlocked with a heavy-duty "D"-lock to some convenient railings. Guess what? Some bad people cut through the railings, and stole Colin's bike, fancy lock and all.

I ride a cheap, old, unfashionable little folding bike, which I park up in the cycle racks at work in the day. One of the best things is that it is very unlikely to be stolen. I have a rear pannier rack and a clip-on front basket on my bike which means I can put my backpack in the basket rather than on my back for the ride to/from work, which makes for a much more pleasant ride. I can also get a few groceries from a local shop (store) on the way home from work, put them in the basket,
and wear the backpack home.
The rear pannier rack will take standard pannier mountings, including our Bike Bins panniers (although the heel clearance is very tight - see earlier article for a review of the Bike Bins panniers), so it can move about 15kg (33lbs) of shopping (5kg in each pannier, and 5 kg in the front basket).
I bought my bike when I lived in "bedsit land", and, in such circumstances space is often at a premium, so folding bikes are very handy. Mine is 20 years old, but similar bikes can be bought new today for £120-£150 ($190-$240), and about £10 ($16) for the front basket. In its current, well-used, state, my bike is worth maybe £25 ($40)

My wife is used to riding a cheap "hybrid"-style bike, which has a rear pannier rack, and a large wire, fixed, front basket. It gets left outside the local school for an afternoon each week, where my wife does voluntary work. Occasionally the bike gets knocked over by excited kids rushing out of school and/or careless mums chatting/texting instead of looking where they are going. It also gets used for the shopping quite a bit, and can, in conjunction with our Bike Bins panniers, take a load of 20-25kg (44-55lbs) of groceries. It cost less than £100 ($160), new, three years ago, but the basket and panniers cost about the same again. In its
current, well-used, state, Anna's bike is worth maybe £20 ($32), plus maybe an extra £30-£50 ($50-$80) for the large "Basil" front basket and pair of Bike Bins panniers! Yep, the luggage is worth more, now, than the bike! The Bike Bins panniers and the large front basket can be moved to the new bike if it is suitable for them.

So, which bike is best for us to buy?
  • The £5000 racing bike?
  • One of the £500 "mountain" bikes?
  • A similar replacement for Anna's bike, for a similar low cost, with the ability to move the panniers and basket from the "old" bike to the new one?
  • A bike like mine, at around £150 new - small, easier to store, has a small basket and a rear rack for panniers, but nowhere near as good as Anna's bike as a load hauler?

So, the best is, clearly,  ...
Well, it's not so clear!
  • The racing bike is the fastest by a long shot! If you want to do a bit of amateur/club riding, and enjoy that sort of thing as a hobby, and have the money to spend, it is clearly the best choice. Beware of the theft risk, though.
  • The £500 "mountain" bike is the best on gravel and crossing fields etc. It will handle reasonable over potholes, and can stand a bit of bumping up and down kerbs. But front baskets are more complicated to fit to bikes with suspension, as are rear pannier racks. Such bikes, too, have a theft risk, presumably because they are worth enough to be worth stealing, while both common and popular enough to be easily resold.
  • Bikes like Anna's "no-suspension" model can, with a few widely available and fairly cheap modifications, carry a lot of shopping. The lack of front suspension allows for the easy fitment of a front rack, or, in Anna's case, a decent-sized front basket with a support mounted to the front axle, which will take a load of 10 to 15kg (22-33lbs). Not worth much second hand, which reduces the theft risk. If properly and carefully assembled, they are decent enough when new, but who wants to buy a second-hand bike that was very cheaply built in the first place?!
  • My folder fits in the boot of almost any car without taking the wheels off. Indeed, some folders even fit inside suitcases, and can be taken on aeroplanes as regular luggage. My folder can also handle about 2/3rds the amount of shopping that Anna's bike can. Being the simplest, cheapest, and heaviest, form of folding bike, these are not worth much second hand either, which reduces the theft risk, as does the limited market for resale!

And what about parking?
  • Which would you be the most worried about if you parked it in a town/city centre for 30 minutes?
  • What about if you parked it near a bar/pub for 2 hours in the evening?
  • What about if you left it at work all day?
  • What about if you parked it at a railway station all day?
How will you use the bike?
  • Will the bike be used on mostly tarmac/asphalt, or will it be used "off-road"?
  • How far will you be riding it every day? up to 5 miles, 10 miles, 25 miles+?
  • Is the main use for fitness/health, or for transport, or for moving things about?
  • Is a good part of the use for being "stylish" when riding, in order to impress one peers, and/or to impress a possible "love interest"?
  • Will you do at least some shopping on the bike? (I see so many stylish bikes being used with a bag of shopping dangling precariously from the handlebars!) - baskets, racks, panniers etc. make a bike a MUCH more effective shopping machine.
  • Will the bike be used for "multi-modal transport" (which is a fancy way of saying using it for two or more types of transport during a journey, e.g. cycle, take bike on train, cycle)? Different forms of transport have different regulations concerning bikes - e.g. rules about wheel size and whether it has to fold up into a bag to be allowed on buses, underground/metro trains, and such like. Check the regulations for the area you live in / work in!
  • Where will the bike be stored? Will it be on the ground floor, say in a shed or a garage? Or will it be "upstairs", such as in (or outside in/on the hall/landing/balcony of) a second-floor flat. If you have to lift the bike onto a wall-mounted storage rack, or carry it up stairs, think about getting a lighter weight bike! Can a folding bike be stored somewhere a "normal" bike can't be, like in an space under stairs, or in a corner? - it can be better to have a folding bike "inside" than a "regular" bike "outside" - it reduces the theft risk for a start!
  • Will the bike be carried by car? On top, on the back, or inside (perhaps folded)?

A further saving is that cheap bikes often don't need to be insured against theft - if they are stolen (which is quite a bit less likely than with an expensive bike!!) you can just buy another cheap one!
Similarly, if they wear out and need expensive parts to fix, either use second-hand ("pre-loved") parts, or get another similar cheap bike, and cannibalise the worst one for parts for the better one :-)

For the kind of riding Anna and I do (almost entirely on tarmac/asphalt, with a journey length rarely over two miles each way, parked in a moderately insecure location, and doing some shopping) cheaper/unfashionable, with a decent load capacity, is better. The Americans have a word for a cheap, old, unfashionable bike - a "beater". Sometimes it's hard to beat a "beater"!
A new, very low value, bike can also fall into the category of a "beater" - just ride it until it gets pricey/complicated to fix, and don't worry about treating a beater as a "disposable" bike - when it wears out (things like wheel bearings and bottom bracket bearings wear after a while), get another one, and turn the "old" one into a "project" bike to learn lots of new bicycle mechanic skills on - if you mess it up, then who cares!

My folder is not so clear a choice - I bought it when I had limited storage space, a small car, and enjoyed multi-modal transport (such as driving to France, and cycling while there). So it was clearly a good choice at the time, and its limitations were more than outweighed by its smallness and folding feature. These days my circumstances have changed. The main reason I use my folder rather than buy a "regular" bike is that I already have my folder, so it is cheaper than buying another bike! If I wear the folder out (or repair becomes uneconomic), then I may or may not choose a folder next time - I might well choose a bike like Anna's!!

Anna needs a bike that will suits her usage. We are more into utility than trying to appear fashionable, and shopping and school runs are the main use.
If your needs are very different from ours, then your conclusions about which type of bike to get probably will be different from ours too!

So I hope I have made it clear that there is no clear "best bike". One type of bike is best for certain tasks, while others are best for other tasks. If you have the space and the money, two or more bikes can be the best answer (like my former colleague Shaun, mentioned above, with his £5000 ($8000) racer and his £500 ($800) "commuting" mountain bike). But for many of us it is choosing ONE bike, and trying to get the best compromise between the various uses we will put it to.

Therefore, the question I posed at the start of this section, which was "what bike is the best?" has the answer "
it depends what you want to do with it!"
Remember the old adage (slightly adapted) "Think twice, buy once!"