Buying your first (or even second bike) can be a daunting and confusing experience. There is a lot of choice and a lot of jargon out there and sometimes it is difficult to know what to look for or what it all means. A bike is an investment piece and the decision needs a bit of time and consideration, but with so much information out there where do you even begin?
One of the key things to ask yourself is what do you want the bike for and what is your budget? Is it for exercise, racing on the roads, triathlon, commuting, mountain trails, or something you can grow and develop with? Once you have figured this out you can begin looking at what options are within your price bracket and what you can get for your money.
I hope that this blog can help break down some of the barriers, answer some of the questions you may have and help explain some of the jargon to add more excitement rather than confusion to your purchase experience.
Where do I buy a bike from?
You can buy bikes in-store (and online) from large chains such as Evans, Halfords and Decathlon, which stock a range of brands including Specialized, Cannondale, Trek, Cube and their own makes and models including Pinnacle (Evans), Boardman (Halfords) and B’Twin (Decathlon). There are also independent bike stores and it is always worth googling what is available in your local area. You can buy brands such as Liv, Giant and Ribble direct from these retailers online. If buying online carefully check your sizings and don’t be afraid to call the retailer and discuss anything you may be unsure of. You can also buy secondhand from local market places or eBay. If purchasing secondhand I’d highly recommend taking the bike for a service and brake check once you have bought it.
How Much Should I Spend on a Bike?
It is really difficult to pinpoint a budget or recommend what you ‘should’ spend on a bike as everyone’s financial situation and expectations of a bike are different. In general, an ‘entry level’ bike will be around £300 upwards. Once you start hitting £1,000 you can be more selective with groupsets and gears, but the general rule is the bigger the budget the more choice you have. You can also speak to your workplace and check if they do things like cycle to work if that is of interest to you. Shop around, compare prices and components and take your time making your decision. But most importantly, you aren’t any less of a cyclist because you choose a less expensive bike- it’s no ones business what you paid and the enjoyment you get from that bike is key.
What Types of Bike Are There?
For clarity this blog will focus on buying your first road bike, as that is where my experience lies. But these are not the only bikes available. A road bike does exactly what it says on the tin. It is designed to travel on the road. These are efficient (based on lightweight materials, thinner wheels and the position you sit on the bike) bikes, characterised by drop handlebars- you know the ones that curl downwards. Within road bikes you can get ones that are more focused on racing or ones more for commuting. You can also get triathlon bikes ready for a forward ‘aero’ position.
Like road bikes these often have drop handlebars but are designed for riding on gravel roads. This means they have a wider tyre clearance to allow for chunkier tyres (you can still add a road tyre to these too). You might hear the term cyclocross also used here, but there are slight differences in their purpose and spec as they are intended for use on cylcocross courses primarily.
These are designed for mud, dirt and mountains! With wide chunky tyres, flat handlebars and suspension.
Hybrids are a mix of road and mountain bikes, some more similar to road bikes, whilst others closer to a mountain bike. These are great as an all purpose all rounder for various types of terrain. Hybrids usually have a flat bar allowing for a more upright riding position- meaning whilst you might not get as much speed you may experience more comfort. These can also use wider tyres. I started with a hybrid bike and if you’re not sure if you’re ready for a roadbike, want to build confidence, prefer to have a bit more confidence and have something more general purpose a hybrid is a great investment.
Cruiser and Comfort Bikes
These are similar to hybrids but offer more comfort with a slightly more upright position, wider tyres, padded seats and often pedals in a slightly more forward position.
You can also get electronic bikes in most styles listed above. These have a motor which aids the rider to reach and maintain certain speeds. More and more events for example Ride London are allowing entrants on eBikes. I’ve had a go on an eBike and they’re a lot of fun.
Choosing your road bike
When making your purchase some of the most important things to consider are the frame, the groupsets, the brakes and the tyres. When comparing bikes don’t just compare the price, compare what you are getting for that price and the value for money. Have a budget in mind, but be prepared to be a little flexible- for example if a little more money can get you a better quality groupset (more on that later). Here are just some of the considerations when buying your bike.
Choosing a Bike Frame and Sizing
This is the main component of the bike, in essence it is what holds all the other ‘stuff’ together. These are predominantly made from aluminium or carbon fibre for lighter bikes. When talking about bike sizing, you might hear someone ask if you’re a small, medium or large frame or quote numbers at you. It is really important that you select the right sized frame for your height. These can vary between suppliers, both in terms of measurement (S/M/L and set up) or the units of measurement (a lot of places use numbers eg 52cm frame) so make sure you follow the measurement guidance and if you have any doubt speak to the supplier. If possible, when purchasing your first bike it is always good to try before you buy in the bike store to help determine the most comfortable and suitable frame size for you.
The other thing to consider is if you want/ prefer a woman’s specific frame. Before we get into this, I came across a great phrase that stated a ‘woman’s bike is any bike that fits a woman’ which is true. Many bike frames are ‘unisex’ but more often than not this still means they cater for the dimensions of men, but that does not mean you cannot ride one- it is absolutely personal choice . Having ridden and owned both a unisex and women’s specific frame, I have experienced benefits from riding with a women’s specific frame, so want to quickly share. Women’s bikes tend to have a shorter stack height (the vertical distance from the bottom bracket, in essence where the pedal goes, to the mid point of the head tube- the bit between the fork and the handlebars) and smaller reach (the horizontal distance of the above locations) You can find some helpful diagrams and information explaining this here. For me I find it comfier for longer rides and I feel more confident going down hills as I can reach the brakes easier. However, looking for a women’s specific frame can often reduce the selection of bikes you have to chose from, and arguably for maximum comfort you can still make adjustments to a ‘regular’ frame (eg saddle, stem height, handlebar tilt). If you have the chance to test ride or sit on a specific frame I’d recommend it, but remember it is your choice and you must do what is right for you- don’t let the idea of a women’s frame put you off other bikes.
When buying your first bike, or even your second or third it is likely you’ll buy a pre-determined bike as opposed to buying the frame separately and building your own bike. If you are venturing into building your own bike, selecting the right shape frame for the type of riding you intend to do is also important.
Bicycle or Bike fork- forks are often discussed when talking about the bike frame. The fork is the part that sits either side of and secures the front wheel. The top of the fork connects to the handlebars by a stem and the bottom, known as the fork ends hold the wheel. The width of the fork (and the frame around the rear tyre) determine the tyre clearance- basically the width of tyre you can use with your bike.
Beyond all the jargon and technical stuff- Don’t feel silly if the colour of the frame is important to you! It’s imperative that you like your bike and the way it looks is part and parcel of that.
Jargon Alert: Groupsets, Cranksets and chainsets
After the frame the groupset is arguably the second most important thing you should consider, and the groupset you choose will influence the price of the bike. This was one of the most confusing things I encountered when purchasing my bikes, I found I didn’t feel equipped with enough knowledge to feel like I understood the decision I was making and the more I tried to research the more confused I became. But as I’ve used different groupsets I’ve slowly got my head around some (not all) of the differences and how different this can make changing gear on a bike feel.
The groupset refers to parts involved in the braking, changing gear and moving of the bike along (you may hear the term drivetrain used to refer to the pedals, cogs/cassette and derailleur- don’t be phased by this terminology it just means the stuff that drives the bike when you pedal). The three main manufacturers/ component suppliers are Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo. Most road bikes seem to come with Shimano and admittedly this is the one I am most familiar with (although my Liv bike has SRAM).
Not all groupsets are the same and the price you pay often dictates the performance. Shimano’s entry level groupsets include the Claris and Sora. My first bike has the Sora groupset and I found this ideal for the purpose it was designed to serve. My bike survived Ride London 100 miles and lots of training rides and I enjoyed my cycling experience. After this I stepped up to their next level- the Tiagra. I definitely noticed a difference in the smoothness and speed of my gear changes and If this is important to you and you can afford the difference in price between the Sora and Tiagra, I would definitely recommend spending slightly more and going for the Tiagra. Especially, if you’re looking for a bike for big events and sportives where there are lots of hills. But at the end of the day, the Sora are still good and work perfectly fine.
Next up are Shimano’s performance groupsets the 105 and Ultegra. The 105 is often deemed to be one of the most affordable performance-focused groupsets (my boyfriend uses this one and enjoys it). This is an 11 speed groupset, compared to the 10 speed Tiagra and 9 Speed Sora, which can help this perform better than both on hills. The Ultergra is also an 11 speed but more similar to their higher performance professional groupsets and usually on bikes over £1500.
For SRAM their entry level (and cheapest groupset) is the Apex. The next step up is the Rival which is thought to be the most popular SRAM groupset. Beyond this is the Force which is lightweight and often used by more competitive cyclists.
You can also get electronic drivertrains (electronic gears) on bikes too, where the gears are shifted by the press of a button. These can be expensive and can require charging gear batteries but can lead to very smooth, fast changes. Models of these include the SRAM eTap and Shimano Di2. The main thing to consider with these groupsets is if the price point of electronic gears feels worth it to you.
When it comes down to choosing between SRAM and Shimano, the differences aren’t always clear. A lot of the time choosing the right groupset comes down to price, availability and what you want the bike for. Most of my experience is with Shimano as they’ve simply always been the gears offered on the bikes I’ve ridden- so I’ve not really had a choice. My main tip is when comparing bikes, don’t just compare the price point look at the components. If a bike is cheaper because it has an entry level e.g. a Sora groupset, but the one you’re comparing it to is still within budget and has a Tiagra or 105 groupset, then if you’re able and happy to do so it is usually worth spending a little more and getting the mid-range groupset.
The Brakes, Breaking Down the Confusion and Rim Vs Disc
Like in a car, the brake reduces or stops the motion of the bike. In theory, when talking about the brakes we are actually referring to the three main components including the brake levels/ pedals- the bit on your handle bars you squeeze to apply the brake, the actual brake itself and the cables that connect the two. However, in practice we’re most likely thinking of the brake itself and with this comes a lot of debate around rim or disc brakes.
A rim brake is a brake where force is applied to the outer side of the rim of the wheel by a caliper. Disc brakes seem a little more complicated (to me anyway!) and the force is applied on a smaller rotor which is towards the centre of both the front and back wheel. Disc brakes have been more commonly used on mountain and cyclocross bikes as rims can carry debris and calipers can become blocked with mud, but are increasingly making an appearance in the world of road cycling.
So which is right for you? It honestly comes down to personal preference, and if in doubt I recommend googling and doing some extra research on disc vs rim brakes to allow you to assess which is right for you. Rim brakes are thought to be easier to repair and they cost less meaning that a rim brake bike might use up less of your budget. On the flip side, those who favour disk brakes site greater stopping power, especially on long or steep descents (and less hand fatigue from constantly squeezing), better braking power in wet weather and easier to use with wider tyres.
Me personally? Having ridden with both rim and disc brakes, my preference is definitely disc brakes. I find that the stopping power is better, they give me more confidence on descents and in the wet and having had a leaf get stuck in the front caliper of my rim brakes on a descent, the switch was very much welcomed for me! Bikes with disc brakes do tend to cost more, but if it is close to your budget I feel the investment is worth it.
On a side note I also prefer my brakes in a European set up. In the UK bikes are most commonly set up with the front brake on the right meaning when your squeeze the right hand brake lever the stopping force is applied to the front wheel, whereas elsewhere in continental Europe this is the reverse and if you squeeze the right hand lever it applies stopping force to the back wheel. I have one bike in the UK set up and one in the European set up, and prefer riding with the European system, as being right handed when I panic I tend to hit the right hand brake the hardest, which in the UK system could result in a sudden stoppage to the front wheel. Its likely you won’t get to make this decision, but what I’m trying to convey is don’t feel apprehensive or shy away from a bike because the brakes might appear to be a different way round, just learn your brakes and become comfortable with using them effectively and safely.
Road Bike Tyres
If you purchase your bike as a complete package it will come with predetermined tyres that are deemed suitable for the bike and its intended use. There is always the option of changing your tyres and you may ride using different tyres in different seasons or change as your confidence grows. Tyres can come in a variety of widths but the ultimate determining factors are what width your fork and frame can hold (remember tyre clearance?), what size tyre the actual wheel can take, whether you use mud guards and the type of cycling you do. Tyre widths are measured in millimetres with road bike tyres typically anything from 23mm up to 32mm. Most recently wider tyres are becoming more popular, but there is a great amount of debate around this. A wider tyre can offer more comfort, especially on bumpy road surfaces and thus increase confidence. In my direct experience swapping from a 25mm to a 28mm tyre has worked wonders for my confidence, increased my bravery on the bike and 28mm is my preference for tackling the often uneven cycle paths in London. A wider tyre can promote more resistance, thus offering the potential to slow you down, but this can also be determined by other factors such as air pressure or aerodynamics. When selecting your first road bike, my best advice is to look for one that has the tyre clearance to be able to take a 28mm tyre, that way you can determine what you feel comfortable and confident using. You also then have the option of choosing larger more puncture resistant tyres in winter and slimmer/slicker tyres in summer.
Some tyres are also marketed as more puncture resistant than others, for example I use the Schwalbe Marathon which features a ‘GreenGuard’ layer, although continental do their own ‘Gatorskin’ equivalent. This means that they likely contain layers of woven synthetic fibres underneath the tread to help prevent punctures to the inner tube (where the air is). If you’re new to cycling, commuting, or frequently riding on roads that aren’t super smooth I’d really recommend looking into these types of tyres. Of course nothing is ever puncture proof, but from my experience tyres that contain GreenGuard layers or equivalent are much hardier- I used these in Ride London in 2018 where the road conditions and weather weren’t great and luckily didn’t sustain any punctures.
Extra bits you can change after your purchase
Once you have purchased your bike you can still make alterations at home to make your bike comfortable and help feel confidence. You’ll most likely need to add pedals, you can choose cleats, flat pedals, toe clips or dual pedals with a cleat on one side and a flat reverse side. You can change the saddle- this is very personal as not everyone will find the same saddle types comfortable. For ladies I really recommend looking into a women’s saddle (e.g. Selle Italia Diva Flow or Liv Contact SL forward) as this can enhance your ride experience and prevent bruising and pain. You can also change the stem and angle of the handlebars to help make reaching the brakes and gears easier.
One of the most important things about buying a bike is to enjoy the process and don’t be afraid to ask advice. No question is too stupid, it is a huge purchase and one you need to feel comfortable with.
You might also enjoy my top tips for beginner cyclists