How to choose a bike, and the shop where you'll buy it

Maybe you’re not ready for the Tour de France, but just about anyone with a sense of balance can enjoy a bike ride. Cycling provides a good workout, at your own pace with relatively little risk of damage to bones, joints, or muscles, while also letting you see the sights.

If you want to buy a bike but don’t know where to start, or need repairs for a bike you already own, Delaware Valley Consumers’ Checkbook’s ratings of area bike shops will help you track down places that will make things easy. Until April 30, Checkbook is offering free access to its ratings of area bike shops to Inquirer readers.

Most bike models can be roughly classified into several categories: mountain bikes; road bikes; city bikes; touring bikes; and cruisers. Manufacturers often mix and match characteristics of several bike types to create new models. The result is a seemingly endless array of rides.

To narrow your choices, think about what you expect to do with your bike. Will you run errands? Commute? Work out? Compete? How often will you ride? What kind of surface will you ride on? In general, the more you plan to ride and compete, the more the bike will cost.

Checkbook’s ratings of local shops will help you make a good choice, and you can do your own checks. Good shops will take the time to fit you carefully -- checking such factors as frame height, the angle of your legs when peddling, reach to the handlebars, and handlebar width.

Don’t purchase a bike until you’ve taken test rides on several. For each bike you test, have the store’s sales staff fit you properly. Then observe carefully the smoothness of the ride, the bike’s responsiveness, how comfortable your body feels, the bike’s stability, and how easy it is to control, shift, and brake. Tell the salespeople what you like and dislike, and let them make adjustments or suggest another bike that may suit you better.

Test several bikes in a wide price range. You may find that you can get a thoroughly satisfactory bike for much less than you expected.

When you’re ready to buy, make sure the store will do a high-quality job of assembling your bike. Retailers are responsible for final assembly and adjustment. When bikes arrive from the factory, some components are not yet attached and others are just that -- attached. If shop mechanics do no more than slap on the remaining parts, the bike won’t work: Brake pads might not contact rims, for example, and you might not be able to shift into all the gears.

Any shop will assemble and adjust the bike so you can ride out using all the gears; that typically takes about 45 minutes. But a great shop will do much more -- possibly spending two to four hours on assembly.

Almost all bike shops offer a period of free adjustments after sales. Many offer free adjustments for the life of the bicycle, while others limit them to one year, six months, or less.

You’ll want to shop around for price, but it probably won’t take long: Checkbook found that because manufacturers have managed to limit price competition, very little exists for new bikes. Even a $25 difference for major name brands is rare.

On the other hand, the market for bike components and accessories -- ranging from handlebars to clothing to car-top carriers -- is less stringent, with some stores charging half as much as their competition for a particular item. You’ll find even lower prices for accessories online.

Checkbook’s undercover shoppers also found very large price differences for bike repairs. For example, to rebuild the cassette and chain on a Motobecane Le Champion Ti Inferno road bike, shops quoted prices ranging from $125 to $215. And shops quoted prices ranging from $168 to $317 for a complete overhaul and tune-up for a Trek Ion cyclocross bike.

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Delaware Valley Consumers’ Checkbook magazine (Checkbook.org) is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. We are supported by consumers and take no money from the service providers we evaluate. You can access Checkbook’s ratings of bike shops free of charge until April 30 at www.checkbook.org/inquirer/bike-shops.