The Ultimate Bicycle Owner’s Manual: The Universal Guide to Bikes, Riding, and Everything for Beginner and Seasoned Cyclists

by Eben Weiss

Clock Icon 17 minute read

Chapter 1
OBTAINING A BIKE

So you've decided to get a bicycle.

Congratulations!

If you feel confused and overwhelmed by the vast and bewildering bicycle marketplace, don't worry, because admitting you need help is the first step toward becoming a cyclist. Before we go any further, it will help if you have a basic understanding of the history of the bicycle.

IN THE BEGINNING

In the 1870s, buying a bicycle was easy: You went to Ye Olde Velocipede Shoppe, picked out a nice high-wheeler—known as the "penny farthing"—and maybe took a header into a pile of horse manure on the way home. Done. Shopping was easy. The hardest part was riding the thing. First, in order to get started, you had to give the bike a push from behind. Then you had to scramble on top of it while it was rolling, which would have been like climbing onto the roof of a Volkswagen Beetle. Once you were up there, you had to stay up there, which was not easy, thanks to the fact that you were essentially sitting on top of a giant wheel. It's hard to stay upright on a bicycle when your center of gravity is way up on the third floor. If you were able to mount and ride the bike successfully, you still had to climb back down when the ride was over.

Seems like a lot of work, right? Why was that front wheel so gigantic anyway?

Because the penny farthing was propelled by means of a "direct drive," which means the pedals and cranks were attached directly to the front wheel. So, the diameter of the wheel is what determined how fast and far the bicycle would go when your legs turned the pedals. If the wheel was small, you'd have to pedal frantically in order to get anywhere. (Think about how long it would take you to travel a mile on a child's tricycle and you've got the idea.) Therefore, the front wheel was laughably huge.

Even so, people went crazy for the penny farthing, and the world experienced the very first bike boom.

Then, two big things happened.

The Two Big Things

  1. In 1885, John Kemp Starley began manufacturing a rear-wheel, chain-drive bicycle with more or less symmetrical wheels.
  2. John Boyd Dunlop founded the Dunlop Pneumatic Tire Co. in 1889.

Equal-size wheels? Air-filled tires? This was cycling's chocolate-in-the-peanut-butter moment. Fitting a bicycle with a chain drive meant that you no longer had to change the wheel's diameter in order to optimize the system's mechanical advantage. Instead, the gear ratio was determined by the size of the chainring and cogs, which were mounted on the hub of the rear wheel. And presto, a rear-wheel-driven bicycle that could be designed for comfort. Starley's bike, with its diamond frame and two symmetrical wheels, was vastly more stable than a penny farthing, and it was far easier to straddle and ride. As you can imagine, riding a bicycle with symmetrical wheels wrapped in cushions of air was a much more attractive proposition than bouncing around high above the manure-strewn streets on solid tires. It was also a lot safer, for the simple reason that you were much less likely to fall off your bike. In fact, this new design was marketed as the "safety bicycle." By the end of the nineteenth century, pretty much all bicycles were rear-wheel-driven safety bicycles rolling on pneumatic tires. The machine became so popular that cities and municipalities began paving the roads with macadam in order to accommodate the growing legions of cyclists.

So you can thank bicycles for paved roads, and you can also feel free to tell any impatient driver who says "roads are for cars" that they should be thanking you for the pavement they're driving on.

TODAY

Now we're well into the twenty-first century, and here you are looking for a bike. The good news is that fundamentally not much has changed about the bicycle since the turn of the last century: We're still (mostly) riding diamond-framed safety bicycles with pneumatic tires. (Yes, there are recumbents and other rethinkings of the upright bicycle, but we'll address those later.) Sure, bikes have gotten a lot lighter, and yes they have much more sophisticated gear changing and braking systems, but if a late nineteenth-century cyclist were to ride through a time wormhole into today, he or she would have no difficulty riding any of my bikes. (Apart from dodging all the cars of course, but we'll address that later as well.)

The bad news is that a century of constant refinement, endless marketing, and incessant hyperspecialization means that shopping for a bicycle can be as vexing as trying to see the UFO in one of those Magic Eye paintings. In fact, you may be so frustrated you're ready to say, "Screw it, I'm leasing a Hyundai." Don't give up. The problem is more with the twenty-first century than it is with cycling. Bikes are simple machines, and unfortunately the simpler something is, the easier it is to ascribe all sorts of mystical attributes to it. That's why people take classes in order to learn how to drink wine, but when they go to lease a Hyundai they'll make their decision based on the location of the cup holder.

DOS AND DON'TS OF CHOOSING A BICYCLE

Ultimately, the secret to choosing a bicycle is avoiding confusion, so here are some basic dos and don'ts to keep you on track, starting with the don'ts.

Don't…

ASK ADVICE FROM YOUR NEIGHBOR, ACQUAINTANCE, OR COWORKER WHO RIDES A LOT

First of all, no matter how good-natured this person may seem to be, every cyclist thinks they know everything. Because of this, they're vexed by the notion that they could possibly pour their ocean of knowledge into the tiny, thimble-like vessel that is your brain.

Second, although they think they know everything, what they actually know pertains only to themselves and their experience. Ask, say, a competitive cyclist what kind of bike you should get, and you'll find yourself on the receiving end of a lecture about frame materials and rotating wheel weight that will make you want to puncture your own eardrums. Eventually you'll find yourself either backing away while nodding politely or simply asleep on your desk in a puddle of your own drool.

Talking to a cyclist is like Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Any answer from a cyclist starts at the beginning of time, and unless you hit them in the head, it won't end until the sun implodes.

CONSULT THE INTERNET

The Internet is useful for finding pictures of bikes, prices of bikes, locations of bike shops, and even gathering basic information about the pros and cons of various types of bicycles, but for the love of [insert your favorite deity here] do not engage anybody on it! At least your competitive cyclist coworker is only one person. When you ask the Internet for advice, you'll get the opinions of one person times a million. When it comes to opinions on bikes, consulting the Internet is learning in a vacuum of stupidity.

CONSULT GLOSSY CYCLING MAGAZINES

"Okay, so the Internet's a great big open source of cluelessness," you're thinking to yourself. "I'll stick to good old-fashioned print. It has integrity."

Sadly, this is not true. Haven't you heard? Print is dead. That's why magazines that are still alive are more beholden than ever to their advertisers for survival. I'm not saying this is a bad thing; magazines contain interesting stories and pretty pictures, and it's advertiser dollars that make this possible. After all, writers don't work for free (though it can sure feel like it).

I'm just saying, never trust a gear review in a magazine (or an online magazine for that matter). Enjoy it, but don't trust it. It's like believing a climate change study funded by the energy lobby.

Do...

ADOPT IF POSSIBLE

Bikes are like pets. A fancy purebred might cost you a fortune. Moreover, if you make a decision to purchase one based purely on aesthetics or cachet, that fancy purebred can wind up being a huge and costly mistake. That border collie seemed like a great idea, until you find out that if you don't give it sheep to herd it will dig its way through your living room floor and into the basement. Similarly, that shiny new road bike may capture your fancy, but what happens when you realize you can't carry anything on it and your crotch is numb for six hours after riding it?

It's precisely because so many people make this rookie mistake when buying their first bike that so many countless bikes have been cast aside and are in desperate need of a home. More often than not, you can pick up a cast-off bike for free or close to it.

Talk with friends and neighbors. Check with your building superintendent to see if there are any abandoned bikes in the bike room. Ask your aunt and uncle if that mountain bike your cousin never rode is still sitting in the garage. It may not be perfect. In fact, it may be an utter hunk of crap, but spending no money on crap is a lot better than spending a lot of money on a bike that turns out not to be right for you, and that you in turn wind up abandoning.

Once you find a bike, it's important to ride it. It won't take you long to figure out what's right and what's wrong with it. You may be able to change it into the right bike for you just by swapping some parts, or at the very least you'll realize what kind of bike you do need so that when you do go to purchase a brand-new bike, you can spend your money effectively.

Most important, don't get too hung up on how the bike looks. The only way to look good on a bike is to learn how to ride it well.

SHOP FOR A BIKE SHOP, NOT A BIKE

If you're either unable or disinclined to scrounge up a hand-me-down, then, by all means, go to a bike shop. In fact, you'd think if you're looking for a bike that "go to a bike shop" would be the first step on the list, but it's not that simple anymore. First, there are so many different kinds of bike shops now (we'll go into the different kinds in a bit), that it's hard to know where to begin, which can make you just want to give up before you even try. Second, prices at bike shops can be intimidating. Sticker shock may tempt you to shop online instead. Don't. Finding a bike shop you can trust and rely on, and building a relationship with the people who work there, is as important as finding a bike you love to ride.

Pick a few shops in your area, take a deep breath, and go inside. Look around. Strike up a conversation. If you get a good feeling from the staff at one of them, let them sell you a bike. Don't get hung up on whether you can get a slightly better price elsewhere or if the place across town will throw in the upgraded SL Wonk-tronik shifting system for the same price. None of this matters. What matters is how well you get along with the shop and its staff, because that's where you're going to be going when the SL Wonk-tronik shifting system starts getting balky.

The bike is almost immaterial, whereas the right bike shop can be the foundation for your entire cycling life ahead.

PULL THE TRIGGER ALREADY

You're not getting married. You're not having a kid. You're not taking out a mortgage on the house where you're going to spend the next fifty years of your life. You're buying a freaking bicycle. Chances are that if it's your first, you're going to want a different one next year. That's okay. Don't shop yourself into a state of indecision or paralysis.

Just get a bike between your legs and start riding.

STYLES OF BIKES

Bike companies come up with new types of bicycles as quickly as people figure out new places and ways to ride them. Some bikes go out of style, others come back in. Still others are just old bikes with a new name and a flashy set of decals.

Let's start with the road bikes.

Road Bikes

You know those riders who float effortlessly along like they're one with their machines, their immaculate drivetrains whirring like whisks in batter?

Those riders are on road bikes.

You know those riders with the big grease smudges on their calves who careen along the bike path yelling "On your left!" and then fall over at the stoplight because they can't extricate their special shoes from their special pedals?

Those riders are also on road bikes.

No bicycle can be wielded as deftly or as awkwardly as a road bike. It's like a high-quality chef's knife: In the right hands, it's making sushi; in the wrong hands, it's making sushi out of fingers.

So what makes a road bike a road bike? The obvious characteristic is the "drop" handlebars, the primary purpose of which is to allow you to position your body for speed. Riding with your hands in the drops lets you get flat-backed and aero, though many road bike owners lack the flexibility necessary to do this, which leaves them looking like a cabbie at a tollbooth rooting around under the seat for loose change.

Road bikes also tend to have narrow tires for aerodynamics and minimal rolling resistance, as well as saddles that aren't so much for supporting your body weight as for gently reminding you where to position your posterior. You don't really sit on a road bike saddle so much as you lean on it, as you would upon a rattan bench you suspect might give way. In fact, the key to riding a road bike is to distribute your weight evenly across it. If you're doing it right, you're sort of splayed out on top of it like someone trying to crawl across a frozen pond without falling through the ice.

Good things about road bikes

  • You probably live on or near a road, which means you'll get plenty of use out of your road bike.
  • They're more or less the default sporting bicycle, so it's unlikely you're going to come across a shop that doesn't understand them.
  • Deal$! The used marketplace is full of used road bike stuff, which means lots of bargains for you.
  • They're fairly versatile and designed to be ridden all day so long trips are no problem. Yet with some modifications they're perfect for city use. (You might not want to carry your dog on one, but there's no reason you can't use it to get to work or to the bar.)
  • They're responsive machines, and therefore they will teach you a lot about riding. If you can handle a road bike in a variety of situations, you can handle pretty much any type of bike. If you're interested in recreational cycling and you can have only one bike, it should be a road bike.
  • They're light and minimal, and while this is mainly to enhance performance, it's also practical for the apartment dweller who has to schlep a bike up and down stairs or store it in the foyer. (Assuming you're one of those Rockefeller types who can afford an apartment with a foyer.)

Bad things about road bikes

  • They are not "comfortable," at least in the sense that your TV-watching sweatpants are comfortable. Riding one means "assuming the position," which may not be ideal for those quick jaunts to the store.
  • There's a limit to their versatility, which you will discover if you need to carry heavy loads on your bike.
  • They're relatively easy to pilfer or steal. You can dismantle a road bike in minutes using about three tools, all of which can fit on a keychain. This is great for a race team mechanic, but not so great for you when you emerge from the shop to find that your handlebars, saddle, and both wheels have been stolen.

Myths about road bikes

"They're delicate."

This is not true. Road bikes are built to withstand the punishing torque and tube-twisting wattage generated by some of the most powerful athletes on Earth. Sure, in practice they're mostly subjected to the saddle-crushing weight of sedentary Americans who have taken up road cycling as part of a midlife crisis, but they're generally sturdy machines just the same.

"They're not versatile."

Attempting to ride a downhill mountain biking course on a road bike is going to destroy the wheels, possibly the frame, and certainly most of the bones in your skeleton, but extreme use aside, you can do lots of stuff on a road bike. You can even ride them on dirt trails, despite the name "road bike." Although most bike companies would rather sell you another bike specifically for this purpose, you don't need that. Road bikes work well in both town and country, and if you want to put on a pair of flat bars and turn it into a more casual cruising machine, there's nothing stopping you from doing so.

“They’re expensive.”

Road bikes have never been more expensive, but they've also never been cheaper.

Strictly speaking, road bikes aren't expensive. The truth is they can be expensive, and absurdly so. Thanks to carbon fiber, electronics, clever cobranding, and the fickle whims of the 1 percent, road bike manufacturers are managing to tickle the undercarriage of the $20,000 barrier.

At the same time, though, you can buy a perfectly decent road bike for under $1,000.

Best of all, a bike depreciates in value the moment it gets straddled, which means the fickle whims of the 1 percent often become the deep discounts of the 99 percent once the original owner gets bored and moves on to golf or wingsuit flying.

If all of this sounds wildly impractical, that's because it is, but if your primary reason for wanting a bike is pleasure and speed and not utility, a road bike is a good place to start. Here's why.

ROADS ARE EVERYWHERE

A bike's no good if you don't have somewhere to ride it, and unless you live in a hut in the rainforest you've probably got access to a road of some kind. Even if that road isn't paved, you can still probably ride your road bike on it. In most cases, all you really need to do is change the tires.

ROAD BIKES ARE EFFICIENT

Once you get the hang of a road bike you can ride it for a really long time. In fact, you'll have no problem taking off on it for the better part of a day. To all outward appearances, you're not doing much besides pumping the pedals, but as you ride, your body is interacting with the bicycle to an extraordinarily nuanced degree. You're in tune with the road surface and unweighting ever so slightly to account for irregularities in the pavement. You're shifting your body fore and aft on climbs and descents. You're leaning into turns, countersteering and generally engaging in all sorts of complex physics without even thinking about it, for hours at a time.

At the same time, because your rides are getting longer and longer, you're building your strength and endurance. You're also learning about your body—how and when to feed and water it, how it functions on different types of fuel, and how to recognize the first signs of exhaustion and breakdown.

These are the things that make you good at riding a bike. And yes, you're doing this stuff on any type of bicycle, but on a more comfort-oriented bike you're not so much becoming one with the road as you are sopping it up like it's tomato sauce and the bike is a big hunk of semolina bread.

Other Types of Drop-Bar Bikes

CYCLOCROSS BIKES

The sport of cyclocross has become increasingly popular and so have the bikes. Cyclocross bikes are basically road bikes that have been optimized for riding through grass, dirt, sand, and mud, and this makes them particularly versatile.

It can be difficult for the novice to tell a cyclocross bike from a road bike because both have drop bars and share many common components, so here's a quick guide.

If the bicycle has knobby tires and cantilever or disc brakes, it's probably a cyclocross bike.

If the bicycle has slick tires, sidepull caliper brakes, and an extremely uptight rider on top, it's probably a road bike.

Caution: The recent advent of disc brakes on road bikes makes visual diagnosis more difficult, so to be absolutely sure simply rub dirt on the bicycle. If the owner freaks out, it's a road bike, and if the owner doesn't notice (or if the bicycle is already soiled), it's probably a cyclocross bike.

At this point you're probably wondering, "I'm a filthy slob. So does this mean I should get a cyclocross bike?"

Well, it depends.

While you can't go too wrong with a cyclocross bike, you may not need one either. The extra tire clearance and ability to ride more rugged terrain are good features, but the geometry and gearing may be less than ideal for the road, so if you'll be spending most of your time on pavement, then you should probably opt for a road bike. Also, note that true cyclocross racing bikes forgo extras like fender eyelets and occasionally even water bottle mounts, and this can cancel out a lot of the versatility you'd get from a road bike. Lastly, road bike brakes are generally a bit easier to adjust.

But if you think you'll be spending most of your time in the dirt yet you still want a fast bike, go ahead and try a cyclocross bike.

STUFF TO KEEP IN MIND WHEN SHOPPING

FIT

The frame should fit you as well as possible. It's possible to compensate for a centimeter or two here or there, but you're going to get the most use and pleasure out of a well-fitting bike.

TIRE CLEARANCE

Some road bikes have more tire clearance than others. If you can find a bike that has room for 28mm or even 32mm tires, then a simple tire swap can open up a whole new world of terrain to you. If there are clearance and eyelets for a set of real fenders, that's even better. Staying dry can make the difference between riding through the winter and succumbing to seasonal affective disorder. Remember: You don't need to use fat tires or fenders if you don't want to, but you might as well have the option.

GOOD CLOTHES ARE WORTH MORE THAN GOOD COMPONENTS

When you're looking for a road bike you're bound to get hung up on all sorts of mind-numbing questions, like "Are the Super Attack shifters good enough or do I need to upgrade to the Super Attack Plus?" Forget it, it's not important. Your clothes, however, are hugely important. Remember, you're going to be spending hours at a time in a variety of weather conditions on this contraption. Your fingers aren't going to care how many grams your shifter weighs, but you better believe your crotch will care what's between it and the saddle.

STUFF YOU DON'T NEED TO WORRY ABOUT

ELECTRONIC SHIFTING

Save your money. You don't need it. Don't you have enough things to plug in and charge already?

DISC BRAKES

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with disc brakes on road bikes; I'm just saying you don't need them. There are few components that are easier to adjust and maintain than rim brakes. Plus, when you consider that your wheel is essentially a great big rotor, you realize that rim brakes are disc brakes anyway.

A REALLY LIGHT BIKE

Can you lift the bike easily off the ground? There you go. The bike is light enough.

TOURING BIKES

Does the countryside call out to you so loudly that you not only want to ride through it but also sleep in it? Are you perfectly comfortable using strange bathrooms, or even holes when proper facilities are not available? Do you scoff at the notion that cyclocross riders are "dirty" when you regularly forgo baths for several days? If you've answered yes to most of these questions, then the Wagon Queen Family Truckster of drop-bar bikes, otherwise known as a touring bike, is something to consider.

Touring bikes vary in wheel size and other specifications, and indeed they don't need to have drop bars at all—although they often do, as drop bars afford the multiple options for hand positions you'll want during hours upon hours in the saddle. They also have lots of eyelets for the racks and panniers you'll need to carry all your gear for day after day on the road.

These same features also make touring bikes potentially practical bikes for daily around-town use, and certainly there's no law that says that every time you hop on a touring bike you need to wind up in a tent beneath the stars. They're also inherently stable, which they need to be in order to carry all that stuff.

So if speed and maneuverability are less attractive to you than the prospect of escape, and if you regularly wear Birkenstocks, a touring bike may be for you.

MISCELLANEOUS "ADVENTURE" BIKES

It's hard to imagine a long-distance cycling situation in which you wouldn't be covered by a road bike, a cyclocross bike, or a touring bike.

Nevertheless, bike companies are constantly adding new types of drop-bar bicycles for increasingly specific uses. To wit, the growing popularity of the "gravel bike," which is essentially somewhere between a road bike and a cyclocross bike, two types of bicycles between which there wasn't much daylight to begin with.

Conversely, they're also coming up with drop-bar concepts for less specific uses. These bikes are usually called something along the lines of "adventure bikes," and they purport to be road bikes you can go touring on but also use in a cyclocross race because why the hell not?

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