This one’s easy. A good bike shop. You will probably pay a bit more for your bike from a good bike shop but the other benefits you will gain are worth much, much more than the extra money you might pay for the bike.
People work at places like Wal-Mart because it’s a job; people work at bike shops because they love bikes. This makes a big difference if you’re thinking about buying a bike and you don’t know very much about it. In a bike shop there’s a good chance you will be talking to someone who knows a great deal about bikes and about cycling; at Wal-Mart you will be talking to someone who knows what time his shift ends. At the bike shop you are much more likely to get answers to your questions that are based on long experience, deep knowledge and a love of cycling. There is no substitute for that.
How well you are fit to a new bike is one of the most important factors affecting how much you will enjoy the bike. Most bicycle manufacturers make bicycle frames in a range of standard sizes and the first step in getting a proper bike fit is buying a frame that is the right size for your body. But that’s just the beginning. Once you have the proper frame, adjustments have to be made to things like the the height and angle of the seat and how far forward or back it sits atop the seat tube, the height and angle of the handlebars and the distance between the handelbars and the seat. Very small differences in these adjustments can make very large differences in the comfort of the ride to the point where a badly fit bike can produce both pain and injury. This is especially important if you have physical limitations like back, knee, hip or ankle problems or carpel tunnel syndrome. Moreover, as you adjust to riding the bike, your position on the bike is likely to change and the fit will have to be adjusted accordingly. Bike shops usually have people who know how to fit a bike to the rider and understand how important fit is so they make sure it is done correctly.
As you ride your bike it will develop creaks and clicks that you will probably want fixed. It will also have to have regular tune ups. No matter how much you ride it’s always a good idea to have a good bike mechanic check it out and tune it up once a year. Brand new bikes usually need a tune up after the first 50 or 100 miles. Many bike shops will give you free tune ups if you buy the bike from them. As time goes on and the miles add up, components on the bike will wear out and have to be replaced and you want able mechanics who know your bike and know how important it is to you to do the work. Cultivating a good relationship with a good bike shop is one of the most important things you can do to insure months and years of enjoyable cycling.
Big-box retail stores like Wal-Mart lie at the other end of the buying spectrum. You will be able to buy a bike there for less money, sometimes a lot less money, than at a bike shop. You’ll get what you pay for. Cheap bikes are made from cheap materials and cheap components. They will fall apart more quickly and may be harder to repair because the manufacturers don’t make replacement parts. They might fail while you’re riding which could be a disaster. Many of these cheap bikes are manufactured to look like good bikes but are so shoddily made that they hardly qualify as bikes at all. An experienced cyclist can spot the difference but the new rider may not be able to do so. You won’t be able to get reliable, trustworthy information from the salesperson because the odds are very good he knows nothing about bikes or cycling. You won’t get fitted to the bike. You won’t be able to bring the bike back for tune ups or repairs. The only reason to buy a bike from a place like this is cost and you would be much better off spending the money you’d spend for a cheap, crappy bike at Wal-Mart on a used bike from a good bike shop.
In some locations there’s a middle option. We live in the Washington DC area and around here there are several REI stores that are big-box retailers specializing in gear and clothing for camping and outdoor sports. The stores near us sell bikes and also have in-house bike mechanics. On the one hand, I have heard many good things about the mechanics at REI, on the other, I’ve listened several times as a salesperson at REI gave bad advice to a customer who was new to cycling. It wasn’t that the salesperson didn’t care or was trying to sell the customer something that the store needed to get off the shelves. They were genuinely trying to be helpful but they didn’t really know all that much about cycling.
The less you know, the more you must depend on the knowledge and integrity of the salesperson and there’s no guarantee about the kind of salesperson you’ll get in any kind of store. The odds are best that you’ll get more and better help in a bike shop.
If you decide to check out a local bike shop keep in mind that they may be very busy when you get there. This is especially likely to be the case on Saturday mornings in the spring because some people can only get to the shop on the weekend and many people are getting their bikes ready for a summer’s worth of riding in the spring. People in the shop will be able to spend more time with you if you can go when they aren’t so busy. On the other hand, you can learn a lot about a shop by just watching and listening when there’s a lot going on. Is the atmosphere relaxed and friendly? Do they treat customers who are relatively inexperienced with interest and respect, or are they only friendly with the experienced riders who stop by? Good bike shops are pleasant places and if you feel comfortable there, you’ve probably found a shop that’s worth your time and maybe your money.