Renting a Bike

If you are new to cycling and unsure about whether you want to buy a road bike, a mountain bike or a hybrid, one of the best things you can do is rent a bike and spend some time riding it.  A good entry level bike can be expensive and you don’t want to spend the money only to discover you bought the wrong kind of bike after you’ve ridden it once or twice.  Almost all good bike shops have a collection of used bikes for sale and many of these shops will rent them out for a day or a weekend.

Renting a bike has a number of advantages.  Many places that sell bikes will alow you to take them for a ten minute test ride around the parking lot.  It’s a good idea to do this because sometimes you can ride a bike for a few hundred meters and know immediately that something about it is just right or just wrong.  However, the parking lot test ride can be misleading as well.  Any number of things can go unnoticed or feel fine after ten minutes that can develop into major problems after an hour or more of riding.  Likewise, things like your position on the bike can feel uncomfortable and awkward during the first ten minutes but can feel exactly right after you’ve had more time to relax and grow comfortable on the bike.  Time on the bike is especially important for the new bike rider who may not know what to look for or what aspects of the ride to be sensitive to during an initial ten minute ride.

If you are going to ride your bike regularly, the two most important things you’ll have going for you are your bike and your bike shop.  For many reasons, establishing a good relationship with a good shop is the most important thing you can do after buying the right bike, and renting a bike is an excellent way to evaluate a bike shop for a new rider who may be unfamiliar with the world of cycling.  When you go to the shop, explain to them that you’re seriously thinking about buying a new bike, you’re unsure about what kind of bike you want, and you’d like to rent a bike to try it out.  You can get useful information about how good the shop is by paying attention to what happens next.  If they measure you for frame size, get you a bike, and send you on your way, then they’re probably not the shop where you want to buy your bike.  Picking out the proper frame size is just the beginning of getting the bike ready for you to ride.  They should also take the time to fit you to the bike by adjusting things like the seat height and angle, and the handlebar height, angle and distance among other things.  Riding a poorly fit bike can result in discomfort, pain, injury and a bad cycling experience.  They understand this in a good bike shop and they also understand that a customer who enjoys themselves riding a properly fit rental bike is more likely to purchase a bike of their own. 

Renting a bike can also have the virtue of spreading out the initial cost of getting into cycling over several days or weeks.  It’s very common for new cyclists to have put all of their thought and maybe all of their money into the bike they buy.  They make the decision, get the bike, are happy, excited and possibly broke, and then comes the question, “Okay, now what gear do you need?  Helmet?  Shorts?  Jersey?  Shoes? Water bottles?   Frame pump? . . . ”  This is almost always a bummer.  Although it doesn’t end up costing any less in the long run, the buzz kill can be muted if you’ve already bought things like your helmet in order to ride the rental bike.  it’s a small thing but it helps.

Taking a rented bike on an extended ride is just about the best thing a new rider can do to help them decide what type of bike they want to buy.  It not only can help you find the right kind of bike, it can help you find the right bike shop which is almost as important.  If you are at all unsure about whether a road bike, a hybrid, or a mountain bike is right for you, renting before you buy is highly recommended.

Where Should You Buy Your Bike?

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.