Buying the Best Bike For You Buying the Best Bike For You
Issue 015

Buying the Best Bike For You

by Zach Dundas, Siobhan O'Connor

May 3, 2009

A bike novice and a bike nerd talk cycling options.

GOOD: I figured since you live in Portland, you must know everything there is to know about bikes. Can you help me pick one?ZACH DUNDAS: Ah, Portland's reputation as the urban cyclist's paradise precedes it, I see. Well, it is a pretty great bike city. Ironically, I am probably in the bottom 20th percentile of Portland cyclists in terms of skills, strength, knowledge, and fanaticism, but maybe that makes me the perfect person for you to talk to.G: So, I'm overwhelmed by the options and by the haughty people who tend to work at bike shops.ZD: I find it appalling that you've encountered unhelpful service at bike shops. Bike-shop workers in Portland tend to be too friendly, if anything. They see a fresh customer walk in and a little evangelical gleam comes into their eye. I think the basic ethic here is that anything that gets more cyclists on the road helps all other cyclists. That being said, I do see that buying a bike can be intimidating. In my own cycling life, I've gone out of my way to avoid specialist gear and many of the trappings of hard-core bike culture-not that I don't respect it, or find it interesting, but because I want my bike to be a fairly seamless part of my life. I definitely appreciate the aesthetics and politics of cycling, but basically I need my bike to get me to work and to the store, and I suspect that's what you're looking for, as well.G: That's exactly what I'm looking for. I want something that won't break the bank, that isn't complicated in any way, and is sturdy. Ideally, this is a bike I can ride to work on occasion, and all over my neighborhood.ZD: To start, I wouldn't really recommend one of the urban cruiser styles that have come to the fore of late. I test-rode an Electra Amsterdam a few years ago, and was not impressed; I found it to be a case of style over substance. But if I had a wad of cash begging to be spent on a recreational cruiser bike, I'd probably go with the Bianchi Milano. Ladies look lovely on a Milano.
G: But they're not ideal for getting around?ZD: You'll find all that stuff a little weak when you have to make it to work through city traffic. You might look at the Surly Cross-Check, an extremely tough, durable, accessible bike that retails for about $1,000. I have heard the Raleigh One Way, a single-geared bike but not necessarily a fixed gear, well spoken of. I'm also fascinated by Rivendell bikes: Check out their website at rivbike.com. They seem kind of crazy, but the bikes look cool and aren't too expensive.G: OK, we're getting somewhere here. What do you ride?ZD: I've had great luck so far with the Bianchi Volpe. I'm sure you'll find some caveats about it out there-I did meet a guy who said his Bianchi frame cracked really early on. But so far, for me, it's been just about ideal. I got it for less than $1,000 a couple of years ago. Bianchi's an Italian brand with a lot of history, though my Volpe was, like many bikes sold in the United States, made in Taiwan. I find the Volpe to be an excellent mix of sturdy and sleek; it's basically a hybrid bike, or maybe a road bike with a little mountain DNA, if that makes sense. It's also got just a bit of that Italian design thing going on.G: Talk to me about custom bikes. All hype?ZD: I will admit to some serious lust for custom bikes. Some day, when I'm rich and famous, I will get a tailor-made bike from one of Portland's many frame builders. I'll spring for an Ira Ryan or a Vanilla, something that costs my quarterly take-home pay and requires multiple personal fittings and a two-year wait. If you think I'm kidding, check out Vanilla's website. Their waiting list is five years, and they didn't even accept orders in 2008. Their bikes are, for the record, totally worth it.G: What if I wanted to only spend somewhere around $200? At that price are you just talking about walking into a used-bike place, closing your eyes, and pointing? Do deals exist for decent bikes?ZD: For $200, yes, you are basically trusting to luck on the used-bike market. That is not to say that you can't find good stuff. A friend of mine found a classic Schwinn in good condition for about $150. I spent $150 on a beautiful retro Schwinn from the early 1980s, which worked great-until I crashed it. I discovered that the relatively minor damage to the drive train and the pedals would cost more than $150 to repair because, of course, Schwinns of that era used a proprietary drive-train system that is no longer manufactured. If you're going to go used, I'd recommend looking for a well-maintained road bike from the late 1980s or early 1990s.
G: What about cheaper new bikes?ZD: You can look at new bikes starting at around $500. I test-rode a couple of completely respectable hybrid bikes for around that price. I just decided, after the heartbreak with the Schwinn, to spend a little bit more on a bike that I hope to ride for a decade.G: So you're saying if I plan to keep it, the best bet is investing in a good bike?ZD: I figure, with a round-trip bus fare from my house to downtown Portland costing $4, the bike pays for itself pretty quickly. Plus, it is a key component in our household's ability to own just one car, which of course is a significant savings on insurance, maintenance, and fuel. Illustrations by Taliah Lempert. See more of Talia's bicycle paintings at bicyclepaintings.com
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Buying the Best Bike For You