Smart Shopping: Bikes

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Getting Started l Types l Features

Bikes come in a wide variety of designs to handle everything from a light workout to an arduous cross-country tour. To find out which types offer the best performance for different riders' needs, Consumer Reports' testers took to the streets and hills and pedaled away.

GETTING STARTED

In Consumer Reports' most recent report, we paid from $280 to $1,800 for the four types of bikes we tested–and we found that more money buys a lightweight frame made of carbon fiber, aluminum (or a combination of both materials), or high-strength steel and other high-quality components, but we did find some lower-priced standouts.

If you are looking for a bike, read our bike guide and take these preliminary steps.

Decide what kind of riding you'll do
That will narrow your choice to one of the four basic types in this report. If you're an avid cyclist you may prefer a conventional road bike, which differs from most of the models we tested mainly in how low you have to bend over the handlebars.



Find a good bike shop
You'll pay more, but we think you're more likely to be satisfied. Bikes from big-box stores might not be properly assembled or well matched to your body. If you don't like the pedals or seat on a particular model, some bike shops will swap components at little or no cost.

Take a test ride
Before you buy any bike, ride it far enough to make sure that the brakes and shifters are easy to use, the fit is comfortable, the gears can go low enough for climbing hills, and the frame and suspension adequately smooth the bumps.

Avoid cheap bikes, except for very casual use
Inexpensive bikes selling for less than $200 from brands such as Huffy, Mongoose, Roadmaster, and Schwinn may seem like good deals, but we advise spending $300 or more, if your budget allows. Why? Because you'll get a lot more bike for your buck.

Mass-market bikes have cheaper construction than higher-priced bikes and can weigh seven or eight pounds more. They come in only one size, so you're not likely to get a great fit. And mass merchants can't match bike shops for quality of assembly, expert advice, and service.

Adults should consider inexpensive bikes from a department store only for the most casual use, and stick with a front-suspension model, which is likely to be better than an inexpensive full-suspension bike. You might want a mass-market bike for kids who will outgrow a bike quickly or handle it roughly.

Consider these extras
A good bike helmet is essential. Special cycling shoes and cleats can ease your pedaling. Gloves will absorb vibrations and help to protect your hands in a spill. Polycarbonate glasses can shield your eyes from bugs and errant pebbles. A water bottle is handy to have on long, hot-weather rides.

TYPES

Outlined below are four of the major types of bikes. But while you're deciding what kind of riding you expect to do, look beyond the basics. Bike manufacturers are fragmenting the market with models that combine features from various categories.

Comfort bikes
These are for leisurely recreational riding on pavement and smooth dirt paths. They include high handlebars, shock absorbers in the seat and/or fork, and a soft, wide seat.

Pros: Creature comforts include an upright riding position and a cushiony ride. Low gears allow easier uphill pedaling. As a group, comfort bikes cost less than other types.
Cons: Comfort bikes might make for hard pedaling on hilly terrain. And for off-road use, they can't compete with a mountain bike's rigid construction and wide, knobby tires.

Mountain Bikes
These are designed to stand up to rugged trails. You'll get a shock-absorbing front suspension fork and possibly rear suspension, which provide the best control and comfort on the roughest terrain. They have wide, knobby tires, a narrow or moderately width saddle, and flat or riser handlebars.

Pros: More durable than other types. Absorb shock well. Excellent off-road handling.
Cons: Heavier than road and fitness bikes. Not as well-suited for road riding.

Road bikes
These bikes are for riders who want to log fast or serious mileage, including multi-day touring. Conventional road bikes feature a lightweight frame, skinny tires, a narrow seat, and drop handlebars that make you bend low. Performance road bikes, a fairly new type at the time of our last report, are similar except for their shorter top tube (the horizontal one) and longer head tube (the vertical one under the handlebars), which allow a slightly more upright riding position. Cross bikes, another subcategory, are essentially beefy road bikes with wide, knobby tires for off-road traction.

Pros: Avid cyclists may prefer the aerodynamic bent-over position that the drop handlebars of a conventional road bike provide.
Cons: Some riders may not feel comfortable bending that low, even with the somewhat higher handlebars of a performance road bike.

Fitness Bikes
These bikes blend the slim tires, narrow seat, and lightweight frame of a road bike with the horizontal handlebars and more upright riding position of a mountain bike. Fitness bikes might be a good choice for those who simply want to burn calories or improve cardiovascular fitness, or for daily short-haul commuting.

Pros: Fitness bikes are more comfortable than road bikes. They weigh only a couple of pounds more than road bikes and tend to cost much less. They might be good for commuting to work.
Cons: Less aerodynamic than a road bike.

FEATURES

You usually have some choice in choosing bike features. A bike shop may swap certain components at little or no cost.

Brakes
Some bikes are available with more than one type of brakes. V-brakes or linear-pull brakes, caliper brakes, and cantilever brakes are fine for most biking. For generally high performance, go with disc brakes.

Disc brakes will spare your wheel rims from the abrasion of muddy braking. A shop may be willing to retrofit some bikes that have caliper mounts with discs for about $100 extra.

Drivetrain
A bicycle's chain runs between the crankset in the center of the bike and the rear cassette attached to the rear hub. Cranksets typically have two chain rings (called doubles) or three (triples). Shifting from one chain ring to another provides coarse gearing adjustments, while shifting among the sprockets in the rear cassette allows fine gearing adjustments. The total number of speeds a bike has is the number of chain rings multiplied by the number of sprockets in the rear cassette. For example, a bike with triple front chain rings and a nine-sprocket cassette has a total of 27 speeds. More speeds generally means more flexibility on various grades.

Handlebars
High-rise handlebars let you sit fairly upright. The drop bars on conventional road bikes allow an aerodynamic, fully bent position. Handlebars and stems can be swapped to improve riding position. Different riders have different preferences. If you can't get comfortable, consider replacing the handlebars or stem with a different type.

Saddle
Some are narrow and firm, others, wide and soft. Some have a suspension seat post, others are mounted rigidly. If you don't like a seat, get one with a different shape, more or less padding, or channels or cutouts to ease pressure.

The narrow, firm seats on road bikes and mountain bikes provide more control and let you change position and pedal more efficiently. But the wider, more cushioned seats on comfort bikes and many hybrids are more comfortable for the casual, less-frequent rider.

Shifters
The front derailleur moves the chain between the rings on the crank set, while the rear derailleur moves between the sprockets on the rear cassette. Each derailleur is controlled by a shifter, one for each derailleur. Twist shifters are collars on the handlebars that you twist to change gears. Trigger shifters have one lever for up shifting and another for downshifting-one pair each for the front and rear gears. They click as you shift, so you don't have to guess where the next gear is.

Bike gear
A helmet can provide lifesaving head protection in an accident. Cycling shoes with cleats can increase your efficiency while pedaling, but you might need to change pedals to accommodate them. Gloves will absorb vibration and help to protect your hands in a spill. Glasses can shield your eyes from bugs and errant pebbles. And a water bottle can prevent dehydration on long rides in hot weather.

Copyright © 2006-2010 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction in whole or in part without written permission.

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