Bike Buying Guide

Bike Buying Guide

If you’re in the market for a new bicycle, you’re in very good company. Since the start of 2020 all bike sales have risen by more than 50 percent, and even if you’re reading this guide in 2023, and perhaps sales have flattened, that will be at a new, higher bar. The e-bike category in particular has seen astonishing growth lately. Why? One effect of the pandemic was a resurgent interest in outdoor fitness (to avoid contracting COVID-19), and once people rediscovered fresh air and mood-lifting daylight, lots of us realized we never wanted to head back inside for cardiovascular exercise.

That, and a desire to pollute less, especially if you’re lucky enough to work from home, has led to a proliferation of many direct-to-consumer bicycle brands. (We’ll tackle how to buy a bicycle, electrified or not, below, but we’re planting a flag right here to caution that you should carefully read that section before jumping directly to a bike you’d order online.)

Also, if you haven’t ridden a bike in a while but still have your ossified helmet, please put that in the trash and check our bike helmet buying guide, where we’ve tested 125 lids for all types of riders, from children to commuters to fitness-focused cyclists. Why bin the old one? Exposure to ultraviolet light and sweat erode the material (usually polystyrene) that’s made to absorb the energy of a bike crash. Consumer Reports recommends replacing a bike helmet every three to five years, and immediately after any crash, especially if you hit your head. Speaking of safety, we break down the key components of current bikes in the “Consider the Extras” section, with facets you’ll want to think about, from brakes to tires.

The price of a good bike will come down to your priorities, the kind of terrain you want to ride, and how you plan to use it: fitness, commuting, with electric assist or not, or just riding with the kids. In other words . . . it depends.

We believe that a good-quality basic bike should have disc brakes, which perform better than rim brakes—especially in the rain. And unless you want to ride only flat terrain and not travel very far, the bike should have multiple gears: They make it easier to go up hills and help you get up to speed, and let you go farther without spinning your legs like a hamster on a wheel. A good-quality build with these features, and more, doesn’t have to cost more than about $600 to $900, and you can find quite good e-bikes starting in the $1,200 to $1,300 range.

The Key Kinds of Bicycles

There are several kinds of bicycles—far more than we’re outlining here—from single-speed cruiser bikes for the street to knobby-tired BMX bikes for kids.

We’re focusing on a broad, straightforward mix. We have included increasingly popular e-bikes, but do note that e-bikes come in a wide range of styles as well—any genre of bicycle can be boosted by a rechargeable battery pack and a motor that helps propel you along. (Read our focused e-bike buying guide.)

In terms of your buying decision, e-bike or not, you want to think about the kind of riding you do and on which sort of terrain. We break down which bike is right for each application. (We’ve also tested indoor bikes for exercise, and thought a lot about which features senior indoor cyclists should look for, too.) 

Electric Bikes

An e-bike, or electric bike, has a battery and a motor. Electric bikes can have hub motors that drive the rear or front wheel, or the motor can reside within the crank, meaning it helps you turn the pedals directly, rather than turning one of the wheels. Before buying an e-bike, check your state’s regulations at People for Bikes, an advocacy organization. Hub motors, especially at the front wheel, can affect steering. As we recommend in the “How to Buy a Bike” section, for e-bikes especially, going to a shop to try the bike is important because the sensation of riding an electrically propelled bike takes getting used to.

One advantage to most e-bikes is that both safety and convenience features can be more easily baked in. For instance, lights are sometimes available right from the factory with wiring neatly integrated into the frame. Conveniently, both front and rear lights are usually powered by the main battery, unlike with a conventional bicycle, where each light requires recharging on its own—which can be easy to forget to do, especially after a tiring ride.

Thanks to the electric assist an e-bike provides, adding features like fenders, racks, and panniers can be an easy decision, without worrying whether your leg strength can keep pace with your ambitions. Further, this makes a bicycle more inviting as alternative transportation because it is easier to carry cargo, such as groceries or work gear.

However, and this is very important: Electric bikes are far heavier than bikes that don’t have batteries and motors. How heavy? They can easily weigh 50 to 60 pounds, compared with about 17 to 30 pounds for a conventional bike, depending on the type. If you plan to use a car-mounted rack to take an e-bike to a path or park, we recommend using a receiver-mounted rack on the back of your vehicle rather than a roof rack. (Check with the rack’s manufacturer to make sure the rack can accommodate the bike’s weight.) Hoisting the weight of an e-bike overhead to put it on a roof rack can hurt you (or damage your car if you lose control while lifting it to the top of the vehicle); racks that are mounted to a receiver hitch at below-bumper height make this process easier and far less hazardous. (See our picks for best bike racks.)

Pros: Electric bikes are enabling more people to ride, making them especially inviting if you live anywhere with hills imposing a serious challenge in getting from point A to point B.

Cons: E-bikes are relatively heavy, and they can be difficult to transport on a car’s roof rack. You need to beware buying online from a brand that just appeared overnight.

Back-saving tip: If you’re putting an e-bike on a hitch-mounted platform rack on a car, don’t lift the whole bike. Instead, first lift the bike’s front wheel onto the bike tray, roll that forward, then lift the rear wheel; secure both using the engagement mechanism. That way you’re never pulling up the entire bike. Unload by reversing this process, using your legs to lift and not your back. Want it to go even more smoothly? Remove the battery from the bike first and stow it in your car. This is also a theft deterrent because an electric bike sans battery is a very heavy, slow machine that’s essentially useless to a thief. And the battery itself could be worth about $500.

Types of Bikes

Find the right fit for you.

Comfort Bikes
These are for leisurely, recreational riding on pavement and smooth dirt paths. They have high handlebars, some have shock absorbers in the seat or fork (or both), and they frequently have wider seats and meatier grips for your hands.

Pros: Creature comforts include an upright riding position and a softer ride. But comfort bikes can be relatively heavy, so you want yours with gears that allow easier uphill pedaling. Comfort bikes often cost less than other types.

Cons: Because of weight, as well as the riding position, slow-speed maneuvering can be difficult, and comfort bikes might make for hard pedaling on hilly terrain. And if you’re riding on loose gravel or more challenging terrain, they can’t compete with a mountain bike’s rigid construction, suspension, and wide, knobby tires.

Road Bikes and Gravel Bikes
These bikes are for riders who want to go fast or log serious mileage, including multiday touring. The term “gravel bike” is sort of a catchall referring to a road bike-style frame, but with a more relaxed geometry, so the rider sits more upright, and with tires as fat as those found on mountain bikes. For this reason they’re easier to ride on any road and a lot of trails, too. The stealth benefit of not being in a Tour de France crouch is comfort, as well as a broader range of where you can ride, has led to gravel bike sales eclipsing those of traditional, skinny-tired road bikes. Okay, you can’t “shred” super technical wooded trails the way a mountain biker might, but if you live where a lot of bike paths aren’t paved, a gravel bike’s beefier frame and fork, and wider, grippier tires help it tackle dirt roads or pothole-strewn pavement much more easily than a road bike.

Pros: Avid cyclists and tourers want the relatively light weight, aerodynamics, and performance characteristics these bikes offer.

Cons: Some riders might not feel comfortable bending that low, even with the somewhat higher handlebars and more relaxed geometry of a gravel bike.

Your level of activity may call for a mountain or fitness bike.

Mountain Bikes
These are designed to stand up to abusive, rugged trails. They have wide, knobby tires; a narrow or moderate-width saddle; and flat or riser handlebars. They come in two main configurations: hardtail and full-suspension. Because hardtails have only a front suspension fork and no rear shock, they are usually lighter, climb hills more easily, and are a bit simpler. The addition of a rear shock gives full-suspension mountain bikes the ability to bomb down rough terrain with better control. Years ago almost all mountain bikes had 26-inch wheels; these days, most come with 27.5- or 29-inch wheels. These larger wheels make it easier to ride over roots, rocks, and other obstacles, though they add weight.

Pros: Durable. Absorb impacts and vibration well. Excellent off-road handling.

Cons: Heavier than road and fitness bikes. Not as well-suited for road riding.

Fitness Bikes
These bikes blend some of the geometry of a road or gravel frame, but they swap the drop handlebar for the horizontal one you’d find on a mountain bike. They might have thin or fat tires. Either way, that handlebar switch puts the rider in a more upright riding position. This is also a very common layout for almost every kind of e-bike manufacturer to sell because it’s relatively comfortable for so many ages, fitness levels, and body types. It is especially handy for daily short-haul commuting.

Pros: Fitness bikes are more comfortable than road bikes and typically cost much less. They can be good for commuting to work, or, as the name would imply, for lighter-level workouts.

Cons: Less aerodynamic and performance-oriented than a road bike.

How to Buy a Bike

Don’t rush to get just any bicycle. Take the time to find one that fits you well and meets your long-term needs.

The number of bike brands has ballooned along with increased demand. Some new companies may be unfamiliar to you but have strong businesses, innovative products, and good customer support. However, be leery of internet bike brands that might not be there tomorrow to offer customer support. Diligence is warranted if you stray from the long-running name brands, including Giant, Specialized, and Trek.

We’re also not bullish on bikes sold through big box stores: The salespeople are seldom experts in bicycles, let alone assembly and repairs, and you might wind up spending any money you saved trying to get a budget bike to work at all—or upgrading later. Many smaller bike retailers won’t even service models sold from big box outlets because the quality is so poor.

Last, e-bikes are an emerging breed. Rechargeable batteries are typically their single-most expensive component, and frequently both the battery and the way it connects to the bike are proprietary. There’s no standardized AA battery equivalent that you can just pop into the bike and have it work. A spokesperson for Specialized told us that they expect their e-bike batteries to last between five and 10 years for most bike owners. But if a battery dies prematurely and you bought your bike from an internet brand you’ve never heard of that doesn’t have a dealer support network, the company might not be there to sell you a replacement, rendering your bicycle worthless.

We always recommend test-riding locally before buying. You should get a sense of how the bike feels, brakes, and shifts. (A dealer can customize the fit for you.) Some dealers will also let you rent either an electric bike or a conventional one, giving you a chance for an extended ride on the road or trail you plan to frequent. Even if it’s not identical to the model you want to purchase, renting would let you gain additional seat time to settle on the style of machine you’re after.

Once you’ve selected a bike, know that it can be—and should be—further customized. The grips or bar tape, the pedals, and especially the saddle are your points of contact and control. Your hands, feet, and butt have to perch comfortably, and all of these can be adjusted to fit you—for instance, with a new stem to lift the bars closer to your torso. A dealer can also add features for you that might not come with a bike, such as a bell, lights, or a rack. And some bikes don’t come with pedals, allowing riders to choose their own. But the key is in getting the fit right.

If you haven’t purchased a new bike in a while, you might be in for some sticker shock. Bicycles can be a relatively big-ticket item, and yes, there are buy-now, pay-later options. These vary in how they work. A large finance company, Affirm, offers some 0 percent options, but it can also charge interest between 10 and 30 percent. Klarna is a similar competitor, and it is more likely to offer a “pay in four” plan that has 0 percent interest on a four-month loan. How do these banks make a cent on zero-interest loans? Simple: Merchants or exercise bike brands like Peloton, which has zero-interest loans through Affirm, are fronting the finance charges because moving inventory is more valuable to them than making a few extra bucks from the financing.

Our advice: Considering the possible high interest rates, do careful homework well in advance of signing up for any buy-now, pay-later plan. 

Consider the Extras

We cannot stress enough that you should wear a helmet; it’s the single most important measure you can take to prevent serious injury or death while riding a bicycle. Special cycling shoes and cleats, or aftermarket flat pedals with small, adjustable pins that add grip, can ease your pedaling, too. 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, too. And high-visibility clothing can help others see you. Our guide to bike riding safety also covers why you should add USB-rechargeable lights for greater visibility—and how to ride to ensure both comfort and safety.

You usually have some choice in choosing bike features to customize your ride. A bike shop may swap certain components at little or no cost, but it is important to factor this into your overall budget, so you have some funds left over after purchasing the bike for upgrades. Adding a bell, a taillight, or a padded seat cover is quick and easy, and the shop is likely to install it at no extra charge. But getting a new seat or stem can cost from $30 to well over $200 for the part alone, before you add in the cost for the shop to install it. 

Dropper seatposts have become quite common on full-suspension mountain bikes. The setup gives the rider the ability to lower their bike’s seatpost on the fly with the press of a remote button on the handlebar (and raise it back up just as quickly). This makes it much easier to lower your center of gravity and move your body rearward and down over the rear tire, giving better control and confidence when negotiating steep or rough downhill sections. It’s a worthy upgrade, with many setups costing between $100 and $200, although high-end models are far pricier. Keep in mind, a dropper seatpost typically adds weight over a regular seatpost, as well as complexity—it’s just one more component that could fail, or break during a crash. 

Many mountain bikes now come with tubeless tires, and higher-end road bikes are hopping onboard. Instead of a rubber tube inside the tire, tubeless tires use a liquid sealant that can instantly plug tiny punctures as they occur. The upsides are far fewer flat tires, as well as the ability to run lower tire pressures, which aid grip and handling. The downsides are that tubeless tires require more attention (sealant needs to be added every few months), are messier to deal with, and often require an air compressor to seat/seal the tire to the rim when being installed.

And protect your investment, and your ride home, with a high-quality bike lock. See our ratings for the best bike locks

Brands

You can compare bikes by brand. These profiles will help you learn about a manufacturer and what it offers. 

Owned by Dorel Industries, Cannondale is headquartered in Wilton, Conn. It designs and produces a wide range of bicycles. Its product lines include fitness, mountain, road, specialty, urban, women’s, and electric bikes. Available at specialty bike shops and independent dealers.

Based in Dieren, the Netherlands, Gazelle is over a century old. It still makes its products at its headquarters. The company’s line is now focused on electric bikes, starting at $1,500.

Giant Bicycles’ headquarters is in Taiwan, with its U.S. operations based in Newbury Park, Calif. Giant offers bicycles in the following categories: children’s, mountain, gravel, road, and electric. Giant bikes are sold through specialty shops.

Jamis is an American company based in Northvale, N.J. Its product lines include mountain, road/gravel, urban, recreation, e-bike, and youth bikes. Jamis bikes are sold at specialty dealers.

Rad, based in Seattle, makes only electric bikes. It has been a direct-to-consumer seller but is also opening retail stores nationwide; it offers delivery and build support. Bikes are mostly city/commuter style, but Rad also sells cargo bikes well-suited for running errands.

Raleigh, which has its headquarters in Kent, Wash., is one arm of the same corporation that makes Diamondback bikes. Raleigh product lines include urban, kids, fitness, and commuter-focused models, and they are available at specialty stores nationwide.

Specialized is based in Morgan Hill, Calif. It offers BMX, children’s, mountain, road, gravel, street (fitness and comfort), and women’s bikes, and many of these categories also include electric models. They are available at specialty bike shops and independent dealers.

Tern is a Taiwanese company that is big on sustainability and well-known for folding bikes, including electric and cargo models.

Trek Bicycles, based in Waterloo, Wis., has been making bikes since 1976. It still manufactures some of its higher-end bikes domestically, unlike the bulk of larger U.S.-based brands. Its product line includes children’s, mountain, road, urban, and women’s bikes, as well as electric bikes across most of these same categories. The bikes are available at specialty shops and independent dealers.