Maybe you’re thinking about getting into mountain biking or triathlons. Maybe it’s time to upgrade from the three-speed bicycle you’ve been riding since middle school. Or maybe you want a higher-quality bike that will make riding with other cyclists more enjoyable and comfortable.
With all the options available, how do you choose the right bike for you?
“The variety of bikes within a category has proliferated,” said Peter Davis of Champaign Cycle. “Not only are you talking about a range of prices, you’re also talking about a range of bikes.”
The first question to answer, Davis said, is what kind of riding are you going to do. And you should think not just about the riding you do right now, but what your goals are and what kind of riding you want to be doing a year from now, he said.
“You may be starting out from not riding at all, and all you want to do is ride around the neighborhood, or you’re starting out as an active person who may be a runner and you want to develop as a cyclist where you want to do 30 to 50 miles,” Davis said. “Your use today may be significantly different than what you want to do in a year.”
And a bike that suits you now may limit your development into a different type of cyclist, he said.
Whatever type of bicycle you choose, it needs to fit properly, said Dan Stansbury at Durst Cycle & Fitness. That includes the frame size, the stem reach and the seat position.
Height and leg length are the beginning factors that will help dictate frame size, Stansbury said. And “reach is extremely important as well. You want to make sure the handlebars are in the right place,” he said.
Stansbury noted that women often have shorter torsos than men, and if they are stretched too far forward to reach the handlebars, it could result in hand pain and sore shoulders.
Comfort is just one aspect, though. A proper fit improves a person’s efficiency on the bike and allows them to have more power when they push on the pedals, Stansbury said.
The following are a few types of bicycles and things a cyclist should think about when choosing one. There are many other types than the ones listed, but I tried to focus on some that are more fitness-oriented.
Road bikes typically put riders in a lower body position to overcome wind resistance, Davis said. They aren’t bikes to ride leisurely around town but are better-suited for long rides, racing or bike touring, he said.
Stansbury said road bikes can vary from tight, responsive bikes suited for racing to those with a more relaxed position for long rides. He said some now come with straight handlebars, similar to those on mountain bikes, rather than drop handlebars. They are lightweight and fast for those who want to train but don’t want to ride with drop handlebars.
Davis said great strides were made in the comfort of road bikes.
“Manufacturers are listening to people,” he said. “The upper body position is more relaxed now, not bent over as far. They’ve done a great deal of work on saddles to improve the comfort there.”
Jay Jimenez of Urbana has a road bike, a triathlon bike, a mountain bike and a hybrid. He agreed that fit and comfort is one of the most important factors to consider, and he recommended getting fitted at a reputable bike shop.
Jimenez said cyclists who are going to compete in road races or triathlons — or do long rides such as centuries or tours — should pay more attention to components than recreational riders. He said higher-quality components will be more durable and perform better in terms of smoother shifting.
Davis said that as the cost of a bike increases, you get better components, better materials and machining and lighter weight. The differences are incremental, but the quality steadily improves as the price rises, he said.
Once you’ve narrowed down the type of bicycle you want, Davis said, it is important to ride a lot of models to compare how they feel and decide which is best for you.
The main difference between road bikes and triathlon bikes is the geometry. Triathlon bike frames improve the aerodynamics and also put riders in a more forward position to use aero bars.
Jimenez bought his Trek road bike with the intention of using it for triathlons, then fell in love with triathlons and decided to do an Ironman. That’s when he bought a triathlon bike. But, he noted, many triathletes simply add aero bars to their road bikes.
Davis said the decision to buy a triathlon bike depends on how competitive a cyclist wants to be.
“There is a huge amount of difference from a low-end road bike or tri bike to a top-of-the-line bike,” he said. “It makes an incredible amount of difference. If people want to be more competitive in triathlons, buying a better, lighter, more expensive bike is a direct benefit.”
The two main decisions to make when buying a mountain bike are whether to get a front or dual suspension and whether to go with 26- or 29-inch wheels.
“You have to consider not only the types of trails you’re going to be riding on, but also your own physical condition and comfort level,” said Melinda Higley of Champaign, a serious mountain bike racer.
She said a dual- or full-suspension bike (also known as a soft tail) allows a rider to roll over obstacles such as rocks and logs easier, and it is also more comfortable. Higley started with a soft tail bike and has now switched to a hard tail, or a bike with a front suspension only. She said the hard tail bike gives her more power from her pedal strokes, particularly when climbing hills.
The 29-inch wheels also offer an advantage in getting over obstacles. But they make it somewhat harder to steer.
“If you’re in Brown County (Ind.) on beautifully sculpted, flowing trails with not a lot of tight turns, but there are rocks, 29-inch wheels (are best),” Higley said.
She recommended 26-inch wheels if a cyclist is going to ride in Illinois, where most trails are what she calls “classic Midwestern single track — very compact trails with a lot of narrow, tight turns and lots of trees on either side.”
Recumbent bikes are a very small piece of the market, and as such, they are more expensive than equivalent standard design bicycles. Some people are also turned off by the odd look, Stansbury said.
But one of the main reasons cyclists choose a recumbent is comfort.
“They like the more comfortable seating position or they develop physical problems — carpel tunnel, neck, back problems — where riding a normal bike isn’t comfortable for them anymore,” Davis said.
Jeff Kohmstedt of Champaign was one of those cyclists. It was uncomfortable for him to ride a standard bicycle, and if he wanted to continue cycling, he was going to need to find something else to ride. He bought a Catrike 700 three-wheeled recumbent bike, nicknamed the “tadpole” because of its shape with one wheel in the back and two in front. He liked the stability of the design.
Kohmstedt’s main consideration in choosing the bicycle, besides comfort, was performance.
“I wanted to be able to go the same speed I could before and be able to keep up with (wife) Lorrie,” he said.
Although some recumbents come with a suspension system, Kohmstedt didn’t want the extra weight.
The bicycle is low to the ground. Kohmstedt worried about visibility, so he added high-power lights. He also transferred the clipless pedals from his road bike and added a water bottle holder.
He is able to keep up with other cyclists on group rides. The only disadvantage he has found is it is much harder to go up hills on a recumbent because it is harder to put much power into the pedal strokes.
“I like it. I think it’s cool,” Kohmstedt said. “It’s definitely a fast bike.”
Photos: Top: Melinda Higley (mountain), Jeff Kohmstedt (recumbent) and Jay Jimenez (triathlon) on their different types of bicycles at Meadowbrook Park earlier this month. Second: Jay Jimenez on his triathlon bike. Third: Melinda Higley with her mountain bike. Bottom: Jeff Kohmstedt with his feet in his clipless pedals on his recumbent bike. Photos by Darrell Hoemann/The News-Gazette.