Whenever you start to talk about the “best bike” for anything, you’re venturing into monumentally subjective territory. For commuting in Phoenix, Arizona, the best bike for me is my long wheelbase recumbent. The combination of the flat terrain, warm weather throughout most of the year, and the laidback, comfortable riding position in the chaise lounge style seat serve to make the experience like cycling on a big, fast, two-wheeled limousine for this old duffer.
A twenty-something New York City resident, who lives just a few blocks from his office, might be better served grabbing a knapsack and blazing off on his fixie; and a gal who commutes in frigid Alaska will need a bike with huge donuts for tires. If you’re new to bike commuting, or just looking into some new alternatives for your commute, a better strategy to employ would be to look for ways to find that “best bike” … for YOU.
Since my goal is to approach my return to bike commuting “with renewed interest and the anticipation of discovery,” I decided I would play the neophyte and head to the first place a newbie might go to acquire a bike: The Big Box Store!
Yes, the BBS has bikes; a broad selection, they’re pretty inexpensive (I’ll avoid using the possibly pejorative term “cheap”), and they put some of them way up on the wall out of reach on a weird rack that I couldn’t figure out how to work. Even from my distant vantage point I could tell they were not high-dollar rides with top-of-the-line components, but my remote, cursory examination told me they might be perfectly suitable for a commuter who only had a few miles to ride.
On placards next to each bike there was a brief description of what the store believed were good uses for it. And on the wall behind the bikes was a sign that stated “We do NOT do bike tune-ups” and gave you the phone numbers of the bike manufacturers should you experience any problems.
The philosophy here would seem to be “you pays yer money and takes yer chances,” but wait: on that same placard which addressed suggested uses was a phrase which encouraged you to “Try it out for size.” Curious as to what that meant, I flagged down a store “associate” and asked him. He was a young fellow, possibly a seasonal worker, and he said he didn’t know (he also explained he didn’t know to work that weird bikes-as-decorations rack either, so I felt much better); he got on his radio and summoned an older guy who obviously was a manager of some sort. The older guy explained that he could take the bike down from the rack and I could sit on it to see if the seat could be adjusted to the proper height for me. When I asked if I could also take the bike outside to test ride it, I thought he was going to hurt himself laughing.
“Oh, NOOO!” he guffawed, “But you could ride it up and down the aisle here.”
I thanked both BBS employees and left the store. I did not think it was of any value to ask either of them if they walked onto a new-car lot would they consider purchasing an automobile there if the furthest they could go on a test drive was the edge of the dealership parking lot?
Big Box stores put bicycles in the toy department, because they do not view them as “serious transportation.” Whenever I venture out on the roadway, I am very happy I get my bikes from an establishment which takes bicycles very seriously.
That establishment is a bike shop I’ve shopped with for over twenty years, and that was the next stop on my quest. The first thing you notice upon walking into the store is that most of the bikes are down on wheels on the floor, ready for you to grab them by the handlebars and head out. Sure, they also have some bikes up on racks on the wall, but they’re mostly the $6,000 and up road and racing bikes, and a person who works in the store is also there right with you from the start; you’ll have no problem at all with getting a bike down to examine.
I started talking to the woman who has been there as long as I can remember and who has sold me most of my bikes. I hadn’t even gotten my first question out before she held up her finger and said “Wait a sec, I see my test riders are coming back in.”
Through the door came about seven happy riders who had been up and down the road out front for about a half mile or so. As she went to complete the sales for two bikes out of the seven, I wandered around the store and listened. As the gal rang up the sales, she mentioned the one-month free tune-up which came with every bike. She also handed the buyers store coupons which gave them discounts for future purchases.
One of the other bike mechanics explained to a customer that the chain on his bike was worn and should be replaced in order to avoid more expensive wear on the other drivetrain components.
Another store employee explained to another customer how that fat tired bike worked well in the snow and sand, and really wasn’t that difficult to control after a couple of miles.
You get the idea: launch your quest for a new bike at a place where they take your needs and safety as the primary goal. Does that mean you should buy everything bike related at a local bike shop? No, but that is a discussion for next time! Meanwhile, I think I may head back down to the bike shop and take a ride on that Specialized Fatboy; I bet, with an aftermarket Brooks saddle, even I could be comfortable on that big fellow!
BluesCat is a senior citizen still living and working in Phoenix, Arizona. He claims to only be interested in comfy recumbent bicycles, but he’ll roam the bike shop and drool over all the rides as readily as anybody!