The BEST Bike for Commuting

Test Ride THIS Big Fat Fellow

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.”

Bikes as Store Decorations

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.

Ready for a Tune-Up

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!

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7 thoughts on “The BEST Bike for Commuting”

  1. John M. Hammer says:

    The worst place to buy a bicycle – any bicycle, even for a child – is a “big box store” whether it’s a specialty shop like Toys ‘R Us or what we used to call a “department store”. Um, well, actually, the WORST place is Amazon or some other online megaretailer, the BBSes are second-worst. The bikes themselves aren’t necessarily bad and the prices are temptingly low, but there’s no after-sale support and the worst part is that they almost certainly weren’t assembled well: Assembly is critical as without the right grease and lube in the right spots and things tightened to spec, things tend to not work very well. When I speak to the staff at my local bike shops, they tell me that most of the bikes that come in were purchased at Amazon (apparently a popular place for newbies to buy fixies) or a BBS and they hate working on them because to “fix” them often requires a significant reassembly which can cost more than the bike cost the customer, often resulting in an unhappy potential customer walking away without getting their bike serviced.

    Almost as bad, when people get a bike at these impersonal places they don’t get the simple things they need to really use it, like a floor pump with a pressure gauge or some spare tubes and tire levers.

    My two favorite local bike shops have very different approaches to test rides: One does a fitting then insists on a test ride, often taking the customer through several bikes before a final decision is made. That shop offers free lifetime service (service only of course; no parts) to the original purchaser. The second will spend a lot of in-store time with a customer to help them choose the right bike but doesn’t allow test rides – the neighborhood is very different, there’s no reasonable place for a newbie rider to take a little spin, theft is a significantly larger concern, and they tend to sell lower-end bikes relative to that first shop. That second shop officially offers one free tune-up after purchase although in practice they extend themselves for minor adjustment and repair issues without limit.

    Both shops have flat-rate assembly/reassembly rates for bikes bought elsewhere (roughly $150 depending on the type of bike) but people rarely take them up on that deal.

    It’s hard to convince someone to spend, say, $400 at a bike shop when they can get the same bike for $250 at Amazon or a BBS. It’s even harder to convince someone to spend $400 at a local bike shop for a decent bike instead of $90 at a megaretailer for a really crappy bike. When I fail, I try to encourage such people to look at eBay and CraigsList for a used bike as even rough-looking and quite old used bikes can be a good buy for some purposes and usually better than that sub-$100 poo-pile they have their eye on at the anchor store.

  2. I guess it’s different courses for different horses but my experience buying from websites has been quite positive but then I am riding a different horse. Recumbents by their very design are not readily available at most bike shops & very few are ever sold at big box stores leaving online purchases probably their biggest sales venue. Since they have to be shipped sometimes hundreds of miles across country, “some assembly may be required.” I use that term loosely as some brands will require you to install pedals & the seat while other brands will require a complete frame up assembly. With online videos & manuals this becomes one of my favourite parts of owning a new recumbent as I get to know it’s function & design intimately. I also get to recognise when something is out of adjustment or needs attention. Manufacturers typically send their products out in bulk & assembly is just part of the process. Whether this is completed by your big box minimum wage bike mechanic or by the end user should not be the deciding factor on where you buy your bike as long as you can read &/or watch a video to complete the process yourself. In my opinion buying a $100. bike on line or at a big box store & expecting it to perform like a $1000. bike is where the problems lie. Buying a $100. bike for your grand kids knowing it is going to get thrashed, dropped, left out in the rain or otherwise abused becomes a sound investment & one that I am not likely to get too upset about. It would definitely be a different story if this happens to the $1000. bike I bought at the local bike shop though.

  3. Craig says:

    What part of this article discusses the BEST bike for commuting? All I see here is a standard rant against volume bike sales and a plug for the LBS.

  4. BluesCat says:

    Hey, Craig, I apologize if I did not use the word “subjective” enough to demonstrate that the whole purpose of my article was NOT to trot out a whole bunch of bike types and discuss the pros and cons of each relative to bike commuting. No, my purpose was to address where one could go – even a jaded old coot like me – to find some support for and useful advice regarding bicycles and the types of bikes suitable for bike commuting.
    If my story of my experience at the Big Box Store constitutes a “rant,” okay, I’ll go with that; I won’t hesitate, for a moment, to rant about poor or nonexistent customer service. I would also add that if the only purpose a merchant has for asking you to buy a product of his is a claim he is cheaper than the OTHER guy, consider the words of John Ruskin: “There is scarcely anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse, and sell a little more cheaply. The person who buys on price alone is this man’s lawful prey.”

  5. John M. Hammer says:

    Glen- I ride recumbents, too, and even though I live in NYC there’s really no shop that stocks new ‘bents to even look at, let alone test ride. Recumbent manufacturers and those retailers that are authorized and willing to ship tend to provide quality products that are assembled with skill and pride. I think everything I said about typical online retailers, i.e. Amazon, and big-box stores still applies but of course there are exceptions.

    BluesCat- I’m looking forward to part two of this post.

  6. Wesley Cheney says:

    Stay away from the Big Box Stores!

  7. Michael Henry says:

    When in college I worked at a big box store. I can guess with a high confidence rate that if they let people test the bikes outside, they would lose many bikes to theft. There would be a line out the door to test them. Sad, isn’t it?

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