Bikes can be a safer way to travel right now: Here are 6 questions to ask before buying your first one

Illustration by Euralis Weekes

The coronavirus outbreak has led more people to travel by bicycle: During the first two weeks of March, Brooklyn saw a 137% increase in bike traffic, Terri Carta of the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative told New York news channel NY1. And in Philadelphia, the number of people walking and biking on trails has doubled compared to this time last year, according to the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. 

In cities that rely on public transit, biking might be the safer option than hopping on a bus or subway when you need to get somewhere that is not within walking distance. It's also a good form of exercise and easy enough to do while staying six feet away from others. 

If you're wary of using shared bikes like Divvy or Citi Bike, you might want to consider buying your own. Here's what to know about buying your first bike. 

Where's the best place to buy a bike? 

Although online retailers and major bricks and mortar chains sell bikes, the best place to buy a bike is a bike shop, says Mandy Weiss, a freelance producer living in New York City. Weiss, 31, has used a bike to commute daily for the last 10 years.

At a bike shop, someone with expertise can help you pick the right frame size based on your height. "For me, it was difficult to know my correct size," she says. "I'm 5'6", and my bike size is generally a 52 [-centimeter frame]. However, I've ordered bikes online that are a 52 and don't fit." 

Bike shops are essential businesses, according to the Department of Homeland Security guidelines. This means they are allowed to stay open and you can shop in them.

When picking a bike shop, make sure it's somewhere you can return to if you have questions or need maintenance, says Ilya Nikhamin, owner of Redbeard Bikes in Brooklyn, New York. 

"Are people friendly and professional and interested in helping you?" he says. "The man on the ground or woman on the ground makes a difference, overall, much more than whether you buy 'Brand A' or 'Brand B.'" 

The shop should be conveniently located and offer repair services. "It's important to begin a relationship with your local bike shop and get to know who they are because you will use them often," Weiss says. 

It's important to begin a relationship with your local bike shop and get to know who they are because you will use them often.
Mandy Weiss
Freelance Producer

How much will a bike cost?

How much a bike costs depends on what you're using it for. Road bikes are great for riding on pavement and racing, for example, while mountain bikes, which are usually less expensive, are great for riding on trails.

If you live in a bikeable city and are looking for a bike you will ride 3-5 times a week, 3-6 months out of the year, you'll want a commuter bike or hybrid bike. For this amount of use, Nikhamin says you should expect to spend between $450 and $850. The bike will last you 5 to 10 years depending on your body and how much you ride. 

"A 100-pound rider who only rides in dry conditions, even if it's like five or 10 miles each way, will wear the bike out much less than a 200-pound rider," Nikhamin says. 

Weiss, however, estimates that you can get away with paying between $350 and $550, minimum, for the same use.

How much should I expect to spend on bike maintenance?  

Expect to bring your bike in for a yearly tune-up, Nikhamin says, at a cost of about $100 per visit. You will also need to replace your brake pads between one and three times per year, as they'll wear out. This will cost between $30 and $50 each time.

Budget to replace your tires every 1,500 to 2,000 miles, which should cost about $70.  "Never buy the cheapest tires; they will only cost more in the long run," Nikhamin says. 

Never buy the cheapest tires; they will only cost more in the long run.
Ilya Nikhamin
owner of Redbeard Bikes

How much should I spend on a lock? 

To protect your investment, don't buy a cheap lock, says Danny Harris, executive director of bike advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. 

"Some people are willing to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a bike, but they go cheap on the lock," he says. "If you live in a city, you should buy a really good lock and ideally something that protects both of your wheels." 

The two most common types of locks are U-locks and chain locks. A U-lock is a U-shaped lock you use to fasten your bike to a bike rack. It's lightweight and easier to take on and off your bike, making it "better for lots of short commutes," Weiss says. A chain lock is more durable and flexible so it can fit around more things.

Harris uses a U-lock, which costs $120, and runs a cord through his wheels and seat that he attaches to the lock. The cord was between $30 and $50. 

"In the end, they say you might want to spend about 10% of the cost of your bike on your lock," he says. 

If you will be locking your bike up outside for long periods of time, such as the duration of an eight-hour work day, Weiss recommends buying both a chain lock and U-lock. "Get a chain lock to secure the bike to something including the frame and one of the tires, and a U-lock to secure the other tire to the frame," she says.

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What other accessories should I buy? 

Along with a lock, Nikhamin recommends lights and a helmet.

Prices vary on all items. Bike helmets can cost as little as $25. If you're looking for a less expensive light, Bicycling.com says the Cygolite Hotshot is the best value at $30 on Amazon

You might want to consider buying a pump, as well, to keep your tires in optimal shape, Weiss says. Although most bike shops have pumps you can use for free, you will need to pump your tires weekly. "If you are commuting 3-5 times a week, you may quickly find you'd rather just own your own bike pump," she says. "It will cost around $25 to $50." 

In the end, they say you might want to spend about 10% of the cost of your bike on your lock.
Danny Harris
Executive director of Transportation Alternatives

What accessories should I pass on? 

Some riders buy a multitool to attempt bike maintenance themselves. If this is your first bike, however, Nikhamin advises against that. "If you don't buy it, you'll be less inclined to mess with your own bike," he says. 

Bike fenders are also something you don't need to buy unless you'll be riding in the rain, he says. And avoid buying too much at the outset, since you won't truly know what you need until you start riding.

"Once you start riding the bike you'll understand more about what your habits are and what you need and like," he says. "There's no need to buy a bunch of stuff you may or may not use. It's better to find out what you need and come to it gradually."

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