Spring is coming! Also, we have a bit of a breather in between council shenanigans, so I’ve written something up here on a subject that I am much more knowledgeable about than local politics – bicycles.

OK, so you’re starting to think about getting a bike. (Or you’re not starting to think about getting a bike, in which case surprise! Now you are.) Here are some things I’ve learned and a lot of things I’ve scammed off other people and am passing on as my own wisdom.

(If you don’t want to read my “wisdom”, I recommend the following resources as a starting point for learning up on bicycles: Sheldon Brown on everything bike-related (may he live for ever in our hearts), Leonard Zinn’s books on bike maintenance, Bikesnob for perspective, and Bike Forums for information, entertainment, and endless, pointless arguing. For more lady-specific stuff, Elly Blue is terrific.)

So the first step, once you’ve thought that perhaps yes, you want a bike, maybe a little bit, is considering what type of riding you want to do. Ha ha, I lied. The first step is knowing what size you are and finding a bike that fits, since really you can do most riding in and around Saskatoon on a wide assortment of bikes. Sure, some bikes may be more efficient than others but there’s really nothing stopping you from frantically mashing a BMX down Preston Ave. (All shall tremble in despair! Or possibly laughter.)

So there are two things you should know when you are figuring out what size of bike to get. 1. your height and 2. your inseam. I know, inseam is not a huge deal now with how bike frame geometry is, but it’s a starting point. You can measure your inseam with a book, some string, and your crotch but it’s not crucial. If you are serious about this you’re getting fitted at the bike shop, not reading my crappy blog. (Fine. Stand against the wall, in sock feet, shove the book up into your crotchal region as far as you’re reasonably comfortable with; use a string or a tape measure to measure the distance from the top of the book to the floor. I recommend using Atlas Shrugged for this exercise but that’s a personal preference.)

Anyways. Knowing your height and inseam (roughly) will give you an idea of what sizes of bike to look at. Because! Bicycles are measured by their seat tube length, or at least nominally. The idea is that the longer your legs, the longer the tube length you need. The seat tube is the tube on the frame that the seatpost slides into. It’s a stupid way to measure bikes now since frame styles vary so widely and we all have different proportions. There’s a huge debate on this. (There’s a huge debate on most bike stuff. Google “the helmet debate” if you’re feeling masochistic.) But it’s a starting point, so it’ll save you a bit of time and narrow your choices.  For example, I’m 5’8″ with a shorter torso, so I have a 52-54 cm road bike and I usually fit a Medium/Large or a 17-19″ MTB. There are tons of bike frame sizing websites, just Google it. If you’re over 6’2″ though you may have to compromise on fit unless you find an XL/62+cm frame; at least if you’re short you can always find youth bikes.

Of more importance is how long or short your torso is. If you have a long torso and stubby legs, relatively speaking, you can go up a size or two. The reverse is true for those of use with stubby midsections and superlong legs. The key measurement is actually top tube length – sorry for dropping terms here, but I’ll explain it. The top tube is the horizontal or in some cases somewhat slanted tube that runs from the seat post to the handlebars. (The down tube is the one that runs from the bottom bracket – er, main drive axle – to the handlebars.) I should put some images here but Flickr wants me to upgrade to a paid account, so fuck ’em. Too short of a top tube and you will feel like you’re back on your bike you had in grade 4. Too long and your neck and back will hurt and you will feel sort of like you are being tortured. Usually on most bikes the seat post goes up and down, so unless you have really interesting proportions the seat tube length is less crucial.

So! Now that you know at least what size of bike to look at when you are looking at bikes, let’s talk about where to get bikes. Step 1 is not getting a bike at a department store. Those are not bicycles. They are bicycle-shaped objects (BSOs). You may think they are bikes, but don’t be fooled. Due to tariffs, another thing I won’t get into, a halfway decent entry-level casual use NEW bike will set you back $600. Unless there is a big sale. While you can find a $600 bike at Canadian Tire, you’re better off by going to your local bike shop (LBS) or MEC if you live in a larger metropolis. Canadian Tire won’t give you free-tune ups or help you adjust your front derailleur.  The exception to this rule is if you are buying a bike for your kid. It doesn’t matter what you get for your kid since it will be stolen in about 36 hours. If it doesn’t get stolen it really doesn’t matter what sort of shape it’s in, your kid will use the shit out of it. Case in point – we used a bike on the farm for years that had no brakes or chain. Why, I can’t really imagine, although it was deliciously terrifying to hillbomb on. Local bike shops also have used bikes and bikes that haven’t sold from a couple years ago. This will help you get an idea of the depreciation rate and what a good used bike should feel like. Even if you don’t have the budget to buy from a shop, I recommend showing up and testing some things out. At the very least you can get a feel for what sort of bike you prefer and you’ll know what a properly set-up machine feels like. Also, people who work at bike shops LOVE bikes, and they love helping other people love bikes. Also, unless you are planning on immediately starting a racing career, you do not need to have the latest model. A bike from 2009 that has sat unloved in the shop is perfectly acceptable, and they’re often marked down at least 30%. While there is a bit of wear on it, the cables have all been stretched properly and everything is broken in for you.

I am aware, though, that we are not all financially blessed. Especially when you consider with all the extras tossed in – lock, helmet, fenders, rack, lube, wrenches, possibly a bag – you’re looking at about $850, to start. Wait! Get up off the floor. Do not panic! I am about to lay some knowledge on you that will save you money and enable you to successfully purchase a solid used bike for a lot less money than a cheap new one. (This reminds me, I should really put up a Paypal donate button here.) You can take advantage of depreciation, life changes, poor fiscal decisions, and sudden moves across country to swoop down and cherry-pick some sweet wheels off Kijiji. The key is to set up a Kijiji alert and…wait. Wait a while. Unless you are someone who is between 5’10” and 6′, or less than 5’5″. You fuckers have lots of bikes to pick from. I shouldn’t have to say here, do not buy a bike that came from a department store. The only thing that’s worse than a department store bike is a used department store bike. Bikes that came from department stores: Oryx, Carrera, Supercycle, any Raleigh/CCM/Mongoose/Schwinn/Diamondback/Iron Horse in the past 20 years, Nakamura, Triumph, and Infinity for starters. Conversely, Trek, Kona, Rocky Mountain, Specialized, Gary Fisher (RIP), and to a lesser degree Jamis and Norco are solid local bike shop brands. (Jamis and Norco have started downgrading to department-store fare but their higher-end stuff is as solid as the rest). I don’t know too much about BMX so I can’t help you on those, guys.

If you do not have any budget woes, you really should just turn off your computer and go to your LBS where they will be more than happy to take all of your money. For Saskatoon types, I recommend Bruce’s on Central and Bike Universe, although City Park and Bike Doctor are not the worst. I would say Bike Universe and Bike Doctor are good for buying but I prefer to get any maintenance done at Bruce’s. Your mileage may vary and I am a little biased. Bike Doctor in particular likes to put the spin on, so take a knowledgeable friend (me!). I do not recommend Spoke and Sport because of a couple unfortunate incidents where they assumed I know nothing since I have two X chromosomes. It was actually pretty funny. Bike Universe also sells Bromptons of which I have one and am prepping a whole ‘nother post on.

Vague ads are the plague on Kijiji, but sometimes they pan out. I got my beater Trek commuter bike for $30 off Kijiji from an ad that was “Bike for sale, 45 OBO.” The guy had ridden it maybe 2 times so it was in pristine condition, despite being from the early 90’s. As I was to find out a month later, however, the bottom bracket (main pedal axle) was about 85% stripped. I am not sure how he did this without riding it. This is why when you test a bike, grip a pedal in each hand and try to rock the axle from side to side laterally to see if there’s any play. Other things to look for: any big dents or cracks in the frame (DO NOT BUY) stuck brakes or shifters (you can fix this generally), a bent front fork (DO NOT BUY), bent wheels, or wheels that do not spin for very long when you hold them up and whack ’em. You can replace wheels and drivetrains and brakes, but it’ll cost you, especially if you are relying on shop labour, so use your judgement. Things that are wrong with the frame or fork you can’t replace without a lot of money and/or crying. Same with the bottom bracket. (Although my dad has suggested using tinfoil.) A good resource for bike maintenance and repair are Leonard Zinn’s books that I mentioned earlier as well as mining the morass that is Bike Forums. However, if you decide to join Bike Forums, remember my handy flowchart on Internet use.

A note on drivetrains (or shifters, derailleurs, those funny looking cog things, etc.) To fully replace with entry-level stuff is going to set you back around $200 last time I checked, unless you also find some sweet deals on parts and have a friend with tools. So it’s in your best interest to get something that will at least guarantee you some level of mobility until you find a wad of money lying in the graveyard. (This has happened although not as often as I’d like.)

So, you have a potential bike in front of you, either in person or on your grimy Cheeto-encrusted computer screen. First, you look at the rear derailleur (the goofy arm-looking thing that moves the chain onto different gears).  This will tell you approximately how much your mark paid for the bike. (Let’s hope they paid for it.) There are two main manufacturers for these parts: SRAM and Shimano. I don’t know too much about SRAM except for that their good stuff is numbered 0 or X or Red and their crap stuff is numbered like 3 or 5. It’s not confusing at all. Shimano’s entry level stuff has actual names and their crap stuff has numbered things. Stay away from numbered Shimano derailleurs. These come on Walmart bikes. Actually just go to Walmart and whatever they have there, don’t buy it. (This also applies to everything else in Walmart aside from toilet paper and Reese’s eggs.)

It’s not like the crap derailleur is instantly going to explode and kill you, but if you know how much the bike originally cost, you can use this as a bargaining chip. For example, Shimano ranks their stuff like this ($ to $$$) – Altus/Acera, Alivio, Sora (discontinued) Tiagra, 105, Ultegra, Dura-Ace (road bikes). Mountain bike Shimano derailleur list goes: Acera, Alivio, Deore, Deore LX, Deore XT, XTR or some shit. (Road bike derailleurs are lighter and built for speed. Mountain bike derailleurs are built to withstand abuse.) Generally speaking a bike kitted out with Alivio had a retail price of around $550-650, or at least before they raised the goddamn tariffs. A $1000 bike usually came with Tiagra/Deore LX, give or take. So there is no way you should pay $500 for an Alivio bike unless they’ve still got the tags on it or something. Don’t be fooled by “it still has the nubs on the tires” line. I have a road bike that I have ridden 1500 km a year minimum for the last three years and it still has the nubs on the tires. Fuck the nubs. (This statement only applies to bike tires.) Why pay more for a derailleur, you ask? Well, the better the derailleur, generally the more reliably and smoothly it will shift and the less it will weigh. Also, the other components and build of the bike will be accordingly specced out – you can generally count on more responsive brakes, higher-quality chainrings, etc. etc.

OK, so you’ve found something that you think may fit you and it doesn’t look like it will explode. Next we’re going to get a bit more fussy. If you don’t care past this point go buy it. If you do care, keep reading. Despite what I said earlier, I am going to talk about different types of bikes and riding style. And efficiency.

So, most of the bikes you are probably going to see on Kijiji are mountain bikes, either with front suspension or full suspension.  Some of these look like mountain bikes, but they’re really not. Sort of how a Jeep Patriot looks like it could go off-road but you shouldn’t. However, since we do not have any mountains in Saskatoon, this doesn’t matter. If you are thinking about going out and shredding the gnar, or however you say it, I am afraid I do not know too much about serious downhill, trials, and other off-road pursuits. Sorry.

So: the pros of MTBs and things that look like MTBs: the suspension, if present, is a nice thing to have for potholes and other medium-to-large size craters. However, it makes your bike a lot heavier and also decreases your pedalling efficiency. Also, now you have a suspension to maintain. Generally they do not require that much maintenance but if they do go wrong you may as well have a rigid bike. Look for leaking seals, and test to see if the bike is too springy or not springy enough. Also check for creaks or grinding when you push down on it. If you come across an old-school rigid (no suspension) MTB with a steel (narrow diameter tube) frame, I love these. Sometimes they have holes for mounting racks, so with the addition of some road tires you can rip around, bomb over curbs AND carry a lot of stuff. Another thing some MTBs may come with is disc brakes. Discs are great if you need to stop quickly, especially if it is wet. Discs are also great for requiring more fiddling and having expensive replacement parts. That being said,  my next commuter will have disc brakes. The other type of brakes – cantilevers – are easy to maintain and somewhat easier to adjust, with cheaper parts. However, they are not as effective as stopping in the wet as discs are. Don’t freak out – they are safe, you can still stop effectively. One thing I do recommend if you get a MTB is buying street or road tires for it, as you will not need the aggressive knobbly tires unless you are doing some serious off-roading or you have a mostly gravel commute.

The second bike type that you may see on Kijiji are hybrids. These come in two types – the comfort hybrid, which also requires that you purchase Mom Jeans; and the sport hybrid. The comfort hybrid has a more upright seating position, which helps you see over cars and is generally considered more, er, comfortable. It is also a bitch to ride with a headwind. Seriously, you may think that a couple of inches doesn’t matter with handlebars but it’s incredible the amount of wind resistance you can build up. (I own a comfort hybrid. It is very comfortable, like an armchair; and very slow, like an armchair on casters.) The sport hybrids have a sportier position, i.e. lower handlebars for less wind resistance, but not as low as you can get on a road bike with drop bars. As you can guess, hybrids are compromise bikes. You can take hybrids around off-road too. As a rule, the narrower your tires are the less fun you will have on gravel, and do not attempt any sort of jumps/drops or curb hopping unless you have money for new wheels and possibly new front teeth. If you can’t tell, I put a premium on speed and efficiency. If comfort is your main concern, interpret my words accordingly.

Another frame version that is getting rather popular again is the “urban” style – Opus has a couple bikes that exemplify this type. These have a similar riding position to hybrids – a good rule of thumb is to check whether the handlebars are higher, lower, or the same height as the seat; this will give you an indication of the riding position. The urban bikes are a bit different than hybrids in that they come with racks and possibly chainguards; they’re a little more sensitive to the commuter who wants to use casual clothes. If you’re really looking for a bike that is virtually maintenance-free, has integrated lights and lock, won’t eat your pants or skirts, and you can leave outside in all sorts of weather, I recommend a Dutch bicycle – Batavus and Gazelle are two brands you can get in Canada. City Park Cycle used to sell Batavus a couple years ago. Basically urban type bikes are ‘Dutch-bike-lite’ – literally, as Dutch bikes can weigh around 50 lbs.

The next bike type is the road bike in its racing-ish and touring variants (you can lump cyclocross bikes in here too – they will look like road bikes but have knobbier tires). Most of them come with the curly handlebars (drop bars) but you may even see a couple with flat bars, like a Specialized Sirrus. Do not confuse these with fixies – I will explain in a bit. I like drop bars, but then I hate wind. When I first started riding, I tested a road bike but I didn’t like the skinny tires, so I got a comfort hybrid. Now the aforementioned armchairy nature of the hybrid annoys me and I am much more comfortable on thinner wheels. Road bikes are great for speed. You can cover a lot of ground quickly, although if your route has a lot of lights or stop signs or crosswalks the person behind you on an armchair will be able to catch up with you easily. If you like running around and shouting “POWAHHH” like Jeremy Clarkson you should get a road bike.

There’s another type of road bike that you’ve probably seen around. Fixies and single-speeds! What is a fixie? It is a bike with only one gear and no freewheel (you can’t pedal backwards freely – it moves the gears in reverse). If this sounds like a great idea, congratulations! Fixies are fun, since you don’t have to worry about things like shifting or crap derailleurs. Fixies can also be terrifying since you can’t shift down or up for hills or wind, and you have to keep your legs moving at all times unless you want to skid, which is another proposition. Really hardcore fixies do not have brakes – you are expected to skid the back wheel to stop. If this sounds dumb, you are not alone. If this sounds awesome, you are not alone. Personally, I like having a brake. Also, tires are expensive. “Single-speeds” are single-speed bikes with a freewheel. They will not get you as much street cred as a fixie, although you may have less knee problems. Also, you do not have to have foot retention – clips or straps or bike shoes – with single-speeds. Since on a fixie, you control the bike with the pedals, it is imperative that your feet remain on the pedals unless you wish to dismount. Never buy a fixie without foot retention unless you are immediately planning to rectify the situation.

Some people on Kijiji sell fixie and single-speed conversions – they take an old road bike (sometimes it is a PERFECTLY GOOD ROAD BIKE, but I digress) and take off all the shifters and gears but two. A good fixie/SS conversion is tasteful and fun. A bad fixie conversion is tasteless, terrifying, and may contribute to your injury or death. If you’re bent on a fixie conversion, have someone check it out with you. At the very least do not buy one with a sagging or slack chain or no chain tensioner. You do not want the chain coming off your fixie, especially if it is one without any brakes. I could get into discussions here about horizontal dropouts and frame spacing here but I’m already over 3000 words.

OK, there is another bike type, but since they don’t come up very often on Kijiji I won’t get too elaborate. They’re recumbent bikes, and they are a godsend for those of us with back problems and/or a lot of distance to cover. Since recumbent bikes are most likely to have a low-slung frame, I don’t really recommend them as a starting-out bike for the city dweller. You have to be hyper-vigilant about yobs in jacked-up trucks casually ending your life. Also they’re a bit more difficult to get started on when the light turns green. However, the riding position on recumbents means you get the most power out of your legs, so for long tours they are super-efficient. They also have the least amount of wind resistance, especially when you start talking about things like fairings. All speed records for cycling are held by recumbent bikes. Which is why they’re banned from bike racing, naturally. (Bikes with small wheels are also more efficient than bikes with large wheels. So Moultons are also banned from bike racing. Physics!)

Folding bikes: Never buy a folding bike from Walmart/Canadian Tire. If you see a Brompton, Bike Friday, Dahon or MEC folding bike on Kijiji, immediately notify me so that I can buy it. Always be super judgey of a folding bike frame since if there’s anything wrong with the locking mechanisms or metal fatigue you will regret your purchase greatly.

So! Now you know mostly what things to look for. Don’t forget to budget for a lock, as well. I’d set aside about $50 for an anti-theft device or two. If this seems like a lot, consider how much it will be to replace the bike. Also, consider an bike tire air pump, especially if you want a road bike. More expensive road bikes come with Presta valves (not Schraeder, or car-tire valves) and require a pump to fill. Since there is an epidemic of unfilled tires on Saskatoon streets I strongly recommend you have some form of inflation and pressure-measurement tools. Low tires are susceptible to blowouts and what’s worse, can decrease your efficiency. I know people don’t recommend using an air compressor to fill tire valves, but I find for most Schraeder-valved tubes if you’re careful you should be fine. A lot of gas-station and hobbyist air compressors don’t have the sheer power of say, a garage’s massive compressor used to run impact wrenches etc. Remember! Since bike tires are low volume and high-pressure, they lose air much more quickly than car tires. You MUST check your tire pressure at least once per week.

Next time! We talk about basic bike maintenance, getting around town without being killed, route choice, and accessories. (Ha, ha, “we talk”. I talk, you read.) I hope this hasn’t been too intimidating. Bikes are really quite fun and easy to maintain once you pick up a few things. You can’t beat the independence that comes with knowing how to set up and fix your own mode of transportation. I know, there’s always walking. But a bike can expand your range tenfold, with less energy expended. Also, when the apocalypse happens I will be able to go camp out at my parents’ farm while you guys are busy shanking each other at the gas station.