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1 October 2020

How to buy the best bike

Find out what types of bike are best suited to commuting, leisure and town riding - and how to choose the best for your lifestyle, plus features to look for and buying advice
Browsing bike store 487682
Matthew Knight

The COVID-19 lockdown has resulted in a boom in cycling. And as more people start to return to work, but still look to avoid public transport, it's likely to continue.

If you are looking to buy a new bike, whether for commuting or leisure, we've outlined below the key things to consider before you buy one. 

Plus, we reveal what to look out for if you're thinking of buying a second-hand bike instead.

Buying a new bike - coronavirus safety measures

Bike shops were allowed to remain open during the COVID-19 lockdown, albeit operating with strict social distancing measures in place.

The most significant impact of the lockdown on buying a new bike is one of availability. Many bike shops have not been able to order new stock as fast as they're selling it, so you may have to wait a little longer than usual to get the bike you want, or not have as much choice as usual.

Ideally, you should still test-ride a bike before you buy it. However, not all bike shops are allowing test rides at this time, and many are operating strict one-in one-out policies in stores. Check with your local stores before you go.

What type of bike is best for you?

The type of bike that will suit you best comes down to what you mostly plan to use it for.

If you'll be riding on all paved roads and speed is important, then a road bike is best for you. Just after a simple city commuter? Then a hybrid or town bike could be the first thing to consider. 

Are there some off-road sections on popular routes near you? Consider a mountain bike. 

These are the most common types of bike, and who they might be suitable for:

Road bikes

Slim tires and light frames make these bikes the fastest of the bunch, and suited to those looking for speed and riding on smooth roads. 

Unless you opt for a specialist gravel bike (with wider grippier tyres) they're not suitable for any type of off-road riding.

Their drop handlebars also give them an aggressive riding position, which won't be suitable for everyone. 

Mountain bikes

Mountain bikes have wider tyres with more tread, which makes them perfect for off-road riding on muddy trails, or gravelly paths. 

They ride well on the roads too, but you'll have the most fun on a mountain bike when you get off the beaten track. 

Hybrid bikes

Hybrid bikes are likely to be the most pragmatic option for many. They give you many of the benefits of a speedy road bike, as they have skinny tires and relatively light frames, which allow them to accelerate quickly with limited rolling resistance from the tyres. 

But unlike road bikes they have raised, flat handlebars, which give you a more upright and comfortable riding position. 

Town bike or Dutch bike

Town bikes, also known as Dutch bikes, are all about comfort and practicality, with speed being a lesser priority. They are a good option if you don't need to go long distances and are just wanting to pick up bits and pieces around town.

You'll have a much more upright riding position with hardly any reach to the handlebars from an upright sitting position. 

They often have in-built luggage options, like panniers or baskets, for an easy way to stash your shopping. 

Folding bikes

Folding bikes are perfect for commuters, or leisure riders that like to pop their bike in the car, drive to a local beauty spot, and cycle from there. 

They are designed to be light and fold down into a portable bundle. This does mean some compromises on comfort and wheel size, which means they are best suited to riding shorter distances. 

Electric bikes

Want or need a little more spring in your step nowadays? Or can't face the hill on your regular route? Then an electric bike could be the answer. 

They're expensive, and tend to be heavier than standard bikes. But the motor will give you some extra oomph as you ride, and make steep inclines a breeze. 

If you're interested in an electric bike, check our full electric bike buying guide

We've also tested folding electric bikes - check our folding electric bike reviews to see which models we recommend.

How much should you spend on a new bike?

You can buy a new adult bike from as little as £250, but most entry-level bikes hover around the £400 mark. At this price point the bike will likely have a durable steel frame and basic components.

Paying more will usually get you lighter frames made of carbon or aluminum (for increased speed) and higher spec components.

Folding bikes and electric bikes can cost several thousand pounds.

Save money with the cycle-to-work scheme

The government-backed cycle-to-work scheme can save you money when buying a bike.

Your employer buys the bike for you to ride to work and then they hire it back to you through a salary sacrifice. 

At the end of the hire period you can buy the bike from your employer, typically for a nominal fee. 

Depending on how much you earn, it can save you more than 40% on the value of the bike. 

Check with your employer to find out if they offer the scheme. 

Key things to look out for when buying a new bike

Frame size

Buying an over or undersized bike will make it hard to find a comfortable riding position. 

The frame size will impact how far you need to reach for the handlebars, and whether you are over or under-extending your knees while pedalling. 

The frame size you need will depend on what type of bike you're buying. Most online retailers will have useful sizing charts that you can use to determine the right size for you, like this one from Halfords.

If you can physically visit a bike shop, then they can help you find the right sized frame and even help you set up the saddle to the correct height so that it fits you perfectly, although at the moment many stores are discouraging in-person visits where possible. 

Weight

The more you spend on a bike, the lighter it's likely to be. 

Keen cyclists can become obsessed by weight savings, spending thousands of pounds in some cases to save just a few grams.

An entry-level bike might well weigh three or four kilograms more than a top-end bike, but unless you're planning on entering into a professional peloton, you needn't be excessively worried about weight savings. It might be a little harder to get up a steep climb, and a little slower accelerating up to cruising speed, but if you ride mainly on the flat you will barely notice the difference in weight. 

As a rough guide, an average mountain bike might weigh around 14kg, and an average road bike around 10kg. 

Electric bikes are significantly heavier due to the weight of the motor and battery, but this is mainly noticeable when transporting the bike, as the motor power offsets any increased weight while riding.

Brakes

There are lots of different types of brakes. Don't get overwhelmed by the choice, they're all capable of stopping you in time when they need to.

  • V-brakes - common on touring and off-road mountain bikes, they come with easily replaceable cartridges.
  • Cantilevers - similar to V-brakes but they only have a cable between them, which means they’re less likely to get clogged with mud. A good option for off-road riders.
  • Caliper brakes - common on road, or hybrid, they’re a bit smaller and lighter than V-brakes, or Cantilever brakes.
  • Disc brakes - increasingly popular on all kinds of bike, the main advantage of disc brakes is their increased stopping power in wet conditions.

Gears

If you live in a hilly area, you'll need a bike with a number of gears to make it easier to ride uphill. 

But if you only intend to cycle on the flat, then you can also buy single speed bikes which only have one gear. Single speed bikes are lighter and have fewer components, which can make them cheaper too.

Essential bike accessories

Helmets

By law, you don't have to wear a helmet while you're riding a bike, but its a sensible protective measure to take.

There are a wide range of helmets available, you can pick up a good one from around £30. 

You'll want it to fit comfortably, be easily adjustable, have ventilation and be light. 

Locks

Sold Secure, an independent organisation, rates bike locks according to how easy they are to break into. A Gold-rated lock offers the highest level of resistance to a would-be thief, so look for this rating when choosing a lock. 

The sad truth is, that if a thief really wants your bike, they can get it. A good lock will delay them, or potentially deter them entirely, especially if you follow best practice by:

  • locking your bike in a secure location
  • a good location is covered by CCTV or, even better, where you can see it

If you live in a big town or city, where there is a higher risk of bike theft, you'll need to be more vigilant. The flashier your bike, or the weaker-looking your lock, the more at-risk you are. 

Lights

A good set of bike lights are an absolute must if you're planning on cycling in the early mornings, dusk, or at night.

Bike lights will make sure you're seen, and they'll also allow you to see potholes and road obstacles when riding in locations that aren't covered by street lights. 

You can get a good set of front and rear lights for about £30. 

Clothes

You don't need special clothes for cycling. But it's wise to consider some kid of high-visibility jacket, or backpack, so that you are easy to see on the roads.

If you're cycling a long distance, then a good pair of lycra cycling shorts is worth considering for comfort.

If you wear loose trousers, you'll need to invest in some cycle clips to avoid them getting trapped in the bike chain.

Panniers and cycling backpacks

If you need to carry things around on your bike - if commuting to work or the shops for example - you'll need space to safely store luggage on your bike.

A backpack is the simplest solution, but alternatives include:

  • panniers that can be hung over the rear or front wheel
  • a rack over the back wheel, which can fit a basket or pannier
  • a basket attached to the front of the handlebars

These usually cost £15-50, depending on style and capacity, and are relatively easy to fit onto most bikes.

Bike spares and maintenance

It's worth having a few bits and bobs to hand for bike maintenance jobs and emergencies.

Puncture repair patches

It's inevitable, you will eventually get a flat tyre. A pack of glueless tyre patches would be a sensible investment to getting you back and rolling as fast as possible.

A pack of 10 usually costs less than £5.

Inner tubes

It's also worth having a couple of spare inner tubes for your bike tyres. You only really want to be patching an inner tube once, anymore than that and it makes sense to completely change the inner tube. 

A spare inner tube should only cost around £5, depending on the type and size.

How to fix a flat tyre

This guide from GCN explains how to fix a puncture. If you don't feel confident, your local bike shop should do it for about £10.

Where to buy a new bike

 Larger national chains include Halfords (Cycle Republic), Evans, Chain Reaction Cycles and Wiggle. But you can also look out for local independent stores too.

While it may be trickier at the moment, with social distancing measures in place, it can be helpful to talk through your needs with staff and see bikes in person.

Second hand bikes

If you're buying a second hand bike, here are a few essential things to check before you buy it.

Frame

There aren't too many things on a bike that can't be fixed if you're picking up a bike second hand for cheap, but the frame is one of them. 

Check the frame and front forks carefully for small cracks, particularly around weld points and where the seat post enters the frame. 

You should also look for rust; either on the surface, or visible as bubbles below the paint work. 

If the frame is either cracked, or rusty, we'd suggest leaving the bike with its current owner.

Brakes

Check that the brakes are in good working order and that there is plenty of rubber left on the brake blocks. 

New brake blocks cost less than £10 and it's easy to get replacements, so don't let it put you off buying the bike, but it's good practice to check the brakes before you buy. 

Wheels

Give the wheels a spin and check that they're not buckled. If they're badly buckled you'll be able to see it by eye. You might be able to identify a slightly buckled wheel by listening for any rubs as the part of the wheel that is out of alignment hits the brake pad. 

Depending on the type of bike, replacement wheels needn't be excessively expensive. You can get a new wheel for around £50, but it's worth checking so you don't pay out more than you need to for the bike.

Chain and transmission

Check the chain for rust, or stretching. If the chain is stretched it will slip as you pedal through the gears on any test ride.

Also check that the gears are set up properly on the bike by cycling through all of the gears on your short test ride.

If the chain is rusty, or the front chainring or rear cassette need replacing then it's a reasonably costly job (£100 or more for a basic setup). It can be done by your local bike shop, but it's worth assessing if it's worth buying second-hand with this cost taken into account.

Check it isn't stolen

If you have any doubts, you can check the bike's serial number, which can be found on the frame, against an online database, which will tell you if the bike has been reported stolen.

Find out more at BikeRegister.