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Buying a Bike, part (b)

Why buy from a LOCAL BIKE SHOP (LBS)?

You can get less expensive bikes used, online, or at department stores, but there are good reasons to buy a bike from a local bike shop (LBS, a.k.a. Independent Bicycle Dealer, INDB). A bike bought at a good shop:

  1. Will be properly assembled and adjusted on-site by a professional mechanic,
  2. Will be sized to fit you by a salesperson trained in bike fitting, and
  3. Will come with a warranty and free maintenance service (usually worth at least $50 - $100).
If you find any of these things are not true of a particular LBS, think twice about buying from that shop.

The National Bicycle Dealers' Association (NBDA) has a member directory, a bicycle Dealer Finder, and a nice chart explaining the advantages of buying a bike from an independent bike dealer rather than over the internet or from a department store. Remember however, it is an industry organization, so it's not an impartial advocate. That said, I agree with most of what they have to say, and I'm not in the bike retail business. The League of American Bicyclists' search tool can also locate bike shops. It's also good to shop at stores that support the League, and other bicycle advocacy groups.

Don't buy anything from people you don't like or don't trust.

It's helpful to have a good relationship with a local shop regardless of whether you're buying a new bike there or not. If you do buy a new bike, you'll be going back to the store for the free service that typically comes with the bike. If you buy used or elsewhere, you'll still need someone to go to for advice and/or repairs.

It's also true if you're just buying parts or accessories because (a) incompatibilities abound--it's very easy to buy the wrong part online since sellers rarely list all the specifications--and (b) it's much easier to return things to a brick-and-mortar store.

Also, a good salesperson will help you understand your needs. Your circumstances, goals, and needs are unique, and much depends on them. There are lots bike shop people out there who love bikes and want to help you learn to use and enjoy them. There is a lot to know about bikes, and learning a bit will help you figure out what you want. You should never be made to feel stupid, uncool, or like you're being taken for a ride.

Shopping on weekends?
Bike shops are CRAZY on weekends, especially in spring and summer. Staff-people are often tired, stressed out, and overwhelmed. Sometimes they can't give customers the attention they deserve. From a purely pragmatic point of view, it's not the best time to shop. If you do go on the weekend, go as early as possible--shops often get progressively busier towards the end of the day. On the flip side, a rainy weekend can provide a great shopping experience--as long as you don't mind getting a little wet--because shops are often empty on rainy days.
Also, if you wait until May 1 to bring your bike to the shop for a tune-up, expect a line. I'm not justifyin', I'm just sayin'.
Overpriced? In general, no.

Very few people in the bike industry get rich from retail sales, and there is some truth in the saying, "You get what you pay for." In this case, the truth is that a $400 bike from a local bike shop is worth at least twice as much as a $200 bike from a department store. The former is likely to last more than twice as long, work significantly better, and save you money and headaches, than the later. I can't guarantee it, but it is my experience. I think $300.00 is about the lowest price you'll typically see on a bike at a LBS. With the lock, helmet, and sales tax, expect to spend maybe at least $450. (These prices may be dated, since this was written in 2006.)

You can save money purchasing mail-order or online. You will need to assemble and adjust the bike yourself, however, or pay someone locally to do it. If something isn't right, it will be much easier to deal with a local retailer for returns or warranties. Factor in the free service that you'll get from a local shop, and the cost savings not be a great as you thought. Plus, once you find salespeople you trust, they'll be great sources for tips and information, and you'll be supporting your local economy. I think I'm repeating myself.

Why bother with an advocacy group or riding club?
A local group will be a good resource for all kinds of bike-related stuff near you. It's also likely to be a member-driven organization, and to work with local and regional authorities and communities to create good riding conditions. If this is something you care about, join the group. Also, membership usually gets you discounts at area shops; if you're buying a bike, membership will pay for itself pretty quick. The League of American Bicyclists maintains a searchable list of local groups. If there's no local club, or even if there is, you can join The League. They do similar education and advocacy at the national and state levels, and you'll probably get the same discounts. If you're in the DC area, check out the local heroes at Washington Area Bicyclists' Association(WABA).
About accessories:

First: the big fat lock. If buying a $100 lock seems silly to you, think about how pissed off you'll be if your bike is stolen and your insurance deductible is $500.

If you don't get a basket, you won't be inclined to use your bike to run errands.
If you don't have lights on your bike, you won't be able to ride safely at night.
Think ahead! Think about your goals.

In general, you don't need special cycling clothing, pedals, or shoes to ride a bike. Don't let anyone tell you different. If you want these things, get them.

What about used bikes?
Buying a used bike through Ebay or craigslist is a risky proposition. Sometimes you can find a great deal, or a diamond in the rough. Just as often, I see bikes of dubious function and quality.
If you're going this route, I recommend buying locally (a la craigslist). Suggest to the seller that you meet at a local bike shop, so you can have an independent mechanic check out the bike. A seller who is not willing to meet at a local bike shop should make you nervous.
When you meet the seller at the local shop, take the bike to the service department. Don't ask the mechanic how much the bike is worth (it's impossible to answer objectively, and puts them in tough position). Instead, ask if the bike is road worthy. If the mechanic says it's not, ask what it would take to make it so. Now you can make an informed decision.
Notice that you're still benefiting from having a good relationship with a local bike shop.

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References to specific companies or products at The Practical Cyclist are editorial in nature: I have received no significant goods or services in exchange for links or recommendations. Not that I'd refuse, but no one has offered. If this changes, I'll make it obvious and explicit.