If you’re thinking of buying a bike to get around and stay active during lockdown, while still social distancing, you’re not alone—especially in a city. Considering the risks of public transit in the age of COVID-19, the best bikes can be a very helpful and affordable alternative. It’s not a surprise then that people around the world from the U.S. to Australia have been flocking to bike shops in search of new ways to get outside, get around, and exercise.
According to REI master technician Steve Walde, the first question to ask yourself when you’re shopping for a bike is how you plan to use your new set of wheels: You’re going to want different qualities in a bike depending on what activities you need it for—do you want something to ride around town, charge down mountain trails, or ride 100 miles on the weekends—and where you’re going to be biking. If you live in an area with steep hills or wet weather, you may want to consider disc brakes, which provide a more consistent, powerful stop even in wet, muddy conditions, or more gears, which alters the pedaling difficulty for hills. If you’re doing mostly flat rides on dry roads, you may be fine with rim brakes (which act on the rim of the wheel) and a single gear.
Sue Prant, executive director of the Boulder bike organization Community Cycles, adds that you want to be realistic with your plans here and start simple. Don’t buy a hyper-specialized bike based on huge aspirational goals. If you get to the point where your bike is holding you back, then start thinking about getting that upgrade.
In general, there are three main categories of bikes: road, mountain, and hybrid. Walde says that a road bike is typically “designed for efficiency on pavement,” so you’re looking at a lighter bike with drop handlebars for an aerodynamic position and narrow tires to move quickly on the road. Mountain bikes have fatter tires, a more upright riding position, and some suspension to make riding on rough terrain more comfortable. Hybrids are a bit complicated, but they’re usually a more versatile bike that melds characteristics of different types of bikes (like touring bikes and mountain bikes) to suit a range of conditions and terrains. If you aren’t entirely sure what type of riding you want to do yet, a hybrid might be a good place to start.
As far as price goes, expect to spend between $400 and $600 on a decent starter road or hybrid bike, though if you want to get more technical with it, that price can easily exceed $1,000. Buying used is always an option, and can help you avoid any supply-chain backup that stores might be experiencing right now, though that can be challenging if you don’t know what to look for.
Simple cruiser bikes can be had for under $200 at a mass retailer like Target or Walmart, but normally your best bet would be going directly to a bike shop. There, Prant says, you can test ride some bikes and familiarize yourself with the feel of a couple different brands. Though you’ll likely end up spending an extra $100 to $200, you’ll also have a go-to place to pick up parts and request repairs.
At the moment, visiting lots of shops may not be feasible, so even doing some basic research on different types of frames and finding the right size can help steer you in the right direction to make sure you get a bike you’re comfortable with. Big retailers like REI will ship bikes directly to your home, though some assembly is usually required.
“Above everything else is the bike fit,” says Prant, especially since these bikes are an investment, and you want to feel good riding them for long periods of time. Thankfully, she notes that even if a bike isn’t the exact perfect fit, there are simple tweaks you can make to adjust the size if it’s a little off, such as adjusting the height and angle of the saddle or handlebars. “With a bike, centimeters or millimeters can make a huge difference in your comfort level.”
If you’re looking for advice on where to start, we’ve got you covered. We talked to several different bike experts and avid cyclists on their recommendations across different categories, and for various budgets, all vetted by long-time cyclists. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 complications, many bike supply chains are struggling to keep up with demand, so ship times and availability might vary. Due to overwhelming demand, some options recommended by experts were sold out, so we made suggestions here and there for similar bikes based on the experts’ guidelines for how to shop for these (though we haven’t had a chance to personally vet them).
And knowing that right now many bike shops may not be open for testing out bikes beforehand, we’ve also included details on returns for the bikes below in case you buy something that’s not quite the right fit (and may need more than just a simple tweak).
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Road bikes are traditional bicycles with a frame built for speed and longevity on roads, but also include more specialized road bikes like touring and racing bikes. Road bikes can come with different features, but the standard one will have drop handlebars, narrow tires, and a lightweight frame. With these bikes, speed is the name of the game. For a budget-friendly entry-level road bike, Walde says an average weight range to look out for is between 19 and 24 pounds.
As you get up in price, this weight will generally go down, but Walde says, “A bike that weighs a bit more can be an advantage for a new rider, as it helps to inspire confidence by adding stability, durability, and a smoother ride.”
“I also personally always recommend women-specific bikes since there’s variation in the geometry,” Kelly Becker, a former bike shop sales associate, says. “Men’s bikes can totally work for some women, though.”
Entry-Level Road Bikes
Writer, trainer, and cyclist Jessica McWhirt started out road cycling on a bike from Giant, a globally respected brand that provides really solid bikes, from intro- to pro-level racing bikes. She finds that her Giant Avail ($700) is a nice, lightweight, easygoing starter ride. “The grippy drop handlebar is easy to hold and puts you in an ideal position for maximum speed and efficiency. The smooth, narrow wheels reduce friction against the road to give you an effortless, gliding feeling.”
While the Avail isn’t currently available online, the Salsa Journeyman Claris 700, below, is a solid backup for many of the same reasons. It has drop handlebars, 16 gears, and narrow 35mm wheels, and it clocks in at around 25 pounds, which is just slightly above average for a road bike.
Editor’s note: REI accepts returns up to one year after purchase.
If you can find one in a local store, Becker recommends two models from Specialized, a California-based brand that she says has “made a name for itself selling great-quality bikes.” It offers a range of high-quality options from e-bikes to triathlon bikes.
Becker likes the Specialized Dolce ($840), which has a women-specific shape for a better fit, and the Allez ($875), which she notes is “one of the top entry-level road bikes around the world for years.” While the Allez is not designed specifically for women, she says it does allow plenty of adjustability for a comfortable ride and still has smooth control. “It includes mounts for a rack and fender so you can easily transform it into a commuter bike.”
One similar alternative that’s available online is this Cannondale, below, which is built for all-road adventures. It’s slightly more expensive than the Specialized models but is known for its versatility, adjustability, and stability, with a sturdy aluminum frame and hydraulic disc brakes for easy stopping.
Editor’s note: REI accepts returns up to one year after purchase.
Touring bikes vary widely in style and can blend into just about every category depending on the type of touring you plan to do, but they’re all geared toward longer rides and the carrying of heavier loads. Experts like Momoko Saunders, touring cyclist and founder of the nonprofit Bike Farm, recommends looking for one with disc brakes, a front and a back rack (or the capability to add them) if you’re commuting or bikepacking, an upright riding position, and a sturdy frame.
For long, multiday trips, she recommends outfitting your touring bike with Portland Design Works ergo grips ($60), which provide comfortable, ergonomic support for her hands. Saunders says the ergonomic grips “have mostly solved the chronic issue of my hands going numb while riding.” Another addition which she’s found helpful is a generator hub that produces energy from her front wheel’s rotation and charges her electronics through a USB port—she considers it an essential for her multiday trips.
Saunders owns and loves a discontinued Soma Groove mountain bike with thinner tires that she’s ridden over 4,000 miles on, but also recommends the Surly Bridge Club as an alternative. The Bridge Club is a solid touring bike with disc brakes and the ability to attach racks, panniers, and frame bags. This frame will fit a wide range of tire sizes so it also has extra versatility between pavement and off-road.
Editor’s note: Currently the Surly Bridge Club Bike is only available at local retailers, but if you use the Dealer Finder on the company’s site, you’ll find stockists around the country where you can purchase bikes online or pick up in store.
Masi designed its Giramondo touring bike with a slightly more upright position for a comfortable ride. Bikepacker, photographer, and cofounder of Grit MTB Festival, Anna Claire Beasley, has had hers for over two years and spent a summer on it traveling from Seattle, up the Olympic Peninsula, and down to San Francisco. “I chose this bike because it could balance a lot of my favorite types of riding: gravel grinding, commuting, and bikepacking,” Beasley tells SELF. The Giramondo also comes with a front and a back rack so you’ll be all set for commuting or longer touring rides.
Editor’s note: Masi only accepts returns or exchanges for in-store pickup, at the time of pick-up, at your local retailer.
The classification for hybrids can sometimes get a little wishy-washy, but they’re basically bikes that blend characteristics of specialized bikes (like touring bikes or mountain bikes) in one to suit multiple purposes. Generally, a standard hybrid bike will have a more upright sitting position and flat handlebars, like a mountain bike, and use a midsize tire width. Walde describes them as the “Swiss army knife” of bikes.
Nowadays there are so many different styles of bikes, though, that hybrids have branched out into totally different categories like cruisers, cyclocross, or electric bikes. Some folks will say they’re all subcategories of hybrid. Others will insist each one is a separate category in itself. For those who want to ride on the road but don’t want to be crunched up on a smaller road bike, or just want a little extra flexibility to try out gravel or light trails, you may want to spring for a hybrid.
You can find a good hybrid bike in the hundreds range, though some also have front suspension to give you a smoother ride, which may drive up the price.
If you want a comfortable ride to go around town (or out for a couple hours on the weekends), start here. Prant notes that with “around town” hybrid bikes, some of the key points to look for are rear-rack capabilities, comfortable hand grips and seat, and an upright riding position.
Here’s one from Fuji that’s similar to the Liv Alight 3 ($420) that I’ve used as a bike commuter and weekend rider for nearly two years and love. Mine is only available at local stores for the time being, but this Fuji bike (available for sale at Crimson Bikes) seems to tick off many of the same boxes, with a taller head tube for a more upright position, cushy bike seat, rear-rack mounts, and lightweight aluminum body.
If you plan to put your bike through the wringer and want to prioritize structural durability over weight, Prant also recommends looking for a hybrid with a steel frame. The steel material provides a really smooth ride because it absorbs shock and has an “almost springy” feel to it that’s comfortable for long days of riding. Prant uses a steel Linus bike as her around-town bike because the heavier-duty frame can take a beating. Linus offers a range of different styles and price points (like the Mixte 7i, which features a rear rack, front and back reflectors, and a kickstand), though most of them are sold out online until 2021.
Though this wasn’t explicitly recommended by our experts, here’s a similar alternative from Public Bikes, a San Francisco bike store that sells models inspired by Dutch bikes. It has a steel frame, front and rear rack mounts, and a weatherproofed saddle and handlebar grips. For biking around town, it also boasts puncture-resistant tires, and has seven gears like the Mixte 7i for conquering hills and shifting without pedaling.
Editor’s note: Public Bikes delivers your bike directly to your door fully assembled, and has a 14-day Love at First Ride Guarantee where you can return something if you’re not impressed.
For commuting and longer road rides, with some gravel in the mix, certain hybrid bikes are designed to do a bit of everything, with comfort, storage, and longevity top of mind. Some key features to look for in a do-everything commuter are wider tire allowance for off-road tires, an upright riding position, and the ability to have bike racks.
This mega-versatile bike from Surly Bikes, which Prant notes is a favorite among bike shop employees, has a sturdy steel frame that you can choose to deck out yourself (the frame by itself is $500) or find fully made. An avid cyclist of 14 years, writer Lauren Hudgins uses her Cross-Check to get everywhere. “I don’t own a car, so the Cross-Check is my main form of transportation. But I also use it for short touring trips,” she says.
The bike allows for slightly wider tires than standard road bikes, which Hudgins likes for gravel riding (though she admits it isn’t made for steep hills with loose gravel). “I could just sell my Cross-Check and get [a different one],” says Hudgins, “but I’ve gotten emotionally attached to my cute robin’s-egg blue ride.”
Emee Pumarega, a longtime bike commuter, bikepacker, and mountain biker, also likes her Cross-Check “because it’s light and easy to handle, yet strong, and can carry anything I need for a multiday trip, short bike tour, or a bikecamping trip overnight.”
Editor’s note: Bike Attack does not accept returns.
Prant says if she had to choose only one bike, her Straggler would be the one. The Straggler is a step up from the Cross-Check because it has disc instead of rim brakes, which make it easier to stop or slow down on hills.
While Prant is a big advocate for having different bikes for different purposes, she says many bike enthusiasts will have a Surly as their only bike because it can hold gear but isn’t overly heavy or clunky. “[Surly] sort of cornered that market on people who are really into bikes who don’t have a lot of room [to have multiple bikes].” However, she notes that if you don’t need disc brakes, the Cross-Check would be a good choice because disc brakes add weight (and cost) to the bike.
Editor’s note: Moosejaw accepts returns in unused condition.
If you’re looking for some extra excitement with rougher single track trails, jumps, and turns like this, you’ll want a mountain bike. These bikes will have wider tires with better grip to help keep you stable on uneven or slippery ground. They’ll also have a more upright riding position and flat handlebars to give you more control.
While you can find some beginner mountain bikes at budget-friendly prices that will let you get on the trail, Prant warns that most high-quality full-suspension bikes are going to start out expensive (in the ballpark of $2,000 or more). The suspension makes taking on technical terrain more comfortable and stable. If you just want front suspension, often called a hardtail, you’ll have an easier time finding a slightly more affordable bike.
Hardtail (Front Suspension)
Former girls camp coordinator Jessica Wiegandt got into mountain biking with Liv’s Tempt 4 hardtail ($600). The low price point drew Wiegandt to the bike initially, but she now realizes it was the perfect introductory mountain bike for her with its hydraulic disc brakes and grippy 2.2-inch-wide tires for a smoother ride. Wiegandt says, “The bike was low maintenance (big plus for a newbie) and rode well on a variety of terrain, from the sandy, flow trails in DuPont State Park to the root-filled, technical trails in Pisgah.” Though the Tempt 4 is sold out right now, here’s a similar option from Fuji Nevada hardtail bike that has a lightweight aluminum frame, falls in the same price category, and is designed for versatility on trails.
Editor’s note: Undamaged bikes are eligible for full returns within 21 days from Crimson.
One of the queen bees of women’s mountain bikes, Juliana has earned countless accolades for its bikes. Avid mountain biker Amy Kemp, founder of Mountaintop Media, loves all of Juliana’s bikes, and the Maverick is no different. “The Maverick is a beast, in a good way,” says Kemp. This ride is a midrange price for women-specific full-suspension mountain bikes. This bike has a lightweight, shock-absorbing carbon frame and 29-inch-wide grippy tires, but the truly standout features of this bike are the suspension and geometry.
Kemp praises the 150-mm front suspension and 140-mm back suspension, “which makes it a smooth ride even through chunky technical sections. It seriously made me feel like I had superhero powers through technical sections.” The geometry or configuration of the bike is another key piece to look at for a good mountain bike to make sure it matches your measurements. Kemp notes that the women-specific geometry accommodates for a shorter reach to the handlebars, which is ideal for more petite women.
Editor’s note: Juliana allows a full refund anytime for new and unused bikes.