Buying a bike can be life changing. While we’re still in the middle of an ongoing pandemic, more and more people are turning to local bike shops to find their new mode of transportation.
If your shop is low on options you like, thankfully buying a bike online is as easy as clicking a button on a website. In the U.S., dozens bike brands of varied size have sales models that range from online-only with direct shipping to customers (Canyon and Commencal, for example), to hybrid digital/physical models like Trek’s and Giant’s, where you’ll still work with a local retailer for delivery and service.
Past that, there are a number of online retailers like Competitive Cyclist, Jenson, and REI where you can purchase high-end road, mountain, and gravel bikes whenever the time is right.
But is purchasing a bike online right for you? There are pluses and minuses to buying digitally versus in store. Here’s what you need to know before you proceed with that big purchase:
What you want: Brands provide different levels of advice, education, and support for prospective customers. Chat is most common, but not the only tool.
Your size: Some online sellers have detailed online bike fit calculators; others only have basic rule-of-thumb charts. Few address complex issues like injury and mobility. You might need more in-person help from a physical shop.
One thing is for sure: online buying is here to stay, and it’s changing how traditional shops work. “There’s an emerging consumer class that are digital natives,” says Trek spokesman Eric Bjorling. “Bike shops will still be pillars of community, but you’ll see more and more bikes sold online.”
Finding out what you want
You probably are already researching online, comparing models and prices from brand to brand. But what if you have questions that aren’t answered by the spec sheet? Most brands selling direct, as well as some online retailers, use online chat as a primary interaction.
“Chat is the most effective tool we have,” says Sharon Yu, general manager for the American arm of consumer-direct brand Bulls Bikes (Bulls also has a dealer network). The key is whether it’s done well; you’ll learn pretty quickly whether you’re speaking with a chatbot that can only handle basic inquiries or a real, live human who can answer questions about fit and component spec.
Other tools include YouTube videos, FAQs, and toll-free numbers. You should also check out reviews, both ours and from owners. Check several sources—manufacturers may scrub their own sites of poor reviews. Pay attention to whether there are consistent mentions of good or bad customer service.
Online shopping pro: You can do your research and even buy when you want, without being bound to shop hours. Mark Lynskey, who founded Litespeed and now runs online brand Lynskey Titanium Bicycles, said that one time a surgeon bought a bike during a break between operations.
Online shopping con: You may have to dig for information much more than you would at a shop, talking with a knowledgeable employee.
Getting the right size
Speaking of chat, probably the top question asked there is, “What’s the right size for me?” say sources we spoke with. The answers, and how they’re delivered, are broad.
Bulls provides a size recommendation based on height and inseam, a common approach for online retailers. Trek encourages customers to visit a local dealer if they don’t know what size they need, but if they’re between sizes, chat can usually help them settle. Chat can be effective… if the seller has expert help. “If someone doesn’t know what they need, we can walk them through it, like a shop would,” says Lynskey. “I appreciate people’s anxiety over this, but it’s extremely rare. It’s not even once a month that we get a return for the wrong size.”
Online retailers vary. Competitive Cyclist and Jenson have detailed interactive fit calculators, while outfits like REI have basic geometry charts only, leaving you to figure out what size is right for you.
One option: Get a basic bike fit at a local shop, on your current bike. You’ll be supporting that shop, without the obligation to buy a new bike from them, but you’ll have comfort in knowing that you’re at least getting the right size frame.
Online shopping pro: Online sellers have more stock than physical ones, so you don’t have to hunt for the right size. And, you can wait for sales or comparison shop.
Online shopping con: An online seller may be little help in determining the right size. If you get it wrong, returns are more of a hassle than at a physical shop.
Handling delivery and assembly
Online sellers use a variety of ways to get you your bike. Some, like Trek, use local dealers; others partner with mobile service franchises like VeloFix or Beeline Bikes. Velofix has delivery partnerships with a number of brands including Canyon, Ellsworth, and Priority, while Beeline partners with Raleigh and Diamondback, among others. (Canyon also offers direct shipping to buyers.)” Expect more partnerships to follow. Still others ship directly to your home.
Partner shops provide expert assembly, but investigate the last option closely. The central questions: how much assembly is required? And will it require specialized tools, like a torque wrench?
The level of home assembly relies on two primary variables: the type of box used and the amount of care in the factory build. Some direct-to-consumer brands use oversize boxes, like the “cheese wedge” AirCaddy, that reduce user assembly to simply attaching the front wheel, setting seat height, and maybe spinning on pedals. Others use standard-size bike boxes, which require the buyer to attach the stem and handlebars, and possibly other items. If you don’t have the proper tools or knowledge, you risk making a mistake like over-torquing a bolt and damaging parts or even voiding a warranty. If you’ll be handling assembly, make sure the brand outlines the tools you need and has clear, thorough instructions, either print manuals or step-by-step video guides, or both.
The care and quality of original assembly at the factory varies widely. Some sellers, like Lynskey and Competitive Cyclist, have professional mechanics who assemble, tune, and prep every bike to ensure everything is properly adjusted before light dis-assembly and packing. But some factory-direct ship bikes will have only basic assembly: shifting isn’t adjusted, hydraulic brakes may need to be bled, and spokes could be improperly tensioned. This is where owner reviews come in most handy: if the seller has consistent build quality problems, they’ll show up here. If in doubt, ask the seller what their process involves.
Online shopping pro: Shop partners, franchises, and sellers who use oversize boxes offer consistently higher quality assembly.
Online shopping con: Big boxes are more expensive to ship; you may have to deal with quality control issues; you’re responsible for damage on DIY assembly.
How to deal with service, returns, and warranties
Before you click buy, check out three things: how the brand handles returns of damaged items, how it handles warranties, and where you’ll take the bike for routine service. (This isn’t an issue for brands like Trek, with local shop partners.)
Returns: New Bike Day is the best, but don’t get carried away with excitement. When the box arrives, carefully inspect it for obvious damage like big rips in the cardboard or a hole where an axle is poking through. Typically, you’ll make a claim first with the shipper, so don’t unpack the bike. Instead, document the damage with photos and contact the shipper with a claim. Notify the brand or retailer as well; returns usually have a limited window and you want them to know you received damaged goods. Most brands will provide free returns of damaged items, but be wary of ones that require you to cover shipping costs or pay restocking fees in those cases.
If the box is in good shape, unpack, but pay attention to internal damage, like a bent disc rotor, or paint damaged by loose items in the box (which is bad packaging hygiene by the brand). Again, document all damage and contact the shipper and seller. The damage we see most frequently on shipped bikes is bent rear derailleur hangers. These can often be easily straightened with special tools, but it’s common enough that you’ll want to check for it; if the derailleur pulleys don’t seem aligned with the cogs, the hanger is probably bent. Take it to a shop.
For other returns, check the seller’s policy carefully. “We get a lot of questions about returns,” says Yu. “Our policy is very straightforward: We stand behind everything we sell.” That’s consistent with other brands we spoke with. But read the return policy carefully because terms vary from company to company. Bulls, for instance, offers a replacement/refund within 15 days of purchase on unused equipment—you can take it for a parking lot test ride, but not much more. Competitive Cyclist offers a 30-day refund on unused bikes, but only store credit for a used (undamaged) bike. Lynskey offers the most generous policy we found: “You’ve got 45 days to evaluate your bike and if you don’t like it, you can exchange it or swap parts, or send it back for a refund,” Lynskey says. Don’t abuse the bike, but you can ride it normally.
Online shopping pro: brands like Lynskey, with a generous return policy, are essentially giving you a multi-day demo on home roads.
Online shopping con: If something is wrong, returns can be a hassle even if costs are covered.
Warranty: This is essential for consumer-direct brands that don’t have local retailers handling warranty claims. The seller should always be your first stop for a warranty issue. A branded part like, say, a suspension fork, can sometimes be warrantied direct to that company, but the bike seller is often the first point of contact for determining where you need to go. For any house-brand or unbranded parts, the seller is your only contact. Make sure to get a return authorization number and shipping label, and follow up if you haven’t heard anything after 10 business days. You should at least get a notification that the claim is in process.
Online shopping pro: A good online seller will be a reliable warranty partner; you just have to ship items.
Online shopping con: If customer service is bad, you may be stuck without many other options.
Service: Any professional bike shop can work on pretty much any bike. And some online brands, like Lynskey, have a hybrid shop model where a local retailer gets credit for a sale in their area (Trek’s system is similar). That gives you a ready-made service option.
Without that shop relationship, some buyers feel uneasy bringing a brand known for online sales into a shop for service. Our simple advice: Don’t be. A professional shop will work on almost any bike unless the part in question is ruined. If they give you grief for buying online, go to a different shop.
Online shopping pro: Shops are generally much less resistant to servicing direct-to-consumer brands than they were even five years ago.
Online shopping con: If your bike features any proprietary technology or house-brand parts, getting replacements could be more complicated, and shops may be unfamiliar with integrated technology from that brand.
Ultimately, you have to decide what makes you comfortable
Online buyers span a broad range. Trek’s Bjorling said that some of the most popular models have been kids bikes, since all color options are available online and might not be in local stores. On the other hand, Lynskey says his customers are experienced, knowledgeable cyclists who know exactly what they want and have no trouble clicking “Buy” on a $6,000 purchase.
Ultimately, it’ll come down to your cycling comfort level. Lynskey says that his overriding service philosophy is to make the customer happy. Even when customers return products, they’re satisfied by the experience. But if you have reservations that you can’t set aside, don’t force it; a good bike shop can help guide every step of your purchase and, as Bjorling noted, is a community resource in a way that no online seller can be.
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