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I've just recently moved to a city (Seattle) where owning a car seems less appropriate than it has to me in the past. Before, I lived in a far more suburban environment where biking was more-or-less just meant for trails and your "typical" bicycle was a $150-$200 one at the nearest Walmart or Target. I'm apprehensive about dropping $500 (or more) on a bicycle currently, and I am really just looking for the best way to get started.

Do I really just need to drop $500+ on a new bicycle and deal with the elevated costs? And if so, how do I even know where to begin on what type of bicycle to pick out, since it would more than likely be my primary mode of transportation?

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Wow! $500 is a cheap bike in Seattle. –  user313 Jun 19 '12 at 2:15
    
I feared as much. I haven't actually started work yet (I start in about a week). Since I don't have regular paychecks coming in, I'm apprehensive about dropping a lot of money on a bicycle. What should I expect to be paying for a decent starting bicycle, then? –  ashays Jun 19 '12 at 2:16
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Be cautious about spending too little and getting a junk bike that's no fun to ride. You need to get a certain level of quality in order to enjoy riding it. –  Mac Jun 19 '12 at 6:25
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A commute in Seattle could be: over multiple steep hills, totally flat, or a nice rolling terrain. Or any combination. I suggest that you choose a bike to accomodate the terrain. –  user313 Jun 19 '12 at 6:57
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Relevant: Why bikes from big box stores are dangerous. –  Neil Fein Jun 20 '12 at 4:32
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4 Answers 4

Yeah, buy a used bike somewhere, either at a shop that has a bunch, or off or Craig's List or another "want ad" source. And, of course, there are yard sales. If you shop carefully you can probably pick up a serviceable bike for $50-100.

But first study bikes a little to learn to recognize quality. Look at the cheap bikes at Walmart and some moderately priced ones at a reputable bike shop. In particular note the differences you'll see around the rear axle and around the crank. The cheapest bikes will have a 1-piece solid crank, whereas good bikes have a 3-piece crank. On cheaper bikes the "dropouts" that the rear axle fits into are made of stamped sheet metal, whereas on better quality bikes the dropouts are die-cast or forged. Also observe the joining of the tubing of the frame -- better quality bikes will have smoother welds, etc.

Also learn how to check out the condition of a used bike. A little rust is not a problem, but if you pick up one end of the bike and spin the wheel it should spin freely, and the wheel should not wobble noticeably as it spins. A brief test ride should find the brakes working well and the shifters at least working (they will likely need a "tune up"). Standing over the bike squeeze the front brake and the move the bike forwards and backwards -- the head bearing should not have any noticeable play. Grab the crank and shake -- again there should be no noticeable play.

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Recycled Cycles (in the University District area) sells used bicycles, I would also checkout seattle.craigslist.org

I recommend going into a bike shop that just sells bicycles (Gregg's near Green Lake is great - but many others all around Seattle) and tell them what sort of riding you are planning (commuting, shopping and using the bicycle as transportation) and they will have some things to look at, test ride and compare.

Not knowing what style of bike you are comfortable on it is hard to recommend a road bike verses a hybrid or comfort bike (I wouldn't look at mountain bikes for getting around Seattle, but there are lots of trails nearby if that interests you). Also, you want to get a bicycle that fits, otherwise you are uncomfortable and end up not riding the bike.

I think a hybrid bike would be where I would start to look. They offer a little wider tire to allow you to ride gravel trails and work well on roads too. Your position on the bike is a bit more upright allowing better view and more comfort.

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+1 for recycle cycle suggestion –  mikes Jun 21 '12 at 0:22
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I lack experience with entry-level (walmart, etc.) bikes, so take my answer with this in consideration. I was shopping this month for a good commuter bike to replace my old road bike (more about it below). I don't own a car, so I'll use it 15 miles per day, almost every workday between april and october, as well as for carrying all groceries and various errands.

From the opinions I got from bike shops I visited, the frame material is more a "performance" thing than anything - aluminium is lighter than steel/chromoly, but they'll all last forever. Steel is smoother on flat road, alu is enjoyable on hills. It's the quality of the components/groupset (derailleurs, etc.) that is driving factor in their recommendations: better components will last longer before needing adjustments (sooner) and repairs (later). How true is that, is hard to say for me, but I do think your budget should match the amount of milage you plan to do per year. My understanding is that walmart bikes are suited for a few hundred miles a year at most. You might do that well under 2 months if your bike is your main mode of transportation!

Take a look here for Shimano components comparisons in mtb/hybrids, where we see that SIS/Altus/Acera are considered recreational/sunday rides, while Alivio and Deore is where the better quality starts. From what I've heard, I wouldn't go below Alivio-equivalent, if you can afford it.

In any case, I suggest you get a little familiar with popular groupsets, frame types (steel, aluminium, etc.) and overall bike type (hybrid vs performance hybrid vs road) to get an idea of what you would want, and especially, make sure to take note of the models and bike sizes you try in bike shops! Then take a look at last-year sales for similar models (best period for this is april-may, unfortunately) or classifieds for the models that you like.

Anyway, for a commuter I'd steer clear of any type of suspension, disc brakes, wheels wider than 32C, grandpa sitting positions and large comfy seats, and look for compatibility with racks and fenders. Allow money for a helmet, lock, rear light, and possibly racks and bags (though you can use your backpack initially).

Don't forget the size of the bike is really important for long term comfort, so I'd suggest you get advice about this in a bike shop before even considering buying anything used/cleared!

With some knowledge, you will be able to assess walmart bargains better, and with some luck, you can land a used 300-500$ deal for a 600-700$ lightly-used bike you've just seen at the shop.

Finally, my personal anecdote: 10 years ago I felt I'd enjoy a more "serious" bicycle, and not just a teenager MTB. I bought a last-year model road bike (aluminium with Sora groupset which is entry level for road bikes) from a bike shop for around $700, which was a big deal for me back then. I used it for commuting, fun rides and occasional touring, and ended up doing at least 3K a year. Probably the best 700$ spent in my last decade, and looking back, a quite frugal, healthy and ecological investment compared to a purely utility wal-mart bike that by would likely have stayed inside after I would have gotten a car. So the question is: do you want to bike as a lifestyle now, or just as a means to get to work/school until you get a promotion? Your answer should help define your budget.

You do mention you don't have regular paychecks, so I would recommend to a) go to bike shops to get a sense of what you ideally look for, b) check clearances and classifieds, including walmart bargains c) if you don't find a great deal, make an informed decision on how much you're willing to spend.

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Everyone knows someone with a bike in their shed or garage that is unloved and unused. Just ask around on social media and one will fall in your lap...

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+1: I am sort of surprised - this answer just makes so much sense....... If I lived in Seattle rather than the South Pacific, his problems would be solved.... –  mattnz Apr 17 '13 at 7:31
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