Group riding bikes in the city

How to buy a bike

Get ready for the awesomeness of two wheels. If you’re shopping for a new bike and are wondering where to start, here’s what to think about on your bike quest:

  • Choose a type of bike: Match where you want to ride with the right type of bike.
  • Find the right size bike: Learn how to get a bike that fits you.
  • Bike accessories you need: Set aside some budget for a few must-haves.
  • Tips for buying a used bike: Some advice if you’re on a secondhand bike search.

Types of bikes

There’s a huge amount of diversity when it comes to bikes. You can buy bikes specifically designed to ride to work, bomb down trails or even bike across the country. The first step to buying is a bike is to think about where you want to ride, and see what type of bike matches your goals:

Urban and commuter bikes

Best for: biking around town, riding to work or school, casual weekend rides, and blissfully leaving your bus pass or car at home.

Designed for comfort and easy riding. Many urban and commuter bikes (sometimes called hybrid bikes, since they have a mix of features from other bikes) have flat handlebars that give you an upright riding position for visibility in traffic. Sitting upright is usually more comfortable for trips of an hour or two, and new cyclists generally find this position more relaxing. Since this posture shifts weight to the rear, these bikes often come with wide, supportive saddles. They usually have fatter tires that can handle bumps and unpaved side streets, and have enough clearance around the tires to fit fenders and a bike rack.

Pedal assist electric bikes

Best for: long or hilly commutes, cutting down on sweaty rides, exploring a little farther than you usually would.

Want a boost up that fiendishly steep hill on your commute? Pedal assist electric bikes – a.k.a. e-bikes – are a type of urban bikes that have a motor you can switch on to add extra power as you pedal. Popular in Europe, these bikes make long commutes speedier and cut down on the sweat factor. If you’re biking with a friend who’s faster or fitter, the boost can also level the playing field. Fenders and smooth-rolling tires are the norm, and some have bike racks too. The range of each motor battery depends on the model. Some batteries are removable so you can bring it inside for charging.

Road bikes

Best for: This is a broad category of bikes – you’ll find specific models designed for fitness and long rides like a Fondo, plus club rides, gravel and adventure riding, racing, cyclocross and even commuting.

All road bikes have one thing in common: smooth, efficient riding on flat surfaces. But it’s a big bike category, so there are lots of subcategories that fall under “road bikes.” Some are uber-performance oriented with aggressive geometry and high-end components and materials. Some are made for the muddy, weird-in-a-good-way sport of cyclocross. And there are lots of general-purpose road bikes that people use as commuters or for bike touring (more on these below).

All road bikes have drop handlebars, so you can change hand and body positions for climbs or to reduce wind resistance. Most are designed for paved surfaces, so they have high-pressure tires for low rolling resistance, and a narrow gear range to reduce the gaps between gears. The frame geometry changes depending on what they’re built for.

Touring bikes

Best for: Bike touring trips, bike camping getaways, taking three months off to ride coast-to-coast. Also make solid commuter bikes.

Touring bikes are a type of road bike that are made for long rides – like, biking-across-Canada long. They usually have drop bars to mix up your hand position, and are kitted out with lots of attachment points for carrying equipment. They come with a wide range of gears to crest hills, battle headwinds, and keep you stable on descents by the BC-Alberta border. These bikes are workhorses; a lot of riders use their touring bike as their commuter bike too, since they’re efficient and can carry your lunch and work clothes no problem.

Mountain bikes

Best for: shredding trails, climbing trails, jumping features on trails – basically, having a crazy good time on trails.

Like road bikes, “mountain bikes” is a big bike bucket. There’s tons of specialization in this category – cross-country, enduro, freeride, downhill, trail riding, fat biking – so do your research to see what kind of bike works best for the trails you plan to ride. Suspension systems, tire size, geometry, materials and components are things MTBers can talk about for hours, so if you’re serious about getting into mountain biking, just ask.

Today’s purpose-built mountain bikes don’t make ideal commuters – the gearing and rolling resistance aren’t made for city streets, plus they’d be a hot target for thieves. But a used, well-maintained mid-90s era mountain bike could make a decent beater bike for city errands if you upgrade to road-friendly tires and jimmy on a bike rack.

Finding the right size bike

Once you’ve got the type of bike narrowed down, it’s time to think about sizing. Most bike frames come in different sizes. On the correct bike frame size, you should be able to almost fully extend your leg while pedalling and be able to comfortably reach the handlebars. To find the right size frame, straddle the bike halfway between the saddle and the handlebars (while wearing your usual riding shoes), and see how much space there is between you and the bike’s top tube. Generally, a few centimetres of space is a good starting point, but the geometry of the bike also comes into play, especially with mountain bikes.

Since there’s usually only a couple centimetres between frame sizes, you might find you fit more than one size. It’s typically better to go with the smaller frame to give you more clearance and make it easier to hop on and off.

If you’re shopping online on mec.ca, check out the size chart for sizing specs on each bike. The rider height gives you some initial ideas, but since everyone has different proportions (e.g., long legs vs. short legs), standover height is also important.

Take it for a test ride

The best way to see how a bike fits is to toss a leg over and take it for a ride. If you like the way a bike feels on a quick spin around the block, keep going for about 15 minutes or so. It’s a good idea to wear the clothes and shoes you plan to bike in to get a true sense of how it will feel.

“When deciding which bike is better suited to you, it’s the model that counts, not the brand. Test ride a few different bikes to find the model that’s most comfortable to ride.” – Tracy W. from HUB Cycling, an MEC community partner

All MEC stores (except St. Denis) give you the chance to test ride bikes. If we don’t have your frame size in stock, chat with a staff member about test ride options.

Get a bike fitting

Once you decide on a bike, a few small adjustments can make the right size frame fit your proportions just right. That might mean adjusting the saddle height or angle, changing the handlebar height or angle, or raising or lowering the stem (learn more about bike fitting). When you purchase a new bike from MEC, you get a free bike fitting included if the bike is $1000 or more.

Pick out your bike accessories

When you plan your bike budget, make sure to set some aside for bike accessories. You will likely need a lock, helmet, pedals and bike lights, and you may want other add-ons like a pump, fenders, bell, bike rack, basket, panniers and rain gear. If you buy your bike from MEC, you can save 10% off any accessories for that bike when you buy them at the same time.

“Don’t forget lights, lights and lights! Be highly visible.” – Tracy W. from HUB Cycling, an MEC community partner

Choose a solid lock if you plan to lock up in any urban areas, and learn how to lock up your bike properly. Nothing’s more heartbreaking than a single tire locked to post or a clipped cable lock next to a coffee shop.

Tips for buying a used bike

The MEC Gear Swap, used bike shops or online ads are all places where you can start your search for a secondhand bike. You’ll likely need to exercise a bit more patience when you’re shopping used bikes, since sizes and models come and go.

“A used bike may seem cheap, but needed repairs may make it no better a deal than a new bike. Buy a reconditioned bike if you want something used and don’t know how to assess mechanical condition.” – Tracy W. from HUB Cycling, an MEC community partner

A few tips if you’re going the secondhand bike route:

Before you go see the bike:

Ask a bike-savvy friend to join you or arm yourself with knowledge. MEC bike maintenance 101 clinics are a good way to understand bike basics (and you don’t need a bike to attend). When you look at bike ads:

  • Get a sense of what bike frame size you need to narrow down choices.
  • If the price seems too good to be true, there’s a chance it might be stolen. Sparse details on the bike ad or rush sales should set off major warning bells. Sellers that seem sketchy or aren’t willing to give you the serial number to run through stolen bike databases like 529 Garage are bad news.
  • If the bike has been well-maintained and the owner has records of upgraded parts, recent tune-ups and original receipts, take that as a good sign.
When you’re looking at the bike:

Bring a bike tool to adjust the seat, and pack along your bike helmet as well. Give the bike a careful once over and take it for a test spin to see what shape it’s in:

  • Frame: Red flags include rust and any weird dents or cracks – look closely, especially around all the joints. Listen for clunking or rattling in the headset.
  • Wheels: Do they roll smoothly? Are all spokes intact? How much wear is there around the rim, and do the tires seem worn out?
  • Drivetrain: Go through all the gears to see if the bike shifts nicely.
  • Brakes: Any weird squeaks or squeals? Check the brake pads to see how much life is left.