Tips for Buying Your First Bike or E-bike
by Richard Peace, cycling journalist, guide book author, map designer: richardpeacecycling.com
19th May 2020
With cycling shops experiencing a boom right now it’s clear many people are heading back to two wheels at the time of the virus pandemic, both to get exercise if staying at home or as way of travelling to work without relying on public transport.
If you haven’t ventured into a bike shop in many years you might be overwhelmed by what’s on display – gone are the days of a simple choice between shopper, road bike or mountain bike. There are now many more genres and sub-genres from flat bar road bikes through to fully equipped hybrids and there are even some models made especially for older riders, such as the Islabikes ‘Janis’.
And the good news is cycling technology has come on leaps and bounds, so great technology like disk brakes and wide range, easy-to-operate gearing is now much more standard when once it was in the realms of the very exotic and expensive.
Buying the Right Bike
Rather than jumping straight to wondering about the categories why not make a list of what you want the bike to do and where you want to use it and you should probably find your list of possibles narrowing down quite quickly.
Before you even hop on the internet or go into a shop to look at models bear in mind the following:
1. Don’t be ambitious
Don’t be too ambitious when buying your first bike, thinking you need an expensive road bike to be able to speed to work in time. Over modest commuting distances that most folk cover they are not that much faster than an average leisure bike that is suitably equipped. Far more important is to get a bike that is comfortable, easy to handle and ride and feels stable – you can still ride fast if you like!
2. Borrow a similar bike
Try and borrow a bike similar in style to what you have in mind for a test ride to highlight any possible problems.
3. Mountain bike?
Getting a mountain bike to use for the daily commute on road – then off-road in your free time – might sound like a good idea but generally isn’t. The large and relatively heavy knobbly tyres when used on tarmac will certainly slow you down and not be particularly pleasant to ride in hard surfaces.
If you are aiming to tackle full on mountain bike trails far better to wait and get a separate bike for this activity. If you only need to go on things like forest dirt roads and canal towpaths that are only moderately bumpy there are plenty of so-called hybrid and trekking models that will tackle both tarmac and unsealed surfaces.
4. The weight of the bike
Weight is quite important but certainly not everything. A suitably equipped bike (and rider) and a comfortable and ergonomic riding position are equally if not more important in being able to get about quickly, efficiently and enjoyably. The more you enjoy it the more you will continue to do it!
There are plenty of bikes on the 12-13kg range which are pretty light to lift around when not riding and they are quite capable of being fast bikes if that is what you want.
Don’t be lead by what looks good – again, think about what you need.
Here’s a list of suggestions of things to think about:
Get this right and pedalling will be comfortable on the knees and effective and you will be able to get on and off the bike easily too. Here’s a comprehensive guide to the subject.
Critical to comfort and effective pedalling – you don’t want to be reaching for the bars nor do you want to feel cramped and not be able to feel like you are riding freely. If you feel happier with a sit up straight style of riding you can look for a bike with swept back handlebars and not too much reach between handlebars and seat.
Some bikes have an adjustable handlebar stem so that you can bring the handlebars nearer or further away as required. Numerous Dawes trekking models have this feature, for example this Mojave model, which also features a nice step-thru frame making mounting and dismounting easier.
Another step thru model range with comfortable looking swept back bars is the Cannondale Treadwell.
The flatter the terrain you expect to cover, the less gears you need. Extra gears add weight and cost. Seven derailleur gears is plenty for moderate terrain with gently rolling hills. Modern gearing means you can now get 12 speed rear derailleur systems that will tackle most terrain and are easy to control from just one handlebar shifter.
Easiest of all to operate and with the lowest maintenance are hub gears. They are more widely spaced than derailleur gears so 3 hub gears are fine for moderately rolling hill territory and 7 and 8 speed variants are also quite common and will handle much hillier country.
If you are riding on good quality tarmac then ‘slick’ road tyres are the best option. If you want to mix tarmac and moderate off road use in railpaths and similar then look for a ‘semislick’ with a moderate amount of raised tread. The Schwalbe G-One is a good example.
A moderate amount of puncture protection is also a good idea – there are various grades and the heaviest and toughest are definitely harder to pedal so best chosen if you only do short flat distances through high puncture risk areas. There are plenty of tyres with a moderate level of puncture protection that will definitely help stave off punctures.
If you are really worried about punctures and have to constantly battle glass shards or hawthorn hedge cuttings there are airless tyres such as Gecko on the market – these are somewhat harder pedal than pneumatic tyres but they are improving and are fine for shorter flatter rides and especially good on e-bikes.
Do you really need a bike with front suspension? I have found it adds weight and the cheaper suspension forks relying on a steel spring can be rattly and not perform particularly well (more expensive ones relying on air compression are smoother and more effective). Choosing a wide tyre and getting the tyre pressure just right can often make for a much smoother ride over potholed roads and on towpaths and railpaths.
If your roads are extremely badly potholed and especially if you regularly venture onto very rough tracks you might want to consider a front suspension fork. Full suspension mountain bikes are really for extremely rocky trails only as they take a lot more energy to pedal.
Fitness or Practicality?
If you want to ride to get fit of course it is still possible on a heavier model designed for trundling around town and doing the shopping in a practical way – but it can feel dispiriting putting in a lot of effort on such a bike and not going as far or fast as you want.
A sporty design doesn’t need to be a ‘lean forward, head down’ road bike – for example Evans own brand Pinnacle range of hybrid bikes offer great value and are pretty light and fast.
Of course, if you want a bike that will get you around town for shopping or very gentle leisure rides and one that will be easy to ride, use and maintain, a practical Dutch-style bike is the ultimate choice. This Ortler is a good example and features wheelguard, fully-enclosed chainguard, kickstand, mudguard, lights and dynamo lighting. This kind of bike is designed to get on and ride and to load up with luggage and to be low maintenance. In other words an everyday bike for everyday activities.
To Fold or Not Fold?
If you regularly combine train and bike it might be worth thinking about folding bikes. The most compact folders are still the world famous Brompton bikes, still made in London. A standard three speed model with mudguards weighs around 11.5kg.
Tern bikes also make great folders and these are also lightweight – although they fold a little larger they have larger wheels and so handling is a less twitchy and more like a full size bike and some models are very speedy indeed.
When test riding a folder also make sure you are happy folding and carrying it!
What Price for Your First Bike?
I would suggest around £300 as a starting point for a decent quality new bike if chosen carefully.
From about £450 you will get something with hydraulic disk brakes like this Voodoo bike, the next real step up in quality.
Is an E-bike Right for You?
E-bikes are a great choice for beginners who may lack fitness but who want to cover longer distances than they would otherwise be able. And for even experienced cyclists they can be game changers in transforming that commute that would leave you tired and sweaty before you have even started your day’s work into a pleasurable, enlivening sweat-free experience.
If used correctly (ie not on full power all the time!) you can also use e-bikes to get plenty of exercise – indeed they will allow you to go further and see more on the same amount of energy on leisure rides.
If you plan to make relatively short rides, of course a non-electric bike will be fine and you probably will get fitter faster – as long it doesn’t all seem too much like hard work at first and you give up altogether. Non-electric bikes are also a lot cheaper than e-bikes of equivalent quality, are lighter (although there are some pretty light e-bikes around) and they don’t have batteries that eventually wear out and cost a lot to replace (though today’s e-bike batteries should last many years if looked after properly).
Buying Your First E-Bike
In many ways the choice of what kind of e-bike is easier than choosing a regular bike – with motor assist you don’t need as many gears as you will get up hills more easily and knobbly tyres are less of a barrier to cycling a mountain bike on tarmac as a good powerful motor will easily overcome the extra resistance (though at the cost of reduced battery range).
If you have doubts about the practicality of e-bikes our myth-buster blog might allay your concerns.
The number of e-bike manufacturers and different motor systems can still make a first e-bike purchase seem like a minefield. The following list of considerations should clarify things.
Frame size and riding position
Those points covered above are still just as important
Motor power or light weight?
Increasingly e-bikes are heading in two opposing directions – powerful machines with bigger batteries usually featuring mid-drives (also known as crank motors and located around the pedal axle) and models that are lightweight and often feature small hub motors and smaller batteries.
Although the latter deliver less power (meaning you do more of the work) they are pretty effective nonetheless. And whilst they have smaller batteries their lighter weight and smaller power requirements help mitigate this (and spare batteries are always available).
Examples of motor systems on mid-drive machines are Bosch, Brose, Shimano and Yamaha and some of the leading manufacturers are Halfords, Cube, Haibike and Raleigh though there are many many more that use these motor systems.
To Fold or Not Fold?
Brompton has it’s own electric model but there are lighter versions from ARCC, Cytronex, Nano and Swytch and a powerful throttle version from Sparticle that also features some of largest batteries out there for a folder.
If you want something that folds or is compact with more power and range potential and more carrying capacity check out Tern’s range of e-bikes – you would just be sacrificing small folded size and adding some weight when compared to the Brompton variants.
What Price for Your First E-Bike?
There are some decent value budget e-bikes though be aware e-bay bargains are a potential source of disappointment and trouble. £650 seems a the current entry point, but again, at this price point choose with great care.
If you want something for tackling steeper hills a mid-motor option is a wise option as they give motor assistance at a wide range of speeds, from slow, steep hill climbing to cruising up to 15.5mph (beyond which the motor is not legally allowed to assist you). These start around £1600.
As the specification of e-bikes improves you are often dealing with the same basic types of motor assist system and increasing price tags mean things like bigger batteries, more exotic displays, better gearing systems and so on. Of these the bigger battery is probably the most worthwhile investment in purely practical terms.
Probably top of the tree are Riese & Muller models which are hugely solidly build and come in a real ground breaking range of designs.
Buying your First Bike is by Richard Peace, the author of many cycling guide books, including the best-selling C2C cycle guide, Cycling Northern France, Cycling Southern France and the Devon C2C cycle guide.
You can read more on the Excellent Books web page.