This mail was actually sent to our vegetable fitness guru, Coach Potato, but he kindly passed it on when we visited his athletic allotment:
I realise you answer questions on fitness, but just wondered if you could advise me of a good selection of bikes suitable for a beginner.
I would like to get a bike (up to ~£600) that I can use both on the road to take me into university etc., but also be able to ride some trails without fear of damaging it. I have had problems with pedals coming loose on previous (run-of-the-mill) bikes, although this may be technique more than poor equipment. I am looking for a good solid bike that will last, and I can then decide my needs for a more expensive/specialised bike from using that.
Hope you can help, thanks a lot.
We get asked questions like this all the time, and we normally give roughly the same answers, but here’s a definitive, actually sat down and thought about it, answer about buying a new bike in general and in particular what to look for around half a grand.
If you’ve been riding for a while you’ll have a good idea which local bike shop has or hasn’t looked after you and your bike (however much it costs). If they were pushy, or snobbish or you just didn’t like them don’t buy your bike from there whatever discount they do. Buy a bike from a good shop and they’ll look after it and you long term, which is a far better investment than 10% off the ticket.
Secondly always know how much you want to spend before you walk in, it saves a lot of pointless haggling. If you’re a beginner always include the kit you’ll need – helmet, shorts, gloves, spare innertube, puncture repair kit, basic tools etc. in the overall price you’ll have paid before you leave the shop.
Despite all their attempts to tell you different most manufacturers produce similar bikes that all provide a good quality long term ride for around £500. There are a few exceptions to this though.
Forget bells and whistles. There are only two suspension bikes we’ve ridden for this price, this year that we really enjoyed. One is the Univega Flyte, the other is the Dawes Edge FS. These were heavy, and bouncy but at least rode well, the rest have been over heavy and badly balanced front to rear or just a heap of uncontrollable springage. To be honest even the two we liked wouldn’t be our choice for riding road to college on, unless there’s a lot of steps. The other seductive extra to avoid are disc brakes. Even if they work as well as V’s (that’d be Giant, Litech, Avid and Grimeca at this price) the weight they add themselves and in budget disc wheel sets and cheaper components elsewhere will really hog tie the performance of the bike. Stick to V’s.
Suspension forks can also be a mixed blessing too. Luckily most £500 bikes have a decent set (Rock Shox Judy, Manitou Magnum, Marzocchi Z’s) but there are still some Taiwanese irons out there with undamped rebound that’ll do you more harm than the initial impact!
As for different manufacturers, some will offer you steel, most aluminium and some both. We’ve ridden very few bad framesets at this price so just see what you like the handling / colour / name (if it matters it’s valid) of and go with that. If it’s a showdown between a few brands on those terms, then just go for those wearing the best componentry.
On this note always remember to prioritise the most expensive parts first as the smaller bits aren’t so painful to upgrade later. Frame, wheels, fork, chainset, tyres, saddle, rear mech is the sensible pecking order but if your bike of choice is cursed with particularly heavy seatpost, bars or stem, then change them before you buy
Hope this helps, but don’t forget to check out the product review section to see who thinks what about which and why.