The venerable Guadzilla (Vandit Kalia) had written an excellent article  on BikesZone. It is a well written piece of advice that is relevant today as it was on July 6th, 2009. I have been a member of this old school forum for a long time. I became an active user much after Vandit had stopped being a regular.
In the last two years, a lot of new guys have joined the forum. Although I tend to direct them to Vandit’s excellent post, there are a lot of things that have changed. The prices are not the same, the tier-A cities have more enthusiasts, there are a lot more options available for a beginner, and the list goes on.
In this post I have summarised the things that I usually tell people when they come with the question, “I have x amount of money, what should I buy?”. I will also take an entry level motorbike as a price reference. This will safeguard this post from figures that might become obsolete.
If it’s your first bike, get a Hybrid
Clarification: If you have ridden only heavy roadsters like Hero Jet, this will be your “first” bike. If you are riding as an adult after n years, this will be your “first” bike. If you have been riding those heavy BSOs (bicycle shaped object) with front and rear suspensions that are targeted at kids (see image below), this will be your “first” bike.
A hybrid is a catch-all term for a bike that is has a bit of features borrowed from the discipline of road bike design (thinner tyres, thinner frame tubes) and some features borrowed from the book of mountain bike design (tougher drivetrain components, straight handlebar).
If you are a beginner and would want to get into cycling, it is a great entry point for either of those specialised sports (road or MTB). You can even test out the waters and see if some discipline is for you. If you want to bikepack or tour on tarmac, they are great to learn the ins and outs of bicycle touring without the hefty investment of a touring specific cycle. If you want to ride around in the city, this is all you’ll need. In fact, this can be your workhorse even when you have bought a specific bike for some specific need and would look great alongside it’s brother.
However, if you know that you want to get into a specific discipline upfront, be prepared to shell out good money for a specialised (not Specialized, the brand; although they are good, too) bike.
Although the images and videos show road bikes and MTBs, I have used them to merely illustrate a few points.
Here are some points that a beginner should know.
a) Opt for the Double triangle design.
Some people also call it the diamond design. This is the simplest design one can come up with that will take all loads on the bicycle without getting into fancy tube shapes and irrational welded junctions like the ones in BSOs. You should get a bike with this. Top of the line hardtail MTBs and road bikes use the same design, too. (They have different proportions and angles.)
Rear suspension based designs are not cheap. They cost a lot. You can buy three mid-range city motorbikes with that money. If your bike with rear suspension costs less than the cost of one motorbike, it is going to be horrible. Some of the BSOs come at 10% of that cost, making them not only bad but maybe even unsafe.
b) Ditch the front suspension if you are riding on tarmac, potholed tarmac or gravel.
You should opt for front suspension, if and only if you have remote aspirations of becoming a trail rider. In that case opt for one that can be locked (Front Suspension lockout). For others, it is a waste of money. It also dissipates a lot of energy on even mildly rough roads and kills momentum. Not to mention, it makes the bike front heavy. A good entry level suspension fork will cost a lot of money (like, say quarter of a motorbike) and the ones on hybrids are usually not very good ones. They also have very little travel making the handling “spongy”. You can instead opt for better components. You can use some thicker tyres to get some extra cushion on bad roads. It’s a far more efficient (and preferred) solution.
c) Check for mount points for full length mudguards (fenders).
For a commuter bike, this is essential. Especially, if you are riding in the rain. Most good hybrids will not only have mount points or eyelets but will also have enough clearance for at least a 35mm tyre and fender.
Stay away from the plastic fenders. These are mounted like a cantilever and will vibrate while riding. The ends will throw more mud on your back.
Sheldon Brown has a nice article  on fenders.
Two notes on mount points:
- If you have a front suspension fork, chances are that it will not have eyelets for full fenders. There are workarounds but this kind of gives away the fact that such bikes are not designed keeping daily commute in mind.
- If you have aspirations to be a bikepacker or tourer and you are testing waters with this hybrid bike, look for dual eyelets on each side of the frame along with a par of attachment points on the rear stay. You can attach pannier racks. It is possible to mount both on the same eyelet but I wouldn’t advise that.
d) Know that there is a right sized frame for you.
Measure your inseam (the distance between your groin and the floor) and see if it is greater than the standover height of the frame. Most bike manufacturers will put the standover height info in their fit chart. If you have access to the bike in a shop, stand on it in a manner such that the top tube passes between your legs. Check if you can pass two or three fingers between your groin and the top tube. Usually that gives a good indication that the frame is right for you. Many shops in India usually want to sell their stock and will push a wrong sized frame just to get it out of their inventory.
Learn what a proper bike fit looks like. There are innumerable videos that you help you understand how your posture should be on a bike. There is a small degree of adjustment in the lines and angles of the posture itself but not so much that it can compensate for a wrong sized frame.
This is one such video
Here is how to check for correct frame size
Warning: A wrong sized bike will cause injury in the long run.
e) In a given price bracket, the frame will have similar materials.
If you are a looking for a decent hybrid that will serve you for a decade, you are looking at 60-70% of the cost of a motorbike. Go with one that feels best underneath your bum and between your legs. If you like two or more bikes from different brands, go with the one that has better components.
6061 and 6066 Aluminium alloys are the most common materials of choice. If you push the price up a notch, say at around 100-120% of the cost of a motorbike, you may even get good, lighweight, Chromoly steel bikes.
Look out for cheap stuff like plastic. A bike should not have any plastic component. Some manufacturers throw in cheap brake handles that are made of plastic or has plastic mount to cut cost. This is dangerous as the brake cables experience extra pull due to flexing of plastic rather than due to the brake pads coming closer to each other.
f) Don’t buy online. Choose a shop that will support your ride.
Online shopping is not recommended for a first timer. You wouldn’t have enough knowhow to even do basic maintenance. Safely assembling the bike is out of the question. Also, when you buy from your LBS (local bike shop), you are building a long term relationship with them.
You must feel comfortable dealing with the shop. You’d have visit the shop once every two months for a tune up (at least in the beginning) and twice every year for a full service. Good, knowledgeable sales and servicemen are hard to find in India. Check the forums and social media to know which shops / dealers are preferred by the veterans. Chances are, they have tried out the services of most of the places and would be in a position to recommend some of them to you.
What to do if you don’t want to spend that much money?
Over the years, I have learnt one thing first hand. Never buy an equipment that cram too many things into one product and sell it at remarkably low price. You end up getting what you had paid for. I learned it first hand with musical instruments, with production computers and even with kitchen utensils. I have learnt that from cycling as well.
I have come across four categories of beginners in the last few years on the BikesZone forums.
- There are many who do not have enough money to invest in a decent bike. And that is fine. All I can say to them is this: ‘Buy whatever you can afford. Buy whatever suits your purpose best. Stay away from stupid designs meant to attract twelve year old kids and that should be fine.’ In fact, roadsters are an excellent choice for them. Many people have toured India on these World War I era machines.
- Some people initiate with limited budget (~20-30% of a motorbike) but an open mind. They cannot spend money on good bikes at the moment. They listen to people who have a tad bit more experience and try to make logical decisions. They buy the best they can (or buy good quality used bikes), rake up the experience, learn everything there is and squeeze out every single drop from their equipment. They also start saving for better machines. It is a very good route to get into any hobby. These people usually benefit a lot.
- Some initiate with a decent budget (60% of a motorbike). They don’t need much convincing, though. They just have a bit more headstart when compared to the ones mentioned in the previous paragraph. How they would use their machines to rake up the experience, learn everything there is and squeeze out every single drop from their equipment is upto them.
- And finally, there are people who can spend but are not willing to spend. No amount of logical argument can convince them that they need to up their budget in order to meet the requirements they have put forward. Most usually give up. Some end up buying bullshit or worse, BSOs. For them cycling is not that important and can be sidelined for, for example, the next iPhone. Maybe that’s where their interest lies – in buying and using latest electronic gadgets. That is fine, too. It merely shows that people have different priorities when it comes to expenditure. It would have been even better if the money spent in buying that sub-standard piece of garbage bike was used in getting a gadget with better specs. At least that would have made them happier.
I hope this post is was useful and will augment Vandit’s post on BikesZone. I have one last piece of advice. Don’t rush into buying something. You will be spending a lot of time with this machine. Hop around, ask people, do research and make an informed decision.