When I was in Boston two summers ago, I had attempted to get a bike to commute to work. I was overwhelmed by the options available. Craigslist was full of people selling bikes – some had 10 year old bikes for $300, while some had 3 year old bikes for $250, some were giving away road bikes, some giving away mountain bikes, some had cruisers, while others had comfort bikes. WalMart had bikes from $75 to $275, while other stores started at $350 and went up to $2000. I was so confused by the options available and the different prices that I ended up whiling away the whole summer figuring out what I want.
Jen and I moved to Seattle and decided with a stronger resolve to become bike people this summer. Though we had had bikes before, mainly as kids, we both really didn’t know much about what are the different kinds of bikes and which ones are good for what. We were determined, however, and finally ended up with a very well informed choice which we are very happy about. Read on if you are bike virgins like we were and are trying to navigate around the sea of options to get a bike and make use of the awesome summer ahead of us. Also, this post will be most relevant to you if your main use is going to be around daily/frequent commuting 5-15 miles, paved trails in parks, or a little off-roading and dirt trails.
We started out by doing a lot of research online. It quickly emerged that there were mainly 3 kinds of bikes: road bikes, mountain bikes and hybrid bikes. Road bikes are very thin and light bikes, with large but thin wheels and drop-down handlebars. These bikes are built “tight” to be responsive to every little pebble on the ground or the microscopic motions you make as you shift weights. Mountain bikes are the exact opposite with thick and strong frames, smaller and thicker wheels and straight handlebars – these will often also feature disc brakes and front and/or read suspensions. Hybrid bikes are the catch-all for everything in between. They are not so thin and light, nor are they too thick or heavy. They have not so thin wheels, nor do they have very thick wheels. They may have suspensions, may not have suspensions. This, it emerged, was the category of bike that would work for us. Read on for what happened next …
In search of the right hybrid bike
We decided that our budget was $300-$400 and that we wanted a hybrid bike as it would handle driving on the road as well as trails. We saw an ad from Sports Authority for Diamond Back hybrids on sale. We went to the store and checked out the Diamondback Edgewood. “… fine tuned comfort and a sporty ride … from the house to the office or around your favorite roads and trails, the Edgewood takes you there and back every time with a smile on your face …”. It seemed like the bike we needed and at a sale price of $299 it seemed perfect. At Sports Authority, you can only test drive the bikes inside the store. We did that, and thought that we liked it. They also had a Columbia bike in the same category. We liked that too and couldn’t decide.
The next day we went to the best place in Seattle called Recycle Cycles. They are a popular place to find used bikes which they recondition to perfection. They also sell new bikes, though the only way to find out what they have is to go to the store as their website doesn’t reflect the current state of the stock. We were helped by an awesome guy who began to educate us about bikes, and helping us decide what would work for the use we had in mind. He suggested that the best bike for us would be the Kona Dew. It was a hybrid bike built to be closer to a road bike, but strong enough to withstand trails and some off-roading. He said it was the most popular bike in Seattle and was very reliable and performed really well. It cost $449, which was above our budget. He suggested, that we shouldn’t take his word for it. He said that the only way to decide what bike is good for you is to spend some time with it. He fit both me and Jen with a Kona Dew each and sent us off to bike in the neighborhood. It rode really well and we were especially happy going uphill and downhill as the 24 gear combinations seem to work really well. It felt light, and I could feel how every cm of my leg movement was getting transferred to the bikes forward motion – something that was delightful when going uphill. We returned the bikes and we left with some good advice from him: “It’s good to think about it, but it is important to remember that at the end of the day it is about having fun. If you like what you try and you feel it’s going to work for you, then you shouldn’t over-think it too much.”
We then went to Revolution Cycles, another store nearby. They didn’t have any Konas, but they did have many Diamondbacks. I found both the Edgewood (mentioned earlier) and the Insight. This too is a very good store with helpful people. They set us out with an Edgewood for me and the Clarity (Insight equivalent for women) for Jen. This was the litmus test where I quickly realized what an awful bike the Edgewood would be for me. It was too soft and mushy. It had front suspensions and a seat suspension. What I had initially assumed to be a comfort feature, was in fact a solid dampening feature. It sapped my energy as I biked up-hill and made me feel very unstable as I rolled downhill. I was scared and confused and knew that bike is not right for me. Jen and I switched bikes on the way and we were able to contrast the two bikes. The Clarity (Insight) was tight, light, comfortable yet edgy. It rode really well and was a joy to be on. We both decided that this bike made more sense. The cost was $449 – the exact same price as the Kona.
Kona or Diamondback?
I couldn’t find any authoritative differences between the two bikes. I spent an hour going through the specs on their sites, comparing everything from the gear shifters to the wheel rims to the seat material. I just couldn’t figure out which one was better, and they both rode the same. So then it just boiled down to color. The Kona Dew was white – looked very basic with bright yellow text on it. The Diamondback Insight was beautiful with great design and a nice rich blue color. I picked up the Sports Authority ad again and saw that that bike was listed for $399 for that day!
We rushed to Sports Authority, found the bike – used another $25 off coupon with it and walked out the store with the bike for just $375. We had driven to the store and our car had no way of holding this bike. So Jen drove back as I decided to ride the 5 miles back.
It was a great bike, rode really well and I felt very cheerful as I rode back a path that overlapped with what was to be my usual path back from work. There were points on the way, as I rode on the pavement, where the downhill slopes accelerated my bike to very high speeds. I had engaged my brakes but was not confident if I could actually stop in time if some careless driver were to suddenly pull out of some driveway. At that time it occurred to me: My goal was to commute to and from work, come rain or shine. If I am so scared now on a nice dry day, how would I feel when it was raining. I would never be able to stop in time!
I realized that I really needed to get a bike with disc brakes. The guy at Recycled Cycles had mentioned this earlier: “If you are serious about city biking, you need a bike with disc brakes. The Kona Dew Plus ($550) had them. Only with those will you feel confident enough about biking in busy places”. At that point, any distrust I might have for him evaporated. He had given me genuine and great advice all along and everything he said rung true.
As I rolled home, exhausted by my first 5 miles, I had a heavy heart as I realized that I would need to return this bike. Diamondback didn’t offer disc brakes on any upper model of this type of performance hybrids. Kona seemed to be the only one that did so. Jen and I had a long discussion around this. Finally, we decided, it makes no sense to spend $400 on a bike which I can not rely on for my daily use. A manual upgrade to disc brakes would cost $150 anyway – might as well pay the $550 and get the Kona Dew Plus. This was way over our budget, but seemed like the sensible thing to do.
Next day, we returned the Diamondback back to Sports Authority in the morning and were about to leave to buy the Kona. That’s when the librarian in Jen arose and she decided to do some research. We looked for any bikes which were classified as hybrids and also had disc brakes. We found some but they all had front/rear suspensions. We had learnt how bad suspensions can be for energy transfers while going uphill and didn’t want that. It seemed like we really had no choice but the Kona.
The Mongoose Hybrid
Suddenly, a description from Performance Bike caught our eye. There was a bike which had disc brakes and a suspension with one new keyword “lockable”. It had lockable suspensions i.e. you could turn on or off the suspensions on demand! Price? $399. We quickly scanned the other features weight, derailers, wheels etc and it seemed to be on par with both the Kona and the Diamondback. Then why was it so cheap despite having disc brakes? Because this was a 2008 model – the 2009 model was priced at $579! What was the difference between the two models? Nothing except color 🙂 This was a fascinating. Last-year models are always a great bargain, however, no stores had had any last-year models left. Finding both a men’s and a women’s bike as a 2008 model at the middle of April was quite a find.
We decided to go to Performance Bikes and give it a spin. We were surprised to see that the in-store price was just $349 – $50 less than the web price. Our hearts started to beat faster as we lifted those bikes off the rack and started to try it.
It was a great bike, light and tight with the same gears as the other two. The suspensions seemed to work well and I realize I could lock/unlock them even while I was still mounted on the bike and riding it.
Making the purchase
It was raining that day. We had our Michigan hoodies on. We didn’t care about getting wet and spent 90 minutes test driving the bikes. Once we were convinced they were really good, we decided to buy them. We also signed up for a Performance Member account (free) which credited us with 10% of whatever we were spending that day. So effectively, the bike ended up costing us $325! Which explains my emotion behind this tweet as we became proud owners of the Mongoose Crossway 450 Disc Hybrid.
How is the bike working out for us? Am I using this to commute to work? What accessories did I get for this? Which bike computer is the best bang for buck? Which lights are great?” Which racks/panniers are the most convenient? Which cycling shorts are good? All this in the next post. Stay tuned for more 🙂