Bicycling can be an enjoyable form of recreation and exercise, but it also can be a money saver if you can incorporate a bike ride into a work commute or hop on a bike to run short errands, especially as gasoline prices remain high. But with so many types of bicycles and brands to choose from, buying the right one for yourself or a child can be confusing. Here's some advice:SERVICE IS KEY
Price comparisons online work well for many purchases but not so well for bicycles. Different bikes are sold by different types of retailers.
So, experts say, the first question isn't "What bike should I buy?" It should be, "Where should I buy it?"
"The personal advice is so important," said Tim Blumenthal, a bicycle expert and president of People for Bikes, a national campaign to gather support of bicycling in the United States.
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The best shops will have good after-purchase services, including making minor adjustments and offering a tune-up within six weeks of buying a bike.
WHERE TO BUY
The three main categories of retailers are independent bicycle shops; specialty sporting goods stores, such as Dick's Sporting Goods; or a mass merchant such as Wal-Mart or Toys R Us.
As you might suspect, prices will be higher at an independent shop than at a mass merchant, with the sporting goods stores falling between. However, different bikes are sold through different retailers, so bike shops sell superior bikes that are more likely to be expertly assembled, said Emily Furia, a senior editor at Bicycling magazine. She suggests shopping at an independent shop.
"It's worth every extra penny you will spend," she said. "You're paying for the knowledge."
Consumer Reports concurs, "You'll pay more, but we think you're more likely to be satisfied."
Still, Blumenthal said, other retailers can be worth a look. "Stores like REI and the best specialty sporting goods stores have gotten better and now often match what most bike shops can provide," he said.
Some parents buying a kid's bike might have a price in mind, such as less than $100, that only a mass merchandiser can offer. They can be appropriate for kids who will outgrow a bike quickly or be especially rough with it.
HOW TO BUY
Your first stop for bike shopping should be your computer, Blumenthal said. Web sites of top bike brands such as Trek, Specialized, Giant, Cannondale, Fuji, Raleigh and Performance offer guides to help you choose a bicycle and will give you an idea of what prices to expect.
"I would do that before I went into a store," Blumenthal said.
And when shopping at stores, it can help to bring along a friend or neighbor who is an experienced rider.
Consumer Reports advises against cheaper brands. "Inexpensive bikes selling for less than $200 from brands such as Huffy, Mongoose, Roadmaster and Schwinn may seem like good deals, but we advise spending $300 or more, if your budget allows," it wrote.
Unless you're at a mass merchandiser, ask to ride the bike, and try the model above and below the recommended bike, Furia said.
While you can pay less for a used bike, that method is best for cyclists who know what they want, including sizes, and are familiar with types of bikes and brands.
"If I were buying a used bike, I'd buy used from a bicycle retailer," Blumenthal said. "You'll pay a little more, but you'll get advice on what to buy and get a bike that has had a tune-up.
A helmet is the primary accessory you might need. Pricier helmets aren't any more protective, Furia said. "A $30 helmet will protect you just as well as a $300 one," she said.
Bring kids along to pick out their own helmets because they're more likely to wear a helmet they chose, she said.
As far as haggling at a bike shop, it probably won't work on bikes themselves, because they are low-margin items. But you might get a break on additional accessories, Furia said.
Still unclear? Blumenthal offers this simple advice that should satisfy many people.
"If you're an absolute newcomer to bicycling, there's no good reason to spend more than $600 to $700 on a bike, because you don't know what you like yet," he said. "Go into a bike store and spend $350 and buy a nice hybrid bike, and buy a helmet."