Two wheels: Claire Armitstead on buying a new bike

Claire Armitstead: This scenario is to illustrate the sort of compromises that most everyday cyclists have to make when buying a new bike

As regular readers of this column may recall, a few weeks ago my daughter's bicycle was stolen, confronting us with a decision as to what sort of replacement to buy. Less than a week later, the bike fixer general (or BFG, as my partner will henceforward be called) set off cheerily to collect a new one. Since he hadn't to my knowledge set foot in a bicycle shop, I was intrigued to know what sort of alchemy was afoot.

Arriving home that evening with a brand new mountain bike, he explained that he had researched what sort of cycle to buy on the internet, but had arranged to collect it from a shop because he had learned from bitter experience that all those moving parts made it a bad idea to order bikes on the web.

He worked from the principle that he was going to spend between £200 and £250. Paying more was unnecessary on a bicycle that got relatively little use, and anything less raised the risk (in his confessedly prejudiced opinion) of being saddled with shoddy components. The fact that everyone under 30 in our part of London wants a mountain bike sorted out the type. The fact that mountain bikes generally cost more when they come with front suspension persuaded him to settle for one without it. He reckoned that this had the extra advantage of of making it less desirable, and therefore less likely to be stolen when parked - as it usually is - in a row of other mountain bikes.

So our family now consists of two mountain bikes (for the kids) and two hybrids (for the adults). I am aware that the BFG has a fantasy life that involves him slavering at the breakfast table over glossy bike porn, so I asked what he would expect to pay out should his own bike be stolen. Between £400 and £600, he said. When I pointed out that mine had cost less than £200, he went on the defensive. Given that he used it six days a week and it was his main form of transport for his job, spending more seemed a good investment because of the wear and tear involved and the importance of getting something reliable, and robust enough to carry both him and two panniers bursting with "stuff". A small corner of his heart will always yearn for a thoroughbred racer, but he accepts that it is likely to remain a fantasy (though he did flirt with the idea of a drop-handlebar touring bike). "For ordinary punters there are always compromises involved," he sighed.

The point of presenting this scenario is to illustrate the sort of compromises that most everyday cyclists have to make, though my predecessor, Matt Seaton - a racing man - made an eloquent case for buying the most expensive, and appropriate, bicycle you can afford.

There are times in my cycling life when he is proved painfully right. Our hybrids were frankly scary on the rain-slimed cobbles of a canal path last weekend, and entirely inadequate when we tried to follow the course of a river in the south of France last summer. But with the compromises come priorities: hybrids are lighter than mountain bikes on the city streets, where we spend most of our lives, and we don't have enough space to keep more than one bike each.

Long-distance cyclist Ted Prangnell points out that it's not only among teenagers that age creates its own priorities. "I cycled 100 miles in a day when I was 15 with only an S/A three-speed bike," he writes. Now that he and his wife are in their 70s, they find they need to invest in comfort. "My wife suffers from a degree of osteoporosis and lower spine problems. We think that front and rear suspension is a godsend, especially to cushion shock from rough roads or tracks." The Prangnells would expect to spend around £450 on the touring bikes that carry them up to 3,500 km a year around continental Europe, though their most recent set them back just €190 each in Germany and are doing just fine.

This point is taken up by Peter West - a Brompton and Ridgeback rider - who challenges the "prejudice" against cheap bikes. "The market for specialist bikes that I see is full of pumped-up quality for high prices, with a great deal of snobbery attached," he writes.

"I have a colleague who had recently completed the coast-to-coast cycle ride. As someone who did not cycle much, he went out and bought a cheap bike in a mass market store. And, with the aid of a better quality saddle, it did the job well."

Which goes to show that with every cyclist comes a different set of opinions. For impartial advice, it's worth checking out, a not-for-profit collective of cycle enthusiasts, who will at least help you to form your own.


Claire Armitstead

The GuardianTramp

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