A car driver’s guide to buying a bike

Cyclist riding along the river with bridge nearby.

Clare Barry

Posted June 23, 2020

Been a while since you took to two wheels? Here’s what to look for in an entry-level bike.

Getting back on a bike is second nature for those of us who rode as kids. But if you ditched yours the minute you got your driver’s licence, there are a few things to consider before forking out on a new set of two wheels.

What to look for in an entry-level bike

Know what you want

There are dozens of bike styles around, and like choosing between a grunty ute or a city runabout, you need to think about what you want your bike to do. Are you planning to off-road on weekends, or do you want a machine to get you from A to B in the urban wilds? Here are the four most common entry-level bike types on sale now:

Mountain bike

Like a four-wheel-drive SUV, mountain bikes are all-rounders that take city streets and dirt trails in stride. They usually come with shock absorption, lower gears for hills and thicker tyres, so they feel more stable and safe in the wet. They’re also heavier and slower than road and most commuter bikes.

Road bike

Good-looking and built for speed, road bikes are the sports car of the cycling world. But like a low-slung coupe, the aerodynamic riding position can take some getting used to and makes it harder to keep an eye on traffic. Skinny tyres with limited grip make them fast, but also dicey in the wet.

Hybrid or commuter bike

These machines cobble together features of several bike types into a ride that’s just right for urban commutes. Most are a cross between a mountain bike and road bike, giving the best of both for a sturdy, relatively speedy ride with a comfy upright riding position. But like a two-wheel-drive ‘SUV’ you wouldn’t want to take one off-road.

Copenhagen or cruiser bike

These hipster stalwarts have the retro appeal of a mid-century classic car, and just like in an FJ Holden or Morris Minor you’ll be sitting bolt upright for the trip. They’re sturdy and easy to fit out with baskets and racks for your shopping. But they’re also heavier and slower than most, so are best over short distances and not much fun when the going gets steep.

Take a test ride

You wouldn’t buy a car without taking it for a spin first, so rather than buying from a ‘big-box’ retailer or online, try a dedicated bike shop where you can get expert advice and try the bike out before you buy. “Buyers should definitely have a test ride of at least a couple of bikes – for sizing and to see what feels right,” says Ryan Bilszta of Brunswick’s Samson Cycles, who sells and maintains thousands of entry-level bikes a year. “Without a test ride it’s almost impossible to gauge whether you’re going to be happy with it or not.” Many bike shops also offer free servicing for the first year or so.

The right price

You can land a decent entry-level bike for less than $500, and with care get a few years’ riding out of it. “A lot of customers come in and say their friends recommend getting carbon-fibre this and $2000 that,” says Ryan. “We recommend starting from the bottom and keeping it simple. It’s a good way to test the waters. Most people love it and within a couple of years upgrade.” Paying more will get you a name brand and components such as disc brakes, a carbon-fibre frame, more sophisticated gearsets or a leather seat, for a safer, faster, smoother or comfier ride. For a dedicated racing, off-road or custom-made bike you can easily pay as much as a car.

Into gear

A budget bike buy can get you anything from no gears – the original ‘fixie’ – to 24 or more, but if you have a fairly flat commute and no plans to hit the dirt on weekends, ask yourself how many gears you really need. A simple commuter bike with internal gears and a handful of speeds might be for you. “It’s almost like saying you’ve got an automatic car rather than a manual one,” says Ryan. You can change gears while you’re stopped and they’re low-maintenance. “For a lot of entry-level riders that peace of mind without having to worry about operation of the gears is a real bonus.”

Maintain it

A well-serviced bike – like a car – will run and hold its value better. Keeping the bike clean, oiling the chain and pivot points and keeping air in the tyres are beginner-level housekeeping tasks that go a long way. “You’ll get more life out of the bike if you’re progressively maintaining it, keeping it clean and getting it checked periodically,” says Ryan. Someone commuting five days a week should have their bike checked over every six months to reduce wear and tear, “and it’s just nice to be riding a bike that’s tuned properly”.

All the extras

Head gear

Cyclists must wear a helmet that meets Australian standards. Make sure it fits snugly, and adjust the straps to keep it on your head.

Ring your bell

You’re also legally required to have a working bell on your bike, and a simple $15 version will do the job. “There are digital ones that sound like a siren but that confuses people, they’ll probably look at the sky,” says Ryan. “As soon as you ring a traditional bike bell they know it’s a bike coming and know what to look for.”

Lock it down

Bike thieves are a pragmatic bunch so any lock is better than none. Better still, find a secure spot when leaving it for longer stints – just as a locked garage is a safer bet for your car than the side of the road. “I often say it’s not the lock that will save you, it’s where and how long you leave it,” says Ryan. “The more expensive locks weigh a lot and if you’re commuting to a place that’s secure anyway it’s not worth spending $200 on a lock.”

Light it up

If planning to ride in the dark you’ll need a white front and a red rear light, and a red rear reflector. Ryan says USB-rechargeable lights are preferable to those with single-use batteries, both for the environment and lower long-term costs. Legally they must be visible from at least 200 metres away, but don’t make the mistake of picking up the highest lumens count you can find. “Some people ride down a bike path with lights you could land an aeroplane with – it’s dangerous,” says Ryan. “You wouldn’t drive down Sydney Road with high beams. Those super-bright lights are designed for 24-hour mountain-bike racing in a forest somewhere.

Did you know we have roadside assistance for bicycles?
Discover more →

Related reading