By Faith Keenan If you're like me and haven't bought a new bicycle in 18 years, then hold onto your banana saddle as you pedal toward summer. Bikes have become so complicated that shopping for one feels like taking a derivatives-pricing course before you've had ninth-grade algebra: You're lost from the start.
That's why I turned to the Net, figuring the shopper-friendly medium would help me decipher the difference between KHS and GT (which are brand names), understand that the word "Specialized" also means a brand and not a manufacturing technique, and wean me off the all-too-simple solution of replacing my beat-up 12-speed Fuji Royale -- the basic road bike with curl-down handlebars -- with a new model.
But I was disappointed. Many of the sites that have been set up by bike makers and enthusiasts are targeted to the ultra-serious biker, rather than folks looking for a reliable machine for weekend jaunts beyond the smelly confines of a health club. Before long, the average person finds herself doing what we've always done: Turning to a local bike shop, albeit maybe through the local dealer's online site.
In fact, road bikes are relatively rare, except for serious racers. Ergonomics has swept the bike industry, leaving almost all models with traditional handlebars that allow a more comfortable, upright riding position -- think Mary Poppins. I wanted a basic bike, and I wanted a Web site that would ask me questions to clarify what kind of rider I am -- recreational, racer, or gonzo hill climber -- and then explain the pros and cons of various types of bikes available at various prices. Most biking-related sites on the Web simply assume their users are gonzos and don't effectively serve the rest of us.
CLICK-AND-RUN. To begin my search, I committed Mistake No. 1: asking for Web-site advice from a professional racer, who spends more on bikes than I would on a car. He pointed me to Performancebike.com, a site run by Performance Inc., a bicycle mail-order and retail company in Chapel Hill, N.C. You can tell from the homepage that this is no place for leisure riders. Right up front they're selling Clifshot -- packages of "fast carbohydrate energy" for those long trips.
Fighting the urge to click and run, I decided to at least took a look at the bikes. So I clicked on "2001 KHS bicycles," whatever they are. That took me to a list of bikes and prices, with the most expensive -- $1,799.99 -- listed first. When I tried to click to put the cheap bikes at the top of the list, an error message popped up instead.
I had similar bad luck when I tried to find bike trips under the Travel icon. O.K., so maybe I was a sissy looking for trips built around easy road rides for less than $2,000 a week in the Southwest. But even when I asked for tougher treks through hill and dale in Montana and upped the ante to $3,500, nothing came up. With the site lacking basic information on how to buy a bike, it was time to roll on.
HOMETOWN FEEL. Next stop was Roadbikereview.com. With the tag line "by cyclists for cyclists," it sounded promising -- a tell-it-like-it-is kind of place. It does, but again at a level fit for Lance Armstrong. These folks really know their dura ace calipers. Meanwhile, I was still struggling to figure out the difference between a road bike and a street bike, as well as decide whether a hybrid or a pure mountain bike was right for me.
By now, it was time to head for familiar turf -- the shop in New Paltz, N.Y., where I bought my last beloved Royale, which is now tooling around the streets of Hanoi under a new owner. There's something comforting about a shop that's located in the same spot and run by the same proprietor, Alan Stout, since 1974. Stout still has the same long hair, though I forgot it flows from his chin, not his scalp.
Not to be left in the cyberspace dust, Stout has brought the hometown feel to the Net. Visitors to thebicyclerack.com will learn that he has two daughters, has been commuting to work on his Frejus for 25 years, and loves the Moody Blues, Prokofiev, and his wife's soybean casserole. What they won't learn, however, is much about bikes. Stout says right up front that his primary mission is to serve cyclists in his store. That goes for even those who e-mail him simple questions. He sends an automatic response -- though mine arrived 10 hours later -- telling correspondents to call the store or visit during regular business hours.
LINGO TRANSLATION. Word-of-mouth finally paid off when a friend recommended checking out the site for Brands Cycle & Fitness, located in Wantagh, N.Y. There it was, right on the home page: a section for new bicycle enthusiasts that includes a primer on what you need to know before you go into a cycle shop. And that's the point: Unless you're an expert and know exactly what you want, right down to the alloy mix for your wheels, trying to buy a bike on the Web is a lot like mail-order marriages -- you don't know if the fit will be right, and the odds are good that it won't be.
At least Brands Cycle translates the lingo for you. Want to know the distinction between a street bike and a road bike? Street is "born out of the messinger [SIC] services of New York and Boston, this is a bombproof road bike with a lot of mountain characteristics for hardcore durability. You can't kill the Street Bike." Need to know what mountain characteristics are? Click on Mountain, then on "How to Buy a Mountain Bike."
In truth, mountain and street bikes look alike, at least to me: The differences are in the materials, the brakes, and the suspensions. The thicker tires of a mountain bike make for smoother going on off-road trails, but it's less efficient than a street bike on pavement, making you pedal harder to accomplish the same thing. Hybrid bikes try to balance the pluses and minuses of each. This site lists descriptions of all-terrain versions, for those looking for a relaxed, fun ride, mountain bikes for hard riders, and downhill and free-ride versions that can sustain the pull of gravity while trying to defy it (i.e. they take extra abuse).
What's the moral of this story? Maybe you can, and should, go home again -- at least if you want to buy a bike. Keenan, who prefers life in low gear, covers technology strategy for BusinessWeek in New York