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by Laura Schaefer

There are a lot of great reasons to buy a bicycle. It's a green and healthy option for transportation and recreation, and cities are increasing their bike path infrastructure—catering to more cyclists with dedicated lanes and greater awareness of their safety concerns.

Still, finding the right bike for your needs and budget can be challenging, especially when the cost to buy one easily can climb into used-car territory. But if the thrill and ease of the biking lifestyle calls to you, some research, help, and patience can have you wheeling around in no time.

do your research and test ride
"Last year I found myself buying not just one bike but two!" says Brigitte Lyons, 31, a media strategist with Unfettered Ink in Sacramento, Calif. "The blog Lovely Bicycle was incredibly helpful to me when I was starting to research my first bike. The No. 1 piece of advice I'd give anyone is this: Test ride as many bikes as you can get your hands on. Every model has a different frame geometry, and the use of materials and components makes a huge difference in your comfort."

It can be tempting to simply buy the same bike as a friend, but chances are that what works for her won't necessarily fit your body. There's no substitute for a spin around the block—or even a test commute using the same route you plan to take most often.

consider your needs
"A lot of people assume that a bike is a bike, is a bike," says Andres L. Douzoglou, owner of Beyond Aero Cycling & Triathlon, LLC, a marketing and consulting agency in Berkeley, Calif., that focuses in the cycling and triathlon industry. "Lifestyle is one of the main considerations when purchasing a bike: What does the person intend to use the bike primarily for?"

For instance, Douzoglou says someone riding a bike to work every day likely will want a comfortable, efficient bike with multiple gears. Valerie Franklin, 33, owner of Walnut Studiolo in Portland, Ore, says, "I cycle for transportation, and I found it hard to shake off the well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful ‘expert' cycling advice that wanted me to go fast—when that was not really my goal."

Make a list of how you want to use your bike before you start shopping. This will give salespeople a better idea of exactly how to match you up with the right bike.

Once, you've made your list, stick to your guns. Don't let anyone talk you into a bicycle with features you won't need. You can upgrade later if a cycling lifestyle "sticks."

Among the things you should consider is how the weight of the bike you'll purchase will fit your needs. For many people, lighter is better. Instead of shelling out a lot of money for the latest in featherweight materials, think about a fixed-gear.

"Being from the East Coast, I'm often frustrated by Los Angeles' lack of public transportation," says Lynn Maleh, 25, who works for an Internet marketing company. "After careful research, I decided on a fixed-gear or single speed bicycle. Without gears, these bikes are among the lightest, making urban commuting-hopping on the bus, lifting the bike up to my second story apartment—as swift as possible."

Shop local
"Shop at a reputable bicycle store," says Douzoglou. "The good ones will take the time to fit a customer as well as find out how they can best match a rider to the bike that will best suit his or her needs. Good shops can be a great resource for questions, concerns, and warranty issues that go beyond the date of purchase."

Ask around to learn which stores offer the best service after the sale, and visit several before settling on the place where you'll actually buy your bike. Finding a retailer you can trust will make the bike-buying process much easier.

"I did purchase [a bike] last spring and have enjoyed my first riding season with it," says Andrew Fulton, a marketing communications specialist in Bridgeport, W.Va. "Buy from a local bike retailer. A local is more likely to take time and learn about your needs and help you find the right bike at the right size and price. Plus, I've noticed that the people at smaller shops really know their stuff."

keep safety in mind
"Safety is a big part of the bike fitting you properly," explains Dave Burgess, a USA Triathlon certified coach with Vanguard Endurance based out of Colorado Springs, Colo. "If you can't, or are unable to stand over the top tube and have your feet on the ground, that's a dangerous place to be!"

Remember, a bike requires certain accoutrements. Don't skimp on your helmet.

stick to a budget
"I don't think the right bike has to be too expensive," says Franklin. "If you want to do it on the cheap, you can put your own components together. This is what I ended up doing when I couldn't find the right bike several years ago after looking for over a year."

If building your own bike isn't in the cards, start shopping in late fall and winter.

"Know what you want and look for it off-season," advises Alisha Kirchoff, 29, a university lecturer and administrator, Champaign-Urbana, Ill. "I found a vintage English road bike in early February on Craigslist. I knew what I wanted and I found it when nobody else was even thinking about bikes."

If you're not finding a new bike in your budget, consider a used one.

"Even halfway decent commuter bikes are upwards of $1,000 these days," cautions Jonathan Blyer, owner of ACME Bicycle Company, a bicycle fitting and custom bicycle studio in Brooklyn, N.Y. "For $500, the best bet in my opinion would be to buy something used. Many bike shops will sell used bikes on consignment and they will stand behind them in the case that there are any issues."

take care of your investment
Finally, take care of your bike. Keep the tires properly inflated, get a good lock, and try to store it indoors. Nyle Nims, president of Cycle Force, an importer of bicycles, parts, and accessories in Ames, Iowa, advises regularly cleaning your new ride. "Any bike can stay in great shape if you take proper care of it. Hard-to-reach places are best attacked with a toothbrush or bottle brush, or a rag wrapped around the end of a screwdriver."

Laura Schaefer is the author of "Ultimate Money-Saving Hacks for College Students" and founder of Planet Explorers Travel Guides for Kids. She lives in Madison, Wis.

Published June 21, 2013

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