I can still remember the muffled “click-click-click” as my sister and I sat in our bedroom, our ears pressed to the door as our dad rolled our gifts down the hall and into a back closet. We smiled, envisioning the bikes we’d find on Christmas morning, the laps we’d do around the block, the skid marks our new wheels would leave on the pavement.
With the holidays quickly approaching, many families are contemplating the gift of pedal power. Here are some things to consider when searching for the right ride.
Many people want to surprise their loved ones with the perfect bike. But, the perfect bike requires a perfect fit. Not sizing the bike ahead of time can result in major disappointment. Finding out that the bike is three inches too short for your growing child, or the handlebars too low for your husband’s achy back, is best done on a test ride in the parking lot of your local bike shop. Which is why, when my dad wheeled our bikes down the hall that Christmas Eve, the only mystery was whether he’d remembered our favorite colors.
The fit depends on the type of bike and riding style, but in general children should be able to straddle the bike’s top tube with both feet flat on the ground and their toes should touch the pavement when seated. For cyclists of all ages, pedaling should cause the legs to extend almost straight, but with a slight bend at the knee. Most shops are staffed with professionals who can provide frame advice, match you up with the correct size, and help adjust seat and handlebar height. These guys want you to love cycling; they are happy to help.
Make sure the type of bike suits your current fitness level and needs. Far too many bikes sit unused in dusty garages. Often, they are high-priced road bikes bought on a whim by recreational riders. When in doubt, go with the more comfortable option. You can always upgrade later. Here is a rundown of common options:
Mid-priced mountain bikes are utilitarian workhorses. They can be a great choice for both riding around town and having some fun on local dirt trails. The Ellwood bluffs and Lake Los Carneros are both excellent places to get some low key, off-roading in.
More-expensive, full-suspension mountain bikes are great for experienced cyclists looking for adventure in our foothills. They provide a more comfortable ride over bumpy terrain, but the trade-off is less efficiency on the road.
With a lightweight frame, thin and low-tread tires, and curved handlebars, road bikes are built for speed. These bikes require a more aggressive riding posture that may feel uncomfortable to new cyclists. However, for experienced riders, road bikes offer an exciting way to stay fit and a ticket to some of the great local club rides in town.
A bicycle in its purest form. Fixies work like tricycles, the wheels and pedals turn together. Because they have the simplest mechanical set-up, they are unlikely to break or require maintenance. They are also relatively inexpensive. But, the fixed gear means that riders are unable to coast down hills or adjust for a higher cadence on uphills. They can be awkward and have a steep learning curve.
Once you try a recumbent, you’ll never go back. Or so they say. You will also start referring to typical bikes as “wedgies,” may have trouble starting, and will struggle to find a decent parking spot. But your backside will love you.
The quintessential beach-town bike. These are often available for under $100 on Craigslist. Cruisers are a great option for those seeking simplicity, function, and style. With an upright posture, the bikes are anything but fast, but they are easy and fun to ride, especially on Santa Barbara’s relatively flat waterfront terrain. Just don’t plan on climbing any hills.
Kids love the cool factor and the chance to learn tricks and to race with friends. Traveling any distance on a BMX bike is cumbersome, but most kids are happy enough rolling around their neighborhood. For thrill seekers, Elings Park has an amazing BMX track.
A comfort bike is made for recreational riding of the cushiest sort. These bikes are often designed so that riders can start and stop with both feet flat on the ground. They are a great option for weekend rides and running errands within a few miles. Unlike most other bikes, comfort bikes typically have enough knee clearance to be compatible with front-mount baby seats, making them a good choice for parents of toddlers.
A decent tandem will cost at least a grand, and if you’re planning on riding with your spouse, be sure to factor in the cost of marriage counseling and the inevitable divorce that follows the “I am pedaling. What are you doing?!” arguments.
Bells and Whistles
The very best bike will go beyond fitting your budget, your body, and your lifestyle. Once you’ve got the basics down, look for the little details that speak to you. Maybe it’s the perfectly turned handlebars, the leather saddle, the clip-on basket, or the shiny bell. The perfect bike will make you smile in anticipation of the ride to come. It will play partner to your adventure seeking and memory making, and it just might take you farther than you ever dreamed you’d pedal. Which is why I feel fortunate that my dad remembered my favorite color so many Christmases ago.