From the mailbag (actually from the comments on a post):

Jacob Can you tell me what kind of bike you own/price range? I am shoppng for a bike which I hope to use for errands and at least 3 days/ week to work. I’m 45 female and in fair/good physical condition The dealers i spoke to all recommend different brands. They were not helpful. thanks JL

Although I already gave an answer, I have thought a bit more about it, so here is an expanded answer. It depends on several things. For instance, I ride a road bike and I like to go fast. I practically treat my commute as a race (all within the laws of traffic — yes, I’m the guy who will stand and wait at a red light at 3am when nobody is around). When I stop at intersections, I race the cars to the other side (and typically win) and when I see another cyclist, I’m thinking “his/her ass is mine” rather than “Aw, that is nice, a fellow cyclist out enjoying a ride/a commuter saving gas/…” :-D . I also do interval training on the bike and since I started I have added an inch to my legs, lost 5 pounds, and lower my resting heart rate from 55 to 45. My bike has no room for fenders and no braze-ons for racks.

I bought it new from the local bike shop and paid $1300+taxes. They spent 1 hour fitting it to me adjusting the height, length and angle of the saddle, handlebars. When I got a loose crank somewhat later, they tightened it for free.

Now, you may think this is a lot of money for a bicycle, but just how much did you spend for your car? Considering this is my primary transport I thought I could pay a little extra for quality. The good thing about bikes is that it is much easier to buy relatively high-end equipment(*). So while I would never pay $25,000 for a mid-range car as I don’t derive any pleasure from driving, I will certainly pay $1,300 for a mid-range bicycle.

(*) There are several other areas, where it is possible to buy the best of the best (or nearly so) without being stupendously rich. You just have to change your aim a bit. Instead of buying high-end sports cars, you buy high-end “sports” bikes. Instead of collecting rare paintings, you collect hand-made custom knives. Instead of buying store brand soda, you buy Coca Cola, incidentally, I prefer Sam’s Cola (the Walmart brand) over Coca Cola.

I got my previous commuter bike for $35. That was a $70 Walmart mountain bike bought used from a professor that was leaving campus. Was that a cheap or a frugal purchase? Well, it was certainly cheap, and the bike also sucked. The front brake was broken so eventually I had to time stops in advance since my braking length was about 20 yards (my ride was mostly off road and flat so it was not a big hazard). I got a gel-saddle for 25c at a yard sale. That saddle later got stolen. Realizing that I was surrounded by seemingly upstanding young students (I was at a rather well known university well known for its moral values), I figured I could ditch the bike by parking it unlocked when the crank finally failed. Sure enough, less than a day later somebody stole it. Good riddance and problem solved. Was it frugal? Consider this. It took 30 minutes to walk and walking was previously my main mode of transportation. Riding the bike took 10 minutes, but I could run the distance in 15 minutes. Since the bike had no fenders, riding was not an option when it rained (which it did often). From that perspective the bike was frugal as well as it saved me 10-40 minutes a day from time to time and the only use for the bike was the off road commute since the drivers in that area apparently got points for hitting cyclists.

Therefore picking the right bike depends very much on the conditions you are going to use it for. Are you going to use it daily? Will there be exceptions such as rain or snow? Are you ever going off road? Do you need to carry anything like clothes or groceries? How fast do you like to go? How far do you need to go? And do you ever plan on doing something else with the bike?

Now being older, wiser, and also uh.. better looking, eh.. would I buy a road bike again? No. I would sacrifice a few pounds (my bike weighs 18-19lbs, just a few pounds more than $15,000 Tour de France bikes, a cheap steel bike probably weighs around 25-30lbs) for more braze-ons, the ability to use fatter tires and take it off road (my current bike has a spoke count of 16 front 24 read.. if I hit a big rock or drive off a curb, the wheel would go out of alignment). Today I would get a touring bike because it is almost as fast as a road bike (for me), but it comes with the ability to mount cargo and it has added resilience (higher spoke counts, less fancy gearing, and more bosses for more water bottles). It would work about as well for my commute and better for my long distance events. I’m thinking something like the Surly Long Haul Trucker (about $1000 with cheap components, I’d probably upgrade them to at least 105, because Tiagra shifters just annoy me) or the Rivendell A Homer Hilsen (about $3000).

Another thing you have to consider when you buy a bike is that riding will probably change you. An untrained individual will be quite uncomfortable on a road bike. The saddle is too hard, the handlebars are too far down so the butt and neck hurts, etc. After several months, this will change. If you buy a more “comfortable” bike, then unless you are a “comfortable” rider, the slow shifting, low gearing (spin-outs), and lack of aerodynamics will begin to annoy you as you get more fit.

Maybe one idea is to look at which car you prefer to drive. If you could drive whatever you wanted to (remember price is not so much an objection for a bicycle as it is for a car), what kind would you be driving? The sports car? The SUV? The Jeep? A van? A sedan? Consider the distance for your commute and multiply by 7. This is the comfort level. For instance, if your commute is 5 miles, imagine driving 35 miles in a Jeep with knobby wheels(mountain bike), would that be fun? Probably not, unless you love Jeeps. To derive the price level, take the price level of your imaginary car and divide by 25. That’s would much you would spend on a similar level bike, thereabouts.