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Bicycles Whether you plan to hit the road or the trail, you'll get more bike for your buck than ever before.
If you're planning to buy a bike, chances are your new ride will have an aluminum frame, even if the bike costs less than $500. It might even have disc brakes or 27 gears. These features, once found only on more expensive bikes, bring the benefits of lighter weight, better braking in sloppy conditions, and more efficient pedaling to cyclists with a modest budget.

Higher-priced bikes are getting better, too. The best of the $1,000-and-up models in our most recent tests had the shock absorption and handling previously found only on bikes costing two or three times as much.

Whichever bike you choose, there's good reason to buy it from one of the nation's 5,300 bike shops, rather than from a department store or toy store. And you don't have to spend a fortune. We found fine choices for pavement rides that cost less than $300 and very good bikes for off-road cycling for $440. The bikes for serious trail riding cost $1,000 or more.

WHAT'S AVAILABLE

Brands include Bianchi, Cannondale, Diamondback, Fuji, Gary Fisher, Giant, GT, Iron Horse, Jamis, Klein, Landrider, LeMond, Mongoose, Raleigh, Schwinn, Specialized, and Trek.

Full-suspension mountain bikes. These bikes are best for rough terrain with steep slopes. You'll get a shock-absorbing suspension fork and rear-suspension frame, which provide the best control and comfort on the roughest terrain. Most have 27 speeds and 26-inch wheels. All have wide, knobby tires; narrow or moderate-width saddle; and flat or riser handlebars.

Prince range: $1,000 to more than $4,000.

Front-suspension mountain bikes. These bikes are best for less-rugged off-road trails. You'll get a shock-absorbing suspension fork and rigid frame, fine for tamer trails. These bikes need less maintenance and are more efficient on smooth terrain than full suspension mountain bikes. Most have 24 or 27 speeds; 26-inch wheels; wide, knobby tires; narrow or moderately wide saddle; and flat or riser handlebars.

Price range: $400 to more than $2,000.

Hybrid bikes. These bikes are best for moderate-speed riding on pavement and smooth dirt paths. A cross between comfort and road bikes, most hybrids have a shock-absorbing suspension fork and seatpost; 24 speeds; 700C wheels (a designation from the French system, indicating size and width; it's about 27-inch); midwidth, fairly smooth tires; moderately wide saddle; and riser handlebars.

Price range: $400 to more than $500.

Comfort bikes. These bikes are best for casual cycling on pavement and smooth dirt paths. Most comfort bikes have a shock-absorbing suspension fork and seatpost; 21 speeds; 26-inch wheels; wide, relatively smooth tires; wide saddle; and riser handlebars. Generally have most upright riding position, which casual riders often find most comfortable.

Price range: $250 to more than $400.

Road bikes. These bikes are best for fast and/or long distance rides on pavement. Most have a lightweight frame with no suspension; 18 to 30 speeds; 700C wheels (about 27-inch); narrow, smooth tires; narrow saddle; and drop handlebars. The bent-over riding position reduces wind resistance at higher speeds, while the narrower seat facilitates pedaling.

Price range: $500 to more than $3,000.

IMPORTANT FEATURES

Brakes. Long-arm cantilever brakes (V-brakes or linear-pull brakes) are fine for most uses. For rough, sloppy terrain, go with disc brakes, which will spare your wheel rims from the abrasion of muddy braking. Some bikes are sold with your choice of brakes. Discs add $100 or more. You can retrofit some bikes with discs; ask at the bike shop.

Handlebars. High-rise handlebars let you sit fairly upright. With low-rise and flat handlebars, you lean forward. Road bikes use drop bars for an aerodynamic bent-over position. See which position feels best. Most handlebars can be raised or lowered, and adjustable-angle stems give more play. If you can't get comfortable, consider replacing the handlebars with a different type.

Shifters. Twist shifters are collars on the handlebars that you twist to change gears. Trigger shifters have one lever for upshifting and one for downshifting, one pair each for the front and rear gears. Neither type is inherently better. Most are indexed, meaning they click as you shift, so you don't have to guess where the next gear is.

Saddle. The narrow, firm seats on some mountain and road bikes let you change position and pedal more efficiently and provide more support. Comfort bikes and many hybrids have wider, softer seats, often with a suspension seatpost. If you don't like a seat, get one with a different shape, more or less padding, or channels or cutouts to ease pressure.

Gearing. Most bikes have 3 front gears and 7 to 10 rear gears, yielding 21 to 30 speeds. Bikes priced at $1,000 and up will almost certainly have the appropriate number and range of gears. Don't expect decent gearing from cheap bikes. Where you need to compare models is in the midrange, where bike makers may compromise to keep the price low. The gearing on most midpriced models should be fine for flat or hilly pavement. To ease pedaling on steep dirt trails, look for 22 or fewer teeth on the small front gear and 32 or more on the large rear gear.

HOW TO CHOOSE

Decide where youíll ride. Each type of bike is designed for a different kind of terrain and use. Try to find a bike that's best for the kind of riding you prefer, whether that's off-road or on, punishing trail or inviting path, serious mileage, or brief jaunt.

Focus on fit. It's important to get a bike frame that's the right size. To make sure a frame isn't too tall or short, straddle the bike and measure the clearance between your crotch and the top tube. Depending on the design, there should be 1 to 3 inches of space for hybrid and comfort bikes, 3 to 6 inches for mountain bikes. Handlebars should be at a comfortable height and reach. Have a pro help you get the best fit and feel by adjusting or changing components like the handlebar stem, saddle, seatpost, or cranks.

Deal with a bike shop. You'll generally pay $250 or more at a bike shop, versus $100 and up in a department or discount store, but you'll get more for the money. The bikes tend to be better-made, and you can usually road test them. Most come in several sizes, often including versions proportioned for women. (Women with a longer-than-average torso may get a better fit with a "man's" frame.) Some women's bikes have a step-through frame, but others have the same standard frame as men's bikes. The staff typically knows how to fit you for a frame and adjust components. Bike-shop mechanics tend to do a better job assembling bikes than department-store employees, and bike shops offer after-sale service. A shop can help you choose a helmet, too.

Donít be cheap. A bargain price sounds enticing, but you get what you pay for. Bikes selling for $100 to $200 are usually heavier than higher-priced bikes, harder to pedal and shift, and unlikely to fit well because most come in only one frame size. When we tested three mass-market bikes, their quality and performance were below those of the bikes in our Ratings. Consider low-priced bikes only for the most casual adult riders or for kids who will quickly outgrow them.

Treat it right. Take your new bike back to the shop to get it adjusted after riding it for a month or so. Keep the gears and chain clean. Have a pro tune up the bike once a year to keep the gear train, brakes, bearings, and suspension working well and to prevent premature wear from dirt, rust, and loose components.


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