How to Buy a Bike in a Pandemic

Buying a bicycle has always been a life-changing experience for many, but during the Covid-19 pandemic, it can bring a heightened sense of freedom and control to one’s life.

Lydia Felt, of East Palo Alto, was previously too terrified to ride a bicycle on roadways. She feared the idea of bicycling through city streets as she hadn’t ridden a bicycle since she was a kid growing up on the dirt roads of West Virginia.

“With all these cars off the road I felt less stressed about riding in the streets and decided to get a bicycle,” she said. “I work from home and would like to be able to get out of the house. I figured I could use this time to learn to navigate the streets and when this is all over I’m hoping I can continue to ride.”

Riding a bicycle is one of the few things we are allowed to do for both transportation and recreational purposes during these shelter-in-place orders. With less automotive traffic, the coronavirus is creating safer riding conditions and there has never been a better time to begin riding than now. Google recently launched a mobility report allowing people to view the changes in transportation behavior across different location categories such as retail, parks and residential.

The following outline will help guide you through a successful bike-buying process, which involves the following four steps.

  • Personal research
  • Shop help
  • A test ride
  • Buy with care

Let’s take a look at each step and key differences to be aware of when buying a bicycle during the coronavirus crisis.

Personal Research

You’ll want to start with a fair amount of online research if this is your first bicycle purchase. Begin thinking about where and how you plan to use your new bike, including details such as terrain and distance. The goal is to narrow down what type of bike you will want and what size your body requires.

To begin this research, start at your local bike-shop websites to see what brands of bicycles they offer. Then visit those specific brand’s websites for the full line of available models and their detailed product descriptions. A quick Google search will yield bicycle reviews for many popular models. Although it may be challenging, narrow your choice down to just a few models.

Many categories and subcategories of bicycles exist, but we will keep it simple here. There are road bikes (designed for roads and pavement), mountain bikes (designed for mountains and dirt trails), and hybrid bikes (designed for both mountains and roads, either dirt or pavement). This is an oversimplified explanation but the point is that the type of bicycle you will want depends on the surface you intend to ride on and the purpose of your bicycle trip.

Many of the best things in life don’t come in adult sizes, but bicycles do! There are different sizes of bicycles for different-sized people. Height, inseam and riding-style preference are the three basic factors you’ll want to pay attention to when deciding what size bicycle you need.

Size charts are helpful, but they won’t determine your exact size. Factors including body proportions, riding preferences and differing bicycle styles can affect the size you need. Make sure you are using a credible source—such as a specific bicycle-manufacturing website or a reputable bicycling-review publication such as the chat seen here by Bicycling Magazine—when reviewing a size chart.

You’ll notice this size chart focuses specifically on road bikes, which come in sizes designated by centimeters or by XX Small to X Large. Mountain bikes often use the same Small-Large sizing, or inch measurements.

Shop Help

If you are lucky enough to live in an area where browsing around inside your local shop is still permitted during the coronavirus pandemic, then hallelujah! Most jurisdictions around the country have restricted that kind of shopping experience altogether. After completing your personal research, look for the posted “Response to Covid-19,” that many shops will have on their website and be sure to read it. All of it.

Most shops will ask you to make your purchase online (if they have that system set up) and then to choose some kind of minimal-contact delivery method. Some locations and shops have adopted curbside pick-up models that can be a little tricky to navigate through a bike-sale process. Some bike shops may even offer to deliver the bicycle locally.

Be sure to review the bicycle return-and-exchange policy specifically, as it could differ from the  non-bike-products policy. Oftentimes a bicycle can be exchanged for another bicycle so long as the purchased bike has zero wear and can be sold as new.

Bicycles inside a shop get test ridden and sold as new, so be sure about the specific return-policy details.

Once you have read through the coronavirus-specific guidelines and have picked out what bicycles you are interested in, reach out to the shop with a phone call to get your final questions answered (if needed). There may also be a chat option on their website, if you prefer. Many shops are operating with limited staff while also experiencing an increase in demand, so keep this mind (patience is a virtue!).

There may be longer-than-usual hold times and shop employees may be overwhelmed, so try and help them help you.

Test Ride

You may not be able to test ride the bicycle before you buy it. Period. End of story. If you are able to test ride it you will most likely have to go through extra safety precautions such as practicing social distancing and waiting for bikes to be cleaned in between rides.

When planning to test ride a bike at a shop make sure you go prepared. Allow enough time to try multiple bikes without being rushed, wear the same or similar clothing to what you plan to wear when you are out riding your new bike and please be respectful of the other customers and shop employees you engage with along the way.

Buy With Care

Now that you have done all the hard work, the easy part is forking out the money. If you were able to test ride the bikes then you’ll already be on-site and can go ahead and buy it. But feel free to sleep on it or make your decision from home. Just be sure to complete your purchase from the local bicycle retailer that provided you the best service and made sure you got what you needed.

There are a few reasons you want to purchase your bike from a local bicycle shop. Lydia understood this very clearly. Once you buy a bike it is going to be an ongoing relationship with the shop to continue to maintain the bike.

Bikes are just like cars that require regular on-going maintenance and replacement of parts that wear down. By building that relationship early on in your bike buying journey you can begin to see how you can expect their customer service to be over time. Once your bike does break down or is in need of some replacement tires, you'll want to already have that trust in your local shop to always take care of you.

For Lydia, she was thorough in her research and worked closely with the shop using safe social distancing precautions throughout her entire shopping process.

She even got helpful recommendations over the phone like which specific lock would work best to keep her bike safe. Now she is free to take back the streets a ride a bicycle into the next chapter of her life.

If done correctly, buying a bicycle can be an enjoyable process giving you a newfound sense of freedom and control during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Brandon Alvarado is a bike mechanic, cycling instructor and chair of the San Jose Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee. 


    • Seriously – whoever is selling the idea that your “right to the road” will negate the physical danger of getting run over is doing a grave disservice to the population of cyclists out there. Biking is healthy, fun, and can be an alternative to automobiles – but suggesting bike lanes and right-of-way make things safer is just plain nonsense.

      Especially now that cars are proving to be much safer during a pandemic and more people will be driving, cyclists are at greater risk of getting run over. Even the most diligent motorist will make mistakes which could expose cyclists to very grave dangers. When it comes to a car that weighs thousands of pounds vs. a bicycle that weighs a tenth of that, the cyclist loses. Mixing the two is plain crazy.

      • > Mixing the two is plain crazy.

        True dat!

        The only way I can see for cars and bicycles to share transportation right-of-ways is for bicyclists to accept transportation second class citizen status:

        Stay out of the way are cars, trucks, and buses, Get off your bike and walk it around or through major intersections using pedestrian lanes and crosswalks. Avoid busy roads with narrow shoulders.

        It’ll never happen of course. Too many bicyclists are are zealots of progressivism and believe in absolute, total, uncompromising FAIRNESS. A bicycle has every right and privilege that a SUV has, and should get to go wherever a SUV can go. And furthermore, bicyclists are on a mission from God because they are saving the planet from global warming, so in fact, bicylces should be entitled to extra privileges,

        After a few scary and foolhardy encounters, I parked my bicycle for good and accepted second class status.

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