A complete guide to buying a cycle for the Indian city

Source: The Print

Congratulations! You’ve decided to buy a cycle for the Indian roads. This could be because you’re tired of your car, you need to save some money, are looking to shed some weight, or have become environmentally conscious. Whatever the reason, this is the first step to a simpler life.

Before you actually realize the benefits of cycling, you have to make a ‘big decision’ — what cycle should I buy? That’s a difficult call, made even more difficult by the number of brands, features, and use-cases in the market. Understandably, one can get confused, or make the wrong choice. Further, most useful resources, be it blogs, or videos, don’t help. They’re either made for a different audience, or for different roads.

I’ve written this keeping in mind the densely populated and perpetually dug-up roads of Bangalore, India. However, it can be applied to any city with a similar build.

Instead of mentioning specific brands and models, I’ve laid down questions you should ask when buying a cycle. These include questions on what kind of cycle should you get and why? What parts should you look out for maximum efficiency and cost-saving? Which accessories are worth your money and which are not? And finally what questions should you ask yourself before making the purchase.

I’ve intentionally not written this as a review of brands and their models. The type of cycle, its parts, and the necessary accessories are more important than the brand. If you get this right, the ride will be smoother.

  1. What kind of cycle should I buy?

Since the cycle will be used for the ‘urban commute’ i.e. commuting on a regular/semi-regular (2 days a week on average) basis and within the city, the ideal cycle you should go after is called a hybrid. However, even if you need a cycle for the odd short-distance commute or a jolly ride with friends, this will do.

Essentially cycles come in three broad variants — a road cycle, or road bike (the ones with the drop handlebars, used mainly for racing and touring), a mountain bike or MTB (the ones with the fat tyres that we loved as kids), and a mix or hybrid between the two. There’s a fourth variant called the ‘urban cycle’ which is simply a toned-down version of a hybrid and can be put in the same category.

Road-cycle:

Source: PRS Newswire

MTB:

Source: Enduro-MTB Magazine

Hybrid:

Source: Cycling News

2. Why a hybrid?

The reason you should buy a hybrid is that it’s the best of both worlds. Like a road cycle, it’s quick and zippy through the streets, light enough to lift on footpaths, (you’ll be doing this a lot), over street dividers, and on the stairs (if you avoid parking the cycle in a common area, and would like to keep it in your house/room, in an apartment building).

Unlike a road cycle, a hybrid’s saddle (or seat) is comfortable enough to ride-on without padded shorts. A hybrid’s tyres are thinner than an MTB’s but wider than a road bike. Since a hybrid is lighter than an MTB, it can clock a decent pace within the city, but it cannot go as fast as a road bike. Further, a hybrid can be used for semi-long distances (30–80 km) without too much strain on the legs.

Like an MTB, a hybrid can take a bit of ‘abuse.’ When I say abuse I don’t mean throwing the cycle down the staircase. Don’t do that. Riding on Indian roads is abuse for something as delicate as cycles. That’s why a lot of people go for MTBs in cities. This is not necessary. A hybrid cycle is more than capable of handling the roads. That’s something you’ve got to keep in mind. I should add, if the roads around your home are perpetually dug up and littered with stones and debris, opting for an MTB over a hybrid is advisable.

To summarize, a hybrid has the agility of a road bike and the rigidity of an MTB. It’s your best bet in the city.

3. How much should I spend?

A good hybrid comes for between INR10,000 to INR20,000. I know that’s a wide range, but people have different preferences. Go with whatever’s you’d like but know that there’s (for someone starting out) not much you can get from a >INR20,000 cycle that you can’t in one within the range. Similarly, a hybrid below the range will probably not hold up on daily commutes and will come with a lot of tradeoffs in terms of features. Such a cycle will not survive for more than 1–2 years and won’t be worth the investment.

Another reason that you shouldn’t overshoot on the budget is that you still have the necessary accessories to buy, which we’ll come to later.

4. What should I look for in a hybrid?

This question is important and we have a lot to get through. So, if you’re reading this in parts, please, please spend a lot of time on this question.

4A. Brakes: Cycles have two kinds of brakes — power brakes, and disc brakes. Power brakes (also called V brakes or padded brakes) stop the tyre from spinning by pressing at the rims or periphery of the tyre. Disc brakes stop the tyre spinning by pressing at the center of the tyre.

For more information, check out these videos:

Power brakes:

Disc brakes:

Hybrids come with both power and disc brakes. Since disc brakes are more powerful (ironic, right?), cycles with disc brakes cost, on average, INR2,000–4,000 more.

I’d suggest you go for power and not disc brakes for two reasons. Firstly, you won’t be going too fast in the city for the marginal difference between the power and disc brakes to play out. Secondly, power brakes are easier to manually adjust (using an Allen key and screwdriver), clean, and cheaper to replace (you’ll have to change the brake pads roughly every 10–12 months of continued usage). The main benefit of disc brakes is in the monsoon. When it rains, the road gets muddy and sticks to the tyres. If the mud gets in between the brake pad and the rim, it can prevent you from braking, which is not good. If you’d like to avoid this, go for disc brakes. Power brakes have worked well for me. But that’s just me.

4B. Gear: Go for a cycle with gears. This won’t be out of your budget. A good gear cycle starts at around INR8,000. A cycle without gears is called a ‘single-speed cycle.’

The ‘gears’ of a cycle come into effect in two areas — at high/low speeds, at steep inclines/declines. Just like a car, as you speed up, you drive at a higher gear. In a cycle, as you speed up, you pedal faster and increase gears to increase pedalling resistance so that your feet don’t fly off the pedals. This “increased resistance” concept also applies to descending at a high speed. Further, when ascending a slope, since resistance is increasing, the resistance of the pedalling should decrease, hence you decrease the gears to cycle efficiently.

In a city with steep inclines and declines like highways, flyovers, a gear cycle is preferable. A gear cycle is easier to control at high speeds as well.

The total gear combination in a hybrid cycle is a multiplication of the gears in the rear derailleur and the front derailleur. So, if it’s 7 and 3, the cycle has 21 gears in total. Keep in mind, since its a multiplication, some gears aren’t available (e.g.: 13,11,17,19,20) and the marginal jump between say a gear 7 and 9 is not that much compared to a car. The gears in the rear derailleur are changed via the right gear shift and the front derailleur with the left gear shift.

MTBs have a higher number of gears, and road bikes have a low number of gears. On average, a hybrid has 18 (6*3) to 27 (9*3) gears. Just because a cycle has a higher number of gears does not mean its better.

Gears in cycles are much more complicated than I’ve laid out, and I don't have the knowledge to explain the mechanics clearly.

If you want more information on how gears in a cycle work, check out this video:

Lastly, gears are made by different brands, but the main one is Shimano. Shimano makes various gear sets, depending on the type and cost of the cycle — Tourney, Claris, Acera, etc. For a basic hybrid, don’t get swayed by words like “speed cassette,” “chainring.” Just understand what are gears, what’s their use, what quantity is adequate, and how and when you should shift them. Once you get comfortable with cycling, then you can get into the types of gear sets. That being said, gear sets made by Shimano are of good quality.

4C. Tyres: Hybrid tyres, as mentioned above, are thinner than MTBs and thicker than road bikes. A tyre’s dimensions are written in this format — 700x35c, in millimetres. 700 is the diameter of the tyre, and 35 is the width or thickness of the tyre. Some companies/suppliers write the width against the cycle’s name, for example — Firefox Voya 700C. Note, at times, tyre size can be written in inches (1 inch = 25.4 mm, so 700mm is 27.5 inches, and 35mm is 1.37 inches).

Typically, the categories of cycles have the following dimensions:

Hybrid — 700x35c
Road — 700x25c, and
MTB — 736x53

Specialized cycles for each category have varying dimensions, but these are the figures on average.

Further, these dimensions are to be kept in mind when changing tyres/tubes. So, make a note of them.

For more information on the width and height of a cycle’s tyres check out this article.

4D. Frame size: Like your shoes, cycles come in different sizes. A cycle for a young child does not fit a young adult. Similarly, a cycle for a short person does not fit a tall one. Always, always buy a cycle based on your height.

A height of a cycle is represented in its frame’s size. This is the distance between the point where the pedals attach, to the saddle. Every cycle has the size written below the saddle (near the bottle holder). The size as written in inches.

You can use this chart below to find yourself the right frame size. These vary for MTBs (which typically require smaller frame sizes because riders tend to stand and ride) and road cycles.

Source: Cyclop

Do not, I repeat, do not get a cycle with smaller frame size for you’re height. The salesman will try to convince you that you can adjust the seat to sit comfortably. But this will cause the seat to rise above the handlebars and force you to bend forward which hurts you in the long run. Stick with a frame size for your height, even if it means changing brands or waiting for the right frame size to arrive. Some brands (e.g, Montra) do not have an XL size. Always check the frame size and do not compromise on this.

4E. Frames: The frame size is based on (you guessed it!) the frame. A cycle’s frame is the single most important part of the cycle, consuming about 75% of the total cost of the cycle. Most manufacturer’s give you one-year insurance on damages to the frame, so get that checked while buying.

While there are a lot of builds, what you should look out for are frames that are strong and light. Most hybrid cycles come with an alloy frame, although the expensive ones have a carbon frame. Once again, don’t get swayed by the fancy terms. A robust and light alloy frame works well. Older models have a steel frame which tends to be heavier.

4F. Mudguards: Most hybrid cycles do not come with mudguards, but you should get them. It’d suggest going for the plastic mudguards over the metal ones, as the latter increase the weight on the cycle. Get them for both tyres.

As the name suggests they guard against the mud splashing off from the tyre. This is a big problem during the monsoon. Unless you don’t mind riding with a streak of mud on your back, you should get mudguards. When fixing them (either by yourself or through the shop), make sure there’s space (few inches) between the guard and the tyre, to avoid any friction. This will hurt both the tyre and the guard, not to mention it’ll be irritating.

4G. Spokes: Those 36 little things that go from the rim to the center of the cycle are called spokes. These are tricky little things, but should be paid attention to. Most cycles by default come with steel or carbon spokes. You can’t choose a preference while buying although I’d suggest physically checking the spokes by gentling pressing it in either direction to make sure they are fixed properly. Cycles can have loose spokes. A loose spoke will cause a domino effect forcing its opposite and neighbouring spokes to handle more pressure and break. Don’t ride a cycle with broken spokes.

Also, spokes take a lot of pressure when the tyre takes a big impact downward, for instance when dropping off a footpath. This can cause the spokes to loosen. A loose (or worse broken) spoke will result in getting the full set changed, but it's worth it. So, please check the spokes when buying and periodically to make sure they are fixed and tight.

More about spokes:

4H: Suspension: A suspension in a cycle makes a bumpy ride less bumpy by absorbing the bumps. MTBs have them in abundance, road cycles don’t have them at all, and some hybrids have them and some don’t.

If a cycle salesman says, “You don’t need suspension, the cycle has a ‘rigid fork’, it can handle the roads,” insist on one. A “rigid fork” will only keep your tyre stable, not absorb shocks by bumpy roads completely. A cycle with a minimal suspension (around 100 millimetres) will absorb shocks. This will go a long way in keeping your groin, back, and shoulders safe on bad roads. You might not notice it at first, but trust me, the minute you shift to a non-suspension bike, your groin and lower back will be the first to notice. Since the impact is first felt in the front tyre and you’re constantly leaning forward when cycling, it’s important to have suspension in the front. Suspension in the rear tyre is not required.

Read more about cycle suspensions here.

4I: Others: The above eight points should cover the basics of the cycles, but misses some finer parts, which I’ll briefly touch upon here.

Handlebars: These can’t be customized when buying but can be changed over time. Handlebars in hybrids are either flat, or slightly curved. MTBs have flat handlebars, and road cycles have drop or aero-bars/

I’d suggest checking if the grip of the handlebar doesn’t slip off easily (this can’t be checked when buying, but as you use it, it tends to slip off). If the grip does get loose, you can either replace it with a new grip or you can use a racket (badminton, tennis, or squash) grip. Further, some manufacturer’s have adjustable handlebars. Only the angle of the handlebars, and not its distance from the saddle, can be adjusted using an Allen key. Check if the cycle has one.

Pedals: Hybrid cycles have simple plastic pedals without any clips to hold your feet. That’s fine. You don’t need to worry too much about the pedals initially. As you ride often, the ball bearings within the pedals and the grip withers away, and you can have them changed for INR300–500.

Saddle: Unless the saddle is loose, don’t change it immediately. Initially, you’ll feel a pinch in your bottom as you ride the cycle. That’s not a reason to change the saddle, that’s what its meant for. A cycle’s saddle should not be as comfortable as a cushioned chair. Some people buy a softer cover for it, but that’s more to prevent it from getting hot if kept outside.

While riding, make sure the saddle points directly forward or slightly downward. Here’s a quick video on saddles.

5. What accessories should I buy?

Not all accessories are important. Some you’ll use as much as the cycle itself, some you’ll never use. You should know what accessories are necessary, unnecessary but helpful, and outright unnecessary

Necessary accessories

Two things that you should not ride the cycle without are — a helmet, and a bike lock.

Helmet: A good helmet should be sturdy, with openings for air and most importantly, fit your head. Don’t buy a helmet that is tight, this will be a problem. When purchasing a helmet, squeeze it with your palms into each other. If it feels like the helmet will break or even crack, it’s not worth your money. Don’t skimp on a helmet.

Bike lock: A lock is necessary, and preferably get one which can attach the tyre to a pole, not just lock the tyre, or the brakes. A good thumb rule to follow is to get a bike lock that is about 1/10th the cost of your cycle. So, an expensive cycle requires an expensive lock. Also, keep the spare keys safe.

Bottle holder: Get a simple stell bottle holder that can be adjusted by force. This allows you to put a variety of bottles. Don’t get a second bottle holder, even if there’s space for it. You won’t require it. If need be, you can carry the extra bottle in your bag.

Cycle stand: Get a simple bicycle stand. Nothing fancy. All it has to do is keep the cycle upright.

Basic tools: An Allen key works for pretty much all the simple adjustments.

Unnecessary but helpful accessories

These are accessories that are not required, but make your ride easier.

Glasses: With the dust on the road, and the need to see where you’re going, glasses are helpful. If you decide on getting them, don’t go for the tinted ones, unless you’re only going when the sun’s out. Go for the plain clear ones. They can be used at night as well, and they’re cheaper. The non-tint glasses cost INR400.

Neck warmer: This doubles up as a mask, and given the times, it’s an important accessory. It can also protect from cold wind hitting your uncovered face.

Raincoat: Cycling in the rain is not ideal. However, if you have to, a raincoat is helpful. If you plan on getting one, get one that can be scrunched into a ball and placed in your laptop bag. Further, I’d recommend getting a rain cover for your bag, in case you carry a laptop, and especially if you don’t have a mudguard.

Air pump: Useful if you don’t have a neighbourhood cycle repair guy or petrol station. Quick tip, ask for the valve your cycle has, and get a pump accordingly. Road cycles have a ‘Presta’ value, and MTBs and hybrids have a ‘Schrader’ valve. They differ in terms of the width. Check if the air pump can be adjusted for both the valves. This article explains the difference.

Bell: No one can hear the feeble cycle bell in city traffic, and most cars/bikes don’t give a damn about it. The only use of a bell is to alert people on the road or footpaths. Get a bell if required, but not a fancy one.

Unnecessary accessories

Since the necessary and unnecessary but helpful accessories would come up to INR4,000–5000, it's unnecessary to get the following accessories when you’re just getting started.

  • Gloves
  • Bike bags — either in the front or the back
  • A fancy bell
  • Lights (unless you ride early in the mornings)
  • Mirrors (you’ll never use them, and they can be picked off)
  • Speedometer (not for the urban commute)
  • A phone holder (keep your phone in your bag)
  • Tyre levers and other tools
  • Cycling specific-bags/clothing/bottle
  • Carriers (Carriers are meant for touring, not for a pillion)

Questions only you can answer

The information above is universal, but your decision is personal. Some questions cannot be answered with information, it requires experience. Three questions you should ask yourself are:

  1. What am I buying the cycle for?
  2. What kind of roads will I be riding on?
  3. How many kilometres will I cover in a week, on average?

A hybrid broadly covers all extremes of the above answers. However, if for instance, the roads around your home are very bad, an MTB will give you more comfort. If the roads are good and you don’t mind commuting longer distances, a road bike with gravel tyres is a good option. There’s no one right answer. Similarly, weather, elevation, pollution levels, and more play a part. These are personal factors that you have to weigh on your own.

Onto the roads

As I’ve mentioned earlier, this isn’t an exhaustive list, it can and should be added to. If you think I should add something, please let me know. If you’d like me to help you pick a cycle, you can reach out to me on Twitter here. I’m more than happy to help get more cycles on the road.

If you’ve made it this far, I thank you. But more than that, your future self will thank you for taking this step. Good luck on the roads!

Writing as opposed to keeping the thoughts locked in my head.

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