Ok, what bike should I buy? It depends. But let’s start with inexpensive department store bikes.
Let me start with this right up front– and this is my opinion– do not buy a mass produced bicycle originally sold in department or “big box” stores if you plan to ride a bike seriously. You will see Magna, Next, Huffy and others and the marketplace is filled with older Murrays, Free Spirits, as well as literally dozens of other brands. Save your time and money and pass them by.
Cheap components, bearings, headsets, brakes, even sometimes the quality of the materials the frames typically are built of, is the cheapest. Many bicycle shops refuse to work on these bikes as the cost of even relatively minor repairs can easily surpass the value of the bike.
I remember reading somewhere that George Huffman (of Huffy Bicycles) admitted that his bicycles were built to last “56, D to D.” Fifty-six miles, department store to dump. That’s a Saturday morning ride for a reasonably conditioned rider. So while these newer bikes will last more than 56 miles–the manufacturing philosophy is the same–make them cheap. Upgrading or trying to get anything more from them is throwing money away.
Personal anecdote here: I had a friend call me about bikes for both his wife and him. He confessed that he’d recently gone to the local big box store and purchased two of the highest priced bikes the store had. He took them home and he and his wife rode around their circular drive–once. He told me that the bikes were absolutely unridable.
After reloading both bikes back into his truck and taking them back to the store, he called me–did I have any decent bikes that were comfortable for an older couple to ride? Well, (dumb question) yes, I had a mid 1960′s woman’s Raleigh Sport 3 speed, and a late 60′s men’s Schwinn Metro 3 speed, both in excellent condition. They drove over, his wife immediately said Yes! that was what she wanted. She got on and disappeared up the street.
He looked at the men’s, took it on a short ride, came back smiling and just loaded it up. Then we sat and bs’d while we waited for his wife to come back. In the end, what they paid for both of my bikes was less than the cost of the two new bikes from the box store.
Yes, I have an agenda to steer bicyclists away from bad bikes. But talk to other riders either in person or on the ‘net, you’ll find that the consensus is to leave the box store bikes to others. They are not the bikes you are looking for.
One final word of warning: if you decide that you need to to purchase one of these bikes, read the warning tag that should be attached to the main tube somewhere. It should outline the uses of the bike. For many mountain and bmx bikes, it includes not even taking the bike off-road.