A Common Sense Guide to Bicycles

Test Riding a Bicycle

Published: 06/15/2009 by eBicycles

One of the best ways to learn about a bike is to get on it - the test ride. This should be as exciting as testing out a car so don't be afraid to ask. The test ride is an important part of the process of selecting a bike because even if you've done your homework and decided on the model you want, riding it will be the ultimate indicator of whether it is the bike for you.  This guide will prepare you for your test ride.  You can navigate this article using the links below:

Trek factory demo event
gesika22 / flickr

Manufacturers and bike shops hold demo events where you can try as many bicycles as you'd like.

Why do a test ride?

Just as you would test drive a car when you are making a purchase, you shouldn't buy a bike before giving it a go. There's no point handing money over for something that may or may not work. Local bike shops should let you take a test ride or you may be able to contact local bicycle clubs or friends to see if anyone has the same model you are considering. Bike shops may also have demo events, which are specifically for testing riding bikes.

When you come in for a test ride make sure you bring some form of identification that you can leave behind. Most shops won't allow you to just take the bicycle, particularly if it's of some value. Similarly they may not allow you to do test rides if it's wet outside or getting dark.

Getting ready for the test ride

Before you jump on the bike and head out the door, you should do a couple of safety and set up checks to make sure it is ready to go. Even if it is being sold in a bicycle shop it may not be road ready as tires deflate even after a few days and it still needs to be sized correctly for you. For the best possible test ride you should also consider carefully where to do it.

Bicycle wheel, tire and valve stem
istockphoto.com / Fertnig

Be sure to check the air pressure in the tires prior to a test ride.

Bike setup

The first thing to do is ensure the bike is set up properly for you. Any good bike shop will do this (if not, insist they do) but if you're trying out a friend's gear, visiting a seller or going to a department store then you may need to do this yourself. Take a few moments to adjust it before getting on. Review the previous pages on this site for sizing the bike and check things like the seat height and tilt and the handlebar height. Get on the frame and stand over it and check your clearance, there's no point going out on a test ride with a bike frame that's too big or too small. For safety reasons you should also do a quick check of the brakes pump them a few times to make sure they grip and aren't too worn. Also make sure the tires are inflated to the right pressure and the wheels are securely fastened. You could also do a quick flick through the gears on a stand so you understand how they change.

Bicycle rider wearing thin, comfortable bicycling clothes
istockphoto / webphotographeer

Dress the same for your test ride as you would for any other ride.

Cycling shoes and clothes

If you normally ride with cycling shoes bring these to ride with. If your shoes are used on non-standard pedals bring these also and fit them to the bike first. Similarly bring whatever clothing you usually ride in, the idea is to recreate the conditions in which you normally ride.

Bicycle Helmet
Bell Bike Helmets

If possible, use your own bicycle helmet for your test ride.

Wear your helmet

It is particularly useful to wear your own helmet during a test ride so you can see how much neck bending you need to do to look around on the bike. If you are borrowing a helmet for the test ride first make sure there are no cracks in the outer shell and then fit it to your head. Adjust the straps so it is snug but not too tight and sits somewhere above your eyebrows.

Bike trail sign
istockphoto.com / jonathange

If you're lucky, you will have access to a designated bike trail.

Where to ride

Cruise around the parking lot initially to check everything feels the right size and height. Ideally the salesperson will watch you do this and make any final adjustments. Depending on what they allow you to do, a ride of up to 20 minutes will give you a much better indicator of the bike's ability than a simple round the block route. Some bike shops will actually have a pre-determined route of a few miles to follow. They may insist on this route only, both for your own safety and that of their expensive machine. In any case you will probably want to ride the bike somewhere away from the watching eyes of a salesperson, particularly if you are not a really confident rider. Ideally you should tackle a loop that includes varied terrain so you have a hill climb, some descents, flat and fast sections where you can get up speed and both good and bad pavement. If you're not familiar with the area you are riding ask them to suggest a route that might incorporate different terrain.

How to tell if the bicycle fits

Once you're on the bike and out on the test ride consider the following to determine if it's the right fit for you.

Dirt road in the mountains
istockphoto / Adventure_Photo

Ideally, your test ride will cover the same types of terrain that you plan on riding.

Ability to handle the terrain

Test riding the bike over different terrain is a really good way to see how it handles corners, hills, descents and varied surfaces. Try to make the test ride specific to what you intend to do, although it might be difficult to find single track or jumps right outside the bike shop for a mountain bike or BMX. In your test ride you should be able to safely and reasonably ride the bike over all the terrain you plan to tackle. Then ask yourself if the bike produces the pace you want, does it climb hills easily, slot into gear properly and have the right range of gears?

Comfort

If you have taken the time to fit the bike properly it will be easier to assess once you're out riding. You can still consider how comfortable the seating position is, for example now you're on a hybrid do you like the upright posture? Or if it's a racing bike consider if you will be able to sit and pedal on it comfortably for the required time to get to work.

Bicycle trailer loaded with gear
istockphoto.com / TACrafts

Pulling a small trailer is an easy way to keep load off your bicycle frame, while being able to carry more gear.

Carrying capacity

If you plan to do some touring consider the bike's ability to carry weight. If the frame is lightly built you will either have to leave behind essential items or risk overloading. Alternatively if you really like a particular light-weight bicycle you may consider getting accessories, such as a tow trailer, for times when you plan to tour. Or perhaps you may determine a touring or mountain bike might handle rougher terrain better and carry loads better.

Local bicycle shop and service center
BruceTurner / flickr

Local bike shops will provide after sale service and support, unlike most big box retail stores.

Local services

Assess the person/people selling the bike and try to be as discerning as possible. What are their motives for selling the bike and are they really considering how much the bike meets your needs? How much ongoing support and advice will they be able to provide beyond the purchase? And if they can't give you further support is it available locally through friends, a bike club or shop? A bike purchase from a department store is unlikely to yield further assistance, whereas a local bike shop might be willing to give free chain checks or other assistance because you bought it there.

When it doesn't fit

If you've fallen in love with your first test ride all well and good. However if it doesn't feel right or you'd still like to keep looking, then ask to try another bike. The procedure should be exactly the same to get started as it was on the first bike, checking the frame size, seat height, handlebars, tire pressure, etc. before you do the test ride.

Bike frames at a local bicycle shop
greencolander / flickr

Once you finish your test rides, you should have a better idea of which bicycles fit your needs and which ones you like best.

Comparing bikes

If you test ride more than one bike, there are a few simple ways to compare the differences. You should be able to feel how the bikes accelerate when you are sitting or standing. Charging up a hill is a good way to determine this, as great bikes love to climb and will slot into gear nicely. Also consider how comfortably they handle bumps and rougher surfaces; try a few speed bumps, gravely sections and curbs. A really great bike can also give you a bit of a buzz, a completely subjective emotional quality that puts it above another for no real reason. If you still can't work out which one you prefer then do some research to find out which is more durable, has better parts, is cheaper or has another quality you are looking for.

Back: What Size Bicycle Do I Need?

Next: Guide to Buying a Bicycle

Photo Gallery

A solo bicycle rider on a country road
© istockphoto.com / Kileman
  • Trek bicycle demo event
  • Bicycle wheel, tire and air valve stem
  • Bicycle rider
  • Bell bicycle helmet

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