Today's bikes are faster, lighter and have many more options than bikes of even a decade ago. Unless you have the technical knowledge and know exactly what you're looking for, this is a case where an established bicycle specialty store has the advantage over buying online or from retailers that sell a wide variety of unrelated products.
Neil Wechsler opened Montlake Bicycle Shop in Seattle 30 years ago and says one common mistake novice buyers make is getting a bike that doesn't suit their intended purpose. He says while style and color are important, the key is to look for a bike that fits. That means a lot more than making sure the seat is the right height -- especially for kids.
"The seat height alone is not everything," said Wechsler. "Because you need to pay attention to is it a comfortable reach for them from the seat to the handle bars? If they're too stretched out, then they will be in less control of the bike."
It's also important to know what kind of riding the child will do. Will they simply be riding on flat surfaces around the neighborhood, or on longer rides with the entire family? Knowing how the bike will be used will help you avoid buying more or less bike than you need. The big trend in bikes for young kids in the 3- to 6- year-old range, is something called a balance bike.
"Where there's no pedals and there's no propulsion, other than just kicking off with your feet on the ground. The seat would be low to the ground," said Wechsler, demonstrating how the balance bikes work.
No pedals means the child uses leg power to get around and naturally learns to balance on two wheels.
When it comes to adult bikes, Wechsler says don't get hung up on the number of gears -- a critical factor in hilly conditions.
"It's not important how many gears there are," he said. "What's important is the low gear low enough for their needs? Is the high gear high enough for their needs?"
That's an important distinction many bike buyers overlook. Other common oversights: tire thickness, in case you want to add accessories, such as a rear luggage rack or fenders that need to fit between the tire and the bike frame.
"A lot of people want fenders on there if they're riding year round. But most of the light weight road bikes don't have any space in there, so there's not enough space to put it," Wechsler explained.
If it's been a while since you've been bike shopping, talk to someone knowledgeable about what you need before you plunk down the cash. Also just make sure you can return the bike later, so the recipient can make any adjustments or changes.
Many bike shops go the extra mile to make sure the bike you end up with is the right bike for your purpose. It can mean the difference between getting a bike that just looks good and a bike that gives you years of service and enjoyment.