Bikes are the epitome of get-out-of-the-house freewheeling fun

Bikes are the epitome of get-out-of-the-house freewheeling fun during May, National Biking Month, and throughout the rest of the year: Cyclists in Northeast Mississippi are already gearing up for the Oleput Criterium on June 1. Worldwide, enthusiasts expect the sensationally popular mountain bike (the ones with those enormously nubby tires) to take an even bigger slice of the market after their upcoming debut in this year’s Olympics.

Novices can justifiably admit to a little confusion. Why is there all this hoorah about plain old biking?

Pick a reason, any reason:

Buying a bike today is more than just picking out the red or blue one down at the corner Five-and-Dime Shop. Options are wider, from trail-hugging mountain bikes to road-loving speed monsters, and prices are just as staggering. (Did you ever think a $400 bike would be considered “mid-range”? It is, when compared to some of the $800, $1,500 and $2,300 higher-end bikes being sold … even in Tupelo.) The prices do come with some consolation, such as a more nimble frame geometry, lighter weight and crisper gear shifting, to name a few pluses.

Accessories include computerized heart monitors that beep when you go too slow or warn you to cool it when you are pedaling just a little too hard. Water bottles have migrated from simple bottles mounted on the bike frame to backpack-style contraptions with clip-on drinking tubes. It’s a whole new world for bikers.

Riding is even more of a blast with cyclists streaming down the Natchez Trace or whooping for joy along rutted, muddy trails roofed with low-slung, body-slapping branches. Previous generations may have enjoyed around-the-block jaunts for general health and for cementing good neighborhood friendships, but today’s cyclists know the fun of hitting the road … and hitting the trails.

Why not join them?

Time to get educated

Bicycles vary in subtle and obvious ways, but here are the highlights:

Styles: A mountain bike has nubby, fatter tires that ride easier and provide more stability, and they grip the trail best for off-road riding. Gearing is much lower than on other bikes, making climbing easier, and the comfortable seating is more upright. The bike has a reputation for greater durability, and the more upright seating is a comfortable change from the hunched-over posture of road bikes. This is the runaway popular choice in the biking market right now.

Stephen Valliant, a bike mechanic at Base Camp in Oxford, compares a mid-priced mountain bike to a versatile Jeep: Both can be used for commuting or off-road fun, and they’re comfortable rides.

Commuter bikes and urban mountain bikes do differ, but both are modified mountain bike versions made for mostly on-road use and occasional extremely light trail riding. The stem that holds the handlebar is a little higher on urban mountain bikes and the bike frame isn’t quite as long, putting less strain on the lower back than with regular mountain bikes, Valliant said.

A hybrid, or cross-category bike, goes faster than a mountain bike but is built better for commuting, and it’s more comfortable than a road bike.

Road bikes are streamlined models with narrow, slick tires, a more aerodynamic, hunched-over seating posture and low, curvy handlebars. They are tailor-made for speed, not necessarily comfort for the novice rider.

Touring bikes are heavier than road bikes, but they have bigger wheels and thinner tires than mountain bikes have. These typically have a steel frame, except for the most expensive versions. Some come with racks and fenders.

Brian Piazza, owner of Bicycle Pacelines in Tupelo, said, “If you’re not going to race, you don’t need a road bike.”

Frames: Frames go up in cost as they go down in weight. These range from the heaviest and cheapest metals to the lightest, strongest and most expensive metals used: High-tensile steel; CroMoly blend (a construction that employs both chromium-molybdenum and high-tensile steel); CroMoly (all); aluminum, composites (such as carbon fiber); and titanium.

Gears: The standard for mountain bikes is 21 gears; higher-end racing bikes may have as many as 27. Road bikes tend to have 16 gears standard, with higher-end bikes going up to 24 speeds.

Friends don’t let friends ride junk

Bike shop owners explain the higher prices of today’s equipment by listing the top engineered benefits: Speed and performance.

The more expensive bikes are made of stronger and lighter metals. The strength lends a hand when bikes take off-road battering on trails, and the lighter weight means fewer pounds the cyclist will have to pedal. The difference can be as much as 8 to 10 pounds, including the differences made by lighter frame and components, Piazza said.

The cheaper bikes also use straight-gauge tubing, a heavier option. The higher-end bikes tend to have frame tubing that’s thicker at the joints for strength and thinner in the middle of the tube to shave additional weight off the frame.

Weight should not be your primary concern in mid-level bikes, Valliant said. The level of the components should be your focus. He recommonds the Shimano component brand as one of the most reliable ones available.

The components packages (such as brakes, shifters, drive train, wheels, etc.) also improve with the bikes’ higher costs. Piazza said, “As price increases, the quality gets better and weight gets less, and the way all the moving parts work gets better. Shifting is much better, crisper and smoother on the higher-end to the lower-end bikes.”

Prices for quality custom-fitted equipment range from $200 to $400 for low-end bikes, $400 to $800 for mid-range bikes and “the sky’s the limit” for high-end versions. Some deluxe full-suspension models range up to $4,000 and even higher. (These are the production bikes; the custom-made jobs are even more.)

Most of the bikes sell in the $300 to $500 range, several Tupelo and Oxford bike shop owners said.

In general, a high-end mountain bicycle with suspension forks should start around $1,100 to $1,200, Valliant said.

Some of the more expensive mid-level mountain bikes (around $680) do come with a suspension, but beware: Valliant said other bike features may be of a cheaper quality because of this expensive addition to the bike’s overall price.

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