If you want to buy a bike but don’t know where to start, or need repairs for a bike you have already, Puget Sound Consumers’ Checkbook’s ratings of area bike shops can help.

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CONSUMERS’ CHECKBOOK

OK, maybe you’re not ready for the Tour de France, but just about anyone with a sense of balance can enjoy a bike ride. Cycling provides a good workout, at your own pace, with relatively little risk of damage to bones, joints or muscles — while letting you see the sights.

If you want to buy a bike but don’t know where to start, or need repairs for a bike you already own, Puget Sound Consumers’ Checkbook’s ratings of area bike shops will help you track down shops that can make things easy. For the next month, Checkbook is offering free access to its ratings of area bike shops to Seattle Times readers via this link: Checkbook.org/seattletimes/bike-shops.

Most bike models can be roughly classified into several categories — mountain bikes, road bikes, city bikes, touring bikes and cruisers. So they will have something to offer anyone, bike manufacturers often mix and match characteristics of several types to create new models. The result is a seemingly endless array of rides.

To narrow your choices, think about what you expect to do with your bike. Will you run errands, commute, work out, compete? How often will you ride? Every day, weekends only, hardly ever? What kind of surface will you ride on? Smooth roads, potholed city streets, off-road trails? How hilly will the terrain be? Do you care how fast you can go? In general, the more you plan to ride and compete, the more the bike will cost.

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Checkbook’s ratings of local shops will help you make a good choice, and you can do your own checks. Good shops will take the time to fit you carefully — checking factors like frame height, the angle of your legs when peddling, reach to the handlebars, and handlebar width.

The most important factor in choosing a bike is simply how it feels when you ride it. Don’t purchase a bike until you’ve taken test rides on several. For each bike you test, have the store’s salesperson fit you properly. Then observe carefully the smoothness of the ride, the bike’s responsiveness, how comfortable your body feels, the bike’s stability, and how easy it is to control, shift and brake. Tell the salespeople what you like and dislike, and let them make adjustments or suggest another bike that may suit you better.

Test several bikes in a wide price range. You may find that you can get a thoroughly satisfactory bike for much less than you expected.

When you’re ready to buy, make sure the store will do a high-quality job of assembling your bike. Retailers are responsible for final assembly and adjustment. When bikes arrive from the factory, some components are not yet attached and others are just that — attached. If shop mechanics do no more than slap on the remaining parts, the bike won’t work: Brake pads might not contact rims, for example, and you might not be able to shift into all the gears.

Any shop will assemble and adjust the bike so you can ride out using all the gears; that typically takes about 45 minutes. But a great shop will do much more — possibly spending two to four hours on assembly.

Almost all bike shops offer a period of free adjustments after sales. Many offer free adjustments for the life of the bicycle, while others limit them to one year, six months or less.

You’ll want to shop around for price, but it probably won’t take long: Checkbook found that manufacturers have managed to greatly limit price competition for new bikes. Even a $25 difference for major name brands is rare.

On the other hand, the market for bike components and accessories — ranging from handlebars to clothing to car-top carriers — is less stringent, with some stores charging half as much as their competition for a particular item. You’ll find even lower prices for accessories online.

Checkbook’s undercover shoppers also found very large price differences for bike repairs. For example, to replace the derailleurs on a 2011 Scott CR1 Elite road bike, shops quoted prices ranging from $109 to $218.