Join Date: Jun 2011
Location: Tampa, Florida
Bikes: 2012 Colnago Ace road bike, 2010 Giant Cypress hybrid
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I always get asked that question at work from co-workers looking to buy a used bike for themselves or their spouse. My suggestion to them is to go to any local bike shop and have them suggest what size bike would be best for you. See if they will let you test ride it so you can see if the bike size actually fits you. If it does, you now know what size you are looking for when you start to shop around. The most important part of buying a bike, new or used, is the fit. If the bike is too big or too small, you will end up not wanting to ride it because it will be very uncomfortable. Look at your local Craig's List and see what is available. Also visit some bike shops because there are some that will have used bikes for sale and go from there.
As for brand names, tromper mentioned some of the more popular bikes and that will give you a starting point. You may have to settle for a men's bike because the better bike manufacturer's, for whatever reason, don't seem to make too many woman's models. Like others have suggested, I would also suggest a hybrid over a mountain bike if you are going to ride to school and do some group/club rides. For me, they are more comfortable and you will get a bit more speed out of them, as well. Good luck on your search and I hope that you keep on riding after you find the bike you want.
HCFR Cycling Team
Ride Safe ... Ride Hard ... Ride Daily
2012 Colnago Ace
2010 Giant Cypress