Buyer’s Guide for Choosing Road Bikes
“A guide to help you in choosing the right road bikes. Read it now!”
When the Tour de France begins, it will spur renewed interest in road biking, as it does every year, and some viewers will be inspired to give the sport a whirl and by a new bike. But maybe you shouldn’t wait that long – it’s already late spring and there is plenty of good riding weather in almost every corner of the country right now.
Caveat: the following is aimed at recreational riders looking to upgrade their existing bikes and newcomers to road cycling who might be buying for the first time. If you are already an avid road rider knowledgeable about all the brands, components, features and technology, you might as well stop right here. Ditto if you are shopping for a mountain bike – this is about road bikes.
Where to Buy? I heartily suggest starting with a visit to a good brick and mortar bike shop. Yes, you can probably buy the bike cheaper online, but the most important thing about your new bike is not going to be its specs, weight or components, or even its price, but rather its fit. Every manufacturer makes different shapes and frame geometries, and just like shoes from different brands fit differently, so do bikes. When my wife was shopping for a new road bike, we went to shop with a great reputation for fitting, and after analyzing her body, they steered her towards particular brands and away from others within the ones they carried. This is invaluable
Also, once you buy the bike, you will still likely need for it to be fitted to you, whether that means swapping stems to raise, lower or extend the handlebars so your back is comfortable, or making sure the cleat in your shoe is properly aligned with the pedal biomechanically – pedaling is a very repetitive motion and if your pedal stroke or alignment is slightly off, it can quickly lead to pain and injury. In addition every new bike has an initial break-in period during which the cables stretch and a retuning is needed. Most good bike shops throw this in, and if you consider the advantages, the small discount for buying online may not be a savings at all – and some assembly will definitely be required.
Titanium is very desirable – and very expensive. If you have deep pockets and appreciate craftsmanship, a handmade stock or custom titanium frame from a leading crafter such as Moots is sure to turn heads.
As a rule of thumb, shops that carry at least one of the primarily custom-made brands such as Seven, Serotta and Moots tend to have better trained fitters on staff, and this carries over into off the rack bikes. Alternatively, Specialized one of the nation’s largest bike manufacturers, has a program called “BodyGeometry,” with a subgroup of specially designated dealers who meet the standards. “They do a pre-visit assessment, ask about injuries, then get you on the bike, do all the measurements, watch your pedaling stroke, align your cleats and pedals, make sure your knees are moving properly,” said Katie Sue Gruener, a spokeswoman for Specialized Bicycles. “They adjust your handlebar height, width, stem length, whatever you need, check your body position and seat height, they may even videotape your pedaling. It’s a fine tuning process that gets your stock bike custom dialed in for your body.” The price varies by dealer but averages about $200 – and you don’t have to buy a Specialized bike to do it, you can bring in any brand. If it saves you back pain, neck pain, or numb hands, or simply makes your fitness regimen better by keeping you happier and in the saddle longer, you’ll quickly forget about the two hundred bucks. You can go to the online Specialized dealer locator and find stores that have a BodyGeometry Fit Center or the even higher Certified Master’s BodyGeometry Fit Technician.
Brand? Once you get beyond department store bikes and into “real” road bikes, the kind sold in actual bike shops, brand is not very important. Unlike car brands, which tend to stake out positions at the exotic performance spectrum (Ferrari, Maserati), the higher end of the market (Mercedes, BMW), lower end (Kia), or middle (Ford), and largely do not make any models at the other extremes, major bike companies tend to cover the entire spectrum from entry level to pro quality. Trek, Specialized and Giant all make true entry level bikes that sell for way under a thousand dollars, and they also make bikes raced in the Tour De France that can run into five figures. The three biggest US manufacturers, Specialized, Trek and Cannondale, also have huge product lines, but their biggest asset may be availability – you can get these bikes easily all over the country. Other high performance road bike brands such as Cervelo or BMC may be much harder to locate. Brands such as Fuji, Raleigh and Bianchi are in the middle, widely available abut certainly not in every shop you walk into. Giant is also in the middle of the pack in terms of availability in this country, but the Taiwanese company is generally considered the largest bicycle manufacture in the world, and this gives them enormous economies of scale, which in turn give them a very strong reputation for value even at the highest quality levels.
One advantage some of the larger manufacturers offer is that they own their own wheel brands. Wheels are arguably the most important part of the bike, and also the most expensive after the frame. Trek owns wheel maker Bontrager, Giant makes its own Giant branded wheels, and in both cases this allows them to package in quality wheels at prices lower than some competitors.
There are tons of niche brands in the industry, some of which are popular simply for their rarity or exclusivity. Then there is the entire world of custom made frames. I am a big fan of this, because when you go custom you get the perfect fit, versus off the rack alterations, just like with a bespoke suit. You also get a hand-built thing of beauty. However, custom is always more expensive, not just because the frame is made to order but also because you usually have to buy all the components separately, at much higher prices than the manufacturers do, and this adds a lot of cost. Think of it like a car: if you bought all the parts that went into a car individually at retail – much more than GM or Ford is paying for them – and tried to assemble the same car yourself, it would cost much, much more than simply buying the car already assembled. The same is true with bikes. On the other hand, if you have the money and don’t mind spending it, a custom made bike such as a Seven or Moots is art and craftsmanship you can ride that will elicit stares of envy from knowledgeable cyclists and will fit you perfectly. Many companies also sell premade frames separately for less than the cost of custom. This is a tricky way to go – you still pay the premium for parts but don’t get the custom fit, and I’d recommend this only to a serious cyclist who has a good reason for wanting a particular frame not available on a complete bike.
Frames: This will likely be your biggest buying decision. Yesterday I talked a lot about the style of frame, mainly the difference between a race frame and an endurance frame, one designed to keep recreational riders comfortable on long rides. It is important to note that this is more of a style than qualitative difference: it is easy to assume that race frames are better, but this is not necessarily true, and you can get into bikes in excess of $10,000 designed for road comfort or recreational riding.
After style (geometry) your main decision will be material. Currently carbon is generally considered the most desirable of the mass market options. For most of modern road cycling history steel was king, but it is getting virtually impossible to buy steel in a quality bike anymore. Almost all off the rack bikes will be aluminum, often with a carbon fiber fork, or “full” carbon fiber, meaning the frame and fork. Lightness is a holy grail of cycling, and the materials have evolved to the point where they are about the same weight. The main advantage of carbon is that it offers the rigidity needed to transfer power from you pedaling stroke efficiently, while also offering shock absorption properties that give it a smooth, supple feel and is more comfortable. Aluminum is also very stiff and efficient, but offers no shock absorption and instead, “You will feel every bump and piece of gravel,” said Eric Doyne, a bicycle industry marketing consultant whose clients include Giant bicycles and component giant and industry leader Shimano. The good news for aluminum is that it is cheaper, and like carbon fiber, offers the lightest available frames, but for less. For instance, Specialized, which makes full lines of both aluminum and carbon, charges $1,700 for the well-equipped aluminum (and carbon fork) Allez Race 105. The price jumps to $2,100 (almost 25%) for the Amira Sport Compact, their similar bike with a full carbon frame and nearly identical components, including wheels and shifters. Some riders prefer the responsiveness and tight steering of aluminum. According to charity Livestrong’s website, aluminum is a good choice for specialized riders seeking maximum power transmission, such as sprinters and in time trials and criterium races. “Aluminum frames are a good choice for riders on a tight budget who want optimal performance. Carbon frames are ideal for those seeking comfort on longer rides or those seeking optimal performance.”
One disadvantage of both materials is their fragility and fatigue over time. Aluminum is worse, with an expected lifespan of 5-10 years based on use. Carbon Fiber theoretically does not fatigue nearly as much, but is still a fragile and easily damaged material. I had a carbon fiber seat post fail and sheer off in the middle of a ride, which could have been fatal, and I know someone whose carbon handlebars snapped off when he stood and put pressure on them. “Both aluminum and carbon fiber are subject to catastrophic failure without warning,” said Mike McCormack, a Colorado-based bike race and event organizer who also does marketing for various bicycle industry brands.
The other notable option is titanium, which is as strong as steel and about half the weight, though still slightly heavier than aluminum or carbon fiber. There is no appreciable fatigue with titanium and unlike steel it does not rust, which is why most titanium bikes are unpainted. For these reasons it is a true “lifetime” material and you could theoretically keep you titanium frame forever. It is also expensive and difficult to work with, requiring special welding techniques, which makes it the choice of many top custom frame builders, but titanium is available on virtually no off the rack bikes. “Titanium has never lost its prestigious connotation,” said McCormack. “If you buy a Ti bike, it means you know something about bikes and aren’t swayed by the eye candy of the moment. It is still very viable, and companies like Moots are still selling tons of bikes.” Moots, based in Steamboat Springs, CO has been a national leader in titanium frames for 30 years, both high-performance road and mountain, and makes nothing but. Bikes by companies like Moots are aspirational, like Ferraris. All its frames are made by hand and offered in standard off the rack sizes, but Moots also offers a full custom alternative in every model for more precise fit. They sell through brick and mortar dealers who measure you and take orders, and they do not sell complete bikes, so you have to buy the frame and have your shop add the components. These bikes are very prized, highly desirable creations, but you pay for them: the least expensive Moots road frame with fork (but without components or wheels) runs about $3,500 and custom made versions are even more.
Lighter. better quality wheels arer the fastest, easiest performance upgrade you can make.
Components: While the major component manufacturers, Shimano, Campagnolo and SRAM, sell their parts in “groups” with nearly all the individual parts necessary to turn a frame into a complete bicycle, very few off the rack bikes use these complete groups. Since most consumers look at the derailleurs (shifters) first, most companies will put higher end derailleurs on and use cheaper parts where less visible. The good news is you really don’t have to worry about this unless you are a gear obsessed deep pocketed buyer. You don’t choose what car to buy based on who makes the air conditioning compressor, though the brand and model of tires or sound system might affect your decision. Once you spend over $1,200- $1,500 from a reputable manufacturer you are going to almost always get solid and reliable quality components, even if you have never heard of them.
Since Shimano is the biggest and most widely available brand, there is a good chance that whatever brand of bike you are looking at will have at least some Shimano parts, so think of their lines from the top down. DuraAce is the best, available with electronic or mechanical shifting (See Part 1) but generally only found on bikes north of $6,000. The next step down is Ultegra with electronic shifting, typically found on bikes from about $4,200-$6,000. A notable exception is the Giant Defy Composite O, one of the least expensive seriously high performance bikes on the market at an MSRP of $3,950 for full carbon frame, a complete Ultegra drivetrain with electronic shifting, and high performance wheels. Mechanical shifting Ultegra a still considered quite high end, and generally not on bikes below $2,000. The workhorse of Shimano’s line is the venerable 105 series, which manufacturers start to include parts of on bikes in the $12-1,500 range, while they use it more extensively on bikes from $1,500-$2,000 . Below that is Sora, found on entry level road bikes $900-$1,200. “The good news is that the best technology has trickled down and today’s 105 stuff is better than the top of the line DuraAce was just five years ago,” said McCormack. “There’s a lot of value in the 105 and Ultegra markets right now – you can get a Specialized Elite Roubaix Compact with full carbon frame, fork and 105 components for $2,500 and that’s a very good road bike.”
“To keep it simple, the two most important components to consider are the derailleurs and the wheels, because those are the things you feel,” said Doyne. “One of the best performance upgrades you can make is wheels. Anything that lowers the rotating mass, like lighter wheels, is something you will feel right away.” But you are better off just spending more at the beginning to buy a bike that comes with better quality wheels, because in the aftermarket they are pricey: Shimano’s Dura Ace C-35 wheels are a great piece of equipment, both lightweight and durable, and will instantly make all but the very highest performance bikes better, but just the two wheels cost $2,200.
Bottom Line? If you look at the road bike marketplace as a tradeoff between price and quality, the most bang for your buck is going to be right around $2,000, where you start to get the newest technologies and a very good bike for not too much money. After this, the prices continue to climb but the performance gains become more marginal, unless you are deadest on a specific feature such as a titanium or custom frame or electronic shifting, all of which you can make a legitimate argument for wanting.
“The sweet spot to get into a full carbon fiber frame bike that’s well equipped and ready to roll is about $1,800, with quality wheels and something like Shimano 105 parts,” said Doyne. “If you’re a person who wants the very best and can afford it, be prepared to spend $5,000 and up but you don’t need to spend a lot to get a great bike – once you get above $2,000 you start looking at incrementally better gains in components.” McCormack agrees: “You can get a great bike that is pretty high performance for $1500-$2,000, with an incredibly low frame weight. There has never been better value in the road bike market.” More at 2013 Bicycle Buyers Guide Part 2: Choosing A Road Bike
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