Your First Road Bike: A Guide

I’ve got no less than three people asking me about bicycles to buy. Here’s quick list for Peter, Tim and Brad. First, here are the information sources to look at in order of importance:

# “Road Bike Reviews”:http://roadbikereview.com. This is a site that doesn’t seem to have become polluted with biased reviews like C|Net. I usually look at the bicycles by most reviews and then scroll through the ones with ratings of 4.5 or higher and have 10 reviews or so.
# “Bicycling Magazine”:http://bicycling.com/gear/reviews/1,5070,361-41—-1,00.html?category_id=361&article_type_id=&family_id=41. They don’t tend to do many reviews, but it is the biggest publication, so interesting to look at and compare with Road Bike Reviews. In fact most of the bicycling magazine don’t really review road bikes. Lots of mountain bike reviews though.

h4. Decisions to Make

There are a couple of key decisions to make. I’ll divide it into a couple of steps that will tell you how much to spend, what class of bicycle to buy, what frame material and what component level.

# How committed are you to the sport? $1,000 gets you a decent bike, $2,000 gets you a very nice one and $3,000-4,000 is ultra nice. I would say the sweet spot in terms of value for dollar is in the $2,000 range right now.
# What kind of riding are you going to do? Three choices here are: a) all out day racing so you want the lightest thing possible, b) a general purpose bicycle that can do a little of everything and c) something that is going to be comfortable and not fast, but general purpose.
# Where should you get fitted? A not very good bike that fits is going to be much better than an ultra-deluxe model that doesn’t. So, how do you get a great fit. The best option is to find a dedicated fellow who does fitting. John over here in Seattle does that. It is expensive. $150 or so, but worth it. He’ll leave you with the set of bikes that will work for you and consult with. An alternative is to go to a local bicycle shop (see below). Way too much to go into hear, but the key measurements are the top tube distance (determines how stretched out you are) and the standover (determines if it really hurts if you stop quickly and the top tube hits you-know-where).
# Where should you buy? Most folks should go to a reputable local bike shop that knows what they are doing. Here in Seattle there are quite a few, the best ones I know are Gregg’s Bellevue Cycle, Montlake Cycle (the original one in Montlake). I’ve also heard good things about TiCycles. ebay if you are roll-your-own kind of guy (ebay buying will typically get you 30-50% off compared to a brand-new bicycle but caveat emptor).
# When should I buy? The best time is right now in the fall. The new model year (2004) are coming in and most local bike shops are discounting 15-30% off of list to move out the 2003 models. Particularly for road bikes, things don’t change that much from year-to-year. So a last year model is a great thing.
# What particular frame material should I buy? This is a topic of endless debate. There are steel, titanium, carbon fiber and aluminum as the major flavors. I’ve pretty much tried them all and it is a matter of taste and how well the bike fits overall for me. The conventional wisdom is that steel is heavier but more comfortable and easy to repair (it gives more), titanium is has the steel ride but is lighter and very expensive, aluminum is the harshest riding but great if you are a heavy and it is inexpensive and finally carbon fiber tends to be the lightest but is expensive and feels deader. Try and see what you like, but generally, the big guys seem to get aluminum, if you are average then I see carbon fiber (because hey Lance uses it) and titanium if you’ve got the cash. There is quite a bit of fashion in frame materials. The latest trend for instance is titanium or aluminum with carbon seat stays. So you get the stiff aluminum and the compliance of carbon. I haven’t tried this exotica yet myself. Other trend is to a sloping top tube which is slightly lighter (like 2 ounces), but looks cool and more importantly from a bike manufacturer POV means you can make fewer sizes since standover height is less important.
# What level of components work for me? Besides the frame, the other important thing are what is the component level. Most folks will be getting Shimano components (they are the leader in the various bits and bobs you put on a bicycle like the shifters, gears, etc.). The main decision is whether to go Dura-Ace (best), Ultegra (better) or 105 (good). As with most things, Ultegra, the middle, is the best price-performance. For those who like exotica and impressing their SOs, you can also go to Campagnolo. They have a huge line, but the basic choice is Record (more expensive that Dura-Ace and there are endless debates about how good it is) and Chorus. Think of this choice as picking between Toyota and Ferrari. This is pretty much tied to the first question on what you want to spend. 105 equipped bikes are the $1K range usually, Ultegra are $2K and Dura-Ace $3K+. Second decision is whether to get two or three rings in the front. Two means a total of 18 gears (2 in front and 9 in back) while three means 27. If you are old and fat like me, get the additional gears, it makes a difference on those big hills because biking is a sport where you don’t want to “blow up”. Just 5 minutes of burning agony are the equivalent of 5 hours of easy riding.
# What about wheels and things? Most folks can use the standard set of wheels, but if you are a big person. Say in the 200 pound range, then you need to beef things up. That means much stronger wheels (ask for 3-cross, 32 or 36-hole, your bike guy will know what that means).

OK, so those are the main things. You should know have an idea of price range, type of bicycle, where you are going to get fitted and when and where you will buy it. Now let’s go virtual shopping for models.

h4. Things you must do (but won’t and regret it)

Here are some of the things that you won’t want to buy, but which will completely change your life if you take up riding in order of importance:

# Castelli Progetto Y2K Bib Shorts. These are outrageously expensive listing at $150 (although ebay has them for $120 many times). So, why spend 10% of the total budget on a *clothing*? Well, believe me when you put them on, it will make riding 50 miles seem like going 5. I know you won’t believe me, but it is true. This is one area where if you want to love the sport, spend the money. Really. BTW, bib shorts mean that they are shorts, but have these fishnet suspenders. They are the most comfortable because you don’t have a elastic thing crushing you when you are riding. Look dorky, but work great. Get a good wicking undershirt too while you are at it since the suspenders go over delicate parts of the anatomy (Defeet Undershurts are really great for that).
# Clipless pedals and shoes. You gain 30% more power by using these special clips. They really are easy to learn to use and make you more efficient. For folks starting out, the Speedplay Frog pedals with Sidi Dominator shoes seem like good price/performance.
# Brightest lights you can afford. The fact of life is that you are out there with folks driving 5,000 lb SUVs with one hand on their cell phone and the other holding their latte. The only real defense is being blindingly obvious (beside riding defensively). Ideally, you want a headlight on your helmet that would blind a driver in broad daylight. People don’t drive into something they can’t see and having it on your head makes it easy to point. Best lights in the business are the Light & Motion Cabeza HID for example. Heavy, but worth it.

h4. Pure road bikes

To start the analysis, I took the “top rated”:http://roadbikereview.com/2002,Road,Bike/ASRcrx.aspx?CategoryID=4229&CategoryID=4338&PriceMin=&PriceMax=&MinNumReviews=10&MinRating=4.5&Index=0&SortField=1&SortFieldOrder=1 road bike from roadbikereview.com for the 2002 and 2003 and looked at those with at least 9 reviews and scoring 4.5 and above. Think of this as the elite mainstream list that roughly reflects popularity of geeks who ride. Here’s an analysis of these bikes by their product family. Most models are really just changes in components, so lets look at the super families that seem popular on roadbike review in order of number of reviews:

* “Trek 5200, 5500, 5900 Family”:http://trekbikes.com . These are the carbon fiber bicycles that Lance Armstrong rides made by the #1 bicycle manufacturer in the world. It is super popular (it probably has more reviews online than all the other bicycles combined 🙂 The 5200 is the Ultegra equipped version and 5500 is Dura-Ace, while the 5900 is the exotic ultralight and ultra-expensive model. All come in either double and triple in the front. Main issue are limited sizes so folks end up in between on sizes and the fit suffers. Also if you are a big guy, then look elsewhere since these are not super stiff. Best value is the Trek 5200D which is Ultegra with 3 rings in the front. Street prices are about $2,500. On ebay, there are lots of these and the good news is that this model hasn’t changed much in 3-4 years.
* “Giant TCR Composite”:http:// . Giant is the #2 maker of bicycles in the world after Trek (and its many sub-brands) and is a low cost leader. They have a whole family of carbon fiber bicycles. The top end is the TCR Composite Team and the Composite 0 are major lust bicycles are much higher end.
* “LeMond Victoire” . This is LeMond (made by Trek) titanium frame. I haven’t tried it, but glowing reviews. It is titanium which is incredibly durable. Also consider the “LeMond Zurich”: and there is the lower end “LeMond Buenos Aires”: . A buddy has this bicycle. A middle of the road one. Quite a bit heavier, but much less expensive in the $1,200 range.
* “Specialized Allez E5 Elite”: . Don’t know much about the specialized bicycle line. The others ones are the E5 Comp that is the same frame, but less expensive components
* “Litespeed Arenberg”: . Litespeed is the largest maker of titanium bicycles. Gregg’s carries them. This is their middle of the road bicycle. I’ve ridden them and they are really just like riding steel but lighter and stiffer. Also well like is the Hyperion. This is a titanium frame with a carbon seat stay. Supposed to add comfort beside being ultra cool. Siena is another model in the line.
* “Cannondale R1000”; . My buddy Dave Malcolm has a higher end Cannondale, an R5000 I believe. This is a very strong bike. Made of aluminum. Great for big guys. Really beautiful frame. Cannondale went into bankruptcy last year because of their motorcycle division, but they don’t seem to be stopping on the bicycle front.

Other bicycles to consider that are off the mainstream. These rate highly, but I haven’t seen them around much here:

* “Look KG 361″: . I’ve not seen this bicycle around except at recycled cycles in Seattle and don’t know much about it. Very highly rated. Also the KG 381i is also highly rated.
” “Merlin Agilis and Extralight”: . These are also custom bicycles and supposed to be a dream to ride.
* “Seven Cycles Axiom and Odonata”: The completely custom made dream. If you really need a fully custom bicycle then this is the one. The best dealer is also the guy who does incredible bike fitting.
* “Eddy Merckx Team SC”. Don’t know much about this one.
* “Airborne Zeppelin”: Airborne is a mail order vendor, but Montlake Bicycles carries them now. This is their top of the line titanium frame. Pretty costly at $3K. Airborne is a mail order vendor. Recently repurchased by the original owners from Huffy (thank goodness), they now also distribute in shops (Montlake carries them in Seattle). Supposed to be good low-cost titanium bicycles. I’ve not ridden this “Valkyrie”:http://www.airborne.net/eready/janette/store/vkbike.asp, but it is reasonably priced at $900 for the frame. A built up bicycle is $2,200 with Shimano Ultegra. Very cool web site BTW, let’s you pick and choose just about everything.

h4. Touring bicycles

This class of bicycles aren’t going to go as fast as the bicycles above. They are meant more for touring for a day and can carry a pack. The ones above are best for a day out and about where you don’t need much stuff. These are more upright and comfortable, but go a slower. It’s my bias, but I find that touring bicycles are 1-2 mph slower. Doesn’t sound like much until you realize that after a 30 mile ride, you are going to be a mile or so behind the other guy.

h4. Hybrid or comfort bicycles

These bicycles are closer to mountain bicycles and are quite upright. They are best for the casual rider I’ve found. Not someone who wants to go fast, but someone who wants to have a good hour or so riding. These are also called urban bicycles. They tend to have mountain bike handlebars and also some of the top end ones have disc brakes. These are good in the rain. If I worked in a bicycle shop, I’d sell these all day long to the people just getting into cycling who don’t want to be intimidated by the whole thing.

One Reply to “Your First Road Bike: A Guide”

  1. very good basic review. From now on, i’ll forward this to buddies who ask me about what to purchase for a first road bike.
    Lack of pictures.
    These are your impressions on some models (which is ok) but i’d like to see hard facts on those models. That way, I could compare more easily.(european road bike magazine do that((like Top-Velo and VELO-PASSION)).

    But this again, very good insights on what’s important

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