Bicycles have come a long way in the past 30 years. A large part of this change has come with the inclusion of carbon fiber frames into the market, which offer some of the most beautiful and creative designs that the cycling world has ever seen. But with that change and with the new technology, the price of bikes has also shifted towards the sky.
Bikes like the Colnago for Ferrari Di2, which costs a cool $16,700 and is every bit the bicycle version of a Formula One race car, can make your bike options look meager in comparison. Most buyers want a bike that looks fast-similar to a sports car, and end up settling on the frame design, color and appeal to the eye as the top priorities when purchasing a bike.
But is the bike you’re looking at really the right one for you? Are you getting the most bike for your money? Before you shell out $17,000 on that Colnago, here’s what you should consider the next time you’re thinking about buying a new road bike.
1. The Material of the Frame
When purchasing a new bike, there are four options when it comes to the material of the frame. Each material comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. Here are the most important factors to consider when determining which frame material might be right for you.
Most steel frames are known for being durable, comfortable and pretty inexpensive. The downside to steel is the weight. While high-end options might not be as heavy as you think, for the most part steel tubing sacrifices weight for comfort. Steel also rusts, which should be taken into consideration depending on where you live.
But if you’re in the market for a comfortable bike and like to do century or ultra racing, steel might be a good option to consider, as steel frames are extremely comfortable when riding long distances.
Remember Lance Armstrong in 1999? The buzz about his bike that year was that it wasn’t a Trek, but a Litespeed Titanium frame painted with Trek logos and decals. We all know Lance will take every advantage he can get, regardless of sponsorships.
Titanium frames offer perhaps the best blend of all of the benefits of the other three frame materials. Its weight is comparable to aluminum tubing and is just as comfortable as steel or carbon while being nearly indestructible in terms of durability. So why isn’t everyone riding titanium frames? In one word, it’s price. They are expensive to make because of the process used to produce them.
In the past these frames have also not been the most appealing to they eye, which is a significant knock for most consumers when shelling out $8,000 dollars and up on a bike that might not be that flashy red you were looking for. Then again if you paint it red, how is anyone supposed to know you splurged for a titanium frame?
In the 1990’s aluminum tubing was all the rage. But now with the invention of carbon fiber frames, aluminum has been put on the back burner. A large part of this has to do with the manufacturers carbon costs more money to make but also sells for a higher price tag, which results in higher profit margins. This means more carbon bikes in bike shops.
Aluminum frames are actually some of the lightest and stiffest on the market, which makes them a great fit for those who like to race. In 2006, many of the professional cyclists on team CSC choose to race on the Cervelo Soloist aluminum frame as opposed to the carbon version. Bobby Julich even said it was one of the best frames he’d ever ridden. If it’s good enough for the professionals, it should be good enough for you, not to mention that the price savings compared to carbon may win you points with your spouse.
The knock on aluminum is comfort, though the higher end tubing has become significantly more shock absorbing that its predecessors in the 90’s. While the material can’t be formed and molded as easily as carbon, it is still an excellent option for racers and time trialists looking for a stiff and responsive ride that won’t rust or crack easily during a spill. If you’re looking for aero everything, then aluminum probably isn’t for you.
Carbon-fiber bike frames have a lot of good qualities going for them. For the most part they are pretty durable, offer a comfortable ride and are plenty light. The biggest advantage to carbon fiber though comes in the process of production. Because of the material, these frames can be molded and transformed to fit nearly any shape, which can be a huge benefit for someone looking for an aerodynamic triathlon bike or any of those Ferrari-like shapes offered by Colnago.
But like titanium, carbon fiber frames cost more to make. Some companies will skimp on the type of carbon used, opting for a cheaper material to lower the price point, which can be a dangerous gamble during construction and can result in an inferior product. If you are in the market for a carbon frame, make sure the frame is high modulus, which is a key indicator that you’re getting a quality product.
So don’t be fooled by the carbon-frame – the price may not be worth the product depending on what kind of riding you’ll be doing. For those of you who don’t have a limit on price when it comes to your bike, carbon might just be the answer for a well rounded frame that is light, comfortable and responsive enough for serious racing.
Other than your legs, this is your bikes engine. Don’t buy an expensive frame and go cheap on the components. It just isn’t smart. While I’m sure there are others, here are the major three drive train systems for road bikes.
Campagnolo: Athena, Chorus, Record, Super Record
Shimano: Tiagra, 105, Ultegra, Dura Ace
SRAM: Apex, Rival, Force, Red
Which drivetrain you choose will likely come down to preference, though most prebuilt bike’s in shops will have already chosen a drivetrain for you to make the price more appealing to customer who don’t know what they’re paying for. If you don’t like a particular drivetrain, ask if you can swap it out and pay the price difference (if it’s more expensive). Some bike shops may even give a discount.
When deciding between the different levels of componentry, there are several factors to consider. As far as price is concerned, the list above goes from cheapest to most expensive (for Campagnolo, Athena costs the least and Super Record costs the most, etc.). Which level you choose will likely be based on what you can afford, while which brand you buy usually depending on personal preference, as the shifting especially can vary quite drastically between the different options (Campagnolo, for example, uses thumb triggers for down-shifting as opposed to levers).
A common mistake is to go on the low end for componentry and buy the best frame you can afford. Avoid this. While you may not want to go on the high end of the spectrum and shell out what it takes to buy Super Record, Dura Ace or Red unless you’ve got the money or are a serious racer, it is important to get the best you can afford by finding a good balance between quality frame and components.
Also keep in mind that high-end drivetrains are usually expensive because of the materials used to save the most weight. But we’re talking grams here. The second- or third-tier options are usually nearly as good functionally as the most expensive option and sometimes more durable. If you only intend to commute or do some touring, the low end of the spectrum should be sufficient.
The wheels are what really drives the price of a bike up. But they are also what make the biggest difference when upgrading the quality of your ride. A lot of bikes are sold with wheels that are either made by the same manufacturer or are a partner of the manufacturer of the bike frame. This helps to drive the overall price down, but can sometimes sacrifice the quality of what you’re getting. Good wheels will make a bike faster because of the rotational weight, which is much more complicated than looking at the weight savings of a particular bike frame.
If a bike has a wheel set that you don’t intend to use or isn’t exactly what you’re looking for, ask the bike shop if you can swap them out or upgrade. Chances are they have the faster wheels hanging from the ceiling. What type of wheel you choose is again based on preference and what activity you’ll be doing. You’ll want light wheels if you are doing a lot of climbing, aerodynamic deep-sectioned rims if you’re time trialing, or a heavier, sturdy wheel if you’ll be using it primarily for training.
Choosing a better wheel than the stock variety usually means that the bearings inside the wheel hubs will be smoother (better rolling resistance) and improve aerodynamics, which is important since what a cyclists is fighting most often is the wind and the road.
4. Bike Fit
You’ll never know if a bike truly fits you until you spend time riding on it. If you’re in the market for a road bike, schedule a time with the bike shop when they’ll be available to let you test out a few different bikes. And I don’t mean in the parking lot.
Bring your bike gear and take each bike you’re considering on a real test ride similar to what you’ll be using it for. Chances are that after you put in real miles up real hills on real roads, you’ll notice one or two bikes will fit you better than the rest. This should be one of your top criteria when choosing a bike, not the color. An ill-fitting bike is a bike that won’t be ridden, and that totals to a lot of wasted money regardless of how cool it looks.
For fine-tuning the fitting of a bike, the bike shop should be able to help you out with the following:
Correct crank length
Making sure you have a bike with the correct size head tube (taller head tubes if your major criteria is comfort, shorter head tube for lower racing profile)
Length of stem
Saddle height, fore and aft positions
Width of handlebars (in line with the width of you shoulders) and ergonomics of the drops
There are literally a million other things to consider when buying a new road bike, these are just a few tips to consider to help you think about what really is the best bike for you.