It must be summer because everyone’s asking for bike advice

Addendum 2016-02-23

Here the truest advice I have on this subject:


So I compiled all the advice I’ve dished out in the last few springs into a handy blog post.

Prologue: Yes, that bike is actually worth $3000

Bikes cost what they do because of a three- or four-way tradeoff. Performance (i.e. efficiency), weight, durability, and cost. Weight is always the most expensive variable to affect, and durability is usually heavy. More money buys “more” bike but returns diminish nonlinearly. So on the low end, doubling the price returns better than twice the value. But at the high end, doubling the price returns maybe a fractional increase in value. How/where you make that tradeoff is personal.

The Internet has kicked the bottom out of the bike market, same as electronics. So it’s not like you’re spending $2000 on a bike and the retailer is pocketing 50%. In fact complete bikes are practically a loss leader for local shops, the margin is really on stuff like water bottles and t-shirts.

With that in mind, advice:

First, choose a shop

You can’t fix a bike over the Internet. And bikes need a little love every 300 to 1000 miles. So either you’ll need to learn how to fix and maintain your bike yourself, or someone else will have to fix it for you. Regardless, you’ll be walking into a bike shop: either to ask for advice, or with a busted bike over your shoulder.

But what makes a good shop?

  • They don’t make you feel stupid or cheap
  • They won’t steer you away from a bike/accessory/component you really love (example: if you weight 300lbs but really want a carbon fiber time trial bike, a good shop will really work with you to get you on a bike you love, instead of just steering you toward beach cruisers or something.)
  • They’ll spend a lot of time with you while you try out bikes. This includes letting you test ride a dozen bikes in rainy weather over several weeks.

For best results, try out bike shops at slow-business hours (generally: late mornings on weekdays, especially in rainy weather.) Even at an excellent shop, service might suffer on a warm Sunday in May. But the way the staff treats you when they outnumber you: that’s a good sign of how much they actually care. If they’re too cool for school, they probably don’t need your money anyway.

Make sure you like the color

This seems really trivial but buying a bike should be exciting, and you should feel awesome being seen with it. If your bike doesn’t excite you, you won’t ride it.

Consider getting a pro fit

This will usually cost $40-100. Some shops may discount this amount from the price of a new bike, and most will recommend you replace certain items (like saddle or handlebars). Dollar for dollar, this will make more difference to your ride than brand or component specs.

On fit, as a rule “comfortable to ride 1 mile” means “hell to ride 20 miles” and vice versa. Sitting bolt upright (as on a mountain bike or Amsterdam cruiser) means putting a lot of pressure on your lower back and nether parts. More aggressive positions will enable longer mileage but require more upper back and arm strength. This was a big adjustment for me when I went from mountain bikes to road bikes.

Steel vs. aluminum vs. carbon fiber vs. titanium

<sigh>. Buy whatever feels best when you ride it. It matters less than you think. This is why there are so many kinds of bike materials: because there’s no clear winner.

A rusty steel bike can be repainted for about $200 at a pro shop. A fine steel bike is as light as aluminum and close to titanium. A cheap steel bike will outlive you. The much-maligned ride “quality” of aluminum will be scarcely noticeable to novice riders. Aluminum is an awesome value. Titanium bikes won’t rust but they’ll bend just like steel, and may be expensive to repair. You can’t repair an aluminum frame at all, but you might be able to repair carbon fiber. You have to be a badass hardcore rider to crunch any frame.

Most frames are all made in the same place

These days most bike frames are made in the same handful of fabs in Taiwan and China, including fancy “premium” brands — and there are only a few large bike companies anyway. Unless you buy a custom bike, in 2012 brands are pretty much interchangeable.

Of course, the design varies, some brands invest more energy in design than others, and you should feel cool riding your bike. But asking if Brand X is “any good” is kind of a moot point. Every bike manufacturer tweaks its offerings to maximize value at every price point. The margins for everyone — brands, builders, and retailers — are razor thin. No one is “ripping you off.” You’re pretty much getting what you pay for.

Would you feel cool on a Brand X bike? If not, don’t buy it.

See also these very interesting articles about bicycle manufacturing:

Buy as much bike as you can afford, because you probably won’t upgrade your components

A lot of people — I am one of them — try to buy a “good frame,” reasoning that we’ll just “upgrade” to better components down the line. My experience is, upgrades are tricky and expensive, and return poor value compared to just buying as much bike as you possibly can at the moment you buy it. If your budget is [x], don’t spend [x - y] thinking you’ll be able to spend [y] in a year or two and get a bike worth [x]. It will probably be worth less than that.

I kind of applied this logic (buy a “good” frame first, and upgrade later) when I bought my previous cross/commuter in 2007. Immediately it was not a satisfactory bike because I made too many compromises on the components and wheels. In the intervening five years I basically bought that bike two or three times over replacing bad parts. And the whole time it wasn’t quite right. I wound up stripping it and selling the frame bare, now ironically all I have left of that bike is a bucket of misfit parts.

You probably care about the wrong components.

In 2012, shifters, derailleurs, and brakes all work acceptably good from the mid-range price point on up. Don’t blame your Tiagra shifters for your lousy triathlon times. Of course, the 105s will perform “better” but will they be 50% better? 200% better? But where do most shoppers concentrate most of their attention? On the brakes/shifters/derailleurs — exactly the place where whatever you get will probably be good enough.

Contact points (handlebars, stem, pedals, saddle, tires) probably rate the second tier of your attention. I’m noticing more bikes with things like Brooks saddles and Ritchey bars. This is a good trend. Also: these parts are relatively easy to swap out, if in a year or two you become dissatisfied.

But every bike manufacturer makes tradeoffs for off-the-shelf bikes. They know you’re looking at brakes/shifters/derailleurs and handlebars/stem/saddle, so where do they make compromises? everywhere else. In particular, most buyers aren’t looking at the spinny parts down near the ground, like hubs, bottom brackets, and headsets.

Unless your bike was loudly marketed with brand-name parts in those areas (e.g. Shimano, Phil Wood, Chris King), you’re most likely getting generic Taiwanese or Chinese parts, or a house brand (like Cane Creek or Bontrager). These parts are probably OK, but none of them are awesome. Regardless of how much you paid for them, these parts get a lot of wear and they all have lots of bearings. They will probably be the first parts you replace when they go dry and start grinding. When you see how much a really nice headset costs, you’ll realize why your $2000 bike had a $20 headset.

The wheelset is the most expensive part of the most expensive bikes

This is like a corollary to the thing above about hubs. Elite racers obsess over wheels. No one else does. Half the value of a $5000+ bike might be in the hoops.

Don’t cheap out on accessories

For years I spent big on bikes and skimped on jerseys, helmets, shoes, pedals, tools, etc. (OK, I still do this.) On a seven-hour-bike ride, you’ll adapt to your $1000 bike. It’s your $50 shoes that will give you blisters. (And those shoes only lasted one season anyway).

Last word: buy used, or build your own.

This feels like a new blog post.