It’s easy to get fooled into buying the wrong bike these days. Product literature expounds on the company’s proprietary hub bearings that offer a .02 percent decrease in friction. You pore over catalogs comparing Company A’s offering at $800 versus Company B’s offering at $850. Company A’s is cheaper, but Company B gives you a seatpost that’s 20 grams lighter for your extra dough. It’s hard to sort out what really matters and what doesn’t, but with the following primer, you’ll be able to sort the meat from the marketing and go home with a bike that delivers the performance you need, where you need it.
These are the parts that matter on a bike. Here’s where you want to see what’s called an “upspec.” That’s where a manufacturer specs a nicer part than the typical components on the bike.
For example, if the bike you’re looking at is mostly Schwinn Volare 1400, but it comes with a 105SC rear derailleur, the rear derailleur is an upspec.
The drivetrain is perhaps the most important part of a bike, performance-wise. Crisp shifting and easy adjustment are necessary qualities for keeping you on the road, and sane. Checking a bike into your local shop every week or experiencing regular all-night thrashes is a sure way to see your interest in riding the temperamental beast decline and will ensure that the bike gathers a nifty coat of dust.
Look at your bike’s contact points with your body, such as the saddle, for more areas that matter. A bad seat will cause discomfort no matter how expensive those shorts were, and in a worst-case scenario, a bad saddle can alter your riding position, causing painful saddle sores and potential knee problems.
It is normal to feel some stiffness after the first few rides on a new bike or new seat, but bear in mind that it should feel better, not worse, the more you ride. While soft, squishy seats may feel good in the store, you’ll find that firm saddles are more comfortable on the road, since they properly support your weight on the bones, not soft tissue. We have a full guide on choosing the best saddle here.
Other parts to watch are the headset and bottom bracket. While these components aren’t exactly performance components, they are just as important as having good derailleurs. Low-quality headsets are usually made of softer metal that may pit, a nasty process known as Brinnelling. Over time, the bearings make a physical impression on the race, the path the bearings travel in the headset. As these small divots grow more pronounced, you end up with a headset that no longer swivels smoothly and requires replacement.
Bottom brackets are the center of power for the drivetrain. As such, they are subject to immense forces, both twisting and vertical, from the input of pedaling. A substandard bottom bracket will flex more than quality units under these forces and can cause problems ranging from increased bearing load and wear to cup damage. Make sure that the bike you are looking at has a brand-name bottom bracket.
One final location to search for quality gear is in the rims. Located at the outside of the wheel, rims have a huge impact on rotating weight, which is, in turn, the most critical kind of weight on a bike. Since you must accelerate the wheels to accelerate the bike, having a lighter set of wheels will help you start faster, keep momentum on hills, roll easier and generally make your bike snappier and more responsive.
Danger signs are any chromed rim (chroming adds weight, and chromed sidewalls offer especially poor braking when wet) and unnecessarily fat rim sections. Look for a good box- or semi-aero-section rim. Spoke eyelets are a good indicator of a quality rim, and eyelets add very little weight while increasing the durability of the wheel when it is built.
The Smoke Screens
On the flip side of this are the parts which don’t matter. These are component choices that are fairly transparent when it comes to performance and durability. Seatposts, stems and handlebars fall into this category, so if the bargain bike you’re looking at sports nameless ones, it’s okay.
Tires and hubs seem to be zoot magnets as well, distracting your attention from the stuff that matters. Tires have, perhaps, the most influence on the ride quality of any part on your bike. With that seemingly hypocritical statement out of the way, let me explain why tire spec doesn’t matter. The reason is threefold: Tires wear out relatively quickly, are cheaply and easily replaced and you need different tires for different applications. It’s nice to get good tires as original-equipment spec, but the ultralight racing threads won’t stand up to the training miles you’ll put in.
Aftermarket tires are widely available, and the number of different applications will astound you. There are $200 track-only sew-ups, and $12 training clinchers with beefier tread than the Firestones on your car. Get a good set of training tires that have a plush width (about 23 to 25 millimeters). Save the paperweight foldable skins for racing or special occasions.