What to Look for When Buying a Bike | Beginners Guide to Buying a Bike

If it’s spring, it must be time for our annual bicycle buyer’s guide. This year’s guide reflects two major changes over the last two editions, both good.

The first is an increase in the number of entry-level road bikes.

Mountain biking’s explosive growth over the past few years has brought more people into the cycling fold, and because some of those same folks are spilling over to road cycling, there’s more call for entry-level road bikes so that means more bicycles are in the affordable sub-$1000 category.

The second big change is something we’ve done: We’ve gotten rid of the usual pages of spec charts and replaced them with something we hope you’ll find to be more useful–real how-to articles.

In each of our six categories (entry-level, enthusiast, race-ready, time-trial, tandem and cyclocross), you’ll find brief primers on what to look for when shopping for a good bike, followed by examples of bikes we’ve found to be exemplary in each of the categories.

You’ll also find handy shopping helpers such as our new-bike checklist (items you’ll want to inspect before you take delivery of your new baby), as well as what accessories you’ll need to keep that bike on the road.

The specs that normally run in our buyer’s guide have still been compiled and they will still be available, but only on our Web site. In the past, we’ve had to try and anticipate your needs by breaking our single master list into categories you’re likely to search. But on the Web, we can let you choose the list you want to see.

Our master list is searchable on the Litespeed-sponsored search engine, so you will be able to generate lists of bikes selected by price, frame material, component group and manufacturer. This way, the computer will pare the list down to those bikes you want to see, making your search easier.

This search engine will be up for a year starting with this issue’s on-sale date. And for those of you who must rely on friends or neighbors for Web access, the search results are printable so you can just have Aunt Sally feed in the search parameters for you and then hand you the results to peruse at your leisure.

It’s a different approach, but one we hope you’ll find effective and rewarding.

Shopping Smart: How to Get the Most Bike for Your Buck

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.

The Essentials

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 Shimano RX100, 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 padded 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.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.

See: Best MTB Wheelsets for the Money

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.

How to Buy an Entry-level Bike

As bicycle buying goes, the purchase of an entry-level bike is a relatively easy prospect.

When compared with the dizzying number of offerings at the $2000 mark, your choices are fairly straightforward.

Fierce competition means only the bigger manufacturers can afford to deliver a quality entry-level bicycle. In comparison to their bigger, more expensive brothers, these bikes are screaming deals.

Inevitably, you’ll ask the question, “Which bike is better?” The answer usually has less to do with the parts selection than you might think.

Most of us know how much we can spend before we ever look at a bike; once you know what manufacturers call your “price point” (a price range usually not broader than $100), you’ve narrowed your choice to fewer than a dozen bikes.

If you think you are likely to choose based solely on components, know this: There are no clear winners. If you want a bike with a particular part, you’ll probably have to forsake another. To get STI on a $700 bike, you won’t see clipless pedals, and vice versa.

Think about what components you can upgrade later. You can add STI and clipless pedals to a $600 bike, but a hi-ten (high-tensile steel-a grade of steel from which many inexpensive frames are made, and which is not as tough as chrome-moly) frame will always be a hi-ten frame.

Buy the best quality frame you can afford since this will dictate the real ride quality of your bike.

Here are some features to look for in an entry-level bike:

  • Double-butted chrome-moly tubing. You will run across bikes that switch back to hi-ten steel for the fork and stays as the price drops, but good buys will use double-butted (the middle of the tube is thinner than the ends, giving the bike more spring, or life, and making it lighter) pipes for the main tube, and chrome-moly tubing throughout.
  • Stainless steel spokes. Stainless spokes make for a stronger wheel that will also enjoy a longer life.
  • Three chainrings. A third chainring is the key to your bike taking you up any paved surface you’d like to go down.
  • STI shifting (optional). Shimano currently offers the most affordable integrated brake lever/ shifter system at this bike level. The cost of STI as an add-on is prohibitive. If you want it, buy it up front.

It used to be you were more likely to see caliper brakes as opposed to dual-pivots on bikes retailing for less than $700, but now most entry-level bikes are equipped with the more powerful stoppers.

Don’t forget to budget in the necessities such as a helmet, touring shoes if you’re not going clipless, at least one pair of cycling shorts, a bike pump and an on-road repair kit.

How to Buy an Enthusiast Bike

First off, let’s define this beast. An enthusiast bike is basically a jack-of-all-trades ride.

  1. It’s not a dedicated race bike, but you could race on it. 
  2. It has componentry that goes beyond entry level, but doesn’t have the price tag of some geegaw unobtanium sub-zero-pound flyer.
  3. It has comfortable geometry, a smart (but economical) parts mix and is a bike that’ll grow with you as you become a more serious rider. 

That said, there are certain qualities to look for in an enthusiast bike that generally aren’t found on high-zoot racing machines or the “first bike” models.

Like most anything you buy, usage determines much of what you’ll want in your bike. With advances in technology making space-age materials available at down-to-earth prices, you’ll be able to find a bike in your price range made from steel, aluminum or carbon fiber. Push the $1500 price envelope, and you’ll even find a few titanium offerings.

Componentry can be divided into two groups: the brakes/drivetrain and peripherals such as the saddle, handlebar and wheels.

To paraphrase Animal Farm, all components are equal, but some are more equal than others.

What does that mean?

Well, there’s not a part on the bike that doesn’t matter, but items such as the drivetrain, brakes, seat and wheels go a long way in assuring you have a good time while riding.

Drivetrains are the most complex and troublesome parts, so you want to avoid headaches of the mechanical and, therefore, financial nature. These are caused at the root by component substitutions.

Make sure that if the bike you are getting has a Campagnolo Veloce component group, the company didn’t put on an Avanti rear derailleur (although upgrades are okay).

The problem you’ll encounter is over time, the lower-end component will wear out more quickly, requiring more frequent adjustment.

Triple cranks give you do-it-all gearing for any terrain. Photo by Jim Brown.

It will also have to be replaced sooner than the other parts. Brakes are the most important part from a safety standpoint. The dual-pivot calipers found on any bike in this group are excellent stoppers, and so your considerations here are esoterica such as tire clearance and the feel of the brake.

The peripherals are that in name only, since a bad seat will have you walking funny and hating life. Make sure the saddle is a comfy model, and don’t be afraid to ask the shop about options for switching it out if it’s not.

For the handlebar, a good general rule is the brake lever hoods should be the same distance apart as your shoulder joints. Check it by leaning over the bike and placing your shoulders on the levers. If you get too narrow a bar, your position will be cramped and painful over time.

Decide whether or not you want a hand-friendly ergonomic bend or the old Merckx style with a deep drop.

The wheels should be lightweight, roll smoothly and have good rubber, with the following caveats: Light weight at the expense of durability is no bargain-make sure the wheels are well built with three-cross lacing and will stand up to a good pounding.

Stay clear of chromed (heavy, poor braking), super wide (heavy) or super narrow (weaker, will pinch flat easier) rims. Remember with tires, upgrades are cheap and easy, so don’t discount a bike because it’s wearing lower-end tires.

Finally, take into consideration factors such as what you might do with the bike (if you want to try racing, the 46×13 top gear on some bikes may not be big enough), climate (steel rusts more in wet weather) and how well the bike meets your ideal component specs.

Decide what you’d upgrade, how much it costs and then see if the bike is still worth getting.

Enthusiast bikes are the broadest category of bikes out there, not just in terms of numbers, but what you can do with them.

  • They won’t be as swoopy as a top racing bike on a crit circuit, but they’ll race with as much passion and energy as you can muster. 
  • They don’t have all the trappings of a full touring bike, but with creative thinking and some innovative accessories picks, you can launch out into the great unknown all by yourself. 

These bikes represent what’s possible on a bike-there are so many great things you can do-and the models in this category will allow you to pursue all your goals equally well.

Buying a Racing Bike

The idea behind buying a racing bike is to have a machine that will be reliable even under the most extreme use.

Bikes like this need not be raced to be appreciated, but in a race, a missed shift can mean the difference between winning and not.

A raceable ride is by no means a constant, though. Beyond the choices of shifting systems, wheels and other components, there are choices about frame materials and geometry that will dictate a bike’s specific talents. It’s helpful if you’re clear on what sort of riding or racing you will primarily do.

If you’ve never gotten tired of merry-go-rounds and find the Daytona Motor Speedway intriguing, chances are you love criteriums. Some bikes are better suited to crit performance.

Steep angles will make a bike quick handling for maneuvering through the pack, but it’s important to know that steepness is not a constant-it’s relative to frame size. In a small frame (say, 52 centimeters), a 73-degree head tube angle is really steep, but on a 60-centimeter frame it would be considered slack.

Bikes designed for road racing tend to be more versatile in terms of possible usage. The qualities that make a bike well suited to crits will make the bike seem nervous on longer bike rides, and especially twisting descents.

Planning on a century?

A bike designed for road racing will offer the predictable, but agile, steering necessary to prevent a six- or seven-hour ride from becoming an ordeal.

The more relaxed angles of a traditional road bike (in a 56-centimeter frame that would mean parallel 73-degree head and seat tubes) combined with a slightly lower bottom bracket height will give the responsiveness you yearn for in a great road bike, while retaining a measure of stability that can allow you to relax on long rides-a quality.

I sometimes refer to as handling for the brain-dead. Bikes of this sort are sometimes called stage-racing bikes.If you want to turn out for your club’s occasional individual time trial, again, a bike predisposed to road racing will be the best choice. Crit bikes with high bottom brackets and steep head tube angles will make riding in an aero position with add-on bars a precarious affair.

If ever there’s a time when a self-steering bike is handy, it’s on an out-and-back time-trial course. The concentration required to hurt that much precludes spending too much energy on steering, so it’s nice to have a bike that just knows where dead ahead is.The choice of frame materials is a personal one; for many of us it’s the first ingredient in a bike that sparks the imagination. And it’s the imagination that usually first claims we need a new bike. Personal preference aside, there are times when one material may have virtues better suited to your particular needs.

Steel will always be the first, wisest choice when all variables are weighed equally. To begin with, a steel frame is invariably more affordable than one made from other materials and equal workmanship.

Following all but the most horrific crashes, a steel frame can be realigned to ride straight. Don’t try that with aluminum or carbon fiber. Aluminum is difficult, if not impossible, to cold set, while carbon fiber will break outright.

 Because of the incredible number of tubesets on the market, the ride of a steel bike is almost infinitely variable, although carbon fiber can claim the greatest extremes of ride quality with respect to stiffness.

Titanium’s incredible resistance to bending means it can flex a great deal under load, yielding a very compliant ride, but on the downside, more flex means the bike may not sprint well. If you fancy yourself more of a RAAM (Race Across AMerica) rider than a Mario Cipollini sprinter wanna-be, that flex is a quality you’ll like. And while it’s expensive, titanium is repairable.It’s possible to go crazy on a bike and buy double-butted spokes, alloy spoke nipples, titanium bolt kits, a Ti stem and seatpost, superlight rims and silk tubulars, and while all of that can contribute to a bike that dances like nothing you’ve ever been on, it’s not strictly necessary.

What makes a good racing bike has less to do with weight than you’d think. Having a frame that responds well and reinforces your particular strengths as a rider is of utmost importance.

So if you like to stomp on the pedals out of the saddle, you’ll appreciate the stiffness afforded by oversize aluminum such as a Cannondale frame.

Likewise, that frame can inspire a degree of confidence in your riding you might otherwise temper were you riding whippier mounts.

Reliability is of paramount importance, but you don’t have to sell the house to get it. Serotta may be one of the most sought-after racing bikes in this country, but I’ve seen the Trek 2300 raced successfully at almost every event I’ve ever entered.

For many years, the Bridgestone RB-1 was the winningest bike in the U.S. and, despite its low bottom bracket and relaxed geometry, it was successful in crits as well as stage races. What’s important is to find a bike that’s appropriate to your intended use.

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