Open up any cycling magazine and within the first few pages you’ll see a half-dozen of the newest, greatest, road bikes and 100 reasons why you should drop what you are doing, and immediately go out and purchase a new bike.
Stop. Right. There. Buying a road bike is a lot like buying a new car. Sure, they all have wheels, but without taking the car out on the road or taking a spin on the bicycle, you’ll have no idea how it’s going to handle.
There’s also the consideration of how you’re going to use the bike. Are you looking for a good all-around bike that you can stick aero bars and deep-dish wheels on to race a time trial with on Saturday, and with a quick pit stop be ready to race the same bike in a criterium on Sunday? Or, are you looking for a bike that’s good for road riding–lots of climbs and descents–and never plan to contest a sprint or a prime?
With that in mind, let’s take a few minutes and take a look at how to pick a road bicycle that delivers the most check marks in both the wants and needs categories without breaking the bank. (We all want carbon frames with Shimano Di2 Dura Ace or Campagnolo Record, but what do we really need?)
Selecting the right bike
How a road bike rides is less about the material its made out of and more about the frame’s design and geometry. I hear your protests right now, “But my carbon frame is far superior to my old aluminum bike! How dare you second guess my need for carbon. I NEED a carbon frame!”
People choose carbon frames because they are light, the frame seems to absorb road shock (it seems less fatiguing on rough surfaces), and let’s face it, resisting good marketing campaigns is difficult. People choose aluminum because it’s stiff. People choose steel because it has both qualities of stiffness and smooth ride.
When you choose a bike, look first at the angles and then at the materials.
- Steeper the head tube angle, more responsive (too twitchy) the bike will handle
- Slack head tube angle, more stable the bike will be (means less snap in a sprint)
- Steep seat tube angle means rider is in front of the bottom bracket (good for TT)
- Slack seat tube angle means rider is behind the bottom bracket (think touring)
- Chainstay length, long stays more stable and short stays more responsive.
- Wheelbase, long base more stable and short base more responsive.
A carbon frame might be lighter than an aluminum frame, but it also might feel like riding a wet noodle while the aluminum bike feels snappy. What kind of riding are you doing? Are you a sprinter who needs a bike with great stiffness that can be thrown around, or are you a featherweight climber who goes for the king of the mountain points?
As if there wasn’t enough to consider, also factor in what kind of body you have/ Are you all torso? Or, do you have really long femurs (that’s me).
My current set-up tries to get the best of all worlds. I’m riding a scandium frame (lighter and stiffer than aluminum, unfortunately more expensive) with a carbon fork with a little more rake on it to make up for my need for more of a slack seat tube (super long femurs), but still wanting a responsive bike…that and I couldn’t afford to run the same set up in full carbon.
A quick look at price points.
The price point of the bike depends on many factors. Carbon frames have different lay-up process that greatly vary their pricing. Aluminum tubing comes in different series, and there are different types of steel tubing that greatly affects the strength-to-weight ratio. Keep in mind that components wear out, but frames last a while. When you’re looking at a road bicycle and trying to decide between a cheaper carbon frame with better components or more expensive frame with lesser components, always choose the better frame. You can replace the parts later.
Now that we covered some things to consider when purchasing a road bike or road frame, let’s go after something I think is the most important part of the bike when it comes to comfort: the saddle.
To put it bluntly: if you’re squirming on the saddle, you’re riding the wrong saddle.
Test out different saddles, you might find out what you’ve been missing.
I’ll use my rear end as the example because talking about the nether regions isn’t an easy conversation. Like anyone else, I want a light-weight saddle. I want titanium or carbon rails and a carbon composite saddle shell with a leather covering. Carbon composite because it allows for a little more flex or give in the saddle, and leather because it seems to form over the padding better over time.
Look for a saddle that supports your sit bones.
I ride the WTB Deva saddle on both the road and mountain bikes because of it’s wider, flat sit-bone support area. This saddle’s nose is on the same plane as the sit bone support area, meaning the nose doesn’t dramatically rise. With my sit bones supported, it relieves the pressure from my girl parts. Yes, my parts are still touching the saddle, but all the pressure of my body’s weight are on my sit bones and not on the soft tissue.
Another very important piece on the bike are the handle bars. Again, this is a detail on the bike that I’ve never been able to have dialed just off the showroom floor.
Check out the handle bar width.
My rule of thumb on sizing bar width has always been shoulder width. If I could hold the bars up to my shoulders and comfortably wedge my shoulders into the bars, then that was the right size. You also have to look at the drop distance – given your body’s build do you need a deep drop or a shallow drop? Unlike my legs, my upper body is fairly proportional so I go with a mid-range drop.
Choose the right tops for your hands.
Road bars with flatter tops are better for bigger hands. Small hands with flat tops can fatigue more easily due to the hands being splayed out too far and the strain in the wrong places.
Choosing the equipment for an enjoyable riding experience is a much more deliberate process than seeing an advertisement and deciding you simply must have the number-one selling bicycle on the market. Take the time to research the angles. Everything is available on the manufacturers website. Think about the style of riding you mostly do. And, always, always, always try before you buy.