New Bike Considerations

A version of this article was originally
published in Triathlete Magazine

I currently own a three year old Trek Hilo that was my first triathlon bike. I want to get a new triathlon bike for the coming season, but keep hearing and reading differing opinions on position, frame materials and designs. The more I listen, the more I think that I’m getting confused. Any input that might help me sort through the options?

Celeste , CA

Dear Celeste,

With so many options, the search for a new bike can certainly be a daunting task. While there really are not many poorly made bikes available in the triathlon market, there are bikes that will meet your individual needs better than others. The hard part is sorting through all the claims and opinions to find the right one for you. The answer is in the bike fit and how well a model addresses your individual needs.

“How does fit affect my decision?” Picking your bike without establishing a good riding position first is akin to choosing a cell phone company without knowing if they offer service in your area. You do not want to be in a position where you find you cannot dial out when you need to use the phone… It is critical that a comfortable and efficient position is established before a bike is chosen. If you have not established this position, or been assessed recently, spend the time and money (plan at least a few hours and a few hundred dollars) to get a comprehensive fit from a qualified fitter. This step can do more to help you save time and money, while getting the most out of your new bike down the road, than anything else.

“I have my position. Now what?” The next step is to make sure that the geometry of the frames being considered match your position well. Sizes and dimensions can vary widely between brands. For example, if we take three popular 700c wheel frames that offer a similar reach (an effective top tube length of 53-54cm) when set at the same saddle angle (76 degrees), some significant differences in head tube lengths become apparent.

52cm Cervelo P2K – 7cm (length adjusted for internal headset)

M/L Softride Qualifier – 13cm

55cm Elite Magnus – 10cm

This 6cm (over 2 ¼”) of height difference in the front-end, from the longest to the shortest, makes for three frames that are going to fit distinctly different.

“How important is head tube length? Can’t a different stem and headset spacers be used to adjust the height of the handlebar?” Yes. However, if a head tube is too long for your position, you will not be able to get the handlebar low enough for maximum efficiency. And if the head tube is too short, you could compromise comfort, front-end stiffness and distort the bike’s center of gravity (which can compromise the bike’s stability and handling). Some general guidelines for average sized riders are to look for a frame that allows for a stem length between 8 and 11cm with a rise under 15 degrees that does not require more than 3.5cm (1 3/8”) of headset stack spacers between the top of the headset and the stem.

“I’ve found some frames that fit well. What next?” From a performance and comfort standpoint, here are some of the bigger variables to consider when searching for the frame that best matches your individual needs:

Materials and Stiffness: The quality and design of a frame’s tubing is much more important to ride quality than the material itself. Consider how a material is applied to a frame to determine how it will ride for your individual circumstances. Do not forget that the wheels, fork and other components you use influence ride quality greatly as well.
Weight and Aerodynamics: Do not buy a frame based solely on it being one of the lightest available or the most aerodynamic in the wind tunnel. Especially for distance athletes, frame aerodynamics and weight are relatively small pieces of the overall performance equation when compared to ride quality, durability and fit.
Durability: The grade of the material used and how it was manufactured will determine its long-term durability characteristics. While some materials, titanium for example, are physically harder and resist crushing, denting and puncturing better than other materials, all tubing within a given material are not equal. Like diamonds, there are many different grades. The more time, effort, and craftsmanship a builder puts into their frame tubing and manufacturing processes, the better the frame will ride and hold up down the road.

Components and Price:

Allocate dollars in the following order:

1) Frame/fork. This is the heart and soul of the bike.

2) Wheels. After the frame/fork, nothing affects the ride more.

3) The rest of the components. Don’t compromise on the fit and

geometry of your frame just to get better components.

Calculate a bike’s actual cost based on how many years you plan on keeping it; an $1800 bike that is kept for two years costs the same as a $5400 bike kept for six.

Timing: High demand production bikes often have limited availability and some custom bike builders can take a few months. The further ahead of the season you decide, the more saddle time you get and the more likely you are to have your bike with plenty of time to spare.

“What about test riding?”
If you have considered what is listed above, and are working with someone that is providing you with good information, test riding can waste more time and cause more confusion than solutions. If you are going to test ride, make sure that the bikes you ride are set-up the same (especially in regards to the position and the wheels) and do so in a consistent environment that is as realistic as possible. Going for a couple mile spin around town has little to do with riding a bike for 112 miles in an Ironman.

While complicated at times, choosing a new bike should be exciting, educational and fun. It has been said that the bike you buy is not as important as where you buy it. And finding a good technician to help you establish your position, sort through the marketing and help you choose products that fit your individual needs can be the best decision of all.

Enjoy the search!


Originally published January 2004/Copyright © 2004

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