A version of this article was originally printed in Triathlete Magazine – May 2011 Issue
Content of this article updated as of 12/13/18
Q: I have been riding a mountain bike on the road for a year now and I am ready to get a more road specific bike. All of my riding takes place on the road and I recently signed up for my first triathlon and I want to get the right bike. I’ve heard that it is important to get high quality components, like Shimano Dura Ace, but beyond that I am unsure what to look for when choosing a bike. Any advice would be appreciated.
A: Dear Pamela,
Getting your first road or tri bike is one of the biggest steps that you, as an athlete, can take to enhance your enjoyment and performance riding a bike. However, selecting the right bike can be a daunting task and many newer riders get directed to focus on items in the wrong priority. In order of importance, focusing on the following items offers a foolproof way to get a really good bike for your needs the first time.
Bike Fit, Bike Fit, Bike Fit!
Many riders make the mistake of choosing a bike first and then having it “fit” after. This is akin to building the house before creating the plans. Completing a proper bike fit first allows you to find the frame geometry and component options that make the most sense for your needs. Regardless of the price of the bike, your experience level, or any other variable, you should not have to adapt your body to the needs of your bike; your bike should be selected because of its ability to fit the needs of your body. Proper fit and bike selection affects everything from handling and stability to comfort and efficiency and it is the most crucial step of proper bike selection. A proper bike fit can also help you choose whether a road or tri bike makes the most sense for you.
Finding a qualified bike fitter is not always easy. Most bike fit training schools offer lists of people who have completed their programs. However, these lists can be unreliable at best as completing a few day program means little compared to experience in combination with a proven methodology based in science. Use the information on what is involved in a good bike fit from pages like this to interview prospective fitters carefully. A good bike fitting is well worth travelling for.
When it comes to how your bike fits, rides, handles and reacts, the frame is the most important physical part of the bike. The frame is also usually the most expensive part of the bike and the most involved to replace. Buying a bike with the right frame the first time can not only help you enjoy the benefits of a better riding and performing bike now, but can also save significant money down the road as you will only need to buy some new parts, instead of buying a whole new bike, to upgrade. When selecting a frame, make sure the geometry allows for plenty of adjustability in your riding position so that it can adapt to suit your needs in the future as well as now. You do not want to end up on a bike that compromises stability and handling in order to achieve your riding position or one that cannot be adjusted to accommodate for positioning changes as you grow as a cyclist. Do not worry about what brand or model your friends or professional athletes ride when choosing your bike – their use, size and positioning needs may bear little resemblance to you. You need a bike that has stiffness, comfort and handling traits that suit you, as an individual athlete, well.
Body Contact Points on the Bike
During riding, hands, butt and feet all interface with the bike constantly; making sure that you have a saddle, handlebars and pedal/shoe combination that you are happy with can go a long way towards making riding more comfortable and more fun. These are personalized parts and your dealer should work with you to exchange parts on the bike towards others as needed.
Good wheels can make a basic bike ride a lot better while sub-par wheels can make an otherwise exceptional bike feel mediocre – wheels matter. After the frame, the wheels are the next most expensive part on the bike, yet most bike companies spec wheels that are below the level of the rest of the bike in order to hit a certain price point. From a performance perspective, wheels are often an important place to consider upgrading at the time of purchase or soon after.
With the drivetrain and braking systems, focus on getting parts of a level that are designed for people that ride their bikes regularly. In the case of Shimano equipped bikes, 105, Ultegra and Dura Ace level components are designed for committed road cycling enthusiasts and all of SRAM’s current road offerings are designed for people who ride their bike regularly.
Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo design their components to work as well as possible as a complete group, yet bikes with complete groups are rare in the hyper-competitive marketplace. Bike companies frequently upgrade and downgrade certain parts to give the impression of a certain level of componentry and to hit specific price targets. For example, upgraded Dura Ace and Red derailleurs can be found on bikes with no other components of that level while cranks and brakes are two common areas where components from a lower level group (or even a different brand) are substituted to save money. In the greater scheme of things, individual components are relatively inexpensive and easy to upgrade at the time of purchase or down the road.
I’ve never heard of a race being won or lost because one rider had Dura Ace or Red derailleurs and another did not; if higher average riding speed is the determining factor, a better frame or wheels will always trump the difference between component levels.
One big intangible in the whole bike buying equation is where you buy your bike.
Compared to buying manufacturer direct or from a less knowledgeable dealer, the fit, mechanical set-up and support a good dealer can offer can make a big difference; a rider on a less well known bike brand that is fit and assembled well will always be faster than they would be riding a less well set-up big brand bike. Buying from a dealer who understands bike fit and set-up for the type of riding you do, has strong product offerings and knowledge, and is willing to work with you to get your bike set-up for you as an individual will not only help you enjoy your new bike as much as possible now, but also saves you time and money down the road. Unless the local bike shop has demonstrated a firm commitment to these items, don’t hesitate to travel a bit to find someone that has. I’ve also yet to see a consumer direct manufacturer or builder represent things like bike fit at a level that I would feel comfortable.
Buying a new bike is the biggest equipment purchase many people make. The results, and your long-term satisfaction, should not be left to chance.
Ride hard and smart.