How to Buy a Bike

When man invented the bicycle he reached the peak of his attainments. (Elizabeth West)

N + 1 (Traditionally, the formula for the number of bikes you should own, when N = the number of bikes you have)

How Uncomfortable Is Cycling?

Before we get into bike buying, I want to address a central concern of non-riders: how painful is riding a road bike? I know that before I took the plunge, I stopped people on road bikes and asked them, “How much does it hurt to ride one of those things?” Non-riders know that road riding hurts your back, your butt, your hands, your neck, your feet, your knees, and probably a few other parts. These agonies are things cyclists put up with to go fast, right?

No. Road riding is perfectly comfortable. No back pain. No knee pain. No butt pain. No nothing. It’s all a myth. Pro cyclists commonly ride road bikes for 4-6 hours a day, every day, without pain. Racers in RAM (the Race Across America) ride for 24 hours a day for several days in a row, and if they do it right they feel only tiredness. If your road bike hurts you, in any way, that’s a problem that needs to be fixed—I’ll help you figure out how, throughout this book.

The most notorious myth is, road riding causes back pain, because you’re bent over like that. Again, no. I suffer from chronic lower back pain. A few times a year, I’m stretched out on the floor unable to move. But on my worst day, if I can manage to get my leg over the top tube, I can ride my bike without discomfort. That’s because bending over only hurts when you have to support that posture with your core muscles. On a bike, you’re supporting yourself with your arms. To prove this, kneel down by a bed and bend over, laying your chest on the mattress. Isn’t that relaxing? See how that doesn’t hurt your back?

Now that that is out of the way…If you’re new to cycling, the most intimidating part of the sport is buying the bicycle. You walk into a bike shop, you see hundreds of bikes ranging in prince from $300 to $9000, they all look the same, and the salesperson starts speaking a foreign language. What do you do?

Fear not. Buying a bike is pretty easy. I’ll walk you through it.

First, Three Tips

All bikes are good. Every bike made by a reputable maker and sold in a reputable shop is a good bike. Banish any worry about being cheated or stuck with a lemon. The characteristics of a good bike are now agreed-upon and incorporated by every maker in their products. Every bike maker will tell you their bike has unique and wonderful features that make it better than all other bikes, but the truth is that differences between one bike and another within a price range come down mostly to “feel”—your subjective and personal sensation when you ride it. Expensive bikes are better than cheap ones, but all $3000 bikes are similar. And almost all bikes, with the exception of top-end bikes, are mass-produced in the same few factories in China or Taiwan, then branded with the “maker’s” decals, even the “Italian” bikes, so they’re all built to the same specs.

Learn to use internet reviews. Pretty much every bike of interest to road riders has been reviewed online by scrupulous, tech-savvy rider/critics at sites like Benefit from their expertise. Just google the brand or model of bike you’re interested in and add “review.”

Notice I didn’t say “learn to use bicycle magazine reviews.” Magazines don’t lie, but they’re dependent on the advertising from the products they’re reviewing, so they tend to be so positive as to be useless. I can’t remember the last bike review I read in a magazine that was negative. The bike bloggers owe nothing to anyone and are free to be ruthless. They also have an infinite amount of space, so they can get detailed the way no magazine, where every word costs money, can.

Avoid proprietary anything. Some bikes use proprietary components—parts made specifically for that bike. The benefit is, the proprietary part was created for this application, so it should work really well. The drawbacks are extreme: you can’t find replacement parts in any bike store that doesn’t sell that brand, you can’t expect a mechanic to be able to work on the component if it needs repair unless they’ve been trained by that company, and as soon as the component becomes out of date the company will stop making it and when it breaks you will have to throw much or all of the bike away.

Three real-world examples: 1) There are German bicycle wheels whose parts are so exotic the wheels have to be mailed back to Germany to the factory for any repair, so you’re wheel-less for 6 months; 2) I bought brakes from a well-respected but small company, and they never worked right. I happened to run into the company’s tent at a bike fair and had the company wrench work on the brakes. They worked perfectly. I asked him what he did that was so special, and he said, “Most shops just don’t know how to work on our brakes”; 3) I once had a mountain bike that broke a seal in the front fork. The seal probably cost 50 cents, but the fork was old so the company had stopped making the proprietary seal. I ended up having to replace the fork, the brakes, and the wheels.

So you’re safer buying bikes from huge, successful companies (which is to say, Trek, Specialized, Cannondale, Giant, Cervelo, and maybe a few others) and bikes with conventional engineering, because repair shops everywhere will be familiar with their components. And before buying a bike, ask the salesperson, “How much of the bike is proprietary?”

A related issue: the more expensive a bike is, the more high-tech it is, and some forms of high-tech translate into more complex, more difficult, and more expensive servicing and repair. To take one glaring example: cable routing. Basic bikes route their shifter and brake cables outside the bike frame, where they’re easy to service and replace. Higher-end bikes route their cables inside the downtube (so-called internal cable routing), where they’re harder to get at. Very high-end bikes route their cables through the handlebar, the stem, and the downtube, so they are completely invisible to the eye and agony to service. Typical shop time to replace external cables: ten minutes. To replace internal cables: thirty minutes. To replace completely internal cables: hours. So the more low-tech your bike is, the simpler/cheaper the repair will be and the more likely you can do it yourself.

Types of Bikes

When you walk into a large bike shop, you’ll see up to three hundred bikes, and perhaps only a handful are of the type you’re interested in. So let’s narrow the field by describing and eliminating most of what you’re looking at:

Bikes You Aren’t Interested In

Mountain bikes: A whole other world from what we’re talking about. You should get one and ride it, but it’s not what we’re talking about right now.

Townies (aka cruisers, beaters): heavy steel upright bikes with huge tires, high handlebars, and low seats, for tooling around town.

Hybrids: half-cruiser, half-road bike, they’re meant for people who want to do a little serious recreational riding and a lot of commuting. Because they’re compromises, they manage to do all things badly.

Touring bikes: basically road bikes built to stand the rigors of riding long distances carrying a lot of gear, they’re built stout, heavy, comfortable, and easily repairable. You want one if you want to ride from Seattle to Los Angeles and camp on the trip.

Time trial bikes: Your shop might have a couple of these, weird machines looking like a cross between an exercycle and a Klingon torture rack. They’re single-minded machines designed to make you go as fast as possible in a time trial, a specific kind of race. No salesperson will try to sell you one, but you might notice it and wonder what it was for.

Cyclocross bikes (“’cross bikes” to the illuminati): they look just like road bikes but with some subtle differences, and they’re designed for cyclocross racing, which is through dirt/mud/water and involves running. You can ride them on road rides, but they’re a bit heavier and stouter than a road bike and usually have slightly fatter tires and slightly slacker geometry (more stretched out and cushy) to handle the rougher dirt. You could live with one, but there’s no advantage to having one, unless you’re going to race ‘cross.

Single-speed bikes: as the name implies, these bikes have only one gear, and are for riders who love simplicity above all things, want the training benefit of having to push uncomfortable gears, or have grown jaded with road bikes. You don’t want one unless you’re a zealot.

Fixed-gear bikes: single-speed bikes without a freewheel in the back, so the pedals turn when you coast. “Fixies” are like single-speed bikes on steroids. You don’t want one unless you’re an extremist among zealots.

Tandems: bikes with two riders, one behind the other. They’re very heavy and hard to transport, so they usually have couplers so they can be broken down easily. They’re slow uphill but fast downhill, thanks to their weight, so they have some trouble matching the pace of a group on road bikes. The stoker (rider in the rear) has to mimic the captain’s pace, pedaling cadence, level of effort, and position (sitting or standing), so tandems seem to appeal only to male/female pairs with a very obedient female as stoker.

Recumbents: Called “bents” by users, they’re ridden lying on your back. They’re actually quite efficient on flats, but they’re poor climbers, and you can’t ride one in a group, so they’re strictly for solitary, eccentric riders. They’re also hard to see, because they’re so low to the ground, so they’re dangerous in any traffic. They’re also hard to transport and store.

Trike recumbent tandems: OK, now we’re just getting silly. But they do exist.

Race bikes: there is no such thing. Non-riders call road bikes “race bikes” because they’re used in races, but riders call them “road bikes.”

Bikes You’re Interested In

Road bikes: also called “performance bikes” by the industry, this is what everyone thinks of when they think of a bicycle designed for sport or athletic activities on the road. You want one if you’re going to ride paved roads for recreation or competition over major distances at speed, want to ride with a cycling club, or you just like knowing you’re riding with max efficiency. The bike is optimized for lightness, you’ve got 20 to 24 gears (2 cogs in front, 10 to 12 in back), and the geometry is more interested in getting you down the road efficiently and less interested in comfort (not that it’s painful to ride). It’s got a drop handlebar that sits lower than the saddle, and a saddle that looks acutely painful but isn’t.

Aero road bikes: These are road bikes that do everything they can to reduce aerodynamic drag, by far the biggest obstacle to going fast on a bike. They look a little more space-agey than conventional road bikes. To make the tubes more wing-like, they have to make the bikes heavier, stiffer, less comfortable to ride, less responsive, and less stable in crosswinds. Also, the aero benefit only works when you’re riding above 17 mph, alone, with the wind ahead of you. You want an aero bike if going a bit faster on the flats and downhill is worth some sacrifices to you. I used to think aero bikes were dumb, until I rode with a guy who had one and watched him drop me effortlessly every time we hit a descent.

Adventure bikes/endurance bikes: These are a modification of the road bike to accommodate people who find that performance road bikes put them in too aggressive a position (too bent over) or who find the ride of a performance bike too jarring. They’re basically road bikes with longer wheel bases (to soften the road vibrations), taller headtubes (to raise the handlebar so the rider doesn’t have to bend over as much), more tire clearance (to run fatter tires, which gives you more comfort), slacker geometry (the front wheel sticks out further), and perhaps a mild form of suspension. There are no significant downsides except a slight weight penalty and perhaps less zippy handling.

Such bikes used to be called “plush” bikes or “comfort” bikes and were marketed almost exclusively to older riders, and makers assumed that anyone who wanted one didn’t care about weight or performance. Those days are gone. Major European bike races have been won on endurance bikes. So a salesperson may well steer you toward one, and you can assume that the brand you like has an endurance model.

Do not assume from this that you want an adventure bike. Think of the conventional road bike as a sports car and the endurance bike as a sedan. Sedans are softer-riding, easier on the body, and easier to drive, but that doesn’t mean they’re better, or that everybody prefers them, or that you will prefer them. For many people, sedans are stodgy and sports cars are where all the fun is.

Gravel bikes: Probably your biggest decision when buying a new bike is, Do I want a gravel bike or not? This is the hottest new subculture in cycling. These bikes are like adventure bikes only more so. They’re heavier and run large tires (up to 45 mm) and so have massive tire clearance. You want one if you want to ride dirt or gravel roads. Your salesperson will almost certainly suggest you get one. The advantages are 1) there are an infinite number of great gravel and dirt roads with grand scenery in this world, so you never run out of new, exciting places to ride, and 2) those roads are almost entirely without cars, so you don’t have to fight traffic—very relaxing.

Some riders ride only gravel bikes, on dirt and pavement, but there is a significant downside: heavy frames and fat tires require more effort to push.

Because gravel riding is the hot new thing, and because marketing is what it is, gravel bikes now have their own components and accessories—gravel-specific derailleurs, cassettes, shifters, handlebars, shoes, and for all I know gravel-specific water. So a gravel bike may differ from a road bike in almost every particular, though none of the differences matters hugely, with the possible exception of gravel-specific gearing, which is much lower than the gearing on a road bike (as low as 31-52—I’ll explain later). For some reason gravel bikes often have only one front chain-ring (with a huge gear spread in the back to compensate), and they often have a clutch derailleur in the rear, which is designed to take the slack out of the chain and prevent it from banging on your bike frame when riding rough tread (not a problem on pavement). I mention these only because your bike shop salesperson might mention them during the sales pitch and you want to nod knowingly when they do.

“All-Road”: Because bike marketers apparently get up every morning and say to themselves, “I’m going to invent a new category of bicycle!”, we now have all-road bikes, which are apparently bikes that are slightly less race-oriented than full-race bikes but not as slack as gravel bikes. In other words, the so-called quiver-killer, the one bike that gives you performance on pavement but is slightly detuned (less aggressive geometry) and accepts larger tires (up to 32 mm or so) for the occasional detour onto non-technical dirt. In other other words, probably the bike you were going to buy anyway.

Women-specific bikes: These, as the name implies, are designed to fit women’s bodies. That usually translates into narrower handlebars (for narrower shoulders), shorter brake-lever reach (for smaller hands), smaller overall size, a shorter cockpit (for shorter torsos), and a saddle designed to fit a woman’s butt. And often “female” paint jobs, which has led to the cynical industry description of how to make a bike for women: “Shrink it and pink it.” Luckily, women’s cycling has emerged from the ghetto, so a woman’s bike can now be just as light, tricked out, and aggressive as the male model.

Many women try a woman-specific bike and say, “This is what I’ve been missing all my life.” But the women’s bike is based on assumptions about anatomy, assumptions which may or may not be true for you. Thus if you’re a man with a short torso, a woman’s frame may be just what you need, or if you’re a woman with a long torso, a man’s frame may fit you perfectly.

The problem with women’s bikes is, since floor space is precious in a bike shop and women who want serious road bikes are still a small percentage of the riding population, few shops have them on the floor, so it’s hard to demo them. It would be a rare shop that would order one just so you could demo it. You’re pretty much forced to assess your own skeletal structure—ask if you’re a conventionally shaped woman, see if you feel stretched out or have trouble reaching the brake levers on a man’s bike, and if the answers are yes, order the woman’s model. Or go to your club’s group rides and discuss with other women riders. If they have ridden both men’s and women’s bikes, they can advise you, and if they own women-specific bikes they can let you borrow them.

For some reason, parts of the bike industry have backed away from the “women-specific” concept (in 2020). I don’t know why. But as a result your salesperson may tell you it’s an anachronism and discourage you from pursuing it. I wouldn’t necessarily believe them.

E-bikes: Bikes with electric “assist,” they’ve only been around in workable form since about 2019, but they are revolutionizing the sport and are worth a serious look. The benefit is obvious: you don’t have to do all the work. This means you can not only ride with less effort, you can ride further and climb further. They’re ideal for commuting to work without sweating up your work clothes or extending the riding career of someone whose physical health or age is beginning to make riding harder. The bike does not ride for you—it merely augments your effort, and e-bikes are much more fun than people expect because of this. It’s still real riding. The downsides are also obvious: 1) they’re expensive, since you’re buying a bike and a motor; 2) they’re much heavier, since you’ve got the weight of a bike and a motor; 3) they’re new, so the technology is in its infancy and will get better fast, so anything you buy will be outdated soon; 4) right now (2020) they have limited battery lifespan (sometimes as short as an hour) and limited assisted top speed (typically 20 mph).

E-bikes can be any sort of bike—townie, touring, performance—but since the primary appeal is to commuters, most e-bikes are townies (essentially the modern version of the old mo-ped) and thus aren’t of interest to us. But there are E-bikes that mimic road bikes in looks and performance, and reviewers love them.

E-road bikes are so hot that your LBS may not be able to keep them in stock. My LBS owner told me that sales of E-bikes had completely replaced sales of entry-level road bikes in his shop.

Trainers: Five years ago I wouldn’t have believed I’d be saying this, but trainers—those stationary half-bikes you ride in your basement for conditioning when it’s snowing outside—are now their own cycling niche. For a long time a segment of the cycling population did all their “cycling” on trainers, in spin classes at sports clubs. The advantages were many: no cold, wind, rain, flats, potholes, railroad tracks, traffic, hills, or muggers. The only downside was, it was tedious agony (OK, maybe that’s me).

The internet changed everything. The first revolution was when you could hook your trainer up to software that would allow you to virtually ride actual road courses. Suddenly you were virtually ascending Alpe D’Huez instead of pointlessly spinning in a room. Then (and this was the real breakthrough) companies like Zwift allowed you to hook up with other riders on the same virtual course in real time and race them. The rest is history. Now there are “pro” Zwifters, dead serious Zwift competitions, and Zwift racing circuits, all with the bonus of instantly shared data like overall watts produced and maximum watts per kilogram of body weight.

I’d rather die than Zwift—cycling for me is a tool for getting me on the road, exploring places I’ve never been, and connecting with the natural world. But whatever floats your boat.

Frame Material

Bike frames are made from one of four materials: steel, aluminum (AKA “alloy”), titanium, and carbon fiber (AKA “carbon”).

Steel is old, traditional, beloved by retro types who never tire of chanting “Steel is real,” easy to repair, favored by custom builders because it’s easy to work with, supposedly plush to ride, and heavy. Unless you have special needs/interests, it’s archaic and you should avoid it.

Aluminum was the standard material until carbon came along. It’s relatively light, but it’s chattery—you feel the road buzz. Bike magazines and salespeople love to argue that you can buy a lot of bike for $2000 if you’re willing to ride on aluminum. That’s true, but that’s because no one wants to. I’d avoid it unless you don’t mind being jarred.

Titanium (“ti” to its fans) used to be the “super-aluminum,” a light and expensive metal that dampens vibration well and thus solves aluminum’s problems. Everything it does, carbon does better, so “ti” is pretty much of interest to custom builders and people who don’t want to deal with carbon’s relative fragility (people shipping their bike by air, for instance).

Carbon is the material for all quality mass-produced road bikes now. It’s the lightest of the frame materials, and it can be tuned—layered up to shape the feel and handling of the bike. Carbon has taken bike performance and comfort to a previously unimagined level. It’s basically plastic, so some people always worry that it will break, but it now has a long and successful track record so you needn’t worry. I’ve had two frames break, and both were titanium. Carbon also used to be basically unrepairable, so a damaged frame had to be discarded, but they’ve learned a lot and carbon is now as repairable as alloy. Carbon’s only drawbacks are: 1) it fails catastrophically when it fails, unlike metal, which bends; and 2) since carbon frames are made from very expensive molds, manufacturers are reluctant to make carbon bikes in eight different sizes, so you may end up choosing between small, medium, and large. Still, try to spend what it takes to get a carbon frame.

There’s an argument out there that goes like this: expensive carbon bikes are great, but cheap carbon bikes aren’t because they’re heavy and they lack the tuning (thus, all the virtues of carbon), so you’re better off with a good aluminum bike. Since you can buy a nice full carbon bike at your LBS (local bike shop) for $1400 on sale, I’m not persuaded by this argument.

Places to Buy a Bike

You have several choices about where to shop for a bike: Internet super-stores, Internet auction houses and resale lists (eBay, Craig’s List), online bike companies, friends and personal connections, rental bikes for sale, individual builders, and your LBS. Each has its own virtues and vices.

Where to Buy New

Internet super-stores. These are basically Amazons for bikes online. The reputation of the well-known ones—Performance, Competitive Cyclist, Colorado Cyclist, Chain Reaction—is impeccable, so you needn’t worry about being cheated. As with everything online, the prices are low, because there are no brick and mortar overhead costs, and the stores have constant sales where the prices get lower, often amazingly low. You can sign up on their email list and they’ll alert you when the sales are on, which seems to be every day. The selection can be large or it can be small—many stores, like REI, sell only their house brand, but it’s probably made in the same factory where all the other bikes are made and only differs by the label. Some stores cater to less high-tech riders (Nashbar); others are as high-end as you can get (Competitive Cyclist). Some make it hard to get good tech information about the product; some make it easy. Shopping on Competitive Cyclist is an education, like going to a top-level cycling tech university. Look to see if the website has an easy way to ask questions about products—the real-time chat line is best, the “ask a question and get an answer next day” approach next best.

The drawbacks to the online store are 1) you can’t demo the product, so you’re buying blind unless you know exactly what you want (though some e-stores have generous return policies—Competitive Cyclist lets you ride a bike for 30 days, then return it no questions asked); 2) returns are expensive and awkward; 3) you aren’t building a relationship with humans, so after ten years of dealing with the company you’re still a number to them; 4) the company won’t be involved in the maintenance and repair of the bike, so the local wrenches who work on it won’t feel they owe you anything—the LBS attitude is, “If we sold it to you, we’re obliged to make it work for you”; 5) you can’t make small changes to the component package or ask that the bike be set up just so. In a LBS you can say, “I want the bike, but I want a shorter stem,” or “I want the bike but I want a 32-tooth cassette in the back,” and the shop, if it’s a good one, just swaps out the part. People who buy bikes from online stores are usually either people who know exactly what they want (and it’s what the store is selling), people who aren’t fussy about what they ride, or people who crave a bargain above having the bike just so.

Consumer-direct bike companies. Some bike manufacturers only sell through the Internet, from their website—what’s called “consumer-direct” marketing. Consumer-direct doesn’t mean cut-rate—Leopard, Fezzari, and Canyon sell this way, and their products are highly regarded. Since LBS mark-up is 40-50%, these makers can sell you a lot of bike for a little money. This is a good way to go if you know what you want and you know enough about bikes to understand what the maker is selling. Some makers are flexible and can accommodate personal desires about frame geometry, gearing, and such. Obviously you’d want to make sure of the maker’s reputation, and you probably would have no way of demoing the product first and so would be buying on faith.

Individual builders. Most of us will never have an opportunity to do this, but you can order a custom bike from an individual builder. In this process, you contact the builder personally, the two of you go through a lengthy process of figuring out exactly what you want, then the builder makes your bike. It’s expensive and usually slow (often the famous builders have a wait time of months or years) and is usually the culmination of a rider’s bike buying career. Go this route if you have special needs (like, you’re 6’8” tall), have ridden long enough to know exactly what you want, have a lot of patience and money, and take great pleasure in owning a unique, hand-made product.

The local bike shop. I think you should buy your bike here. The list of advantages is long. 1) You can demo the bike. 2) You can return it if you don’t like it. 3) You will get your bike serviced by the people who sold it, so they’ll know it well, they’ll know you, and they’ll be committed to the bike and you. 4) You’ll pay a little more, but you won’t pay shipping, and LBS’s typically will discount any new bike about 10% below retail, or more if they’re having a sale. 5) You’ll be able to do some swapping out of parts and thus get exactly the bike you want. 6) You’ll get free tune-ups, for at least a year and, if the bike shop is really supportive, for life. 7) You’ll be buying a lifetime of technical advice—because you bought the bike from them, the staff will answer questions about bike fit, gear choices, and (within reason) bike mechanics and repair forever. 8) You’ll get a basic bike fit with purchase (saddle height adjust, saddle fore-and-aft adjust, stem length and angle set-up). 9) You’ll get some freebies included, like water bottle cages and water bottles—if they aren’t offered, negotiate for them. 10) (And this is perhaps the best reason to buy from a local brick and mortar store) You’ll help keep the shop in business, which means that they’ll be there to repair your bike, sell you replacement parts, advise you on upgrades, and all the good things LBS’s do. Imagine living in a community without a bike shop—every time something goes awry with your bike, what are you going to do? Drive to the nearest big city, drop your bike off at a bike shop, and rent a motel room until it’s fixed?

The only disadvantages to the LBS are price and limited choice. All bike shops contract with specific bike brands to sell their bikes and only their bikes. The typical bike shop will sell three brands, and the salesperson should be able to clearly tell you the differences between them. If you want to demo lots of different brands, you’ll have to go to several bike shops. A shop can tell you the advantages of the bikes they sell, but it’s unfair to ask them to compare their bikes to those from other shops. That’s your job.

One way you must not buy a bike is to demo it at your LBS, tap the expertise of all the LBS salespeople, and then buy it discounted online. This is theft. You’re stealing the shop’s demo service and expertise. Unless you honestly can’t find what you want locally, once you use the LBS’s services you’re morally obligated to buy from them or some other local shop.

Is Buying a Used Bike a Wise Move?

Buying a used bike is a much safer act than, say, buying a used car, because 1) most of the bike is visible and thus its condition will be apparent, 2) a bike is a mechanically simple thing, so you don’t have to worry about expensive, catastrophic repairs that make themselves known only after purchase, and 3) recent advances in road bike technology are fairly subtle (which is why a road bike from 1950 looks almost exactly like a road bike from 2020), so a five-year-old bike is only slightly less wonderful than a new bike, and the differences may well be imperceptible to any but the most discerning rider. I know a lot of very serious riders who are happily riding around on 20-year-old bikes. Plus, used prices are good—expect a used bike in excellent shape to go for about half the new cost. So the used bike market is alive and well, and worth your consideration.

If you buy an eight-year-old bike, what might you not get that a new bike might give you? Let’s separate the features into those that matter a lot and those that matter less.

Things that matter a lot:

  • Disc brakes—with an old bike, you won’t be able to stop as quickly or brake in the rain
  • Tire clearance—you won’t be able to run big tires, so you won’t have the traction necessary to ride in dirt and gravel

Things that matter less:

  • Compliant geometry—your bike will be more jarring over rough surfaces
  • Thru-axles—your old bike will be flexier
  • Electronic shifting
  • Eleven or twelve rear cogs instead of ten
  • A lower granny gear
  • Wider rims
  • A single chain ring
  • Flared handlebars
  • Suspension

Of all these things, only the lower granny gear can realistically be upgraded.

We’ll talk about mechanical shifting (pulling on wire cables) vs. electronic shifting (sending an electrical signal) in the Components chapter, but it’s something to think about when bike shopping because you’ll be choosing between the two with any new bike purchase. Electronic shifting used to be a high-end luxury, but it’s becoming more common on lower-end bikes, and I’ve even heard industry reps say that mechanical shifting will become extinct soon. SRAM just (in 2021) brought out a wireless gruppo for the previously-unheard-of low price of $1400, and complete bikes with wireless gruppos can now be had for the distinctly mid-range price of $3500. Not that this is a wholly good thing. Electronic shifting is a black box you can’t understand or service yourself, so it’s another barrier creating distance between you and your bike. It’s hard to imagine how much this matters until you work on your own bike and experience the bonding this produces. For this reason, I don’t want electronic shifting at any price, despite the obvious performance benefits it brings.

The main drawback to buying a used bike is, it’s very hard to find a bike that is exactly what you want. At first this seems counter-intuitive—all bikes have two wheels, a handlebar, and gears and look pretty much the same. But the reality is, there are lots of variables (as this chapter makes clear), and you’d like them all to go your way.

Most obviously, the used bike has to be your size, which means 80% of used bikes for sale are off the table. But there are many other factors. You want the geometry to fit your riding style—the right amount of cush or stiffness, the right sort of handling (not too twitchy, not too laid back), the right amount of aggressiveness in the riding position (not too bent over, not too upright). You want the gearing that suits your age, strength level, and riding conditions. You want a bike designed for the kind of riding you’re going to be doing, from hardcore road racing (where weight and aero are everything) to gravel-road bike packing (where weight and aero are nothing). If you’re going to be touring, you want frame space and mounts for at least 3 water bottles, a frame stout enough for racks and panniers, and all parts generic enough to be repaired at any well-stocked bike shop. If you’re going to ride rough dirt roads you need clearance for 45-mm tires. And it goes on. The odds against finding a recently-made used bike in good condition that checks all your personal boxes are very high, so you’re probably looking at compromise—buying a bike that isn’t quite what you want.

Where to Buy Used

Online marketplaces (eBay, Craig’s List). The disadvantages here are obvious and major: you don’t know who you’re buying from, you have to hope someone’s selling what you’re looking for, you can’t demo the product before buying, returns are difficult, you can’t make alterations in the product, it’s hard to get detailed information on what you’re buying, scams and cons are everywhere, and on and on. There’s only one advantage: price. You can get steals, if you know exactly what you’re buying, what shape it’s in, and what it’s worth. And you can’t assume that something on eBay is cheap. Nor can you assume that something on eBay is what it says it is—there is a knock-off industry that flawlessly mimics the products of reputable brands, but without the quality.

Craig’s List is better, only because it’s usually local, so you can actually connect with the seller, meet with them, see the product, and have some recourse if the deal goes south.

Friends and fellow club members. Every cycling community is full of people upgrading and selling off their old bikes and components. If you can find a seller you know, or is known by people you know, who’s selling equipment that’s been little-used (usually a “bought it, didn’t like it” or a “liked it but want to upgrade” situation), you can make out like a bandit. The only drawback is the “never lend money to a friend” principle—feelings can get hurt and cycling relationships ruined if the deal goes south. These deals usually are conducted by word of mouth or via email lists, club websites, or cycling chat rooms.

Rental bikes for sale. Bike stores, bike touring companies, and other places that rent or demo bikes usually sell those bikes off every year so they can keep renting or demoing the latest. These bikes are well-used but well-maintained, they’re typically only a year old, and the sellers need to get rid of them so the prices are low. You can’t get a high-end bike this way, since no one rents or demos a high-end bike, but you can get a serviceable mid-range bike. Ask in bike shops (especially in vacation bike destinations) or query touring companies like Western Spirit and ask when the annual sale of their rental fleet takes place. This website was set up by ex-pro’s to help other pro’s sell their gear—bikes, jerseys, etc.—left over from previous seasons. I once bought a pair of bibs previously used by Christian Vande Velde there. It’s trustworthy and definitely worth a look, but it turns out not to be very useful to first-time bike buyers, because pro bikes are rarely what a beginning rider wants. Such bikes are expensive, even used, and they’re stiff, with aggressive (bent-over) geometry and high (hard to pedal) gearing—the exact opposite of what I’m recommending you buy. BikeExchange, a similar online marketplace, might offer the same security while offering a wider range of bikes. This website allows you to enter any not-too-old bike by make, model, year, and condition (like-new, etc.) and gives you an approximate resale value. Consult it as soon as you locate a used bike you’re considering buying, to make sure the asking price is in the ballpark.

Choosing a Bike Shop

Cyclists have a saying: “You’re not buying a bike, you’re buying a bike shop.” Since all bikes from reputable brands are about the same, the deciding factor in which bike you buy is often not the bike but the shop that’s selling it to you. Because your relationship with that shop will be life-long. You’re going to go in there hundreds of times over the next decades, to get tune-ups and repairs, buy replacement parts and clothing, get advice on gear, local ride routes, and mechanical issues, or upgrade when you’re ready to go to the next level. So buy the bike that’s being sold by the store where you feel welcome, comfortable, and heard. Here are some things to look for:

Does the place feel comfy? Is there room for you to hang out? Lots of bike shops have coffee, TV sets showing cycling videos, sofas, good lighting, reading material for your use. Lots of others are dark, dingy holes.

Are you welcomed? The number-one complaint about cycling among newbies (especially women) is, “I went in the store and stood there while I got ignored.” The number-two complaint is, “I felt like I was interrupting something important.”

Does the salesperson listen to you? Do they ask you questions and process your answers? Do they check to make sure you’re following them? Do they speak in a language you can understand? Do you flat-out like them?

Do you feel pressured to spend more money that you want to?

Is the salesperson clear about what you get if you upgrade? The best bike salesperson I’ve ever known would say to a customer, “Buy this bike if you’re just going to ride around town; buy this other bike if you’re going to do long rides; buy this other bike if you’re going to ride centuries; buy this other bike if you’re going to race.”

Is the service area accessible to you? Some bike shops have a service area in a back room where you’re not allowed to go. My bike shop has the service area in a corner, and you’re welcome to walk in there, stand beside the wrench (the mechanic), and ask him what he’s doing and why. If you can’t do this, a) you’ll have no idea what was done to your bike when you took it in for servicing, and b) you’ll never learn anything. Even if you don’t want to become a wrench yourself, you want to know things, like a) What went wrong to cause the problem? b) How do I prevent it? c) Is there a part/mechanical approach/way of riding that you think works better than the one I’m using? If the bike simply vanishes into a back room and reappears fixed, you’ll never get answers to such questions.

Are the salespeople, the desk clerks, and the wrenches the same people? If you hand your bike over for repair to one person who isn’t a mechanic and it’s worked on by someone else who is, and then the repaired bike is given back to someone who isn’t a mechanic to be returned to you, you’ll never know what happened and you can’t learn. You’ll ask, “What was the problem? How was it fixed?” and the answer will be, “I don’t know—it just says here, ‘Fix derailleur—$30.’”

Will the wrenches talk to you? Many wrenches wrench on bikes because they don’t want to deal with humans. Every encounter with such will be like pulling teeth (yours). Find a staff that makes the time to chat. I know one wrench who, if I ask about which pedals they like, reacts as if they’re pleased to discuss the question. I know another who reacts as if I’m a fool and a pain in their ass. I name no names.

Do they remember you? In any good shop the staff should maintain an on-going relationship with you, so when you walk in you hear, “Hey, how are those new shifters working? Did that knee pain go away? How was your bike trip to Utah?”

Will they cheerfully weigh something for you? It’s a classic test of a shop’s willingness to share your passion: you’re shopping for a tire or a stem, you say, “What does it weigh?”, and they either say, “Let’s find out” and stick it on their scale or they look pained and say something like “Oh, it’s light.”

Will they let you demo components and exchange them for free if you don’t like them? This issue usually rears its head regarding saddles. A supportive shop says, “Try this saddle for a week—if you don’t like it, bring it back and we’ll try something else.” My LBS even lets you do this with shoes.

Is all that asking too much? Hell no. Treating you well is their job. To be crass about it, if you buy a first bike from them you may well end up buying three bikes and decades’ worth of parts, clothing, and accessories in there, so you’re going to be giving them at least $15,000 over time. This makes you entitled.

Questions to Ask the Salesperson

You don’t want to get into a bike-nerd pissing contest with the salesperson, but you do want to know some things. And even if you don’t, you want to see how they handle questions. Here are some good ones. If they don’t make sense to you now, they will as you read further into the book:

How many rear cogs does it have? (10 is yesterday’s technology. Standard is 11. Tomorrow is 12.)

Does it have disc brakes or rim brakes? (Rim brakes are yesterday’s technology. Discs are better all-around—though they are slightly heavier and require a bit more TLC.)

What’s the tire clearance? (Bike frames can only take tires up to a certain width. Standard road tires used to be 23mm wide, now are at least 25mm and often 28mm or 32mm. Older performance-oriented bikes often can’t take tires larger than 25 mm. If you’re all about performance, get a bike with room for at least a 28 mm tire. If you are interested in your riding comfort or want to ride dirt or gravel, you’ll want room for tires as big as 38 mm-42mm. This is not the same question as “How big are the tires?”, which doesn’t matter—we don’t care what is on the bike, we care what can go on the bike.)

What’s the service package? (Any shop should give you a year of free tune-ups. A great shop will give you tune-ups for life.)

How much does the bike weigh? (Even if you don’t care, they should be cheerful about answering. If they don’t know off-hand, that’s no crime, but they should be interested in finding out. If they are reluctant to weigh the bike, or if they cite the “claimed weight,” they aren’t on your side, since “claimed weight” is a fictional weight claimed by the bike company with no connection to reality.)

Is it a road bike, gravel bike, aero bike or what? Does the bike have “performance geometry” or “endurance geometry”? (Even if you don’t know which you want yet, they should handle this question with ease.)

What do I gain if I go up to the more expensive model? (This can be a hard question to answer, but it’s educational to see how well the salesperson handles it.)

What is the granny gear ratio? (I’ll explain this in the Components chapter, but it’s a measure of how easy the bike is to pedal up a hill. The right answer is “X-Y,” where X is slightly bigger, equal to, or less than Y, as in 34-32, 34-34, or 34-38. If the answer is something else, ask if they’ll change it out for something easier to pedal for free.)

Do I get a free water bottle and water bottle cage? Is there a package deal on a helmet and other necessities? Can I have a shop T-shirt? (Traditionally, shops throw in water bottles and cages with bike purchases, and they often sell packages of a helmet and other necessities at an attractive price if you buy a bike.)

How many components on this bike are proprietary?

How wide are the rims? (15 mm is too small; 17 is OK; 19 is better)

The rationale of all these questions is discussed in various places in this book.

Choosing a Bike

Bikes Are Frames with Components on Them

Bike companies don’t really make bikes—they make bike frames, then buy parts (called “components”) from component makers and hang them on the frames. Makers typically make one model (for example, the Trek Madone) at several different prices, and all but the priciest use the same frame but use more or less expensive components. Thus a $1200 bike named the Whatever 1.0 and a $6000 bike named the Whatever 7.0 may be identical except that the wheels, derailleurs, handlebar, and so on are lighter and higher quality. Understanding this is key to bike shopping. It translates into this: you try out different bikes until you find a frame that feels good to you, then decide what quality of components you want or what you can afford. There may be as many as 6 or 7 different bikes at different prices, all using the same frame. However, this is not always the case, and a good question to ask the salesperson is, “Do they use the same frame throughout the model line?” The Trek Madones, like other lines, use two different frames, one for all the low-end and middle-range bikes, and a better, lighter one for the high-end iterations. The difference between the two is usually nothing but weight.

Bike models often have names: Pro, Team, Elite, Expert, Superlight. These names mean nothing. Don’t use them to gauge a bike’s quality. Often the “Pro” is the bike company’s cheapest model. Ask your salesperson which model is better than which other and why, and check the company website. Models sometimes go in numerical sequence: the Whatever 5 is usually better than the Whatever 4, the 4000 is usually better than the 3000.

Since the only difference between the $2000 bike and the $3000 bike will be the quality of its components, you have to become knowledgeable about components. Luckily, the industry makes it pretty easy. 99% of all components on good bikes are made by three companies: Shimano, SRAM (usually pronounced “shram”), and Campagnolo (“Campy” to us riders). They’re all totally fine and you’ll be happy with any of them. I’d be leery of any bike fitted out with any other brand.

Shimano is the Establishment—solid, respectable, and as omnipresent as Toyotas. SRAM is the rebel upstart, newer than Shimano and consciously trying to be more cutting-edge than them. SRAM components are slightly cheaper than Shimano per gram, and their shifting is noisier on purpose—a clunk to Shimano’s whisper. Campy is much less common than the other two in America, old and very Italian, more expensive than the others, and harder to repair (in America) because of its rarity. I was once on a bike tour with a friend who was riding Campy gear. He broke a shifter cable, which is normally no big deal and can be fixed in ten minutes, but because it was a Campy shifter cable none of the stock cables we were carrying would work and he had to ride his bike as a single-speed for the rest of the tour. Unless you’re in love with the Italian mystique, I’d avoid Campy.

Each of the three component makers makes components at three price points. Since everything they make is good, let’s call them good, better, and best (or moderately priced, expensive, and very expensive). Shimano’s three levels are called 105, Ultegra, and Dura-Ace. SRAM’s are called Rival, Force, and Red (there’s no logic to these names, I know). Campy’s are called Centaur, Chorus, and Record. Campy actually has a fourth, most-expensive line, Super Record, but it’s not on our radar. Again, they’re all good, so all you’re gaining if you upgrade is less weight and a slight improvement in performance. More expensive components won’t last longer—the bike industry doesn’t think like that. Gravel bikes sometimes have components designed especially for them, with their own names.

New bikes tend to be spec’d (fitted out) with a gruppo (Italian for “group”), a set of components that are designed to work together. A gruppo includes shifters, derailleurs, brakes, crankset, chain ring, cassette, and sometimes chain. Thus you can expect to hear your salesperson talk about “Ultegra bikes” and “Rival bikes”—bikes that are spec’d with Ultegra throughout or Rival throughout. If you mix and match components across gruppos (run an Ultegra cassette and a 105 derailleur, for instance) you may experience some fall-off in performance or find the parts simply won’t fit together. If you mix brands (a Shimano cassette and a SRAM derailleur) the likelihood of such problems increases. Component makers often go out of their way to discourage you from doing such mixing.

Complete Bike or Build-Up?

There are two ways to buy a bike at an LBS. You can buy a complete bike, or you build up your own: you buy a frame, then hand-pick the components and have the bike shop assemble the mélange for you. All bike shops are used to working both ways.

The advantages to building your own are obvious. You get exactly the saddle you want, instead of the saddle the factory decided to spec the bike with, and so on. Bike makers tend to spec bikes at about the same level of quality throughout, so if you want to upgrade certain components (for instance, you want the SRAM Red cassette and crankset, which is where most of the Red weigh loss is, but none of the other Red components) you might want to do your own build. Or if you have idiosyncratic wants (an ultra-light frame with unusually low gearing, for instance). And it’s just tons of fun to pick your saddle, a handlebar, and so on and get everything just so. I have fond memories of long conversations with my LBS guru about the relative merits of various seatposts when we were building up my bike. But if you don’t have special needs, it’s always easier and cheaper to go with the complete bike, because bike companies pay much less for components than you do. And if you don’t have expertise, you won’t know what components you want anyway, so it’s best to be led by the bike makers and your salesperson (but see “Swapping Out Components” below for a qualifier to that, and for a complete education see the Components chapter).

Some high-end bike companies (like many Italian companies) only sell frames. Other companies (like Trek) only want to sell compete bikes and purposely make it expensive to buy just a frame.

How Much Should You Spend?

Quality bikes range from $1400 to $14,000. Let’s talk about what you’re getting for your money along that spectrum.

More expensive bikes aren’t stronger and won’t last longer. It doesn’t work like that. More expensive usually means lighter, and lighter often means less long-lasting. The $250 bike from Kmart will last forever. Some ultra-expensive racing tires are good for around 500 miles, which is a little more than a week to a racer.

There are no bargains. Assuming you’re buying from your LBS and it isn’t the annual sale day, there are no cheap great bikes and no expensive bad bikes. There is no $2000 bike that is better than the $3000 bike. The good bike costs more than the OK bike. The great bike costs more than the good bike. The 15-lb bike costs more than the 16-lb bike, which costs more than the 17-lb bike, and so on. No bike maker has figured out how to give you significantly more value for your buck than the other makers, and everyone has the same profit margin (with the exception of the consumer-direct seller). So relax and decide how much you can afford to spend, knowing that every additional dollar will buy you another dollar’s worth of quality.

Buy the best version of the bike you will ever want (if you can). Most novices buy the cheapest bike that will do the job, figuring if they love the sport and get serious they’ll upgrade to better components. That’s perfectly understandable and doable, but it’s expensive. A complete bike costs about half what the frame and all the components cost separately, because the bike makers buy their components by the thousands, get a bulk rate, and actually do pass the savings on to you. Thus a Red gruppo, SRAM’s most expensive component package, costs only a little less than some entire bikes with Red gruppos. So if you buy the inexpensive bike, then upgrade it piece by piece, you’ll end up spending over twice what the upgraded bike would cost if you bought it as a whole, since you’re not only buying the parts individually (thus at huge mark-up), but you’re buying each part twice, once in its cheap form and once in its expensive form. If it’s financially impossible for you to buy the better bike, so be it, but push yourself to buy the best bike you can. It’s just good business.

Don’t talk yourself out of buying a good bike. People shopping for their first road bike often shy away from buying anything beyond an entry-level bike, arguing, “I don’t ride all that much/ I’m not a serious rider,” and so on. In other words, a nice bike has to be earned. Here’s good news: you don’t have to do anything to “earn” a nice bike other than pay the money. You don’t have to ride 3 times a week, average 8,000 miles a year, race, set the tempo at the club ride, or anything else. It’s just a bunch of metal and plastic. If it’s fun to own it, go for it. People rarely think like this in other areas. Nobody thinks you have to run 4-minute miles to justify owning good running shoes. I can’t count the number of poor guitarists I know who are playing on magnificent Taylor or Martin guitars or poor golfers with top-of-the-line clubs, all without a trace of guilt.

A related worry is, “If I have a nice bike I’ll worry about crashing it/ it being stolen.” So buy homeowner’s insurance and don’t worry. Again, it’s just a bunch of metal and plastic. As we cyclists say, “A bike theft is an excuse to upgrade.” On your death bed, are you going to say to yourself, “I sure am glad I didn’t buy that expensive bike, so it didn’t get stolen”?

A good bike justifies the expense over time. If you buy a $10,000 bike and go for 250 rides a year for forty years, that’s only $1 a ride. Isn’t a dream ride worth a dollar?

So how much bike will $X buy you?

$1800 to $2200: the entry-level bike. “Entry” here means “entry into the world of serious performance cycling,” not “first bike for 10-year-old Tommy who’s learning to ride.” This bike is absolutely OK and some people spend their lives riding one. But it’s relatively heavy, and most riders who stick with the sport end up wanting something lighter and with better performance. For instance, the bearings in a $2000 bike don’t roll as easily as the bearings in a $5000 bike.

$2300 to $4500: this gets you a bike you can easily live with for the rest of your life. The industry consensus is, up to about $4500, you get significant bang for each additional buck—you feel the pay-off from spending more. The weight plummets. The hubs roll more smoothly. The shifters shift with less effort. The bike just “feels” more responsive. After that, the gains are subtler and more expensive, and the weigh losses measure in grams, not pounds.

$4500 to $8000: serious bike country. There is still a pay-off from spending more, but the gains are harder to define and more about nuances. All easily-shed weight has been shed, so it’s expensive to drop 40 grams. I don’t know if a novice rider can tell the difference between a 5K bike and an 8K bike, but an experienced rider can.

$9000 plus: dream bike country. You’re not wasting your money, but each slight gain in weight, performance, and “feel” comes at enormous expense.

Why Do Bikes Cost So Much?

People who are new to buying bikes, or are just watching others spend thousands on them, always ask, “Why does a good bike cost more than a good motorcycle? After all, the motorcycle has 100 times as much metal, and more engineering, plus an engine.” That’s a perfectly reasonable question. After all, some bike frames alone cost $5000, and that’s a lot for what is literally eight short plastic tubes stuck together. And there’s a perfectly good answer to that question.

The first thing that needs saying is, you aren’t getting cheated— it’s not that cyclists are suckers who will pay anything without question, it’s not all about fashion/snob appeal, or any such thing. Nor are the makers of $8000 bikes amassing great fortunes from their profits. The $8000 bike is really worth $8000.

The second thing that needs saying is, you can make a perfectly decent bike for $200. Walmart sells such bikes all the time. But that bike has an advantage over the $8000 bike: it’s sold by the tens of thousands, so it can be mass-produced by machines in an automated factory and sold for the slimmest of profit margins. The $5000 frame is made by hand (it’s not called a “hand-made” bicycle, but it is made by people putting together pieces with their hands—cutting, laying up, gluing, sanding, painting, etc.) in relatively tiny numbers, so the costs are high and the profit margin must be fairly large. It’s the same reason that a modest family car costs $25K and an equivalent sailboat costs $100K.

But the main reason why an expensive bike is expensive is because it has to accomplish a combination of incredibly difficult, mutually exclusive engineering tasks. It has to be light, impossibly light—a high-end bike frame weighs less than 2 pounds—yet strong enough to ride into a large pothole at 50 mph and come out unscathed. This combination of mutually exclusive virtues is sought by few products in this world, and every one of them is absurdly expensive. A Formula One race car cares as much about weight as a road bike does, and for that reason (and because it’s a one-off) costs millions of dollars. America’s Cup racing yachts again care mightily about weight and are one-offs, and as a result have masts that by themselves cost a million dollars each.

But a good road bike has to be more than light and strong at the same time. It has to be what bike people call “vertically compliant and laterally stiff.” That means it has to have enough flex in the vertical plane to keep you from getting jarred with every wrinkle in the road, yet resist flexing side to side, because sideways flex robs you of power. To bring off this second kind of magic, the bike makers have to “tune” every tube in the frame, adjusting thicknesses and controlling the lay-up (the wrapping process) of the carbon fiber cloth so the bike is strong in certain directions and yielding in others. And that has to be done by hand, with an enormous amount of craftsmanship, after an enormous amount of computer stress analysis.

If your bike is aero (shaped to go through the air easily), that’s a third characteristic, mutually exclusive with the other two, that has to be engineered in, at great expense.

And that’s it. If you don’t need a bike that’s light, strong, “tuned” for a comfortable ride and an efficient transfer of power to the road simultaneously, and aero, you can buy the mass-produced $200 bike and be happy.

Finding Your Size

Bike sizing is confusing. First, there are two sizing systems. One (usually found in carbon frames) is like T shirts, XS/S/M/L/XL. A medium fits someone about 5’10”, a large someone about 6’ or 6’1”. The other system gives size in centimeters. Each bike maker decides exactly which sizes they’re going to make, but a size range might be 47 cm, 49 cm, 52 cm, 54 cm, 56 cm, 58 cm, and 60 cm, with 54 cm normally fitting someone 5’10”. That number is the length of the seat tube. Both of these measuring systems are useless and should be ignored.

In broadest terms, bike fit comes down to 1) how far you have to reach to get to the brake levers, and 2) how far down you have to reach to get to the handlebar drops. But the latter is controllable by changing head spacers, stems, and handlebars, so you don’t need to choose a bike for its drop.

The only dimension that matters in fitting a bike—the only adjustment that can’t easily to altered by fiddling with components—is the size of the effective top tube (ETT), the horizontal distance from the center of the seat post to the center top of the head tube, which is often called the cockpit. This measurement determines how far forward you have to reach, how much you have to bend over, how straight your arms have to be, and generally how you feel on the bike. Yet bike makers and salespeople ignore this key measurement, so much so that you can’t even find out what it is without carrying around your own tape measure. To make this more challenging, if you’re new to cycling you have no idea what sitting on a bike should feel like, so you can’t tell if you’re too upright, too stretched out, or what. And I wish I could say it didn’t matter, but it does—if you’re a 54 cm frame person and you get sold a 56 cm frame, you’ll be unhappy.

For some reason, bike fitters often prefer judging a frame’s size by reach instead of the ETT. Reach is the horizontal distance between the top of the head tube and a vertical line drawn up from the center of the bottom bracket. It is therefore a fraction of the ETT length. It’s harder to measure physically, since you need to drop a plumb line through the bottom bracket and note where that line intersects the imaginary line that is the ETT, and I don’t see why it’s preferable. Either ETT or reach will give you an indication of how big the cockpit is, which is what you need.

There is no standard ETT length that equals “medium” or “large.” Instead, measure the ETT’s of the bikes you test ride and compare: a longer ETT = larger frame = bigger bike.

Don’t let the salesperson have you stand over the top tube with your feet on the floor and draw conclusions about how well the bike fits from the clearance between the top tube and your crotch. It’s called stand-over height, it’s a common sizing method, and it’s meaningless. Don’t let the salesperson tell you that you can make a cockpit fit you by moving the saddle fore and aft or changing the stem length—these things can be done, but they’re likely to screw up your pedaling or the bike’s handling (see the Stem and Saddle discussion in the Components chapter for an explanation), so you’re trading in a big problem for a bigger one.

So here’s what you’re going to do: decide if you’re a small, medium, or large person. Go try out a bike that is supposed to fit you (if you’re a medium-size person with normal proportions, a medium or 54 cm frame). See how comfortable you feel. You should feel at ease sitting on the bike with your hands resting behind (not on) the hoods. It’s part of the LBS’s job to help you with this. An experienced salesperson should be able to look at you sitting on the bike and say, “That looks good.” Measure the effective top tube. If the bike feels good, that measurement is your “size,” and you can use it to check to see if another bike is your size as well. If you feel stretched out, look for a bike whose ETT is shorter. And so on.

You can seek objective corroboration. LBS’s often have machines that can predict your size for about $80 (not the full-blown bike fit we talk about in Advanced Techniques, which costs $150-$300), and it’s worth the money. There are dozens of websites with bike-fitting charts and algorithms. Just google “bike fit.” They’re fun and they’ll get you in the ballpark, but they like to make their calculations from your inseam, whereas what matters is the flexibility of your spine (how much you like to bend over) and your reach (the length of your torso and your arms). In the end, you have to ride the bike, and only you can say what feels right.

A nice introduction to measuring a bicycle frame is here.

How to Demo a Bike

There are three places where you can demo a bike: your LBS, bike festivals, and demo days.

All LBS’s should have bikes you can take out for a ride for free. There are some unwritten rules about this. 1) Don’t do it unless you are serious about buying a bike—if you aren’t, pay the rental fee. 2) You’re entitled to go for a good, long ride. Some bike stores ask that demo rides be limited to one hour, which seems niggardly to me and would be a black mark against that shop in my book. 3) You can demo the bike and decide to buy a different bike from another shop, but don’t demo the bike then buy the same bike online on the cheap. 4) If you’ve been riding a road bike, bring your saddle, your pedals, and your shoes, so you can compare what you’ve been riding and what you’re demoing as closely as possible. 5) Bring a scale, since the salespeople won’t know what the bike weighs and the bike’s claimed weight is a lie. 6) Know your saddle height (distance from the center of the crank to the top of the saddle) so you can replicate it on the demo. 7) Bring a tape measure, so you can compare the cockpit dimensions to that of any other bike you demo.

Bike stores can’t afford to stock $8000 bikes in various sizes. So any bike you demo will be an entry-level bike or a mid-range bike. If you’re buying your first bike, that probably won’t be a problem. But if you’re looking to move up to the top of the line, you’ll have to ride the low- or mid-range bike and imagine what it would be like if it were lighter, sweeter, and faster.

Better places than LBS’s to demo bikes are at a bike festival and at a Demo Day, because the selection is better. At a bike festival with an expo (a bike fair populated with pavilions set up by bike companies), like The Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, CA, the bike companies will be set up for you to demo their bikes, they’ll have a wide selection, and they may have their high-end bikes for you. You can demo 3 or 4 in a day, without any implied commitment to buy. Bring your shoes, pedals, helmet, and ID. Afterwards, say thank you and tell them you loved the bike. It’s only polite.

A Demo Day is a day when the bike company big rig comes to a bike shop in your town and lets you try out their bikes. Again, they’re actually hoping you’ll do the demo, so they’re supportive and cheerful about it. You find out about Demo Days by being on bike company email lists or local bike shop email lists. Demo Days are no more likely to have high-end bikes to demo than the shops are, but sometimes you get lucky.

On the demo ride, put the bike through its paces. Don’t just ride down the road. All bikes roll sweetly at moderate speed in a straight line on the level on smooth roads. See how the bike does the hard things: ride no-hands—how steady is it? Ride over rough road surfaces, gravel, and railroad tracks—how much road buzz is coming through to your hands? Ride on the fog line—how well does it hold its line? Ride a steep hill—how light does the bike feel? Sprint—do you feel any flex side to side? Descent through a series of fast esses—does the bike steer itself through the turns or do you have to wrestle it to take your line? Ride for at least an hour—how does your body feel?

Focus on three issues:

  1. How “compliant” is the bike? How much pounding are you taking? Does the bike seem to absorb road chatter, or does it deliver it unmuted to your butt and arms?
  1. How “twitchy” is the bike? All bikes exist along a spectrum of steering sensitivity. At one extreme are the sports cars—twitchy, hyper-sensitive animals that need constant attention and a skilled hand. They seem to turn by themselves. At the other extreme are the buses—bikes that like to maintain a straight line and tend to ignore input from you. You have to muscle them through turns.

Number 1 and Number 2 are usually related: the more compliant a bike is, the less twitchy it is. But not necessarily.

  1. What’s your unquantifiable gut reaction to the bike? How much joy do you feel on it? We can get so into cockpit measurements and bike weights that we ignore what our heart is telling us, but joy is a fairly permanent feeling, and it’s what the sport is all about. Once I helped a friend buy a bike. We demoed four bikes, all in the same price range, from four shops on four days. None of the bikes was “better” than the others. Three he liked. One he instantly loved. For no reason. He bought the one he loved, and is still happy he did.

Buy Two Bikes

Don’t scream—hear me out. The oldest joke in cycling is “N+1,” which is a formula for how many bikes you need, N being the number of bikes you presently own. Without going that far, it’s true that it’s a rare cyclist who only owns one bike. You need a second bike to

  • ride in the rain
  • ride in a high-crime area
  • ride on gravel and dirt
  • take on airplane flights
  • ride when your #1 ride is in the shop

You can buy the quiver-killer, the bike that does everything, but it won’t make that list go away. It needn’t be a big expense—my local college has an annual abandoned bike sale where perfectly acceptable steel road bikes go for $25.

Swapping Out Components

Before you put down cash for your chosen bike, you might want to negotiate a change for some of the parts. Those parts were chosen by some bike company spec’er, who used whatever the bike company could get a good deal on, or whatever she thought you wanted, or whatever the current fad is. Your needs may differ. Your LBS should be willing to do at least some part swapping, if it doesn’t involve a lot of labor or a lot of money. The most likely candidates for swapping at time of purchase are:

  • Stems—you may want a shorter one, or a steeper one.
  • Rear cassettes—you may want lower gearing. The norm for road riding keeps getting lower/easier, so ask for something close to 1-to-1 (e.g. 34/32, which means 34 teeth in the front, 32 in the back). The smaller the first number gets and the larger the second number gets, the easier the bike is to pedal. SRAM now offers a 30/36 granny gear, god bless ’em.
  • Pedals—you will want clipless pedals, and the bike may come with platforms (you’ll have to pay for this one).
  • Saddles—no manufacturer can predict which saddle shape will fit your bottom.
  • Handlebars—if you know you want a short reach or short drop.

The logic behind all these changes is explained in the Components chapter.