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Choosing a bike

    If you're in the market for a new bicycle, you may be overwhelmed by the variety of bikes available. Walk into a bike shop and you'll find mountain bikes, road bikes, hybrid bikes, "comfort" bikes, cruisers, and BMX bikes. You'll find bikes made of aluminum, steel, and other more exotic materials with anywhere from 1 to 30 "speeds," and prices ranging from about $200 to over $6,000. While performance depends mostly on the engine (i.e., the rider), having the right bike for the kind of riding you plan to do does make a big difference.

    Most people on our "A", "B", and "C" rides use road bikes. On "D" rides, mountain and hybrid bikes seem to be more popular. Each type has advantages and disadvantages depending on what's most important to you. The information below provides an overview of the various options available with a particular emphasis on road bicycles.

    Where to Buy - visit our local SBRA Bike Shop Sponsors

    Where you buy your bike can be as important as which bike you buy. Bikes sold in department stores and sporting goods stores are often of low quality and are almost always poorly assembled and prepped. Some only come in one frame size, and there is usually no one available to help you choose an appropriate model. Most of the better bike brands are only sold in bike shops. When you buy a bike at a reputable bike shop, you can be confident that it was assembled properly, and that the shop and manufacturer will stand behind it. Click Here to view a list of our local SBRA Bike Shop Sponsors.

    Look for a shop that will patiently answer your questions, help you select an appropriate bike, and fit you properly. (It's best to go during their off-peak hours.) You will likely find that some shops are much more helpful and friendly than others. They should spend a significant amount of time on the fitting process. Remember that a bike that seems OK in the shop may not feel so comfortable after a long ride unless it's the right size and adjusted properly for your proportions.

    A good shop should be willing to swap a component for you if necessary. For example, you might need a shorter handlebar stem, different style pedals, or a more comfortable saddle. There may be a small charge if the replacement part is more expensive than the original.

    Road Bikes

    Road bikes are efficient due to their light weight and their narrow, high-pressure tires. In addition, their drop-style handlebars put the rider in a more aerodynamic position. These characteristics make road bikes better suited to long and/or fast rides.

    On the other hand, road bikes tend to be expensive, and some riders find the drop bars and narrow saddle uncomfortable. The lightweight, high-pressure tires can feel harsh on rough roads and are prone to flats.

    What to Look for in a Road Bike

    When shopping for a road bike, the three most important things to consider are fit, fit, and fit. Seriously, even the most expensive bike will be unsatisfactory if it doesn't fit you properly. And there's MUCH more to fit than being able to straddle the top tube. (Click here to read our recommendations for getting the right size bike and setting it up correctly.) Resist the temptation to buy a bike on sale that "almost" fits. You wouldn't buy the wrong size shoes to save a few dollars. Bikes are no different.

    Road bikes come in a variety of styles. At one extreme, you'll find ultra-light, short wheelbase racing models with tightly spaced gears. At the other end of the spectrum, you'll find rugged touring models designed to carry heavy loads with long wheelbases, medium-width tires, and wide-range gearing. (True touring road bikes are becoming rare, but there are a few available such as the Trek 520.) For most recreational riders, a bike somewhere between a tourer and an all out racer makes sense. Sometimes called "Sport Touring" models, these bikes are relatively light, stable, and durable.

    Many modern road bikes have very tight clearance between the tires and frame. This can be a problem if you break a spoke or if you want to use slightly wider tires. Wider tires (e.g., 700 x 28 mm vs. 700 x 23 mm) have several advantages. They are less prone to pinch flats, and they provide a more comfortable and stable ride. The difference in rolling resistance is often negligible. On long rides, comfort is often the most important consideration. Avoid bikes that limit your tire options.

    As for gearing, road bikes are available with either double or triple chainrings up front, and eight, nine, or ten cogs in the back. If you struggle on the hills, or plan to tour, consider a triple. Even if you rarely use it, it's nice to know you have that "granny" gear.

    Try not to get too hung up on bike weight. Ultra-light wheels and frames probably aren't going to be very durable. Remember that the typical pro racer weighs about 150 lbs, has a team mechanic looking over his bike each day, and will be handed a new bike if trouble arises on the road. For the rest of us, durability is a bigger concern. Weight makes a difference when climbing hills. But what matters is the combined weight of the bike, the rider, and anything being carried. A difference of a pound or two in bike weight isn't going to make a great difference in performance, but "stupid light" equipment can adversely affect reliability. Getting stuck far from home with a mechanical problem is no fun.

    Wheels are a subject of of keen interest among cyclists. The trend among several manufacturers is to equip their high-end bikes with "paired-spoke wheels" by Rolf, Shimano, or Bontrager. These wheels definitely look cool and typically use only 20 or 24 heavy gauge spokes instead of the usual 32 spokes. However, while they may well be reliable, they can not be easily trued by the home mechanic. And if a spoke breaks during a ride, you'll probably need to get picked up. Most "boutique" wheels use non-standard parts that may not be available when that model is discontinued. Good hand-built conventional wheels with 32 (or 36) spokes are reliable and maintainable, and will get you home even if a spoke breaks. For more information on wheels, including how to build and true your own, click here.

    The right saddle can make a big difference on a long ride. A "racing" style saddle is a must for a road bike to avoid chaffing. Make sure you're positioned such that your weight is supported by your "sit bones." Women generally require a wider saddle, and several saddles designed specifically for women are available. Some saddles have gel embedded in them for comfort while others have cutouts designed to reduce pressure. Unfortunately, a saddle that's right for one person may be uncomfortable for another. It's usually a process of trial and error until you find one you like. Some bike shops will let you try a saddle for a few days and exchange it for a different model if it isn't right for you. Ask about their exchange policy before you buy. Ironically, a soft "cushy" saddle is usually not a good idea because the soft material compresses and exerts pressure in the wrong places when you ride. The most popular saddles have a firm foam padding over a nylon shell, and a leather or kevlar cover.

    Finally, let's consider frame materials. Frames can be made of steel, aluminum, titanium, or carbon fiber (or a combination of these materials). The tubes can be joined by welding, epoxying, or brazing (with or without lugs). Some folks have an almost religious devotion to one or another material. While each material has unique properties (strength, stiffness, density, ductility, etc.), great frames can be made from any of these materials by choosing the proper tube diameter, wall thickness, and frame geometry. Beware of generalizations like "aluminum has a harsh ride" or "titanium has a smooth ride." In fact, some of the early aluminum frames were as flexible as a wet noodle; others were so stiff they'd loosen your fillings. It all depends on the tube dimensions and frame geometry. A good frame is mostly the result of good design and construction, not the material used. Tires have far more "compliance" than ny frame when it comes to vertical shock transmission. As a result, tire width and inflation pressure have much more effect on ride quality than frame material.

    Before you choose a road bike be sure to take a test ride. 

    If you have an older 12 or 14 speed road bike with downtube shifters, don't despair. If it's of good quality, in good mechanical shape, and fits properly, it will probably give you at least 90 percent of the performance of a newer bike. Newer bikes have more gears and "integrated brake/shift levers" that let you shift easily and precisely without taking a hand off the bars. But they don't necessarily ride any better. (If your old bike is made of steel, it can be retrofitted with a modern 9 speed drivetrain by having the rear dropouts spread to 130 mm.)

    Mountain Bikes

    Mountain bikes (MTBs) can be ridden on or off road. The upright riding position is easy to get used to and lets you see where you're going without straining your neck. MTBs have wide-range gearing, and the better ones are very durable. They also tend to be heavy. MTBs designed for serious off-road use usually come with wide knobby tires, and either front shocks (hardtail), or front and rear shocks (full suspension). If you ride mainly on the road and/or smooth "easy" trails, you're probably better off without any shocks. And switching to narrower, high-pressure "slick" tires will definitely improve on-road performance. MTBs may be suitable for short, casual club road rides, but will require more effort than a road bike.

    Hybrid Bikes

    As the name implies, hybrid bikes are a cross between a road bike and MTB. They tend to be lighter than an MTB, while still offering an upright riding position. The upright position is sometimes preferred by casual riders since it places less strain on the back and neck. However, it offers fewer hand positions than a drop bar road bike, and places more weight on the saddle (which can cause discomfort on longer rides). Most hybrids come with 700C wheels (similar to a road bike) as opposed to the slightly smaller 26" MTB wheels, and the tires have a less aggressive tread pattern. These bikes are good for commuting, running errands, and casual club road rides. They can be used on dirt, gravel, or paved roads.

    © Art Harris, 2002

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