Buying Your First Road Bike: Don’t Do What I Did…
For the first time in my life I bought a big-ticket item that I a) didn’t regret buying and b) haven’t thought once about taking it back. As far as I’m concerned, to my tastes, I have the perfect road bike. I still look at it sitting in my spare bedroom and think about how lucky I am to have such a cool bike.
My third road bike (first new), I feel quite lucky that the owner of my local bike shop decided to display one above/behind the cash counter because that’s how I decided I “needed” a new bike: I’d call it love at first sight but I wouldn’t want to diminish my relationship with my wife. So let’s suffice it to say I was rather like one of Pavlov’s dogs (without the contraption hooked up to my salivation glands) when I saw it. I still think it’s one of the coolest bikes evah and that I’m a lucky guy for being able to ride it.
Now you might get the idea here that it would have been preferable to start with this bike rather than buy the others but that would not have been possible or even a practical for a few reasons. When I bought my first road bike I was fairly certain that I’d really like cycling (as opposed to mountain biking) but I was hesitant because of the imagined cost – I’d have kicked my own ass for spending what I did on the Venge that early on and I hoped I could get away on the cheap. After all, even though I only spent $400 on my ’90 Cannondale, that was still more than double the cost of every other bike I’d ever owned.
My second road bike, the Trek 5200, was purchased out of necessity (the Cannondale was advertised as a 56 cm frame but it’s a 54 cm – too small for me) but I still didn’t think I had the money to drop on a new full carbon bike and I was more than happy with the used Trek – until that fateful day when I walked into the bike shop and saw that beautiful black and red, sleek, awesome Venge on display above the cash counter I was quite content with what I had…
I did make an EPIC mistake though… Now that I’ve got everything I want, including hindsight, I should have gotten the old-school bike with the down tube shift levers last, not first. When I bought the Cannondale I figured there wouldn’t be much of a difference in the way the gears were shifted, that I’d get used to the older shifters and that I wouldn’t too disadvantaged – after all, they used the old style shifters for decades. I was naïve and mistaken. The first bike I should have gotten was the Trek because while older, it had everything – 9 speed cassette, a triple chain-ring and modern brake/shift levers. It isn’t the lightest bike around (it’s 3 pounds heavier than my Venge) but the carbon frame is much more comfortable than the aluminum bike. Now some of the newer aluminum bikes, a few of the Specialized Allez (pronounced ah-lay) models for example, use thinner tubing and special welding techniques so that the frame is more forgiving and a composite fork to help dampen the stiffness inherent in an aluminum frame. My wife loves her Secteur Elite so if you can’t afford a full carbon bike, don’t fret – technology has come a long way since 1990:
The point here is now that I’ve got the old-school Cannondale, I still ride it from time to time because it’s a great poor weather bike but it’s ridiculously uncomfortable and inadequately geared compared to the 5200 or Venge. In other words, I blew that initial $400 on a bike that won’t do what I want it to. In the end, while I do find the Cannondale cool and I’ll still ride it every once in a while to tool around on, I broke a Cardinal Rule when I bought it: With very little cycling experience (and no cycling knowledge) I took to Craigslist to buy a bike. I would have been far wiser and $400 richer if I’d just gone to the bike shop first and picked up the Trek 5200.
Part of my problem is that I didn’t trust the shop to sell me the right bike (I didn’t know anyone who worked there at the time). More importantly, I didn’t know what to ask for so that the bike shop could sell me the right bike in the first place. Knowing what I know now, here’s how I’d go about buying that first bike… First, I’d have a budget in mind. Most bike shops, if you’ve got decent credit, will be able to get you financed so make sure that you know what your financing limit will be as well if you go with financing instead. I would then simply walk into the shop and say, “I’ve got “x” dollars to spend or I’ll finance “x” dollars for a road bike”. I’d then let the salesperson know whether or not I plan on racing (not, in my case), how aggressively I plan on riding (very, in my case), which is more important – speed or comfort (speed, in my case – the setup for a comfortable road bike vs. a fast road bike is completely different*). From there, they’ll have enough info to get you where you want to be. Now, if you’re destitute or if you don’t have much money to spend on a bike, let the salesperson at the shop know this; at Assenmachers, where I shop, they care about getting you on a bike first, fit and comfort second, and they let the rest work out in the wash – if after letting your financial state be known they still try to push something you can’t afford, leave and try another shop.
*By the way, I’ve got the perfect example of the difference between a comfort bike and an aggressive race bike in the two photos above if you don’t know what I’m referring to… Look at the photo of my Venge and then the stock Secteur photo. The front end on the Secteur is higher and there are several inches of spacers below the stem – this raises the front end of the bike so one can sit more upright. While riding in this position is supposed to be more comfortable (so I’ve heard, I am perfectly comfortable – back and all – on my Venge), it is far less efficient – and please, don’t even think about disagreeing with me on this indisputable reality.
Finally, and this is the important part – I messed up when I thought I could get by with the old-school, down tube shifting bike – even if I hadn’t messed up and bought a bike that was too small because I was ignorant. The benefits that come with the new integrated shifters and the larger gear selection (9 or 10 rear gears as opposed to 5, 6 or 7) are worth spending the extra money. While there is some truth to the “it’s all about the engine”, studies have shown that you put the same pro on the same course on my Venge and my Cannondale, he will be faster, over the same exact course on the Venge. That absolutely will translate to me being faster, no matter the ability level… Not much faster, but faster nonetheless – mostly because of the additional gears and the ease of selecting them.