I have written a number of posts on the “how’s” of cycling, how to pick the right mountain bike, road bike, the right bike in general, even whether to upgrade an old bike or buy a new one, I’ve even touched on the tiny details of why in some of those but with spring approaching, I thought I’d give a go at the larger “why” of purchasing the proper bike because, depending on how big you go, we could be talking about a lot of money here.
Now, I am (to a small extent) a vanity cyclist. I match my jerseys and helmets to the color schemes of my bikes, dabbled with a red, white and blue theme on two of them, removed all reflectors from bikes that will never see a moment of dusk on an open road, removed the spoke protector behind the cassette that most noobs leave on their bike because not only do they not know any better, they don’t know how to keep their rear derailleur in adjustment so the protector becomes useless plastic. I ride with a reasonable drop from my saddle to the handlebar, a hard saddle because I know it’s more comfortable when the bike setup is right… I also, before I ever rode a mile with another cyclist, made sure I could handle my bike.
Let me start by saying there’s nothing wrong, in my opinion, with being a noob or in not doing any of the things above except the last item. In fact, there is a decent contingent of folks out there who are anti-vanity cyclists, who dress in ways that mock the system. To me, it’s all good – look as goofy as you want. I ride how I ride, on the bikes I ride, in the clothes and accessories I ride in to please one person: Me. What anyone else thinks of me, other than whether or not I know how to handle my bike in a crowd, is none of my business anyway. Let me tell you, there’s a lot of freedom in that last sentence.
That said, there are a few things to consider that can save a lot of time, consternation and cash in picking the right bike the first time (well, probably the second time to allow for a change in heart). First, it helps to know what you’ll be using your bike for ahead of time. You want to go fast? Road bike, carbon or aluminum/carbon mixed frame/fork, 23 mm tires, hard gender specific saddle, saddle a minimum of three inches above the top of the handlebar (flexibility notwithstanding). Want to go far comfortably with no concern over speed? Road bike, 25 mm tires, carbon, steel or aluminum frame (carbon fork), saddle 2 inches to level with the top of the bar, decent gender specific saddle with a bit more padding (2-5 mm thick). Commuting? See the last setup for the road bike but eliminate the carbon frame – or go with a straight handlebar hybrid (with or without a suspension system for the front). Versatility? Do you want to ride your bike on rougher roads, dirt roads and even a few trails while being able to head out on a club ride from time to time? Cyclocross bike without a doubt (a great cross between a road bike and a hybrid): Saddle 1-4″ above the bar top (depending on speed desires – if you want to switch, get a bike with several spacers below the stem – you can raise or lower the bars to your desire [this goes for all road bikes btw]), decent saddle, two sets of tires (two sets of wheels is helpful too though you have to be careful about the cassette wear and the tuning of the derailleur). Only interested in commuting and playing in the dirt? Get a mountain bike, front shock, decent mountain bike saddle – maybe a set of slicks for commuting. Aggressive single track mountain biking? Think about a rear shock too – helpful but not entirely necessary. Training for and racing in triathlons? Now this one is a bit trickier because Time Trial (TT) bikes don’t play well in groups. If you’ve got the cash and you want to race tri’s and go for the regular club rides you’ll get a road bike and a TT bike. If, however you live a middle-class existence (like me) and can’t afford both, go for a road bike that can accommodate a tri setup (Specialized Venge for the guys, Alias for the ladies). With the road/tri mixed bike you get the best of both worlds – and I can tell you from experience with the Venge, by swapping the spacers under/over the bar, I can set it up with the proper drop to the aerobars too, I lose nothing.
Once the usage is determined, all that’s left is sizing, color (don’t settle), pedal and shoe choice and the fitting (where your local shop sets the bike up specifically to the way you ride).
Now here’s why all of this is important: I’ve made every noob mistake that I can think of, pretty near. Wrong saddles, my first road bike was too small, wrong gear, helmet too big, cheap shorts… Any one of these things without diligent investigation could lead a person who is less of a cycling nut than I happen to be to hang their bike in the garage to collect dust. Riding on a saddle that’s too wide for your sit bones HURTS. Riding on one of those cushy granny saddles for more than 15 miles HURTS. So does trying to fit a 6′ tall person on a 54 cm compact frame (I invested in some components that made it bearable). Cheap shorts? Literally a pain in the butt (amongst other things).
More importantly than those above, picking the wrong bike for the way you want to ride leads to boredom. If you’re bored on your bike, it’ll turn into a rather expensive dust collector. A bike as a dust collector leads to a less fit, less healthy, less happy you. I like happy people – especially happy cyclists. The point is, when starting out, be true to yourself – and the local bike shop folks. They don’t want to put you on a bike you don’t want any more than you want them to.