So, you want to buy a road bike. On a normal day I hardly pay attention to what someone else rides. As long as they ride it well and don’t crash into my bike, we’re good. However, my wife competes in triathlons on a fairly regular basis and rather than compete myself, I usually go with as support. I see everything from $12,000 Triathlon bikes to mountain bikes and what thoroughly amazes me is how many people have bikes that don’t fit and how off many of the saddle heights are (usually way too low). Because all of your ability to get leg strength into a pedal stroke starts with saddle height and how close the saddle is to the handlebar, getting either measurement wrong, by as little as a few millimeters, can absolutely kill your bike leg in a triathlon.
Just deciding to buy a bike, we’ve already run into three entirely different scenarios which will greatly impact how much you enjoy the bike you end up with. First, and usually easiest though often more expensive because the bike shops carry a high-quality bikes from the major manufacturers, is going to the bike shop. The second is buying used from a private seller. The third, and least expensive but hardest to get right, is buying a road bike from one of the big-box warehouses. I’ve gone two of those three routes and while the private sale is cheaper in the short run, if you don’t know what you’re doing, there’s a very good chance it’ll be more expensive – once you pick up all of the extra parts you’ll need to make it fit right. If you pick the wrong sized bike for your needs (as I did on my first go around), it could be a complete waste of money. Here are just a few of the small but impactful things to look out for:
Bike Frame Size: You need the right bike to fit you. When we were kids, our parents just went out and bought us a bike that looked good. We rode the wheels off and all was good. As an adult, bikes are not like that at all. Bikes are made in a dozen different sizes from 44 cm all the way up to 62 or 63 cm. There are bike frame calculators available online and that’ll get you close, but even that isn’t perfect. For instance, with experience came knowledge. When I fell in lust with a race bike, I knew that I wanted to have a steep drop from the saddle to the handlebar top so I could ride low and aerodynamically. I chose the 56 cm frame in lieu of the 58 or 59 cm frame that was recommended on the calculator. For this reason alone, if you’ve got the money but not the experience, getting a bike at a bike shop makes sense. All you have to do is tell the person at the shop that you plan on riding fast and you need a bike that will get you there. Tell them your budget and let them work out the details. In fact, my shop owner suggested a 54 might be even better, but I’m not 25 anymore.
Race Bike or Squishy Bike: Sticking with Specialized and Trek for simplicity, both manufacturers make a stiff race bike and an endurance “squishy” bike. The race bikes are self-explanatory. They’re stiff, but very, very fast. The “squishy” bikes, Specialized’s Roubaix and Trek’s Domane, have built-in features that allow the frame to flex which absorbs a lot of road shock and vibration. You’ll sacrifice a little bit of speed over a race bike, but the ride is more comfortable. The Roubaix is very popular with the pros in the Paris-Roubaix one-day race for exactly that reason. The cobbles would suck on my Venge!
Shifters: I saw one of those GMC Denali bikes at my wife’s triathlon and was immediately saddened. It’s a pretty enough looking road bike but they’ve got stinkin’ twist shifters on the bar tops, in close to the stem… You know, the shifters that they put on kid’s mountain bikes? Now this poor woman is probably thinking, “Hey, I beat the system and got a beautiful road bike for a few hundred bucks!” What she got was a bike that is difficult to shift under the best of conditions but will be miserable for shifting while riding in the drops, on the hoods or when climbing hills because she’ll have to reach for the least stable part of the handlebars to shift. She’s thinking she won’t lose that much for not having those high-priced brake lever shifters, and she’s entirely wrong. There’s a reason they’re so popular. Because they are perfect. Other than clipless pedals, the integrated brake lever shifters are the greatest invention since road bikes were created. Unless you absolutely cannot afford the integrated shifters, do not settle. They’re that good. On the other hand, better something than nothing.
Gears/Drivetrain (Chain Rings and Cassette Gears): So, do you want a compact 50/34, a Pro compact 52/36 or a Racing 53/39 crank? How about your cassette? Definitely 10 or 11 sp, but an 11-27, 11-32 or 11-25? This obviously depends on where you’ll be riding and how fast you want to go, but without experience, you could be up a creek. Imagine, you’re a decent cyclist but you’re just not that into really fast top speeds and you live in a hilly place like Kentucky, where the downhill sections aren’t all that steep or long but the rollers go on forever – or you live in the mountains and want a little extra low-end to get up the really steep climbs… You take a used bike that’s got a 52/42 race crank on it. Kiss a few hundred bucks good-bye for new chainrings before you even get the bike out the door. Make sure you end up with the right crank for your desired riding style on your bike. It could mean the difference between hanging on and keeping your draft and being dropped off the back. If you’re going to ride really fast, nothing less than a 52/36 (that’s what I ride – best of both worlds, 52 tooth big dog and 36 for climbing. It’s beautiful).
Pedals: Speed Play, Look Keo’s or Shimano’s Clipless road pedals? These technically don’t have anything to do with purchasing a bike though because you have to buy them separately. Repeat after me: “Platform pedals” (the kid’s bike plastic pedals) are bad. Again, if you’re going for speed, the pedals that you clip into keep your feet on the pedals in the proper location on the pedal… A necessity with a 90 rpm cadence.
Saddle Width/Saddle Height: Believe it or not, there are several widths for saddles that insure a comfortable ride over the long haul. Also, on a road bike, contrary to popular belief, those gnarly wide saddles with 6 inches of padding on them are not comfortable. They’ll hurt you. Now, if you’re buying a used bike, plan on picking up a new saddle too because saddles and pedals don’t come with the bike (they never do, this is accepted practice).
Handlebar Reach/Drop: I covered this a little bit, earlier. Too much of a good thing is bad, but not enough of a good thing is worse. If you want to be fast, it helps to ride low. To get low, buy a bike a size smaller and “slam that stem”. For reach, this is best determined by a proficient bike fitter. It refers to stem length and how far you have to reach to hold the brake hoods, bar top and drops. It is very common to need a different stem than the one that comes with a bike, especially a used bike.
Handlebar Size: Handlebars, or I should say adult handlebars come in several sizes and shapes… And widths. Standard for a male is 42 cm wide. 44 cm is a wide bar for guys with wide shoulders and a 40 is for the smaller fella. Women will typically go with a 36, 40 or 42. If you buy a used bike, you might get lucky because you’ll be buying from a person roughly your size, but buyer beware. Handlebar width matters. Also, and equally important is the style of bar. You’ve got the ergonomic bar with the flat section right where your hands go when you ride in the drops (I hate those), a standard drop (my favorite) and a shallow drop. Reach is also a factor, or how far the curved part extends out from the bar top. Too much reach and riding in the drops is uncomfortable. Not enough and it’ll hinder your breathing.
Crank Arm Length: This one gets messy. A decent crankset can cost as much as $600 (mine was $500 and I didn’t have to buy new chainrings – add another $260 for those). You can get them for much, much less, but don’t worry, I’m worth it. In any event, crank arms come in three standard lengths but you can get others, usually by special order (from a bike shop). Standard lengths are 170 mm, 172.5 and 175. I’m 6′ tall, on the nose and mine are 172.5’s (per my professional fitting workup). My Cannondale has 170 mm crank arms and it feels like pedaling a kid’s bike. If the cranks are too long or too short, it messes with the rest of the setup on your bike’s geometry so you can never quite comfortably get power to the pedals. This is one of those things that really matter if you want to go really fast. There is a little bit of wiggle room here, especially if you want to go a little bigger for more torque, but one should not go to extremes here. You end up doing more harm than good.
A good amount of drop from the saddle to the bars, proper stem length for the proper bar (width, reach and drop), 172.5 mm crank arms, 143 mm aggressive posture saddle to match my sit bones. Almost no padding on the saddle, but I have excellent shorts… This is what I look like on the bike, on the hoods:
I’m obviously the one on the left… Arms are comfortably bent, hands are loose on the hoods, but with enough grip that hitting a bump won’t knock them free, down fairly low, but comfortable… This is the perfect blend of comfort and speed for me, as was determined by a professional bike fitting.
This is what I look like in the drops:
Flat back (or flattish, I’m not 35 anymore). Again, arms bent… Everything about that posture is comfortable for me. That’s how it works when time is taken and consideration given to all factors of how my body needs the bike to work and fit. While cycling is not necessarily about look, it is about feel.
Get the bike fit right (correct) and with some saddle time, 100 miles in 4-1/2 hours is doable, comfortably. Get the fit wrong and ten miles on an otherwise great bike will feel like riding on barbed wire. Your arms, neck, shoulders, lower back, knees, ankles and/or feet will hurt. Been there, rode through it and I can tell you, it sucks.
So, ladies and gentlemen cycling noobs, if you absolutely cannot afford to get your bike adjusted and fitted properly, keeping in mind the fit is just as important as the bike, visit my Noob’s Guide to Cycling page… It has almost anything you might need to do it yourself. Just save up for a real fitting before you start on the upgrades for the bike.
To put a professional bike fitting into context, say you’ve got a high-end, entry level bike (between $900 and $1,400 new). Poorly positioned on the bike, you struggle to maintain a 15 mph average. After a fitting, if enough of the important items above were off and fixed, you’ll probably be riding between 16 and 17 mph with little to no extra effort. It’s that big a deal.