What is the perfect bike for you?
Carbon fiber? How about aluminum or even steel?
How about the crankset? Aluminum or carbon fiber?
Handlebar – same choice, aluminum or carbon fiber?
Wheels – same choices…
Or how about frame style? Classic or Compact (for a road bike)? Dual Suspension or Hard Tail (for a mountain bike) or no suspension at all (the really fast guys usually go with no suspension to save weight – though, if you’re willing to spend ten grand you can have an awesome hard tail that weighs about 19 pounds)?
Or is it a price-point?
$200, $400, $700, $900, $1,200, $1,500, $2,000, $3,000, $4,000, $5,000, $8,000, $10,000? How about $15,000?
Ooh, how about a color!? Blue? Green, Orange, Black or Red? How about Stealth Black on Black (must be shiny on flat, not the other way around)? For me, this one is simple… Red on Black. Sporty. Fast. Spectacular.
Sadly, there is no perfect answer here, none that I’ve seen, based only on the reality that we’re all different. You’ve got the “A bike is a bike, as long as you ride it” crowd who can ride with miss matched wheels and four different colors of kit… As long as everything works, they could care less. Then you’ve got people like me. Everything matches, from the helmet down to the shoes and everything matches the bike… And you have everything and anything between.
And therein lies the rub. It’s almost like you have to figure out who you are while you’re learning to ride in the first place. In fact, I started out somewhere between mismatched and I thought I was okay with that… oh, how times changed.
Sadly, I blew a lot of cash to find out what I liked. I started out with mountain bikes because they’re cheap, at least at the low-end… It didn’t take long for me to realize that, as awesome as mountain biking is, I needed more speed.
Then came road bikes… My first was nice, but aluminum and way too small. One of the pluses of an aluminum frame is that they’re ultra-stiff. All of the power goes to the pedals. On the other hand, they’re impossibly stiff… Every nook and cranny in the road comes right back up the frame. It hurt to ride that bike. Not only that, it had the old-style down tube shifting and that’s a huge disadvantage…
The fate of this Cannondale is yet to be determined… The latest idea I’ve had is to outfit it with a SRAM Apex 10 sp. and a new carbon fork for my daughter – a bit of old school but awesome-ized – once she outgrows the road bike I just bought her last fall…
My Trek 5200T(riple) was next. The right size too (classic frames make sizing incredibly important). The color was tricky though… A cool, deep red with orange/gold metallic flake but darn near impossible to match with the kit and helmet.
That became my rain bike once I bought the perfect bike for me…
Compact, carbon fiber everything, except wheels which are aluminum and better suited to my needs… One size smaller than recommended so I can get that saddle raised up way over the handlebar. It’s a great story, really. I was in the process of just starting a construction company that became quite successful (considering the climate) so I went from having little cash to blow on a hobby to an income that allowed a dalliance here or there, within reason. In other words, I didn’t have to stick with what I had. I had the option of going lighter, faster, better and newer and finding something that really fit the way I wanted to ride.
Now, you may, looking at my bike, jump to the wrong conclusion that I picked that bike based on price point – that I was just going for something expensive but that isn’t the case. That bike was a love at first sight (maybe lust), find a way to save up and afford it over nine months, purchase… I had to work for that bike. That said, a lot of trial, error and research went into that purchase and it still came down to simply “lucking out”. It took a year of getting the fit perfect too. It took experimentation, dabbling, raising the hoods just a smidge, lowing the stem considerably (15 mm), raising the saddle then lowering it back down a little more… It took a three hour fitting after a month or two of riding the bike (I only had a quick, rudimentary fitting done the day I bought it – saddle height and fore/aft position and I believe this was the best way to go as it gave me a month to get used to it, to become accustomed to the ride before having it tweaked and dialed in)… Now that all of that is done, I can’t imagine having a bike that could fit better and that’s why it’s the perfect bike for me. It’s just the right blend of stiff for speed but compliant in the right places for comfort (though admittedly, I really don’t know any better with the exception of trying my wife’s bike once.
In the end, the perfect bike is a balance.
For me, the newer compact frame, with the sloped top tube is a must. I have two classic frames and they just don’t feel right… The compact geometry just fits better. The components, well, I knew I needed race ready and cost was an issue so Shimano 105 made sense. I’d have liked to go up at least one level, to Ultegra because that line really is that much better but I couldn’t justify the cost of the bike. I gave a little bit there. Color was a no-brainer, bright red on black, the paint job on my bike is tops in the industry at that price-point, by a long shot (so sayeth the owner of the local shop, a seasoned frame builder of phenomenal reputation). Then came the upgrades, the S-Works Aerofly carbon handlebar and Crankset and an FSA carbon wrapped aluminum stem (lighter than a full carbon stem, if you can believe it)… More style watts and weight savings than anything else and a better set of wheels (1,500 grams in lieu of 1,900 for the wheels and 450 grams in lieu of 900 for the crank… the bar was nominal, maybe 50 grams).
From there, it was just a hop, skip and a jump, and about $1,500 in red and black cycling clothing, red pedals, a red and a black bottle cage.
Now, if you notice, style came third . Weight came second… Fit comes first. Always. And this was my exact line of thinking when I bought the Venge:
I had a choice between a 54 cm frame and a 56. I could be fit on either one – and at 6′ tall, the calculator puts me on a 58. Now here’s the deal. I knew I wanted the racy fit on this bike. Saddle high, bar low. Well, how you get that is you buy a smaller frame. I was already pretty aggressive on my Trek and I felt I could do a little better. On the other hand, I planned on riding this bike for a long time. At 44, I wasn’t going to get any younger, or more flexible… Mainly because Yoga and stretching are humorous. Yes, I’ll leave it there.
Anywho, with a 54, the head tube would have been pretty short so the bar would have been pretty low unless I had an ungodly amount of spacers raising it up so I could ride it comfortably, so that meant the 56 was the one for me. So far, my thinking was right on.
As far as frame material went, I don’t care what you say about steel and aluminum, there’s a reason the pros ride carbon fiber and having ridden an all-aluminum race bike, there was no way anyone was going to sell me on aluminum – no matter what they say about technological advances. Carbon fiber lasts better than steel, you can manipulate the tube shapes better, and it’s vastly superior to aluminum as far as comfort goes. You’d have something with titanium, but those frames usually cost as much or more than carbon fiber anyway. Now, and this is important, there’s a trick to aluminum… Aluminum frames are so stiff, they actually transfer power from the pedals to the rear wheel better than any of the other frame materials. The problem is they also transfer road chop from the ground to your butt just as efficiently. It was my experience that what I made up in acceleration, I lost in trying to pedal through vibration from the road. Having been through that, if my Venge, my love (or lust) at first sight Venge, had been aluminum I never would have bought it.
Finally, the last thing I wanted to get to was componentry. That first Cannondale has down tube shifters and they are an immense disadvantage when cycling with others (a club or group ride) compared with the modern integrated brake lever shifters. This is not an understatement. Immense disadvantage. Don’t think you can save $500 by purchasing a bike with old down tube shifters and you’ll be okay to keep up with modern bikes – you’ll be in for a shock. What happens is, you’ve gotta take your hands off of the handlebar to shift, which really isn’t that big a deal until you factor in that you’re riding at 25 mph with only six inches to a foot betwixt you and the person in front of you… Say you go to shift at exactly the wrong time and you have to feather the brakes to bleed a little speed with one hand. Been there, done it, don’t like it. Also, to avoid that situation, you will invariably end up pushing too hard a gear when a surge hits… You’ll let a gap form and have to struggle to catch up (this happens a lot when noobs try to ride Time Trial bikes in a pack – a no-no by the way). Oh, and so you want to upgrade that down tube shifter bike? Well, it’ll have a seven speed cassette (or less), so you’ll need to spread the rear dropouts (which can’t be done cold on an aluminum bike or you risk breaking the welds or the frame), then you’ll need a new cassette, a new crank set, a new front and rear derailleur, new shifters and even a new wheel. At best you’re looking at $300 to upgrade the bike, but more realistically, $500-$750. You may as well just buy a new bike and save the headache.
The truth is, it’s hard to know ahead of time whether you’d prefer a classic or compact frame. I was fortunate enough to be in a position where I could afford to experiment and found that I was a compact frame kind of guy. The rest, though, is fairly easy. It’s a matter of making a decision about how you want to ride and ticking off boxes to get you to the bike that’s right for you. It’s also important to note that having exactly the perfect bike for you isn’t really necessary at all. Your body, to an extent, will adapt to what you put it on over time. As long as the fit is right, you dictate to your body what it will get used to so it’s not like you have to test 35 bikes to get the one that fits your body perfectly. In other words, let’s say the Trek 5200 maxed me out it the cash department, I just didn’t have any more money to spend on a bike. Over time, given a few changes (the original handlebars were too wide and I didn’t like the ergonomic drop, things of that nature), there’s no doubt I could have gotten that bike to a point where it would have been just fine. Given enough miles, that would have been the perfect bike for me too.
So give your bike purchase some thought, but don’t stew over it too much. Buy what you like and the best you can afford. Then ride the wheels off of it. Or buy a few bikes… Use one for the trainer, one for the rain and one for those perfect, sunshiny days. Just know the one you ride the most will feel the best.