A Noob’s Guide for What to Look for In a New Bike; Components, Brakes, Shocks, and Just About Everything Else…
I read a post the other day that spurred me on to write this post. A wife and husband are picking up new bikes and they chose gravel bikes with Shimano Sora Components… so I thought it might be neat to write about my extensive experience with much of the Shimano line… because I’ve got close to the full line between the bike room and the garage.
Specialized Venge: Ultegra 10sp.
Trek 5200: 105 10sp.
Specialized Diverge: Sora 9sp.
Specialized Diverge (wife’s bike): Claris 8sp.
Specialized Alias (wife’s bike): 105 11sp.
Specialized Rockhopper Sport Disc 29’er: Acera/Altus mix
Trek 3800 (mtb): It’s a 2008 entry level…
Co-Motion Periscope Tandem: 105 10sp.
So, here’s the deal. A lot of noobs get into trouble purchasing inferior components for the style of riding they’re looking for. Myself included, right up until I bought my 5200 and Venge… and the Rockhopper 29’er – that was an important purchase as this post goes. I’ll get to that in a minute.
Most noobs are going to go to the shop with a number for how much they want to spend and pick their bike from the price-range. While one must keep an eye on the budget, this is entirely the wrong way to start a bicycle purchase, especially for the avid enthusiast. This will work for a gravel bike, but definitely not a road bike and not a mountain bike – unless you’ve got the big bucks and you’re going high-end anyway.
Shimano Claris, on one hand and the line that came on my wife’s gravel bike, is gnarly stuff. I wouldn’t put that on a bike if you paid me and I’m going to upgrade her out of that as soon as I can afford a better drivetrain. The problem with Claris is that my wife and I have both ridden on 105 equipped bikes. Once you’ve ridden good components, the Claris never seems like it’s dialed in quite right. It’s not that it doesn’t work, it just doesn’t work as well as what we expect. Sora, on the other hand, a step up from Claris, and the line I have on my gravel bike, is surprisingly nice. There’s a large gap between the two lines and even though I’m quite the picky enthusiast, I’m always impressed with how well my Gravel bike shifts. I’d never want Sora on one of my good bikes, but it’s absolutely acceptable on the gravel bike.
To get off on a tangent for a second, another thing to look out for, especially on mountain and gravel bikes, is the brake system. When I was looking for a new mountain bike, I wanted to upgrade from my entry-level Trek 3800 but I didn’t want to go too crazy. My wife bought the Rockhopper Sport Disc 29’er for a few good reasons. First, the upgraded fork. The entry-level rigs come with a shock that isn’t all that tough. Not enough for what I’d put it through. As a cyclist gets stronger, their ability and willingness to hammer a bicycle increases, thus the weaker entry-level fork had to go – it simply wouldn’t hold up to the abuse I was capable of putting it through. Next was the brakes… Entry-level brakes, mechanical disc brakes are good enough, but hydraulic discs are the only way to go. On top of that, the discs themselves are pretty gnarly at the entry-level grade. If you heat them up on a descent then splash through a puddle, the cheaper discs can warp. So rather than spend $460 on an entry-level mountain bike, I went for the $700 model and I’m really glad I did. It’s held up great and been an enjoyable bike.
My Specialized Rockhopper Sport Disc 29er… Beefier fork, upgraded disc brakes.
My first “real” bike, the 2008 Trek 3800 – plain entry-level in every way.
And this is really touching on the important point here; my wife and I are avid cyclists and, to put it simply, the quality of the Claris line simply isn’t up to our performance needs. While there’s nothing really wrong with the line, it’s not up to the rigors we’ll put it through. To be able to keep up with us, we need something sturdier. I was hoping we might get away with saving some money on the gravel bikes but I was mistaken. After all, a $3,000 gravel bike isn’t such a big deal in the scheme of things. Buying two of them, well now you’re talking about some money.
Put simply, my friends, entry-level components are great for entry-level cyclists.
105 and Ultegra
It has been said, since long before I was a cyclist, that 105 is the base minimum for race-worthy Shimano components. 105, especially the 11-speed 105 components, are butter when compared against the lower component lines. The line is also Shimano’s workhorse. 105 is the line for the abusive cyclist who puts their bike through the paces – even the person who tends to shift heavy (under pressure – not weight) can reasonably rely on 105 to work well for years. Its only penalty is in weight.
My Trek 5200 – a 1999 vintage super-bike with a 2013 drivetrain.
Finally, we come to the limit of my personal riding experience; Ultegra. The Ultegra line is almost as durable as the 105 line (not quite, but very close) and saves about 200 grams (almost a half-a-pound) over the 105 component line. Where the Ultegra line shines is in its smoothness of operation. The Trek above came with an Ultegra triple drivetrain and that component set was absolutely put through the ringer over seventeen years before the shifters started failing from use, abuse, grit and grime (the bike was beat up pretty good before I bought it). Imagine your Thanksgiving turkey dinner. Mashed potatoes, turkey, stuffing/dressing, maybe a little salad… though I left something out – the gravy. That’s the difference between the 105 and Ultegra lines, the gravy.
My Specialized Venge with Ultegra components
The shifter/brake levers are carbon fiber in lieu of alloy, and the components work smoothly and flawlessly. They’re light, wonderful and not even in the same continent as the Sora components. 105 is a good line of components, Ultegra is great.
There once was a time when the Dura Ace line was ultra-light, but finicky to keep tuned. Those days are long gone. The line is ultra-light still, but it doesn’t suffer the old stubbornness. It’s wildly expensive, but if you absolutely have to have the lightest bike possible, this is the end of Shimano’s line. The only place to go after that is SRAM Red – not even Campagnolo can get under Dura Ace. I have several friends who ride the Dura Ace line and I’ve never seen a missed shift – and I’ve spent days riding next to or behind Dura Ace bikes. Dura Ace is as good as it gets. The only downside to Dura Ace is cost. I can get an Ultegra cassette for $50-$60. A Dura Ace cassette runs $130-$140 online. It could be worse, though the aforementioned SRAM Red cassette goes for double that.
So there you have it, my friends. Each component line improves in quality and durability up to 105. After 105, the durability drops (though not significantly) with the weight, but the quality increases. As a noob, you’re going to have to decide whether or not you’re going to become an avid enthusiast or not, pretty quick. Cycling is, as you well know, an expensive sport to begin with. It’s exceptionally expensive when you have to buy multiple bikes to get out from under the lower component lines. It’s much better to swing for the fences early, if you know what I mean.