May 08, 2006

Road Bikes

by psu

Recently Jeff at work asked me where to go to buy a bike. As I recall, he didn't really ask what kind of bike he should buy, but being the self-absorbed dork asshole that I am, I could not help but provide my opinion.

My short answer to Jeff was: just buy a road bike.

The road bike is the perfect bicycle for almost all uses. The only use for which it really is not suited is riding around in the woods over ruts and logs and rocks. But only crazy people do that on purpose.

The road bike has several design features that make it the inherently superior animal:

1. Drop bars. I cannot stress this enough. It is a fact that drop bars are a superior design. Unlike flat bars, they give you multiple hand positions on the tops of the bars. Therefore, with your bars at the right height, you can be comfortable and fairly upright and still be able to move your hands around so they do not get sore. The bars also give you the occasional option to tuck yourself down to go faster if you want. With modern shifting systems, you can shift gears without moving your hands off the tops of the bars, so mountain bike shifters have no advantage anymore.

2. Light and Fast. Mountain bikes and hybrids are just too clunky and heavy. They don't accelerate. They don't handle well on the road. Riding them is like riding a bike chained to an iron ball. A good bike allows an old out of shape guy like me, who has not ridden all year, go 19mph with a tailwind over the flat without working very hard. This is the gold standard.

3. Versatility. With the right frame, I can ride the same road bike on the road, in the city, in a century, in a race, on the rail trails, over to La Prima, on a fire road, and on light trails. A mountain bike is good on trails and nowhere else. A hybrid is good for slow rides in the city, and not really anywhere else.

In addition, I like road bike brakes better than cantilevers and other brake-types. But that's my problem.

Unfortunately, most of the road bikes made these days cater to the weekend racer Lance Armstrong wannabe. The road bike you want differs from a racing road bike in several ways:

1. Relaxed fit. You don't need the fast steering and short frame of the average racing bike. You also don't need to ride around town all bent over and stretched out like pizza dough. You should be able to buy a road bike with higher bars, a more comfortable riding position, and a more stable ride. A person riding a good road bike and a good fit will be able to go longer distances in less time than on any other bike. There is a reason the Tour de France is 3,000 miles long. It's because the people can do it.

2. Wider tires. Racing bike frames lack the clearance for comfortable tires. No one really wants to run 20mm tires in the city. 28mm or 32mm are better. Allowances for fenders are also nice, but I've come to realize in my later years that the idea that I would actually ride a lot in the rain is only theoretical.

3. Better gears. This is not so much of a problem anymore. Thankfully, the road triple has made a wide gear range easy to find. Take advantage of this.

4. Tougher wheels. You do not want these newer carbon fiber bladed spoke aero-wheels that only have 8 spokes. You want decently made strong wheels. My road wheels are old fashioned and a bit heavy, but I can hit a railroad tie or a Pittsburgh car-eating pot hole at full speed and not damage the wheels. The myth that you need huge, fat, heavy mountain bike wheels to ride in the city is stupid.

Over the last few years, as Lance won all those races and the mountain bike has receded a bit in the market, there are more sane road bikes commercially available. But they remain a limited quantity item and are thus more expensive than other bicycles. The low end of the market still seems convinced that people only want heavy mountain bikes or hybrids where you sit straight up in the air. The result is that you will inevitably pay more money for a good road bike. This was true when I bought my last one ten years ago and I imagine it will remain true. In any case, I suggest you look at bikes by Bianchi, Jamis, and REI. For more money, look at Surly. For more money than that, look at Rivendell.

What you get for your extra money is typically a higher quality frame, lighter materials, and a better parts set from Shimano. When I say "better" here, I mean better than the truly crappy stuff Shimano sells to the huge Chinese manufacturers to put on bikes being sold at Costco. What this means is that the parts will last you forever, or 15,000 miles, whichever comes first.

If you are looking to get a good bike for the city, or that century ride later in the summer, or the MS150, here is me pleading with you to give the humble road bike a chance. You will not regret it.

Next time on bike rants: clipless pedals and lawyer nibs.

Posted by psu at May 8, 2006 06:18 PM | Bookmark This

I did actually ask you which type of bike to buy. You may be a curmudgeon, but you aren't that bad. :-)

It sounds like a perfectly configured road bike might indeed be better for me than a hybrid. The problem is that I've never purchased a bike for myself before, and I don't know much about cycling. Thus, if I bought a road bike, I'd probably end up with the wrong type of road bike, with narrow tires and poor gears. (I have no idea what a "road triple" is.) It seems to me that although a hybrid bike might be worse than a road bike in some absolute sense, in the average case, I'm more likely to get a bike that I can live with if I get a hybrid.

Thanks anyway for your input. :-)

Posted by Jeff Hunter at May 8, 2006 10:10 PM

A road triple is just a gearing system with three chainrings in the front, similar to what they do on mountain bikes. But, the various parts are designed to work well with the brakes, wheels, and shifters that come on road bikes. These are different in various subtle ways than mountain bike parts. The particulars are not important. You just want the wide gear range.

Posted by psu at May 8, 2006 10:33 PM

Find a shop you with people you trust, let them help you.

I got a road bike from Helen's Cycles in Santa Monica, CA that is awesome... and fits perfectly. I had not had a road bike since I was oh, 14 or so but the guy who helped me was very good at finding what fit me. I've used it for commuting, 50-80 mile pleasure rides, and Cycle Oregon, a week long 500 mile ride with ridiculous hills. I have to agree, hybrids suck. I've also never seen a quality hybrid.

Now there are some specialty town bikes out there that are supposedly pretty nice. They have enclosed chains and gear systems to keep you clean when you ride them around town. I'd like to test drive one.

Posted by Doug at May 8, 2006 11:37 PM

The best advice for 'new' cyclists is, in my opinion, don't get the first thing that flashes in front of you. Take the time to visit a few quality cycle shops (your local cyclers can always recommend who to visit and who NOT to visit). Take a long time riding any bike you consider, any good shop will allow you to 'test ride' any cycle in their shop.

If you are hitting the pavement/trail for the first time in a long time make a budget, don't kill yourself with a $3500 , start out modest as Peter said, the only real difference between high end and middle-of-the-road is components, which are infinitely upgradable.

Finally, I'd vote for 'leaderbike' .... :) I really do like my road bike from them... though my trusty/dusty canondale M700 from 1994 is going to be stuck taking me from Telluride to Moab this summer.

Have fun!

Posted by Chris Morrow at May 9, 2006 01:24 AM

Wish I'd read this before last night, when I bought my bike -- at Helen's Cycles, like Doug :)

I got a townie -- so far, I really like it! It's pink :)

Posted by green la girl at May 9, 2006 04:02 PM

Oh, one piece of advice I forgot to give was on tires. My bike originally came with racing tires. They were kevlar based, very light, rode easy, and got holes in them every ride. I replaced them with copperhead tires which were much sturdier, a little heavier, and have only had one hole in about 1000 miles. It was from a 2 inch long box staple. Go for sturdy unless you are racing. Even then I think I would still go for sturdy.

Posted by Doug at May 10, 2006 06:58 PM

No recommendation other than a $2500 frame?

Posted by Amos the Poker Cat at May 12, 2006 10:12 PM

Bicycling Magazine did their 2006 Editor's Choice awards.

Best Entry-Level Road Bike: Trek 1000 ($700),3253,s1-15272,00.html?category_id=361

Any comments?

Posted by Amos the Poker Cat at May 15, 2006 07:11 PM

Without looking at the specs, I assume this is a standard straight up road bike with stupid skinny tires and a frame that is not great for general purpose riding...

Looking at the specs, I see a standard straight up road bike that doesn't have clearance for wide tires or other things, and a frame that is not great for general purpose riding.

The low end Shimano parts set doesn't look as good as low end Shimano used to be.

Look for a Surly Cross-Check or the Jamis Aurora or something.

Posted by psu at May 15, 2006 07:44 PM

Hmm, Surly Crosscheck look interesting. Surly. Ha.

Paying more attention to the specs of the Trek 1000 (I just threw it out there because I saw it listed under road bike.), I see that it has a carbon fork. That is not going to take much abuse from this hairy tattooed fat man to break.

By "road bike", you really mean an all steel frame aznd fork bike with HD rims and spokes which other might call "touring", or "cyclocross".

Posted by Amos the Poker Cat at May 16, 2006 07:12 PM

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