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August 23, 2010
If you didn’t make it to Ausbike on the weekend you really missed out. If you’re like me and love looking at all the different gadgets and product lines available in Australia you would have been a kid in a candy store. It was one massive bikeshop all under one roof.
If you’re a newcomer to road cycling and were looking for a new bike I can see how you would walk out of the expo as confused as ever. There were thousands of bikes on display and each guy standing at his booth will tell you all about the specs differentiate his bike from the rest.
Making and selling bikes must be a tough business to be in. The UCI has ambiguous but strict guidelines for the specifications that need to be adhered to with bike design and construction. Therefore it’s difficult for bike manufacturers to push the limits and truly get creative with bike design (if it’s to be considered legal in sanctioned races). From what I understand, working with the UCI is a nightmare for bike builders.
The question that all cyclists get from around the office or from friends is “what type of bike should I buy?”. I can understand how it’s not a clear decision. As we saw at Ausbike that there’s a lot of choice out there and it’s clouded by a lot of marketing hype. Since it’s so difficult for manufacturers to truly differentiate themselves, marketing is used a powerful tool to help us decide. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this. I want my individuality and image just as much as the next person. Just like many other things we buy, a bike purchase is a very emotional decision. We want what the pros are using to win the big races. We want something that projects a certain image. Above all, we want something that will make us faster. A lot of money is spent in the labs quantifing how much faster particular product will make you go.
Before I get too far into this let me qualify this post by say that I’m quite easy to please with the bike I ride. As long as it’s set up the way I like it (which consists of the correct framesize, bar width, stem length, and saddle adjustment) then I’m good to go. Let me also say that the price range of a bike I’d consider buying is above the ~$2000 AUD mark. Most bikes below this price would not be appropriate for the amount of kilometers or bashing that that I’m accustomed to giving a bike. By the same token, I’m also not rich. As much as I’d love to own a $10k bike, I can’t afford one and Mrs CT would kill me. There are tricks to getting upgrades past your wife though ;-)
A road bike basically consists of a frame, wheels and a groupset. Most manufacturers work very closely with their various OEM suppliers to make sure the bike works together as a whole, but you’re totally free to swap most of the parts to your liking and you’ll still get an overall bike that works completely fine.
My recommendation as a starting point when you buy a new bike is to get the best frame and wheelset you can afford. The rest of the bike can be upgraded bit by bit. You’ll do this anyway as parts begin to wear out. What I’ve found by buying the best parts straight off the bat is that the replacement parts are a downgrade from the originals because they are too expensive to replace. Have you ever seen how expensive a Campy Record cassette is? I wouldn’t even go there in the first place.
I believe that wheel and tyre selection are two of the biggest contributors to the “feel” of a bike. The way it rolls, the dampening of vibrations, the acceleration. The thing I notice most about frame choice is the way it balances the bike and the way it handles. A frame also plays a big part in vibration dampening. The geometry, build material and design all contribute to these small differences between models and brands.
Most bike frames are now made in China or Taiwan by a handful of manufacturers. I wouldn’t get too caught up in this stigma, but I can definitely say that all frames are not created equal. There are some absolutely horrible frames that come out of China and Taiwan, but there are also lots of excellent ones. If you’re interested in seeing where most of the brands’ frames are manufactured, you can find this info here.
So, which frames and wheel are “the best”? I wish I could answer this in a few sentences, but it all comes down to personal preference. It’s like telling you which red wine is the best. My opinion doesn’t mean squat. As you start to figure out what your preferences are and what suits your riding style you’ll start to put all of the subtleties of the “the feel” into context. These will also change as you progress as a cyclist. The bike I ride now is very different than my first road bike.
For me, the decision process for buying a bike isn’t entirely logical. This is a good thing for bike manufactures. We’re an easy bunch to market to. If I can gain an extra watt from throwing a thousand dollars at the problem, then sign me up. For example, the bike I ride needs to have a certain level of groupset on it. I wouldn’t go with anything less than Dura-Ace (Shimano), Force (SRAM), or Chorus (Campy). That’s not to say that the groupsets positioned beneath those are bad. My Dura Ace 9 speed groupset 7 years ago was one of my favorites and now 105 is better than it. I’ve fallen right into their evil trap now I’ve been conditioned to think that I’m entitled to a certain standard.
The bikes that I saw at Ausbike in the $5000 AUD range were the ones that hit an affordable pricepoint, have great components, and are raceworthy for the best of riders. These consist of a good carbon frame, a groupset such as SRAM Force (my personal choice for the price), and an alloy wheelset that you could train and race with.
For some of us our bikes are our pride and joy. From time to time I catch myself starting at my bike leaning against the wall saying “damn, that looks hot”. No matter what anyone tells you though, a particular bike or component isn’t going to magically make you win races or smash your mates. I find that most the fun of buying a bike is the process of researching it. You’ll probably narrow it down to two or three that you really like and won’t be able to make a decision. In actual fact, there’s probably very little difference between the bikes on your shortlist. Compare the frame and the wheels to see which is spec’d the best. I would not recommend buying a low-end wheelset and frame in exchange for Campy Super Record. Your decision should also come down to how comfortable the bike is for you and the service that you experienced at the bikeshop. I would also consider warranty to be high on the list of priorities.
If you ask anyone who has been around bikes for long enough and has no interest in pushing a particular brand, they’ll all tell you the same thing: It doesn’t matter, as long as you like it and it fits.
I don’t want to play down all the hard work that many of the bike manufacturers put into their designs and builds though. I’ve seen firsthand how some bike companies operate and I can tell you that they put a lot of time, effort, and money into making sure they build the best possible bike they can at the different price points. My point is that there are lots of little details that you can get caught up in with the build of a bike that can cloud your decision which make very little difference.
These photos don’t necessarily pertain to what I talked about above, but just a few things that stood out at the expo.
I don’t want to generalize and say that all bikes are the same, but as I said before it’s tough for bike manufacturers to differentiate. One bike that really stood out for me was this Jamis. This bike has some nice subtle customizations on it such as the gold chain, TRP brake calipers, small anodized parts that worked well together. Jamis has never been on my radar until I saw this one.
Passoni bikes are probably some of the nicest I’ve ever seen. The red one is in the $25k range. They’re more of a work of art than a bike you’d want to ride down Beach Road. They’re definitely the Ferrari of bicycles. The one on the right is a nice subtle titanium model that is beautiful understated with classy leather touches.
The Helium Bike Case was something innovative that I haven’t seen before. I’m a big advocate of softshell bike cases over hardshell. The ones with the attachment frames inside are among the best. This shoftshell case allows you to inflate the side panels for protection. This is fantastic because it rolls up to store into a small bag when you’re not using it, and it’s extremely light so that you’re not paying hundreds in excess baggage fees.
If you’ve never tried one of these Prologo saddles, I suggest you give one a shot. They’re very comfy. Check this old post out on how to find the right saddle.
It’s interesting to see how the sponsorship of a ProTour team affects the bike’s brand. People rely heavily on this when considering which bike they buy (not that they should, but they do). BH has sponsored the likes of AG2R, Liberty Seguros and Astana but were excluded last year because of Specialized’s arrangement with Contador. Since then they’ve quickly fallen off the radar. It’s good to see the BH’s being brought into Australia again and I wonder if we’ll see them back in the ProTour.
The new Bianchi hipster collection should be supplied with a free set of skinny jeans
For a wheelset?
It won’t make you go any faster, but it’s a marvelous peice of engineering elegance to the cycling aficionado.