After 1,400 miles in 5 months, I’ve discovered quite a bit about cycling, about myself, and about my bike. Schools of thought range from thoroughly detailed scientific analysis, all the way down to the SUAR method – Shut Up And Ride. I’m a detail oriented kinda guy, so I like to know as much about an activity as possible. When I decided I’m getting serious with this cycling stuff, I knew that my trusty 2001 OCR3 just wasn’t gonna cut it.
It was time for a new bike.
The OCR was – and still is – a great bike. Solid, tough, relatively light for an aluminum frame, with Shimano Sora components that – though aged and sometimes finicky – still get the job done. However, compared to what’s available today, it’s heavy, doesn’t shift smoothly, and transfers a lot of the bumps and ruts right into your arms and spine. And it’s a medium-sized frame, which was always slightly small on me. So I thought I’d just find a bike store, test ride some bikes, and go from there. Little did I know that bikes are as complicated as computers – and often have far more parts. Derailluers, shifters, brakes, cabling, frame, rims, tires, hubs, bottom brackets, crank sets, cassettes, handle bars, seat posts, saddles, spokes… the list goes on and on. I couldn’t believe how many variables there were! Worse, since I wasn’t really part of the bike scene until recently, I had zero clue about what components were good/bad, what made them good/bad, how they compared relative to other component manufacturers, etc. But as I said, I’m detail oriented, so I busted out my computer and started digging for info.
Now, I’ll share my process for buying a road bike in the hope that this may help someone else considering moving out of the entry-level sets and into the mid-range systems. But note: I’m not an expert, so take it as you will.
There are several factors you should consider when buying a bike. Ask yourself these questions:
- How will I use this new bike? How you plan on using your bike makes a huge difference in the kind of bike you want to buy. A triathlon bike has very little in common with a commuter bike other than perhaps being considered the same mode of transportation. An endurance bike may look like a criterium race bike, but your entire body positioning will be different. So, first decide what it is you want to do with your bike. This will determine the style of bike along with the type of body positioning/geometry, and components you may need.
- How much am I willing to spend? Bikes range in pricing from $500 entry-level bikes to $20,000 works of ephemeral beauty. The new entry level bikes these days are very nice, and if you go to carbon frames, you can still get quite a bit of bike for relatively little outlay. But mid-level bikes usually run between 2k-4.5k. Above 5k, you’re probably looking at a very high mid-level bike, or a low top-of-the-line bike. The budget you set for your bike buying will quickly weed out pipe-dreams like ZIPP wheels and wireless electronic shifters. But let me pause here for a moment. Remember: you’re buying a bike. If it was just another blue light special, Huffy 10-speed, ok, go cheap, and pick up a roll of duct tape for minor repairs. But you shouldn’t look at buying a mid-to-high range bike like that – this is more like buying a car (in both purpose and cost). Regardless of your budget, it’s still far more than any non-cyclist would dream of spending on a bike. So since you’ve already made the decision to buy a bike and spend the money, make sure you don’t short-change yourself (no pun intended). SPEND THE MONEY! Set a budget that you think you want to spend, then add about 30% to that as your final cost. The only thing worse than spending too much money is spending slightly less and not getting what you really want. Bikes can last a very long time when maintained, so look at this as a long-term investment. It’s nice to get that brand new car with the brand new car smell… it’s friggin’ awesome to get it with the leather interior smell, chrome rims, boomin’ exhaust, and “PIMP” spelled out in diamonds on the spinners. I’m just sayin’, you’ve already decided to spend the money, so make sure you spend it.
- Do I like the bike I intend to buy? Though seemingly less important than the components of the bike or the overall cost or whether it matches your riding style yada, yada, enjoying your bike is just as critical as how much it costs and what it can do. My OCR3 is relatively cheap (was one of the cheapest bikes of its day) but it’s got nice styling, and good lines. So when I ride it, I never feel like I was riding something sub-par. OK, maybe not never, especially those times when super-bikes flew past me as if they had friggin 900cc engines… but I digress. As with most sports, a large portion of cycling is mental. Getting your mind to focus on making your body do what it needs to do, even when your body says it can’t do it anymore. When you feel great about your bike, not only does it make you feel better about knowing you just put the down payment of a house onto a machine that weighs less than some laptops, but you’ll want to ride it more. You’ll feel like it performs better, it handles better, and it’s the bike you wanted. So if a bike has all the right specs and a good price, make sure it also looks badass. And beyond the look, how was the test ride?
How did I answer these questions? First, I knew that I’m not a sprinter. I’ve always been an endurance athlete – cross country, long distance biking, long hikes, etc. And though I want to get into racing, I’ll be looking more at endurance races (50-100km / 31-62 miles), not the much shorter criterium/lap races. Next, I set my budget, saved up some money, then increased my budget. What happened was when I started to look at the bikes I could get in my original budget (and I studied the components available in my price range) I realized that though the bikes were newer and better in many ways, they weren’t significantly better than my OCR3, so it made less sense to buy a new bike. Once I increased my budget, the specs changed dramatically, placing the new bike in an entirely different league, and putting me back on track to make a new purchase. For the last question, I found several bikes that were ok looking. But like I said, you don’t want the “Kelly Rippa, everyday, nice looking” bike. You want the “Padma Lakshmi, I need to go cook something right now” bike. So I kept looking until I found the components I wanted with the look I wanted.
There are dozens of well known bike manufacturers, each with their own claims to fame. Some cred is well deserved, other is hyped up, but often times the manufacturer won’t matter nearly so much as the price, look, feel and performance. The only way to know which you’ll want to go with is to try out different bikes from different manufacturers. Most bike stores will carry several, and I encourage you to try as many as you can. If you tell them the answer to question 1, they’ll get you to the right line of bikes, then question 2 will get you closer to the right level. Question 3 is for you, and they can’t help you with that.
Next you have frame. The frame is very important not only because it accounts for a large portion of the bike weight, a huge portion of the dynamics of the bike are dictated by the frame geometry and material. Stiffer materials will resist your pedal pressure, allowing for more efficient power transfer. However, stiffer materials also mean you’ll probably have a rougher ride. Materials with more flex can absorb road vibrations better, making the ride feel smoother. The most common materials for frames are:
- Steel: used to be heavier than some Oldsmobiles, but steel is coming back due to new formulations that allow for rather light construction with lots of rigidity to resist torsion (twisting/bending) when pushing hard up hills and such. Useful for the stronger, heavier riders who don’t like their bikes flimsy. Will most likely weigh more than most aluminum bikes and almost all carbon fiber bikes.
- Aluminum: probably the most common material in road bikes is an aluminum alloy. It’s one of those “jack-of-all-trades” materials: it’s lighter than steel, but far heavier than carbon fiber. It’s more rigid than carbon fiber, but has more flex/cushioning than steel.
- Carbon Fiber: this material has excellent strength while being ultra-light. It has a lot more flex than either steel or aluminum, but it also dampens vibrations a lot better, making for a smoother ride. It is however one of the most expensive materials (next to perhaps titanium frames, yes, they have those).
Usually aluminum bikes will work for most people, and the new aluminum bikes are very light. But if you want to shed some serious pounds, it’s hard to beat carbon fiber. One thing you should note if you decide to go the carbon fiber route: carbon fiber IS NOT metal. If you crash hard on a steel or aluminum frame, you might get a dent, or even a bend that can be bent back into shape. If you crash hard on a carbon fiber, you get a crack. Once you get a crack – game over. The crack will rapidly spread with any application of stress, rendering it useless. I’m not trying to scare you away from carbon fiber, just letting everyone know it’s something to keep in mind.
Besides manufacturer and frame, there are the component groups. Here’s where my head started to spin. There are so many different component groups and component group makers… oy! And sometimes bikes will have pieces from one set, and pieces from another, sometimes to increase performance, reduce cost, reduce weight, alter your perception of reality, who knows. In my case, I came across two makes of component groups most often: SRAM (pronounced “shram”), and Shimano. Because it took me a while to sort out, I thought I’d list the performance orders for these sets (from low-to-high end):
- Sora (what I have on the OCR3, though 10 years out of date)
- Ultegra 6700
Personally, I didn’t like the feel of the SRAM component group shifting in comparison to the Shimano groups I tested, but again, it comes down to personal preference. From what I could find online, I came up with this ordering of component groups for both manufacturers (from highest to lowest):
- Shimano Dura-Ace/Di2
- Shimano Dura-Ace / SRAM Red (about the same level, though I saw Dura-Ace sometimes listed more expensively)
- Shimano Ultegra
- SRAM Apex
- Shimano 105 / SRAM Force (about the same level)
- SRAM Rival
- Shimano Tiagra
- Shimano Sora
- Shimano 2200
When you’re looking at the component group on your new bike, if they’re by either of these manufacturers, hopefully this list will let you know about where they fall in the grand scheme of groups available.
And as if all that weren’t enough, there’s rims and wheels. Rims can run as cheap as $50 a wheel, to more than the rest of the bike itself. I didn’t research rims and tires too much, because there’s just so many little things that can affect how the wheels perform: threads per inch (tpi) in the tire, cross-section depth of the rim, number/weight/shape of the spokes, how the tires change the wind cutting across the rims, and on and on. So the only thing I did do was when a bike had a particular set of rims and tires, I looked up reviews to see if there was anything negative about them.
So what did I ultimately end up with? I compared the Giant lines with those from Specialized, Cannondale, Trek, Look, and GT. The price points on Giant usually were better than for comparable bikes from other manufacturers. Add to that the nice styling, the fact that I have a Giant bike that’s proven, and that the largest retailer of Giant bicycles in Oklahoma is located in Tulsa, I started to look into the Giant lines. A little further digging narrowed my choices down to either the Defy Advanced line (endurance) or the TCR line (racing). Being an endurance rider, I went with the Defy Advanced line and kept refining. The lowest in that line was the Defy Advanced 3. A beautiful carbon fiber frame, with mostly Shimano 105 components (some lesser components for brakes and crank set mixed in), and Mavic CXP22 rims. My research on the Mavic CXP22 rims told me that people’s experience with them were hit-or-miss, some saying they’re just fine, and others not liking them at all. And the Shimano 105 group was a couple of steps up from the Sora’s on my OCR3, but it wasn’t the complete group.
So, I looked next at the Defy Advanced 2 (next step up) which had the full Shimano 105 set, with DT Swiss rims custom-made for Giant, and very nice Michelin Pro Optimum tires. But the paint scheme was white with gold and black trim. I wasn’t feeling it. Price was about right, rims and tires were good, and it was getting there, but just not quite right. So I went up one more step to the Defy Advanced 1. Now, this was originally more than I was looking to spend (about 27% more) but at this point we had moved from the 105’s to the Ultegra 6700. And you could actually feel the difference in shifting smoothness. Same rims and tires from the Defy Advanced 2, but now the styling was white, with red and gold trim. The performance was amazing, but I still thought the look wasn’t good. Lots of new bikes enjoy this white/red mixture that I find overwhelming.
Bicycles of Tulsa was kind enough to do a custom build for me. They took the beautiful frame and fork from the Defy Advanced 3 and combined it with all the components from the Defy Advanced 1. The only difference is the Defy Advanced 3 fork is aluminum alloy instead of carbon composite, but it’s a hardly noticeable difference.
So now I’m the very proud owner of a Defy Advanced 1.3, a unique bike, with the carbon fiber smoke frame with white/red trim, Ultegra 6700 component group, DT Swiss R1800 rims, Michelin Pro Optimum tires, Fi’zi:k Aliante Delta saddle with Manganese Rails, and a Cateye Strada computer. It weighs about 17.5 lbs (18 with saddle bag and gear, about 12 lbs less then my OCR3). I’ve ridden about 320 miles so far, and I couldn’t be happier. Yeah, I could’ve saved a lot of money and bought the Defy Advanced 3, or spent my budget and got the Defy Advanced 2, or I could’ve seriously blown my budget and gone with the Defy Advanced 0 (I’m quite sure my wife would have me sleeping in my truck had I done that) but I believe I found the right balance for myself. And as we all know, in cycling as in life, balance is key.
There it is, the tale of how I bought my new bike. I still use the OCR3 – it’s on the trainer in the garage, great for doing intervals. And when the weather is bad or if the roads are muddy/wet, I take the OCR3 with it’s heavier, all-season road tires. But when the roads are nice and I’m ready to lay down some serious miles, I pull out the Defy. I can’t wait until Spring and the first large rides come around so I can put it to the test. In the meantime, I’ll keep rolling.