Friday, March 29, 2013

Want to Buy a New Bicycle?

Rule #12
// The correct number of bikes to own is n+1.

While the minimum number of bikes one should own is three, the correct number is n+1, where n is the number of bikes currently owned. This equation may also be re-written as s-1, where s is the number of bikes owned that would result in separation from your partner.


I am neither a bicycle dealer nor a professional bicycle mechanic.

I have been riding bicycles seriously for about 30 years, owning over 40 different bicycles. For much of that time, I have been my own mechanic and always buy my bicycles in parts and build them myself.

Since our local cycling community is both vibrant and often growing, I thought I'd discuss briefly some tips and ideas for the inevitable—the urge to buy a new bicycle.

First, I am basically jumping past buying your first serious bicycle for road cycling, which, as I will touch on below, is likely best accomplished at your local bicycle shop. A stock road bicycle from a major manufacturer purchased at a local bicycle shop is a great deal, even more so today than 20 or 30 years ago.

If you are a first-time buyer, my main quibble with stock bicycles and local shops is bicycles are now set up to be marketable—stem-stack too high (space between the top of the head tube and the stem that attaches to your handle bars), brake/shifters turned upward too much, stem angled upward. While this set up is marketable since it puts new riders in a more upright position, it makes new riders far less capable in handling. Position matters; don't let the initial set up of a stock bicycle determine your positioning.

Now, if you are currently deeply into cycling and want an upgrade, likely to a high-end bicycle, what do you do and what sort of choices should you make?

The first smart move for a high-end bicycle purchase is get a professional bicycle fit. Know what size frame you need by knowing most of all what your ideal REACH is for a new frame.

Contemporary frames are confusing in terms of sizing. What is most important is the combined measurement of the frame set virtual top tube (VTT) [sometimes called "effective" top tube] plus the stem length.

For example, a frame with a 56 cm VTT and 100 mm stem is essentially the same fit as a 54 cm VTT frame and 120 mm stem. For handling quality, stems of about 90 mm - 120 or 130 mm are reasonable. If a frame forces something shorter or longer, that may signal the frame doesn't fit.

For me, a sweet spot is a VTT and 120 mm stem. It places my weight and sight over the bicycle in a way that suits me.

These basic measurements are central to the discussion when you get a bicycle fit.

Head tube height plus your stack height, amount of exposed seat post, and other measurements matter, but I recommend focusing first on VTT/stem length.

Once you know what size, you must decide if you want to go the stock bicycle or build-your-own route.

I am a build-my-own cyclist because I want my components all to be the same on my n + 1 collection, but I also enjoy building my own bicycles.

Stock bicycles from local bicycle shops still have value even for high-end bicycles. This route is always worth considering, especially since you can test ride the whole bicycle.

My comments about high-end stock bicycles include the following: (1) You often get a good to excellent frame (most bicycles today are carbon, and most carbon frame are light years ahead of stock bicycles 20-30 years ago), (2) You can get an amazing component group for much less than buying a group when building your own, (3) the remaining components often leave something to be desired (handle bars, bar tape, stems, saddles, etc.) and tend to leave you with few choices about customizing, and (4) even on high-end stock bicycles, you tend to get wheels that are far below the quality of everything else. My #s 3 and 4 are why I build my own.

High-end stock bicycles never come with pedals or bottle cages so consider the added cost when shopping.

As a transition from stock bicycles to build-your-own, I want to make a strong argument that you always buy behind the "new" curve—last year's model or close-outs.

This strategy creates the best $$$/quality ratio you can grab. Also, "new" trickles down so many features of even a last year's model were the "new" things two years ago.

Now, if you choose build-your-own, do not discount the local bicycle shop.

My Colnago, Cervelo, and Ridley Flandrien frames were all purchased at local bicycle shops, not online. And all were very good deals and bicycles.

The keys to building your own bicycle are patience and a plan both to buy what you need and have a way to put all those parts together well and safely.

One important reminder is your steering tube will need to be cut if you buy a frame set; it is always good to have the right measurement and arrange for that to be cut by the source of your purchase.

If you are going to do your own build, I highly recommend having the essential tools and a good bicycle stand (I prefer what is called a team or pro stand). If you are local and want to do your own build with a little (or more) help, I am always eager to do some bicycle building.

A good experience for a first-time build-your-own is visit an online bicycle dealer that has a part builder, and then build a fantasy bicycle to get an idea of all the parts you need and some idea of costs (try Excel Sports component builder, the drop-down box prompts you to all you need also). So what do you need?
  • Frame set [1] (fork and frame, headset, spacers for stem stack height, rear derailleur hanger, bottle cage bolts, cable guides/adjusters, cable guides for underneath bottom bracket)
  • Bottom bracket [2] (standard outboard [English/BSC or Italian threading], BB30, etc.)
  • Handle bars, handle bar tape
  • Water bottle cages
  • Computer
  • Stem (handle bars and stems must match in clamp size; most today are oversize [OS])
  • Component group (shifters/brake levers, brakes, front derailleur [1], rear derailleur, crank set [2] [compact 50/34 or standard 53/39] must match frame bottom bracket type, see above)
  • Seat post (know proper size for new frame set)
  • Saddle
  • Pedals
  • Wheel set, tires, tubes (you may need rim tape, depending on rim type)
The sexy part of building your own bicycle is the frame set, but the real concern for you should be where the rubber meets the road, literally.

If you are making a $3000+ investment in a new bicycle, you should really start with a moderately priced, high-quality wheel set that balances durability, performance, and weight.

Clincher wheels (using beaded tires, not glued on tires found on "tubular" wheel sets) tend to be durable and weight efficient in the 1400 g range if you are medium to small in height and weight. Larger riders may need 1500-1600 g wheels.

Frame and component choices are complex, but a good rule of thumb depending on your financial constraints is seeking the next-to-the-top versions of most items. Sure, Dura-Ace and SRAM Red are sexy, but for most of us, Ultegra and Force are incredibly high quality, reasonably light, and durable.

Frames are changing rapidly, but 1000-1200 g frame sets are on the lower end of high-quality frames (my Ridleys are 1100 g) with freakishly light and expensive frames coming in at sub-700 g to 900 g (Cervelo R5ca, Cannondale EVO). Some of the ultra-light frame sets may not be as durable or comfortable as recreational riders want; and the cost/performance ratio may not be worth it.

But if you're going to splurge, spend the extra money on wheels first, frame second, and then the rest (don't ever cut corners on the saddle or pedals, though).

Ultimately you want the combination of frame (material and geometry), wheels, and build to achieve the ideal ride quality (handling, comfort, fit) and looks that suit you—not anyone else.

For me, how a frame responds to accelerations, how a frame climbs, and how a frame handles coming down Saluda grade are issues I will not compromise on. I like "classic" road frames, long top tubes and the "classic" combination of comfortable and solid handling (corners, descending, hands off the bars).

Ultimately, you need to do your research, and ride some different bicycles—ask friends, visit bicycle shops, and even some online retailers will ship bicycles to you to test ride.

Talk to veteran riders about different frames, ride quality, their preferences. Being well informed and patient are keys to being happy with your new (+1) bicycle.

NOTE: If I have missed something, or if you want greater clarification, shoot me an email and I'll update this posting -- paul.thomas[at]

[1] Know if your frame set has a front derailleur hanger or if it requires a clamp-on. The frame information should note if a braze-on or clamp-on front derailleur is required.

[2] If your new frame, for example, has a BB30 botton bracket, you'll need the BB30 bottom bracket and a BB30 crank set.

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