Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Buying Your First Road or Triathlon Bike- Part II

Buying a bicycle can be a fairly intimidating process.  Whether you are buying a road bike or a triathlon bike, it seems there is an endless amount of options when it comes to brands, components, and materials.  Before you go looking for a new bike at your local bike shop, or start phoning up and emailing people on Kijiji about used bikes, here are two things to know about that you should consider in the purchase process.

Frame Material


Say hello to my little friend, I just got an S5 Rival
This is as good a place as any to start when considering which bike to buy.  For better or worse, frame material is probably the best indicator to determining how far your dollars are going to go.  You basically have three options when looking for a bike when it comes to bike frame materials (in ascending order of cost);

  •  Steel- If you're planning on buying a bike for triathlon or any sort of group riding. You probably won't be looking at steel bikes.  Steel bikes are generally of a 1990s or earlier vintage, and today you mostly see them being ridden around by coffee drinking hipsters with too-tight pants and a messenger bag.  I feel I should mention them though because steel frames are durable, compliant, and can be great bikes for locking up to a lamp post and grabbing a beer after work on.  (For the record, I have nothing wrong with these bikes, as a matter of fact I own one, but they're often converted to single speed bikes or fixies. Fixies are to bike riding what vegetarianism is to eating, you're going through the same motions, but its not near as fun).  Price point for steel bikes- if its more than $100 its probably a "vintage" rip off.
  • Aluminium- Aluminium bikes are the most affordable and popular frames you'll find out there today.  Aluminium bikes have greater lateral stiffness than steel bikes, meaning they transfer power to the road more effectively than their steel counterparts, however this comes at the expense of ride quality.  Aluminium bikes generally tend to ride harsher and you can feel vibrations and bumps in the road more easily than with carbon or steel.  That being said, aluminium is going to be your frame material of choice if you're on any sort of budget.  They're far more durable than carbon bikes, and significantly lighter than steel bikes, and since there's in greater supply than the other two materials, these will be the most sensible choice for your wallet.  For a new aluminium bike with decent components, you're looking at around $1000 and up, and for used you generally start in the ballpark of $500.
  • Carbon Fibre- It just sounds so cool to say that your bike is made of the same material as a Formula 1 car.  Carbon Fibre is the best of every world when it comes to bike frame materials.  Carbon fibre is lighter than any other bike frame material, has greater lateral stiffness than aluminium, and is more vertically compliant than steel.  In sum, carbon is lighter, more comfortable, and stiffer than any other material.  Its achilles heal is that it tends to be less crash resistant than metal frames, for instance, if you ever over-tighten a clamp around a carbon tube, you'll need a new carbon tube since it is very difficult to repair.  That's changing however as bike manufacturers start using the ballistic carbon that riot shields are made of to make bike frames.  Even some mountain bikes today are made of carbon and can withstand the beating of  crashes and tough terrain.  Used carbon bikes will generally start around $1000-$1500, and new carbon bikes can be had around $1800.  Be careful of buying carbon used though, a carbon frame can easily be cracked yet the damage may not be visible through the paint.


Bike Components



Depending on who you ask, components can actually be a more important factor in the bike purchase process than frame material.  I generally dispute this because its easier to upgrade components than frames, but I'll play along.  The major players when it comes to components are Shimano, and SRAM, and if you want to get exotic, Campognolo. Here are the a few price points for bike components, and where the brand models fall in;

  • Junk Level- I'm really not sure where the bottom is when it comes to entry level bike components but let me say one thing, if you're planning on keeping your bike for more than one season, as far as you're concerned, anything from Wal-Mart, Zellers, Canadian Tire, Superstore, etc etc, is below entry level. If all the shifters say on them is "Shimano", then you're looking at mushy, unresponsive, and possibly dangerously poor quality (Seriously, the brakes stretch far too much for what can be considered safe) components. Go to a real bike shop.
  • Entry Level-  Shimano has their Sora and Tiagra components, and SRAM has their APEX level components in this price category.  You'll generally find these on the lower end aluminium bikes and they'll get the job done for a season or two.  What you'll find though is that shifting and braking response will generally be a little soft, and your components might fall out of adjustment quite frequently.  If you can spend the extra $200 to get the next level up, I strongly recommend it.
  • Recreational Level- For Shimano this is their Shimano 105 component line, and for SRAM this is their SRAM Rival line.  These are solid, reliable components that are well suited for the needs of someone who rides 50km per a week and up.  In this category I actually prefer SRAM Rival to Shimano 105 but I can't really say anything bad about either.  Thanks to the trickle down effect, these components were top of the line about 6 or 7 years so the biggest differences are in weight and probably shift quality. But they'll sure get the job done.  You'll find them on a lot of the new mid price range carbon or aluminium bikes.
  • Enthusiast Level- Shimano Ultegra and SRAM Force.  I have one of these on each of my bikes and at this level the debate is becoming more like Nike or Adidas, Backstreet Boys or N Sync, Star Trek  or Star Wars.  Both component sets are exceptional today and the only difference between this stuff and what they ride in the tour is about $1000, 300 grams, and a year's R&D budget.  You won't really find these groupsets on new aluminium bikes these days because they're definitely targeted towards more upmarket bikes, but if you find a used aluminium bike with either group in your price range, you can be rest assured that its an awesome component spec.
  • Pro Level- Dura Ace and SRAM Red.  I won't talk much about these because they're incredible and expensive.  And if you're seriously considering buying one of these group sets and reading a blog post on buying your first bike, you simply have too much money. 
So there you have it.  The two biggest factors that are going to dictate the price of your bike are frame material and bike components.  Now when you visit the bike shop or check out that used bike you saw on Pinkbike you'll be better equipped to make your decision.

In the next post I'll talk about all the fancy bike gear your can blow your money on.

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