Between the comments here at RKP, the emails I receive and then the posts on social media, I get a number of requests for product shootouts and comparisons. At root, these are requests for a bottom-line answer. People want to know what’s best, and the intelligent way to get a good answer is to turn to someone more experienced, preferably an expert. In my position, recommending one product over another veers sharply into a veritable relationship rock garden. At a certain level, decorum suggests that I’m supposed to remain brand agnostic, a Switzerland to all things bike. The good news, as I’ve written on previous occasions, is that the quality of products coming out of the bike industry is so routinely high that there’s rarely ever a product that you need to be warned against. So separating the superlative from the good is really the challenge. My experience has taught me that the better a company’s top-of-the-line products are, the better their more affordable products are. There are exceptions, but as rules of thumb go, if a company’s best bike is only pretty good, their product line will suffer as you drop down price points.
My mileage is up over the last few years, which has given me more time than usual to just think about bikes. Of late, I’ve been obsessing over the question of just how to deliver the bottom line here or there to make at least a few decisions simpler, and maybe even offer some clarity to the myriad other options and open questions riders struggle with. What follows is a bullet-point list of truths I’ve found. These are recommendations that don’t come back to haunt me.
- Frame material: If you need your next bike to stand up to rough use, the occasional crash, stick with steel or titanium. If you want the ultimate in sporty performance, go for carbon fiber and keep an eye on frame weight. Less material translates to a livelier ride.
- Parts groups: At nearly every price point, Shimano’s shifting continues to be the benchmark, both for ease of operations and maintenance-free use. The jump to 11-speed drivetrains has made both front and rear shifting far more finicky than in previous generations. However, if you live in a mountainous area, and are on a budget, SRAM’s lower-end groups have offered better braking power and modulation than Shimano groups do at those price points.
- Parts: If you own a bike with any carbon fiber parts and if you ever turn a wrench on that bike (such as for travel), then you need a torque wrench.
- Test rides #1: If the shop you’re dealing with won’t let you take a bike out of the parking lot, you’ll never really find out if you might like the bike without purchasing it. Try another shop.
- Test rides #2: Unless you’ve approximated your fit (saddle height, setback and reach) on the proper size bike, and are using your pedals and shoes, it’s not really a test ride.
- Fit #1: The human body is far more adaptable than people think. A millimeter or two here or there is no big deal.
- Fit #2: If you’re going to pay someone for a fit, make sure they’ve got a current certification from some fit program. When shopping for a fitter, ask if the fitting includes a flexibility assessment. If not, keep shopping.
- Custom vs. stock: During the age of steel, when many seatposts featured about 4cm of adjustability, and there were few options in bar shape, custom frames were often required as a way to compensate for what you couldn’t achieve with components. Today, because seat tubes are shorter and there’s such a myriad of seatposts and bars available, it’s truly rare that someone can’t achieve a good fit on a stock frame. You might not be able to get a great fit on every model from every manufacturer, but there’s a model out there for nearly everyone.
- Comfort #1: If your bike beats you up on a long ride (and this is increasingly the case with high-end carbon fiber bikes), either switch to tubeless or a larger diameter tire and drop your pressure 10psi. The bike will also corner better after the switch. If your bike won’t accept larger-diameter tires or if switching to tubeless is cost-prohibitive, switching to a tire with a high-thread-count casing can still make an appreciable difference.
- Comfort #2: If you can’t pedal for more than a minute or two while riding in the drops, your bar is too low. Bringing the bar up will not only allow you to pedal in the drops for longer periods, you’ll enjoy more power when climbing with your hands on the bar tops.
- Clothing: custom team clothing remains where your dollar will go farthest. But beware, the variation in quality between different brands can feel like comparing a recalled Toyota to an Aston Martin. While the quality of fit has increased, there are multiple companies making stuff that will barely last the season. Caveat emptor.
- Shoes: You can dramatically improve almost any shoe with a custom-molded insole.
- Speed: Of all the changes you can make to a bike in order to go faster, increasing your bike’s aerodynamics by buying a more aerodynamic set of wheels will make the biggest difference. Any penalty in weight will be made up by the gains, expressed either as higher speed, or energy saved.
- Splurging: There are three items where the difference between the very best and the worst that’s out there can make a huge difference in your enjoyment. The first is bib shorts. The second is wheels. The third is frame and fork. If ever you are going to disregard your budget, these are the times to do it.