The Bottom Line

The Bottom Line

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.
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  1. Full Monte

    When it comes to backside sensitivity, I’m the Princess and the Pea. Oh, how I’ve suffered upon many a bike saddle. I’ve grown quite a collection of them, and they’ll be piled in the donation box. So by far the best purchase(s) I’ve made was to keep searching, and finally find a saddle that works for me. It doesn’t conform to beautiful race bike saddles in shape or in style, but I’m a much happier rider for it.

    As for those soliciting the “best bike” advice, it’s an impossible situation for the expert. My work in the automotive field makes me an “expert” of sorts, and I’m often asked, “Which car should I buy?” And I used to get into expected uses, distances driven, passengers, necessary capabilities, budget, etc etc. Then once I’ve helped the friend/buyer narrow his/her choices down to a couple models, I’ll learn a week later they’ve gone off to buy something completely off the radar. People will buy what they want, not necessarily what they need. My voice may say, “Camry, Accord, Altima, Fusion and Malibu all sound like reasonable choices for you,” But what they hear is “Mustang or Camaro, Coupe or Convertible? Mustang or Camaro, Coupe or Convertible?”

    I can only imagine what computer experts must endure from advice seekers.

  2. hidayanra

    If I could somehow get my customers to read this post and believe it, my personal quality of life would improve so much.

    I can’t say that I’ve been saying these things as coherently as you did, but I’ve been attempting to get pretty well these same points across for a few years now. Easily… 88% of my conversations at work revolve around these points (and the balance are “Where do you keep the inner tubes?”

    Thank you, I’ll be linking people to this column for a long time to come.

  3. Spider

    Spot on about the ‘splurge’ factor – the difference in bib shorts is amazing (and cost need not be the single point of difference). Add shoes in the list – pay whatever you have to to get the best fit and comfort!

    I’d rather have great wheels and 105 or Centaur than heavy standard wheels and record/DA; shifting across the groupsets has gotten so good that it really is finish that differentiates the sets.

    Tyres: spend big and spend often – you only need a few flats and the cost of the tubes has cost you half a new tyre!

    Another great article!

  4. Chris

    I recently invested in some HED Belgiums, paired with White Industries 11 speed compatible hubs. The difference is amazing over the stock Shimano wheelset. I cheaped out on the new big shorts, going with $150 LGs that were well-reviewed, and I’m regretting that decision.

  5. Tom in Albany

    So, I’m running Mavic ksyriums and was consdering a set of HEDs for my bike-commuting, charity ride style. I’m liking Castelli Bibs. Comfort and easy to access to pee. I bought a Ti Serotta back in ’99 with an F-1 Fork. Only downside is it is quill stem and the technology there has stopped developing, as far as I can tell.

    I’m on 9 speed Ultegra. I’d like more choices but, what for? I’m not racing and my typical riding is well suited to my 12-25 on the back with the usual 39-53 up front. I need a new saddle for the mountain bike though. Just did a few days and it broke my arse…

  6. John

    Could you give recommendations on what color combinations are the fastest?

    But actually, great set of recommendations! Another thing to mention is that upgrading cables and brake pads are a great way to make your low/mid-tier components perform closer to the high-end.

  7. cash

    What are you using for insoles? I’ve been using the Specialized middle thickness insole and it’s been fine, but curious about custom insoles.

  8. Road Mike

    Thanks for this, Padraig.

    @Cash, eSoles eFit Supportive insoles have made a huge difference in the comfort of my shoes. The insoles are not fully custom, but you can get a semi-custom fit by changing the arch supports. They completely eliminated the numbness and and hot spots I was getting on long rides.

  9. Tokyoite

    How about shoes with big toeboxes

    Big toe on right foot is disproportionately large, so this toe starts feeling crammed in after 30k or so. Insoles won’t fix this I would guess.

    1. Author

      Regarding molded insoles, I don’t have any particular favorites. From what I see in retail land, finding a shop that has the ability to do anything more than mold Shimano shoes is the hard part. So if you can find someone who can mold some insoles, the brand isn’t that crucial. Now to Tokyoite’s question, one of the things I do with the insoles I have is leave them their original size. That is, I don’t cut them down to the same outline as the insoles I’m removing. As a result, they push the toe box out ever so slightly, giving my wide dogs a bit more room. All that said, the biggest toe box I’ve encountered in some years can be found with any of Lake’s models that come in wide versions. They definitely offered more room than the Sidi Megas I’ve tried on.

  10. Steve

    After looking at a lot of reviews including Padraig’s longer ones and testing out a lot of great stuff myself, I like:
    – All-round wheels: Zipp 303s, Reynolds Assault SLG and Shimano C35 clinchers
    – Groupsets: Shimano Ultegra 6870 Di2 (electronic) and 6800 (mechanical) for groupsets
    You can read the bottom line and full reviews of these and others in these categories at my blog

  11. Sam

    Regarding finicky 11 speed shifting, do you mean shifting performance or maintenance, and does it apply across mechanical and electronic?

    1. Author

      Sam: I’m inclined to say, “D, all of the above,” but my experience is that Di2 works somewhere near flawlessly. I have very few friends with Campy EPS and most have reported at least a few issues. I don’t think the maintenance required is all that great, but the adjustment is difficult, more difficult than they used to be.

  12. Graeme

    Some sound advice, but I’ve got two points of contention:

    Fit #2 – there are plenty of people that are certified that can’t fit as well as people without a certificate on the wall, but have decades of experience and knowledge. That’s like saying that every cop or doctor is as competent as the next. They’re not.

    Test rides – Car dealerships have demos. Hifi shops have listening rooms. Obviously it makes sense to experience something before dropping many thousands on it, but on the other hand it is impossible for smaller shops to have a fleet of test bikes in every model. Whereas one demo car will be a fair assessment of the entire line (at least to drive), every different bike frame will ride slightly different. But then, even the same frame will feel different with a different set of wheels. A proper test ride will need to be hours or days, otherwise it’s pointless. This simply can’t be maintained for any small shop. Nor is it realistic to think that all consumers have the experience to make an educated choice.

    Perhaps the more interesting point is that whilst you advocate test rides as crucial, you also maintain that exact position isn’t necessarily crucial, that componentry isn’t that important, and most importantly, that most products of decent quality will be good. If that’s the case, then a small shop without test bikes but with experienced and knowledgable staff will be able to recommend the right kind of frame (components being of secondary importance and wheels being changeable) and provide a quality fit. The problem is finding the quality shop, but a small quality shop that knows its trade is worth more than a big chain employing kids but has test bikes (opposite ends of the spectrum, but you get my point). This is going to be controversial, but I would add that most people probably couldn’t tell the difference (i.e. have the experience) between five different bikes from five different brands in the same price point. A quick test ride, therefore, is simply giving the customer the feeling of having all the power in the transaction but that doesn’t mean they’ll end up with a good bike, or the right bike. In many cases, they’ll probably make a poor choice given their needs, choosing instead on irrelevant but important reasons to them, such as perceived value (often a false economy and entirely subjective). Usually they’ll just buy the one they get the best “deal” on.

    I guess what I’m saying is that whist I won’t argue against test rides, there is more to it than saying that it’s all about the test ride.

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