Friday Group Ride #491

Friday Group Ride #491

I’m convinced there’s alchemy involved. It’s so hard to articulate what will make a great bike great, much easier than it is to look back, once the bike is built and say what you like about it. I’ve sat at my desk with the template and the colored pencils. I’ve listened to people talk about perfect top tube slop coupled with a  negative rise stem. I’ve discussed tube diameters, proportion, etc. Of course, you have to nail it all. Every correct decision has to be balanced perfectly with all the other correct decisions.

Then there are the things you can’t see in the geometry chart, the tube spec, and even in the build kit. Does it fit you like a glove? Does it handle like it’s on rails?

What are the key factors? Comfort, yes. Geometric proportion, too, what I like to think of as the bike’s stance. Performance as measured by stiffness, but also strategic compliance, i.e. the rigidity to efficiently transfer power coupled to the comfort to allow you to make power for long periods of time. Parts spec is there. The components need to work for you. They don’t necessarily need to be the top-of-every line, but they need to match the bike’s purpose.

The bike’s features have to be considered. Does it have fender mounts? Does it have room for frame bags? Everyone has a different list, and you might have to consider what you’re willing to compromise. I’ve left aesthetics for late in this explication, but we know how important they are. I want a bike to excite me visually, but if it’s a new bike, I don’t want it to look like other bikes. I want it to surprise me a little with its visual appeal.

When you walk in a bike shop or click through a company’s website, you’re taking all this in simultaneously, and because you’re spending money that you earned, the decision is freighted. Even the most obsessed bike nerd probably doesn’t buy more than one new bike per season. It’s a big deal. The need to get it right is immense.

This week’s Group Ride asks you to rank your priorities. Take fit, handling, performance, components, features and aesthetics and tell us what order they matter to you. To me, fit and handling have to be top. I tend to think most components you find on most bikes work well, so I have preferences, but I don’t weight the build spec too heavily. Aesthetics probably come third for me. I need the bike to inspire me. I have to want to look at it. Features come next. It’s pretty hard to compromise on these things, but I tend to believe if fit and handling are optimized, you can find solutions for things you need.

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9 comments

  1. Aar

    Very much like you, my top 3, in order, are fit, handling and aesthetics. The flatter the top tube the better and I love seat stays that rise all the way up to form a cluster with the top tube. While I don’t have the pleasure of a custom bike, my preferences played out in purchasing a Specialized Tarmac “SL5” shortly after the SL6 was released. While I’m certain that the new bike is higher performance in most ways, the fit and handling are probably no different but the new bike’s severely sloping top tube and dropped seat stays are just hideous to me.

  2. Mike Brown

    Right. Just like buying pants, they have to fit first. Then handling, then looks. All of my bikes are older Columbus tube makes with modern components but I recently built up a DeRosa “professional” SLX and riding it has completely renewed my excitement and enthusiasm for riding. Not that I had stopped, but there’s something in that bike (alchemy?) that sets it above the others.

  3. Dave Buttner

    You have mentioned many good points in deciding what to buy. For me how does it feel and work on the first test ride. My Jamis Aurora Elite gave me all I was looking for that day and thousands of miles later it still rides and shifts the way it did when it was new. It’s not fast and by some standards maybe not as snappy in the handling department however, under a tour load and otherwise it’s handles well and very predictably. What would improve it’s aesthetics would be a nice red paint job. Maybe someday

    1. Weiwen

      Fit is definitely first, but I suspect most riders, and in particular most men, can make an off the rack bike fit well (i.e. change out the stem and handlebars as needed). Your mention of Bishop says to me that fit may be first, but this particular builder is a very close second. There’s some ineffable connection there, perhaps. Which I can totally understand.

      If I get another performance road bike, I would have to consider something like a Trek Emonda or Domane, or a Specialized Venge, or something similar from one of the big carbon builders. I know I can achieve an acceptable position on any of them. But at the same time, I don’t know that I’d be particularly excited about any of them. I can name a bunch of steel or titanium builders (mostly custom, some production) that I’d be excited about even at the cost of some aerodynamics on the frame.

      Aside from that, I do prefer a very steep seat angle and a long reach, so custom bikes have a lot of draw for me.

  4. Neil Winkelmann

    I’m a bit of a luddite. I can tolerate a wide range of fits. Seat-height is obviously critical, but I’m not too bothered by exactly where the handlebars are. I am very insensitive to handling. I can tell the difference between different bikes at first, but I very quickly adapt to however the bike I’m riding handles. I never give it a thought after the first minute. In terms of comfort, I find very little difference between bikes, other than the tyre size and pressures. Having said that, I’ve never thought any bike I’ve owned was “uncomfortable”.

    My priorities are that I like to see simple, well-executed engineering. That generally goes to weight and strength, and I do have a preference for certain aesthetics. I don’t like “gimmicks” like adjustable fork rake.

  5. Mike

    Fit has to be #1 for me. Experience tells me that I like to be more upright. I can make it to 50-60 miles in a mildly aggressive position but after that…ugh. That is what has made the new crop of gravel bikes so exciting for me. My current “road” bike is really a light touring bike. It was the only thing I could find that looked like it would fit without breaking the bank. Now, I can find something lighter and theoretically snappier that gets me into a similar, upright position.
    After fit, comes handling and parts spec. I do not want twitchy but I also do not want to feel like I am lurching the bike around. The parts spec doesn’t need to be high end. Give me 105 I and I will be quite happy.

  6. TominAlbany

    The bike needs to 1a) feel good, 1b) ride good,
    and

    2)look good. But who’s looking at the bike? I am…

  7. Robert

    1. Fit
    2. Handling
    3. Feel

    Last year, I purchased a Mosaic Ti frame and fork. Total custom build and basically it is Mosaic’s Cross frame with longer chains stays to allow larger tires and improve the feel of the bike. I picked a cross style frame because I prefer the geometry and handling but the longer stays help with comfort for longer rides. Also I had Mosaic braze-on some beautiful eyes for panniers for bike packing. The feel on the bike is strong. The bike is a cross between my steel and carbon race bikes. Stiff with some give and just fun to ride.

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