How to choose a road bike – A procrastinator’s guide

Bike unboxingBuying a new road bike. It begins as a vague idea, quickly turns into excitement and then snowballs into a major headache before becoming a lesson in the art of procrastination. We turn what should be a pleasurable activity into pure torture. Why?

The paradox of choice. We’re overwhelmed. Marginal differences between groupsets, between colour schemes. Is this the lightest bike I can afford, are these the best wheels, is it aero enough, should I get electric gears, will it fit me? A series of questions which we will over analyse, doubts that will preoccupy our minds more than life itself.

Which bike should I buy? A simple question to which there is no easy answer. I recently went through this torturous ordeal. It began like this. OK, so my budget is this. I like this colour. I want this type of bike. I want this groupset. I need this size bike. Job done, right?

Easy enough to apply a few filters on your chosen websites and bingo, you have a shortlist of bikes. In theory you should just buy a bike now, the one you like the look of or that feels the best on a test ride. But oh no, now is the time to dig into the detail of those questions. Do I really like this colour? Is it the right shade of black? What about this groupset? Ooh, look for an extra £xxx I can get this. And so begins your ordeal.

What to consider when buying a road bike

Best bikeHere’s a list of questions to ask yourself when buying a new road bike. This is in my original priority order. Try to stick to your chosen priorities to avoid more deliberation. Which you will almost certainly do!

In theory there are only five considerations – budget, type of bike, frame size, gear choice and colour. Answer these and you’ll be ready to click buy now or go for a test ride.

1) Set your budget

new-bike-1Decide on your budget and stick to it. What is the maximum amount of money you can afford to invest in a new bike. Do not stray from this number. Don’t even look at bikes a few hundred quid above this price point. This is the theory.

The reality goes a little more like this. Set your budget. See other bikes just above your budget. Increase budget. Decide you definitely do need to save 100g on the more expensive groupset. Increase budget. Justify to yourself that if you are investing this much in a decent bike you owe it to the bike to get good wheels. Increase budget.

Don’t forget pedals. And bottle cages. And the saddle with matching colour scheme. And extra padding on the handlebar wrap. Electric gears would be great. Oh look, your budget has doubled. And it’s still not enough for that dream bike. Don’t worry you don’t need to eat this month. Losing weight will be good for the new bike.

2) What type of road bike do you need (not want)

What type of riding will you be doing on the bike? Cafe rides? Races? Long endurance rides? Hill climbs? A few timetrials here and there? A bit of adventure on some gravel? Specialists can go full on timetrial bike or cross-bike, but even within the road bike category there’s a broad choice of bikes to choose from, each with different geometries, brakes, gearing, handling and frames.

The biggest choice for most is probably between an endurance frame versus a race frame. Which is for you? The answer is very easy if you consider your style of riding. Comfort versus a few seconds here and there? Easy right?

3) What size road bike frame do I need?

new-bike-5OK, I’ll be honest with you, this is not an easy question to answer. Why? Much depends on the style or type of bike frame you are choosing and the manufacturer. There’s also a handful of different ways to measure a bike, all of which seem to differ and each manufacturer will have different sizes for different frame tubes. So how to decide?

The most important measurements to consider when deciding which size bike to get are inseam length and reach. Not your height. The latter is an approximate guide and probably fine if you are not in between bike sizes as I am, in which case your inseam as measured here and not by your jeans, together with your reach are more important.

If your old bike fit well, measure it and compare geometries. The easy answer to finding the right size bike frame is to choose a bike and then take it for a test ride. Done. Not so easy when ordering online. But even a test ride is no guarantee as much will depend on how the bike has been set up. Sure you can get the seat height about right, but what about the spacers? The stem length? Position of the saddle?

The difference in sizing between two frame sizes is often not huge and if you are between sizes you can get the basic frame size right and then adjust the height and reach with seats and stems so don’t worry too much once you know you’re in the right zone.

Many pro’s actually choose the smaller frame and add a longer stem but much depends on your choice between speed and comfort.

4) What colour bike do I like?

new-bike-10Why is colour so important? You have to enjoy riding your new bike otherwise what’s the point? You must lust after it, love it as if it were one of your own children (the favourite one of course). The bike colour and aesthetics should not be underestimated. Don’t get buying that lurid chartreuse yellow bike just because it is in the sale. Don’t buy the multi-coloured abomination just because it comes with electric gears. If you don’t like the colour or style of your bike you will ride it less. That my friends is a fact.

Matt black is all the rage nowadays. I blame Batman. Bastard. Stealth bikes as far as the eye can see, perhaps with a bright accent colour to show that yes actually, I do have bit of personality. Look at my yellow stripe, I’ve got flair goddaman it, they painted the inside of my forks lime green so you just know I have panache.

I jest, I do actually like matt black bikes although matt looks a bugger to maintain as I do quite like polishing my current frame with Pledge wood polish. What? It looks great and smells even better. Mmmm, pine.

Also watch out for the finish of frames specified as UD matt black. It’s not actually a finish, it’s just the raw carbon layering. This can leave your frame looking unfinished or blemished.

5) What gears do I need?

Compact (50/34), standard (traditional) (53/39) or mid compact (semi-compact) (52/36). Again, your choice should be driven by what type of riding you do and your own performance. New to cycling, a heavier or older rider who struggles with hills? Knee pain? Get a compact and ignore anyone who says otherwise.

Race competitively or a strong rider? Look to the semi-compact or standard gearing. Semi-compact is relatively new to the market and gives you a nice small cog on the front for the hills combined with a big cog for powering away on the flats. Remember you can also vary your gear selection a lot by choosing a bigger cassette on the rear. For me a semi-compact with a 11-28 cassette on the back is perfect. Need a compact but worried about spinning out downhill? Don’t. You’ll go faster downhill by jumping in an aerotuck and besides, what percentage of your riding is down hill at full speed?


Ok, so that’s it, be on your way and buy your new dream bike. I expect you’ll be done in about an hour right? Don’t read on, there’s nothing more you need to do because all of the points below do not matter. They will change nothing, except the length of time you spend looking for the perfect new bike.


Things you shouldn’t consider but will consider way too much

Groupset

new-bike-4You will spend far too much time asking questions like: electric or mechanical? Shimano 105 versus Ultegra. What about Campagnolo and SRAM? You will read dozens of reviews and hundreds of forum posts and you will still be none the wiser even though the differences between all of these things boils down to pretty much three things:

  1. Price
  2. Very marginal weight differences
  3. Shifting preferences

With the advent of electric gears like Di2, you do have a genuine choice. Do you want crisper shifting that is always spot on? For me it feels like more faff, something else to remember in an already busy life. Shit, I forgot to charge my gears you realise 50 miles from home. This is probably an exaggeration since you only need to charge once every few months. I did actually test some Di2 and the difference was big, I really enjoyed electric shifting but sadly, it’s beyond my budget.

For all other decisions, look at the shifting differences between the three major groupset suppliers – doubletap from SRAM versus the two lever gear shift Shimano versus the click and lever shift on Campagnolo. Don’t get caught up in the differences between each supplier’s groupset range, there really is very little difference between Shimano 105 and Ultegra but for a bit of weight and the judgement of your club mates.

Frame material

new-bike-11Depending on your budget, you’ll probably be dithering between a carbon frame with lesser components and an aluminium frame with better components. Don’t always assume the carbon bike will be the better choice. Not all carbon is equal. Some are lighter, stiffer and constructed using more advanced techniques.

Carbon bikes should on the whole be more comfortable, but less likely to survive a bad crash. Me? I’ve been riding a beautiful aluminium frame with carbon rear and front forks for many a year. It looks and rides beautifully. Be careful with most aluminium frames now though, the welds at the joints look terrible and the frame looks like a Frankenstein bike. My next bike will be carbon to avoid this (aluminium and carbon bike weights are pretty close).

Bike weight

A confession, I’ve become obsessed with the weight of my potential new bike. Obsessing over silly weights like 100 grams (a few sips of your water bottle!). Ok, so I have a slightly more valid reason for looking at bike weight – my favourite thing about cycling is hill climb racing, plus I’m already at a low healthy body weight. My current bike is giving away 3-5 kg to most folk but even then, this only equates to about 10 seconds in a hill climb race (depending on the hill).

If you are obsessed about bike weight, do the following. Can you, the rider, lose any weight? You make up 80% of the total weight so your belly is the cheapest way to lose weight. Next, look at this tool which calculates how much quicker you will ride if you save some weight on your bike. Short answer, not a lot.

Aerodynamics

Probably a more important decision than weight, but only marginally. Choosing an aerodynamic bike (one that works rather than just ‘looks aero’) will save you between 7-20 watts when travelling at 40 kph. Buying some clip-on bars for your road bike will save you 30 watts! Think about your riding and position too. Do you really ride in an aero tuck? Would changing your own position on the bike be better than buying an aero frame? Probably, but then the idea of buying ‘free speed’ is hard to refuse.

Wheels

Most bikes, even bikes up to £2,500 will come with fairly heavy wheels. The wheels are where most bike brands skimp in order to boost their profit margins. Most people say wheels are one of the best investments and upgrades on a bike so it makes sense to make sure you get the best wheels possible with your new bike. Is this true though? Saving a few grams on your wheels will save you a few seconds up a short hill at best, assuming all wheels are equally stiff. Not much in the grand scheme of things.

What about areo wheels? These could save you up to 10w in an hour, about 30 seconds. Less if the course is hilly. Probably as much as tucking your elbows in! So weight and aero wheels can save you a few seconds here and there, but in the grand scheme of things represent about 1% of the total weight or drag of you and your bike.

Discount

new-bike-2You’re tight (human). You’re looking for a deal, a real steal. There’s a bike that’s slightly too large for you in a horrible colour with the wrong chainset that is an absolute bargain. Do not push that button. Step away from the computer. Go for a ride. Don’t buy a new bike just because it’s cheap. Your bike should be like your girlfriend or boyfriend. It must be love, not because they’re cheap.

What else?

Within much of the above are the niggling micro questions you will ask. Like what? How noisy is the hub on this new wheel set? Yes, I have watched videos of wheels spinning to listen to the hub noise! Will these wheels last? Will the hubs wear out? Do I really want to spend more money to replace the supplied tires because they are rubbish? Do I want a long or short wheelbase bike, does it matter? Hmm, these press fit bottom brackets have a bad reputation. And on it goes. Oh god, kill me now.

Don’t forget customer service

One overlooked area is customer service and frame warranties. Most brands offer frame replacement services of some kind but some are better than others at fulfilling them. Also consider delivery times if you are ordering online. Direct to consumer brands like Rose and Canyon estimate about three-four weeks to delivery, much longer if something goes wrong.

I’ve been through all of the above recently. And guess what? I bought the first bike I thought I’d buy. Why? It looks great!

What about you, what’s the most important thing for you when buying a new bike or what micro questions have you over-analysed before finally committing?

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17 thoughts on “How to choose a road bike – A procrastinator’s guide

  1. I am glad that you mentioned colour. I was all set to buy a more expensive bike (albeit at a better discount) but balked at the colour. I worried that I just wouldn’t like looking at it.
    In the end, I do slightly regret not buying that bike–but I regret that the store hadn’t ordered a more beautiful one to sell to me at a discount at the end of the season.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Endurance or aero carbon frame, Ultegra Di2 (because I want a 32 on the back for 20%+ gradients – #weaksauce I know) and hydraulic disc brakes. They’re the 3 most important things I want on my next bike. Whether the finance committee approves the funds required is a story for another day though. Other component upgrades will come at a later stage. Been drooling over the Canyon & Rose models with the above spec and the prices are very appealing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha ha, finance committee, love it. My shortlist was also Rose and Canyon, went with the latter in the end as I preferred the look of the bike and a test ride of a club mate’s Rose was a little too twitchy at the front end. Beautiful bikes, much better value than your big brands by a long way, even with the post Brexit exchange rate penalising us Brits.

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  3. I bought a trek aluminum frame road bike because I fell in love with the orange and cream frame. I’ve had it for 10 years and still love it as much as the day I got it. I got a friend into riding and she bought a carbon bike for the same reason. When she saw it she fell in love. She’s been riding it with total joy ever since. Neither one of our bikes were top end, but when you love something it’s number 1 to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes this! I walked in my LBS and fell in love 😍 I was only browsing but my wonderful husband bought me the 2nd greatest love of my life! (He has to be first, he paid!)

      Liked by 1 person

    • My hubby is supportive of my biking too. He even makes pancakes when I invite my pals over for an early morning ride. A supportive husband is not easy to find so definitely keep him as your first love!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Had to read this in parts, very thoroughly constructed sir. Thank you.

    But like women, there’s always going to be another shiny, perky, pretty one making you think twice about your choice. But just ‘love the one you’re with’ and life (your ride) ain’t so bad!

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  5. Just bought a new bike this past May, and went through the exact same process. Then, the bike I was already thinking about came out in a color scheme I loved, and that was it. It’s subtle but with a touch of flash (plus you can always add your own flash with wheels, bar tape, etc.). Every time I look at it, I just want to jump on it and go somewhere. I love it. Sometimes I just go out to the garage and admire it. And I’m riding later into the year than I usually do because I love it so much.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Have to admit to going to stare at new bike too. Loving gaze! That’s the true test of your purchase, not does it make me quicker, but does it make me ride more.

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  6. I simply could not make up my mind between the Roubaix, Domane, Synapse or Defy– Disk/ no disk, 105 / ultegra… I read hundreds of reviews- test rode each one multiple times – I could not make up my mind. Months of agonizing waiting for a crucial price drop or perhaps some devine be-all end all review. The bike shop owner said to me- throw out your spreadsheet and pick your favorite color. They are all great bikes and you will ride more- he was right. Even though it meant I went with another shop. Never looked back.

    Liked by 1 person

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