First of all do as much research into your favourite brands, find out where their design has taken influence from, what the frame is made from and why. Ask questions about geometry as well, to see if the philosophy of the bike designer matches your riding plans.
Spend as much as possible of the overall budget on the frame, it’s the heart of the bike. In broad terms a £400 frame will be lighter, more comfortable, better handling and stronger than a £300 frame from the same manufacturer – that £100 extra buys a lot more component quality at budget level, but it doesn’t always make for a ‘better’ bike. A sorted frame means the bike will ride well and you’ll get more from your cycling. Bear this in mind when looking at ranges of bikes from manufacturers and don’t be fooled into spending more for a better component spec. – it can be better to go to the next frame up the ladder with lesser components.
So there’s a simple order of priority when buying a new bike. This is something you should always consider when buying any bike.
Your new bike priority list…
3. Contact points
The first three are essential for comfort and performance. Components can be upgraded as time goes by, just because it has the latest rear mech. does not mean that the frame is any good or that the wheels have been handbuilt.
Custom built frames
This may not be as costly as it sounds as some builders have budget options with the same attention to detail as the top of the range. Prices can start at around £350. Custom frames have an obvious (and major) advantage over production models – they have to be hand made. A well made frame from poor materials is always better than a poorly made frame out of good…
Complete bikes and build-ups
A good option at the budget end. The manufacturer has done all the worrying for you and made sure (or should have) that everything is in perfect harmony. Likewise a pick ‘n mix approach from a good dealer will work well if they do the work for you, sometimes at a reduced cost if the complete bike is from them exclusively. So don’t try to cut costs by shopping all over the place and trying to do-it-yourself, especially if you are a terrible mechanic, it always ends in tears.
There are hundreds of opinions on frame size. There are also many thousands of different body shapes and riding styles. So it’s very hard to pin down exactly how a bike should fit. It’s no good saying I’m 5’10” so a 56cm frame will fit, you have to consider arm, torso, leg and foot length. Then consider your injury history, aspirations and fitness levels. It’s a minefield and you can buy a bike that is just doesn’t fit.
Frame materials – very general points
At entry level there are sadly only a few available – sadly because, try as hard as they might, the manufacturers can’t make a aluminium frame with the same strength, longevity and ride characteristics. I’d say, if you can, always buy a steel bike first – it will last you several years and can be used as a winter trainer if you buy a more expensive second bike later on.
Reynolds, Deda, Columbus and True Temper make excellent steel tubing for bicycles
Popular misconception: Heavy, Deda Zero One is just as light as comparable Aluminium tubes. These days 18lb steel bikes are possible.
The cheapest material to make bikes from. This is why the market is flooded with hundreds of different types and models. On the plus side this means they are very competitive and you can get a lot for a little money, however on the minus side they can be uncomfortably ‘stiff’ and generally supplied in fewer sizes (usually S,M & L). So remember to always check the geometry before you buy as some frames are made to very strange specifications. The numbers quoted next to material relates to their alloy with the T suffix relating to the heat treatment e.g. 7075-T6. As with steel butted aluminium is stronger and lighter and quality frames are heat treated after welding to ensure maximum strength. Many cheap aluminium frames are neither.
So find out what and how a frame is made before you buy. Tubing from Deda, Easton and Columbus are at the quality end of this market.
Popular misconception: Uncomfortable, Aluminium is now butted and far more bicycle friendly. Easton tubes can claim to ‘ride like steel’.
The wonder material for bike building – or so you might think. Sure it’s as light as aluminium, as strong as steel and as comfortable as an armchair… BUT you have to be a very good framebuilder to build a good titanium bike – it’s a very hard material to work with. So be very wary of cheap titanium frames as cheap titanium is not as perfect as you think and there have been some horrendous bikes built in the past. Titanium is a high end material and as such should not be considered as a budget option, you will have to compromise too much on the components.
Popular misconception: It’s titanium so it ‘has’ to be good, doesn’t it?
Carbon is fast establishing itself as the new material for frames. It is stiff, it’s really light in weight, it can absorb vibration and it can flex so it has excellent qualities for road bikes. Many aluminium bikes now have carbon sections. This is part fashion, part function and tubing manufacturers are falling over them selves to get on the Carbon gravy train.
Popular misconception: Expensive. Not anymore, carbon is going to be the budget material of the very near future.
So what does all this mean?
Basically your budget will be the main factor at this point, but don’t be wooed into thinking that cheap bikes are the best way to get started on the road. Just because cycling is a cheap form of transport (no fuel, etc) don’t think you should try to ‘go cheap’ when buying the hardware. Don’t just take our opinion though, Keith Bontrager is a highly respected bicycle engineer and designer. He used a highly effective marketing/advertising campaign a few years back to persuade you to consider the following ‘conundrum’ – it prooves our point quite well.
You can only choose two from this list:
Incidentally, Keith Bontrager’s site is a mine of information (I especially like his ‘rants’): www.bontrager.com
The current trend for compact frames is designed to make the bike feel ‘stiffer’ and for the frame to be lighter. It’s also to save the manufacturer producing 10 or 12 different sizes. They simply produce three or four sizes and supply a variety of seatpost lengths.
But compact frames are currently the popular choice in the professional peloton – why? Well partly the weight issue but there are physiological reasons too. They (the pro riders) are all smaller than you think, also the have flexible backs and hamstrings and above all are incredibly fit, so they can feel comfortable in a very extreme racing position. THIS DOES NOT MEAN YOU CAN. The average rider requires comfort as the main priority so get an experienced sales person to give you advice on fit and position. Do not choose a bike because it has pro-appeal, do it because it fits and you are happy with the overall deal. Be honest with what you will be using the bike for too, no point having a top spec Pinarello for commuting.
Hand built wheels by an experienced technician are the first upgrade you should consider – Look out for a Sapim or DT approved builder in you area. Do not be lead by what looks good either, machine built wheels and wheel ‘packages’ come in a variety of qualities and the cheaper ones are not that good. A good set of tyres (e.g. Conti, Michelin, Vittoria, Hutchinson) are a valuable first upgrade too as the rubber that comes on stock bikes can be low-end.
Check that the bike’s gear components are compatible with better quality stuff – for example Shimano 8 speed stuff will be no good if you want to upgrade to 9 eventually. Consider contact points like pedals, saddle and handlebars as they are very important. Not as expensive as the frame but a nasty saddle can have just as much to do with how the bike rides. Changing a saddle or handlebars to those you are used to shouldn’t cost a great deal extra if you are buying a new bike – some shops will do this free of charge.
As we have already said, when buying a bike consider lots of options and opinions. Shop around towards the end of the season (Autumn) as you can get some good discounts then. Build a relationship with your local dealer and they will look out for you, they may price match or offer discounts for large sales if you are loyal to them.
The test ride
Regardless of how much you are spending on your first bike – insist on a test ride. Take your shoes, pedals, helmet and riding gear with you and double-check that the shop will allow you to ride the bike (or a similar model). Take an experienced riding chum along if you can for support and opinion. Always ask the views of all the shop staff, as second opinions will bring up other issues you may not have first considered. Also ask the shop mechanic what they think, as they ride and fix the bikes so they usually know which are the most reliable.
A test ride will confirm several important issues:
1. The bike is the right size, think about leg reach and arm stretch
2. The bike works well and has been well assembled by the shop
3. That it ‘feels’ right
4. …you still like the colour in the daylight
Last on the shopping list. Be very careful as this can be a minefield of badly sized bikes, damaged frames and worn out components. Be very careful and seek the advice of a qualified expert. However bargains can be found and the things that are worn out can easily be replaced, just remember that the frame and wheels are the most important (and expensive) elements.
More on second hand at a later date.