Road Bike Buyers Guide
Buying your first road bike, can be daunting. There's a lot of jargon, a huge range of products to choose from and loads of opinion to decipher.
In this short buyers guide, I'm going to try and give some advice as to the basics you should be looking for, demist some of the jargon and hopefully allow you to make an informed decision about what is right for you. I'm going to focus on the sub £999 price bracket primarily as that is where the Cycle to Work limit is.
First things first, buying your first bike is all about getting going, getting out there and starting to enjoy the sport. Bikes in the sub £1k category all pretty good, with different pro's and con's of each. The main vendors in this category are: -
Boardman (Halfords only) - English brand, made in Taiwan.
Cannondale (Available in many bike shops) - American brand, made in Taiwan.
Giant (Available in many bike shops) - Taiwanese brand, made in Taiwan.
Specialized (Widely available in local bike shops) - American brand, made in Taiwan.
Trek (widely available in local bike shops) - American brand, made in Taiwan.
Within this price bracket, you also buy bikes from Bianchi (Italian), BMC, Cube and Eddy Merckx. As you can see, Taiwan is pretty much the bike producing capital of the world now, with all the major brands taking advantage of the low cost labour to hit the key sub £1000 price point. If you want to see where a brand originates from, I posted a separate article about it here.
Major considerations to make when buying your new bike are firstly: -
What sort of riding are you planning to do? Sportive, Racing, Tri-athlons? Depending on your answer, it will dictate what sort of geometry you should go for. If you want to ride for distances with comfort, you're better off with a bike with a long front headtube, which makes the bars sit quite high relative to the saddle (sportive position). If racing or tri-athlon is your cup of tea, then you'll need something with a shorter front head tube and tighter geometry which sits you further down on the bars to reduce air resistance.
How fit are you? This will dictate whether you need a triple, compact or standard chainring on your bike. A triple (three cogs on the front) gives you the maximum range of gears and willl certainly be the best choice for the beginner. I purchased a triple for my first bike and I'm glad I did, especially on the big hills. A compact chainset has two rings on the front with what's generally a 50/34 combination (big ring has 50 teeth, small 34), this is better if you are reasonably fit, it has a slightly narrower range of gears than the triple. I moved to a compact for my second bike and found it fine as I was fitter. A standard chainring is what most experienced riders, racers and tri-athletes us. It is a set of bigger rings which allow you to go faster by creating harder gearing ratios. I've written a separate article about gearing here. For a beginner, I would consider a triple or a compact.
Groupsets. The word groupset commonly refers to the combination of the brake & shift levers, the derailleurs, rear cassette, brake callipers and pedal crankarm/chainrings. There are three major brands in the market, Campagnolo, Shimano and SRAM. Each manufacturer has an ascending set of groupsets, starting from budget and ending up in something very high end. You can see the ascending lists here. Generally speaking, Boardman come with SRAM Rival, Bianchi come with Campagnolo Centaur or Veloce, Specialized come with Shimano Sora/Tiagra and Trek come with Shimano Sora/Tiagra too. For my second bike, I went with SRAM RED, the very top end of the SRAM groupset and it works like a Porsche gearbox!
One thing to be careful of is that manufacturers mix and match. For example, they may have a Shimano chain-ring and derailleur, however opt for unbranded brake callipers and other components, so it's not what's considered a full groupset. As you get more into cycling and mix with other cyclists, groupsets figure a lot in discussion as they are key components on the bike. Gear changing and braking efficiency on the bike are key, however on sub £1K bikes, you have to try and get the best you can, taking into account other components on the bike such as wheel quality.
Wheels. As you get more into cycling, one of the first things you'll find yourself upgrading is the wheels. Generally, sub £1K bikes come with pretty average wheels. You'll find Alex rims on most of the Specialized range, Ritchey rims on the Boardman and Bontrager wheels on the Trek (Bontrager is a brand owned by Trek). Personally, I think that the Bontrager rims are the best in this category, however that shouldn't be the decisive decision for you, as the entire bike and look/feel need to be taken into consideration when you make your purchase.
Aesthetics. You can drive yourself nuts trying to compare loads of bikes, I've done it myself. You love the look of one, but the other one has better wheels. One has a better groupset but the colour scheme isn't your cup of tea. Seriously, you'll be there. My advice is this. Make a shortlist of three bikes that you like the look of first, forget the spec. Go and see them in a showroom and see if you like the look of them in the flesh first, don't buy the first one you see.
Then do a spec comparison of the bikes taking into account the best deal you can get at the local bike shop. Remember, if you're buying on a Cycle to Work scheme, the dealer wont often budge on the price as they have to give 15% margin to the people that run the scheme. If you're using your own lolly, then drive a hard bargain. I managed to get my shoes, water bottle cages, two bottles and a full set of Specialized bib shorts and a Specialized top with my bike, plus some Look pedals all for £50 more than the bike SRP, so I saved a stack.
There are some good bargains to be had on last years bikes as dealers clear this seasons models for next. Grab the bargain whilst you can and spend the money you save on other kit like lights, saddle bag, spare tubes and a bike multi-tool. II've written a few blogs about kit you might consider to buy if you want to get serious about cycling, so it's good to save a bit of money at the start.
Where to buy your bike. You've three options really. A bike chain retailer (Evans Cycles/Halfords - Boardman/Carrera range), a local bike shop or over the web. Halfords don't have the best reputation with road cyclists and you'll read lots of complaints in the forums about poor set-up. Don't worry too much as Boardman bikes are good bikes and if you buy one, just whizz it to your local bike shop and pay them to set it up properly for you. You've no other options as the Boardman range is exclusive to them. Evans are more specialist with a better reputation and a wider range of brands to choose from. Lot's of guys I know ride the Boardman and it is a decent bike, so don't be put off.
Local bike shops can offer more specialist advice and set-up advice too, they'll also be trying to push the models they have in stock, so visit a couple and make your own decision (don't forget about bargaining hard). If you don't mind ordering on the web, websites like Onixbikes, Planet-X, Ribble and Wiggle (with their Verenti brand) have cropped up, all offering decent bikes with good spec at competitive prices. Wiggle offer a 30 day try before you buy on a wide range of bikes, which does away with the uncertainty away if you want to give a bike a good try.
If you do buy a bike, try and get it fitted by a bike fitter. After riding for six months, I look back and wish I'd sorted this out on day one as it can make a big change to your riding style. Even a set 1cm too high can impact on your pedalling performance.
The bottom line with your first bike is buying a bike that appeals to you in terms of looks and has as good as components as you can get for the look you like. Some people like white bikes, some black, hence my advice to narrow down on the emotional side first, i.e., which bikes you like the look of first, then groupsets/spec, then price all have to be assessed to come up with your final choice.
As you develop, you'll upgrade bits as I did with my Specialized Secteur Sport, it doesn't take you long to get into the serious cyclist mentality, buying kit, shiny new bits, latest bits and bobs and things you read about in magazines, that's half the fun of getting into it.
So, get out there, get looking and good luck!