Here are a few considerations you may want to ponder when you decide to buy a road bike. Some of these may apply to other types of bikes (mountain, cross, hybrid etc.) as well, but mostly not. For those who want to understand what road bikes are, these are those bikes which you want to ride primarily on tarmac roads, at high speeds, less keen on a very cushioned ride, and probably keener on long rides. For some, these are also those bikes which look fashionable and stylish. But that having said, this is purely a personal preference.
I would like to present a few considerations and simple explanation of the factor along with comparison of most often found variety in each. I have tried to consolidate all the learning that I gathered after reading innumerable articles and blogs and messages in forums over the Internet, for the benefit of reader as well as to help crystallize my own thoughts. I have made every attempt to keep the description of each item to bare its bare minimum, but still considering that there are so many factors, the ride does become somewhat longish.
Frame determines weight, speed, comfort, stiffness, strength, and longevity of the bike among other factors. Frame is nearly everything when it comes to choosing a bike. Frame decides how the bike rides. All others can be upgraded, but not frame. Frameset (frame + fork + handlebar) is what the manufacturer builds, not components. Rest is all bought out components from independent manufacturers. The heart and soul of a bicycle is its frame. Bike manufacturers differentiate themselves only by the frames they make. Bicycle manufacturers have a good Research and Development investment in their companies not for without reason. You may buy components that you do not like after you purchase and use the bike, and upgrade/change them, but not the frame. Pro-bikers internationally often suggest a beginner to buy a bike that their buck can best afford in the frame and put the rest in the components. Never sacrifice a frameset for a better component group set (gears, brakes and levers, wheels etc.)
It is sad to observe that other than beauty, most buyers seem to pay less attention to this most important factor in a bicycle. The perceivably subtle differences in a frame are not so subtle when it comes to ride quality. Ride quality is un-ignorable when you ride different bicycles for reasonable riding distances. It will be more so over the longevity of the bike, but something that is difficult to appreciate initially. For example, the light and easy ride of a Trek 1.2 is VERY different when compared to a Bianchi Nirone 7 Alu. It ‘is’ noticeable. Being such an important topic that is less discussed in great detail in any single forum or message or articles I have come across, I have attempted to provide focus to this factor that it deserves in my write-up.
I will describe the frame in several sections below under the headings of:
1. Frame Design
2. Diamond Frame
3. Top Tube – angle and slope
4. Compact Frames
5. Tube designs
6. Frame Materials
1.1 Frame Design
Frame design is something that is often ignored by novice as well as unfortunately by several experienced bikers. Either due to a lack of understanding or due to an apparent feeling that he/she cannot do much with regard to a frame design, many tend to ignore this. Fact however remains that Frame Design is of paramount importance. By itself, frame design is very very complex. However some key points which can be easily understood and evaluated by a novice are discussed below.
Frames of road bikes are typically of diamond shape in road bikes. For other bikes, due to ability to use or existence of front and rear shock absorbers, frames are not necessarily of diamond shape. A diamond frame consists of two consecutive triangles. The front triangle is made of Top Tube, Head Tube, Down Tube, and Seat Tube (seat tube is different from seat post, which sits on the top of seat tube) in clockwise direction. The second triangle consists of Seat Tube and a pair of chain stays (one each side of wheel) and a pair of seat stays (one on each side of wheel) in clockwise direction. I will describe important factors in the frame in following sections.
1.2 Diamond Frame
Diamond design helps distribution of road shock (due to movement of wheels over uneven roads which include unevenness in road gravel and small potholes). Shock from wheels is transmitted through fork in case of front wheels and through seat stays and chain stays in case of rear wheels. The fork and stays eventually transmit the shock to handlebar and the saddle (seat). As you can appreciate, the diamond design plays a major role here by distributing the shock to all over the frame. Therefore I feel the point where seat stays connect with the seat tube is important. I think this should ideally be where the top tube meets the seat tube such that the shock can be effectively transmitted. This is how traditional designs were. A triangle represents a minimalist shape for distributing the load equally over the three vertices or conversely from the vertices to the lines. The two triangles making up the diamond is therefore very effective in evenly distributing the shock if properly designed and made (quality of welding makes a difference and still better a monocoque).
Movement from front wheel shock gets into head tube, from there splitting to top and down tubes and also the handlebars, similarly on rear from chain and seat stays, and then equalizing the front and rear in the seat tube, and transmitting to seat tube to saddle, from different directions. It is an excellent design for distribution of shock. Conversely, this is true for distributing the load of the biker as well, to the wheels. The diamond design also helps in aerodynamics through its long lateral shape and the directions of its tubes, with its slim design. A flat or steep diamond shape in frame will defeat the effects of a good diamond design.
1.3 Top Tube
Angle – The angle which the top tube makes to the seat tube is of utmost importance. This angle determines comfort and speed. Traditionally angles set by European manufacturers (where bicycles emerged) were from 71 to 73 degrees. At this angle, the biker will be able to ride long distances comfortably, and gets a fairly good speed. Bicycles were originally used as a mode of transport and slowly transformed into a sport from fun riding to racing. Racing itself comprises of long rides or short high paced rides. As Americans ventured into this sport and started making a mark in this field, the American manufacturers stepped in and helped spread the sport in US. For the Americans at this time, bicycling was essentially a sport for racing. In order to make bicycles race faster, they brought in some changes. Principle among them was increasing the top tube angle. Most American manufacturers set their bicycle top tube angle between 73 to 75 degrees. The additional two degree angle makes biker sit in an aggressive position. The biker now sits somewhat forward, the handlebar a bit closer, and ‘most importantly’ knee is forward and well positioned to press hard on the pedals. Ideally, biker position should be so, that his/her weight is equally distributed between saddle, handlebar, and pedals. This position gives a fairly good posture to balance comfort and speed. The American design positions the rider to put relatively more weight on pedals, allowing biker to supplement his leg power with weight and attain greater speed. For short rides, this is very effective, and makes a significant difference in ride feel. Very efficient! However, on the con side, comfort is sacrificed for speed, and thus not good for long rides. This is akin to riding in standing posture on pedals. Obviously standing provides lot more power to pedals but you cannot ride in this position for long. In fact, there are several bikers today even in the US who prefer the traditional European design of not so steep angle. A difference of just 1 or 2 degrees makes a noticeable impact on riding comfort. By the way, the range 71 to 73 or the 73 to 75 degrees is due to variations in overall bike size. Angle changes slightly with overall size within the same design.
Top Tube Slope – Some manufacturers have found it advantageous to have the top tube sloped downwards when meeting the seat tube. This allows relatively easy (best) fit of a bike to the biker and provides some advantages in aerodynamics. However, some of the advantages of a perfect diamond design are lost in this, since transfer of shock/vibration is impacted. The invention of the sloped top tube resulted in invention of compact frame, which is the next topic discussed below. But before that, be aware that even in a sloped top tube, the angle for the sake of understanding the frame, is computed with what the ‘virtual’ top tube is making with the seat tube.
1.4 Compact Frame
The invention of sloped top tube allowed manufacturers like Giant to invent compact frames. Compact frames are, as the name indicates, small frames. Slope in top tube allows the seat tube to start lower from top and results in smaller frame. Smaller frames offer two primary advantages. Firstly, smaller frame means less material, so less weight. Therefore bicycle can move faster for the same energy. Secondly, this offers cost benefit to manufacturer again for two reasons. First, less material means lower cost. Second and more important, compact frames allow smaller range of bike sizes. Bike size is given by the distance between centers of bottom bracket (that holds the crank) to top of seat tube. Because of slope in top tube, it is not necessary for manufacturers to stock too many sizes. Custom fit for biker can be conveniently done to a greater range with the handlebar and seat adjustments. Typically traditional sizes start from 49 cm to over 65 or so with one incremental size for every 2 cm. Compact frames allowed manufacturers to stock only 4 sizes namely, small, medium, large, and extra large.
So coming back, compact frames help in attaining higher speeds and lower costs of production. But there are some limitations to this. They do not offer the riding comfort of a pro traditional design frame. Next, the center of gravity for the frame is lower. So there is a tendency for the bike to fall easily when compared to traditional frames. I have noticed this myself in a big way, in an exaggerated design of this, when I rode an expensive bicycle with small wheels and small frame, although the overall bike was adult size. Although the bicycle rides pretty fast, as good as a regular one, there is this undoubted wobble in the bike. It rides fine, but the ‘sense’ of insecurity is high, at least until one gets used to it. Compact frames are good for racing at high speeds for shorter distances, but a no-no for comfortable long rides.
Readers may please note when I am referring to riding comfort and speed, I am gauging them ‘relatively’. For some this may mean subtle, for some it may become significant.
1.5 Tube Designs
Circular Tubes – Tube design by itself, varies a lot. Typical ones are straight tubes of a small diameter, which are TIG welded (an advanced form of welding that assures a safe and strong, good weld with minimal distortions in weld). Then you will find some tubes which are not completely circular. Instead these are either oblong, square in cross-section, or some which are nearly flat. Theory is, these designs help aerodynamics of bike progressively by their designs. From an engineering point of view, circular tubes are cheaper to manufacture, so you will find most low end bikes with circular tubes. Be aware though that in practice there are several factors that determine cost, and this happens to be just one. For example as a marketing gimmick one manufacturer may offer a non-circular tube at low price by sacrificing quality of material used not noticed by the buyer. Suffice it to say, some non-circular designs are better than circular ones from a performance point.
Broad Tubes – For the frame to be strong, manufacturers typically manufacture tubes with smaller dia and thicker gauge. But from a performance point of view, some tubes like the Down Tube will be better off with a fatter tube with thinner gauge. The bigger size is offset with thinner gauge to reduce weight. They help in better transmission of vibration and importantly, flex less when compared to narrower tubes. Consequently, the frame becomes stiff and helps in achieving higher speeds easily. It is more expensive to manufacture broader tubes.
Hydro-formed and/or Butted Tubes – In order to reduce the weight and improve aerodynamics, some better quality tubes are butted (as double butted or triple butted). When double butted, manufacturer makes the tube with thicker gauge at ends to enable stronger TIG welding while saves material for lesser weight for rest of the tube. Hydro forming technology is used to alter shape of tube from circular to rectangular for example to improve strength of the tubes. A tube which is circular will flex more and more prone to strain when compared to a rectangular cross section tube. Obviously, design is complex and cost of manufacture is high. Most high end bikes use hydro formed tubes for their construction. Prefer these, when you have a choice.
Integrated Head Tube – Some frames come with an integrated head tube. Presumably these are more efficient and stronger.
Monocoque Frames – These are frames that are made as a single unit, all integrated and no welding at all. They help to reduce weight, but more importantly result in a frame that is less prone to stress, will be strong and reliable. Usually monocoque frames being expensive, are found only in high end frames.
1.6 Frame Materials
Materials used to make frame of a bicycle vary. Vary a lot more than one would expect! Some of these are explained below with relative merits and demerits. But before that there is one factor that needs an explanation. Road bikes do not have shock absorbers. Despite the diamond frame design, there is still some shock that is transferred to the hands through handlebar and rest of the body through the frame (via seat post). Frankly I have not seen this is an issue or even noticeable in my current road bike, Hero Thunder Racer. But I have come to understand some of it. Road bikes tend to have narrow tires (21 to 25 mm mostly) and a very high air pressure (100 to 140 PSI depending on tire) when compared to mountain bikes (may have very wide tires and air pressure only up to a maximum of 65 PSI). In very cheap road bikes the tire is wider at 28 mm and air pressures are relatively low (I pump it to 75 PSI a little beyond the prescribed). In such cases tire itself acts as a cushion, and whatever small shock is left, a part of it is again absorbed by the tape that the handlebar is wound with (or the foam covering it comes with factory fitted). This is not true when it comes to pro road bikes due to high air pressure and narrow tires. Thus shock absorbing does become a significant factor.
Also be aware that frames are not as strong as they are presumed to be. Some frames, irrespective of price, all they need could be one significant fall to break or get damaged. So you need to select your bike frame carefully considering all factors.
Steel – Traditionally, they used steel to manufacture bicycles. Steel is cheap, easy to transform and sturdy as well. Steel works excellent shock absorber by transmitting vibration throughout the frame and dampen it. This property itself will however vary by type of steel used and gauge for the tubes. Steel is long lasting and therefore you can count on using your bike for generations. Also, accidents affect little on steel frames when compared to most other materials, and could be repairable if damaged. It is possible to achieve good strength even with narrow tubes, and hence can be made very aerodynamic. Nevertheless since steel will flex, it will not be as stiff as some other materials and may not give performance in speed on a relative scale. Steel tends to be heavy and can rust if not painted well and taken good care. Weight is an important factor for two reasons. One, you need to pull a larger weight when pedaling and two; it is heavier to carry when not pedaling. Carrying isn’t as infrequent as a beginner might expect, in reality. You may want to put your cycle once in a while in the car/other automobile, carry upstairs, lift it when crossing over the median on the road, and so on. It is more pain than one would expect. However, be aware there are excellent steel bicycles out there which are light as well. High end steel bikes are made with very thin gauge and narrow steel tubes which make them light as well as aerodynamic. Steel can be drawn thin and its strength or other properties varied significantly by the composition of the alloy. One such road bike is made by Bianchi as model Pinella. This is a very lovely bike! While pro high end (not the super super high end though) bikes weight about 8 kgs, this one weighs only 7.5 kgs. What could you expect more! This bike unfortunately is not available in India. If you can manage to get it, consider this option seriously. My personal choice would be steel, unless I ride and don’t like it, if it has a low weight such as this one.
Aluminum – Aluminum is the most preferred material for frame. Aluminum allows bike to be manufactured with a very low weight and very stiff. Stiffness of the frame contributes to efficiency in speed. Frames which are stiff transmit power very well to wheels. Stiffness is to be experienced to believe. Pro bikers give a lot of significance to stiffness when selecting a bike. From a manufacturing stand point, Aluminum frames are difficult to manufacture than steel and so cost high. From a riding comfort point of view however, Aluminum is the least preferred. Their shock absorbing is so bad that are often supplemented with other means to at least partially dampen shock. Be aware though that Aluminum is actually the main ingredient used. The material itself comes as an alloy and compositions vary. For example, within Trek brand while Aluminum white is used for model 1.2, they use Aluminum black for model 1.5. Orbea uses 7000 series Aluminum; Cannondale uses 6000 series and so on. Thus all Aluminum frames are not absolutely alike in their behavior. Low end Aluminum is, as a matter of fact heavier than good steel frames. Also Aluminum frame are brittle (being an alloy). So depending on amount of an impact, in an accident they may even result in breaking or cracking of the frame. Unlike steel, it may not be possible to repair these with a good quality weld. Aluminum frames tend to be cheaper on a relative scale when compared to other exotic materials and so most low and medium end road bikes are made in Aluminum. This has to be buyer’s choice in most cases. Aluminum bikes are available both in painted and unpainted versions. Personally, I like the unpainted version; there is no risk of scratching of paint or chipping, and raw Aluminum has its own gloss (finishing protective coat is applied).
Carbon Fiber –Readers may please understand in the first place that Carbon is not a metal. Carbon fiber is a material that is made by having carbon particles in resin. This is a synthetic material. It offers umpteen opportunities for manufacturer to create this material in a wide variety of molecular structure and so at several price brackets. Typically any carbon fiber bike is lot more expensive than most Aluminum bikes, but not necessarily so in all cases. A good Aluminum bike will cost more than a cheap carbon fiber, and is better. In cheaper carbon fiber frame, you will find less carbon and more resin. Carbon is very light and has excellent vibration dampening properties. Resin is not. A good molecular structure is a must for a good carbon fiber bike. So do not be tempted to buy a cheap carbon fiber bike. A good carbon fiber bike will offer advantages of less weight and good shock absorbing. As such, these are the most preferred bikes by all pro bikers. Although prices are coming down due to increasing popularity globally, still these are expensive enough to fit the bill of only high end category. Not withstanding its merits, and despite its high cost, carbon fiber bikes are very delicate and can break or get damaged very easily. Depending on the quality of carbon fiber used, one simple accident can be enough to break (externally or internally in material), although this is a factor that is also exaggerated. The delicateness like other factors will vary and not same for all carbon fiber frames. It is not necessary that high end carbon fiber ones are more strong. It could be actually the other way around (resin is hard), when cheaper carbon fibers are stronger (but then these do not provide the advantages of a carbon fiber bike!). Excellent carbon fiber bikes can weigh as low as 1 – 2 kgs, while most may be 7 – 9 kgs.
Titanium – Titanium gives the advantages of both Aluminum and steel. These are extremely light, can be manufactured with very thin gauge and still be extremely strong – virtually indestructible! However, the material itself is exotic and can be found only in super super high end bikes. It is also considered a status symbol to own a Titanium bike. Unlike steel, this does not rust so does not need, and also difficult to paint. So you will find Titanium bikes only in raw unpainted form, but will have a good appearance in its raw form. Titanium bike frames appear in two different materials one being softer and the other very stiff despite being very comfortable. The latter is livelier while retaining the comfort. Also Titanium material itself can consist of high end NASA grade or the lower Russian/Czech one. Quality of build makes a big difference as well, since Titanium frames are complex to manufacture.
Magnesium – Magnesium is another material that is used to make frames which carry less weight and have excellent shock absorbing features. These are far and few and very expensive similar to the Titanium.
Bamboo – Bamboo is another material that is used to make frames by some manufacturers. These offer the advantages of being less weight, par-excellence shock absorbing, and strong. It has to be cheap as well but only by definition (although every bamboo stick that you come across need not be a good candidate for frames). However there are manufacturing complexities (frame needs to be a mix of bamboo and another material to enable build of chain and seat stays for example). From aesthetic point of view, opinions are mixed. Some like while others don’t. There are some manufacturers who make bikes made of bamboo, but these are by no means too cheap. As a matter of fact, they fall under the category of exclusive bikes and are expensive.
As explained earlier, road bikes need alternatives to the shock absorbers of mountain bikes. In addition to providing a diamond frame, good bikes offer forks (forks connect the front wheel to frame through head tube) that are made of carbon fiber. If the bike frame is made of steel they do not need carbon fiber fork. Others will benefit from one. Some manufacturers also offer the seat post (this is the tube that connects seat tube to saddle) in carbon fiber. There should be a significant benefit of having the fork and seat post in carbon fiber.
Some forks are straight in shape from head tube to wheel hub, while others are curved. Curved ones are better in providing a vibration free ride, and may become important design if the material used is steel. It will be good to have a shock absorbing fork for bikes with very narrow or high air pressure tires. For forks made of carbon fiber, this may not be important.
2. IMPORTANCE OF MAIN BIKE COMPONENTS
Some components of the bike are used constantly throughout the ride while some are used sparingly. The more frequently used components are first discussed below and the least used later. For example, without realizing you actually use and depend a lot on the hubs of the wheel all the time, while you change gears only every once in a while (when not changing, you are still riding!). So if you have to make a choice, one needs to give priority to a hub and only further to gear shifter (gear itself is another matter).
Wheels are one of the often ignored components of a road bike. Wheels in terms of weight are second only to frame. There are several materials available that are used for these. However, it is interesting to note that the differences in weight in reality are not high, not as a relative percentage but when compared to the total weight of the cycle. More than weight, buyer needs to pay attention to the material used, and the overall construction quality of wheel. Wheels are the ones that keep rotating all the time and take the load of the biker both by weight as well as biker’s power in pedaling. A dynamic mass carries more weight and so is all the more important to have good wheels. Design of spokes also may matter. Apart from the traditional ones there are some spokes which have three or so flat plates. However these are not very popular. The layout of spokes also varies from wheel to wheel. While the varieties and their relative merits are not discussed here, suffice it to mention that a good proven brand (Mavic for example) is essential. Experienced bikers buy a bike for its frame and other components giving consideration to price and the ‘first’ thing they do is to change wheels (some cases hubs additionally) and saddle. They know what an impact it makes on the ride.
Hubs are the ones that are in motion all the time, even when you are not pedaling but are riding nevertheless. High quality hub helps minimize friction losses and provide a ‘noticeably’ smooth ride. I feel it is very important to have excellent quality hubs.
Typically tires of road bikes are in the range of 21 – 28 mm. Most good ones are either 23 or 25 mm. It is pertinent here to note that a difference of 2 mm (between 23 and 25 for example) will make a significant difference in effort and speed. This is one good reason why many bikers prefer a road bike as against a mountain bike. There are some bikers who use a mountain or hybrid bike and just change their tires to narrow ones when riding on tarmac roads for city rides and notice a great improvement in speed. Narrower tires, due to their need to carry the entire weight on less surface area that is in contact with ground, will need higher air pressure. While it improves speed, it is now more prone to shock. A trade-off is imminent. There are several brands of tires and some may be more puncture resistant. Trek sports a 25 mm for its road bikes available in India while Bianchi offers a 23 mm on Nirone 7 Alu and so on.
3. OTHER COMPONENTS
Saddle – There are several varieties of saddles and some run very expensive. A saddle by Selle Itallia sells at USD 250 but is simply fantastic. Brooks is another high end brand for saddles. Importance of saddles in a bike can never be over-emphasized. You will see a hell lot of difference when you change the saddle not only by comfort but also by speed. Contrary to common belief soft saddles are not good. They are not necessarily comfortable for long rides. Human body has its cushioning parts (what not with all its muscle and tissue) which do well to provide a firm support. I have personally noticed it ‘big time’ when I changed the factory fitted saddle with another harder one from the local market. Narrow and firm saddles with no cushioning material (no gel ones please) are good. It is believed that the split saddle with a gap in center actually provide more comfort by allowing the body to sit on the sit bones and avoid privates being affected. A firm saddle helps shift the power from legs to pedal completely with no apparent losses when leg is brushing against saddle edge. Saddle should be so, that when you are pushing your leg down, your thigh is barely, if at all brushes with the saddle side edge. This helps in transfer of complete power, therefore efficient for reaching higher speeds, and helps you ride long distances without skin irritation. Ergonomically designed saddles make a lot of difference in distributing the body weight on parts of the saddle optimally. Any amount invested in a good saddle is never an over investment!
Handlebar Drops – Without going into too many details of handlebars, I want to emphasize that I like drop bars even for urban riding (assuming though that there is a fair mix of occasional long rides). Drop bars offer you multiple positions for placing your hands. All drop bars offer you the following positions:
1. Hands on handlebar top near center – a very restful position for a stretch of long straight ride not very convenient to apply brakes immediately if needed in emergency, not very convenient when turning as well.
2. Hands over the handlebar closer to brake levers – allows biker to alter his back position, very restful, shifts weight of body to front, gives some stretch to neck when head is lifted up, average amount of effectiveness in applying brakes, can change gears easily.
3. Hands ‘in’ the drops holding the brake levers – very aerodynamic, improves speed and pedal power, can apply brakes very easily and change gears conveniently. Have to lift up head significantly to watch front. Can’t hold in this position for too long in city rides or long rides all through.
In addition to these some bikes have the drops curved in such a manner that it has some more space and curvature to allow you rest on to the edges of the drop bar. So there is one more position now available for the rider that would be fairly comfortable. It is also within a reasonable reach of brake levers.
Front Chain Cogs – the front gears come in either two or three chain rings. Most pro road bikes provide only two chain rings. Limiting to two encourages use of larger ring mostly and shift to smaller only when needed for steep uphill rides. It is simple and limits uncertainties of the biker to change gears too often. You focus more on pedaling and biking. Three chain rings help in having smoother rides and assist in maintaining cadence (pedaling rotations per minute).
Number of teeth on the rings and their relative sizes determine gear ratios. I feel gear ratios are of personal taste and one needs to find what works best for him/her. Higher number of teeth on the sprockets means greater gear ratio, and therefore better speed for same cadence. But notice though that in the process, biker may have reduced cadence if the ratio is too high and may eventually result in lower speed in reality. That is why this is more of finding out what suits best for the individual.
Some bikes provide a chain cover so trouser doesn’t get stuck between chain ring and chain. I feel this is very useful, since it is not convenient to use trouser clips all the time when we wear trousers, or can it be assured that we will wear cycling shorts all the time we cycle. Again, it is a matter of personal preference.
Gears – Gears come in a few brands (Shimano, SRAM, Compagnalo etc.) and models within them to suit each
pocket. Shimano is the most popular brand among low and medium end bikes. In high end bikes you will find all brands including the Shimano. Shimano models in the order of increasing quality and price are:
5. Dura Ace
Other than Sora, there are still cheaper models but not used in good road bikes. With each higher model you select, you get a smoother and surer shift of gear. For example, at the lower end one may notice that when shifter downshifts, the gear may not actually shift or there is a delay in shifting or there may be jumping of gears (happens more during release) or there is a big noise/sound (which is different from a nice clang or chuck or click!). This is in addition to longevity and trouble free performance. It is very important to have a nice set of gears and derailleur (these physically shift the chain to another gear). In an ideal world, the biker is expected to change gears often enough to ensure a constant cadence in the range of 70 to 90 (or 100 to 140 in case of pro bikers). This ensures not only a very efficient ride with respect to speed and effort, but also to provide correct exercise to thigh muscles of legs and knee movement. It assures that thigh muscles do not become hard. Thigh and calf muscles that become hard, may develop a stronger power to push uphill but lose the flex to be able to ride for long. It is VERY important to have a nice set of gears.
Having said that, there is a tendency among bikers to over-emphasize on gears and shifter quality. As mentioned earlier, one cannot change the frame, the basic skeleton and support structure of a bicycle, while components such as gears can always be upgraded when you have the money. Components should not decide the primary cost of the bicycle. It should be the frame and several ‘other’ components. Be aware that some component models may not be upgradeable (heard that Sora cannot be). So you may want to invest to a certain bare minimum to ensure your upgradeability is not limited.
It is very convenient to have gear shifter and brake levers integrated into one pair of levers. Some models have a release lever separate from the brake lever, while in others it is integrated.
Brakes – Pro bikes usually have either a v-brake (called power brakes in India) or dual pivot brakes. There are several other models including hydraulic drum based but these are unique models and are not necessarily better. It is more often to see v-brakes in India. These are efficient but not as powerful and strong as the dual pivot ones. V-brakes have a tendency of the holding nut losing threads and losing grip suddenly without notice. The brake then becomes useless suddenly during the ride and also not repairable. Dual pivot on the other hand are very efficient, strong, and dependable. Due to its fixed size and limited flexibility to be fixed on broader frames on the fly, these are not used in mountain bikes. Some bikes may sport disc brakes. These are very complex to maintain and constantly need a difficult to make fine-tuning. Although they are more effective than other forms of brakes, they are often discouraged for the troubles associated with it, and may not warrant for speeds attained on bicycles (as against a high speed motorcycle for example). For road bikes, dual pivots are the most preferred. Brakes are made by reputed component manufacturers, while some bike manufacturers use their home brand or cheap ones.
Accessories – Note that some bikes do not come with pedals. It is not that the manufacturer is trying to save on this component, but that he is aware there is a wide variety in the market and wants the biker to have the choice (clipless that need a shoe with clip that locks into the pedal during ride so during the pull half cycle of pedaling the movement is not wasted, nylon versus steel pedals and so on). The bike price is hopefully reduced to that extent. Some bikes do not have provision to fit a bottle carriage (not the carriage itself, but a provision of threaded holes). This is very important for most of us. Some bikes do not provide for a carrier to be fixed. For me, this is fine. I can manage with a seat post carriage, but for some others who intend to do long rides or want to use bicycle as primary mode of transport for everything, this may be important. Some bikes come with a guard for the rear derailleur, which I think is important. In an accidental fall, it will save the expensive derailleur. Front chain ring cover is important if you wish to ride with trousers on once in a while.
4. BIKE FIT
Remember that all bikes allow for several adjustments to be made to custom fit the biker. These include the handlebar to be lifted up, angle for the handlebar so drops can suit the biker, seat height adjustment, seat forward-backward movement so the knee to pedal is vertically perfectly aligned (when pedal is at its most forward position – 3 ‘o’ clock), saddle fitment as perfectly parallel to ground, and such. All these offer significant flexibility for custom fit. It is amazing how immensely the small fine tuning impact bike ride, from comfort to speed. From complex software to simple thumb rules there is a wide range of help available. Use what works for you, but make sure that you do invest a LOT in fitting the bike right for you. It may take ‘several’ iterations before it is perfected. But none-the-less a bike fit may never be adequate if the size is not right for the biker. Each biker varies not only by his/her height and weight but also by length of hands (for same height), length of legs, neck length, flexibility and such, all of which affect what the person feels ‘just right’. So it is VERY important that biker test rides the bicycle before buying one. There is no shortcut to this, if you are serious about a good fit and desire to use the bike for extended periods of ride.
5. BEAUTY OF BIKE
It is a reality and nothing to be ashamed of that you need to buy a bike that you like, just by its appearance ‘in-addition’ to whatever it provides as features. It is the same as buying a dress. You don’t buy one, just by its functionality. You carefully evaluate several colors and designs before you buy one. A thing of beauty is joy for ever. If you like your bike, it is more likely that you want to take it out more often.
6. EVALUATION OF CURRENT ROADBIKES IN INDIA
I have tried to evaluate road bikes currently available in India. Here is my analysis; purely personal opinions. All the bikes mentioned below are aluminum frames.
Giant TCR 3 – A fantastic bike beyond doubt. Giant is perhaps the largest manufacturer of bicycles. Giant is an American manufacturer. Having lived in the US for over seven years, I know from personal experience that American products are robust and quality conscious, for the most part. They do not sacrifice on component quality even in a small way, but rather thrive on heavy marketing and high volumes of sale. Recently Giant was chosen as the best road bike in the under $1,000 price bracket by a seemingly reputed bike review organization after short listing 50 road bikes. The model selected was Giant TCR3 Advanced 2010 from what I recollect. The ones available in India are not the Advanced version. Not sure what this means though. Price in India of TCR3 is Rs.49,305 (same as Trek 1.5). It comes with Tiagra component group set. However I am not ‘in’ for this model for the simple reason that it features the compact frame, which I am not in favor of, for reasons already mentioned under the compact frames section above. It has an aggressive design that supports speed but not long comfortable rides. If you prefer speed over comfort, this model may be considered.
Bianchi Nirone 7 Alu – This is an Italian company and has been in existence for more than a century. They know their job inside-out and have seen the industry for a very long period. Bianchi bikes are very fashionable and are considered iconic. Their very special Celeste blue color is a sure head turner and easily separates itself as a Bianchi even if the bike has just flashed past you. Being an European bike, the frame is not an aggressive one and designed for a balance between comfort and speed for long rides. The saddle is pretty good, and considered to be absolutely uncompromising in toughness. So helps in efficient transfer of power from legs to pedal. I took a test ride of Nirone 7 Alu and got convinced that these are very robust, rock solid bikes and ride pretty well. Given that the tires are 23 mm, the bike should ride pretty fast as well despite a traditional frame design. However my experience is limited by the fact that, it was the first road bike I ever rode, and the very first day after over 25 years since I ever cycled; can’t carry too much weight to my opinion. In terms of reviews, Bianchi receives very good reviews, but have rarely been considered ‘the-best’ based on what I read. Despite being over priced at about Rs.55k for what they offer in India, I was tempted to consider this one, only until I came to know that the Sora component group (basic) it comes with cannot be upgraded. Further, this version has seat post carbon but not fork. Also at this price the model has only one white color and does not offer its typical Celeste blue. Considering all of these factors, I prefer to drop this bike at this time. The next version Nirone 7 Alu Carbon does have better components but priced at Rs. 84k.
Trek 1.5 – Trek is an American brand and is counted among the best brands. Several pro-races are won on bikes of this brand. Although it does not have a compact frame, I think this has a steeper seat tube angle and is better suited for higher speeds as against comfortable long rides. The 1.2 version is a low end model with Sora components and uses Aluminum White material for frame, while the 1.5 version uses the Aluminum Black material. The component group set is Tiagra. I test rode the 1.2 version of the bike for some short distances and found it to have a very easy to ride feel, gets good speed, feels light. However the frame itself has thin tubes and overall structure does not seem to offer any of better tube designs mentioned in my tube design section above. Even the 1.5 does not offer hydro formed tubes, does not offer large down-tube with thin gauge or non-circular better tube design. I feel this model is considered by Trek as a low end model and as such, does not offer much in this bike segment, other than the Tiagra group set. The saddle, although of a good brand Bontrager, this is the basic version of the range. Fork is not carbon fiber. Tires are 25 mm and fork is a straight fork. The drops design in handlebar is so that it likely will offer three positions instead of four. Read somewhere that the 2010 version added better components for same price but at the cost of degraded other parts (frame, hub or whatever). That statement troubles me. Trek 1.5 is available at Rs.49,305 in India. For the price at which this is being sold, it can however be seriously considered as an option.
Orbea Aqua TTG – This is again a very old bicycle manufacturer in Spain, where cycling is part of their every day life. It is often quoted, who could know better about bicycles than the Spanish. They sponsor a ride similar to Tour de France and are very popular. International review of the starting version available in India,
Aqua TTG is that it is an ‘excellent’ beginner road bike. Their high end versions are considered among the best in the world and some pro-racers seem to use them themselves. Being an European bicycle, they have traditional frame design and suited for all round performance as against the American brands built for speed. Their starting version itself poses itself with some excellent component group set. They offer Tiagra on the gears and shifters, have carbon fiber seat post and carbon bronze fork. The fork is monocoque. Tubing is double butted. Tires are Vittoria 23 mm. Saddle is Selle Italia X2 Pro, a very reputed high end brand. Their bikes are very stylish in addition to being functionally right. Their paint finish is unparalleled to any bike based on what I read. It is hand painted. Orbea is so particular about their finish that unlike the other manufacturers when the actual manufacture is done in Asia (China, Korea etc.), they prefer to get the components manufactured in Asia but the final finishing happens at their Spanish factory, although this does attract more customs duty. They mention that they first produce and perfect within their factory before they offshore their production (excluding final finish). Also, they claim that no two bicycles will have exactly same final appearance due to the variations they make in their paint designs (not sure about the one available in India). Orbea bikes unlike the other brands mentioned above, sport stripe designs on their frame. Orbea also claims that it gives the same paint finish quality for its entry level model as it does for its highest level bike. They offer a life time warranty on the frame which is the most expensive part of the bike. Overall, their starting model itself starts at a high end, and so does the price at Rs.60k. This bike for sure, draws my attention wanting me to take a test ride, although I am concerned that there are not too many reviews on the model that is available in India (other than the one mentioned already).
Cannondale CAAD 8 – It is in the air that this model may become available in India shortly. Although specifications are not available and these seem to vary drastically internationally, I have made an attempt to take a high level view of what I understood. Cannondale is an American company which used to be a component manufacturer and moved into bicycle production. Their components were regarded good and therefore could establish itself in the market. Cannondale is the company that introduced Aluminum as a frame material that became so popular today. They are very innovative in nature. Cannondale initially were into mountain bike manufacture and after a good success in that arena, have now moved into road bike manufacture. Being an American company, its products are very robust as well as quality conscious. However like other American companies, it appears this bike also focuses on speed first. The saddle is beautifully contoured to provide a comfortable seating position as well as to pedal through easily. Component group set is from Tiagra. Brakes are home made, and its wheels are reviewed as cheap Shimano wheels. So are the Shimano hubs and Shimano spokes. Tires are Schwalbe 23 mm. From my knowledge, it is not too good. Saddle is home made as well, although the design is convincingly good. Frame is an aggressive design. However Cannondale says that the geometry has been chosen to provide a balance between comfort and speed. It has seat stays in hour glass design to support some shock absorption. Down tube is bigger and helps the bike in being very stiff and unyielding. Frame supports achieving good speeds and predictive handling. Reviewers comment they had no issues cornering road at speeds as high as 70 kmph downhill. Most of the experienced buyers however replaced wheels and some components soon after buying as they found them as scrap material. However post replacement; they are all praise for this bike. The frame itself appears to be pretty good. Colors and painting are very attractive. The company uses its double pass welding to ensure smooth finish and hand crafted like appearance. Cannondale also comments they made changes to geometry in its 2010 version to improve performance. It couldn’t go wrong at all buying a Cannondale. However given the fact that full specifications are not available at this time, unless seen from a dependable source, it will be difficult to comment beyond this review. Specifications that are currently available vary a great deal from market to market. For sure, this is a bike worth testing on the road and is unlikely to be over priced given its prices and quality in the mountain and hybrid range in India. My personal belief would be given the way its mountain bikes behave, it is more likely that this bike will be very robust, will provide trouble free performance, but unlikely to offer a sophisticated ride expected of a road bike. But I could be wrong. Actually prefer to be!!
Orbea is very tempting, but Trek is an established better brand. Need to ride both, to be able to decide. There is a difference of a good Rs. 10K as well! Cannondale, if it comes through will be a good bike to compare against the Orbea. Only a test ride can tell the preference for me!!!
4 thoughts on “How to select a road bike”
The read itself quite tiring. I confess I just skimmed thru it! Despite years you have not lost the appetite for painstaking work – reading and summarizing and posting.
Thank you Sir, Your post was really helpful – am looking forward to buy a hybrid bike -yet to decide what I would ride. Do recommend me some Hybrid brands so that I can check them out at Bangalore, my budget is between 10- 30K.
I think the mistake most adult amateur urban bicycle buyers make is going in for the MTB with thick tyres. Feels heavy and gets tiring soon. Slim is in. firstname.lastname@example.org
Mallik sir,very nice. After lugging the heavy frame each day to office and back I surely agree it would have been a more pleasurable experience had the frame of my bike been lighter.The analysis was quite deep. And this will be my bible before I put my finger finally on a road bike.- Bala Aluru