Which bike do I want?
March 1, 2010 1:09 PM   Subscribe

For the past several years, I've been riding a Navigator 500. I love how it handles on wooded trails, but on the open road - of which there is an abundance in Wisconsin - it is a lot of work. Which bikes should I be looking at instead?

The challenge: I'm 5'11" and weigh 200 pounds (and am female, if it matters). One of the major reasons I went with the Navigator is size - the 21 inch men's frame is a perfect fit, and I'm a strong enough rider to haul its 25+ pound bulk around town, even when loaded down with groceries. It's just not especially fun, as casual rides with friends quickly become grueling if I try to keep up with their snappy road bikes over any kind of distance.

What I'd love is a bike that is good for semi-hilly highway riding, but could be taken down a dirt road without totally flipping out. I'd prefer quality components to low prices, up to say $1000. Right now I ride about fifty miles a week commuting and running errands, but I'd expect that to increase dramatically with nice weather and a bike that doesn't make long hauls so daunting.

Thanks for your recommendations!
posted by teremala to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Have you tried locking out the front suspension and putting narrower, slicker tires on your Navigator? I have an old rigid-fork mountain bike that I now use almost exclusively for road commuting, and changing out the tires made an incredible difference.
posted by contraption at 1:29 PM on March 1, 2010

Best answer: You could get a Cyclocross bike which shares a lot of characteristics with road bikes but has knobby tires and is meant for riding off-road. I guess you could even get an extra set of wheels to swap out for slick tires to ride on the roads.

Example: Bianchi Volpe
posted by ghharr at 1:35 PM on March 1, 2010

I'd suggest a road bike with drop handlebars; at the sub-$1000 range, go with the one that fits and feels the best, as there's not going to be too much real differentiation between brands.

If you really plan to cut down the occasional dirt road, you may want to consider a cyclocross bike, which is like a road bike but with some optimizations for riding cyclocross (cantilever brakes, cables routed above the top tube, fatter tires). The Giant TCX 2, Specialized Tricross Triple, or Felt F95X would all serve you well and are in your price range (these are all the entry-level CX bikes from some well-known manufacturers; I'm sure there are more, but Trek and others don't make CX bikes sub-$1000. None of these will be as good on the road as a pure road bike, but would be far better than a mountain bike on road for sure, and the wider tires would provide some extra comfort on the road too at a slight expense in increased rolling resistance.

(on preview: ghharr beat me to the CX suggestion)
posted by The Michael The at 1:37 PM on March 1, 2010

Best answer: The bike you've got puts you in a very un-aerodynamic position, and has fat, knobby tires. That's going to put you at a big disadvantage compared to, say, you on a road bike.

I'd recommend looking at a touring bike. The Trek 520 and Surly Long-Haul Trucker are both very popular touring bikes, roughly in your price range. These will put you in a relaxed road position. They're designed to take racks and panniers. They can handle relatively fat tires or skinny ones. They've got a wide gear range. They're not designed for trail riding, but they can handle it in moderate quantities.
posted by adamrice at 1:43 PM on March 1, 2010

nthing 'cross bike. With fatt-ish road tires (28mm or even wider) it will be great and plenty comfortable for fast road rides, and with a set of knobby tires will handle any fire road or trail.
posted by fixedgear at 1:44 PM on March 1, 2010

Oh, keep in mind that road and CX bikes will probably be sized in cm rather than inches. You would probably want a 56 cm frame or maybe a little smaller but if you go to any bike store they'll be glad to give you a basic sizing up.
posted by ghharr at 1:49 PM on March 1, 2010

Best answer: A cross-bike or a touring bike will do what you want. Cross bikes are a bit more nimble, touring bikes a little more stable. I find a longer touring frame more comfortable with a heavy load than a cross-bike.

1. Get fat, slick tires, something like 35mm (about 1 1/2") or more. These will provide good ride comfort and lots of grip, even on dirt roads.

2. Do not buy front shocks. As you've discovered, they add weight and make you slow. Good tires will make you comfortable anyway. You don't need a big shock on the road.

3. Drop bars are the default road bars, for good reason, but they're not the only choice. You can even get flat bars if you prefer, but get something like bar-ends that offer a second hand position if you do. An hour is a long ride with only a single hand position.

4. Do make certain that the shop sets the bike up with the handle bars at the same height or above the seat level. Most shops will sell a road bike setup for racers with the handlebars well below the seat. this is great for racing, but really uncomfortable for most casual riders. Stem height is very personal but higher handlebars are usually better for non-racers.
posted by bonehead at 1:52 PM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Cross-check is Surly's cross-frame, to complement adamrice's suggestion of the tourer above. I've been very happy with mine. I think you would be very happy with either.
posted by bonehead at 1:55 PM on March 1, 2010

If you decide to go with a mountain bike or a cyclocross/touring bike, see if you can get it fitted out with a higher neck. I suspect one of the reasons why you like your current bike is because you're sitting more upright, which is more comfortable on the wrists and neck over long distances, especially for heavier people.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:57 PM on March 1, 2010

Best answer: Taller, skinnier tires, are the real cure to the issue, so you'll need to find a bike with them. You want a bike with 700c-sized wheels, but don't go =too= skinny, as it will be uncomfortable and tough to control.

The rest of it - brifters, 11-speed cassettes, carbon fiber - isn't necessary in the least to blast along paved roads at a good clip. Drop bars may actually be more comfortable, in which case they =are= necessary. Comfort bikes are generally massively uncomfortable for traveling any sort of distance at any sort of speed. You're in a sit-up-and-beg position which makes it hard to get a good head of steam uphills, or in the company of speed-demons

You'll need to determine:

a) Your budget.
b) A riding position that's comfortable.
c) The right size frame for you.

One you figure out a), then your local bike shop can help with b) and c). ask to test out the bikes that catch your eye. Don't get too caught up on the brand-names of the bicycles themselves, instead ask what kind of parts ("group") it is equipped with, and research that when you get home to make sure it's a good set of equipment. This also helps you avoid impulse buys - come back after researching the bike you liked to ride the best, maybe the next weekend, even, and make your purchase then.

Since you already have a Trek, I'll use examples from Trek's lineup for bikes that may appeal to you:

1) Street bike. Built for practicality on-road, for commuters and everyday riding. The kind of bike you'd want to ride everyday... it's got an upright riding position, but one that's actually useful to riders who need to get a move on.
2) Fitness bike. Like a road bike, but a little more upright, with mountain-bike style handlebars. Usually light and quick, but may not be as comfortable as you'd like on long trips.
3) Touring bike. A compromise between a road-bike and a street bike - street bike durability and practicality, road bike riding position and drivetrain.
4) Road bike. Will be very light, almost fragile - and difficult to ride, as it's made for lightning quick steering and stand-on-the-pedals acceleration. By all means try one out, but these are generally for athletes.
posted by Slap*Happy at 2:21 PM on March 1, 2010

The cheap route, suggested by others:

We turned my very sluggish old Cannondale into a pretty decent commuter bike by changing out the front front (with mushy suspension) with a solid fork and by putting kevlar street tires on it. It's comparatively a pleasure to ride, and I've done up to 50 mile rides with it, but framewise it is surely rough enough to handle a dirt trail. My stats: 5'11" 230lb male.
posted by seventyfour at 3:50 PM on March 1, 2010

I'll side with the majority here and recommend either a touring bike or a cyclocross bike. If you want a rack or fenders and all that, make sure there are eyelets for them. All touring bikes will have them, only some cross bikes will.

I personally have an older Bianchi Volpe that fills this role quite nicely.
posted by advicepig at 4:15 PM on March 1, 2010

Response by poster: Wow, this all looks quite helpful. I'm at work and can't check out everything right now, but now I have a couple of definite ideas to look into and I really appreciate it. I had no idea the fork could be so important - I have the shocks turned as "tight" as they can because they were terribly mushy at first, but beyond that I hadn't given it much thought. I also really appreciate the note about the eyelets, because I probably would want some kind of rack and hadn't considered that the connectors might not be a standard item on all bikes. In general though, thanks a bunch for the technical information I had no clue about!

Regarding Trek, my bike has been a solid companion for going eight years now so I have no complaints on that front, but I also wouldn't mind going with another manufacturer. I did have the vague idea that I'd have to figure out the sizing in centimeters at some point, but I figured I'd be in one of Madison's many bike shops by the time I got to that point. Going in person sounds like it's a pretty solid plan in any case, so I won't worry about sizing for now unless it seems like a certain bike is only available in small sizes.

(Oh, and the idea of a cyclocross bike -- neat! I do want to focus more on actually getting places, but I will definitely look into that too.)
posted by teremala at 5:30 PM on March 1, 2010

Best answer: I had the same issues with a hybrid mountain bike, and just traded up for a cyclocross bike (this one). Love love love it. Its a jack of all trades and slick and quick as shit.

I would also recommend reading this series on Commute by Bike where the community tries to group-build the prefect commuter bike. They start with a Surly Long Haul Trucker, a road touring bike, and add components (upright handle bars, fenders, thicker tires) to make it more commuter-friendly. It looks awesome. Be sure to click all the links to get a good idea of the build process, which will help you determine which components are important for you in the bike you want.
posted by Brittanie at 5:48 PM on March 1, 2010

I thought I'd come back in to say that I never understood why people think that switching from a traditional road handle bar to a flat bar is a great improvement. You can still ride the tops of the road handlebars and if you want brake levers up there, you can easily add cross top levers to get the best of both worlds. I put them on my Volpe because I like to ride the tops when I'm in traffic approaching an intersection.
posted by advicepig at 6:31 PM on March 1, 2010

"...I never understood why people think that switching from a traditional road handle bar to a flat bar is a great improvement."

Well, for one, the tops of a drop bar don't extend far enough out to get comfortable, and once you do find a hand position that's far enough apart for taste, you don't have a comfortable ergo-grip there. Plus, there are the bar-ends... some people swear by 'em for getting out of the saddle on long climbs.

Once you move to a city-bike handlebar like a North Road or albatross, you're talking about an upright riding position at odds with the roadie way of doing things. Apples to oranges.

This is all =extremely= subjective - there's no one right way to do it, which is why there are so many bar combinations. Even in drop bars, there are a zillion different styles, wraps, covers, cushions and hoods. It boils down to personal preference, riding style and comfort.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:25 PM on March 1, 2010

Response by poster: Quick piggyback question for anyone still around: I stopped by a bike shop and rode, amongst others, the 2008 Cannondale Touring 1 ($1300). Is there anything terrible I should know about that bike/Cannondales? Because while I didn't get to try either of the Surly models, the T1 and Volpe were absolute blasts.
posted by teremala at 1:18 PM on March 2, 2010

Best answer: Either of those would be a nice bike to have. Cannondales have a reputation for beating up the rider because of the fat aluminum tubes, but I imagine their engineers have got that figured out now. A friend of mine said his Cannondale was the best bike he ever owned.

It would still be worth test-riding a few more bikes, just to cover all the bases.
posted by adamrice at 1:26 PM on March 2, 2010

Best answer: The specs on Cannondale look quite reasonable for that price. It's a pretty bike too.

Cannondale flirted with making their own branded parts for a while, but the Touring 1 seems to have standard Shimano parts. That's important when you breakdown in a town of 500 with only one bike shop.
posted by bonehead at 1:44 PM on March 2, 2010

Best answer: Very nice specs on the T1. Shimano 105 and Ultegra are mid-range parts that are easy to come by and affordable, if you need to repair or replace. Good looking bike, too. Will probably be more comfortable than the Volpe for longer rides, and more than fast enough to keep up with your friends.
posted by Slap*Happy at 2:17 PM on March 2, 2010

Response by poster: I wanted to thank everyone for their help. I did get the Cannondale and it has been amazing fun. That bike has basically defined 2010 for me, giving me an useful hobby and an enjoyable way to get out and explore the area. From late-night shenanigans with no concern over who has to drive home, to just hanging out with friends circling lakes and cities as if they're only there to define our rides, having such a great bike has been an enormous pleasure. For all that I said I enjoyed bicycling before, I don't think I ever really "got" it until now, when looking at the bike hanging in the livingroom (basement storage? as if!) makes me want to just ride.

So thanks, all.
posted by teremala at 11:03 AM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Gorgeous ride! I like the luggage - bikes like that love to be used as pack mules, and it's amazing how much stuff you can schlep around with a pair of panniers and some bungie cords.

Congrats, and welcome to the fold!
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:57 AM on January 23, 2011

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