Are Novara bikes any good?
March 29, 2011 10:44 AM   Subscribe

How good are the Novara brand bikes that REI sells and would any of them make a decent commuter bike for me? I have a twenty percent coupon as a member of REI but they won't let me use it for any bike brand other than their own.

I'm looking for a fairly general purpose city bike that I can run on both streets and bike trails to commute to work and for recreation. I'm a pretty large guy in both height and weight (6'2", 250#) so it's got to be big enough and strong enough to handle that. My fair city (Pittsburgh) has some of the most terrible roads in the country and some pretty crappy weather too so assume that any route that I take is going to be uphill both ways and the roads will be full of potholes so it's got to have some good low gears and not fall apart the first time I hit a stretch of cobble-stone pavement.

I generally like the mount bike/hybrid type more than drop-bar road bike but I'd consider any type of bike if it fit me well.

The right answer here might be "don't buy any of these" and look at Trek or Specialized bikes instead but the REI store is convenient and that coupon is tempting.
posted by octothorpe to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
REI has a fantastic return policy, if that makes your decision easier. We had a tent, used it heavily for two years, maybe two dozen trips, then returned it when it got a small tear (that I caused). 100% money back, no fighting. You might want to check that the guarantee applies to bikes.
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:49 AM on March 29, 2011

I've become quite cynical about bikes: Pick a component set, and then find a frame that fits you. At the level I've bought bicycles, picking a component set basically becomes "Shimano or Campagnolo", and then which of 4 levels do you want to buy at. In Shimano road bikes, this is roughly, from lowest to highest, Tiagra, 105, Ultegra and Dura-Ace. I don't remember what the order is on mountain bikes, Deore LX, Deore XT, Deore, but any good bike shop will be able to rattle off the layers of parts for your particular bike class.

The difference between Shimano and Campagnolo is largely interface. Pick one of those, and then decide how much money you want to spend. You want the middle-level components, if you were looking for a road bike it'd be 105 and Ultegra, ride a bike with both of those, find a frame that fits you. If the Novara bikes have geometry that works for you and a component set you like, go for 'em, otherwise look elsewhere.

But these days the frames are all made using similar construction, so pick one that fits you and buy a component set on it.
posted by straw at 10:52 AM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Novara makes just fine bicycles, and recently have started understanding the needs of the commuter market better. You'll probably want to take a look at the Buzz or the ETA. Both are capable of being fine commuting rigs and running wide-ish tires for rough terrain along with fenders and racks. At 6'2" you'll almost certainly be an XL in either.

And yes, the "Return Every Item" guarantee works for bicycles as well.
posted by lantius at 10:55 AM on March 29, 2011

Novara are solid bikes, built from the same factories and molds that make low-end Specialized and Giant bicycles. Nothing wrong with them, and they're a very good value. The Buzz lantius mentioned above is a great commuter bike.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 10:57 AM on March 29, 2011

The Novara brand seems to be good value for the money and I like REI's customer service and support. I had a steel-frame light touring/commuter Novara that finally died after 20 years, thousands of miles, and 4 years in the rain and sun on a Brooklyn rooftop. It still had most of the original Shimano components. I had liked it so much I immediately set my heart on a Novara Safari as replacement. (REI didn't have any in stock, though, so I bought a Raleigh Clubman instead on sale there.)
posted by mochapickle at 10:57 AM on March 29, 2011

Their Randonee is going to come outfitted with a rack, and it's steel, which will work well with your weight. Also, it's a triple crankset, so it should have some low gears that will work well with the hills of Pittsburgh. I've heard good things about it.

Make sure you buy full fenders. Plastic are lighter and work great. Metal look nicer but are heavier and more expensive.
posted by kdar at 10:58 AM on March 29, 2011

Honestly, most bike brands are made in the same factories in China and Taiwan. I wouldn't hesitate to buy a Novara if I liked the test ride.
posted by advicepig at 10:58 AM on March 29, 2011

My friend has one and likes it a lot.

Some things you want to consider for bike commuting: get the puncture-proof tires (Vittoria Randonneur). Thinner tires are better than thicker for riding on roads. I have quite thin tires and still do fine on potholes etc. You really don't need a mountain bike or even a hybrid. As light as possible is good -- you'll be carrying it up and down stairs, inevitably, and lighter is faster. You don't need 8 million gears -- I just have three and it's fine for uphill and downhill (although sometimes I do wish I had another gear for flat stretches -- the the highest gear is too hard, and the middle and low gears are too easy.) Finally, save some money in your bike budget for accessories, which are crucial: a bike rack, waterproof panniers, lights, helmet, lock ... this can all easily add up to a few hundred extra.
posted by yarly at 11:01 AM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have a low-end Novarra mountain bike and a hybridy one (both purchased with that 20% coupon at some point or the other) and like them just fine. REI's service is great and they really stand behind their products, which was why I got them in the first place. They will do a free tune-up for you after the bike gets settled in, which is nice, and if the bike gets messed up during normal non-crazy use they'll help you out with it.

For one example, I took my mountain bike in for a tune-up after I'd had it about 2 years (without doing anything particularly insane on it), and they noticed that the front fork was out of wack in an unsafe way- they went ahead and replaced it for me gratis with zero hassle, with a nicer/more expensive fork than it had had in the first place.

The boyfriend just got the Buzz linked above for his non-winter commuter bike, and has liked it so far. In the summer, I bike at least a hundred miles a week on my hybrid on roads and trails and it has worked really well for me.
posted by charmedimsure at 11:16 AM on March 29, 2011

They tend to get recalled an awful lot, it seems.
posted by halogen at 11:22 AM on March 29, 2011

I've been riding the same REI Novara road bike for about ten years now with no problems. I don't ride regularly these days, but I used to do some light touring and somewhat-frequent commuting on it. They seem to be pretty good bikes for the price.
posted by mbrubeck at 11:31 AM on March 29, 2011

I rode my Novara Buzz Road bike (they don't seem to make that model anymore) for about 1700 miles last year. I had no problems with it and saved about $500 over the cost of a similarly spec'd big name model. If I were buying a new bike today I'd either pick up another Novara from REI (probably the Verita or Strada) with my 20% coupon or a Motobecane (like this one) from
posted by togdon at 1:08 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

My husband has a Novara in his stable of bikes, and it's a favorite of his. It's a bit heavy though, is his only real complaint.
posted by padraigin at 1:20 PM on March 29, 2011

My husband and I both have Novaras, and enjoy them. The free one year tune up is a nice thing, as well.
posted by korej at 1:55 PM on March 29, 2011

If it makes you feel better about dealing with weight and road conditions, here is a page from crazyguyonabike showing fully loaded Novaras used for touring. Many are very heavily loaded and have the low gearing to deal with that, many have been used on cross-country trips, and some have been used for massive international trips on all manner of road.
posted by BlooPen at 2:06 PM on March 29, 2011

In my experience, REI's Novara bikes are good middle of the road choices. They are worlds better than buying a bike from a big box store (WalMart, KMart, MartMart), but not as good as high end bikes form your local bike shop. And Novara has the added benefit of REI's extraordinary customer support.

A small personal anecdote to back this up: Once upon a time, I have a Novara bike that I sold used to a friend of a friend. Several months later, I heard he'd rode the bike off the sidewalk curb and the front fork crumpled! He took the bike to REI to have the fork replaced, and they were appalled by the front fork. "This never should have happened" was the phrase I heard. They replaced it for free, and gave the bike a tuneup and cleaning at the same time.

If you're a hard-core, competitive biker, I'd steer you to a LBS, no question. But for occasional recreation and commuting, I think you'll be happy with a Novara.
posted by browse at 3:06 PM on March 29, 2011

I have a twenty percent coupon as a member of REI but they won't let me use it for any bike brand other than their own.

There is a reason for this. People recommending Novara don't know or understand bikes and components. Those bikes are badly specced. They skimp on the parts that people don't notice, they use cheap components and wheels ( really important for you), are mixing Sram with Shimano, and offering 8 speed clusters instead of 9 . This is why they seem to have attractive price points, and why you can get a "discount" on them.

Roadies will always tell you to get a road bike. This is wrong, unless you like fixing flats and bending rims. Roadies are weird, treat then like the cultists they are, until you become one yourself. For now, what we want to do is get you riding with a minimum of cost and effort. A new rider of your size and weight, with your limited experience, really should get a tougher and less expensive mountain or hybrid bike to start with. You can take one of those on trails, but you can't do that with a road bike. Generally, mountain bikes come with somewhat aggressive knobby tires for trail riding. In a case like that, what you want to do is use some semi slicks for commuting like these .

The online consensus nowadays is that the best deals on bikes for those who won't shop at a real bike store is Bikes Direct. Based on what you've said, I'd then steer you toward something like this actual brand name GT bike with disc brakes and a true Shimano 27-speed group from as a good choice. You are going to learn this one way or the other, might as well learn it the easy way now. What you want are the strongest wheels you can get, with nice fat tires. Note the 36 spoke wheels, with Alex double-walled rims.

I can't tell if it's drilled for racks, something any commuter must have. I'm assuming so, but you know what they say about assumptions. If this interests you, drop them a line and see, but Bikes Direct is a much better choice for you than REI is, regardless.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 4:22 PM on March 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've got a Novara Buzz... kickass bike, sturdy as hell (I'm 6'3", 290lbs) and very lightweight frame for the money...
posted by stenseng at 4:42 PM on March 29, 2011

As someone who recently purchased a (quite nice) bike from BikesDirect, I wouldn't necessarily recommend it as a great value to someone who isn't very knowledgeable about bicycles. At a bare minimum it's going to need professional assembly - and in my case I also ended up rebuilding both wheels (they were barely tensioned) and packing the dry hubs with grease. If you're comfortable doing that kind of work yourself they can be a great value, otherwise make sure you consider the additional costs you'll incur at your LBS.
posted by lantius at 5:27 PM on March 29, 2011

Good point about the build, lantius. Mind you, even adding $100 for a quality build from an LBS would still make that GT a damn good deal, and those 36 spoke wheels would be pretty bombproof after proper tensioning. I normally always recommend an LBS for new riders, I was really just making a quick comparison between online bike prices, and trying to highlight the differences between what REI offers, and an an actual deal on a properly specced bike.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 5:57 PM on March 29, 2011

I don't have specific experience with Novara-brand bikes, but other Novara-brand things have worked out well for me. I think for your needs and experience level, and the coupon, a Novara bike would probably work out pretty well. I would avoid, at a minimum, and at least buy from a store in the area that will be able to help with minor tune-ups and fixes.

As you may remember from the last meetup, I generally commute by bike every day, so if you have any questions about routes or biking in Pgh generally, let me know!
posted by chinston at 6:57 AM on March 30, 2011

There is a reason for this. People recommending Novara don't know or understand bikes and components. Those bikes are badly specced. They skimp on the parts that people don't notice, they use cheap components and wheels ( really important for you), are mixing Sram with Shimano, and offering 8 speed clusters instead of 9 . This is why they seem to have attractive price points, and why you can get a "discount" on them.

I respectfully submit that perhaps they have a higher profit margin on their house brand (which, admittedly, may be because of cost-cutting, but could be because the third party bikes are more expensive for them to procure)--so they can't (or don't want to) afford to take the 20% off of other brands.

I also will add most people (who aren't way "into" cycling) don't give a rat's ass about whether their components are mixed Shimano and Sram (both companies produce quality stuff), and while they may care about 8 speeds or 9 I'd argue that it's rather a academic distinction given the same overall range.

I'll grant you that wheels are important, but the wheels I see them using seem to be generally of the "cheaper, heavier, but robust" category as opposed to the "cheaper, inferior" category. Commuters are generally less sensitive about bike weight; 250 pound commuters even less so.

Finally, to finally answer the question to the OP: yes, they're good in that they'll do the job, and they're durable. Their bikes can tend to be heavy, which probably isn't important to you (and in my opinion probably shouldn't be). I personally think that the 20% off deal isn't a great deal, since the normal REI prices don't strike me as fantastic (and AFAIK you can't use the coupon on sale prices). But I tend to think the prices are high everywhere, so take that into consideration I guess.

I wouldn't recommend that you buy a bike online, since you don't know what's going to fit you well (Bikesdirect seems to be a good value but you need to actually try out different sizes). Buy locally, either from REI or elsewhere that you like the staff. One benefit to REI is that they *may* be more inclined to actually get you the kind of bike you want for the riding you want and not shoehorn you into a racing bike; this behavior is distressingly common in my neck of the woods.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 12:39 PM on March 30, 2011

Agree with the LBS recommendation ( this is the third time I've mentioned this), but not your analysis of why someone would be better off buying a Novara than something better for the same price , RikiTikiTavi .

The hubs, headset, bottom-bracket, wheels, bars, brakes, shifters, and derailleurs on the REI product are all of poorer quality, and heavier, than comparably priced Bikes Direct product. Sram is an acceptable compromise, but will not work as well with Shimano as Shimano does. Rapidfire is the shit for ergonomics, period. 8 speed works, but 9 speeds is better.

So, given a choice, and answering the asker's question, my own opinion (and that of every mechanic I know), is that it's better to go pure Shimano with Rapid-fire 9 speed than some combination. But my point was that that REI specs those products the way that they do as it's cheaper. Arguing that a cheaper and heavier frame with a less functional and heavier spec is advantageous for the user in some way is an argument that makes no sense to me. Spinning weight is critical for increasing efficiency of course, and its always better to have lighter and stronger wheels if you can. 36 spoke wheels are exactly what this rider wants, and the wheel is a really critical factor for inexperienced and heavier riders. Given a choice between a light and strong 36 spoke wheel, and heavy and not as strong 32 spoke wheel, I know what I'd choose.

I still believe that going to an LBS and developing a relationship with the shop is the best way to go, all that I was doing was pointing out that if you're not going to do this , there are better options for the same money than buying a bicycle from an outdoor store specced to hit a specific price-point and to gull the rider by cutting corners. I know nothing about REI, for all I know they might be a fabulous place to purchase a bicycle, but I am not at all impressed by their bike specs. I am distrustful of companies who do this, based on my 20 year involvement in the industry, and seven years experience as a bike store manager. I personally one wouldn't buy one of those bikes, and think that there are better options.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 5:04 PM on March 30, 2011

I bought a Novara buzz bike a little over a week ago (used that coupon!), and while I don't know as much about bike specs and parts as other posters, I have to say that I've been really happy with it so far.

I'm about 120 pounds, so I can't speak to your sturdiness requirements, but it's a smooth ride and a relatively lightweight bike. It did fine on a bumpy ride on a dirt road, and it does fine on SF streets.

I also like the free tune-up REI offers for the bike.
posted by pluot at 9:07 PM on March 30, 2011

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