The 'Build a Better Bike' Trap.
April 15, 2011 3:26 AM   Subscribe

What's a good bike? While looking for a bike, I realized there are (maybe) six manufacturers of frames and ten manufacturers of everything else (excluding hand-made specialty parts). Which ones are the best - 'best' meaning highest quality construction for the least added 'name-brand' expense?

I want a 'regular' bike with 28" wheels, five-to-ten speeds and, most importantly, I don't want it to weigh a ton.

I'm happy to cobble a bike together from various parts but which parts? Which are expensive mostly because they are 'Brand-X' and which because they are superlative/precisely what they need to be?

Which parts would you use to put together a very good, no-brand bike?
posted by From Bklyn to Travel & Transportation (27 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
What are you going to use the bike for? You're answer will depend on how you'll be riding. Are you a triathlete? Into crossfit? Mountain or offroading? Beach cruising?
posted by princelyfox at 3:43 AM on April 15, 2011

Response by poster: Sorry, the bike is for 'commuting'/ riding in a very bike-friendly city. I don't 'need' any kind of suspension, even. Just a light, strong, resilient bike that won't cost a thousand dollars or be total theft-bait.
posted by From Bklyn at 3:53 AM on April 15, 2011

"Cobbling" together a bike can be quite difficult if you haven't done much bike maintenance or building before. Were you thinking of just buying a bunch of parts and having a bike shop assemble them for you? That will cost enough money that it would be cheaper for you to just buy a complete bike.

What's your budget?
posted by Aizkolari at 4:05 AM on April 15, 2011

I'm guessing you want what's called a Flat bar road bike (link just for pics). Basically a road bike with straight(ish) handlebars and mountain bike style shifters. Does that sound right?
posted by Ahab at 4:10 AM on April 15, 2011

The bike world is far more complex than you have assumed. It sounds as if you have extremely limited knowledge, as you don't yet grasp such basic concepts as sizing nomenclature at this point. If this is true, then "cobbling together" a bike is likely a sub-optimal plan.

That said, how tall are you? Where would this riding occur? Berlin? Will you need to carry cargo? Are you planning on only riding it on the road?
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 4:13 AM on April 15, 2011

FWIW, I like my IRO enough that I would suggest you include them in your consideration if you have not already done so.
posted by safetyfork at 4:38 AM on April 15, 2011

Response by poster: I have experience 'cobbling' together bikes, and know my limits as well. This is the second-to last thing I'm worried about.

My budget is small enough, under 500 euro, that I'm looking at used and 'sale' bikes and among the ocean of these, how to determine which will have the highest quality? Is a 'Ghost' frame going to be better than a 'Focus', better than a 'Trek' frame, or are they all manufactured in the same factory? Or at the same factory but to different tolerances? Is this an unanswerable question?

'Flat Bar Road Bike' looks like a good description of what I'm looking for. I don't want or need a fully sprung mountain bike, nor can a I ride a fixie (they are 'technically' illegal here and I need about five gears for my lazy-ass comfort).

The bike world is far more complex than you have assumed. No doubt, but I have noticed that there are a few manufacturers who make beautiful components that (unless you are racing or at least putting in three-hundred mile weeks) I don't need to spend the money on. At the same time, some components are (I can only assume) damn-near crap right out of the box and I'd like to avoid them, too.

I'm 6'1", I'll ride it like a very boring Bürger in Berlin and I will carry no more than a child/ big pannier-bag of groceries. I will also, likely, whistle softly as I ride (I take requests).
posted by From Bklyn at 5:15 AM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's a book about this, for which someone did the effort and tried to find the best parts available, to make his dream bike.

Unfortunately, Robert Penn build himself a racer.

City bikes could be racers, but as I am Dutch, and we don't see bicycles as a means of transport, not just as some kind of sports tool, I'd like to sit a bit more upright while commuting.

Now, Dutch style bikes sold outside the Netherlands are mostly heavy, but the needn't be so.

In your place, I would look for parts to could endure some beating, so, a steel frame and steel wheel rims, as those will survive accidents. And for all year round cycling, a closed gear case. Which would limit the choice of gears to the brands delivering hub-gears. Those can go up to 7 or 8 gears though, nowadays.

The rest, like mounting a butterfly handlebar, or not, really is up to your imagination.
posted by ijsbrand at 5:32 AM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is a 'Ghost' frame going to be better than a 'Focus', better than a 'Trek' frame, or are they all manufactured in the same factory?

In general no, there won't be any difference in frames by brand name, they're all about equal at the same price point. All probably use about the same level Shimano or SRAM components. Of course, when you go up more in price you do get better quality. The exception is super cheap bikes, in the US we could call them "Wal-Mart Bikes" that sell for $100-$200 new. These are legitimately terrible in quality and are commonly assembled by bozos who don't know what they're doing.

You probably do want a flat bar road bike, an aluminum-framed one would probably be fine and light and would come with at least 21 "speeds".

If you don't feel like you need a ton of speeds you could cobble together something with an internally geared rear hub - it'll be probably easier to maintain and have fewer speeds but a little more expensive.
posted by ghharr at 6:17 AM on April 15, 2011

In my day, Bianchi was the most sought after although Merckx was the more elite. Cannondales were also pretty popular for the average rider but am not sure if those are found on the continent like here in the US.
posted by JJ86 at 6:19 AM on April 15, 2011

I use my bike for about exactly what you describe here in the US. I have a Marin frame and gears and they have worked really well for me. The frame is heavier than some (but still light enough for commuting/lighter than a mountain bike), but super-solid. I haven't had to fix a single thing since I bought it over three years ago, and that includes some tough potholes and a few wipeouts. I even took it for a tune up this year and the bike guy couldn't find anything to really tune-up.

I don't know if Marin is available in Europe, but it would be worth checking into. I paid about $600 new.
posted by ohio at 6:31 AM on April 15, 2011

The Kona Dew and Dew Plus are available in Europe, in your price range, have lots of gears, will let you ride upright, are reasonably light, appear to have lugs for a pannier rack (but check that), and get decent reviews.

Why build?
posted by Ahab at 7:13 AM on April 15, 2011

Underneath all the paint, graphics and branding, most mid-market steel or aluminum bike frames have come out of one of a couple of factories in Taiwan (hint - Giant make lots of frames with someone else's name on them) and are all built to the same quality control standards. It's only when aiming at the higher end of the market that it's worth worrying about any realistic differences in design, performance and construction. This isn't going to change until a new (cheap!) wonder material for making bikes is invented (no time soon). Most mid market bikes are really much of a muchness, despite what the brands will claim.

Any used bike that's got brand-name decals on it and where most of the parts are made by Shimano or SRAM (most bikes, nowadays), and where there's no obvious crash damage, is most likely fine. A good fit is far more important than the particular part or brand name.

There's no such things as no-brand (as in No Logo) bike parts, other than the very cheap chinese stamped steel stuff you find on dept. store bikes that everyone should avoid. Shimano pretty much owns the western world market in bike parts and their mid-range stuff is by no means any kind of rip-off, so just use it.

Bikes don't come in 5 to 10 speeds any more. Better to think in terms of whether the gears (however many, most bikes have more than enough nowadays), suit the kind of riding you want to do (in practice, are they low enough?).

If you're talking in terms of "cobbling together" a bike, then I don't expect you're looking at parts where there is a premium on brand-name (e.g. Campagnolo).

As others have already said, it's generally always cheaper to buy a complete bike, if that's what you need, whether used or new, rather than buying parts to make one. Unless you're building something specialized (expensive) with a very clear purpose in mind, don't over think it, just go buy a bike that fits your body and budget.
posted by normy at 7:39 AM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

In the sub 500 Euro hybrid commuter category I think the quality is all pretty similar from the big name brands, (Trek, Ridgeback etc.).
posted by mary8nne at 7:42 AM on April 15, 2011

Concentrate on the fit of the bike first and foremost.

Actually, for that sort of money, the "big name" brands represent the best value.
posted by col at 8:12 AM on April 15, 2011

In general, you'll get a much better deal buying a complete off-the-peg bike, especially at discount or sale prices, than you will cobbling one together from separate components. I can certainly understand the appeal of building your own, and have done so myself, but it would have been a lot cheaper & easier to buy one complete and swap out anything you didn't want.

And, as an aside, I don't understand what you mean when you say fixed gear bikes are technically illegal - sure, that may be the case if ridden brakeless or without lights, but I'm unaware of anywhere in the world legislating against a type of drivetrain.
posted by anagrama at 8:24 AM on April 15, 2011

Response by poster: I don't have to build a bike but I can and so if I can find good used parts, why not? The question is which parts are not worth re-using.

it's not the drivetrain that is outlawed bs fixies, it's the (often) lack of a front brake and lights and bell - that is, the way more attractive (IMHO) minimalist set up. The ticket can be stupid large and include points against your license. Google fixie & Berlin)

Thanks for the input, all.

posted by From Bklyn at 9:13 AM on April 15, 2011

In that case, component-wise, upper-mid range parts from, say, a decade back are a good buy if they're in decent condition - Campag/DuraAce/high-end SRAM will attract a premium, but something along the lines of Shimano 105/600/Ultrega can be had for bargain prices with a bit of patience. With eBay or the like, it's often worth buying a partial or full groupset and reselling bits you don't need instead of seeking it out piece by piece.
posted by anagrama at 9:28 AM on April 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Bikes Direct is one place to find some of these very same Taiwanese frames re-branded under random brand names with decent components bolted on for a very attractive price.
posted by kcm at 9:32 AM on April 15, 2011

I don't know why answerers seem to be having such a hard time with this question. The poster is looking for information on frame and parts manufacturers, not lectures on sizing or armchair assessments of his/her bike building prowess.

Maybe an example in another domain would be helpful -

My Ford Aspire is really a Kia Avella.

The lenses for Sony DSLRs are often made by Minolta.

Or even better, the Helios 44-2 is a copy of the Carl Zeiss Biotar that has comparable performance, so you can get a Zeiss on the cheap if the name doesn't matter to you.

Unfortunately I don't know much about this kind of thing in the bike world, but I Bikes Direct looks like a solid answer to your question.
posted by fake at 10:54 AM on April 15, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks fake, that really is the question in a perhaps more concise expression.
I'll check out Bikes Direct, but I am in Europe and shipping/customs duties could negate any savings. Have to see.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:57 PM on April 15, 2011

I don't know why answerers seem to be having such a hard time with this question.

Because this is an extremely complex subject, Fake, and almost every assumption in the OP's question is incorrect. This suggested very strongly that From Bklyn is approaching this task with some badly skewed suppositions, although his answers indicate that he is not as far off track as it initially seemed. In point of fact though, there are hundreds of frame and parts manufacturers, there is no such thing as 28" wheels, 5-10 speeds no longer really exist, and any decent bike will always be a "theft magnet". (Complacency in this regard is perhaps the biggest mistake that new riders make, and I want to emphasize the need to properly secure ANY bicycle).

While it's true that, of the top bicycle brands, most come out of the same factories these days, this wasn't as true in the past, ( see "cobble together" a bike) there are smaller builders everywhere, and the bicycle world is chock-a bloc with regional and niche frame-builders. Further, coming out of the same factory doesn't mean the same frame design and geometry, and frame fit is the number one consideration in bike choice. Beyond this, there are now far more choices in bike type than there was in the past. The functionality, geometry, and specs on touring, racing, track, city, cruiser, comfort, cyclo- cross, hybrid, free-ride, downhill, and cross-country mountain-bikes varies dramatically.

Certainly the shifter and derailleur market is dominated by Shimano, Sram and Campy; but when it comes to the rest of the bike ( hubs, rims, brakes, bars, stems, saddles, seat-posts, stems, cranks, pedals, ) there are hundreds of manufacturers to choose from as well. Within The Big Three's groupos , quality and weight can vary considerably, and technology trickles down pretty quickly, so one can get the same performance from a mid-level part that was only available in top of the line stuff a few years earlier. However, it typically will be neither as light nor as strong, but not always; as sometimes the difference between 2 parts in a range will be that the more expensive part is lighter, but not as strong. Once again though, there is no consistency with this, either within a brand, part-type, or model year.

Therefore " cobbling together " a bike these days is an entirely different proposition from it was in the past, and not something to be undertaken lightly. I was a bike store manager for 7 years and worked in online parts and bike sales for 2 few years as well, and this is not a project I'd undertake without taking a deep breath first.

Bikes Direct
can be a reasonable source for some decent deals, but the shipping costs to Europe for complete bikes are no minor thing, and a wrong fit or defective parts ( you'd be surprised at how often this happens) would make what would be a minor aggravation in the U.S. or Canada a pretty annoying, and possibly expensive, complication.

I'm 6'1", I'll ride it like a very boring Bürger in Berlin and I will carry no more than a child/ big pannier-bag of groceries.

This is critical information. This "child" you are thinking of "carrying" ? How old and how much does this little person weigh? Were you planning on getting a trailer?

Having said that Bikes Direct is likely not a good option I am now going to link to them as a starting point for ideas. Based on your answers, I would direct you toward looking for something like this "cafe" bike. This provides an 8 speed internal hub with grip shifters, rear rack braze-ons and the upright riding posture that makes sense for city schlepping. Doing a quick currency conversion (500.00 EUR=721.408 USD) at $449 this is just over 1/2 your budget, with funds available to get the rack and panniers, a headlight, and child carrying option. Here is another option from them, with more gears at a lower price.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 1:59 PM on April 15, 2011

Oopsers. The Internet ate my last paragraph. My suggestion was to look at those two options to give you an idea of just how much quality you can get in a complete bike these days, and then to pop into a couple of local bike stores to see what similarly specced bikes are going for there. Ths will provide a reference point for just how much of a "deal" such an option might be once the true landed costs are calculated, and to do some frame fitting while at it. At 6' 1", you are going to be somewhere between an 18-20" frame depending on the specific geometry.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 2:09 PM on April 15, 2011

Here is an article with citations on the origins of bike frames. Unfortunately, it gives no specific recommendations.

You may find it easier to get bike frame/parts recommendations at bike-specific forums. Personally, I ride and maintain a Montague Paratrooper but it wouldn't work well for your situation.
posted by fake at 3:59 PM on April 15, 2011

While interesting information, knowledge about the country where a frame was built is not much help in doing a bike build. When "cobbling together" a bike these days, here are just some of the considerations ...

Frame size measurement. How was it measured? Bottom-bracket center to center of top tube? Bottom-bracket center to top of top tube? Bottom-bracket center to center of virtual top tube? ? Is it different on different models? Did the manufacturer change how this was done, and if so, what year did they do this? Are there differences in clearances between the chain-stays and seat-stays to accommodate different size rims, racks, and fenders? Does this vary from year to year, and model to model? Seat-tube diameter variations from, year to year, model to model, and brand to brand. Braze-on variations for bottles, racks, and brakes. Some frames have no brake bosses. Other models from the same factory, with the same brand name do. Stand-over height. Is there a difference in stand-over height between a same-size Taiwanese frame made for a Giant Rincon and one made for a TreK 930? Steerer-tube length variations. Which manufacturers provided longer-steerer tubes? Will the fork tube from a 2002 Nishiki be long enough to fit a 2003 Fisher? What is the fork diameter, can you use the fork from a Cannondale in a Fuji? What if the owner bought a bike that was too small, replaced the fork with a longer one, and added a bunch of head-set spacers? Do you know how to determine this, and what the solution is? If the frame is a bit too small, how does one compensate for this? What length and diameter seat-post must be used? How much and rise and reach is needed for the stem? Can all stems be used with all brake and shifter types? How about the handlebars? Does the stem require a bulge-bar? How much rise and reach should the bars have? Will the bottom-bracket shell fit? How about the axle length? Will it work with a 5 bolt crank? A four bolt? 2 chain rings, or three? Can the axle be swapped out? Will the front derailleur from a Kona work with a Marin? Is it top or bottom pull, e-type or DMD? Will it have enough reach to work with the ring-set? What is the range and type of cog-set ? Will this work with different shifter types. Does the wheel the have correct dish for the frame, BB and drive-train? Will this affect chain-line and shifting? Are the wheels and frame disk compatible or specific? Will the rear derailleur have enough capacity, and the correct actuation?

posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 5:45 PM on April 15, 2011

Now ... let's talk about how choices in the rear-wheel's; diameter, rim, hub, spoke, and lace-pattern interacts with the frame's; seat and chain-stays; and how variations in these clearances of; width, position, and thickness in different sections affects the bike's; ride, strength, rolling resistance, maintenance requirements, brake and tire choices; and and how those considerations affect the choices in; bolt-on commuting accessories; such as racks and fenders.

That'll take weeks, then we can move on to; how a bike rim's; construction, materials, cross-section, depth, and diameter affects the rider's; tire choice, weight, longevity, cost, traction, rolling resistance (up-hill, or down, on the straights or flats; in sand, mud, dirt, snow, gravel, blacktop) ; and the fitment considerations; along with cost; and ... yes ... install time.

The answer to "What's a good bike?" is, in fact, one that fits you, and does what you want. There is no generic "good bike", just as there no generic good partner, or food choice.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 8:05 PM on April 15, 2011

Response by poster: You know, PareidoliaticBoy, at lot of the issues you bring up can be resolved with a tig welder.

I kid I kid. But seriously, I am well aware that not all parts fit with all other parts. I really appreciate your taking the time to answer this and you sound like you have the answer, despite your (totally understandable) annoyance at my (apparently cavaliere) attitude.

I want to know what components, brand-wise, to avoid and which to seek out - if such a gross consideration is even feasible(it seems like it kind of isn't, which is fine as that's an answer too). Questions of fitment and etc. I'll take on in the real world, where they have real impact. I appreciate your answer enormously but I'm looking for a different kind of info.
posted by From Bklyn at 10:32 PM on April 15, 2011

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