Bike-buying help: what makes some bike components better than others?
August 15, 2011 7:19 PM   Subscribe

Bike-buying help: what makes some bike components better than others?

I ride a bike to and from work every day, and for the past year and a half or so it's been a slightly-clunky, used steel-frame mountain bike with slick tires on it, and it's served me well but I'm feeling like it's time for an upgrade. The guys at my local bike shop have pretty much sold me on getting a commuter-ish hybrid, which I think will be a good fit for me (basically, gearing and stature like I'm comfortable with on my current bike, but lighter and with bigger wheels). They sell mostly Giant, which is fine with me, so if I were to go with them, it'd probably be something in the Escape line. There are several different configurations in that series, though, and from what the sales guy told me, they're all basically the same frame and wheels, just with different components.

My problem: basically, I have no idea what the difference is. With, say, derailleurs, why would I want SRAM instead of Shimano? Is it just a build quality thing, or will I actually notice a difference? Are derailleurs like brakes in that there are multiple kinds with fundamentally different mechanisms of action, and, if so, which is better? Ditto for shifters, crankset, etc., etc. I don't mind paying the extra $200 if it's actually better, but I'm at the edge of my bike knowledge.

No need to confine answers to these particular bikes. For comparison I'm probably also going to hit a different shop that sells Specialized (and I think the Sirrus would be the one with comparable frame geometry?), but again, which do I pick and what am I looking for in distinguishing features, component-wise?
posted by andrewpendleton to Travel & Transportation (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I've always been hesitant to pay more for components in bikes other than road bikes. For the most part, all these shift fine and the difference is weight isn't all that much.

If you were to see what might be worth upgrading to, you might consider some of these style bikes with a carbon fiber fork. These are a step up in performance (and, of course, cost). Specialized has the Sirrus Elite, Trek has the FX 7.4, KHS has the Vitamin B.

In the end, it comes down to test riding a bunch of bikes in your price range and bying the one that feels the best to you. We all respond to different bikes in different ways and my perfect bike is not always your perfect bike.
posted by advicepig at 7:38 PM on August 15, 2011

SRAM and Shimano both have comparable products at various price ranges, one isn't necessarily better than the other. SRAM/Shimano/Campagnolo do have slightly different designs for how things work but it's mainly a personal choice and mainly notable at the "very expensive" level. The difference you will see will mainly be at different price levels: as the products get more expensive they become lighter, more reliable, better ergonomics, etc.

Derailleurs pretty much work the same (until you get to Shimano Di2, which is electronic), shifters are slightly different but I think on a flat bar bike you'll find mountain bike-style shifters and the main difference is the shift button location. Cranksets are pretty much the same, functionally.

The game with bike pricing is that they'll try to slip in some lower grade parts on brakes (tektro) or wheels or front derailleurs so they can still claim the drivetrain is at "X" level but shave the price some.
posted by ghharr at 7:47 PM on August 15, 2011

With, say, derailleurs, why would I want SRAM instead of Shimano?

Well, that depends. If the choice is SRAM Red over Shimano 105, take SRAM. If the choice is Shimano Dura Ace over SRAM Rival, take Shimano. There's also a huge (+$1000) price difference between those gruppos. Just knowing it's SRAM/Shimano/Campagnolo etc. doesn't tell you anything. You need to know what gruppo you're getting.

At this price, you're not really able to select the components that you want, so really I'd say just buy whatever you can at the top of your budget that feels comfortable to you. Actually, my advice for bikes at this level is not to shop for the bike you want, but to shop for a shop that gives you a good vibe. Find a salesperson you feel comfortable with, tell them your budget and the type of riding you plan to be doing, and let them select a couple of models for you. Go with what feels best.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 8:30 PM on August 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Well, that depends. If the choice is SRAM Red over Shimano 105, take SRAM. If the choice is Shimano Dura Ace over SRAM Rival, take Shimano.

Certainly, I recognize that each brand makes a whole line of products. But is there a ranking somewhere? What is it about the Dura Ace that makes it better than the rival, and how did you figure that out?
posted by andrewpendleton at 9:38 PM on August 15, 2011

I haven't bought any bike stuff in a while, but generally Shimano has the best engineering in the business. They dominate the bike component industry for a reason. I ran with bottom-end Shimano road components for several years; they did not work significantly better that my high-end Campagnolo components that cost several times more.

The only reason I have Campagnolo is because I prefer how the shifters work. That's the only real difference I see between the two companies for road parts.

As bike stuff gets more expensive, it tends to just get lighter. Not really any more reliable.
posted by meowzilla at 9:45 PM on August 15, 2011

Shimano groupsets
SRAM groupsets
Campagnolo groupsets

There are other manufacturers, dozens, but Shimano and SRAM command the majority of the market, especially for hybrids. You can find a lot of reviews online.
posted by hydrophonic at 9:57 PM on August 15, 2011

Previously, I said:
Shimano goes: 2200 - Sora - Tiagra - 105 - Ultegra - Dura-Ace
SRAM goes: Apex - Rival - Force - Red
Campy, I think, is: Veloce - Centaur - Athena - Chorus - Record - Super-Record

When it comes to components, the best value out there now at a lower price point is SRAM Apex. The cheapest BikesDirect has an Apex bike is this one, which is a pretty good deal. It is more expensive than your other two choices, but depending on your cycling plans, it'll take you farther-- literally and figuratively.
In terms of quality, I would equate Apex, 105, and Centaur. (I'm less knowledgeable about Campy stuff.) Apex might even be a little better than 105. And the shifting is very different on the drop-bar STI; not sure about flat-bar stuff.

If it were me, I'd go SRAM if it were in the price range. Make sure you like how it shifts, though; that's the major difference.
posted by supercres at 5:59 AM on August 16, 2011

What is it about the Dura Ace that makes it better than the rival, and how did you figure that out?

There are a few things that make it better. Dura Ace is lighter and performs better. How? It's engineered and manufactured to higher tolerances, which is where a lot of the money goes, and it uses costly materials in their manufacturing processes. Things like the cranks and the front derailleur are a lot stiffer, which means that when you're pedaling hard and need to shift, you're less likely to make the chain jump off the rings. Generally, shifting the front under a lot of pedal pressure isn't advised, but advances in electronic shifting like Di2 have resolved that.

The internals of the shifters themselves are put together a lot better. Think of a Rolex versus a $20 watch. After 10,000 miles, Ultegra, Dura Ace, Record, Super Record, Force, and Red shifters will shift just as good as they did on day one. Crisp and precise. Click-->THUNK-->GO.

Cheaper (less refined) group sets will go Click-->CHAKACHAKACHAKACHAKArattlerattle-->CHAIN GOES DOWN TWO COGS-->Click back-->Chain Now Where You Want It-->GO.

I'm currently scouting eBay and Craigslist for used Ultegra/DA/Force/Red components that I can use to build up a time trial bike. If I can get them new, awesome, but I feel that the tolerances and durability of those group sets are high enough that if I find some with a few thousand miles on them it's not a problem. I wouldn't do the same with Shimano 105 (which is what I have on my road bike right now, with a few Ultegra components).

But again, this is overkill for a $600 bike (I mean, Shimano Di2 is currently going for almost $5,000 and doesn't even include hubs). The advice hades gave (and sorta what I said above) is spot on. Get a bike you like that's in your budget and just ride the crap out of it. After you put some miles on it, you'll know more about what you like and what you want out of your next bike.

posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 7:34 AM on August 16, 2011

Late to the party, but one note: the four most important parts on your bike are
1. your seat
2. your handlebars
3. your shifters/brake levers (and connected parts, of course)
4. your shoes

Why? Because that's where you interface with the bike. (Swap numbers 2 and 3 depending on how often your hands are on the bars and how often they're on the shifters.) If any one of those are uncomfortable or crappy, you'll be less than happy.

As hades said, as you step up you increase quality; then you start to decrease weight. You probably don't give a hoot about weight but having shifters that are balky or rough is a definite bummer. I've always aimed at the middle of the production tier which seems to deliver almost all the build quality of the high end without any of the cost-per-gram issues. So that'd be the "105" gruppo for Shimano, Athena for Campy (previously Daytona/Centaur, but I think when they dropped the Mirage group all the names shifted down one), and the mixed Force/Rival kits from SRAM.
posted by introp at 11:53 AM on August 16, 2011

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