Please give me your road bike buying advice!
March 12, 2012 8:04 AM   Subscribe

Please give me your road bike buying advice!

A lovely person that I'm seeing is training to do the Wisconsin Act/AIDS Ride which is 300+ miles over 3 days. I'd like to support her as much as I can in this, including going on some longer rides with her on her "slower" days.

Right now I ride a single-speed modified road bike which gets uncomfortable on rides over 10 miles, I'd like to work up to 60+ miles keeping up with her (or not slowing her down too much :) Comfort is somewhat more important than speed. I also plan on doing some rides (30-60 mi) with her and or some friends this summer, read that as "Rides" not "Races."

I'm a 27 yr. old male in pretty good shape. I used to commute to work everyday via bike downtown Milwaukee (5 mi round trip at sprinting speeds in heavy traffic) but I don't have any long distance experience.

My budget is ~$800, I'm willing to spend more if its *really worth it*.

So! Your advice? This is my first road bike, so I'm a pretty big newb. Models? Features? Where to buy? What style to get? How else to support her? Thanks biking mifites!
posted by bushmango to Health & Fitness (35 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Could you describe what is uncomfortable about your current bike in more detail? Is it a sore knee thing, sore ass thing, sore arms or hands thing?
posted by Blasdelb at 8:09 AM on March 12, 2012

800 is about what I spent on my first road bike a few years ago (a Specialized Allez). It's been a great bike and I've done 2 century rides with it. I was measured for the frame and had it adjusted accordingly by the awesome guys at the local bike shop.
posted by jquinby at 8:14 AM on March 12, 2012

$800 is going to get you something with Shimano Tiagra (or the equivalent Campagnolo) components. I would spend the extra for the next level up, they'll give you smoother more consistent shifting (my usual road bike is Dura-Ace components, two levels up from that, and I've got a road tandem that's mixed 105 and Ultegra components. On the road single I've actually backed off on a few things to Ultegra because the sweet spot between strength vs weight and function seems to be in the middle).

Second the "get a bike shop to fit you" advice, and I too am interested in what it is about the single-speed bike that's uncomfortable. I've ridden 50-60 mile rides where some of the other riders were on fixies (and, no, they weren't hipsters, just training their cadence better), so at least understanding your geometry issues is important.
posted by straw at 8:19 AM on March 12, 2012

$800 is kind of a dead zone. If you want comfort, an all-aluminum frame is not ideal, even with a carbon fork. Steel would be better.

I have the steel version of the Allez that Specialized put out a few years ago. The stock components are pretty bad, but the frame is solid. (I have it running older Ultegra now on Velocity wheels.) This is Specilized's lower-end "endurance" road bike (Allez is more-speed-less-comfort).

If I were in your position, I would get a Surly Pacer. Another solid frame with definite upgrade points for the future.

If you want a little more custom, retro-cool, maybe a Velo Orange? You'd have to do a lot of component shopping yourself, though, or leave it up to your LBS.

Speaking of which, buy from a small (non-chain) LBS. Price differential will be ironed out through service.
posted by supercres at 8:22 AM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

At that price range, basic road bikes from major manufacturers will be roughly equivalent in parts and features, and you'll be shopping for a new bike shop as much as a new bike.

What kind of bike does your friend have?
posted by helicomatic at 8:23 AM on March 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you want a new bike, bike stores are a good place to get them. That might sound like an oxymoron but what I'm getting at is that that bike stores don't really gouge outrageously on new bikes - they make a lot more of their money off accessories. So basically I think you can go into a bike store and find a bike you like and not worry about getting ripped off. That said there are sometimes bargains to be had - specially ordered bikes that didn't get sold, "old model year" bikes that they want to clear out to make room for the new model year.

The Specialized Allez is an fine bike for the money. I rode one and didn't prefer it to some other bikes I tried (it felt kind of twitchy to me) but I rode some other bikes and settled on a Specialized Secteur, for about $900.

Riding several bikes is going to be key to finding one you like, and get it fitted for you (the store will probably do it). Clipless pedal + bike shoes are a big improvement. Bike shorts and jerseys are too if you don't already have them.

I would not worry too much about the component groups, to be honest. My bike is mostly Tiagra parts, it shifts just fine.
posted by RustyBrooks at 8:25 AM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

In the sub-$2k range, there isn't a huge amount of differentiation in frames between brands, so it makes sense to get something that fits you well. Find one that works by working with a good, reputable bike shop.

Component-wise, go Tiagra or better. 105 is nice, but Tiagra will work just fine for you. I just checked a few manufacturer sites (Trek, Fuji, Specialized), and it looks like Sora bikes (the next level down from Tiagra) are going for ~$1k, which is directly contrary to straw's comment above, and shocking to me too. You're really looking at closer to $1200 for a bike with Tiagra.

This is worth it, in my opinion, because if you go with something less expensive you'll likely want to upgrade in a year or two if you stick with road riding, so pay now or pay more later. BUT, if you can't swing it, Sora will still shift gears and the wheels will still roll. The best bike is the one you're riding.

Expect to spend money on accessories, too: you'll definitely want clipless pedals and shoes if you don't have them, and you may want to spend money on a better saddle, too (ebay is great for saddles due to the number of people who buy saddles that just don't work with their particular butts).
posted by The Michael The at 8:35 AM on March 12, 2012

I would recommend going for the Cannondale CAAD8 6 Tiagra. In my humber opinion the Cannondale entry-level bikes are a cut above the rest in ride and build quality, and I believe it's the only US-made frame you'll find in that price range (not sure about the Surly). List is $1220, but I bet you can get it for less at a bike shop. They also have a version with the Sora components that lists for $940.

One decision you *might* need to make is double vs. double compact vs. triple for the front cogs. This all depends on the hilliness of your region. A standard double is similar to the 2nd and 3rd gears on a triple (so no "granny gear") and a compact is similar to the 1st and 3rd on a triple (although the 1st isn't quite a granny). Not sure what kinds of options there at that price range, but something to think about.

Another decision is which type of shoes/pedals you'll want. For a first bike, I'd recommend going with SPD *mountain bike* pedals. First, mountain bike pedals are dual sides, so you can clip in on either side. Secondly mountain bike cleats are recessed, and the shoes have real soles, so you can actually walk in them. Third, they tend to be a bit cheaper. Getting shoes and pedals is very important, don't settle for toe clips!

Also, investing in a good frame is usually a good call, since you can always upgrade parts if you find that you really love cycling. Enjoy your bike!
posted by iamscott at 8:35 AM on March 12, 2012

As for what is uncomfortable with my current bike, it's mostly that it only has one gear (single-speed) so hills start killing me and I start getting fatigued quicker than I assume I would with a road bike. It doesn't have antlers and the brakes are horrid. Other than that, it's a great bike for commuting around town :)
posted by bushmango at 8:36 AM on March 12, 2012

A couple more ideas in steel:

Soma Stanyan (again, would have to be built)
Jamis Satellite
With reservations: These two from BikesDirect (questionable quality, needs to be set up, no LBS support)

Definitely get clipless shoes and cycling shorts (I like bibs, myself).

Previous-model-year clearances are probably just now ending, but you might luck out.
posted by supercres at 8:37 AM on March 12, 2012

Her bike is a ~800 Trek road bike.
posted by bushmango at 8:37 AM on March 12, 2012

I like the SPD mountain bike pedals also, for the reasons listed. There are also some nice pedals that are SPD one one side and platforms on the other, so that you can use the pedals without shoes if you want to, I have those on my more "casual" bike.
posted by RustyBrooks at 8:37 AM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

That's ~$800 Trek road bike, with some modifications that she made after purchasing. Unfortunately her $2,000 bike-o-awesome was stolen :(
posted by bushmango at 8:37 AM on March 12, 2012

Well, so there you go. If she can train and ride 300 miles on her bike, then you can probably ride it along with her also.
posted by RustyBrooks at 8:38 AM on March 12, 2012

I believe it's the only US-made frame you'll find in that price range

The CAAD8 is no longer made in the USA.
posted by helicomatic at 8:38 AM on March 12, 2012

On the idea of clip-ins, I was planning on taking the clip-in mountain bike petals from my mountain bike and putting them on my new road bike. Clip-ins and shoes were the best thing I ever did for commuting back in the day :)
posted by bushmango at 8:45 AM on March 12, 2012

I ride mountain bike shoes with SPD clips because I like the extra grip when I'm captaining the tandem. So totally with you on the MTB pedals and shoes.
posted by straw at 8:54 AM on March 12, 2012

What do you mean by antlers? If you mean drop bars, yes. do NOT go for anything but a basic drop bar; no flat bars, no tri bars, nothing weird. Drops are the most comfortable for distance.

I have ridden clip-in Shimano MTB shoes on a road bike, but one thing to keep in mind is that their MTB clips hold your foot in MUCH more firmly than their road clips, and usually you can only pull your foot out in one direction with the MTB clips. However, the Shimano SH-56 road clips are compatible with the same shoes and pedals and they allow multi-direction release and float much better. For riding in traffic, I woud be very scared to wear the MTB clips, but I can get out of the road clips really fast if I need to. It's <$20 to swap the cleat out if that's the system you have. Otherwise, I really suggest swapping out your shoes and pedals to proper road bike ones, because falling over clipped in sucks.
posted by slow graffiti at 8:55 AM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

By antlers, yes I mean drop bars. My single speed's handlebars curve upwards a bit (and are cut off) so I can't drop down effectively. Also the bike frame isn't perfectly fitted to me, so that's probably part of why I get uncomfortable on it after 10 miles and much of the reason I'd like to buy a properly fitted bike.

What do you people think about a touring bike, specifically the Trek 520? Here's the link to a local bike shop that's sponsoring the ride this year:
posted by bushmango at 9:09 AM on March 12, 2012

With the SPD pedals I have, I can get out from the right, left, or in an emergency I can actually yank straight out.
posted by RustyBrooks at 9:21 AM on March 12, 2012

Touring bikes are awesome. More comfortable than a road bike, faster than a city bike, built like a bank vault. The Trek 520 is a fantastic steel-frame bike, and if you can find one in your price range, in your size, nab it. It's the kind of bike you can hand down to your kids.

I'd re-iterate that you are shopping for a bike shop as much as a bike - if your buddy rides Trek, and is happy with her shop, that's a good sign you should be looking into buying a Trek from that shop.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:22 AM on March 12, 2012

(Err, hand down to your Grandkids, I mean.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:24 AM on March 12, 2012

The 520 is perfectly capable of what you want. It's not the lightest bike ever, but it is an excellent choice for distance. Tourers make good commuters too. Tourers are to sport bikes as luxury cars are to sportscars: very comfortable for roadtrips, at the expense of a little agility. Unless you're racing, you probably won't notice the difference.
posted by bonehead at 9:24 AM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'll note to that even the least expensive groups now, like Tiagra, are incredibly durable compared to the bikes of last century. Even the low-end modern groups are better than the best bike available twenty years ago, in many respects.
posted by bonehead at 9:26 AM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I work in a bike shop. I'm actually posting this from the shop computer on a break. Bikes bikes bikes.

Solid advice so far. My recommendation for people who have to ask is to find a shop that you jive with and trust their advice. Tell them your budget up front so they can rule out any options that are too expensive for you.

$800 can get you a decent bike that can last the rest of your life with regular maintenance and replacing parts as needed. The wheels probably aren't going to last several thousand miles, but they just might.

I've been riding the same Specialized Allez since 2004 and it's been rock solid reliable. There are dozens of bikes just like it, however. I don't buy into the "aluminum isn't going to be good for long rides" thing at all. It's really more about the fit of the bike to you. Sure, steel can flex, but that doesn't necessarily translate to comfort.

Mostly, any bike around your price range is going to work.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 9:29 AM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

The 520 is a great bike. You'll want make sure the bar-end shifters are your cup of tea during the test ride. If you do end up with a 520, I recommend ditching the included fenders in favor of proper full fenders, or no fenders at all.
posted by helicomatic at 9:29 AM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Go to a bunch of shops and ride things in your price range. People are such varied shapes and sizes that no one bike is going to fit everybody. If you think you like a bike and wish the bars were just a little lower, ask them to lower it for another test ride. Find a bike you can comfortably ride with your hands on the brake hoods. Different brands fit differently, so try a few. It's a fun thing to spend a few afternoons on.

While you're out, shop around for your shop too. Maybe you find a great deal on a bike that fits you but the shop doesn't work for you. Find a shop you trust and get your work done there. No one's going to care where you bought it when you bring it in for work.

Touring bikes are fun, but also take a look at cyclocross bikes. They are great all around bikes and many are at sub $1000 price points. They will generally be able to take fenders and a rack more easily than road bikes and will allow for wider tires if you want to soak up some more road vibration. Some of those (like the Trek 520 above) will have bar end shifters. Play around with them and see if you care. I find that I use my shifters a lot more when they integrated with the brakes. This is a very good thing. Proper shifting helps you be more efficient.

Don't spend too much time thinking about components. You won't get too many choices in your price range. If you can avoid buying Shimano 2300 that would be good, but anything Sora or nicer should be OK. When you're feeling like spending more, look for Ultegra. It's the bees' knees.

Just to note, my favorite bike I own is a Bianchi Volpe cyclocross bike from the 90s that I upgraded to and Ultegra drivetrain.
posted by advicepig at 9:42 AM on March 12, 2012

Get fitted, but buy used. I don't see a compelling reason for a non-competitive rider to buy new. Bikes haven't gotten much better since the 1970's, with the exception of indexed shifting and clicky pedals. My best riding bike is still my decade(s) old Bridgestone RB-2. I love its barcon shifters, especially compared to sometimes fiddly STI stuff.

The repairability and failure characteristics of steel are nice. Ride quality isn't really different, though. I wouldn't avoid aluminum altogether, though.

Budget for a better saddle. Brooks was the saddle of choice of old farts way before it was the saddle of choice of hipsters. For a damn good reason. A real saddle bag (carradice, etc) is a super way to schlepp stuff for a day long ride.

Get fenders.

Run as much tire as you can. 700x28's (or larger) don't give up real speed to skinny tires, but they're a helluvalot more comfortable and at least give you the option of dialing back pressure and riding on nasty surfaces. This'll push you towards frames with more clearance, of course...
posted by pjaust at 9:47 AM on March 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

Run as much tire as you can. 700x28's (or larger) don't give up real speed to skinny tires

Very true. Also, get slick tire, particularly for distance rides. Knobbies are for dirt only. Road bikes need no treads at all.
posted by bonehead at 10:17 AM on March 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

The Surly Pacer and Trek 520 are both great, though different. If you're thinking touring, you might also consider the Surly Long Haul Trucker, which is built like a tank, or the Surly Cross Check, which is a cyclocross bike that's quite versatile. Finally, the Raleigh Clubman is also worth considering, especially as it comes equipped with fenders, which are great to have unless it never rains before or during your rides (or you like having a mud stripe on your back--though another reason for fenders is to protect your drivetrain from road grime).

Personally, I ride touring bikes, but I'm heavy (currently a bit over 200 lbs., though trending downwards) and I ride on rough roads including some with coarse gravel, so I want bikes that are built to take punishment. (I also tour.) My normal bike for long rides is a Long Haul Trucker, but I also ride a Bike Friday New World Tourist, which is packable. If I were your weight, though, I'd consider the Pacer, the Clubman, or the Cross Check.
posted by brianogilvie at 10:49 AM on March 12, 2012

I say this in every road bike thread, but Jamis is a fantastic brand and it comes in a few hundred under, say, Surly. I recommend the Satellite — steel, great geometry, a joy.
posted by dame at 12:46 PM on March 12, 2012

I almost bought the 520 from your local bike shop a few years back! I ended up buying a Bianchi Volpe because it fit better and I didn't want the bar-end shifters, but it's a great bike.

Whatever you buy, you should know that at Machinery Row (and many of the other Madison LBSes) you can get a 10%-15% discount on a new bike if you are a member of the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin which, at $35/year, more than pays for itself just in that one purchase.
posted by dr. boludo at 2:05 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well, dr. boludo, that just paid for my MiFi membership many times over, thanks :)
posted by bushmango at 2:08 PM on March 12, 2012

I ended up getting a 2010 Raleigh Clubman for ~$900 -- and I couldn't be happier! I got lucky and found a decent deal on one in my size, and I liked the modern style of shifters connected with the brake levers, instead of on the bar ends like the Trek 520.
posted by bushmango at 1:48 PM on March 26, 2012

Solid bike! Nice choice.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 8:01 AM on March 27, 2012

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