How to choose between bicycles
May 14, 2012 8:51 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to buy a new road bike and I think I have a general idea what I'm looking for (aluminum, Tiagra, WSD). Within that class of bikes, how do I choose between the available brands?

The backstory and shopping rationale: I've been riding the same road bike for 20+ years. It's a men's/unisex steel frame and it's been great for commuting/utility use, but lately I've been doing longer, hillier training rides with a group of roadies and I find myself wanting something more modern, lighter, and more comfortable. In particular, I want:
  • Something lighter and with better gearing for hills
  • Decent quality integrated shifters/brakes (not the ones with the thumb tabs, but the kind with the split brake levers)
  • Women's specific design: I've been told I have proportionally long legs, and the old men's/unisex frame I have currently gets uncomfortable on long rides because I have to push my weight back off the handlebars in order to stay properly seated on my sit bones (this is less of a problem after getting the bike fitted but I would like a frame designed for my proportions)
  • Geometry that's appropriate for road riding but more "comfortable" than "aggressive"
  • All of the above at a price that's affordable but gets me good, durable components (I was originally hoping to spend under $1000 but have resigned myself to looking in the $1100-$1400 range)
The above criteria have led me to look at the aluminum-Tiagra-WSD stratum of bikes across the major manufacturers: So far, I've only gotten to try out the Lexa SL. I liked it fine, and it felt nimbler than my old steel frame, but there was no epiphanic "THIS IS IT!" feeling. I'm going to try to take the other models for test rides soon, but I'm not sure what I'm looking for in a test ride if I never get that "aha!" feeling.

Nor do I know how to interpret the specs, apart from a passing familiarity with the Shimano components hierarchy.

How should I choose between bikes? Are there key considerations that I'm missing? What should I look for in a test ride?
posted by Orinda to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Realistically you can't do a good job of choosing a road bike. You have to take it for a 30 mile road before you know if it's comfortable, and most shops won't let you. You end up picking one that looks cool from the shop with the best price or the most helpful staff.

In practice, though, it doesn't matter, because all road bikes at a given price point and generally similar configuration are the same. The have the exact same drivetrain (or one of just a few options), effectively the same wheels, and all the other components save the saddle are mostly indistinguishable, especially of you don't already have a strong preference.

For comfort, the main thing that matters is the relationship between the location of your hands, feet, and butt, and this is completely adjustable on every bike. It makes a *lot more different to get your body positioning correct than it does to get a specialized over a giant or vice versa.

You want a bike that fits, that doesn't leave you with sore hands, feet, or butt. Most of the differentiation beyond this at a similar price point is cosmetic unless you're looking for something specialized, like a touring bike.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 9:03 PM on May 14, 2012

I have a Lexa (though the poor girls' "S" version, not the SL), and I love it. Like, LOOOOVVVEEE it. Probably unhealthily.
However, it was my first true roadie, so I think that my outrageous love is fueled more by the difference between ANY road bike and my trusty old brute of a commuter that she replaced, than by anything specific to the model/brand itself.

All road bikes at a given price point are, as far as I can discern, essentially the same bike with a different paint job. I think you'd need to be a pretty high-level cyclist to be able to really pinpoint the difference in feel/performance between similar bikes (and all the ones you linked to are pretty similar)....So, choose the one with the colours you like the best. ;) Make sure it fits you (this is way more important than any other consideration)

On an unrelated note, are you my alter ego? Similar name, similar taste in bikes.....creepy!

...and I see that in the time I took to type the useless and off-topic sentence above, tylerkaraszewski basically said exactly what I was trying to say....only better, and more intelligently. Sigh.
posted by Dorinda at 9:14 PM on May 14, 2012

Tyler pretty much has it. In that price range, all the frames are going to be made in a handful of factories in Taiwan, and they're all perfectly fine frames. Wheelsets are going to be equivalent, too.

I'd say if you can swing the upgrade to Shimano 105 components, I think it's a good move. Tiagra is fine kit and perfectly serviceable, and you can definitely upgrade later if you want, but there if one of those can be had with 105-level parts and be within your price range, that would tip the scales for me, all else equal. That Giant can be had with all 105 components for just a couple hundred bucks more than Tiagra. I'd make that leap, personally.

But that's all predicated on you finding the one that sings to you. I'd disagree with Tyler on one point - you should ride as many bikes in your price range as you can before you buy. Find a good local bike shop that has a few available, and another that has others. Ride them as far as they'll let you. One will speak to you. What's important is building a relationship with a good honest bike shop. You want the kind of place that will let you bring it back for a free adjustment after a couple hundred miles, and tweak the fit if needed. They'll also be honest in the service department and charge you for the fix, and not a new bike.

Also, don't necessarily get locked into the mentality that you need a WSD bike. It all depends on your proportions, and a standard "men's" bike might do you just fine. You might find a WSD bike is too compact if you have a long torso, for example. WSD is a relatively new market niche; ladies were riding bikes successfully for decades before that. A good bike shop can adjust things like stem length and stack, seat height and fore/aft, and shifter angle/reach easily if the basic geometry of the frame is right.
posted by OHSnap at 10:46 PM on May 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have proportionally very long legs and I just bought a new bike. The only major brand that fit me well is Raleigh. I tried about 15 bikes and the Raleigh just has a shorter top tube for the height and therefore were the only bikes I wasn't constantly pushing myself back on. Prior to this i had a few different bikes, most recently a Specialized and the difference in comfort is night and day. the balance of my new bike around corners is a lot better too and i get a ton more power pedaling. I don't really know much about road bikes but maybe see if you can try one out for size.

Also ask them to adjust the seat forward and back (probably mostly forward unless all your leg length is in your femur) when you try the bike. Of all the bike shops I've been to (4 or 5) only one salesperson did this for me and I bought the bike from him. He was also a long leg/ short torso person and he got my problem right away and managed to pull 3 or 4 bikes off the rack and get them comfortable for me with just a few adjustments. Huge difference having someone who knew how to adjust the bike for me because I felt like I had options.
posted by fshgrl at 11:57 PM on May 14, 2012

Hello, me! I normally ride a Tange #2 touring frame with Suntour barcons and no-name aluminum rims, and recently had the pleasure of a week on a 2010 Scott Addict R1. I was similarly disappointed by the (lack of) difference. Acceleration was a bit easier, true, and the STI and the ten-speed cassette did make it a bit more convenient to stay in an appropriate gear. But even though this bike was three times your budget, there was still no "epiphany." I honestly don't think there's any stock bike short of a fully-faired recumbent that can provide that level of improvement.

That said, if you're worried about hills, think about your gearing. All of your choices have either a triple crankset or else a compact double (e.g., 50/34), both of which provide a reasonably low lowest-gear. I would personally go for a cassette with a bigger range (e.g., 12-30 over 12-25), and stay away from road doubles (e.g., 53/39). But of course all this depends on how hilly you mean, and how much force you like to put on the pedal, so a test ride is the best way to tell.
posted by d. z. wang at 1:34 AM on May 15, 2012

Response by poster: To address a couple points quickly: when I say hilly, I don't mean climbing the alps or anything, but I do mean my training rides regularly take me over the shoulders of landforms labeled "_______ Mountain" on the maps (in the eastern US). It's hard, in my area, to plan a ride that doesn't include at least one "category 5" climb (at least a 3% grade over 500 meters, according to Map My Ride—yes, I know the official designations only go up to category 4).

Also, getting my old bike professionally fitted has made a big difference, and I definitely plan on getting the new bike fitted as well—not just a salesperson eyeballing the seat height, but a full fitting session where they measure the angle of your knee on the downstroke, the distance between your ischial tuberosities, etc.
posted by Orinda at 5:34 AM on May 15, 2012

Don't assume that just because it's an aluminum frame it will be lighter. You'd be amazed at how light steel can be, so I'd take that out of the equation.

You historically bought Tiagra components because they'd last, but they wouldn't be as smooth and would be heavier than 105s. Anything over 105s is for weight-weenies, which is fine if you're racing, but expensive otherwise -- both for the initial buy, and the replacement.

As to compact crankset -- I personally dislike them, and prefer a 53/39 road crankset, but I'm used to doing the shift dance that you need to do to use a wider spaced crankset. With a 50/34 on anything not very hilly, I found that the gears had too much overlap. There's also the issue of the low being too low, but I can fix that. In the hills, I'd rather have a triple and the range than a compact.
posted by eriko at 6:04 AM on May 15, 2012

Not sure where you are located, but all the shops I went to in Western MA let me ride the bikes as far as I wanted... one even gave me a map for a 20 mile ride and said, "So long!" I recommend riding as much as you can before you plunk down the money. As mentioned above, one just "sang" to me and that was that.

I second a look at 105s. I road many bikes with Tiagras, and then I rode a bike with 105s, and then I couldn't go back. Shifting is one of those things that worth an upgrade (that and a saddle). Everything else you can get by with factory.

Since you're talking hilly, I agree with eriko: you might want to consider a triple vs. a compact. I have a compact, but I'm not doing cat 5s on every ride.

I also ended up with a men's bike... it fit perfectly and despite riding a bunch of WSDs, the men's frame was the one. (I happen to be female, btw.) So, try a few men's frames, but get them to at least put on a women's specific saddle before you go out on a test ride. Trust me on that (ouch.)
posted by absquatulate at 7:19 AM on May 15, 2012

Like Dorinda, my love for my bike may be rooted in the fact that it's my first road bike, but I am passionately devoted to my Specialized Dolce Elite. I also test-rode a Cannondale and it was probably a slightly better bike (higher-end components), but the Specialized I had the epiphanic "THIS IS IT!" moment you speak of. I think it's just that the geometry of the bike suited my biomechanics perfectly. So, I say test ride each bike you're looking at and pick the one that feels best.

FWIW I have ridden my bike mostly in the plains and hills of the midwest, but I got a compact knowing I would be moving to the Rockies. So far so good in both places!
posted by TrixieRamble at 7:41 AM on May 15, 2012

Test riding anything in your price range. Don't worry if it is WSD or not (this goes for guys too.) Hopefully, one bike will hop out to you as a dreamy fit. (Maybe there will be two or three. We should all be so lucky.)

I'd also strongly suggest riding two sizes of each bike you try. Try the one the sales person chooses as your size and try one smaller if possible. Most people have a habit of thinking that a road bike should feel stretched out and are blown away by how a smaller bike feels. I think too many people size completely on leg length and don't bother to see how your reach is. You should be able to comfortably ride with your hands on the hoods, keeping a slight bend at the elbows. Your arms should make a 90 degree angle with your core.

For the most part, don't worry about features and bang for the buck. If you can get Ultegra for just a little more, but the Tiagra bike fits better, buy the Tiagra. If this one has carbon seat stays, but the all aluminum one fits better, buy the aluminum one.

Ask questions at the shop. Ideally, you'll find your bike at a shop you trust. I'm not saying you should quiz them on esoteric stuff you looked up, but try to get a sense if they are really working with you to try to find the best bike for you. Tell them about other bikes you tested and what you liked or didn't about them.

Around here, the good shops won't bat an eye if you want to take a long test ride. Just let them know how long you think you'll be out.

Have fun. This should be a fun process. If you fall in love with a bike and don't like the shop, it's OK to buy the bike there and use another shop for your service and advice.
posted by advicepig at 9:29 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Steel can be just as good as, or better than, aluminum, but few manufacturers still make steel road frames (and they will be well out of your price range). An exception might be the new Raleigh steel road series, or a Bianchi. However, there are a number of excellent aluminum frames out there, they are very affordable (especially considering that many casual riders are moving to carbon), and they are more likely to have a relaxed geometry.

I was recently out riding with a friend, and he quite likes his Devinci. Or if you wanted to splash out a bit more, Argon 18 has a very nice aluminum model.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:56 AM on May 15, 2012

Following up on TheWhiteSkull, if you're willing to consider steel, the Surly Pacer is a possibility. The 34/28 low gear isn't exactly aimed at touring cyclists but it's substantially lower than the low on a lot of road bikes. Surly doesn't exactly do WSD sizing but their bikes can be ordered with uncut steerers, which allows you to choose the correct top tube length and then put the saddle and the steerer as high as you would like, to accommodate your longer legs. If I were buying a new road bike in that price range, I'd seriously consider the Pacer and the Raleigh Clubman, though I'd probably also look at what Jamis had to offer.
posted by brianogilvie at 2:27 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

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