What's a good, lightweight women's bike that does well on hills, <$1200?
June 6, 2016 10:57 AM   Subscribe

Looking for a bike that will last me a long time, that I can do long rides on mostly asphalt (some gravel), and that will take me up hills with less effort than my older hybrid provides. I'd like to keep the cost under $1200 and ideally under $1000. Also, are there accessories or modifications I should look into? Primary goal is long (40-50 miles) rides and ease on hills. Thanks for any recommendations!
posted by TochterAusElysium to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Sorry, forgot to note that a road bike is probably what I want, and that I'm in Seattle.
posted by TochterAusElysium at 10:59 AM on June 6, 2016

I'm a pretty big fan of most of the Surly bikes I've ridden; their Cross-check bike comes fully built close to your upper limit. The Cross-check is what surly considers a cyclocross bike, but it's really, REALLY similar to their roadbike geometry. I've always found them a bit more comfortable (YMMV, of course). They're very well built bikes, and mine have held up in the face of daily commutes pretty well.

Aside from comfort items like a different seat (if you find the stock on uncomfortable) and the handlebars, you shouldn't need anything in terms of modifications. If down the line, you'd like to get disc brakes, the fork is identical to their "straggler" model and you can add a front disc.

If you want to keep the bike for a very long time, I would suggest upping your budget just a touch to get disc brakes. They're so phenomenally better than regular brakes that I'm kind of shocked they're not standard.
posted by furnace.heart at 11:09 AM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you want a bike that will last a long time (like 30 years) steel or titanium are probably the best materials for you, though aluminum should last a long time too.

Pretty much any road bike will be easier to get up hills than your hybrid, because a road bike will have more gear combinations, and will weigh less than your hybrid.

You might check out this recent Ask on buying a Road Bike. All of the advice in that thread should be applicable.
posted by gregr at 11:12 AM on June 6, 2016

I am still looooooving my BH Zaphyre/Sphene. It pedals like a dream (note that I have never had such a nice bike in my life, but still, at this price point, it is excellent). I paid 1100 euros for mine, pedals included but that's because I know the bike shop.

Definitely get yourself to local bike shops and ask around. I wouldn't have chosen the BH myself, for simple lack of knowledge. But oh goodness do I love its smooth-as-a-cloud, solid ride. I'm a big climber too – and was on the French Riviera the first year I had it, with a 15-kilometer ride that had steep hills at either end – and it climbs beautifully. It's so well balanced.

But yeah, check out other threads, talk with local bike shops, try out bikes!
posted by fraula at 11:13 AM on June 6, 2016

Once you find a frame you like, spend the most money where the rider touches the bike: seat, handlebars/stem, and shoes/pedals.
posted by Wild_Eep at 11:13 AM on June 6, 2016

When I went with the custom referb at a place in Boston called Bikes not Bombs I asked for the widest gear ratio possible (reasonable for a street bike) and that was great. Really low gears are really nice for hills. I'm sure any good shop can refit to good hill climbing gears.
posted by sammyo at 11:36 AM on June 6, 2016

I'm in Seattle and got my Marin Terra Linda commuter bike at Ride Bicycles. I've taken it on 35 mile + rides and been totally comfortable on it (even without padded undies). I handle hills fine (and I'm not a super hard-core rider) including long climbs of 1100'. In addition to handling really well, I've also gotten several compliments about what a sleek bike it is. As I recall, I paid around $1200 with all the accessories.

I got a racktime rack to go with it, fenders (a must in wet Seattle) a fun bell, and front and rear lights.
posted by brookeb at 11:41 AM on June 6, 2016

I love the old lugged steel frames, and though I haven't been there in a long time (not least because I could be looking at a tire-fueled Bonfire of the Bike Frames if I tried coming home with yet another bike), I'd have a look at Recycled Cycles before buying anything new.
posted by jamjam at 11:44 AM on June 6, 2016

As someone who has ridden and helped people with bikes ranging from $80 to $2000, my answer is: Get a bike with gears, and learn how to use those gears.

It's really all about riding style and not what bike you are riding (my friend does great riding with me on hills on her ~$120 bike from Target, for example).
posted by TinWhistle at 11:45 AM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

I would recommend disc brakes for Seattle riding. They handle better in our wet weather, but they do take you up in price a bit and bikes with that feature often come with carbon forks and other fancy features that may or may not be a priority for you.
posted by brookeb at 11:46 AM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also consider getting a bike at Bikeworks. The sell refurbished bikes and profits go to help others get bikes and learn how to ride them.
posted by brookeb at 11:48 AM on June 6, 2016

Most major brands have entry-level road bikes in that range, so you should have a choice, and you should shop! The thing that will help you up hills isn't a subtle difference between bikes; it's all about you.

The bike that will help you ride best is the one that fits best -- in terms of leg fit, seat setback, top tube length, handlebar width, and comfort. You pedal best when your posture is neutral and takes little effort to maintain. Your hybrid probably has you much more upright than than you should be. Look for a shop that will watch out for a good fit in all of those ways, not just "yeah, looks pretty good". You probably don't need a professional bike fitting, but ... focus on fit.
posted by Dashy at 12:00 PM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have a Surly Cross-check, and I love it to pieces, but if I were a more casual cyclist in a hilly place I would absolutely pick something lighter. My 54cm Surly tips the scale at nearly thirty pounds, which is fucking huge for a road bike. (My other bike, by contrast, is EIGHTEEN pounds -- and it's not some hothouse racer, either.)

The difference here is intended use, obviously, but there's a lot of options to consider. Ride a Surly by all means, because they're great bikes, but I'd also take a test spin on something from the mainstream of road bikes. My wife's bike is a Specialized Dolce, and she loves it; it's much lighter than my Surly (even accounting for the frame size differences), and that comes in handy when accelerating -- and climbing.

Looks like that model is still the entry point for women's "endurance" geometry bikes at Specialized. The baseline is now the Dolce Sport, at $970 MSRP; a step up to $1150 gets you a model that includes disc brakes, which might be a good idea where you live.

Odds are Trek, Cannondale, and Giant all have competitors to this market niche ("endurance" geometry is a growth area right now; I'd link them too, but I just happen to know the Specialized line better). The tl;dr of my advice is "ride a bunch of stuff, and buy when you find a combination of local shop and bike that you love." (And I really can't stress the "find a shop you like" part of this enough; if you really get to riding, you'll become friends with your local shop, and this is a good thing.)

As far as mods go, there's not much to worry about today unless you're thinking about a rack or fenders or something. Bike fit may mandate some minor parts swapping (stem, seat tube, bars maybe), but that's about it. The only thing I'll note here is that if riding with a loaded rack is important to you, then the Surly bikes are going to be more attractive because they have mount points and the Dolces don't. (For bikes from Trek/Spec/CDale/Giant, the codewords for "bike with mount points" are things like "gravel" and "touring"; the "road" bikes nearly universally lack them.)

Also, two other bits:
  • There are geometry differences between the Crosscheck and the Straggler; they're similar, but definitely not identical; and
  • Disc brakes are better in the wet and on hills, but they're also more complicated and involve an increase on both the "hassle factor" and the price, so balance that concern, too.

posted by uberchet at 12:10 PM on June 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have a Specialized Dolce and I love it for my long road rides but for your use case I'd actually recommend looking at the Specialized Vita. It's technically a hybrid but way, way, way over on the road bike end of the spectrum--I think they call it a "fitness bike" for that reason--the geometry is a bit more upright than a true road bike and it has flat handles, but in terms of weight and handling it reminds me a whole lot of my Dolce. The price point is right around what you're looking for and will get you disc brakes, which I agree you definitely want if you live in a hilly area and don't want perpetual hand cramps.

My husband has a Surly and he generally likes it but it is a heavy, heavy beast and he struggles with getting it up the giant hill we live on top of. I suspect a Surly is more bike than you need, both in terms of price and weight.
posted by iminurmefi at 1:07 PM on June 6, 2016

Also of note: the Sweethome's review of the best hybrid bikes was useful for me to read as background, and they thought the Trek 7.2 and the Specialized Sirrus (which are identical bikes, pretty much) were best bets. The Specialized Vita is the women's version of the Sirrus. If you go to a good bike shop, they should have either the Trek or the Sirrus/Vita for you to try, ideally in different configurations. I found there was a nice jump in component quality between the base model and the Elite; you could definitely feel the shifting was nicer which makes a huge difference if you're riding in a hilly area where you shift frequently. The Elite disc brake falls right under the lower end of your price scale, at $990. That gives you a little bit of extra money to invest in a rack and nice platform pedals, which is all you really need to upgrade in my experience.
posted by iminurmefi at 1:15 PM on June 6, 2016

The biggest help on hills is the setup on your drivetrain.

Most bikes come stock not really suited for a lot of hills. If you need extra help you can get a bike with a "granny gear" which is a smaller front gear (Sometimes a third) to give you some extra leverage or alternatively get your local bike shop to switch out your smaller front gear. Most small front gears are 32 tooth gears and can be swapped with a 30t. Talk to your local bike shop about options when you buy your bike.

Otherwise you want lighter weight and most importantly something you're comfortable on. It's always hard to recommend bikes because what works for one person might be uncomfortable for another. I like that Disc brakes are coming to road bikes now, they're generally much better brakes. But I mostly ride mountain so I'm partial as its all we really have now.
posted by bitdamaged at 2:37 PM on June 6, 2016

"Most bikes come stock not really suited for a lot of hills."

I'm pretty sure this isn't the case, but people often assume it is because you rarely see triple chainrings anymore. The reason for this is, as I understand it, is that modern 2-chainring bikes have a very, very wide range of gears available thanks to the us of so-called compact cranksets in front and bigger cassettes in back (i.e. that give you 8 or 9 or 10 gears instead of 5 o 6). My fancy bike is a 50/34 crankset paired with an 11-32t cassette, which is a range I'd have killed for in 1988 or even 1998. The tl;dr is that you don't need the third ring to get a great climbing gear. (A road triple would've been something like 52/42/30, but would've been paired with a rear cassette with nowhere near the low gear I have on mine.)

The Vita linked above definitely DOES have a lower gear than the Dolce, but I'd also expect a flat-bar hybrid to be geared lower in part to make up for the materially less efficient riding position and the (generally nontrivial) additional weight. (BTW, the Vita's not a triple, either.)

If OP is interested in 50 mile rides, then I strongly suggest going with a "road-bike" shaped thing over a flat-bar hybrid. It's not just gearing; weight matters, as does options for one's position when riding. I've done a 50 miler on a flat-bar bike before, and folks it sucked out loud -- you can't get out of the wind for one thing, and for another you're working in a less efficient position (or so I'm told).

And not for nothing, but "desire to do 50 mile rides" also tends to lead to "desire to ride with other people on those rides." The other folks will have road bikes 9 times out of 10, and will be able to go much faster as a consequence.
posted by uberchet at 3:20 PM on June 6, 2016

Get an entry level gravel grinder/ endurance bike with drop bars, disc brakes and a full gear set. A cyclocross bike won't usually have the low gears and they're overpriced for what you get imho. Disc brakes for sure in Seattle. I'd look at the Diamomdback Haanjo Tero for your specific needs of road gearing, endurance frame and occasional gravel use at under $1200. You won't need different tires or anything and will have money left for a new seat and pedals. If your gravel use is very occasional you can go full road bike but if it's more like 10% I'd not.
posted by fshgrl at 6:22 PM on June 6, 2016

If I were you I'd consider getting a touring bicycle like the current Jamis Aurora. It has a triple crank combined with a wide-range cassette (much better than their models a few years ago), for low gears to help you up hills. It has wide tires that will make rough roads more comfortable. (Some of the supple, wide tires from Compass Cycles in Seattle would make the ride even nicer and faster, if you want an upgrade.) It has decent fenders, which are useful in the Pacific Northwest, not just to keep you dry but to keep road grit off of the drivetrain, which will extend its life. It has a rear rack for carrying stuff. It's not the lightest bike, but it's a lot more practical than lightweight bikes in your price range.

Moreover, if you decide later on that you want a much lighter (though less versatile) road bike, the Aurora will continue to be a great all-around commuter and touring bike. I got into serious long-distance cycling on a Surly Long Haul Trucker. I now have a Boulder All Road bicycle that I built myself from the frameset, with components I chose, and I use it on my longer, spirited rides, but I still have the Trucker for days when I need to carry a lot of luggage, or when I realize that the Boulder needs some work that I don't have time to do before my ride. If you get seriously bitten by the cycling bug, you will want another bike, so it makes sense to buy a versatile one now that meets your needs but will be useful even when those needs change.

Oh, and BTW, I don't get the disk brake enthusiasm. Rim brakes are simpler to maintain yourself, allow for thinner fork blades (and thus a better ride), and stop bikes perfectly well.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:28 PM on June 6, 2016

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