What kind of bike do I want?
March 5, 2018 5:39 AM   Subscribe

Spring is in the air and I'm getting all moony-eyed over the idea of a new bicycle. Brifters, disc brakes and threadless stems weren't even things the last time I went bike shopping. Whole marketing categories -- gravel, cyclocross, adventure -- have emerged. Contrary to the remembered hype of yesteryear, steel frames have not been completely displaced by aluminum and carbon fiber. I am overwhelmed.

Right now my only bike is a mostly-original 1989 Cannondale that I picked up secondhand several years ago. It's a lot of fun on smooth pavement, but the wheels are 27", narrow and delicate, and I live in a city with a lot of upheaved and crumbling pavement, minimally-improved paths, cobblestone streets and hills so steep that public sidewalks have stairs. There are a lot of places the Cannondale just can't go, at least in its current configuration with me pushing the pedals. For a while I've kicked around the idea of converting the C-dale to 700C with wider rims that could handle fatter tires, but that involves more work and expense than seems to make sense. Now I'm shopping for another bike.

Three I test-rode this weekend:

*A Craigslisted Bianchi Cross Concept cyclocross bike. This would be beyond my price point if it were new. Very light aluminum main triangle with carbon stays and forks. Incredibly light and nimble, and fun on the relatively level streets in the neighborhood where I tried it. Downsides were that tires were still fairly narrow, gearing was racier than makes sense for me, and the front (cantilever) brakes caused a surprising shudder. I enjoyed it, but in retrospect I think it was kind of an off-road Lamborghini.

*Freshly rebuilt Jamis Coda Sport ("flat-bar road bike") at a local shop. Obviously lower-end components but I'm not sure how much that would really matter. Also fun, but felt twitchy and unstable. Also I"d prefer shallow drop bars over flat because the variety of postures and hand positions help me to ease some mild neck and wrist issues.

*REI Co-Op ADV 3.1. This was the biggest departure from anything I've ridden before, and fun in unexpected ways. It's a road frame with 650B wheels and 50mm tires, disc brakes and very low gearing. I expected the fat tires to feel sad and sluggish, but instead I was tickled by the ease of bumping softly over obstacles that would wreck the C-dale's wheels. I expected the lack of a large chainring to preclude fast riding in easier areas, but reconsidered that to be mostly fantasy here in the city, and I thoroughly enjoyed being able to amble up a hill with ease. The disc brakes felt really smooth, without a hint of vibration or stress even when I hit them hard.

Those three probably span the range of bike types I'm interested in. Fat bikes, full-on mountain bikes, active suspensions, cargo bikes and electric bikes are not where I'm headed. I just want something versatile, durable, light enough to load into my car easily and pull out for short rides over varied mostly-urban terrain, in the interstices of a life that has become very busy. How can I narrow this down?
posted by jon1270 to Travel & Transportation (29 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Well, it sounds to me like you can rule out the Jamis Coda Sport and other flat bar road bikes. I think there are a lot of those that can be decent all-road/off-road hybrids, and there are a lot that are thoughtlessly built/specced, too.

It sounds, too, like the Bianchi (I know those frames - they're great) is close to what you're looking for, but not quite. A cyclocross bike can make a great all-around bike - while higher-end race specific ones might lack things like rack mounts, fender mounts, and water bottle bosses, most medium-end bikes have those things, which make these cyclocross bikes pretty effective do-everything bikes. A lot can fit fat tires, usually between 35 and 40mm, and there are a lot of options for big slick/semi-slick urban tires.

But once you start looking into everything a cross bike can do you start to lean toward some stuff similar to the REI bike you rode. This looks a bit more like a gravel/adventure bike to me than a road bike. There are a lot of bikes like this out there, and if you keep shopping around you're bound to find something you like.

For urban use there's a broad spectrum, but a buyer/rider has to make a choice about whether they want that bike to lean toward the light/quick/rimble/road-bike end of the spectrum (there are light-touring road-bikes with fittings for racks and able to carry some stuff) , or toward the heavier duty end of the spectrum (disc brakes, 650b, much fatter tires like the REI, and designed around carrying some weight - either in front or in the rear). Ask yourself if you want it to double as a road bike, or as an off-road bike, and that can help point you in the right direction.

Also, take a look at the offerings from Surly. The Pack Rat and the Straggler sound to me like they might get at what you're looking for. But mostly, I think you can also head to a bike shop you think you can trust and see what they have in the shop. Every shop has a set of brands that they stock, and can access some brands and models that they don't shop. They should be willing to walk you through what they have access to that can meet your needs, and help you go through the pros and cons of each.
posted by entropone at 6:02 AM on March 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

It really sounds like you liked that REI bike, so I'd go out with the intention of testing a few more in the gravel, cyclocross category. Don't buy anything you have to convince yourself you can get used to, whether that is how far you reach over or how twitchy if feels. There is a fun bike out there that feels fun and fits with you right now.

The secret fun about 650b is that since the wheel overall is smaller, the weight difference in fat tires is reduced since there's less diameter. They can be really fun bikes. That said, I'm 5' 11", so I generally don't have a NEED for 650b. They really shine when your size frame has to make compromises to fit the 700c.

High gearing is overrated. My fanciest bikes have compact gearing and I go plenty fast on them, I just have to commit to spinning my legs faster. Some folks think that's better for your knees, but I think it just has different stresses on your knees.
posted by advicepig at 6:17 AM on March 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Consider a Brompton! The fit anywhere, can go thousands of miles, and are "versatile, durable, light enough to load into my car easily and pull out for short rides over varied mostly-urban terrain".
posted by mfoight at 6:19 AM on March 5, 2018

A cross or gravel bike sounds like a good fit for you; the differences are mostly branding, though above a certain point the cross bikes will be lighter.

Here's some other bikes you might look into, assuming a reasonable local dealer network.

The Surly Cross-Check is a cross-ish steel bike. They're heavy, but super great to ride -- I have one, and have done multiple centuries on it. It'll take wide tires but is just as happy on 25mm roadies if you want to get a little more zoomy. The Straggler is, more or less, the disk version of the Cross-Check, btw.

Specialized has a couple bikes in this range I'd look at, too. I think the current hotness is the Diverge, but the AWOL is also neat.

If you feel more like a real cyclocross bike -- and "offroad Lambo" isn't far wrong -- they also make the Crux.
posted by uberchet at 6:21 AM on March 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

What kind of riding do you actually do/want to do? It's not clear from your post. Also will this bike be in addition to the Cannondale or a replacement for it?
posted by mskyle at 6:44 AM on March 5, 2018

It sounds like you really liked the REI bike. Why not go with it? Friends who are into the adventure bike thing are really into bikes from Crust, Salsa, and Rawland, but most of those are going to be more expensive than the REI bike (maybe not Salsa) unless you can find something used. And there's something to be said for buying a bike that you've ridden in person and liked.
posted by enn at 7:08 AM on March 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

What kind of riding do you actually do/want to do? It's not clear from your post. Also will this bike be in addition to the Cannondale or a replacement for it?

I guess I should clarify that I'm a casual rider these days, and not at all competitive. I have no interest in any sort of racing, and I don't even ride with a club that I'd need to keep up with. Loaded touring is a distant improbability. Most of the time it's likely to be easygoing rides of less than 20 miles, packing only a couple of water bottles, tools to fix a flat, and maybe a sandwich.

Undecided on whether I should keep the Cannondale; if I got a lighter CX bike then the C-dale would probably become superfluous. On the other hand a fatter-tired gravel bike would be more of a complement than a replacement.
posted by jon1270 at 7:43 AM on March 5, 2018

Also there are dealers for Surly, Salsa, and Kona in the area. I'll probably make some visits to them next weekend. There's a Brompton dealer too, but the small wheels inherent in a folding bike probably won't go where I want them to.
posted by jon1270 at 7:48 AM on March 5, 2018

While the lines between catagories is pretty blurry, it sounds to me like a gravel bike would be better for you than a cross bike. A real cross bike will be more twitchy and will generally not be that great for causal city rides.

My ride-everywhere-all-day bike is a All-City Cosmic Stallion. I love this bike, and it makes me feel stupid for all the years I rode my Scott CX Cross bike as my daily driver. It’s above your budget through

I think a Surly Straggler would be right up your alley. My buddy bought one as a budget version of my All-City. It’s pretty rad, and it comes with a steel fork (compared to my carbon one) so he can run a front rack.

But, the best thing you can do is test-ride as many bikes as you can and see what speaks to you.
posted by sideshow at 9:16 AM on March 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

The gearing in cross bikes isn't very fun for city riding unless you add a chain ring imho. I rode a Jake the Snake for 2 years in a hilly area and cursed it regularly. I really like the gravel bikes. 29ers are also fun for city riding, slower but easier to see things like cars from.
posted by fshgrl at 11:20 AM on March 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

What's wrong with cross gearing in a city?

>I rode a Jake the Snake for 2 years in a hilly area and cursed it regularly

That's REALLY confusing. Cross bikes are geared lower than road bikes because of the up-and-down, offroad nature of the sport, so most folks find cross gearing a boon for hilly places b/c they'll be easier to get up the hills than a traditional road bike.

Where they fall down is keeping up with the roadies at speed, but it sounds like that's not gonna be an issue for OP.
posted by uberchet at 12:18 PM on March 5, 2018

The REI looks like it's basically a drop-bar mountain bike.
posted by rhizome at 12:27 PM on March 5, 2018

Don't dismiss the idea of "converting the C-dale to 700C with wider rims that could handle fatter tires". An '89 bike is probably running 7 or 8-speed gears. If it fits you and is in good shape, you can get a decent set of 700c wheels that will bolt right in for under $100. If the brakes will reach the 700 rims, and there is room for 700cx ~32mm tires, you'd have a swell all-rounder. New bikes are pricey, and there were some very nice bikes made in the 80s.
posted by jetsetsc at 1:24 PM on March 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

I finally looked at the REI bike and I gotta say that I love brifters and would have a hard time going back to shifters that weren't at my fingertips when in my regular riding position. I think brifters are the greatest change in the modern era.
posted by advicepig at 1:25 PM on March 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

They are the mousewheel of bicycling.
posted by rhizome at 1:30 PM on March 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

OMG that is incredibly perfect. When you somehow have to deal without them you think, HOW IN HEAVEN'S NAME DID WE SURVIVE BEFORE?
posted by advicepig at 2:06 PM on March 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

FWIW, I like my Trek 7.3fx which I think is considered a "hybrid" bike. I replaced the standard handlebars with bullhorn bars, use bar-end shifters and have the brake levers under the front of the bars. Very satisfactory for city riding, imo.

I'm very much not a purist, it works for me.
posted by snuffleupagus at 2:18 PM on March 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

The Jake the Snake was geared too high to spin up our hills and too low to bomb the flats. It annoyed the shit out of me on a regular basis. They are a popular commuting bike here because of our crappy surfaces and many off road shortcuts but everyone changes the gears. I remember rolling in to a work event and there were 5 other versions of the bike on the bike rack and I was the only idiot with the original gearing who had to push it up the hill to get there. I prefer not to be a sweaty mess at work. I couldn't change it because someone else used the same bike to race. It worked well on gravel etc but race gearing isn't that versatile imho.

Probably why mtn bikes still rule the commute here.
posted by fshgrl at 2:22 PM on March 5, 2018

Is this the ADV3.1 you tested? My only caution with that one is I hate bar-end shifters. Other than that it seems like a heck of a good bike for the money - good drivetrain, good tires, nice brakes. I'd have REI or an independent bike shop switch out the barcons for regular shift/brake levers which are much more pleasant to use.

After years of commuting on road and track bikes, I built an Endpoint Coffee Grinder which is similar to the REI bike you rode. Mine has 650x47mm WTB Horizons tubeless, a CX crankset, and disc brakes. It still clears full fenders and has slightly flared drop bars.

For me it was the way to go. I like having tons of tire volume and being tubeless, I can air down to 12psi or so and float over trails, or pump back up to 30ish for riding on nicer pavement. I don't miss having a 53t big ring (I'm not fast).
posted by a halcyon day at 2:43 PM on March 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

The Jake, according to the Kona site, ships with a 46/34 front and an 11-34 cassette. That's about the same as Specialized's Crux (46/36, 11-32, which is always what Surly puts on the Crosscheck).

Not for nothing, but if a 1:1 ratio isn't enough for your hills, you probably live somewhere much more topographically challenging than 99% of the country.

My Roubaix is on a 50/34 and 11-28, and while the Texas Hill Country isn't the Alps, there are some challenging rollers to be had over there. It's fine. Modern mountain bikes are usually set up in a 1x config with a tiny front ring (say, a 28 with 10-42), so they'll be lower for sure but give you absolutely nothing on the upper end.

What gearing are folks where you live using? And are those gears a good idea for OP, whose bio says he's in Pittsburgh?
posted by uberchet at 3:29 PM on March 5, 2018

The Bianchi had brifters. They seemed nice enough, but part of my problem is that I'm having a hard time distinguishing genuine utility from novelty. I'll take your word for it that they're good over the long term.

Don't dismiss the idea of "converting the C-dale to 700C with wider rims that could handle fatter tires". An '89 bike is probably running 7 or 8-speed gears. If it fits you and is in good shape, you can get a decent set of 700c wheels that will bolt right in for under $100. If the brakes will reach the 700 rims, and there is room for 700cx ~32mm tires, you'd have a swell all-rounder. New bikes are pricey, and there were some very nice bikes made in the 80s.

6-speed, actually, and 126mm rear spacing in a fat-tube aluminum frame that shouldn't be cold-set wider so the choice of pre-built wheels is rather thin -- especially if one wants wider rims. It's also got the defunct first-generation Suntour index, eliminating a Shimano cassette hub unless I were willing to change derailleurs and shifters too. Also the stock brakes wouldn't reach. It was adding up.

Is this the ADV3.1 you tested?

The very same.

For those unfamiliar with Pittsburgh terrain, I give you Canton Avenue.
posted by jon1270 at 3:50 PM on March 5, 2018

Ok, aside from "be absurdly fit," I'm not sure WHAT you can do to climb a 37% grade. Even the sub-1:1 ratios on the Stumpjumper I mentioned would be tough there.

Are folks choosing triples there?
posted by uberchet at 4:09 PM on March 5, 2018

Triples are common enough, but not universal. You can travel most of the area without encountering anything like Canton Ave. There is however an annual race that covers the 12 steepest hills in the city. Half the fun seems to be watching rider after rider stall out and fall over.
posted by jon1270 at 4:35 PM on March 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

The real issue on streets like that is the startup wobble at intersections and being subsequently smushed by a bus. Especially with panniers (see sweaty mess comment) and clip ins. It's not uncommon to see people fall over at a couple intersections.

But I say buy the bike you love, that fits you and change the gearing personally. I have a 29er mtn bike I ride when it snows and I want to be able to pedal 0.05 miles per hour in a straight line. It has the stock gearing. I also have an old touring bike, set up to pedal west coast hills at a snails pace, that I ride the rest of the time. The Jake was a nicer bike but these are better for commuting.

I do get frustrated at not being able to go faster but I ride probably too fast anyway so there's that. Plus sweaty mess at work.
posted by fshgrl at 4:37 PM on March 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Heh. Just checked the gearing specs on that REI bike. The small chainring is a 24 (!) and the big cog is 36. No wonder it felt so much easier on the inclines.
posted by jon1270 at 5:12 PM on March 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Let me add that my Cross-check has bar-ends, but I became a Brifter Believer with my Roubaix. They're indispensable in two key contexts: riding in a peloton, and trying to climb. I can't imagine taking my hands off the bars to shift on a steep climb now.
posted by uberchet at 7:08 AM on March 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

If anyone is still watching this thread: I still haven't pulled the trigger but I've narrowed the field after test-riding another half-dozen models. It's down to the Kona Rove NRB and the new Salsa Journeyman, both of which are 650B. The Kona is lighter, with components a notch higher on the Shimano scale, but pricey (by my standards) and would need some gearing adjustments to get the low end as low as I want it. The Journeyman is geared lower in stock form, and so much cheaper that I could upgrade some of its shortcomings and still come out ahead. Regardless of which way I go, I appreciate all the help in figuring this out. Both are happy on terrain that would destroy my road bike.
posted by jon1270 at 1:39 PM on March 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

Aaaaaand it’s the Rove NRB FTW. The stock gearing was higher than I wanted, so I asked the shop to swap in a mountain crankset with both rings six teeth smaller than the stock road crank had. This effectively gave me about 2 more clicks on the low end, and got rid of the two highest gears that I’d never have used anyhow. The lowest gears let me ascend a very steep hill that is the only way I can escape my home neighborhood without risking my life on a dangerous 4-lane. The shop even traded me a nice set of pedals for the stock crank and B.B. I couldn’t be happier.
posted by jon1270 at 5:53 PM on April 3, 2018 [4 favorites]

I hadn't seen the Rove before, but it looks like a winner with the smaller off-road crank swapped in. Good work!
posted by a halcyon day at 10:11 AM on April 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

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