Criteria for buying a bike
November 12, 2006 9:06 AM   Subscribe

What criteria are important when buying a bike?

My wife needs a new bike for her short commutes around a college town, and occasional longer rides. She has looked at two models: a Dawes 301 and a Marin Larkspur (left-middle). To an untutored eye, they seem roughly equivalent in terms of weight, geometry and equipment. However, the Marin (£359) costs £90 more than the Dawes (£270). We know that the Marin is a decent bike (I have one), and we have a vague fear that the cheaper Dawes may have the reliability of an old British sports car.

What criteria should we use to distinguish these bikes? They all seem to use similar third-party equipment (Shimano brakes etc), so does it even matter whether we buy brand X or brand Y?
posted by beniamino to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
A test ride is in order. Bikes that look very similar can feel very different, and your wife may find she has a strong preference for one or the other.
posted by arc at 9:28 AM on November 12, 2006

It looks like the Marin has front suspension, whilst the Dawes does not. IMHO, front suspension isn't really necessary -- especially on short commutes -- I commute several miles twice a day, on rough and smooth track, and I've never felt any need for front-fork suspension.

I doubt there's much between the two models. Both look machine built, though from what I can tell the Marin may have the better trimmings -- better pedals, grips... (things that aren't two expensive to buy at a later day). One thing to look out for is the geometry of the frame. I know my girlfriend would have trouble getting her leg over the Marin's crossbar. Your best bet is to get to try them out.

I'd go for the Dawes. That £90 could be better spent on accessories -- helmet, tools, spare tubes, racks, reflectors, cycle wear...
posted by popcassady at 9:30 AM on November 12, 2006

Ride/fit is key. If the longer rides are going to be over 20 miles it's even more important. Think about how comfortable the posture is, how many options each offer for hand position, and how the saddle feels

First, they both look like nice bikes.

I don't see a front suspension on the Marin (overkill, anyway, for this job) but it does appear to use a threaded headset -- this is an older technology and is a little trickier to keep adjusted. The tradeoff is that handlebar height will be easier to adjust on the Marin, which might be a nice thing to have if she starts riding a lot as she might gravitate towards a less-upright riding posture.

If she'll be doing a lot of stop-and-go riding make sure she can stand over the frame without being on tip-toe. This may mean going a size smaller on the Marin so make sure there's plenty of adjustment room on the seat post.

Also, are there differences on warranty terms between the makes? If it's different stores offering the bikes, try to get an gut impression of which takes more care in assembling/setting up the bike as you'll probably be visiting them a couple more times after your purchase for follow-up adjustments.

I'll let AskMe's resident wrenches address reliability issues between the makes. My limited experience with modern bikes suggests they're all pretty reliable compared to the bikes of even 10 years ago.
posted by Opposite George at 9:47 AM on November 12, 2006

Oh, duh -- if this is a town bike make sure each offers adequate fender clearance and good mounting options for racks and lights.
posted by Opposite George at 9:50 AM on November 12, 2006

The Larkspur doesn't have front suspension. I thought about buying a Larkspur (Men's) or similar Marin, but went for a Dawes 501 instead (the 501 is a few steps up from a 301).

The Dawes has been perfectly reliable, but the disc brakes are a pain to keep tuned — everything needs to be tightened up every couple of months. The 301 doesn't have disc brakes, though.

I second the advice to go for a test-ride. I rode the Larkspur and found it was very fast and fun on smooth roads, but it felt too light and fragile to be ridden on anything other than well-maintained, smooth surfaces — even riding quickly over some nearby cobbled streets didn't inspire confidence, and I wanted a bike able to cope with light forest roads etc.
posted by matthewr at 9:53 AM on November 12, 2006

Personally, for that money, I think you should go for a Specialized. They've got a lot better reputation than either Dawes or Marin. A Hardrock will last for many, many years.

How about this Ladies Hardrock? It's an '06 (last year's model), so it's a little cheaper than you'd expect.
posted by veedubya at 10:06 AM on November 12, 2006

Fit is indeed the most important thing. If the bike isn't comfortable or "fun", she won't like it no matter how well made it is. The shop should be fitting the bike to her and alowing lots of test rides. If the shop just says: "Well, she needs a 14" frame. Sorted!" go to another shop.

For on-road riding, front suspension is a complete waste of money and just makes the bike heavier and less fun to ride. Disc brakes are unnecessary, heavy and expensive if the rims are not regularly immersed in mud. The suspension seatposts are pretty much gimmics. They don't add much to ride comfrot.

For the ride comfort: make sure the bike has smooth (not knobby, no semi-knobby) tires that are at least 32mm/1.25" wide---38mm/1.75" tires are better. This is absolutely the best upgrade to improve the quality of her ride and to make the bike more comforatable.

For the brakes: use pads with ferric oxide dust in the pads. A common brand in North America is Kool Stop, which have the characterisic brick-red colour. They work excellently well in the rain and don't squeek if adjusted correctly. This should be a very cheap upgrade. New pads, front and rear, should cost less than 10 pounds.

For components, stay away from the Shimano stuff without a line name on it. That's their very cheapest OEM parts. Anything with a Shimano line name will last at least 5 years, and probably longer than she'll want to keep the bike for. The Larkspur looks fine, I can't tell on the Dawes (that is probably the source of the price difference). Check if the parts say Tourney/Altus/Acera(-X)/Alivio (from approximately worst to better) on them. If they do, you're good. By the way, you want the best shifters you can get, deraillers matter much less.

Avoid frames that are Hi-Ten steel. They're very cheap and heavy, and also prone to cracking after a few years use. Make sure the frames are Cromolly steel or aluminim (6061) alloy. Both bikes are aluminum, so you're ok there.
posted by bonehead at 10:27 AM on November 12, 2006 [2 favorites]

btw, Shimano is the manufacturer of better than 90% of the components on the market.
posted by bonehead at 10:37 AM on November 12, 2006

yes, fit is important. but also the bike should fit in with your wife's lifestyle. cruising around town probably also means - fenders to not get sludge in the face or up the ass crack. covered chain to not eat pants (and no need for pant clips), a basket to put a bag, or groceries.

I would also suggest that the Larkspur has a better posture than the Dawes, which is more hunched-over mountain bike style. Sure there is probably some performance reasons for the hunched arrangement, but it is much more comfortable (and safe) to ride upright. You are always looking ahead (not at your front wheel) and you have a higher, more visible profile.
posted by kamelhoecker at 12:06 PM on November 12, 2006

The price of the Larkspur is a third more, but I would say it is at least twice as good a bicycle as the Dawes, which I would describe as a toy, likely to be used a few times and then discarded.
posted by jamjam at 12:22 PM on November 12, 2006

kamelhoecker's got a good point about the chain; even with trouser clips you're almost guaranteed to get grease on your leg eventually. If you do go with one of these bikes as a town ride (and they do look okay for that,) ask the bike store how much it would cost to add a chain guard. Universal ones go for about 20 bucks here in the states but are a special order item -- I assume they're easier to come by across the pond.

It's harder for me to say your wife's posture on one bike vs. the other will definitely be more comfortable since everybody's got different proportions, and everybody's got their own position preferences. And note the Dawes's stem lets you fine-tune its the angle, allowing the rider to adjust, within limits, how far forward she wants to lean. More generally, and you probably already know this, your wife shouldn't limit herself to looking at "women's" bikes if she finds a men's model that fits her better.

In any event, have fun shopping!
posted by Opposite George at 2:03 PM on November 12, 2006

I'd agree with everything bonehead said (especially about fit--gotta get the right frame size) with one exception-- suspension. I've commuted for many years now, and I've found that even roads in 'good condition' often have very nasty places in them. And roads are really hard. The suspensions (front and seat) on my trusty Cannondale have come in mighty handy on many occasions. Then again, I'm an aggressive rider.
posted by MarshallPoe at 2:39 PM on November 12, 2006

Dammit. I don't know what the hell's wrong with me. Full chainguards aren't going to work with these bikes since they've got derailers.

Unless there's a design out there I'm not familiar with, chainguards only work with bikes whose chainline doesn't change, which means either single-speed (I don't think you want that) or hub-geared (probably more than you're willing to spend.) Both of the bikes you're looking at do have chainring guards, which'll do a good job of keeping trouser legs, socks and shoelaces out of the way. She'll just have to be careful when moving/parking the bike that her legs stay away from the greasy chain. Not that it's a huge problem -- I can't recall the last time I got grease on my legs from anything other than my (unguarded) chain rings, and you don't hear too many folks here in the chainguard-deprived U.S. bitching about it -- but it is something to be aware of.
posted by Opposite George at 2:44 PM on November 12, 2006

Response by poster: Loads of good advice here, thanks everyone. Sounds like the consensus is there's nothing terrible about Daweses (all except jamjam -- what exactly do you think is bad about them?). We'll check on the named vs unnamed Shimano gear issue, make sure she gets plenty of test rides & she's comfortable, check there are decent mountings for fenders/mudguards and lights.

Both have seat suspension (which I agree makes a difference) but no front (which I don't know about).

matthewr: great point about the cobbles, we should check that specifically as there are lots around here (which seems insane, but there you go).

bonehead: thanks for the ferric oxide tip -- there will be plenty of rain to deal with.
posted by beniamino at 7:06 PM on November 12, 2006

Opposite George: Chain guards work with derailers and multiple gears. Check out this bike with a simple plastic guard. (This is standard on a German bikes for city use.)
posted by kamelhoecker at 7:48 AM on November 13, 2006

I'm more and more convinced all the time that overall weight is much more important for female riders. Or as I put it previously:
Finally, weight is important, but for reasons that are unheard of to the average bike store salesman. You are pretty small, but you still need to be able to manhandle the bike so, all else being equal, the smallest lightest bike you can get is a very good idea.
What I mean by manhandle.. Carrying it in and out of your home, carrying it up stairs, or even walking beside it. If it is heavy compared to your arm strength, you will think of it as something big and inconvenient, if you can pick it up and haul it around with you, you will be much happier with it.
The critical factor for me, as a 200++ lb guy who rides hard, is durability of parts. I would break those plastic pedals on the Dawes in under six months. While the Marin's pedals look better in the picture, the spec list they calls them "composite". Sounds to me like they have a plastic body, which is just as bad as all plastic for durability. Nonetheless, under a smaller rider, with a lighter step, plastic bodied pedals will last many years.

Another example, the Marin clearly has a freehub/cassette rear wheel, rather than a freewheel. See bicycle rear wheel problems for a lengthy account of what happens when you put a fat ass on cheap parts. But, freewheels are okay for 5/6 speed rear clusters under lighter riders. The Marin page gives the full spec, and you can see that it has the better cassette/freehub system, but the Dawes doesn't reveal the details.

As an aside, based on Canadian prices and currency conversion rates, they both sound very pricey. And on checking the US site, suggested retail there is $429 USD, which sounds more reasonable. On principal, I wouldn't pay suggested retail - bargaining over the price of a bike - but $429 USD does seem like about the right price for that bike. How prices translate across the ocean.. I'll have to leave that to you.

Finally, both choices have 8-speed 700c wheels, what about your bike? Best to keep parts commonality in the household!
posted by Chuckles at 9:12 AM on November 14, 2006

I've commuted for many years now, and I've found that even roads in 'good condition' often have very nasty places in them. And roads are really hard. The suspensions (front and seat) on my trusty Cannondale have come in mighty handy on many occasions. Then again, I'm an aggressive rider.

I'm really surprised by this. I have to admit to limited experience on suspension bikes, but I find that they feel sluggish. When you want to hit it coming off the line at a traffic light, for example, and the suspension starts to play.. ARGH! Stiffness is adjustable, of course.. I'm interested to hear more.
posted by Chuckles at 9:21 AM on November 14, 2006

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