What You Really Need to Know About Buying a Bike, Part I

Mountain Diva, what you really need in a bike
Illustration: Aaron Kuehn. Courtesy: http://wolverhamptonbikeshed.org

Buying gear is at once exciting and intimidating. When it’s an investment as significant as a bicycle, you need to feel confident that you’re stepping into the right set up without paying for more bling that you need or necessarily even want.

Today we begin a new series from experts giving you the straight talk on what you need in your gear – direct from the insiders whose minds are behind the innovations and whose hands are crafting the designs.

For the past 10 years, Michael Brown has been the senior product manager for Diamondback. [Full disclosure: Diamondback is a Verde client.] Other than a heavy dose of passion and talent, there’s really no secret to how he got here: hard work and a deep love of bikes. Having been in the industry since the 90’s, Michael knows bikes.

No marketing magic and no sales persuasion. In Part One of our two-part series, Michael gives us the quick and dirty tips for figuring out what materials and components we need, as well as what to look for on our first test ride.

In Part Two, which will post next Monday, June 10, Michael breaks it down for the newbie, the serious rider and the out-and-out devoted competitor. A few minutes with Michael and you’ll be ready to walk into the bike shop armed with the right questions to find your ideal bike.

[Ed. Note: Our conversation took place via email and has been edited for brevity.]

Mountain Diva (MD): Hi Michael. Thanks for chatting with us. Let’s first jump in with some of the biggest factors: materials, components and general fit. Bikes are satisfying to test ride because even inexperienced riders can immediately feel how different elements enhance or detract from function.  Most bikes today are steel, aluminum or carbon. What are the quick hitter pros and cons of each?

Michael Brown:

Carbon pros: Light, durable, and in my opinion – most importantly – vibration damping. It can be made very stiff and very light, while offering a degree of vibration damping that other materials cannot. Also the ability to tune carbon and apply its best properties in specific areas of a frame makes it a true revolutionary material.

Carbon cons: The only con is this material and construction is expensive. The major expense comes from the huge amount of hand labor on the layup and then the finishing process. I see no con regarding ride characteristics, unless the bike is poorly made.

Aluminum Pros:  [It’s] lightweight. During the past five years there have been many advances in aluminum tube processing that have aided in tuning an aluminum frame to be as light and as stiff as many Carbon frames.  For some racers aluminum is ideal, great for sprinting and criterium racing.

Aluminum Con’s:  Aluminum, to be made light, tends to offer a firmer ride.

Steel Pros: Many people love the ride a steel bike offers. So, I would say steel is about a certain level of ride quality, but only at the high end. A notable trait for steel is a snappy, connected to the road feel with a degree of compliance. At this point in bicycle design and production, steel is typically offered as a handmade, custom bicycle, or a nostalgic choice to harken back to the good ol’ days.

Steel Cons: High-end steel used to be considered light. Now, not so much. Plus, depending on the material chosen and the build, the ride can be unfortunate. Custom steel bikes are the way to go, but these can be cost prohibitive these days. Steel technology has not advanced much if at all in the past decade. All resources for many companies making bikes have been allocated to more modern materials like carbon and aluminum.

Mountain Diva, what you really need in a bike

A carbon fiber Diamondback Podium 7. Photo: Bicycling


MD: When someone tests out a bike for purchase, what are the top few things they should focus on?

Michael:  First, ask yourself what do you hope to get out of your new bicycle. This will help drive you choices.

Second, focus first on the “general fit.” Do not get caught up in the numbers [of frame size]. Find a frame size that is easy for you to get on and feels right. This can only be done through test riding. [Diamondback] is working on making this part of the bicycle purchase easier by offering a height range based on how our bikes are designed.

Third: test ride. Ride the bikes that most interest you, and don’t be afraid to try differing models. This approach helps on two fronts. First, it may help you decide if one style of bicycle is right for you over say another style. An example may be deciding over a true road bike or a flat bar road bike. Second, find your comfort zone with regards to general fit and position. How do you feel on the bike? Stretched out? Cramped? Comfortable? Stable? Scared?

MD: Is there anything specific to women riders?

Michael: The above points hold true for both men and women. [Though] there are so many new choices being offered in the market for women, I would encourage women to start with those bikes first – then move to alternative bikes or men’s models after they have given the women’s specific bikes a fair shake.

Mountain Diva, what you really need in a bike

Photo: Diamondback

MD: Great advice. Experienced riders likely have a strong awareness of what to feel for on a test ride. How can you break it down for someone new to cycling or someone moving into a new category of bike?

MB: First, does the bike feel good to you? Pay attention to your reach to the bars. [If it] feels like the bars are too far away or too close, this can be altered by stem length and saddle position. Don’t rule the bike out too soon. Move the saddle fore or aft to get a better idea of the general fit. Check saddle height, proper leg extension on a road bike or any bike you will be pedaling for long periods is key.

Move around on the bike: stand up, sit down, transition your weight while riding, lean in a bit on a corner. Depending on the test ride area you may be limited on some of this, but [try to] spend time in the common seated riding position, then change it up with hand positions, and weight distribution.

MD: Can you please talk briefly of components? We all know a quality set can skyrocket price, but it’s hard for a lot of people to determine what’s appropriate for their needs. This topic could be an entire book, but are there any rules of thumb to help guide decision-making?

Michael: The first thing to keep in mind regarding shifting components is price price. As you pay more for components the quality and durability increases. With that, the best value lies right in the middle. For example the best bang for your buck for road is found on any bike with Shimano 105 components or Sram Rival.  For MTB, you are going to get the most for your money with Shimano Deore or Sram X-5 / X-7.

If your budget is not limited, I would strongly suggest for any rider men or women to consider the new electric road components found on road bikes. These components make shifting your bicycle so easy and safe. Easy because its buttons. Safe because you do not have to make any effort or change position on the handlebars to make a gear change. This is revolutionary for all cyclists. For men or women with smaller hands this advancement in cycling is amazing.

Thanks, Michael! Now that we’re all dreaming of carbon frames and electric components, next week we’ll discuss which elements you really need to enjoy the type of riding you want to do.  

Check in on Monday, June 10, when Michael breaks it down for the newbie, the serious rider and the out-and-out devoted competitor. 


  • David says:

    A few additional questions:
    1. What about Titanium frames?
    2. What about wheel sets? (General pros/cons like rim material? does shape and weight really matter that much? Hubs better than others ? (Expense question really, like components)
    3. Chain and cable lube; what’s the best to use and how often?


    • Mtn Diva Admin says:

      Hey David – Thanks for your questions. Since this is our “expert” series, we’ll spare you our “enthusiast” responses and check in with Michael or one of his colleagues. We’ll post his responses to your questions asap. Thanks!

      • Mtn Diva Admin says:

        Hey David (and anyone else who may be interested): Michael, from Diamondback has answered your questions. Below are his direct responses.

        1. What about Titanium frames? PRO: Ti is lightweight and compliant. What this means is that you can build a very nice lightweight smooth riding frame. Ti really is the tweener material between Steel and Aluminum. Light, and provides a great road feel. Ti frames can be found from small builders that have developed unique ways to manipulate the material in much the same way steel has been manipulated with flattened sections or interesting tube connections.
        CONS: Ti is difficult to work with and expensive. Titanium has not seen the level of investment or development over the past 10 years we have seen with Carbon or Aluminum.

        2. What about wheel sets? (General pros/cons like rim material? does shape and weight really matter that much? Hubs better than others ? (Expense question really, like components)
        In General, WEIGHT:
        The lighter the rim the faster the Wheel, its that simple. The rotating weight/mass, furthest
        from the Hub has the greatest effect on acceleration. But of course in the real world you have
        to find the right balance between weight and strength based on intended use.The lightest wheel in many cases would be considered a climbing wheel: this wheel is made with only weight in mind. For the longer haul you need to consider weight vs. strength, vs.

        Rim Profile, or Cross section Height:
        DEEP cross section rims I define as any rim Greater than 25mm Tall
        DEEP cross section rims: PROS: Stiff, Strong, and can carry your momentum once up to speed
        DEEP cross section rims: CONS: Heavy and provide a harsher ride

        LOW Profile / Low cross section rims: I consider Low cross section rims to be under 25mm tall
        LOW cross section: PROS: these will provide the best ride quality and weight savings while still
        maintaining a level of strength needed for longer rides.
        LOW cross section: CONS: may require more maintenance (trueing) over time

        RIM WIDTH:
        Right now there is a trend in our industry regarding the use of a wider rim width, this is specific to Road bikes right now. Road rims have typically been about 19mm wide, with the new wider rims being 25mm wide. Keep in mind the typical tire size for a ROAD bike is 700×23~25c, which is now equal to or narrower than the new 25mm width rims. The idea behind wide rims is that the tire is able to interface with the wider rim better providing a more evenly shaped dome, increasing the tires contact patch, which in turn improves, cornering and braking as well as providing a smooth ride. Other claimed benefits include reduce pinch flats, while being able to run lower air pressure.

        Carbon: PROS: Lightweight, strong, can offer a stiff yet smooth ride and depending on the design, can be very Aero Dynamic
        Carbon: CONS: Clincher Technology is new, most Carbon rims require special compound brake shoes. These shoes can be very specific to a manufacturer. Carbon wheels are expensive.

        Aluminum: PROS: Lightweight, strong, depending on cross section can be compliant, no special brake shoes required
        Aluminum: CONS: Really depends on the cross section and the build.

        3. Chain and cable lube; what’s the best to use and how often? I may not be able to provide the best single answer here. Lubes in many ways are regional and also can be weather dependent. What works in Cali may not work at all in Dallas or Minneapolis or Seattle. I would simply suggest you ask your local Dealer or other riders what works best in your local climate. As far as how often, this depends on use, but safe to say you can never over lube your chain: that’s my opinion.