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?
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.
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.
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.