Tuesday, May 20, 2008

An Unbiased Guide to Buying and Building Up a Road Bike

I've had a few emails from people asking for advice on which bike they should get for certain applications so I decided to post my opinions and incites in to buying or building a bike. I've no affiliation with anyone. I've simply done A LOT of research when building my own bike. I was primarily looking for durability and functionality while also paying close attention to weight and cost. The advice I'm giving is NOT for a cheap bike. It's for a bike you will be buying as an investment. That does not mean it will cost what a Specialized Tarmac S-Works costs, or a Serotta with Campognolo record. It will be something that will work exceedingly well for it's intended purposes, bring pleasure, and hopefully, for the most part, cure that itchy upgradeitis for a few years to come. I hope it helps and more importantly saves you a lot of time researching the multitude of parts out there on the market.

This guide is intended for people who are trying to save money and get a top notch bike, or can not afford to buy a high end name brand like a Trek, Giant, or Specialized in one hefty shot. This guide is also for those who do not have a good bike shop in the area (like me) that is trustworthy and truly knowledgeable and helpful. Unfortunately, unless you are capable of building your own bike you will need to seek help in that area. The bike you put together using the parts below will be BETTER most likely than anything the big guns offer and cheaper - most notably the build kit. You will end up with a much higher end build kit than most offerings in the same price range.

So with that out of the way here you go!


First off, before you even start looking at buying a bike you need to know what size you require. There are two options to fit your needs. One, find a local shop that offers a professional bike fit. Prices vary widely. I paid $250. I've seen $375 here in Manhattan. $150 in smaller towns. Make sure it is done by someone that has done MANY fits beforehand, and is not going to just be eyeballing you and using calculations like .883 x your inseam for the seat height. If I used the .883 calculation I would be INCHES too low. It works as an average, but not everyone is average and it will be incredibly off in many situations.

The other option, and it's free of cost, is to use one of the numerous fit calculators available on the Internet. I used Competitive Cyclists online fit calculator. They give three recommended fit solutions after you enter all the information. I chose the Meryx fit which seemed to be in between the other two. A few months later I had the professional bike fitting done and it turns out the measurements were very accurate. I had nothing that needed to be changed besides some micro adjustments with the saddle, seat height, and cleat positioning.


So you now know pretty closely what size frame you need. Which one do you get out of the hundreds of thousands out there? Carbon? Steel? Titanium? A mix of one or two materials? New? Used?

I bought my current frameset off eBay, and it was pretty much brand new. I saved about $900 off of the retail price. eBay is great, but you will usually have no warranty, and sometimes don't get exactly what you expected.

Before you pick which frame you need to know what you want the frameset to be capable of doing. Is it a century or less road racing machine? A long distance racer? A long distance randonneur? A little bit of everything? Maybe some dirt roads?

If comfort is what you are looking for look for frames with taller head tubes and longer wheel bases. Specialized Roubaix is a good example so check out it's geometry. Serotta Fierte is another.

Some frames can do everything. But usually those frames that can do everything will not be ideal for any one particular application. A great example is the Surly Cross Check. It is a utilitarian do it all bike. It's pretty cheap, heavy steel, that takes fenders, racks, fat tires for mountain biking, and cantilever or v-brakes. Lightweight higher end road framesets generally can't do any of those besides go fast on the road.

Carbon frames are all the hype right now on the market. It's even hard these days to find a completely titanium or steel higher end road frame. I really enjoy the ride of my carbon frame. It's great for smoothing out the regular pavement you ride on. It does not, however, dampen big cracks or potholes. Well built titanium or steel frames do a slightly better job than carbon in this area. Don't expect any miracles though. They can only flex so much. Over many hours it may be worth it to have that extra cushion. That is for you to decide. Steel is usually the heaviest. Do not worry about rust. Use Framesaver and go ride. It takes MANY YEARS for a steel frame to rust away. Perhaps if you were riding on salted streets every day this would accelerate the rusting, but I really don't think it's something most people need to worry about. Titanium is lightweight, and in my opinion, the best frame you can get assuming it's well built and sized for you, but it's also almost always very expensive. Aluminum is another option, but it's slowly fading away. Cannondale makes some great AL frames, and a few companies will mix aluminum with carbon. Aluminum gets a bad rep as being stiff and brutal. I doubt I could tell a difference from a high quality steel frame vs a top of the line cannondale. Certainly the cheap aluminum might be very stiff. Many of the cheap steel frames will be the same. But you shouldn't buy those!

What should I buy?

Budget is crucial. Also, when do you need the frame? If you have no rush consider a custom frame. Not all custom means $$$. Curtlo builds great steel frames for less than $1000. He is just one of many steel builders. Do a search for custom builders and check out their sites. Titanium frames will be over $2000 usually. The most common Ti frames I see are Seven, Independent Fabrications, Merlin, and Serotta. All are top notch. Smaller builders I've been very impressed with are Strong and Black Sheep. Again, there are LOTS of ti builders out there. Just because everyone in your 'hood rides a Seven does not mean you should.

Habanero Cycles sells titanium road frames for an amazing price of less than $1000.

For a carbon frame or even carbon + titanium at GREAT prices check out Pedal Force. I discovered them during a group buy on Bike Forum. People got a screaming deal on one of their frames. I wish I had known when they were setting it up! For $600 to $950, as of May 20 2008, they offer various carbon or carbon + ti frames. For less than $2k you will have yourself a top of the line road racing machine.

For utilitarian, cheaper, NEW steel frames it's hard to beat Surly. Their frames and forks ride great. No, they are not light, but they are comfortable and versatile and will last a long time. I love the Cross Check. The Pacer would perhaps be a better choice for road riding. They cost anywhere from 350 to 400 (frame + fork) depending on where you look. Soma Fabrications also makes great steel frames for a slightly higher cost than Surly. Another step up from Soma would be Gunnar. They make amazing frames and are very affordable.

Frame/sets worth checking out if going the build your own/customize route: Salsa Cycles, Surly Bikes, Soma Fabrications, Kona, Gunnar, Ionic Cycles, Pedal Force, Voodoo,

You'll notice I'm not mentioning major company framesets. I just didn't do a lot of research on them when buying my own frameset. I did check eBay for some, but never came across any in my size for a good price. The common name brands simply get bid higher since more people are familiar with them. Specialized I know sells framesets from their s-works line but they cost A LOT. The Roubaix looks great and goes for $1750. I'd definitely ride that bike if someone gave it to me:) All the mainstream carbon builders are simply out of my price range. And I don't think you are getting that much more bike compared to a Pedal Force or Curtlo or even a Surly.

The engine is what drives the bike, not the bike itself!


Groupset: Shimano 105 is a great deal. It functions well and is significantly cheaper than something like Dura-Ace with very similar functionality, a bit more plastic, and heavier overall weight. Some people will tell you it's not as 'crisp' or long lasting as Ultegra Or Dura-Ace. Ultegra is also affordable for many and not much more $ than 105. I recommend Ultegra for everyone that's going to be riding a lot. Personally, I do not think it's worth spending the extra money for Dura-Ace, but if you have the dollars, go for it. SRAM also makes some comparable groupsets to Shimano. Rival is their low end and Force is similar to Dura-Ace. They also have a Red group but it's much more expensive. I've not used SRAM before, but many seem to like it. It's a bit lighter than Shimano's equivalents, and the Force group uses lots of carbon so it looks fancy. Campognolo also has many groupsets but due to the dollar conversion they cost more for the same thing usually. Pro Bike Kit offers Campy though and maybe you can get a screaming deal. Just make sure your hubs are built for Campy! Campy has a cult-like following and you will hear many say it's the 'only' group out there worthy, but I've used both and don't think it's any better than a well setup Shimano.

Where do I get these gruppos? GVH Bikes, Colorado Cyclist, and Pro Bike Kit (in UK) are usually the cheapest places to find group sets. Many places will price match. Pro Bike Kit is almost always the lowest for groups. They are in the UK, but they ship to the US and shipping is usually free. The only problem with them is often they do not have every groupset piece you need. But, it's usually the cheap part like a front derailleur so you could just order that locally. Another great thing about Pro bike kit is you can pick and choose from different groupsets and pay the same low price. This lets you splurge on a few higher end parts you normally would not be able to afford. Please email me if you know places for better prices!!!

Forks: Hopefully your frame came with a fork, but if not here are a few recommendations. I think my Reynolds Ouzo Comp is excellent and I've seen it online for $99. It's carbon with an alloy steerer. For more money Reynolds has the Ouzo Pro which supposedly rides EXACTLY the same as the Comp, but it's lighter. Easton ec90 comes recommended, but I've never ridden it. I also like Torelli carbon forks. There are also custom steel forks out there by companies like Vicious Cycles.

Pedals: Speedplay are my personal favorite. They are very simple, have lots of float, or adjustable depending on which model you get. They are very light. They require no maintenance. They are difficult to walk in. The cleats are expensive. Shimano's new Ultegra and Dura-Ace are also great and are cheap from Pro Bike Kit. I would take speedplay any day over them though. Look keo carbon seemed nice when I used them, but I like the double sided entry the Speedplay have.

Shoes: Very personal. Insoles though, I highly recommend considering getting a new sole for your shoe. Specialized makes some great ones(i use these). Superfeet and your sole also have some. Highly recommended.

Headset: Before it was Chris King or bust. Now there are a few other notable headset makers out there that work just fine and are either cheaper, slightly fancier and more expensive, or just lighter. The King headset comes in lots of pretty colors and will serve you just fine. Cane Creek makes a number of headsets. They even have a new high end one which some think out performs the King headset. Crank Brothers has some pretty snazzy looking headsets and they are very light but I don't know much about them. Race Face also has a great headset with the Deus, and perhaps other models. With any of these you will most likely have zero problems.

Wheels: Custom. You can get a high end custom built wheelset that will weigh less than most 'name brand' wheels, cost a lot less quite often, and be just as strong. The best bang for your buck wheelbuilder I know of is Mike Garcia at odds and endos. He builds amazing wheels for very affordable prices. Highly recommended. He has many options so call him up, and tell him what you need. Again, email me if you know other builders that are as good as Mike and offer similar prices. If you don't want to go the custom route there are a few online wheel sites worth checking out that offer great bang for the buck. Neuvation Cycling & Williams Cycling. They both have reasonably priced wheelsets which are both light and durable.

Stems: Ritchey Pro or WCS is a great choice if they have the length you need. They are very light, affordable, and nice and stiff. Email me if you need other suggestions due to requiring a higher rise or different length. Note the diameter because now bars are 26.0 or 31.8 OS. 31.8 is the norm these days.

Handlebars: Again, Ritchey WCS alloy bar is tough to beat. It's really light and quite affordable. Carbon is becoming more popular these days for bars. Some argue it rides better. Personally, I can't tell a difference. I use a Kestrel EMS Pro bar I got off ebay for $99. They are probably still around on eBay so check them out if you want a great carbon bar. I think it's a bit stiffer in the drops than the Ritchey WCS I had before.

Handlebar Tape: Right now I use Fi'zik microtex with gel inserts beneath. I can't say the gel makes much difference vs Cork tape with integrated gel. I do, however, like the Fi'zik tape. Without the gel, though, the Fi'zik would be too thin for my needs. The Fi'zik appears like it will last much longer than cork tape and feels better, especially when wet. Cinelli and Deda make great tape as well. I think some sort of cushion makes for a much better ride. Some tapes are very thin and I find them uncomfortable for long rides. There are many brands out there, so basically pick one and see if you like it. It's finally a part for the bike that is pretty cheap and easily replaceable! *New* I recently replaced my Fi'zik with Specialized S-Works tape. It's a synthetic cork tape, black, and has lots of cushion. I like it more than the Fi'zik and have found I can use non-padded gloves comfortably.

Seatpost: Carbon vs Aluminum. Many think carbon rides smoother than an aluminum post. I'm not totally convinced. It's certainly not a huge difference. Perhaps with a carbon saddle and no cushion it's more noticeable. But that is not what I use! I use a Specialized Pave SL carbon seatpost that has a Zertz insert for supposed vibration dampening. Well, the seatpost works fine and it's easy to adjust. Thomson is the best post on the market, hands down. It'll last forever and is lightweight. Infinite microadjustments. Setback or straight depending on what you need. Black or silver. If you shell out a few extra dollars you can get their masterpiece which is lighter weight but otherwise the same. Of course there are also a few titanium posts out there. Moots is a common one. They are very nice but cost a lot.

Seat Collar: Salsa liplock works well and comes in numerous colors. Slightly lighter, the Hope collar comes in colors as well and works fine.

Saddle: Saddle is a personal choice. I've gone through A LOT of saddles before finding my one. Brooks Team Professional Titanium is my choice. It's the most comfortable saddle I've ever used. All others always created some sort of discomfort. My only advice: Know this, you should NOT have to tolerate any discomfort. There is a saddle out there for you. Selle An-atomica is an interesting saddle. I have one and like it. Competitive Cyclist lets you demo a huge range of saddles for $75. That is an excellent way to find which one may work for you. Saddles take adjustments. If it seems uncomfortable at first move it around some. Don't give up immediately.

Tires & Tubes: Continental GP4000 are great tires. I prefer 25c for training and typical riding, and use the 23c for racing. The 25c are more stable feeling on downhills, have better flat resistance (less chance of pinch flat) and are more comfortable. The 25c hardly ever flat if you keep them at the proper pressure. Yes, they cost a lot. Yes, they are absolutely worth it. Tubes: Generic tubes have always worked fine for me. I've recently started using Lunar Light tubes by Performance Bike. They are roughly half the weight of conventional generic tubes. I've quite a few miles on them and am happy to report they have not cause any issues whatsoever. I'm sold. They cost less when on sale than most local bike shop generic tubes, are half the weight, and work perfectly fine. A lot of that is the tire though. The GP4000 is simply excellent and seems very flat resistant. If you want to try something besides the GP4000, I also like the Michelin ProRace 3. Vittoria EVO tires also come highly recommended. Schwalbe Ultremo. Those three, besides the conti', should keep you busy for a few years. Besides the Ultremo, they are not as flat resistant but are very fast, smooth rolling, light clinchers.

Skewers: I like Salsa Skewers because they come in nice colors, are quite functional with much better hand grips than most skewers, and are also very light. I got lucky and got some Titanium ones through a friend's bike shop, but they cost a lot. The stainless are quite fine and affordable. Hope also makes excellent skewers and in different colors. If you end up getting wheels from Mike Garcia he has some skewers that are great, cheap, and really light as well.

Well that about rounds it up. I hope this will help many and feel free to email me with suggestions, improvements, or recommendations!!!!

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