When I bought my road bike, one of the first things I did was add a bunch of bike related blogs and magazine sites to my RSS reader. If I was gonna dive in deep then I needed to pony up my knowledge of the industry and stay current on the latest bike trends. One of the first things I noticed was the tendency for the industry to push was is essentially professional grade products onto amateur riders. The attitude seems to be that what is good for the pro is good for you. But is it?
Now, before I go on a rant, let me be clear: If you race and that is your thing then this definitely does not apply to you. However, if you’re like me and just want to ride then, yes, you have the option to opt out on any pressure to conform to anything in the cycling community that you’re not comfortable with.
That said, I learned a lot with my first experience buying a road bike. To help those who, like me, are just starting out and want to spend a few bucks on a decent entry-level road bike, here’s some tips that’ll help you make smart choices in the bike and gear you purchase.
1. Keep Clothing Choices Simple and Functional
One of the first things I noticed after getting a road bike was that so many sites seemed to suggest that if you’re not wearing a bike jersey, bib shorts, cycling gloves, and that sort of thing that somehow you’re just not doing it right. Granted, there are very practical reasons to wear certain cycling specific attire. But if doesn’t work for you don’t feel pressured into buying clothing you don’t feel comfortable wearing.
Also, don’t feel pressured into buying just name brands. There's plenty of different brands that don’t cost a fortune, offer good quality, and are perfectly comfortable while remaining functional. Just remember that with any clothing purchase.
For instance, cycling jerseys. I get it that if you’re racing or really into speed on a bike that a good cycling jersey makes sense. But for me, it just doesn’t feel comfortable. I’m still trying to lose weight so I still have a bit of a belly on me. Really don’t want to accentuate it so, no, I really don’t feel comfortable in a cycling specific jersey. I tend to just wear a good Nike Dri-Fit shirt which keeps me cool while still wicking the sweat off me. Now, if you do plan on shooting for speed then by all means look into getting a good cycling jersey that fits your needs.
As for cycling shorts/pants, that’s something to consider. I’m a bit of an endurance rider so I spend quite a bit of time in the saddle. Even the most comfortable saddles will wear on your butt after a good amount of time on a long ride. As such, cycling shorts or pants come in handy and can help you relieve pressure and allow you to ride longer. You don’t have to spend a ton of money nor do you have to choose anything that is geared towards performance riders. Just find a good pair that is comfortable and provides the right amount of comfort in the chamois, which is the padded part of the shorts. I went through several brands till I found a pair that worked well for me. In fact, I ended up buying several pairs of some Club Ride Airliner bib shorts which, even at retail prices, are still reasonable, However, I found them at REI on clearance and got a great deal. Ended up buying multiples as a result.
For socks, I do admit that some cycling specific socks can help. The problem with regular socks is that they tend to bunch up around the foot and near the toes which makes them super uncomfortable and quite annoying. You don’t have to spend a lot but a good pair of Smartwool socks or the like can help. They’re usually thinner than normal socks and fit nice and snug with no seems.
2. Good Shoes With Stiff Soles Will Save Your Feet
Like any sport, a good pair of shoes can go a long way to eliminating pain in your feet. With cycling, you’ll be putting continual pressure near the ball of your foot. Many riders get what’s called “hot foot” which is a condition that causes pain and numbing in the foot. Stiff sole shoes with good arch support will help alleviate and/or avoid this problem.
Your choice in shoes kind of depends on the pedals you want to use. Regardless of what pedals though you don’t have to spend a ton of money to get shoes that work for you and do the job. You’ll find that there are shoes that cost upwards of $200 and more. Honestly, I found most of the more expensive shoes to be quite excessive. Find a pair that is first and foremost functional and comfortable. If they don’t work and aren’t comfortable then you’ll be miserable on your rides.
If you’re using flat pedals then just about any flat soled shoe will do. I started wearing Vans but switched to a pair of Under Armour shoes that had stiffer soles and tread that gripped the pedals better. There are cycling shoe manufacturers like Five Ten and others but virtually any good flat soled shoe will do if it feels good, provides proper arch support, and grips the pedals well.
If you’re going the clipless route then you’ll have to wade through your options. If you’re just starting out, I will say that a Shimano SPD compatible pedal and shoe is the easiest to use. I’ve tried SPD-SL and even Speedball pedals but went right back to using a Shimano SPD pedal. Getting in and out of an SPD pedal is easy compared to other more road bike specific pedals. Plus, there are double-sided pedals which make it even easier.
For SPD compatible shoes, I started off using more of a road bike style shoe mainly so that I could have more options for things like shims and cleat angle. However, road bike shoes can be a bit hard to get used to. They’re ok if all you’re riding on is road and you don’t do many stops. Personally, I prefer not to go clodhopping through a store with my cycling shoes...but that’s just me.
Regardless of the shoe don’t forget about the insole. If you have a high or low arch then you will most definitely need to get a set of insoles. This will help greatly in alleviating the hot foot issue I mentioned earlier.
If you’re riding mixed environments then you might want to consider more of a mountain bike shoe. I’ve started to venture into gravel territory so a good mountain bike shoe was a must. Good news is that there are plenty of different styles to choose from, some of which don’t even look like typical big clunky mountain bike shoes. I chose to get a pair of Bontrager Katan mountain bike shoes. They look like sort of hybrid between a road shoe and an mountain bike shoe. Perfect!
3. Stick With The Basics For Your First Road Bike
I was floored after reading an article some months ago, one of those Buyer’s Guide magazines, where they provided what they felt were good choices for a new cyclist looking to buy their first road bike. The problem with this list is that most of the bikes ran anywhere from $2,500 to nearly $5,000...and they had the gall of calling them “entry-level”. My whole bike, even after making a bunch of modifications, is still well under $1,600. A stock version of my bike retails for around $750. To me, that’s truly entry-level.
The first thing you need to decide is what kind of riding you want to do. You might start off on one kind of bike only to learn that your goals have changed. Do you really want to sink a ton of money into something without knowing for sure what your goals really are?
I started off with a basic hybrid fitness bike by Marin that only cost me around $400. It was a great bike and did the job. But it also helped me learn what kind of riding I wanted to do and what my goals would eventually be. After riding that bike for nearly a year, I ended up picking up a Marin Nicassio road bike for around $560 (an absolute steal!). The reason I got this bike is because I wanted to ride further and longer. I wanted to do more endurance rides. Funny thing is that what I didn’t know is that I bought a bike that was a Swiss Army knife. Not only is it good for endurance ride but it’s also good for gravel riding. Nice! (Note: I’ll talk about my bike in detail in a future post.)
Bottom line is that you don’t need to spend a ton of money on your first bike. Stick with the basics and just find a bike that gives you a solid foundation to build on. You can always upgrade the bike later or, if needed, sell it and get another one that offers more bang for the buck.
4. Know What To Look For
Once you know what kind of riding you want to do, you’ll find that there are a ton of choices on bikes that can do the job. A lot of it can be really confusing though. There’s a bit of fragmentation within the industry as new types of riding have sprung up. The choices can be quite confusing but to simplify things you can breakdown a bike into just a few areas, all of which will effect the price:
- Type of bike
- Group set
- Other components
The type of bike you choose will largely depend on what you want to do. Most bikes though fall in main four types: road, off-road, hybrid, comfort. Those four basic categories make it much easier to figure out the basic setup of the bike you need. From there, the number of various types break off and get more specific. But since we’re talking about road bikes your choices come down to a good half dozen or so different classifications: traditional road, cyclocross, touring, adventure, endurance, commuting, gravel, triathlon, track, and more. You’ll likely hear a bunch of other things along with these but, for the most part, these are the basic ones.
I ride a Marin Nicassio which is classified as an adventure, endurance, and commuting bike. Stupid part about this bike though is that they also describe it as “beyond road”. It comes with 700c wheels with 30mm tires but it can fit a 650b wheels with up to 47mm tires. In other words, it’s also a gravel bike! Go figure! But that’s what you’ll find...lot of bikes that can be repurposed for different kinds of riding.
Probably the one thing that effects the price the most is the frame. It is after all the foundation for the bike and has the biggest impact on the cost. The more pricier bikes usually have carbon fiber. It’s the lightest of all bike frame materials and allows for a lot of flexibility with the design of a frame. But good carbon fiber frames are expensive and they’re harder to customize. If you truly want to go the carbon fiber route then be prepared to pay more than what is considered “entry-level” for a good carbon fiber bike. They’re not cheap and you have to make sure and buy one that allows for the customization options you’re looking for.
Cheaper bikes are usually made with either aluminum or steel frames with aluminum frames usually being lighter of the two. Both aluminum and steel are good options and greatly reduce the cost of a bike for sure. I personally have found steel frames to be a good economical choice with my bike mainly due to the sheer amount of customization I can make to it. Some of the best framesets are made out of steel due to the sheer ability to customize the hell out of a steel frame.
Another type of metal used is titanium, which is lighter than steel but also costs more. Plus, the upside of titanium is that it doesn’t rust. If you’re looking to customize the hell out of your bike a titanium frame is an interesting frame material to consider. However, a really good titanium frame bike can run almost as much as a carbon fiber bike. Not exactly “entry-level” but it’ll definitely be a frame that will last a long time.
Moving on to the drivetrain, the group set comprises of the shifters/levers, cranks, cassette, derailleurs, and chain. Along with the frame, it also can have a big impact on the price. Consider for a moment that a mid-level Shimano 105 group set alone will run you around $750 if you purchased it on its own. Knowing that you can understand why so many bikes are priced upwards of $1,500 or more. If you’re just starting out, a bike with a lower-end Shimano Claris group set with a 8-speed cassette and dual chainring crankset will work just fine. It might not be fancy and might not give you the efficiency of the 11- or 12-speed cassettes but, like I’ll mention later, you can always upgrade later if you’ve got the right frame.
All the other components on the bike like the handlebars, bar tape, grips, pedals, tires, saddle, and such are all things that you’ll need to figure out as part of a bike fit. These components are the parts that bike manufactures skimp on the most to help drive down the price of entry level bikes. What the bike comes with might work just fine though with a little modification. But you might want to switch out the saddle or tires for something that fits your style of riding better. If you have the option to choose the cheapest option or to just forgo a certain component and choose your own then do it. It’ll help reduce what you spend by not spending extra on components that you won’t keep on your bike.
5. Buy Stock And Modify The Hell Out Of It
I will say this...if you choose wisely on the frame then the rest of the bike will be fine. The reason is that, with the right frame, you can switch out everything else over time. Choose a frame that fits you well and give you the ability to configure it for the kind of riding you want to do and the rest will take care of itself. From what I can tell, it seems that the custom bike market is getting bigger for the simple reason that cyclists are getting particular about their bikes. But rather than going full custom, you can simply buy a generic bike with a good frame that suits your needs and just customize the hell out of it over time. My bike doesn’t look stock anymore and is pretty unique. Yours can be too. With the right foundation you can build on it and, over time, end up with the perfect bike.
6. Be Yourself And Go Your Own Route
Best advice I can give you is to just be yourself. When you’re riding, your bike is an extension of you. Don't feel pressured to dress a certain way, ride a certain brand and/or type of bike, or ride certain rides and routes. Ride how you want to ride and where you want to ride. Don’t feel pressured to wear things you don’t feel comfortable wearing. Dress in a way that is functional and comfortable. Buy a bike that speaks to you, provides the right foundation, and allows you to make it your own. Put your own personality into it and just build it up over time. As a result, you’ll enjoy your rides better and you'll find that you’ll love your bike even more.