Guidelines for Buying Your First Bike

So you've decided to buy a bike and get started with your cycling or triathlon career. Congratulations. As you check out your local bike shops (LBSs), the web, and various newsgroups, you'll soon discover that choosing your first bike is as difficult, if not more so, as choosing your first car. Do you get the Ferrari with the expensive upkeep, or the truck that just keeps on truckin'? How can you tell what a bike is really worth?

Buying a bike is a lot easier if you have large amounts of expendable cash on hand. They can be very expensive. Some top of the line (ie, way overpriced) models can run into the $5,000 range! But don't let that scare you. You can also find much more reasonably priced used and new bikes out there. There are plenty of good makes and models to choose from. So your first choice really becomes: Used or new? And your second choice is: Road frame or time-trial (triathlon) specific?

How much dough can you afford to spend? First thing to remember: The LBS wants you to spend a lot of money. They will almost always recommend the highest priced, high-end piece of equipment, because that's where they make their money. That bike may be great - but also may be overpriced and more machine than you really need. If you arm yourself with some basic knowledge about frames, components, and wheels (the three main ingredients that make up the 'bike' assembly), you can become an intelligent shopper and avoid wasting your cash.

Frame names are what constitute the 'name' of the bike. For instance, my 'Cervelo P2K' actually consists of a Yr 2000 Cervelo P2K frame ($1100 new), Dura Ace components ($550 used) (bottom bracket, cranks, shifters, headset, front and rear derailleur), a Profile Design carbon front fork ($120 new - good deal), Look (clipless) pedals ($90 new), a saddle ($50 new), a carbon seatpost ($89 new), a few nuts and bolts ($4), brake and shifter cabling ($20), a Vision Tech aerobar ($400 new), a generic cassette ($45 new), a generic chainring ($12), and different wheel combinations ($100 - 700), depending on whether I'm racing or training (and wheels are actually a sub-assembly which consist of a tire, an innertube, a wheel hub, spokes (maybe), and the rim).

When you buy a bike from a frame manufacturer, you're buying either just the frame or the frame and whatever accessories that company has decided to outfit their frame with. The bike listed above, as is, is a very good time-trial machine at an upper-mid level price range. There are a number of upgrades I would like to make, but $$ doesn't grow on trees (that's a hint to all conceivable sponsors out there). But - you can buy an entire, decent used racing bike for under $400.00. Used bike prices are like used cars - they depreciate very quickly. I would be lucky to sell this bike for $1500, and $1,200 would be more realistic - despite the excellent shape I keep it in. (It's not for sale.)

There are a lot of frames on the market these days. Too many for me to discuss at this time (I would actually have to do some research, god forbid!). Suffice it to say the Internet has made it much easier for you to go out there and check out some information. Start with Slowtwitch, a website run by the founder of Quintana Roo bikes and wetsuits. The site does a pretty good job of examining and critiquing the many makes and models of bikes and accessories as well as offering some colorful commentary on the sport of triathlon.

Nowadays, most US and Canadian companies outfit their bikes with Shimano components. Shimano components come in 5 levels, but only 3 that would go onto a 'racing' bike - 105, Ultegra, or Dura Ace. 105 components are the less expensive, heavier components. They are good for entry-level bikes and riders who don't plan to ride 200 miles per week anytime soon. However, they have a shorter life span than the Ultegra/Dura Ace and if you buy used 105 components you're taking a gamble on when something will seize/wear out/break. Ultegra and Dura Ace components are lighter and longer lasting. Dura Ace are the lightest, longest lasting. Many factory installers now use a combination of these components as the differences between the two are negligible. Again, however, if you plan to buy used components, do yourself a favor and only buy Dura Ace.

Another possibility are Campagnolo (Campy) components. There's absolutely nothing wrong with them except that they are made in Italy, are not interchangeable with Shimano components, and a lot of US bike shops don't keep a large stock of these items handy. I rode Campy on my first two bikes, a Bianchi steel frame for 3 years, and a Trek 2200 carbon frame for 5 years, and never had a problem other than normal wear and tear. Many pure cyclists prefer Campy over Shimano, and they have comparable levels/prices of components available.

Wheels are another entirely different subset of your purchasing decision. There are wheels for training, wheels for criterium racing, wheels for heavier athletes, and wheels for time-trialing. Some companies who specialize in wheels with different performance levels and prices: Mavic, Hed, Rolf, Zipp, & Renn (discs only). You can buy new entry level training wheels for about 60 bucks at your LBS and the cheapest decent new racing wheels will cost you about $400 for the set. You can buy great used racing wheels for anywhere from $200 to $600 for the pair. Racing wheels are lighter and more aerodynamic than training wheels.

If you're going to buy used components, frames, and wheels, try to do it in such a manner so that you can inspect the goods prior to final payment. There are some dishonest folks operating on the 'net these days, and what they advertise may not be what is delivered. Buy local. Check the cycling and triathlon scenes, races, shops, and websites for local deals. 3 year old Dura Ace components are fine. 6 years old and ridden a lot, they're getting closer to being worn out. Anything 8-10 years old, unless it is a steel frame, may be in good condition but is probably technically outdated.

All this being said, all the expensive equipment in the world will not make more than a few seconds difference unless you go out and train. Back in the day I blew away plenty of competitors riding on bikes 4x the value of my old Trek, which had $40 dollar training wheels and a hand-me-down Scott aerobar on it. If you're only going to ride 40 miles a week, do yourself a favor and don't worry about the aerodynamic differences between a 900-gram or 1100-gram wheel combination. You'll be too freaking fat, slow, and weak for it to matter!

Your next big choice: Do you go roadie or tri-geek? My advice to you, if you are operating on limited funds, is to buy a used road bike, including Bianchi, Cannondale, Fuji, Giant, Lemond, Litespeed, Merlin, Mongoose, Raleigh, Specialized, or Trek, as well as various French, Italian, Australian, Japanese, German, and Canadian bikes which I'm not familiar with. They are more comfortable and better suited for group rides and touring, and with minor modifications they can be turned into time-trialing machines. These minor modifications include buying $100 clip-on aerobars (Profile, Syntace), and a forward leaning seatpost.

The aerodynamic and weight differences between a top of the line time-trial machine and a used road bike are often inconsequential compared to the ... say it with me roadies ... size of the engine. That's you, plain and simple. Aerodynamics and weight become more important as you reach the point of diminishing returns on what you can do with that engine. Scientifically, the aerodynamic difference is entirely negligible until you reach approximately 20 mph or 20 mph headwinds, and the weight differences only matter on starts and hills. In other words, save your money and train.

But, for argument's sake, let's say you know you're only going to race in triathlons and you don't really have much interest in having two bikes - one for group riding and touring, and another for triathlon racing. In that case, you may be better off with a time-trial frame (Cervelo, Trek, Elite, Kestrel, Softride, Quintana Roo, Javelin, Yaqui). What you need to be prepared for is that these frames position your body differently than do a normal road frame. Essentially a time-trial frame will move your body forward so that your center is more towards the bottom bracket, your hips are rotated forward, and you lean more weight on the front of the bike. This is better for your triathlon position and is intended to relieve tension on your hamstrings, which you need for the run portion of the race. Read this article at slowtwitch for a more detailed explanation.

Next, before you buy that bike, you need to get fitted properly. That means that they build bikes in different sizes, and different companies measure their sizes slightly differently. A generalization I can make is that a 5'10 rider will be comfortable somewhere between 54cm and 58cm (that's the length of the top tube). Taller, you go bigger, shorter, you go smaller. Your torso and leg length are the critical factors here. If you're reasonably mechanically apt, go do some reading and then size yourself. If not, head down to the LBS and have them take your measurements. Bike fit, an equation which balances comfort and power, is the most important scientific part of your cycling. Here are some common sense guidelines you can use:

They also have 650cc bikes, which are time-trial specific and have slightly smaller wheels for quicker acceleration. (A 'normal' sized bike uses a 700cc wheel and the two are not interchangeable - you cannot use a 700cc bike with 650 wheels, at least not very well). Word on the street is don't bother checking them out unless you stand less than 5'8" tall. Most frame companies that produce time-trial bikes make 650 bikes.

My personal experience has shown me that Trek, Cervelo, and Bianchi make good frames. There are plenty of other frames out there which I have not had the opportunity to test out. If you plan to be a reasonably serious competitor, stay away from cheaper components. Cheap components will ruin your day when your bike stops working forty miles from home on a cold, rainy November morning in the middle of rural North Florida...but I digress.

A couple additional considerations for you:

And that's your introduction to buying a bike. Check out my safe cycling article if you get a chance, in order to learn some basic safety tips and cycling etiquette. Good luck and I'll see you on the road.

Marty Gaal