Buying Your First Road Bike – The Beginner’s Guide

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Buying your first road bike is an exciting prospect but, if you are a complete beginner it can also be a bit daunting! If you’re anything like me then your first port of call will have been to hit the internet to start gathering a few facts and comparisons and, before you know it your head will be buzzing with weird terms like “group sets”, “frame geometry”, “cassettes” and “chainwheels”.

Very quickly you are gripped by the onset of choice paralysis and information over load.

Yikes!

But buying a new road bike should be a process of joy, a smiling journey of gentle fact weighing up that stimulates your pleasure receptors and leaves you tingling with anticipation.

Damn the bloody internet!

You now have so much information, so many choices and so many other people’s opinions to contend with that your brain just can’t process it all and goes into lock down. But unfortunately, sucking in all this info is like a drug, one more fix and you will find the perfect solution………..yeah right!

Before you know it you’re spending more time reading about the minutiae of different bike deals and specs than you would ever spend actually riding. Brain is under stress and you will either be locked in a perpetual state of stressful indecision or will just fight the damn thing and just buy any sodding road bike just to get the whole thing over and done with!

I feel your pain!

Now, just for a moment imagine a utopian world of yesteryear where you decide it would be a good idea to get into road biking and so, like any sensible person would, you go off to your local bike shop, have a chat to the salesman and you buy a bike. Of course you are blissfully unaware of the hundreds of other options available to you in every other bike shop in the world, you don’t have to suffer the opinions of millions of other road cycling “experts” and you aren’t plagued by the nagging doubt that if you had just searched harder and longer you could have done better.

You ride off and you’re happy.

There’s the bike shop, you want a bike, go in, get advice buy a bike and ride off into the sunset.

Simples!??

If only it were that simple……well maybe it still is and you just need to cut through the crap, both in terms of your expectations and also what’s online. I went through this whole process and, having come out of the other side I have few little nuggets of information to share so, here goes.

It doesn’t have to be perfect

I have a bit of a theory that often the anticipation of something is better than the thing itself. This applies to any number of things from buying stuff to currys, to Christmas.

Let’s take curry as an example – you’re hungry, you know you want curry, you get to the stage where having a curry is you prime objective in life, nothing else will do, your life will not be complete and will be enhanced by, and will only continue if you have a curry. You salivate, you imagine what it’s going to be like, you imagine the whole sumptuous experience and how you are going to be happy and replete afterwards. You pore over the menu carefully planning the perfect combination of deliciousness, you worry that you might have missed something.

Inevitably you over order.

You wait in a state of excitement. This is the best bit. Actually the very best bit is when all the food is put out on the table and you load your plate and take that first delicious mouth full.

However, you soon become over full. Your mouth burns so that you can’t taste anything, you can barely move yet, because you are having a curry, it has to be finished. Your partner suggest leaving some of it and asking for a box to take it home in – NO!!- you came here to do a job and you will damn well finish this curry if it’s the last thing you do.

You get home, lots of money has been paid for the curry, you waddle to the sofa, you sleep. Not so long afterwards to have an unpleasant sensation of being completely full but also hungry and thirsty…….maybe you need a curry…..

You get the idea. Nothing, no matter what you buy, what you do, or how much you spend is ever as good once you have got it than you think it’s going to be before you have it.

Therefore……drum roll……..there’s no such thing as the perfect bike out there. It only has to be good enough and, once you are on it in a few weeks time, most of all of these what seem now like vitally important decisions about Claris or Sora or mudguard mounts or not won’t matter any more.

Let’s face it. If you are a complete beginner and don’t currently have a road bike ANY road bike is going to be 100% better then the one you don’t have now!

How much should I pay for a road bike?

This is a tricky one and what seems expensive to one person might seem reasonable to another. Start off by thinking about how you will feel after the purchase and all the initial excitement has worn off (ie as above!).

Primarily, you don’t want to be left with a rubbish bike that is literally a pain in the arse or back or neck or shoulders or knees or indeed any other delicate part of your anatomy that will scream in agonising protest and make your life an utter misery, miles from home, in the rain, cold, hungry and alone. (Erm, been there, done that!)

Secondly, you also probably don’t want a metaphorical pain in the arse of having to pay the bike off for months afterwards when it’s still good but you realise that actually a cheaper bike would have given you just as much pleasure and you would still have been able to afford to eat.

The other point of view is that you will never regret buying something of good quality and that the pleasure it gives you in the long term is far outweighed by the pain of paying out for it in the first place. Going back to my previous analogy you will probably forget the painful hole in your bank balance much sooner than the ongoing pain in your butt!

It also depends on how serious you think you are about this whole road cycling business. Do you just want to try it and see how you get on? Have you been badly bitten by the bug and just know that this will become a long term thing?

If you become serious then your road bike becomes personal. I had mine stolen recently and didn’t realise up until that point just how intimate my relationship was with it. For an item like this, that has that much importance in your life, it becomes an investment in your well being both physically and spiritually and, to a certain extent this is priceless.

But, just to throw a spanner in the works, any road bike is better than no road bike and the chances are that you will be delighted with whatever you buy at whatever price point. For a beginner at least, owning any road bike will potentially give you a huge amount of pleasure. You can own a road bike for $500, that’s a lot of pleasure for $500! However, if you buy a road bike for $2000 it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will get three times more pleasure out of it and that’s an extra $1500 for only relatively small improvements and upgrades.

The other thing to consider is that the purchase of the road bike itself is only really just the beginning of it. You might not think so but you will want helmet, road shoes, pedals, clothing, water bottle, tools, bike computer etc etc etc and the list does very much go on and on.

So, what to spend? Well, try to make a cold impartial decision based on your bank balance rather than what you have read on the internet about carbon frames and aerodynamics. This isn’t an emotional decision (there’s plenty of time for that later) it’s a rational one. Come up with a figure. Then stick to it. My goodness how hard is that as you will be tempted by all sorts of shiny must have features, the allure of electronic gear shifters and disc brakes!

Also, and I say this to you lovingly and carefully as a man who really struggled to cycle even for 20 minutes at the outset. Assuming that you are pretty much a beginner, and assuming that you are not uber fit, flexible and have awesome core strength. And also assuming that you might be just a tad over what you would want your ideal weight to be……..(yes, me, me and double me when I started too!) You honestly and truthfully aren’t going to notice or care in two weeks time if it’s carbon or aluminium, has Claris, Sora or Tiagra, is double or triple chainwheel or is 100g lighter than the one that’s $500 dollars more. Broadly speaking, until you are mega fit, none of this stuff really matters!

What does matter is getting out there on a good enough bike to get you started without financially crippling the rest of your life!

So, arrive at a comfortable financial figure and then at least plan to stick to your guns!

Should I buy a new or second hand road bike?

There’s a number of things in my genetic make up including being from the North of England, having parents that were self employed, having three teenage daughters and a partner with a love of spa breaks and Bollinger that makes me extremely difficult to prise money out of. I have been called tight by my partner which I think is a tad unfair but I don’t like to waste money and can become a bit obsessed by looking to squeeze the absolute most out of any purchase I make.

This can become a bit stressful (yes for me not my partner!) and I’m hoping to grow out of it as I get older (!) but my default position is always to look for a cheap backdoor rather than going mainstream.

Hence my love of Ebay!

I personally don’t have much of a problem with “previously loved” and it sort of fits in with a vague hippy notion I have of myself as being all “eco” and “recyclable” as well as sticking it to the consumerist establishment because I’m really still an angry punk rebel at heart despite being a middle aged, middle class Dad.

The point is, for $500 you can get a lot more second hand bike than you can with $500 new. It could be argued that a $500 new road bike is a waste of money and is too cheap and that, if this is your budget, you should only consider second hand.

($500 is a nominal figure as this will change over time and depend on your geographical location.)

Maybe….

How to buy your first road bike with the Road Cyclist's Guide

Certainly a cheap new road bike won’t hold it’s second hand value if you wanted to sell it and upgrade in the future.

Forgetting the allure of the shiny new bike show room and the whole pleasure of buying new then second hand does have a large number of advantages and you do get a lot more bike for your money.

However there are pitfalls. You could buy a bike that needs repairing or is faulty. You could buy a stolen bike. You could buy a bike that really isn’t suitable for you.

My advice, for a road cycling beginner, would be to seriously consider second hand but not to buy blind. You need to see the bike and try the bike before buying, you also need to have some basic knowledge of bike mechanics to make sure that it’s not a complete wreck and you also need to make sure that the bike is the right size for you and also the right type (see below). Bear in mind that (particularly if you compare to car repair prices) bike repairs are relatively cheap and there’s not too much that can go wrong. You might have to spend a great deal of time searching for the bike but you could well end up with a bit of a bargain in the end.

The alternative is obviously to buy new. If you are going to buy new then you may as well go for the whole experience and go to a good bike shop. There are huge advantages to this – not least that bike shops smell nice, the whole experience is a great pleasure and fun and there’s, well something really really nice about buying and trying new bikes. If new is the way for you then go the whole hog and go to loads of shops, get loads of advice and then try loads of bikes.

The other advantage of new is that the bike will be correctly fitted and set up for you and you won’t have any mechanical worries. You will get a warranty and might be able to return the bike if you decide you don’t like it.

The worst thing to do is to buy new online without trying the exact bike in the exact size first – that’s crazy!

What type of road bike should I get?

Ok, preliminary faffing around and budget setting now done it’s time to consider exactly what sort of bike you want. Well obviously a road bike I hear you cry ……duh! Well hang on a minute I reply not all road bikes are made equal and you might have some clear ideas about what you want to do on it that will determine what flavour road bike you get.

Broadly speaking road bikes are either made for speed or endurance. So, if you know that you are going to do time trials and you have the cycling experience and endurance you need to go straight in with an aggressive low race style road bike. The geometry of the frame, that is the angles and style of the frame, will help you go as fast as possible with the downside being that there will be very little concession to rider comfort.

However, the majority of beginner road cyclists will want to get fit, join a club, do some cafe rides, do the odd sportive here and there and their needs, certainly for a start, will be different. The geometry for these types of sportive or “endurance” bikes is more relaxed, less aggressive, not so low and much more comfortable.

Comfort is a very, very important word.

If you’re a beginner, and trust me I’ve been there………….if you’re a slightly unfit, inflexible beginner there is one thing and one thing only that matters when buying a road bike for the first time. It’s so important that, if you get it wrong it will probably put you off road cycling for ever and it will make your life a misery.

Comfort.

Yes, your number one priority as a beginner road cyclist is comfort because when you start out you won’t have the stamina and core strength to manage a bike that doesn’t prioritise comfort and if it hurts when you ride you will simply stop riding.

I can’t emphasise enough how gruesome being in pain on a bike is when you are miles from home.

So, unless you have trained before and have some experience you need a nice comfy endurance bike with a nice relaxed geometry with a nice upright position with your back at 45 degrees or preferably 48 degrees to the ground with a correctly supportive saddle and some nice beginner cleats that float around freely.

You can always gradually lower the handlebars into a more aggressive position as your body adapts and your core gets stronger and you can upgrade to some nice pro cleats for maximum power transfer when you have perfected your technique.

But you will never get there if you start off on a bike that simply doesn’t fit, or where the geometry is too aggressive. The pain will get the better of you and you will give up.

So, initially you need an endurance bike with a frame geometry that will help you to be as comfortable as possible. It’s also really important that the frame size is right for you and road bike frames come measured in cm. Most of the manufacturers provide rather vague and contradictory sizing charts where you can match your height to the frame size. This will probably get you in the ball park but the only real way to tell if a bike fits you is to sit on it as both the height and length (reach) of the frame are really important. Bike fitting is a bit of a dark art in itself and you can find out more about it by having a look at my post here.

Colour

Yes, I have written colour because, along with comfort, I think that how the bike looks is a massive motivating factor in getting out there and riding and enjoying your cycling.

Is he mad I hear you cry!?

Yes, well probably but hear me out. In a few months when it’s raining and you have a work deadline and you have got quite a bit fitter and faster on your bike but have, well plateaued a little bit. You might be tempted to not bother going for a ride, the initial enthusiasm might wane a bit and your cycling might slip.

The point is that if you love your bike, if it’s a thing of visual beauty that just begs to be ridden, if it’s comfortable and just looking at it never mind riding it gives you pleasure – then you are going to be more motivated.

Personally grey bikes don’t do it for me. Sleek black maybe, go faster red definitely, cool white yes. You have to love your bike and that means loving how good it looks. And you can love a cheaper bike in a good colour yes!

This part of bike buying is an emotional thing. You don’t have to have the prettiest bike in the shop to love it, you just need to have a bike that’s aesthetically pleasing to you. A bike that, to you, has personality and charm and gives you aesthetic pleasure is a bike that you will want to ride and ride well. If your bike looks like a pile of crap then why the hell would you want to ride it? Where’s the joy in that!?

Now, on to several things that most people seem to think are the most important elements in buying a bike but which are, especially for a beginner, not that important at all, frankly a bit dull but somehow morbidly fascinating at the same time and have nothing to do with the two most important aspect of buying a beginner road bike which are…….all together now…….COMFORT AND COLOUR.

Groupset

OK, the groupset refers to the bike’s components ie chainrings, cranks, cassette, derailleur, brakes and levers. You are most likely to come across the Shimano variety and they start with the entry level groupset being called Claris, followed by Sora, Tiagra, 105, Ultegra then Dura Ace. You can also get electronic gear shifts but, as we are looking at beginner bikes these probably won’t be on the menu.

The more you pay, the lighter the components are and the faster and slicker the gearchange and operation is. In the real world is there any real difference? I’ve only personally ridden Sora and Tiagra and the difference is minimal. There is supposed to be little noticeable real world difference until you get to Ultegra. There are forums and blogs and endless opinions on this as well as masses of marketing hype associated with componentry but, for our purposes, the groupset isn’t massively important – don’t get hung up on it. You will love whatever you buy.

What gears do I need?

Your gears are closely linked to the groupset decision above and the decision will largely be based on your experience and your most common riding terrain. Again for a start getting any bike with some gears is preferable to spending six months reading about chainsets and cassette ratios as both a easily and regularly replaced and upgraded.

Basically the chainset, or front gearing comes in compact, standard double, or triple. Standard double does exactly what it says on the tin and is a good allrounder whilst a compact offers a a bit of an easier life on hills at the expense of a super high gear. Triples have an extra super duper low option and are a bit out of fashion at the moment as they add extra weight and complexity.

For a start, if you have the choice, and especially if you live in the mountains a compact would be the best but it’s not a disaster if it isn’t.

The cassette is the sprockety thing at the back and they come with a bit more variety. Again, for a beginner road bike don’t get too hung up about the cassette as you will soon forget about it once you start riding. All beginner road bikes will come with a good all purpose cassette that should be good for 99% of your cycling for the moment.

If your needs do become a bit more specialist down the line the cassette is easily changed or upgraded. Basically they can either have close quick changing ratios without the extremes of low or high which means that you can change quickly and precisely but are limited in range. Or, you can have wider spacing, more variety and a slightly less smooth changing experience – horses for rather more advanced courses.

Road Bike Frame and Fork Material

Now this is a fun subject and one that everyone and his dog will have a differing opinion on. Chances are that your probably pulling your hair out stressing over that really annoying price point where you can get either a carbon frame with a cheaper groupset or an aluminium frame with a more expensive groupset. I’ll come back to this perpetual conundrum in a minute but first lets have a look at the types of frame materials available.

Steel – old school, cheap and relatively heavy but basically indestructible and hard wearing. It also has a certain amount of flex in it and so can be comfortable to ride as it soaks up quite a bit of the road.

Aluminium – more expensive, lighter than steel but has a harsher ride. Most entry level road bikes will have aluminium frames as it performs really well for the price. A lot of bikes at this level combine an aluminium frame with a carbon fork and possibly also a carbon seat post as well both of which will go some way to soaking up the road before it reaches your hands or bottom!

Carbon – lighter than carbon and more comfortable to ride but, dammit, of course it’s much more expensive. Carbon is a bit more easily damaged than steel or aluminium and you have to be careful not to over tighten bolts on components or it can crack.

Titanium – out of my personal price bracket and experience by quite a long way!

Going back to the issue above bear in mind that a carbon bike with cheap components might well weigh the same or even more than an aluminium frame with a more expensive lighter groupset. This is a tricky one and could only really be solved by test riding the bikes and it would probably come down to personal choice as to which one was better. To be honest, the odd few grams here and there for a beginner road cyclist are not worth obsessing over – remember it’s about comfort, and the carbon frame might just win here, and colour/looks – the carbon again could well look sexier.

But it’s small differences. You might be better avoiding this contentious middle carbon/aluminium area altogether for your first road bike purchase and look at paying less, in which case the choice is aluminium, preferably with a carbon front fork or spending much more in which case carbon is the obvious choice.

Brakes

OMG those disc brakes look super cool and the rider of a bike with disc brakes must go super fast!

Mmmm, maybe. Again you might be budget wise on the cusp of being able to have disc over calipers. Discs stop you quicker, particularly in the wet and aren’t really effected by grit and dirt from the road. They are a bit heavier than caliper brakes though and a bit more tricky to maintain. Calipers are very effective if well maintained and you are using good quality pads. They are also cheaper.

I hope this post has gone some way to helping you find your way through the myriad of questions and considerations that you will probably be going through in choosing a new road bike. If you are a beginner then there are really only two important things to bear in mind which are comfort and colour/style. If you get those two right then, to a certain extent, the rest will take care of itself.

As you progress and find where your cycling passions and inclinations lie other things like aerodynamics and handling or the ratios of your cassette will become much more important to you and your priorities will change.

But for now the priority is to make a start. Get on your bike, if it’s comfortable and looks and feels good you will be inspired and who knows where the road will lead.

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