I got my first road bike in the spring of 2007. My previous cycling experience involved very heavy Canadian Tire grade mountain bikes that I rode about 1-2 km from my apartment to campus. I knew nothing at all about bikes. Words like “Shimano” and “crank” were foreign to me and I did not understand the difference between riding an aluminum or carbon frame. Four years and four bikes later I’m a professional triathlete and a self-proclaimed bike nerd. In hindsight there are many things that I wish I knew when I was buying that first bike (in case you are wondering I ended up going with a Devinci Silverstone SL, aluminum frame, 105 groupset). I thought it might be helpful to pass on some of this information.
Here’s the quick and dirty low down for newbies:
- Groupset is the name for the mechanical parts of a bike including: brake levers/shifters, front and rear derailleurs, front and rear brakes, bottom bracket, crankset, chain. Use the bike part diagram below to familiarize yourself with these parts.
- There are three main component brands: Shimano, SRAM, Campagnolo.
- Shimano and SRAM are interchangeable (you can use some of each parts on the same bike).
- Campy is not interchangeable with either, so if you share/swap gear between bikes or with your partner/friends, those bikes have to have Campy components as well. I’ve never used Campy but some people swear by it.
- Campy tends to be more expensive. Shimano has been around for much longer than SRAM but tends to be more expensive in comparison.
- Within each brand of components there is differing models. The lower end models tend to be cheaper, heavier, less durable (in some cases) and won’t shift as fast or as smoothly. A good rule of thumb is to use components that are similar to your competitive level (i.e. if you are a beginner then the bottom tier may work just fine for you, higher level cyclists will insist on using the best components. Because the names of the different models of each brand are basically gibberish, I’ve listed them here in order from lowest to highest so you can have some idea of what people in the bike store are talking about:
- Shimano: Sora, Tiagra, 105, Ultregra, Dura Ace
- SRAM: Apex, Rival, Force, Red
- Campagnolo: Veloce, Centaur, Athena, Chorus, Record, Super Record
Aluminum vs. carbon frame:
For the new rider, the biggest difference between the two is price.
The second biggest difference is the ride and feel. Carbon frames tend to give a more comfortable ride as they don’t transfer road vibrations as much and are lighter than aluminum frames. For my first bike I went for an aluminum frame because I couldn’t justify spending that much money when I didn’t even know if I liked cycling or would be good at it. In hind sight, I would offer these two pieces of information based on my experience: 1) I know very few people who don’t enjoy cycling when it’s on a nice bike; 2) most people I know who are former competitive runners, rowers, and other endurance athletes are good at cycling.
Ask yourself if this is something you could see yourself being serious about. If it is, then, in my opinion it’s worth the investment right off the bat to get a more expensive bike.
Road bike vs. triathlon/time trial bike:
I often get asked this question now and this is indeed an important decision, especially if you have intentions of trying a triathlon. I recommend that if you only have one bike it should be a road bike.
A road bike is much more versatile than a time trial bike. Road bikes are definitely better for riding in groups, riding up long climbs, going on a cycling vacation/training camp because of your position on the bike and handling (compared to a tri bike). Clipping aerobars onto a road bike is a reasonable option too to increase aerodynamics for triathlons. However if you plan to do long distance triathlons, are quite competitive in triathlons (especially on the big leg) or quite competitive in road racing and plan to do stage races with time trials, then you probably will need both types of bikes.
The main difference between the two bikes is the geometry of the frame shape. Tri bikes have a steeper angle, shorter top tube length, and shorter chain stay length than road bikes (see diagram above). This geometry allows the rider’s hips to be positioned more optimally for power transfer and puts the rider in a more aerodynamic position than on a road bike with clip-on aerobars.
Finding the right bike shop:
There are several things to consider before buying a bike from a particular bike shop. Often bike shops will give you a free or discounted bike fit and bike service when you purchase a new bike from them. So find out what perks are offered at the shops you are considering. It is a good idea to get your bike serviced at the same place you buy it, as they will be very familiar with the particular brand and model they sold you. For example, 3/4 of the bikes that I have owned have been Cervelo’s, and my favourite local bike shop in Vancouver is La Bicicletta Pro Shop, who sells more Cervelo’s than anyone else in BC, so who would be better to work on my bikes?
Another key factor to consider is the importance of getting a proper bike fit done by an experienced and knowledgeable bike fitter. I bought my first two bikes when I was living in Toronto and at both shops, although the staff were very nice, when it came time for the bike fit they sat me on my bike, eyeballed a few things, and said I was good to go in about 10 minutes. In comparison, when I got my latest new bike fit in April at La Bicicletta Pro Shop, I had every length, angle and position of my body measured, tweaked and re-tweaked for 3 hours! Note that a proper bike fit should normally only take about 90 minutes, I was just a really difficult case at the time with a bad neck and shoulder injury. Another bonus for me with finding a great bike shop like La Bicicletta with friendly employees and owner is that I got to know them really well from going so much, and the owner Kevin agreed to be my very first sponsor as a new pro and has since helped me to get other sponsors, including Cervelo!
Those are the main points that come to mind when reminiscing about my cycling ignorance. I hope that they can be helpful to new or even experienced cyclists in the market for a new ride.
Hope to see you out riding!