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How to Buy a Bike
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Buying a bike can be a fun and rewarding experience. It can also be a bit intimidating because you may not know enough about the products you're looking at, and feel overwhelmed by all of the choices. Once you know the basics, you'll have enough knowledge and ammunition to zero-in on exactly what's best for you.

Be sure to check out our local-area Bike Shop Discount Page for Potomac Pedalers member discounts on bikes, accessories, clothing, service and parts.

Types of Bikes

When you look at a manufacturer's website, you'll see that bikes are divided into classifications such as - Performance Race, Endurance Race, Fitness, Triathlon, Cyclocross, Touring, and more. This makes it easier for you to differentiate between models and to find what best suits your needs. Recreational riders will usually be looking at the first three categories - Performance Race, Endurance Race and Fitness.

Performance Race (or Performance Road) refers to a road bike with a lower, more aggressive riding position. These are for road cyclists looking to go fast. Endurance Race (or Endurance Road) refers to a road bike with a slightly higher riding position. These are for road cyclists looking for a bit more comfort, especially on longer rides such as centuries. Fitness refers to what are commonly called Hybrid bikes. These are the three types of bikes we'll be detailing below.

Should You Buy a Hybrid/Fitness Bike or a Road Bike?

Anyone who hasn't ridden in a while (years), and begins looking for a new bike, is going to automatically run to the nearest shop and get a hybrid. Why, because they look more comfortable than a road bike. You can sit up straight and hold your arms out in front of you. A road bike looks too difficult to use because you're all hunched over and "racing".

After they buy their hybrid they'll find out that it's great for riding around town; traveling bike paths; going to the store; and any number of other short distance rides. Once they become a stronger rider, their 10 mile ride will turn into 15 mile trips. And a month later they'll be riding 20 miles because of the challenge. It's at this point they begin to realize that everyone on a road bike is passing them by. Why? Because road bikes are faster, lighter, and have a better riding position.

Now that same person goes on a 30 mile ride and finds out how hard it is to pedal their bike this distance. Their wrists are sore, their posterior and other body parts hurt, and they don't know why. The answer is - it's because they're riding a hybrid bike. These are great for short rides, but not a good choice for long ones.

After a few months of riding that "perfect" hybrid bike, they're back at the shop looking at road bikes.

So before you go out and get a hybrid, be absolutely sure you don't plan on riding long distances. Although you can certainly do long rides on hybrids, they're not as comfortable or efficient as a road bike.

See our article on Hybrid vs. Road Bike Riding Position for more details on riding position and power.

Shopping for a Hybrid/Fitness Bike

Because this is the most popular type of bike sold today, hybrid's come in a wide variety of configurations. You'll find entry-level hybrid bikes for $400.00 and carbon fiber hybrids for well over $2,000.00. The wide price range has to do with the fact that every manufacturer wants your business, and they don't want price to be a factor that eliminates them. So if you were to walk into a bike shop and tell them that you have $500.00 or $2,500 to spend on a hybrid bike, they'll have something for you.

As prices increase, so do the features and quality of the bike. Although a bike is made up of hundreds of parts, in general terms you can think it as being made up of these three primary items -

  1. Frame
  2. Groupset - Shifters, gears, etc.
  3. Wheels

Lower-priced bikes will have aluminum frames, the least expensive groupset and the heaviest wheels. As prices increase, the manufacturer will change to a better quality groupset, add more gears and better/lighter wheels. Hybrid bikes in the higher price range will come with carbon fiber frames, although the vast majority of hybrid buyers will choose aluminum. Aluminum is cheap and it works fine for hybrid riders.

So the question is, how much do you spend and what do you need in a hybrid bike? That can best be answered by test riding a few different models to see how they feel, how they shift, and if you have the proper gearing; especially for getting up hills. Start with a low-priced model and then try some more expensive bikes. It will quickly become apparent which bikes you like and which one's you'll eliminate.

Based upon experience, most hybrid bike riders eventually move up to a road bike, so don't overspend on a hybrid. Chances are that your hybrid bike will end up becoming your second bike for cruising around town or going to the grocery store.


Hybrid/Fitness Model Comparisons

There are literally hundreds of models of hybrid bikes by a wide variety of manufacturers, so it would be impossible to list and compare them all. Instead we're listing every 2014 model of Trek's popular "FX" series of Fitness bike. This will give you a general idea of what to expect at different price points, no matter what manufacturer you choose.

All of the bikes below have aluminum frames with the exception of the 7.7 FX, which has carbon fiber. We list the different gear setups for each bike, however keep in mind that as prices increase, so does the quality of the groupset, wheels and other bike components.


Brand/ModelFeaturesPrice




Trek 7.0 FXTriple 7 Speed$420.00
Trek 7.1 FXTriple 7 Speed$470.00
Trek 7.2 FXTriple 8 Speed$550.00
Trek 7.3 FXTriple 9 Speed$660.00
Trek 7.4 FXTriple 9 Speed$800.00
Trek 7.5 FXCompact Double 9 Speed$1,100.00
Trek 7.6 FXCompact Double 10 Speed$1,320.00 
Trek 7.7 FXCompact Double 10 Speed - Carbon fiber frame$1,980.00


See our article on Choosing a Bike Gear Setup to learn more about triple vs. double chainrings. Also, there's more "gear talk" in the Road Bike section below. 

Road Bikes

Choosing a road bike is a somewhat complicated process, because you'll have a lot of important decisions to make that greatly effect price and performance..

Although price may be a big factor in your choice, it's best to go look at bikes in every price range so that you fully understand the differences. Ride a $5,000 bike and then try one that's $2,500 and another that's $1,000. If you can't tell the difference between them, then there's no reason you would ever want the more expensive bike. But, if the more expensive bike shifts better, handles better or simply "feels" better, you may be able to find a cheaper bike with some of these same characteristics for a lot less. After your test rides you should be able to gauge what expensive feels like, vs. inexpensive. Now you've got to get to work and begin narrowing down your choices.

Frame type - Metal or carbon?

This decision will impact your final price more than any other.

Metal frame bikes (aluminum) are substantially less expensive because the materials don't cost much and the frames are mass-produced on machines. Aluminum frames tend to vibrate more on the road and they'll send the bumps up through your body, when compared to carbon. Some manufacturers are better than others at reducing this vibration with aluminum. So if you definitely want an aluminum frame (costs less), then try a few different brands to see which one has the most supple ride.

Carbon frames are hand-made and take several days to build. The builder starts out with flat sheets of carbon and wraps it around forms in the shape of bike tubes. Next they're glued, sealed, baked and assembled. It's a very expensive and time-consuming process. If you've ever ridden on a carbon frame bike, you'll probably never go back to metal. Carbon feels more supple and absorbs the road. Just be prepared to pay a premium for carbon.

Many manufacturers combine both aluminum and carbon components on the same bike. The frame may be aluminum, however the front fork (the two long pieces connecting the handlebar to the front wheel) will be made of carbon. This will greatly reduce vibration, because the carbon fork will help to absorb bumps, before they reach your handlebar.

You should also be aware that metal frames are made with other materials. For example steel and titanium. Steel bikes have been around forever (well it seems that way). Most mass manufacturers have gotten away from steel road bikes and now use aluminum because of its light weight. However, there are now specialty bike builders that still use steel on hand-made bikes. You won't see these in your local bike shop, only through custom builders or boutique brands.

Titanium is a frame material found on a limited number of road bikes. Its primary advantage is durability. A titanium (Ti) bike will flex and bend without cracking, more so than an aluminum or steel frame. So Ti frames would be best suited for rugged use, which is why you'll find Ti most often on mountain bikes. They take lots of pounding.

Red bike is Performance geometry and Black bike is Endurance geometry.
Frame Geometry - Performance vs. Endurance


Frame Geometry refers to the measurements between points on the frame and how the rider will be seated - either leaning far forward down low, or more upright.  A lower riding position is considered a "performance" bike - it's intended to be as fast as possible.  A higher riding position is considered an "endurance" bike - performance is compromised for comfort. 

Take a look at the image to the right comprised of two bicycles.  The red bike is a performance frame and the black bike is an endurance frame.  The primary difference in geometry is that the handlebar stem on the endurance (black) bike is up higher, and the rider won't reach as far forward on the handlebars.  This results in a more comfortable riding position.  You'll sacrifice a bit of power with the endurance frame, yet you'll be able to ride more comfortably for a longer period of time.  Performance frames are the best choice when speed is more important than comfort, and endurance frames are the best choice when comfort overrules speed.

It's important to test ride both frame configurations so that you can see what works best and feels best.  A properly fit frame is very important to your long term satisfaction.  You can swap out bike components like gears and wheels, yet you'll always be working with the specific frame geometry that you've purchased.  So choose your frame carefully.




Groupsets


The mechanical components of a bike - gears, shifters, brakes, etc, - are called a groupset. Some cyclists like to call it a "grouppo". It just sounds better.

There are three major companies that manufacture groupsets - Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo (often referred to as "Campy"). Shimano is the dominant company that you'll see on most bikes at every price level. SRAM is used on mid-range to high-end road bikes, and Campy is usually only seen at shops that specialize in competitive cyclists.

All three have have strong points and weaknesses, and it's really a matter of personal preference. Ask three cyclists which is better and you'll get three different answers.

Each of these brands has various levels of groupsets that are targeted to different buyers. There's high-end, light weight products for racers; upper-end products for non-racers that still want the same performance level; mid-range products for the best price to performance ratio; and lower-end products for less expensive bikes.

For example, Shimano has three primary groupsets for road bikes. Dura-Ace which is most expensive (racing level), Ultegra is one level down (recreational high-end) and the 105 which is the best price to performance product in their line. Shimano has other groupsets below the 105 for entry-level road bikes.

The physical shifting motion is quite different between manufacturers, especially SRAM. Whereas Shimano uses two levers - one for shifting up and the other for shifting down - SRAM uses one lever which always shifts to the left. Press a SRAM shifter gently to the left to go up a gear, and press it harder to the left to go down a gear. This can be confusing to long-time Shimano users, so you really need to try out a SRAM setup to see if you're comfortable with it. Some riders will claim that the shifting feels more precise and accurate from one brand vs. another. So you need to try them for yourself.

Below is a listing of each company's product line from professional down to entry-level. There isn't an exact match in quality between different manufacturer's of the same level product. For example, 105, Rival and Chorus are all listed as mid-range, however they have enough differences between them, that you can't necessarily say that they're easily comparable. This graphic merely gives you a sequential listing of quality level within each manufacturer's product line, and where they perceive each groupset classifies best.

The more expensive groupsets will use lots of carbon fiber, titanium and other high-end materials. As you go down each level, more common materials such as aluminum are used.



Groupset ClassificationShimanoSRAMCampagnolo




ProfessionalDura AceRedSuper Record
High-end RecreationalUltegraForceRecord
Mid-range Recreational105RivalChorus
Entry-level TiagraApexAthena
Low-endSora
Centaur



Veloce


You'll probably see bikes that mix and match components from one group to another. There could be 105 brakes, with Tiagra cassette and a crank made by another manufacturer. This is done because bike manufacturers need to sell bikes at certain price points, such as $1,500. If they were to use all 105 components on the bike, they couldn't sell the bike at this price.

So you've got to be very careful when looking at groupsets. They may say it's an Ultegra bike, but only a few of the components are from the Ultegra line. Some of them could be from the less expensive 105 group. Is this bad? Not necessarily. If you can get a carbon frame bike at a price point that works for you, it's not going to matter which model cassette is on the rear wheel. It only matters that the bike meets your needs.

Chainring

You need to decide whether to get a Double, Compact Double or Triple chainring. Triple chainrings used to be the most popular choice among new road cyclists, however they're being replaced with compact double setups that have a wide gear range. A compact double gives you a large gear for the highway and smaller gears for climbing hills (just not as small as a triple). Double chainrings (not compact double) are for accomplished cyclists who don't need smaller gears at all.

The only way to know which of these three choices to make, is to test ride all of them on terrain similar to what you normally ride, especially hills. Don't buy a double or compact double unless you've tried them first, to see if you're a strong enough rider. Otherwise, consider getting a triple to start out with.

See our article on Choosing a Bike Gear Setup for more details.


Wheels

With all things being equal (same groupsets and components), the bike frame and wheels will have the most impact on the overall feel of the ride. So when comparing bikes, don't forget to look at the wheels to see if they're good quality or a cheap set found on entry-level bikes. For example, a $2,500 bike could come with $50 wheels or $400 wheels. You will notice a difference in weight and performance if you were to test the same bike with better wheels, so be sure that the less-expensive bike is a good value and you're not getting cheap wheels. Manufacturers will typically "pair" a bike with certain wheels in certain price ranges - a $1,000 bike will have heavier wheels than a $5,000 bike.

If that "perfect" bike doesn't come with perfect wheels, then you can always upgrade your wheels at a later date.


Pedals

You spend $1,000 or more on a bike and it won't come with pedals. What? Almost everyone who rides a high-end road bike uses clipless pedals and each rider has their own favorite brand. You need to buy pedals and shoes for your new expensive road bike. Let the shop help you decide what's best for you.

See our article on Pedals and Shoes for more details.


Saddle

For some reason, the first thing that every owner of a new road bike will do, is change the saddle. If it doesn't feel comfortable in the store, have them change it out to another model. Most any bike shop will do this.

Fit - Where you buy your bike is just as important as what you buy. 

It's important that your bike frame size and geometry is correct for your body. A poorly fit frame will make cycling uncomfortable and you'll be unhappy for as long as you own the bike. The best way to ensure that you have the right frame is to choose a shop that will provide a thorough fitting. They'll measure you to determine the correct frame size. They'll then set up a bike on a trainer and fine-tune things such as seat height and handlebar angle.

There are also computerized bike fittings which many shops will offer, usually for a fee, and sometimes this is included with a new bike purchase. So be sure to ask. The computerized fitting will measure details such as what length crank arm you need based upon the length of your femur bone. These types of fittings are usually done by serious cyclists, however every rider could benefit from having a complete fitting.


Shops in our Area

We're fortunate to have many excellent bike shops in the DC area, and you'll be able to find all of the top brand names not far from your home. Go into these shops and talk to them. Take a look around to see if it's organized and well run. Get a feel for what brands they carry and how much inventory they stock.

Will they include a comprehensive fit with a new road bike purchase, or only adjust the seat height? Will they change components on a new bike, such as the stem length, in order to make sure that your fit is perfect?

Then go to another shop and do the same thing. This will help you gauge which shops to consider and which ones to avoid. Also, speak with the service manager to see what the wait time is for repairs. If it's two weeks, then you may not want to buy your bike there. Who wants to leave their bike in the shop for two weeks, just so they can change a brake cable?

Speaking With a Salesperson

You can learn a lot by having conversations in bike shops. They can tell you which wheel set is on what model, and why it's better than the wheels on another model. Or why manufacturer "A" uses an FSA crank, whereas manufacturer "B" uses Shimano. Although you don't need to become a mechanic or gear head, it's always better to know more and understand why. This will help you make a more informed decision.

It's important that you get the right salesperson when looking at bikes. Someone who's worked in a shop 10 years is going to know more than someone with 1 year of experience. You may find that you'll start out speaking with a junior staff member, and when they find out that you're interested in a $3,000 bike, the manager jumps in and takes over to make the sale. So whenever possible, start out with the more experienced salesperson.




Road Bike Comparisons

We've put together the list below to show you a comparison of bikes and price ranges for the 2014 model year. We shopped for an Endurance style of road bike - the more relaxed frame geometry described above. This list is not comprehensive - it's simply a representation of what you may find at your local shop. Bikes are listed in price from least to most expensive in each category.




Aluminum Frame - Shimano 105 Groupset

Aluminum frames are primarily relegated to Hybrid bikes. That's because the cost of carbon bikes has come down below $2,000, so you won't find very many Endurance road bikes in this category.   Bikes in this price range will almost always use a mix of 105 and lower-level components to keep costs down, so it's unlikely that it will be all "105". The exception on this list is the more expensive Trek bike which is just about all 105 and costs as much as a carbon frame road bike.


 Brand / Model
 Price Company Headquarters
 
    
 Fuji Sportif 1.1
 $1,150.00 USA / Taiwan
 
 Felt Z85
 $1,250.00 USA 
 Giant Defy
 $1,380.00 Taiwan 
 Cannondale Synapse Disc 5 105
 $1,570.00 USA / Canada
 
 Orbea Avant HIOD
 $1,600.00 Spain 
 Trek Domane 2.3
 $1,920.00 USA - Aluminum bikes built overseas
 
    


Carbon Frame - Shimano 105 Groupset

You'll find lots of models and competitive pricing in this bike class, due to the popularity of carbon 105 endurance bikes. This category is also the most difficult to compare item for item. That's because manufacturers will mix and match components from many groupsets to keep costs down. For example, they may use a wheel set or brakes which are OEM (original equipment manufacturer) with their name on it, and you have no way of comparing the wheels or brakes to another manufacturer who uses all brand-name components. They'll also use less expensive carbon for the frame.

Having ridden many of the bikes in the list below, there are lots of good values here. You'll really need to carefully test ride these bikes in order to discern the differences. From experience, some bikes feel "heavy" or sluggish under foot, while others feel light and quick. This is due to the frame and wheel components.

It's interesting how so many models come in at almost exactly the same price. This shows just how competitive the market is for carbon/105 bikes, and why they mix and match components.  They all want to be at the same price point.


Brand / Model
Price
Company Headquarters





Giant Defy Composite 2
$1,850.00
Taiwan

Fuji Gran Fondo 2.5
$1,889.00
USA / Taiwan

Felt Z4 (SRAM Rival, not Shimano 105)
$2,100.00
USA

Jamis Xenith Comp
$2,100.00
USA

Specialized Roubaix SL4 Sport
$2,100.00
USA

Trek Domane 4.3
$2,200.00
USA

Raleigh Revenio Carbon 2
$2,200.00
UK

Cannondale Synapse Carbon 5
$2,270.00
USA / Canada

Bianchi Intenso 105
$2,300.00
Italy

Orbea Avant M50D
$2,500.00
Spain

Scott Solace
$2,550.00
Switzerland

Cervelo R3
$2,600.00
Italy






Carbon Frame - Shimano Ultegra Groupset

The price difference between 105 and Ultegra bikes is usually about $1,000.00. That's due to the added cost of the Ultegra groupset which is about $500.00 more than 105; and bike manufacturers will usually include better wheels and a better carbon fiber frame in this class of bike.

Even though these bikes are classified as "Ultegra", many manufacturers will use a crankset (front chain ring) from 3rd party companies such as FSA. They cost less than Shimano, and some manufacturers use FSA because the bottom bracket on their bike won't accept Shimano cranks without an adapter.

Having ridden many of the bikes in the list below, the more expensive bikes tend to have the better ride, and some of the lower priced bikes could be considered a bargain - relatively speaking. You'll need to make your decision based upon test rides.


Brand / Model
Price
Company Headquarters





Fuji Gran Fondo 2.1C
$2,400.00
USA / Taiwan

Raleigh Revenio Carbon 3
$2,500.00
UK

Giant Defy Composite
$2,550.00
Taiwan

Bianchi Intenso Ultegra
$2,700.00
Italy

Felt Z3
$3,000.00
USA

Jamis Xenith Race
$3,000.00
USA

Orbea Avant M30
$3,100.00
Spain

Cannondale Synapse Carbon 3
$3,250.00
USA / Canada

Scott Solace 20
$3,400.00
Switzerland

Trek Domane 5.2
$3,670.00
USA

Pinarello Rokh
$3,750.00
Italy

Cervelo R3
$3,750.00
Canada

Specialized Roubaix SL4 Expert
$3,800.00
USA






Retail Pricing

You'll generally find that bikes are priced at or very near retail price in the shops. This has to do with dealer agreements between manufacturers and retail outlets. If one shop were to undercut everyone else on price, we would end up with one superstore and no more neighborhood bike shops. So be prepared to pay retail price. This actually creates a level playing field and ensures that smaller shops with talented personnel will be there to serve you.

Prior Year Models

The one area where you're likely to find a relative bargain in bike pricing, is in prior year models. Whenever dealers are stuck with last year's models they'll discount them to clear out inventory. A typical prior year discount may be $300 on a $2,000 bike. If the bike remains in inventory another 6 months, the price will drop further.

You may come across some very attractive discounts when there has been a significant product change from the prior year. For example, in 2014 Shimano upgraded the Ultegra groupset from a 10 speed sprocket to 11 speed. Dealers with 2013 model 10 speed Ultegra's leftover in stock, are having a harder time getting rid of them - everybody wants the newer 11 speed setup. So you may find a 2013 Ultegra that retailed for $3,800 last year, on sale for $2,800 this year.

When speaking with a salesperson, always ask about older inventory and don't be shy about making an offer in your price range. They're happy to get rid of an old product and gain a new customer.

New Bike for a Century Ride

If you're considering a new bike for a Century ride, we recommend a road bike over a hybrid. Choose a frame and groupset that fits within your price range, which results in the best performance. And above all, be sure to go to a bike shop that includes a full fitting so that the frame you select matches your body geometry. Fit and comfort are very important for a 100 mile ride.

Manufacturer Websites

Below are links to many of the most popular bike manufacturer websites. These are the brands which you're most likely to see in local bike shops.









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