Consumer: Know Thyself

I bought a new bicycle yesterday. “But wait! You just bought a bike last year!“, you might be thinking. You probably are not thinking that since you’d have to be an obsessive reader of this web site to remember. But it might happen. Yes, I bought a bike last year. On paper it was the perfect bike for me. Steel frame: check. Nice blend of road bike speed with utilitarian versatility: check. Able to attach bags and fenders and such for longer trips: check. Great brand name for me (Surly): check. Reasonably comfortable yet efficient riding position: check. Well, I hated it.

I was confused that I hated it because it should have been perfect. My favorite bike of all time is the steel road bike I bought just after moving back to PIttsburgh. Here is how I bought that bike:

1. I walked into Pittsburgh Pro Bikes. For a while they were one of the only serious bike shops in the area, and over time I came to not really like them for various reasons, but at this point I didn’t know better.

2. I said “I want to buy a straight up road bike, but with lower gears. I think I’m a 52? Maybe? Or a 54?”

3. The man showed me a Specialized Allez Sport. A straight up road bike with a triple crank in front. The triple crank provided a nice small front chain ring and the gears I needed to get over the Pittsburgh hills.

4. A 52 turned out to be too small. The 54 was just right. I took the bike on to Murray Avenue and rode up and down the hill. The bike felt perfect. I was not conscious of it at the time, but it had the right reach, the right handle bar height, the right length, and the ride handling.

5. I rolled back down to the shop and hit the brakes. I hit them hard because I was used to the ancient side pulls on my old road bike. The brakes bit down and I almost flipped the bike over forward. Now those are great brakes.

I bought the bike that day. The whole process took maybe an hour.

I spent a few months thinking about the bike I should buy to replace it. I thought that the characteristics of the Specialized that I liked were the nice steel frame, the relatively inexpensive mid-end Shimano drive-train, and the overall size and fit. The Surly appeared to me to match most of these characteristics and also provided the ability to use fatter tires and fenders and such. Perfect, right? Wrong.

At first I thought I just had to adjust to the gearing. The new fashion in gearing is the so-called “compact double crank” wherein you take advantage of the fact that you can fit ten fucking speeds in the back of the bike to get low gears by using a smaller small chainring in front. Instead of the standard 5339 combination of years past, the new road bikes now come with a 5034. With a wide range of speeds in the back (11-28, or 11-32) you get a reasonable low gear and a high gear that only a guy with legs larger than his chest can use.

I am used to riding a “road triple”, meaning I have a smaller range of gears in the back (13-26) and three chainrings in front (52-42-30). The triple crank in front has always caused consternations in the road bike crowd. You will hear them whine that it is heavy, shifts poorly, is heavy, and also makes your penis smaller. All of these things are true, but none of them matter.

The Surly came with a compact double, though with only nine speeds. I stuck a 12-27 on the thing to get the lower gears I wanted and rode off into my Pittsburgh hills. I found the experience to be miserable. None of my gears were in the right place. I could never work out exactly when to make the too- large jump from the 34 to the 50. I rode slower than I have ever ridden on my standard loops. I put it up to getting older, and figured it would get better this year.

It did not get better. If anything I got even slower. Soon, I dreaded going out on the bike at all. And this made me even slower.

Something else that did not get better on the bike was the shitty shifting and the crappy brakes. I had the shop try to adjust the shifting a few times, but it would always hang up on one of the middle cogs and annoy me as a tried to downshift to slog up the next hill. This made the feeling of slowness even worse. This in turn made me even more reluctant to ride the bike. The Allez never shifted badly. Even after I crashed it once at 30 miles an hour I never had any trouble. One has to conclude that the 1993 just-worse-than-Shimano-105 parts are just that much better than the 2010 just-worse-than-Shimano-105 parts. My advice to new bike buyers: do not buy a bike with parts cheaper than 105.

My second piece of advice to new bike buyers: do not settle for anything but the Shimano dual-pivot side pull brakes. Remember those brakes that almost flipped by bike over? Those were the Shimano brakes. The Surly uses these Tektro brakes which on the surface look like a similar design. The problem is that they are crap. You have to use an inordinate amount of pressure on the levers to make the bike stop. On the steep hill down from my house this means that I’m holding on for dear life and squeezing all the blood out of my hands. I hate it. So heed my advice. Be very careful when reading the parts specifications for that production road bike you are about to buy. You want Shimano brakes.

Another unexpected annoyance was the fat tires. These tires stick to everything. I’d get to the end of a ride with a million tiny little pebbles embedded in the rubber. I figured this would get better over time too, and it did. Sort of. I soon lost interest in the fat tires. And, since I never ride in the rain, I never actually fitted the fenders that would fit into the frame and under the shitty brakes.

The final problems I have with the Surly are my fault. I set up the fit slightly wrong, with the reach slightly long and the bars slightly too high. I did this with my Bike Friday as well. You’d think I’d learn. In any case, the result was a relatively slow heavy bike with fat tires and a clunky drive train.

The more I hated the bike, the more I thought about why I hated the bike. I went over my bike buying experience again and again trying to work out where I had gone wrong. Aside from not actually trying the Surly frame before buying it, I could not see where I had really failed.

Then I had an epiphany.

I had bought the wrong bike because I had misread the sort of bike that I thought I wanted to buy. I had always assumed that what I liked about the Specialized was that it was more practical version of the straight-up racing bike, and that if I got an even more practical bike I’d be even happier. This was incorrect. What I liked about the Specialized Allez was that it was a straight-up racing bike with more practical gearing. I liked the bike because it was light and felt fast. The fact that they had the courtesy to make the fit and gearing more comfortable was just a happy coincidence of marketing. All these years I have thought that what I wanted was a steel all- around bike, since I don’t race and don’t really ride that fast anyway. The truth is that what I want is a fast bike which I can then take out and ride too slowly. But at least I’ll feel fast on it.

My mission was now clear. What I was after was the 2011 version of the Specialized Allez Sport. If you ask the current market “Hey, I want a straight up road bike with lower gears and a slightly more comfortable fit, what should I buy?” the market will answer “You should buy a production carbon-fiber road bike designed with one of the ‘comfort’ geometries.” Most companies that make road bikes do this now: Trek, Specialized, Jamis and even the more hard core racing brands like Cervelo.

Here is Trek’s version of this bike: the Madone 4.5. It even comes with a triple crank! I trekked on down to the Trek store and had the single worst bicycle buying experience that I have ever had in my entire life. It started out OK. They seemed very interested in getting me something with the right fit. This involved standing in front of a computer and taking various cryptic measurements. When I finally got out on the bike my seat was an inch too low and the bike was so out of adjustment that the chain dropped three cogs riding up the ramp from the Whole Foods back to the Trek Store. I will never set foot in a Trek store again.

I then went back to Pro Bikes. I wasn’t sure I’d actually buy from them, but I figured I should at least try the current Specialized bikes since I had struck gold with Specialized before. I stood in the store for about 45 minutes watching them deal with the crowd of people they had at the end of the day. I don’t begrudge them not helping me out. It was a busy end of day crowd. I do begrudge them not even asking if I needed anything.

Luckily, I won’t have to deal with my inner grudges, because I found what I needed down the street at BikeTek. I had talked to these guys last year when I decided to buy the Surly and the store owner had been a bit off-putting with his constant cheerleading for carbon frames. Luckily, the current staff of the store is great. They let me ride about five different bikes at various price levels and spent the time to make sure they were in good adjustment. In the end the bike that felt the most like the Specialized of yore was this one:

I decided to get this one because it had Ultegra on it. This was to overcompensate for my horrible experience with the Tiagra on the Surly. Felt also makes a 105 version of this bike which would have been just fine, but at this point in my life I figured why take chances. Also: I like the blue.

So: quick frame with comfortable fit: check. Real Shimano brakes: check. Bike can shift into all gears without choking on itself: check. The BikeTek guys even put the bike on a stand for me to double check the seat height and the reach and such. I had them put on a slightly longer stem. The fit is just right. I’m going to resist the urge to tinker with it and ruin it (the bars could probably be a bit lower…but no no no).

I took the bike out this morning for its first ride longer than three blocks long in Squirrel Hill. I went eight miles through North park and then back up the hill to my house. Here is what was in my head the whole time: man, I think the bike computer must be adjusted wrong, it’s reading my speed as too fast. I then rode up my hill on a cog one gear higher than I’ve been able to use in the last year and a half.

I don’t entirely understand why this happened. The new bike is not that much lighter than the old one. Just a few pounds here and there. I’m going to speculate that it’s the wheels.

Anyway. The Surly will go on Craig’s list. Or maybe it will just sit in my office looking pretty, but not getting ridden that much. Hopefully the next time I buy a bike I’ll remember what sort of bike I actually want. And I’ll remember about the brakes.

Footnote about the brakes

I screw up this brakes thing over and over again. The last bike I bought before the Surly was a Bike Friday folding bike. It also had longer reach side-pull and then later V-brakes, both of which I hated. This was because I bought the touring version of the bike (more practical!) instead of the road bike version (sound familiar?). I do not learn quickly.