Road Bikes

Recently Jeff at work asked me where to go to buy a bike. As I recall, he didn’t really ask what kind of bike he should buy, but being the self- absorbed dork asshole that I am, I could not help but provide my opinion. My short answer to Jeff was: just buy a road bike.

The road bike is the perfect bicycle for almost all uses. The only use for which it really is not suited is riding around in the woods over ruts and logs and rocks. But only crazy people do that on purpose.

The road bike has several design features that make it the inherently superior animal:

1. Drop bars. I cannot stress this enough. It is a fact that drop bars are a superior design. Unlike flat bars, they give you multiple hand positions on the tops of the bars. Therefore, with your bars at the right height, you can be comfortable and fairly upright and still be able to move your hands around so they do not get sore. The bars also give you the occasional option to tuck yourself down to go faster if you want. With modern shifting systems, you can shift gears without moving your hands off the tops of the bars, so mountain bike shifters have no advantage anymore.

2. Light and Fast. Mountain bikes and hybrids are just too clunky and heavy. They don’t accelerate. They don’t handle well on the road. Riding them is like riding a bike chained to an iron ball. A good bike allows an old out of shape guy like me, who has not ridden all year, go 19mph with a tailwind over the flat without working very hard. This is the gold standard.

3. Versatility. With the right frame, I can ride the same road bike on the road, in the city, in a century, in a race, on the rail trails, over to La Prima, on a fire road, and on light trails. A mountain bike is good on trails and nowhere else. A hybrid is good for slow rides in the city, and not really anywhere else.

In addition, I like road bike brakes better than cantilevers and other brake- types. But that’s my problem.

Unfortunately, most of the road bikes made these days cater to the weekend racer Lance Armstrong wannabe. The road bike you want differs from a racing road bike in several ways:

1. Relaxed fit. You don’t need the fast steering and short frame of the average racing bike. You also don’t need to ride around town all bent over and stretched out like pizza dough. You should be able to buy a road bike with higher bars, a more comfortable riding position, and a more stable ride. A person riding a good road bike and a good fit will be able to go longer distances in less time than on any other bike. There is a reason the Tour de France is 3,000 miles long. It’s because the people can do it.

2. Wider tires. Racing bike frames lack the clearance for comfortable tires. No one really wants to run 20mm tires in the city. 28mm or 32mm are better. Allowances for fenders are also nice, but I’ve come to realize in my later years that the idea that I would actually ride a lot in the rain is only theoretical.

3. Better gears. This is not so much of a problem anymore. Thankfully, the road triple has made a wide gear range easy to find. Take advantage of this.

4. Tougher wheels. You do not want these newer carbon fiber bladed spoke aero-wheels that only have 8 spokes. You want decently made strong wheels. My road wheels are old fashioned and a bit heavy, but I can hit a railroad tie or a Pittsburgh car-eating pot hole at full speed and not damage the wheels. The myth that you need huge, fat, heavy mountain bike wheels to ride in the city is stupid.

Over the last few years, as Lance won all those races and the mountain bike has receded a bit in the market, there are more sane road bikes commercially available. But they remain a limited quantity item and are thus more expensive than other bicycles. The low end of the market still seems convinced that people only want heavy mountain bikes or hybrids where you sit straight up in the air. The result is that you will inevitably pay more money for a good road bike. This was true when I bought my last one ten years ago and I imagine it will remain true. In any case, I suggest you look at bikes by Bianchi, Jamis, and REI. For more money, look at Surly. For more money than that, look at Rivendell.

What you get for your extra money is typically a higher quality frame, lighter materials, and a better parts set from Shimano. When I say “better” here, I mean better than the truly crappy stuff Shimano sells to the huge Chinese manufacturers to put on bikes being sold at Costco. What this means is that the parts will last you forever, or 15,000 miles, whichever comes first.

If you are looking to get a good bike for the city, or that century ride later in the summer, or the MS150, here is me pleading with you to give the humble road bike a chance. You will not regret it.

Next time on bike rants: clipless pedals and lawyer nibs.