Shopping for a road bike? Here’s a checklist

Sometime last year, I wrote about the things I would look for if I was to buy a folding bike again. This time, I’ll talk about the things you’ll probably want to look for if you were to buy a road bike, a cyclocross bike, or a gravel bike.

HOW DOES THE FRAME FIT YOU?

Most folding bikes can accommodate a large number of physiques because of the telescoping seatpost and handlepost; many advertise fitment of riders from 4’9” to 6’1” (144.5 to 185.5 cm). With road bikes, by comparison, bike fit is a lot more critical – so much so that an entire bike-fitting industry has popped up in recent years just to address the physical and kinematic relationship between rider and bike.

The geometry chart for Giant’s TCX from 2014. This is a pretty basic example; other manufacturers go into more detail with things such as head tube angle and bottom bracket drop.

It all begins with getting the right size bike for you. Most bikes bought off the shelf come in a range of sizes. These typically differ in their seat tube length (abbreviated ST) and top tube length (TT). For frames with non-horizontal or sloping top tubes, it’s the effective top tube length (ETT) you’re interested in. All of this is written on a bike’s geometry chart, with values per size of bike.

For newbies to road bikes, it’s best to swing your leg over the actual bike and check the fit yourself. With more experience, you can start looking into the reach and stack figures for the bike – the vertical and horizontal measurements relating to the bottom bracket and handlebars. Since reach and stack are measured from the same locations across all bikes, this provides an instant basis for comparison between them.

MIND THAT FRONT END

Related to bike fit is the head tube length (HT), which determines your riding position on the bike.

Long head tubes put you in a more upright position, and don’t require as much of your lower back. For this reason, they are a fixture on endurance bikes which are meant to be ridden for hours on end, and such bikes are better for those of us without sufficient flexibility.

By comparison, short head tubes give you a long and low position best for racing. This benefits aerodynamics, as reducing your frontal area decreases aerodynamic drag, making you more efficient while pedaling at sustained high speeds. The drawback is that you have to be able to sustain such a low position, not something everyone can do in comfort.

HOW WIDE OF A TIRE CAN YOU SMOOSH INTO THE FRAME?

Hyro can fit 32 mm tires with lots of room to spare – par for the course for a cyclocross bike.

These days, sticking wide tires into a road bike to improve comfort is no longer a badge of shame. The professional cycling peloton has done away with 23 mm tires and adopted 25 mm rubber for most races, with even wider options being used for particularly bumpy races such as Strade Bianche or Paris-Roubaix. If a modern road bike frame can’t fit at least 25 mm rubber, I suggest you look elsewhere.

This is where cyclocross bikes and gravel bikes have a distinct advantage. As per UCI competition rules, cyclocross bikes should run a 700C x 33 mm knobby tire, and most cross machines will come with even wider 35 mm rubber as stock. Gravel bikes have even less restriction, generally fitting at least a 40 mm tire with clearance to spare. Notable on both bikes is that they often run disc brakes, which removes restrictions on tire width.

MAKE SURE YOU CAN LIVE WITH YOUR FRAME’S BOTTOM BRACKET SHELL

Hyro has a BB86 bottom bracket shell. The bottom bracket bearings are pressed into the frame.

Bottom brackets and their many, many formats are a potential minefield that I tackled in a previous post. Each has its positives and negatives. So far, though, the good old 68 mm BSA threaded bottom bracket shell is the resurgent choice, after a decade of complaints on the various press-fit formats, and for good reason: it just works.

Mang Boy of LifeCycle setting up the bearing press for Hyro’s bottom bracket.

That’s not to say that frames made with the press-fit bottom bracket standards are all bad. My TCX has a BB86 bottom bracket shell, and so far I have had a decent enough experience with it, paired with FSA and Shimano cranksets. Anecdotally it’s the BB30 and PF30 formats that seem most problematic.

HEADSET CHOICES

The frame determines the kind of headset it uses. There are bikes that use pressed-in headset cups, while others have the cups integrated into the head tube.

The TCX has integrated headset cups machined into the head tube. Its 1-1/8″ and 1-1/4″ bearings support a fork with a tapered steerer tube.

This also influences the size of the headset bearings themselves. The most common combination of headset bearings I’ve seen in recent years is a 1-1/8” (1.125”) top bearing and a 1-1/4” (1.25”) bottom bearing – a headset to accommodate a fork with a so-called “tapered” steerer tube. Giant’s higher-tier bikes have the “OverDrive2” headset system, which makes use of a 1-1/4” (1.25”) top bearing and a 1-1/2” (1.5”) bottom bearing. This is supposedly to increase front-end stiffness and steering precision, but it also means headset bearings can be a little tougher to find once you need a replacement.

DISC BRAKES OR RIM BRAKES?

The decision between rim brakes or disc brakes is a major influence on the frame choice, as very few road bikes can support both (Orbea’s 2014 Avant series being a rare example). Disc brakes put more stress onto the non-drive side of the frame, so these areas have to be beefed up accordingly. Bodging a disc brake conversion on a rim brake bike can end in a bent fork or rear triangle, so you will usually have to choose between one or the other.

One argument for disc brakes is that they will support wider tires by default, as there is no longer a brake caliper straddling the width of the wheel and restricting it. Caliper rim brake bikes tend to max out at 28 mm or 30 mm rubber; cantilevers or mini V-brakes accommodating around 35 mm.

Hyro, my TCX, uses Post-Mount hardpoints for his brake calipers. This can still be found on some cyclocross bikes.

This Eddy Merckx Mourenx69 road bike uses Flat Mount hardpoints, where the mounting bolts go all the way through the chainstay. These days, this is the norm for disc-braked road bikes.

A final concern for disc-brake bikes is the caliper mounting system. Early disc-braked road bikes from 2014 cribbed the Post Mount system from mountain bikes, but Shimano has since successfully pushed for the adoption of Flat Mount – which is what you will see on modern bikes.

WHAT OTHER FEATURES DOES THE FRAME SUPPORT?

We’re delving into the realm of “nice to have” features here, but they can be a deal-breaker depending on the kind of riding a cyclist has in mind.

Many bikes still don’t offer eyelets for mounting of full-length fenders.

Personally, any road bike with no fender eyelets and rack mounting points is a no-go – automatically disqualifying a lot of options at the time I was shopping around for one. While Giant bestowed threaded eyelets on my TCX’s dropouts and fork, it was still missing mounting points at the seatstay bridge and chainstay bridge, so I had to bodge those up.

My folding bike Bino is an example of one without a brazed-on tab for a front derailleur. A front derailleur adapter wraps around the seat tube as a substitute.

Front derailleurs with braze-on mounting are prevalent almost due to preference, but not all road bike frames can mount them straight away as they don’t have the riveted or brazed-on mounting tab on the seat tube. Typically these bikes have round seat tubes, so making use of either an appropriate front derailleur adapter or a band-on front derailleur should solve this issue.

DID YOU NOTICE ANYTHING?

You may have noticed that I did not once touch on the groupset, wheels, tires, or personal-fit items like saddles, stems, and handlebars. While these are major considerations, they’re also easily replaced in case something problematic happens – almost all of them are wear items anyway. By contrast, the frame is the heart of the bicycle; if you replace the frame, you might as well have bought an entirely new bike.

I also spy a lot of questions being asked on forums and Facebook groups about frame sizing, bike fitting, headsets, or bottom brackets, when these are all highly frame-specific items and have to be taken into consideration when actually buying a bike in the first place. I find it’s much better to buy a bike knowing full well what its frame’s quirks are so that you fully understand what you’re getting into – especially if you intend to perform your own maintenance.

The clipless diaries, part 6: Shimano Deore PD-M530 SPD pedals

As I found myself using the turbo trainer more often, clipless pedals made more sense as they allow me to keep my feet planted while I spin high cadences during interval training. I quickly realized just how much I disliked the effort of swapping pedals between bikes, how many tools it required, and how much time it took…the added faff has the potential to discourage me from logging in my training.

I needed another set of SPD pedals. I got a good deal on a barely used pair of Shimano’s PD-M530s. Nominally part of the Deore groupset, this is perhaps the company’s most basic SPD pedal with an external cage.

Like the Saint PD-MX80 flat pedals, the M530s thread into cranks either with a 6 mm hex wrench, or a 15 mm pedal wrench. At 455 g they’re around the same weight, too; weight weenies need not apply. They’re plenty strong, though, as is typical with Shimano pedals.

I like the workmanlike, minimalist aesthetic. No groupset branding to shout, just the Shimano logotype on the outside vertical face. In silver, those would be even stealthier and hide scratches better. Seems there’s lots of room for any mud to fall off the pedal body, too – not that I’ll be testing this, as most of my riding is on asphalt.

The PD-M530 pedals look pretty good paired with the FC-R565 crank. Non-series? No problem.

Had I bought these brand-new, they would have come with the black SH51 single-release SPD cleats. Not a bad bundle for PhP1600 SRP. There are vastly more expensive versions of this basic design, but your added cash isn’t necessarily getting you a better-working pedal – you’re really just paying for exotic materials and weight savings.

Perhaps not the best option for beginners, though…

Compared to my existing Deore XT T780 pedals, the M530s have a much tighter hold built into their SPD mechanism. I think it’s down to a spring with stronger tension. Set to minimum, the cleat retention is as strong as the T780s set to half or even 70% of maximum. It took me a bit of getting used to, but it does eliminate any chance of unwanted release. In contrast, the SPD bindings of the T780s have relaxed over time; sometimes my cleats pop out of them when my pedaling motion isn’t as straight as it should be on the turbo trainer.

The stronger release tension does mean more foresight needed for unclipping in urban riding scenarios, though. In that respect, they’re a little less newbie-friendly, even paired with SH56 multi-release cleats. The T780 or something like Shimano’s Click’R line would be better for nervous newbies to learn on, the latter due to their SPD bindings having 60% less spring tension.

Clockwise from top left: Deore PD-M530 double-sided SPD; Deore XT PD-T780 SPD+platform; Saint PD-MX80 platform

With the M530s, I now have quite a spectrum of pedals – all of them below PhP3500. The Saint MX80s are my reliable platform pedals, further customizable with traction pins; these are going into storage, going back on when my wife feels like riding with me. The Deore XT T780s are my commuter pedals, sporting a platform side, an SPD binding side, and reflectors in the pedal cage. The Deore M530s, with SPD bindings on both sides, are for maximum foot retention for take-no-prisoners riding.

Indoor training, part 6: The flywheel effect

I’ve had the Minoura LiveRide LR340 turbo trainer for a while now and I’ve used it with both Hyro, my cyclocross bike with 700C wheels, and Bino, my 20″-wheeled folding bike. A few buckets of sweat later, shared between these two bikes, I started noticing a few differences.

At this point, I’ve documented numerous times the more rapid rate of tire wear from the smaller wheels – and the larger resulting mess that comes with it. It turns out that’s not the most telling difference between the two bikes.

With Bino, I find I can crank up the resistance and use much heavier gears. I regularly dip into the higher end of the gear ratio spectrum. I’ve gotten to the point where I can sprint in the 50×12 top gear combo at the final flat-out interval of a workout…and push as hard as an indicated 60.8 km/h on my cyclocomputer.

I have no idea how I’d sprint to this speed on a folding bike. My limit on the road is around 44 km/h, at which point I’d be pretty spun out.

Even in my 50×12 top gear, it’d take my legs a pedaling cadence of 154 RPM to get to this indicated road speed. Yes, that’s not sustainable for long periods, and most likely very hard to do out on the open road due to aerodynamic drag, but I’m mentioning it to illustrate my case.

On Hyro, though, it’s a different story. I use nowhere near half the LR340’s total resistance range, and despite using the same cassette and chainrings as Bino, I usually never breach the halfway point of the cassette. Beyond 50×19 or 50×17 are gear combos that are too big for me to push my pedals to on a turbo trainer. My indicated road speed also peaks at a significantly lower 52.5 km/h.

V-max on Hyro while on a turbo trainer.

It’s entirely possible that the two bikes are giving me slightly different workouts, and I pin this down to their rear wheels acting as flywheels of different sizes.

With Bino, the smaller 406 mm rear wheel acts as a flywheel that is much lighter and quicker to spin up with pedaling the cranks. The consequence is it takes much more resistance from the turbo trainer to give the training load called for by sprint intervals. Hyro’s 622 mm rear wheel, on the other hand, has more mass and needs more energy to get going…but requires less out of the turbo trainer to give roughly the same training load.

In practical training terms, I think that indoor training with Bino is more of a test of souplesse, or pedaling smoothness. With the smaller wheel size, I find it is much easier to accelerate and decelerate simply by changing my pedaling cadence. Peculiarly, with a change of bike, I find I could get the same kind of training coaches used to recommend getting a roller trainer for. Bino also has a slight edge for really high cadence work. Mounting Hyro’s bigger rolling stock on the LR340 will allow me the low-cadence training that replicates endurance climbing efforts, as well as getting used to holding low positions for faster riding.

Without hard data, and sharing just my palpable differences training between the two bikes, I feel like I may just be blowing a load of hot air. For that reason, I would love to quantify all this difference with a power meter. Unlike heart rate or speed, where external factors such as aero drag or physical condition can affect readings, power meters are more “insulated” and are better at actually quantifying your training load and output – a watt is a watt is a watt. Unfortunately, while they have been coming down in price almost constantly since 2012, they’re still too rich for my blood.