This has come up a couple of times via e-mail, so I thought I’d throw it out for general discussion. Your mileage may vary; this is just my bit. Full disclosure – I’ve bought a grand total of two road bikes in my life – a second-hand Trek for $140, cash, and a 2001 Cannondale for about $1200. Most of this is second-hand experience with folks I rode with, mainly in Texas, and from talking with folks at bike shops.
Ride it before you buy it. If you don’t have them, get a pair of shorts. Also, take a set of hex wrenches with you (5 mm is typical for seat posts) so you can tweak the seat and likely the handlebar height before and while you ride. If you’re buying from a bike shop, they’ll likely do the pre-ride fitting for you.
Try to go at least a couple miles, 15-20 minutes or so. If it feels good after tweaking the seat so that your knees are still slightly bent at the bottom of the pedal stroke and going a few miles, it’s probably fine fit-wise. DO NOT BUY A BIKE THAT DOES NOT FEEL “RIGHT”, regardless of how great of a deal it is.
3 chainrings up front is a plus for CT or anywhere else where it’s hilly. 105 has been Shimano’s lowest level racing-quality line for a long while. It’s STI (no clue what the acronym means), meaning that the shifters and break levers are integrated. Great system, I love it. A good frame fitted with straight up 105 should run you between $1000 and $1500, which is the sweet spot in price to value for road bikes, in my opinion. Not that cheaper is necessarily that much worse – the best bike is the one you ride.
Were you to walk into a bike shop with $600, you could probably walk out with a new road bike with an aluminum frame slightly heavier than the $1000 bike, wheels with sealed bearings (a slight plus over the cones and cups this bike probably has, but nothing to worry about), and Shimano Sora components (3 chainrings up front / 8 cogs in the back). Sora’s not bad stuff, but it’s Shimano’s cheapest road bike gruppo that has STI. The saddle would likely be not so great, but everything else would be serviceable, at least. Tiagra is the gruppo between Sora and 105 – solid; my little brother’s bike runs Tiagra, and he can still kick my butt.
When it comes down to it, it’s a question of style. Maintained well, any bike will quite literally, last a lifetime. 105’s a workhorse gruppo – it’s not engineered to near-failure to save weight like the super high-end components, but it’s not scrimped to save cost like lower lines.
OK, things to look for, top to bottom, front to back (more applicable to used than to new bikes):
Rotating joints (headset, pedals, crank, wheels) – turn smoothly, not jumpy, and should be quiet – any grinding, etc, is bad.
Handlebars/Stem/Headset – don’t sweat the bar tape if you’re looking to buy a used bike, new tape is less than $10, and takes about 10 minutes to put on. Do spend a considerable amount of time working the shifters/brakes – the brake action shouldn’t be sticky at all. Shifting should “click”, not grind. Pick up the front wheel and shake the handlebars back and forth without turning the wheel. There should be no play. If there is, the headset might need to be tightened (no problem) or replaced (~$20-40 parts and $25 labor).
Seat – If you like it, it’s a good seat. That’s the entire rule to picking a saddle. Like I said, take a set of hex wrenches with you when you ride – if it’s painful, you may just need to adjust it a little bit. If you don’t like it, again, not a deal breaker, but a $20 or as much as you care to spend more upgrade to a new saddle.
Cables – no rust, especially near housings. A lot of people suggest replacing cables every year; I’m skeptical. Should be tight and not slapping the frame over bumps.
Brake calipers (the parts that grab the wheel) – watch them while you work the brake levers – action should be smooth. I would replace the brake pads as soon as possible if you buy the bike. They’re rubber, which means they’ve been off-gassing the components that keep them slightly soft and grippy. You should be able to get parts and labor for new pads for about $20-30 for both front and rear brakes. This is 1) for safety and 2) to minimize wear and tear on the rims.
While you’re looking at the calipers, spin each wheel to see how “true” they are. If the wheels are true, they’ll stay the same distance from the brake pads the entire time the wheel is rotating. If the wheels wobble a lot, they need to be worked on. $10, not necessarily urgent, though untrue wheels tend to pop spokes and leave you stranded. I have no clue how to true wheels – one of the few things I still use a mechanic for.
Frame – look carefully around bottle mounts, bottom bracket, cable stops for rust. Especially on a bike that’s been in storage. Shake the frame – there might be some slight rattling from welding beads, etc, from construction, but if it sounds like there’s sand rolling around in there, it’s likely rusting from the inside out. Flick the frame with your nail – it should sound “clear”, maybe not like a bell, exactly, but, I dunno, solid? Biggest thing, though, is surface rust. If the bike is pristine on the outside, chances are it’s pretty nice inside, too.
Wheel Bearings – see above. Also, wiggle the wheel while it’s mounted. It should not rattle or thud.
Crankset – wiggle it side to side; should not be any play. Bottom bracket (where the cranks connect) should not squeak, rattle, grind, etc. If it’s bad, new bottom bracket is $30 parts/$20 or so labor.
Chain – clean, only minimally greasy. No grit. Should sit evenly on the chainring teeth.
Tires – Much like brakes, my knee-jerk reaction is to replace old tires. Although it might not be a bad idea to ride them until your first flat. The caveat being that if they begin cracking at all, replace them immediately. Couple of other things on tires: 1) Pick up a couple of rolls of rim tape at the bike shop ($2 per roll). The first time you take off the tires, replace the rim tape. Why? Rim tape does a couple of things – first, it provides a smooth transition over spoke holes, so there’s no sharp metal rubbing on the tube. Rim tape also acts as a magnet for whatever rocks and grit gets inside your tire. Eventually, it will pick up grit and wear a hole in your tube. 2) I’m a fan of replacing the tube frequently. I do keep old ones that weren’t leaking to carry for repairs if I flat while I’m riding.
That’s about it.
Again, the most important thing is that the bike fits YOU. There’s a certain amount of adjustment between the seat and the handlebars, but there is a point at which you half to walk away. Stop to tweak the bike while you ride, if necessary. Even if it sounds like a pretty good deal DO NOT let that make you buy a bike that has biomechanical issues.
I haven’t dug into the catalogs in about 2 years, so I don’t have much in the way of advice. But I will reiterate to her that the most important thing isn’t the wheels, isn’t the components, isn’t the frame material – it’s making sure you have a bike that fits your body, and that isn’t going to be uncomfortable after an hour or so in the saddle.
$1000-1500 is pretty much the sweet spot for buying road bikes about now, at least for mortals. For that, you’ll get a good aluminum frame, Shimano 105 or possibly Ultegra components, carbon fork, and a roll-away weight of somewhere around 18-19 lbs, which, frankly, is nothing.
I still am amazed with my Cannondale CAAD 5 after 4 years – sweet ride and light. Trek has been really aggressive at trickling down the tech from their efforts with USPS/Discovery, so they’re nice.
What I’ve been oogling, though, are the newer Specialized road bikes. Haven’t had a chance to ride them, but they seem to have taken a complete revisit to engineering and materials as far as frames go – bikes that look fast standing still.
If you’re in it for the complete “cool” factor, depending on the year, there’s sometimes a decent Bianchi out there with either Campy Daytona or Veloce in your price range.
As far as tris – if you want, a set of aero bars to bolt onto a regular road bike are about $70-100, which will let you get all stretched out and aero. I don’t use them. But, for folks more fit than I, I’d say they’re probably worth the money – they won Greg LeMond the Tour de France by slicing a big factor off of his time trial…
I’d like to be cool and have a preference, but frankly, I don’t. My Cannondale is as plush as my steel Trek, and I haven’t had the pleasure to ride carbon yet. (But, if, after sending over a MacBook, my internet benefactor wanted to send over a Specialized Roubaix for me to abuse for the next six months, I wouldn’t complain).
So all I’ll say here is “Ride as many bikes as possible prior to buying”. Then, buy the one that spoke to you.