Rick’s Recommendations for Bicycle Buying
Rick’s Bike Shop368 Ridge Road (@ Meadowbrook)
Queensbury, NY, 12804
Are you looking to get off the beaten path or just pedal around the neighborhood? There’s no better vehicle than a mountain bike to tackle a variety of terrain. Do you dream of riding remote trails deep in the backcountry, taking hot laps on the dirt paths in the park, or something in between? There’s certainly a mountain bike that can do it, and do it well. The technology is rapidly evolving; full-suspension mountain bikes, once the realm of the the MTB elite, are becoming ever more affordable and common. Looking for a ride specifically for women or for a specific trail? There are plenty of choices. If you still have questions, stop by the shop, shoot us an email or give us a call. We’re here to get you on a bike that fits your needs. After all, the best mountain bike there is? That’s the one you end up riding home.
Mountain bikes are complex machines with many parts. The frame, wheels, fork, tires, crank, cassette, and pedals can all impact how the bike will ride. We won’t get into every detail, but here’s an overview of a mountain bike’s main components.
The most common gearing options in the mountain bike world are 2 or 3 chain rings paired with a wide-range 10-speed cassette. The chain is shifted from cog to cog using a front derailleur over the crank and a rear derailleur by the cassette. Value-minded bikes will have fewer cogs (or speeds) on the cassette. A drivetrain with 2 chain rings and 10 cogs on the cassette will have 20 speeds (2 x 10). Additional speeds on a cassette create smaller gaps between shifts: say you’re pedaling up a hill and your legs are starting to burn, a downshift on a 10 speed cassette will be less noticeable than a downshift on a 7 speed cassette. The newest trend for drivetrains is a single chain ring paired with an extremely wide-range cassette. This saves weight, reduces complexity, and gives you almost the same range.
Weight, hub engagement, and rim width all have a massive impact on how well a bike performs. With advances in carbon fiber, aluminum extrusions, and the rise of disc brakes, rims are getting lighter, stronger, and wider. A lighter rim decreases the rotational mass of a wheel, making it easier to accelerate and change direction. Another factor to consider is rim width. Wider rims give tires more support while cornering, and change the shape of the tire to improve traction. The last thing to consider when looking at wheels is rear hub engagement. Engagement is how many degrees the cassette can turn before it drives the wheel forward. In technical terrain, a smaller degree of engagement allows you to keep your pedals where you need for quick power.
Modern mountain bikes use disc brakes to deliver excellent stopping power and control in a wide variety of conditions. A brake lever actuates a caliper; pistons in the caliper compress the brake pads on to the rotor which, in turn, slows the wheel. There are two types of disc brakes: mechanical and hydraulic. Mechanical brakes use a cable to actuate the caliper. These brakes are are easy to service, and work great in cold temperatures. Hydraulic brakes use hydraulic fluid to actuate the pistons, just like you would find in a car or motorcycle. They have more stopping power and better lever feel, or modulation, than mechanical brakes. They do require a bit more maintenance and periodically must be “bled” of air, for optimum braking performance.
Mountain bikes come in three flavors: rigid (no suspension); hardtail (suspension up front but not in the back); and full suspension (suspension front and rear). Suspension provides a smoother ride, increased control, and improved handling. The downside is that suspension components add weight.
Lower-end suspension is often nothing more than a coil spring and a rudimentary damping circuit that controls pre-load and rebound. More sophisticated suspension systems use air springs and give you more adjustments to control and change how it reacts as you roll over bumps, rocks, and ramps. Usually the more expensive the suspension component, the better performance you will experience.
Suspension is measured in millimeters of travel. For example, you might see that a fork has 100mm of travel. This translates to about 4 inches. Suspension travel in a fork is a measurement of how much the lowers slide up and down the stanchions. Suspension travel in a frame is determined by the layout and design of the frame itself. More travel translates to a more capable suspension system.
There are three major mountain bike disciplines: Cross Country (XC), Trail, and All Mountain (Enduro). Most bikes fit neatly in one of these disciplines, but some bikes blur the lines. Bikes are usually divided by suspension type, suspension travel, and geometry. For example, a bike with 100mm of front suspension and nimble handling will fall into the Cross Country category. A bike with 140mm of front suspension slack geometry, for comparison, is classified as an all-mountain or trail bike. There are also other disciplines of mountain biking like Downhill and Dirt Jumping that fall outside the scope of this guide.
Cross Country contains the widest variety of mountain bikes, though they are predominately focused on speed and climbing ability. They range from entry level value-spec’d hardtails to ultra-light, full-carbon World Cup race machines. A cross country bike is built to be light and efficient: usually featuring around 100mm of suspension travel and quick-handling geometry. Cross country bikes climb very well, but are often not the most confident descenders.
Trail bikes sit in the Goldilocks zone of the mountain bike world. Their 120-140mm of suspension travel is not too little and not too big. Trail bikes can be either full-suspension or hardtail, and feature more relaxed frame geometries to balance climbing with descending capabilities. Most full suspension bikes fit firmly within the trail designation. They ride well in most locations, but might feel outgunned in more technical terrain.
All-mountain bikes are the rowdy, loud, and aggressive big brothers of Trail bikes. With 140-170mm of suspension travel and slack geometry that’s more suited for ripping down hills than going up them. That’s not to say these bikes can’t climb. Some all-mountain bikes are excellent climbers, but they are still more focused on speed and descending. They are most commonly full suspension, but there are a few rare hardtails that fit this category.
Wheel size will be one of the most important variables to look at when shopping for a new mountain bike. Currently, the most common sizes are 27.5 (650b) and 29-inch wheels. In the past, mountain bikes all ran on 26-inch wheels. Standards have since given way to several wheel options. After the widespread adoption of 29-inch wheels in the late 2000’s, manufacturers started to look at wheel size to make performance gains. 27.5 emerged as a great compromise that balances most of the maneuverability of their 26-inch cousins, but delivers much of the efficiency and technical ability of the 29-inch wheel size.
Fat Bikes and Plus Bikes
The mountain bike world has been seeing a trend toward seriously big rubber. Fat bikes have been around for a few years and have proven that they are capable and fun in many conditions, not just snow, sand, and slop. Another big trend has been toward plus-size tires, or tires that aren’t quite wide enough to be considered fat bikes. Below, we’re going to break down the differences between these two chunky options.
Fat bikes are the monster trucks of the mountain bike world. Their enormous tires (around 4-5 inches) go just about anywhere. Big tires deliver amazing traction and a fairly smooth ride. Most fat bikes are designed to get off the beaten path, and the component choices reflect that. Expect to see parts picked for durability over weight in this category. Fat bikes require a very specific set of specialized componentry like wider hubs, rims, and bottom brackets, so parts may be a little less common.
The biggest differentiating factors when buying a fat bike are tire width and geometry. Some fat bikes run the biggest tires possible and have a more upright geometry for stability in snow and other lose surfaces. Other fat bikes are built more like a cross country or trail bike, along with skinnier 3.8 or 4 inch tires. These bikes rip up lose dirt and hardpack and are great in warmer months. Most fat bikes are rigid, but suspension forks and even full suspension bikes are becoming more popular.
After the advent of Fat Bikes, a few manufacturers began exploring the advantages of slightly wider tires in more traditional applications. Plus Bikes feature tires around 3-inches. The wider tires deliver incredible grip, a smoother ride, and supreme versatility. The plus size or mid-fat tire doesn’t add as much weight as a fat tire, and can utilize many of the more standard mountain bike components.
Plus bikes bridge the gap between standard and fat and are just now starting to see more widespread adoption. A hardtail with a suspension fork has been the most common variant, but some manufacturers are producing full suspension plus bikes. Two major varieties are starting to emerge; 27.5+ and 29+. Just like their narrow-tired counterparts, the 29+ version rolls more efficiently, while the 27.5+ variety is more playful.
What type of road bike should I buy? It’s a question we hear often. Whether you’re looking for the best beginner road bike or a top-end racing bike, we’re here to help. Today, the best bike brands offer more models than ever in a wider variety of price points, and there is a dazzling array of options to choose from. Drivetrains run from standard, entry-level fare all the way to ultralight, 22-speed electric-shifting systems; brakes come in an astounding variety including lightweight dual-pivot calipers, aerodynamic hidden-mount rim brakes, and powerful hydraulic discs; and wheelsets run the gamut from sturdy to aerodynamic to ethereally light.
We’ll explain the decisions you need to make and offer advice on everything from frame materials and wheels to gearing and component choices.
Types of Road Bike
Road bikes are offered to suit a wide assortment of riding styles and disciplines. Some are incredibly lightweight and super responsive but may not feel great when you take them out on imperfect road surfaces. Aerodynamic bikes are designed for maximum speed and efficiency but might not be the most comfortable ride for long days in the saddle. Endurance road bikes may ride beautifully on rough chip-sealed roads, but can have a little more heft to them when it comes time for a climb. Here are the three most common varieties.
Nothing is more iconic to bicycling than the traditional performance road bike. They conjure iconic mountain summits, long rides through gorgeous countryside, and heroic battles for the podium. They deliver a responsive ride and excel in general road situations. Performance bikes are usually excellent climbers, but also can be a real boon in windy conditions where an aero bike might be blown around. However, race-oriented models do sacrifice a little bit of comfort and compliance in favor of superior stiffness.
Aero road bikes are built to save time, cheat wind, and maximize your potential. Using advanced manufacturing techniques, highly shaped tubes and wind tunnel testing, aero bikes can give you a significant advantage over traditional equipment. The deep-section tubing uses a little more material than their performance cousins, so they frequently weigh a few hundred grams more, and aero bikes can be buffeted by crosswinds due to their increased tube sizes.
Endurance bikes really excel when the going gets rough. Longer wheel bases, taller head tubes, larger tire clearance, and tuned construction generally lend more stability and compliance: perfect for long rides and bad roads. They are not as light as a traditional road bike, and don’t provide the aerodynamic advantage of an aero bike. But, their smooth ride keeps you comfortable and consistent over rough terrain. This actually saves energy, leaving you stronger, faster, and more relaxed at the end of the day.
Anatomy of a Road Bike
Road bikes are loaded with high-tech componentry. The frame, wheels, fork, tires, crank, cassette, and pedals can all impact how the bike will ride. An overview on every single part and how it applies to every single bike would be unwieldy, so here’s an overview of some spotlight components on road bike.
Road bikes commonly use 2 chain rings, paired to a ten- or eleven-speed cassette. The front derailleur shifts the chain across the chain rings while the rear derailleur moves the chain from cog to cog. Value-minded bikes will have fewer cogs (or speeds) on the cassette. A drivetrain with 2 chain rings and 10 cassette cogs will have 20 speeds (2 x 10). The more speeds on a cassette, the smaller the gaps between shifts. Say you’re pedaling up a hill and your legs are starting to burn—a downshift on a 10 speed cassette will be less noticeable than a downshift on a 7 speed cassette.
Electronic shifting is becoming more common on road bikes. Instead of the traditional cables used to move derailleurs, electronic systems use servos, programmable switches, and a battery. These systems are incredibly fast, and can be programmed in almost limitless ways.
Weight, hub engagement, and shape all have massive impact on how well a bike performs. With advances in carbon fiber, aluminum, and tire technology, rims are getting lighter, more aerodynamic, and faster. A lighter rim decreases the rotational weight of a wheel, making it easier to accelerate and change direction. Another factor to consider is shape. Deeper, more aerodynamic rims save energy over a long ride, but can be troublesome in crosswinds.
Some wheel systems include tubeless-compatible rims and tires. Tubeless systems use a sealed rim and special tire that locks into place. This allows riders to run lower, more comfortable tire pressures and provides additional protection from flats. This is a special system and can be complex to get set up, but is relatively trouble free once you’re going.
Caliper brakes are mounted to the bicycle frame and apply pressure directly to the wheel. These have long been the road standard and have a number of benefits over disc brakes: calipers are lighter, can offer better modulation and are a bit easier to service.
Disc brakes have been commonplace on mountain bikes for the last decade, and are now appearing more frequently in the road world. A brake lever actuates a caliper; the pistons in the caliper compress the brake pads on to the rotor which, in turn, slows the wheel. The benefits of disc brakes are excellent stopping power and all-weather dependability.
Either system requires specialized frames, forks, and hubs. Therefore, you generally cannot switch from one to the other on the same frame.
Bike Frame Materials
Road bikes are generally made from steel, aluminum, titanium, or carbon fiber. There is no “right” or “wrong” material. Remember, two frames can be constructed of the same thing yet have entirely different ride qualities due to variations in geometry, assembly, and material manipulation. This is one of the reasons it’s so important to test ride the bikes you’re considering.
Carbon fiber (also called “carbon” and “composite”) is unique because it’s not a metal. It starts out as a fabric that’s impregnated with resin. The resulting material can be formed into tubes or shaped in molds and is usually cured with pressure and heat, turning the material into a solid structure. Frames made from carbon fiber are extremely light, stiff, and durable. Carbon’s greatest advantage is that it can be manipulated in endless ways. Builders can fine-tune it to provide just about any ride quality. Carbon is a popular material for forks due to its lightness and natural ability to absorb shocks.
Aluminum was first introduced in mass-production bikes in the 1970s and quickly became one of the most popular materials for bicycle frames. Advances in aluminum alloys and construction techniques have given bikes a better ride and made them more cost effective to produce. Many frames use immense water pressure, a process called hydroforming, to create complex tube shapes that reduce weight and refine ride quality. In general, aluminum is a lighter weight, more responsive ride than steel, but is not as light or comfortable as carbon fiber.
Steel has been used by frame builders for well over a century. It offers excellent ride quality and durability. There are many different steels available, from standard 4130, better known as “chromoly,” all the way to boutique stainless steel tubesets that offer even more refined rides and lighter weight. Steel frames are famous for their combination of responsiveness and comfort, though they are generally heavier than those built of lighter materials such as aluminum and carbon, and can be prone to corrosion if not taken care of. Steel is also an excellent fork material. It’s plenty strong, and it also absorbs shock to soften rough roads.
Titanium (also called “ti”) is one of the longest lasting, lightest, and most expensive frame materials. Some cyclists and experts feel that it combines the best characteristics of all the other frame materials. It rivals aluminum in weight, is as comfortable as steel, is impervious to corrosion, and has a sprightly ride. Titanium frames are expensive to produce, which helps explain their higher typical purchase price. The two common types of titanium are 3Al/2.5V and 6Al/4V. These designations refer to the amount of aluminum (Al) and vanadium (V) used in the titanium alloy.
Tips to Make Your Purchase Perfect
Now that you have an idea on what road bike to get, it’s time to come into our store and do some test riding to see how the models compare in person. This will complete the picture and give you a chance to see what you get at the various price points.
- Proper fit is much more important than price. No matter how nice the bike, it will be uncomfortable if it doesn’t fit you properly. Come in to see us so we can size you and ensure that you get the right bicycle.
- Buy once. It’s almost always less expensive to get the frame, wheels and components you want initially than to upgrade later.
- Remember, you’ll need a few accessories before you head out on a ride. A water bottle and cage, bike computer, new helmet, and pedals will complete the package so you can get out on the road!