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How to Buy Your First Road Bike

So you're thinking about buying a road bike. You want a half decent one - one that will give you a bit of kudos on club runs, make you look effortless on those bad-boy hills, and perhaps have a touch of Instagram glam. But you don't want to be melting a combo of debit and credit card plastic in the buying process.

In your head you’re a controlled and rational person, with an honest take on your current skills as a cyclist - something that kind of translates to: “I just want to get fit, lose a bit of timber, keep up with the lads. I’m not out to score any points, I’m a MAMIL (middle-aged men in lycra) not a pro, and the top of my budget is £2k...”

...Then you walk into that seductive showroom and within 30 seconds it's, "WAHEY!!!", you’ve transformed yourself into a wingman from a pro cycling team. You’ve not just closed the door on your VW Golf and walked into a bike shop, you're strutting around as if you've just stepped down from the Ineos Grenadiers team bus and you now have a bottomless pit of £15k's worth of cash to splurge on the machine of your dreams. (Or perhaps this was just me when I bought my first bike?! 😬)

As a part time bike salesman I get to see men at all stages of their cycling lives coming in to look at their next bike. Interestingly, it’s the older men in their 60s and 70s who have a good measure of their limitations after several decades of cycling. At the other end of the spectrum you get the eager, fresh faced youngsters in their teens and early 20s who have a very clear spec of the bike they want that will help them raise their game on the racing circuits, as time trialists or tri-athletes.

And then you get the MAMILS. Oh-boy. Beware the first time MAMIL buyer. I’m not going to tar all of us with the same brush, but these are potentially the most dangerous breed of road bike buyer.

More often than not they have a sizeable wallet, an idea that they want to return to cycling and a rough notion that the answer to all their dreams as a middle aged cyclist is the lightest and most expensive bike in the shop. Not all MAMILS are like this but I have definitely met a few men who readily admit to having been out of the cycling game for a while, know just a bit about bikes, but definitely know that the only bike for them is the

lightest. “That one over there – the pro build carbon one, the one with the Shimano Di2 groupset, integrated handlebars and the Hunt carbon wheels. I’ve specced it out on your website...”

“Stop right there. Thank you very much, what you really really need is a bike with the human touch” (not sure where that Spice Girls mash-up came from? Move along, folks. There's nothing to see here).

So, let’s go back to the rational man with the £2k budget and find you a bike where you can earn your stripes before possibly upgrading to something a few years down the line that will be a lighter, feistier ride and a testimony to your hard-won skills as a born again cyclist who knows their stuff from a few seasons' riding.

Know your limits as a cyclist, and buy within your budget:

If you’re relatively new to cycling then I'd strongly suggest putting your ego to one side and investing in a bike that you will enjoy, rather than one you might grow to fear or, worst case, hate.

It's recommended you rebuild your cycling fitness on a bike that is within your range of cycling skills and discomfort threshold, rather than head off thinking you can handle a super light carbon bike that is built for speed and racing crits ('criteriums' - a bicycle race of a specified number of laps on a closed course over public roads closed to normal traffic).

Please don't read this as, "don't buy a carbon bike". Far from it. Carbon frames are superb but it is worth noting that not all carbon is made equal. It's quality can vary significantly, which will be reflected in it's price tag. If you can afford decent carbon then fill-ya-boots, but what you want is a bike that has, “compliance” – a level of softness and agility rather than the hard rides that are synonymous with pro-level ultra light carbon bikes.

Don’t be intimidated by a swanky bike shop – ask for advice:

We’ll come on to frames and materials in a moment. But I also want to address the other breed of MAMILS who enter a bike shop slightly intimidated by the range of models, groupsets, frame sizes, handlebars, saddles, wheel options (etc., etc.) – and don’t know where to start.

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing and if you haven’t done your homework you can end up with a bike that costs way more than you were planning, and is over-specced for what you need.

First rule of bike buying club? There is no bike buying club. No. Wait. Wrong film reference...

Rule numero uno if you only know a little is don’t be afraid to ask. A good bike sales

consultant will be an experienced and enthusiastic cyclist who once stood in your shoes, and wanted the same advice. So tap into their knowledge and ask loads of questions. Tell

them the cycling you do (be honest) and the cycling goals and ambitions you have (be even more honest). Then, if they have a cycling jig (a set up for measuring your size), get yourself properly measured. Don’t be tempted to buy a bike just because it looks like a good deal. It’s worth joining a waiting list for a bike that fits rather than making a hasty purchase. A right sized bike will be a pleasure to ride long distances on, and it’ll be safe to handle too.

Groupsets – a super quick lesson in the techie bits:

A ‘groupset’ is the gearing and breaking system for a bike. There’s many brands out there but the main 3 ones are Shimano (Japanese), Campagnolo (Italy) and Sram (US). We’ll do a separate blog on these as it’s a subject in its own right. But, for road riding you’ll be wanting a 2 x 11.

This means 2 main cranks at the front and a rear cassette of 11 (layers / gears) at the back. 22 speeds. Ratios? (again this deserves a blog of its own) but ideally you want a 50-34 on the front and an 11-32 on the back, or 11-34 if you want to have those extra teeth for making ascents a bit more comfortable. At this stage opt for a mid-range groupset. Shimano 105 is a great work horse and a mainstream spec that will serve the needs of most new /returning cyclists. Ultegra is lighter, and Ultegra Di2 is the electronic shifting groupset favoured by pros. And the next one in the Shimano galaxy of groupsets is the super-light (and fragile) Dura Ace. For your first bike you can't go wrong with a trusty Shimano 105.

Steel, carbon, aluminium, titanium – heavy, light, stiff, smooth:

If you’re looking for a bike at the lighter end of the spectrum, carbon is the way to go – and you can certainly buy a very decent entry level model for under £2k with Shimano 105 and a set of capable branded wheels such as Mavics.

For club runs and sportives, entry level carbon or aluminium frames are fantastic and hugely affordable choices. Carbon will have a slight flex to it and be more compliant (there’s that term again) while aluminium will be slightly heavier and a bit firmer. I’ve ridden 3 out of 4 of these frame materials, and my current road bike is an aluminium De Rosa with carbon forks. It’s agile and responsive but could be lighter. But my next bike will be titanium. It’s the only material I’ve not ridden on – but it’s on my list for bike No 4. Titanium is indestructible, a true bike for life, and super silky smooth. I’m of an age where silky smooth is not just a bike choice, it’s a lifestyle!

Bike buying top tips:

  1. Stick to your budget but invest in a decent 2 x 11 groupset for road cycling.

  2. Don’t opt for ultra light carbon for your first bike – earn your stripes first.

  3. Get measured for the bike you want – it’s like buying a suit.

  4. It’s better to get a bike on the small side rather than talk yourself into a bigger frame.

  5. If you try a bike for size, check you’re not over reaching or stretching too far. The top tube and stem length will be key metrics to check out.

  6. Invest in a good saddle – your crown jewels will thank you every time.

  7. The easiest thing to upgrade a year down the line are the wheels – so if you’re sticking to a budget, plan to upscale your wheels later.

  8. Go for 28mm tyres over 25mm – they’re actually faster, but way more comfortable.

  9. Invest in a shoe and cleat system (next blog will cover this).

  10. Get yourself a decent helmet.

In the next blog we'll be going through what these top tips look like with three models from three different brands. In the meantime my hope is that this post will give you a bit of restraint when you visit the bike shop ready to splash your hard earned cash.

I’ve been cycling as long as I can remember but in recent years cycling has, in some respects, taken on touches of golf syndrome where this pastime has become more about the gear than the actual pleasure and experience of being a cyclist.

You can spot the “all the gear and no idea” merchants at the café stop with their bling frames and bling groupsets, but very little cycling capital behind them. I recently sold a bike to a 92 year old who, in his heyday, picked out a 280 mile route from Felixtowe to Lancaster as a weekend jaunt on a 1950s steel framed bike. Only now has he finally given in to buying an electric road bike with Shimano Di2 because, as he said, he thought he deserved it. 🤦‍♂️

Until the next post, folks - ride safe.

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This bite-sized beginner's guide doesn't take itself too seriously and, whilst written in an amusing way, includes excellent advice that provides everything you need to know, to get the most enjoyment out of your new road cycling hobby from day one.

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