Choosing a New Bike - Function Over Features
Whether choosing a first bike, upgrading an old bike, or even getting back into the sport the amount of bikes to choose from can be overwhelming. Mountain bikes, gravel bikes, road bikes, and even e-bikes all made with different materials and sold with various marketing claims make your choices difficult. For most consumers this often leads to all kinds of research and naturally leads one to find a bike with the most features for the best price. Sometimes this can work out okay, other times it leads to frustration after the purchase. This is where a good local bike shop comes into play and can guide you in the direction that will increase the excitement you get out of your bike for years to come.
As a kid growing up in the Okanagan I used to ride my bike everywhere before I could drive. Then when I got a bit older and moved out on my own I decided to start mountain biking. (I will keep the shops and brands anonymous because I do not believe there is anything wrong with any particular brand of bike and giving away the brand might also give hints towards a particular shop. The purpose of this article is not to bash any brands or shops, but to provide a different way of thinking when it comes to buying a bike.) The first shop I walked into I was asked what I was looking for, so I said a mountain bike. I was then asked what my budget was, so I told them. Immediately, I was lead to two bikes: one right under my stated budget and on a little above. I asked what the difference was and I was told all the great features of the pricier bike compared to the other. Naturally, as a teenager I chose the bike with the most features that I could afford with no thought towards function whatsoever.
The bike was great, but it wasn't exactly what I would have liked after a few rides. The tread on the tire was too supple and not aggressive enough for the terrain I was riding. my rear tire started to go bald after a few rides which lead to flats more often. Every time I went to get the flat fixed I was never told that I should get a new tire or perhaps a better pump. I remember not having a low enough gear or enough grip to climb some of the steeper sections of trail. The pressure in my fork was too high, and I remember feeling uncomfortable in the saddle. Don't get me wrong I enjoyed riding the bike, but eventually I just stopped mountain biking all together. There was definitely more than one reason that I stopped and sold my bike, but one of them was that I bought the bike purely for features and wasn't sold on the bike by function. So I had this idea in my head that this was just how mountain biking was, I had an awesome bike after all, right?
I am going to use road/gravel riding as an example in this article as it is what I am now most interested in myself, but the same broad ideas can be applied to any type of cycling. First of all, I want to address the issue of budget. Obviously there has to be one because not everyone can buy a $10,000 bike or even a $2,000 bike for that matter, but as much as possible try not to let it be the sole determining factor when choosing a bike. For example, maybe jumping up from the $1000 bike to the $1500 bike will get you components that are easier to find replacement parts for. Or maybe the next bike up will get you hubs with replaceable bearings which over time will pay for itself many times over. Ultimately though whether the bike shop asks (which they should) or not, make sure you tell them what type of riding you want to do and maybe also a few years down the road as well. The type of riding you plan on doing immediately and in the future will help narrow down your category and fit needs.
If you want to start road riding to get fit and then maybe get into racing or just like the idea of going as fast as possible then features like tire clearance and cargo mounts are not as important. On the other hand if you plan on going on bike-packing trips on smooth roads and even single-track you shouldn't care much about aerodynamics or electronic shifting. Also your bike shop should be able to tell you things to avoid if you plan on having the bike for a long time. One example that comes to mind is rim brakes on road bikes. As much as I wish it was not the truth, fewer new bikes are being sold with rim brakes. This means that a few years down the road if you need a new wheel it might be harder and/or more expensive to source a rim brake wheel versus a disc brake wheel.
Another 'feature' that we often get a lot of questions about at Lions is frame material. Whether it is from industry marketing or online forums, many people have a preconceived idea that one frame material is the best or there is a hierarchy of sorts. Having worked in the industry for years and been lucky enough to own and ride bikes of every material I will tell you that without context no one frame material is better or worse than another.
Every frame material serves a purpose and can work fine across plenty of applications, but again this all comes down to how you want your bike to function. Yes, high-end carbon fiber is light, stiff, and compliant, but clamp it in the wrong bike rack or drop it at the wrong angle onto the right object and you can damage your frame. Furthermore, not all carbon is equal some carbon frames feel no different than their aluminum counterparts. What about steel? Steel is strong and can be very comfortable. Also, nothing beats the classic look of the rounded tubing, but again it can be heavy, rigid-feeling and without proper care can be prone to corrosion. And just like carbon, not all steel is the same, some tubing can be incredibly light and more forgiving while others can be built very stiff and heavy.
Aluminum seems to be a material that a lot of people are dismissive of these days, but you will be hard-pressed to find a material that gives you the same value and component level for an equal price. Yes, it can be a little harsh, but for a lot of modern bikes that does not matter as much anymore. Bikes today have clearance for larger volume tires, and tubeless tires are more commonplace. So running an aluminum frame on large volume tubeless tires is going to negate any detectable frame vibrations. Essentially, the best material is the one that functions the best for you.
To punctuate with an example the bike in the picture of this post is my winter all-road bike. I have a superlight carbon race bike and a more capable gravel bike, but my steel Soma with full fenders is the most enjoyable to ride. I'm not going to be breaking any PRs on this bike and it is not capable of those real adventure rides. It does, however, keep me dry if it starts to rain, performs great across varying terrain and weather, and is very low maintenance. Part of why it is so enjoyable to ride is the peace of mind. I never get stressed out if it is making a bit of noise or if a rock strikes the downtube. I chose parts with strong seals and long service lives to keep the elements out. I also get far more double takes from strangers when riding this classic looking bike than I do riding my carbon race bike.
Fit is a whole topic that deserves a post of its own, but once you have found your function then you can start looking at geometries and sizing. In conclusion, what I really wanted to stress is that you should let the way you want your bike to function now and for the foreseeable future determine what bike you buy rather than trying to squeeze in as many features as you can for the best price.
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