American Custom Bicycles in Steel, Titanium and Ti/carbon mix

What to Look For in a High-End Bike

Lighter weight is better, right?

A lighter bike is often better, so long as it does not sacrifice performance, durability, and safety. And a bike that’s too light isn’t any fun to ride; here are some reasons why:

  • The bike will exhibit unstable handling in some situations. The bike won’t descend with confidence. The bike won’t corner with certainty. The bike won’t be safe in those situations. The bike simply won’t handle well when it matters most.
  • Durability often gets sacrificed for a few grams of weight reduction. Can the pressure from your thumb deform the top tube? That bike is probably too light. Are you interested in a bike that will last more than one season?
  • Superlight bikes are best for superlight people that are super gentle on equipment.
  • The bikes frame is only around 17% of the total bike weight. So, be careful not to over-focus on frame weight; bike parts make a big difference—they make up about 83% of the bike’s weight. And, published weight is not always the same as “street” weight.

Is there anything beyond fit and flash?

Most people would agree that having a properly fitted bike is an expectation when looking for the right bike. Most retailers nowadays offer reasonable fitting services. And, about 75% of riders can be somewhat fitted to a stock bike that comes in six or seven sizes. A fitter will change parts and rider position to try and blend the two together. In order to do this blending, a few compromises are fairly certain:

  • Your fit has been modified You can be sure that the fitter had to make some compromises. There can be a big difference between a reasonable fit an exact fit.
  • Bike handling has been compromised. Typically from two common sources: stem change and saddle position change. These alterations may not be so noticeable on paper. Regardless, these types of changes effect the balance of the bike. And you will notice this change when you are pushing yourself and your bike—into a corner, on a descent, in that final sprint.
  • Performance characteristics are designed for the median rider.That stock bike was not designed for you or your riding. Sure, it probably rides well. However, does it accelerate as well as you want on climbs? Does it feel as smooth as you’d like over bad pavement? If it’s not perfect on all fronts in every riding situation, is that okay? Do you really have to compromise?

How to read product reviews and interpret friend’s advice

It’s important to thoroughly research your next bike purchase, given the sheer number of options available to you. But how do you make use of all the information you gather? Here are some basic guidelines to keep in mind as you filter your search:

  • Damning with faint praise: Product reviews are rarely negative. This is because the same companies who manufacture the products are the primary advertisers in cycling related publications. Editorial departments have a duty to be thorough and honest, but scathing reviews jeopardize ad revenue, so be alert for reviews that seem neutral or only mildly positive and try to interpret what is not being said.
  • Does this remind me of me? Each bike reviewer has a set of criteria that represents his or her “ideal” bike. Are you looking for the same characteristics they are? Are they riding in a style similar to the way you ride? Are the conditions of the review similar to the type of riding you plan to do (terrain, distance, weather, competition)?
  • Friends can be very influential in helping you choose a bike. Like reviewers, be sure they are similar to you in terms of their purchase criteria, and that a bike that is suited to them can also be ideal for you.
  • Place more weight of reviewers who have established criteria and comparable testing parameters for every bike within a category. Publications that do longer-term or follow-up testing are also better sources.

Which components are spec’d on the bike?

  • Components are designed to provide years of service, but even with proper maintenance, will need to be replaced. To get the most value, you might consider investing in the frame. A quality frame will last several generations of components, if not a lifetime.
  • When comparing one component spec to another, be sure to check all of the parts. An eye catching rear derailleur is an easy way to tease unsuspecting riders into thinking that the entire bike is made up of the same level components. Closer inspection might reveal lesser quality chains, cassettes, etc.
  • Look for house branded cranks, brakes, headsets, and wheels as a way manufacturer’s lower the cost of the bike. This is not a knock against these parts, many of them are of high quality, but keep these changes in mind when comparing price.
  • Each year new technology is introduced, and the old is forgotten. Research can help determine if this year’s fad will be obsolete next year, i.e. integrated headsets, Biopace chain rings, etc.
  • With new components being introduced throughout the year, make sure you compare like generations, and not outdated components.

Am I going to get the newest release?

Most manufacturers release next year’s models in late August to early September. You also see product changes and eliminations at this time. It is easy to lose sight of what is important when what is the newest, latest, and greatest is changed every year.

  • Changes to the frame’s overall function are rare. However, manufacturers often make aesthetic changes under the guise that the frame will function “better.”
    • Be wary of changes that advertise a better bike. What will happen next year?
  • Component changes are the most common and occur annually. Everything from cranks to wheels to gear ratios to pedals.
    • Be wary of buying a bike for the components because it is only a matter of time before they are out-of-date.
  • The most obvious way to mark a new season is with new paint colors. 2005 was blue, 2006 was black, 2007 was red. When the year is over, the color changes, and your bike is so last year.
    • Be wary of buying based on the cool color of the season because pink will be the new orange before you can say red.
  • Often bikes are built around a new fad or trend. Sometimes bikes are built with exclusive technology only available for that manufacturer. Innovation is exciting, but can also be risky.
    • Be wary when investing in what is new today, but might be gone tomorrow.

It will go on sale at some point, right?

At some point during the season, almost every bike shop will have a sale. As a prospective buyer, here are some reasons why you may want to avoid the sale mentality:

  • Think about why a bike would be on sale in the peak of the riding season; because no one will buy it at full price – effectively stating that it is not worth the actual asking price.
  • Cash rebates: This is the manufacturer’s way of moving excess inventory to make room for the new model year. It’s hardly a good deal if it puts your local bike shop out of business.
  • Shopping for a sale will likely land you a good price on the wrong bike. Getting what you really want is always worth the money.
  • Is the bike on sale because the model or components have been discontinued?

Instant gratification and the custom bicycle

We live in a world where almost anything you would want can be had at a moments notice. Your decision about a new bicycle should not be made quite so hastily. Conversely, for most of us it would seem utter madness to wait more than a few weeks for a new bike once the decision is made.

  • Some builders build so few bikes in a year that lead times can be six months or more.
  • Most retailers only stock one or two sizes in the model that you are looking at. It can take multiple weeks for a “special order” to be filled, even if the bike is a “stock” model.
  • Custom bikes can be built in as little as 1 week. Standard custom lead times typically range from 2 to 8 weeks depending on the capabilities of the builder.
  • Custom bikes do not have to cost more than stock bikes. A complete custom bike can be had for as little as $3,500.
  • Buying a high-end stock bike should take at least a week or two. Be sure that the shop takes the time to build your bike carefully, fit the bike to you, swap parts as required and give it a final check before you take it home.
  • Getting a stock bike to fit you will almost always cost extra. Fitting fees and parts swaps add up.

Looking beyond the bike: sustainability, community and advocacy

The brands we buy—and choose to support—say something about who we are.

In the bike world, can you discern what’s important to the brand—beyond selling one more bike? It may not matter to you; although, if it does matter, here are some behaviors commonly viewed as important, and that look beyond the bike—for a deeper connection with the brand:

  • Sustainability: To what extent does the company invest in recycling, conservation, long-term thinking, a triple bottom line, and low impact manufacturing processes?
  • Local community: What does the company do to support the community in which they work? Do they help local schools? Do they work with kids at risk? Do they offer their services in bike building and design to local schools? Do they support commuting by bike within the company and community?
  • Cycling community: What does the company do to support, advance, and advocate for cycling, cyclists, and the sport’s future? To what extent do they support local, national, and international cycling associations?
  • Supplier relationships and sourcing: From where do the company’s products originate—overseas, domestic, can you even determine this?
  • Bikes for—and by—cyclists: Do the people that build these bikes also ride? Do they live and breathe cycling and bikes? Do they ride like you ride—do they care about how you ride and what cycling means to you?