Comparing Bikes

A funny thing happened as I was poking around in my blog analytics. I discovered that the readers of this blog really like bikes. Yeah, amazing, isn’t it? Wait a sec — you’ll see just what I’m getting at.

I can take a look at search terms used to find items on this blog, or search terms that will get people to this blog — whether they want to be here or not And over the last year, the item that keeps coming up as the most searched-for term is: bike comparison.

Back in 2011 I did a blog post on a new bike comparison website. There seemed to be enough interest that I put the site’s link on my home page in the “blogroll.” It keeps drawing the traffic.So much so, that when people search for anything remotely resembling “bike comparison,” they get Bike Noob as one of their returns.

Among most popular search terms to get to this blog are: bike comparison, bicycle comparison, compare bikes, compare bicycles, bike comparison site, bike comparison website, compare road bikes, bike comparison tool, mountain bike comparison tool, bike comparisons, bike compare, road bike comparison, bicycle comparison, bicycle comparison site, bike compare site, bicycle comparison sites — well, you get the idea. Over the past year, these terms have been searched from 32 times (bicycle comparison sites) to 667 times (bike comparison). People are interested in bikes.

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Discovering this most searched-for item led me back to the bike comparison tool site, and I’ve been entering various models of bikes, checking out their stats, seeing how they compare to each other. This could be dangerous. I’m pretty happy with the setup I have now, and the last thing I need to be doing is lusting after a new bike. But, like most folks out there, I just can’t resist.

No More Titanium

I took the titanium bike back to my friend Rick today. With the beginning of the new month, the bank account is flush again, and I took my own bike over to the bike mechanic to have it worked on. (I feel a bit sheepish about that now, because it took him only 10 minutes to fix it, and he charged me a whopping $8.)

After a handful of rides on Rick’s bike, I thought I’d give some impressions. The two big differences between his and mine — besides the size — were the titanium frame and the triple crankset.

The titanium frame had much the same effect as the steel frame I tried a few months ago. It smoothed out the roughness we encounter on our roads around here. But compared to the steel, the titanium was even smoother. That loose gravel I mentioned that we hit on Sunday was swallowed up by the titanium and the 25 mm tires. I know if I had run into the same conditions on my aluminum bike with the 23 mm tires, I would have been able to feel every pebble.

I’ve also concluded that if I ever get another bike, it will have a triple. The reason is simple: better gear selection. My Allez has a nine-speed compact. While some of the gears have a single-tooth spacing, others have a two-tooth gap. One has a three-tooth gap. On the Airborne, most of the gears were spaced only one tooth apart. For me, that had the effect of more precise gearing throughout my rides. As I told Rick, “I always feel that I’m in the right gear. With the compact double, I feel like I’m between gears sometimes.”

Of course, the triple made climbing hills easier, although I did not get a chance to try it out on some of the really challenging hills around here — the hills that I have trouble getting all the way up on my own bike. I did take it up some of the steeper hills on my Saturday morning route, and it made a couple of testers seem positively easy.

I used the 12-25 cassette for those hills. Another wheel had an 11-23. So that one would have gotten me a little bit more speed on the flats, when I’m in the 11-tooth gear, but really — my highest speeds come when I’m coasting down hills anyway. One tooth difference between cassettes doesn’t mean much.

So I enjoyed my time on Rick’s bike, but I’m eager to get out on my own on a Fourth of July morning tomorrow. Maybe, as Rick suggested, the perceived differences between his and my bikes were simply due to a “placebo effect,” and my own bike won’t feel much different, after all.

A Change of Biking Pace — The Catrike

In the last post, I mentioned that my friend Don Bynum doesn’t ride a conventional bike — he rides a three-wheeled recumbent, a Catrike. I first saw one of these years ago, when a guy rode one on the first century ride I did. I was impressed by its quickness.

Don likes to tweak those of us who still ride our “prostate crushers” and proselytizes for the three-wheeler. It bears a closer look, methinks.

Recumbent bikes come in two- and three-wheeled versions. The three-wheelers can have either two wheels in the rear — a “delta” — or two wheels in front — a “tadpole.” I think it’s safe to say, without any empirical corroboration, that the “tadpole” trike is the favored variety. A seat (and it’s properly called a “seat” and not a saddle, because you sit in it like a chair) is slung in the middle. The pedals are mounted on a boom that sticks out in front. The resulting balance is excellent — and you don’t have to be moving forward to stay upright.

The Catrike “Road” (Click to enlarge.)

Don tells a familiar story about adopting a recumbent. Conventional upright bike saddles hurt too much. He says he spent about $1500 over a five or six-year period on “anatomically correct” saddles, but “a 10-mile ride would leave me completely without feeling in my ‘tender parts’ for a couple of days.”

He rode a two-wheeled recumbent, but when he decided to move to the Hill Country of Texas, he got the Catrike. “Since I was obviously going to be riding in hilly terrain and getting clipped back in if I needed to pause to keep my heart from exploding, or to enjoy some sight, getting back going was going to be very difficult [on a 2-wheeler],” he said. “There is a great benefit in this area, where hills of 18%+ grade are not uncommon, to being able to simply put on the brakes, relax for a minute, then just start up with no ‘clip-in drama.’”

Don on (in?) the Catrike Road.

During our ride, Don often pulled out into the traffic lane and sailed by the rest of us, even when we were motoring along at a nice clip. On downhills, the thing simply takes off. Don says he’s comfortable hitting speeds above 45 mph, even on curvy roads. He’s posted several videos of him flying down grades.

Its downhill speed is obviously helped by its weight. Don says the Catrike Road weighs about 32 pounds, and he loads it up with other equipment. “I purposely carry more water than I need and often ‘bail out’ my fellow riders who go off into the hills with only two half-liter bottles on board, where no 7-11 can be found,” he said.  “I often carry six 700mL bottles and can add three more in a bag on the luggage rack if needed.”

That extra weight is also a big disadvantage. Whenever we hit even a slight upgrade, Don fell behind. The Catrike is geared low enough that he can climb most any hill he encounters, and often pedals up hills his diamond frame friends are forced to walk. “It needs lots of gears and the low end needs to be really low,” Don said.  “I think my rear cassette has a 32 tooth low gear.” But he says he’s getting better at keeping up with other riders, and on our ride, he would pull in to rest stops less than a minute after we arrived. And he admits it does have a harsh ride on rough pavement.

What about safety issues?

The Catrike is low to the ground, no doubt about it. That means it can be hard to see. Don says the big problem there is riding alongside parked cars. Where a road biker is perched high enough to be seen in a rear-view mirror (and theoretically avoid being doored), the Catrike is down out of sight. But he contends that most of the time, that odd appearance works to his benefit.

You won’t be able to catch much of a draft when following a trike.

“The thing looks so weird that it seems to register on drivers’ addled brains when even a large Harley, much less a Cannondale road bike does not,” he said.  “My big traffic problem has, so far, been people stopping me to inquire about what the heck it is, how much it cost and where to get one — most turn pale at the response to the cost question.” (MSRP on a Catrike Road is $2,950, according to the Catrike website.)

Another important safety consideration — always wear cleats. “There is a natural tendency to, in a moment of crisis, try to put one’s feet down to help stop,” Don said.”  The result is very likely to be running over your own feet and legs, pinning them under the front axles so badly that another person must lift one front wheel off the ground, help get one leg out, then go to the other side and repeat the process.” With cleats, the rider just focuses on braking.

But you’re not likely to fall off a Catrike (Don cautions that delta-style recumbents have a higher center of gravity and are more susceptible to rolling). And even mossy low-water crossings are not a problem. “You get wet,” Don said, “but a steady hand and just coasting through seems very safe.  And if you hit the water at 25-30mph it is very cooling as well.”

Don says trike owners are probably going to have to become their own mechanics, because of the very long chains found on recumbent bikes. Even though the drive train components are the same as you find on an upright bike, bike shops generally aren’t good at setting up recumbents, Don says.

Finally, Don urges trike owners to get out there and ride: “I regret that most Catrike riders seem to be absolutely freaked at the idea of a hill bigger than a freeway overpass in Houston or a ride longer than 10-15 miles.  But that is their loss.”

Going to Try Something New

I’ve had my bike for four years now. It’s a good bike. Not as fast as many, but no slouch. It’s got an aluminum frame, but lots of carbon add-ons, like the fork, seat stays, seat post. But every now and again I get a hankerin’ for a different look and feel to my biking.

That may have come, courtesy my friend David. As we rode together last weekend, he mentioned, “The Fuji is still sitting in my garage. You can try it out whenever you like.”

What’s different about David’s Fuji is that it’s a steel bike. Now, I’ve had some experience with steel. My 1981 Raleigh 10-speed is steel. But because the model was not one of Raleigh’s high end bikes, it was built heavy. I started my current road biking efforts on the Raleigh five years ago, and I can still remember when another friend of mine, who’d been biking for a long time, picked up my bike while we were taking a break. He did a double take, and raising his eyebrows, said, “That’s some kinda weight you’re hauling around, Bubba.”

In turn, I hefted his titanium LiteSpeed. It was like picking up an aluminum beer can, without the beer. I was astounded that a bike could be that light. It was my first realization that a 26-year-old bike might not be the state of the art model that it used to be — if in fact it ever was. Since then, I’ve developed some ideas about what I want in my ideal bike.

I’m thinking either titanium or steel. Titanium is probably out of my price range, but the lightness of it appeals to me. Steel bikes made in 2012 are a lot different than the ones made in 1981. The steel used now doesn’t approach the old one in heaviness. A lot has been written about the supple ride quality of a good steel bike — a quality that I missed out on with the Raleigh, because I didn’t have anything against which to compare it.

David’s bike is probably not as light as the titanium number, but it’s  2005 model, so was built to be lightweight steel. It feels no different from my aluminum bike when I lift it.

I stopped by David’s house after work today to pick up the bike. I’ll be riding it over the next two weeks or so, just to see if there is any difference between riding it and riding my current bike. I haven’t thrown a leg over it yet — I need to move my pedals over to this bike (David rides Looks, while I use Shimano SPD-SLs. They’re not compatible). I’ll also have to determine if the really short stem will work for me. David threw in the stock stem just in case it doesn’t.

As I get a feel for the new-to-me ride, I’ll be collecting my impressions in order to do a full and thorough review. And maybe determine if a modern, lightweight steel bike is in fact what I need to be saving my pennies for.

Favorite Bike Websites

Spent some lazy weekend time (when not riding) perusing websites on the iPad. Weekend mornings before of after my bike rides are a good time for that. And of course, the websites I poked around on had to do with biking.

I think most regular readers of this blog will have figured out by now that I’m no speed demon. I like to go fast, but don’t work to get faster — that’s not one of my biking goals. What I do like are longish rides, preferably on roads out in the country away from heavy traffic.

I’m intrigued by randonneurs — those folks who routinely ride 200, 300, 400 kilometers or more on a single ride. I’m not sure I’m up to their kind of on-bike torture testing, but the websites I’ve seen encourage me that maybe some day I can at least try it. So a couple of websites I spent a lot of time with last weekend were rando oriented: Velo Orange Cycles and Peter White Cycles.

Velo Orange is an Annapolis, Maryland company that sells bike parts and equipment that appeal to long distance riders. They also have a limited selection of frames. It’s all good and well to navigate their site and get a feel for what they offer the long distance rider. But if you dig a little deeper, there’s a nice selection of articles about their style of biking. Click the link for “Tech Info.” You can learn how to install various pieces of gear they sell, like their elk hide handlebar covers, as well as get a feel for their philosophy about stuff like handlebars, headsets, and bottom brackets. I’m not mechanically adept, but I find these articles to be good reads. Velo Orange also has a blog on the site that covers their product lines as well as cycling for fun and distance. I like their “Rando” frame, and the pictures of various builds of this frame. If I’m ever destined to get another bike, it could very well be one of these.

Peter White Cycles is up in New Hampshire. He specializes in building wheels, and guarantees them to hold up — even under tough conditions. White offers  frames as well, geared toward long distance riding, commuting, and a bicycle lifestyle. In addition to frames, he stocks various components, such as cranksets, bottom brackets, cranks, chains, lights, racks, bags — the whole gamut. But even if you’re not interested in his inventory, take a look at the tab on his website called “Articles.” He’s got a very personal take on bike fitting, and is passionate about choosing the right light for night cycling. His comments are priceless, too, such as, “If you’re not racing, what the heck are you doing with a racing bike?”

So if the “traditional” approach to cycling appeals to you, you might want to check out these two websites. Even if you’re not sold, you’ll probably take away some useful information.

How Many Bikes?

I thought I’d piggyback on the theme of the last post about getting a new bike by asking the question, How Many Bikes? That is, how many bikes do you think you need, and how do you use them?

Now, I’m well acquainted with the old joke about the number of bikes you need equalling n + 1, where n is the number of bikes you already have. But seriously, how many do you need?

I’ll start. I have three bikes, my Allez, which I use for 95 percent of my riding. It’s a road bike, and goes on road rides. I do not use it for grocery runs or other utility types of riding. Then there’s the mountain bike, an old Trek hardtail. Since I am not a mountain biker, I tend to use this for errands and shopping, if I use it at all. Mostly, it just hangs in the garage. My third bike is the old steel Raleigh 10-speed, which I had long thought about upgrading, just to do it.

Lately though, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Trek isn’t being used much for errands and shopping. I’d just as soon be rid of it. And the Raleigh — I doubt I’ll even get around to fixing it up. Vintage bike collectors tell me it’s not worth much anyway, and one has tried to dissuade me from putting money into it.

So that leaves me with one bike — the Allez. And that’s fine with me. It does what I need it to do, and does it acceptably well. As I alluded to in my last post, I’d be happy with something better, but there’s really nothing to dislike about the Allez. As the song says, I think I’ll keep her.

How about you? Do you find a need for more than one bike? How do you use yours? Or do you find that your bike collection is missing one, because there’s a certain biking role that’s not being filled by any of the ones you currently have? Given the kinds of riding you do, what would be the optimum number of bikes to own?

“I Need a New Bike”

A little scene happened on our Sunday club ride that I think lots of riders can relate to. (Names have been changed to protect the writer of this blog).

I sat down at one of the tables outside the Starbucks where we begin our rides. Two women came over to me.

“Hi,” said one. “I’m Lanie, and I’m going on the B ride today. This is my friend, Melanie.”

Melanie wore a jersey from a well-known bicycle training studio.

Lanie turned out to be the wife of one of our club’s A riders, Milt. But she hadn’t ridden much on her own. Melanie was there to lend moral support. The ride would be on a rural road with rolling hills. I welcomed them both, and promised that the ride would not be too fast for them.

As usual, the pack held together for the first few miles, and Lanie and Melanie did a nice job of hanging with it. Both were well ahead of me. But I caught up to them at a stoplight that everyone else had managed to miss. From there on out, we made a compact group, along with Brad, another B rider.

We reached the rollers. Lanie dropped off the pace. She had trouble climbing the hills. At one point, a sheriff’s patrol car caught up to us, passed me, and sat behind Lanie as she struggled up another hill. We were barely traveling at walking speed. I shifted down to my easiest gear to maintain my position behind the squad car. The deputy was very patient behind Lanie, and finally turned off on the first side road that we reached.

“I thought he was going to ticket you for riding too slow,” I joked.

“I know,” she exclaimed. “These hills are killing me.”

The rest of our ride — about a 30-mile round trip — went smoothly. Melanie showed she could leave us behind whenever she wanted, but mostly stayed back with Lanie. With only three miles to go, we had to negotiate two tough hills in a semi-suburban neighborhood. When I told Lanie we had just climbed the last hill, she didn’t believe me.

Back at Starbuck’s, Lanie talked about her riding.

“That was a hills route,” she said. “Milt told me it was mostly flat, with some easy rollers. If I’m going to keep riding routes like that, I need a new bike.”

“What kind do you have?” I asked. I hadn’t paid close attention to what she was riding. She did a double take.

“I don’t know,” she answered.

“What kind of drivetrain do you have?” I continued.

She stared at me. Melanie jumped up and went over to the bike. Lanie followed. In a minute, they were back.

“It’s a Specialized Dolce with a triple chainring, Shimano 105,” Melanie said.

“It’s got a carbon fork, and a carbon seatpost,” Lanie added.

“Well, that’s a decent bike,” I responded. “Your drivetrain is one level up from mine.”

“I’ve got about 250 miles on it,” said Lanie. “Milt says when I reach 1,000 miles, we can talk about a new bike.”

“You don’t need a new bike,” Melanie chimed in. “Just ride more. And ride more hills.”

“Ugh. I’m too old for that,” said Lanie. “This getting old is for the birds.” (She later admitted to mid-50s.)

The A riders started to arrive. When Milt pulled in and sat down, we told him about Lanie’s new bike strategy.

“That’s fine,” he said. “When you get 5,000 miles on it, we’ll talk about a new one.”

We all laughed, and Lanie grimaced. Melanie mentioned riding hills more again. I sipped my egg nog latte and mused about the common desire cyclists get after they’ve ridden awhile. A new bike will solve everything.

I don’t need a new bike. I’d like one, of course, but I don’t need one. We have better things to spend our money on now anyway. But I remembered that I’ve been in Lanie’s shoes before. Almost as soon as I started riding, I decided that with the “right” equipment, I could become pretty good. I pored through catalogs and bike company websites, drooling over carbon fiber wonder bikes that weighed a feather and sped like rockets. But I learned that it’s not the bike, it’s the engine.

I’m sure Lanie will get a new bike one of these days. She’ll take it out and ride the rollers with us again. And she’ll find that regardless of the level of equipment she has, the rollers are still hard.

The Roundtail Bike

Nowadays, I find that comfort on my bike is the most important thing I can aspire to. Perhaps that’s because I’ve spent so much uncomfortable time in the saddle. (Oh, and speaking of saddles, that Forte I put on the bike a few weeks ago is working out nicely. Who’d a thunk?)

So when I came across this oddball design this week, I had to stop for a closer look. It’s called the Roundtail, and instead of having a diamond-shaped frame, it uses two circular rings in the rear. They’re supposed to dissipate road vibrations before they make it up to the rider’s derriere.

Inventor Lou Tortola and the Roundtail bike.

The Roundtail is the brainchild of Lou Tortola of Windsor, Ontario, Canada. He claims it absorbs 60 times more road vibrations than a standard double diamond frame. I don’t know anything about bike geometry, but if one can get past the bizarre look, I can see that there can be some relief in the design. Despite the rings, the frames are sized traditionally.

Here’s a YouTube video showing the Roundtail out on a ride.

The frame reportedly retails for $2,000. That’s just the frame, mind you. I’m not endorsing the Roundtail — I don’t know enough about it yet. But it will be interesting to see if the design takes off.

An Urban Bike For the Road

Way back in 1992, we decided we’d like to do some biking. There was one hitch: My wife, Pat, had a 10-speed Schwinn road bike, but hated it. Her back hurt when she bent over the bars, she never did get the hang of shifting the gears, and it was clear that doing anything over a couple miles would end badly. The answer, of course, was to buy a new bike.

We hit several bike shops in the area, and came up with a hybrid — a Trek 700. It served her well for its intended purpose. We didn’t ride much in town, but did throw our bikes in the trunk of the car and drove to the paved bike trails in southeastern Minnesota. Here, we could ride for miles — safely — and Pat did just fine on the hybrid.

The Trek 700. Pat still rides this three times a week. (Click to enlarge.)

Fast forward 15 years. Pat was president of a local professional organization that sponsored one of the big organized rides around Austin: the Hill Country Ride for AIDS. It was a 50-mile ride, but Pat figured that as president, she should step up, so she started going on training rides with a group of AIDS ride organizers. Her bike-savvy friends pointed out all manner of problems with her bike: The 38mm tires were too wide to go fast (a popular misconception), she needed clipless pedals to add power to her pedal stroke, she really needed a road bike, etc., etc.

Pat rejected the road bike idea, but went to the LBS on a shopping spree. She got Look Keo pedals, 28mm tires, and had them put on a taller stem that put her in an even more upright riding position to take pressure off her arthritic hip. She completed the 50-miler on that bike, and when I saw that, I figured I could do it too. That’s when the Bike Noob really started biking.

The six-speed freewheel (brand new this week) works with a triple chainring and twist grip shifters. The tall stem is evident in the picture at right.

We just had the six-speed freewheel replaced and a new chain put on. “It’s like a brand new bike,” Pat said. Earlier this year, I replaced her worn tires with a brand I’d never heard of before — fyxation. They bill themselves as a company that caters to urban bikers, and their Sessions model of tire has a puncture-resistant diamond tread. Pat’s flatted only once on these — they’re terrific tires.

The distinctive diamond tread of the fyxation tires is visible here, as are the cantilever brakes.

The Look Keo pedals ("I've never seen these on a hybrid before," said our bike mechanic) and the Specialized Dolce gel saddle ("It's okay," says Pat).

Pat is still on the same bike. She’s got a repertoire of neighborhood rides of nine, 12, and 16 miles, and will occasionally join me on an organized ride where she can do 30 miles or so.  It’s her main form of exercise, and exercise is the main reason she rides.

Pat reaches the top on a ride in the Texas Hill Country.

For people who are leery of taking up biking because of the bent-over riding position, this could be the answer. As you get more experience, a few tweaks will let you stretch your riding limits. Who knows? You might even decide to take the plunge and upgrade to a road bike anyway. The next bike purchase in this house will not be for me — it’ll be for Pat.

Bike Comparison Tool

If you’re shopping for a new bike, the choices can be overwhelming. Even knowledgeable bikers can get tangled up trying to call up different bike manufacturers’ websites. There always seems to be one nifty model that gets missed — and it might have been just the one you were looking for.

There is a tool that can help. It’s a website called “Find the Best,” which describes itself as “an objective, socially curated comparison engine that allows you to find a topic, compare your options and decide what’s best for you.” It’s not solely limited to bicycle comparisons — you can compare all manner of things, from universities, to laptop computers, to investments. So I was somewhat skeptical when I clicked on the link to their road bike tool.

Just a sample of the comparison page for entry-level bikes.

I was pleasantly surprised. Users can customize their search to match some broad criteria. Under road bikes, you can search for “Racing,” “Sport,” “Entry-level,” “Triathlon/TT,” “Track,” “Fixie/Single Speed,” “Touring/Commuting,” “Women’s,” and “Kids.” Let’s say you want to compare entry-level road bikes. You can specify frame material — carbon, steel, or aluminum. You can limit the price range, the gearing, the manufacturer — and even limit the finds to those top-rated by either Bicycling magazine or Bike Radar, the British biking website.

If we limit the entry-level price to a top of $2,000, the tool still turns up 53 different makes and models. From there, you can select specific models and run a comparison on them — similar to the kind of comparison available on some bike retailers’ websites. The difference is that on those sites, you’re stuck with just the brands the store carries. Here, you’ve got them all.

I’m not in the market for a new bike now, but it’s still a fun way to kill a little time late in the evening. You can find the road bike comparison tool at http://road-bikes.findthebest.com/. Oh, and if you’re interested in mountain bikes, there’s a tool for those, too: http://mountain-bikes.findthebest.com/

Disclaimer: Although I was introduced to this site by an email from their business development director, I received no compensation or other perks for posting this information.