The Sceptical Shopper: road bikes are light and fast—and a magnet for thieves. Our undercover expert gets saddle-sore...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2012
Cycling makes for a neat solution to two urban preoccupations: commuting and keeping fit. Road bikes are ideal if you want to cycle to work as quickly as possible, and maybe compete in the odd triathlon. But there are many variations on the theme, and it’s too easy to end up with one that will sit, unused, in your hallway.
Every bit of a road bike—from skinny tyres to low-slung handlebars—is built for speed, and for tarmac. Comfort is not on the agenda. The riding posture—huddled over to reduce drag—takes some getting used to; the seats are built to be aerodynamic (read, unforgiving); and the high tyre-pressure and non-existent suspension mean you’ll feel every pothole. If you’re going off-road, get a hybrid bike instead.
After a few hours on an ill-fitting bike, every mile will feel like ten—which is why a good bike shop will start by discussing your reach and height. For women this process is trickier. They typically have a higher leg-to-torso ratio and shorter arms than men, so a man’s frame will be uncomfortable. But a classic ladies’ bike, with a dropped top-tube, won’t be as strong or power-efficient. Specialists such as Condor will build a bike to precisely your measurements, but prices start around £1,250. For something more reasonable, the off-the-peg Specialized Dolce (around £770) has a frame that looks like it’s one for the boys, but its proportions are all woman. And if in doubt, take the bike for a test ride.
Bike nerds love to brag about the lightness of their frame—though one study has shown that it’s the heaviness of the rider that’s more important, at least when it comes to velocity. But one thing a frame’s lightness does affect is cost. Carbon-fibre frames are generally the lightest, but average at £1,000 and are infamously brittle. On bad roads they can pick up dangerous fractures that are invisible to the naked eye—and if you crash, the whole bike is a write-off. Titanium doesn’t rust, is only marginally heavier than carbon fibre, and is both strong and flexible; unfortunately you’ll struggle to find a titanium bike for less than £2,000. Heavier, steel bikes are the traditionalists’ choice because they absorb road vibrations well, but they’re also tricky to manufacture on an automated production line, so there are fewer affordable models. Most people will do best with an aluminium frame. They’re light and stiff enough to be quick, and though they can fatigue and aren’t wildly comfortable, you can pick one up for £350. If you want to make every second count, spend a little more on a model with a great competitive record, such as the Cannondale Synapse (£750).
Before you ride off into the sunset, think about security. Even double-locked on the busiest of streets, your lovely new bike runs a very real risk of being stolen or picked clean. YouTube has thousands of videos of bike thieves taking off in under a minute without a single bystander raising the alarm. If you don’t have somewhere secure to store a bike, the safest bet is a cheaper model with bolted-on wheels, saddle and handlebars. And if you do leave it on the street, lock it next to a more expensive model—passing crooks will go for that one.
Illustration Richard Rockwood