As a cycling and triathlon coach, one of the questions I am most frequently asked by people who plan to do their first triathlon is: “Do you have any recommendations for buying a bike?”. I get asked this question so often, wrote this step by step guide to buying your next bike!
Step 1: Set a Budget
If you follow no other piece of advice, heed this. It is possible to spend more money on your shiny new bike than you did on your last car, so unless money doesn’t matter to you, set a budget. What’s an acceptable budget? That’s up to you and your discretion. You can find bikes for free to as little as $50.
But beware: cycling is a sport where typically the more you spend, the higher quality bike you are getting. But that doesn’t mean you need the most expensive option.
Resist sales pitches that claim this bike is faster than that bike. There is no such thing as a fast bike, only a fast rider. Are some bikes more aerodynamic than others? Yes. Are some bikes lighter than others? Yes. But that doesn’t make the bike faster. The rider makes the bike go fast.
A typical price range for an entry level road or tri bike is going to be $500-$1,500. You can spend more than this if you want to go beyond that entry level to purchase a bike you can grow into across a few years.
Most bikes do not come with pedals, bottle cages, or bottles. You will need a budget for those items, as well as a helmet, cycling shoes and cleats, water bottles, cycling bib (shorts) and jersey, cycling gloves, cycling lights (these make you much more visible to vehicular traffic), flat kit (tire levers, spare tubes, CO2 cartridges, and a CO2 adapter), bike pump, and bike computer with a speed/cadence sensor.
Some of these items you can do without, but the helmet, water bottles, and flat kit you cannot. I strongly advise buying cycling lights as well. DON’T skimp on safety! Plan on committing $100-$150 of your budget towards those essentials, and $500+ for all/most of the rest of the items.
Step 2: Decide What Kind of Bike You Want
You’ll need to decide whether you want a tri or road bike. So how do you decide between a tri bike and a road bike? Answering the following questions can help:
- Do you plan on doing a lot of group and social rides? Typically group rides will not allow tri bikes or bikes with aero bars. So a road bike is the choice for you (until you can afford two bikes )
- Are you planning to be competitive or be as fast as possible? Then a tri bike is what you want.
- One caveat – if you are planning on draft legal racing or road cycling races (outside of TT rides), you MUST use a road bike. Tri bikes are NOT allowed.
- What do you do if you want to be competitive, but you also enjoy the social aspect of group rides? In that case, I recommend getting a road bike with clip on aerobars. This will allow you to race and train in an aero position (a faster position), but you can also remove the aerobars to do group and social rides.
Step 3: Decide What is on Your “Must Have” List
Your list of must haves will vary greatly depending on your budget, but generally you need to decide on which of these 3 things is most important to you:
- Frame materials and quality: carbon, aluminum or steel? All have strengths and weaknesses, and not all carbons are equal. If you are looking to grow along with your bike, it may be worth spending the most amount of money on the frame
- Components: this is your drivetrain, brakes, levers, etc. You can spend a little to a lot more here for significant to marginal gains. Don’t know the difference between Campy vs Shimano or SRAM vs FSA? Then do some research to determine what will work best for your needs.
- Wheels: if you want to blow your budget, you are likely to do it here. A fancy set of race wheels can cost upwards of $3,000. Just remember that deep dish wheels are more difficult to handle/steer with and can be a disadvantage in certain situations, such as high winds.
One item that should be on your must have list is a bike fitting. These professional fits will cost $300-$500 and take 3-4 hours. But they are comprehensive and will do everything from saddle mapping to find your pressure points on your saddle (seat) to using laser levels and image capture technology to ensure you are in your most efficient and safe position. More on this later.
Step 4: Shop Around
Now that you have a budget, know what type of bike you want and what is important to you, it is time to go shopping.
Treat this experience like buying a car. Visit several local bike shops (LBS). Look online and at used options as well. However, especially if this is your first bike, I can’t recommend strongly enough to go to your LBS. Supporting your LBS isn’t only good for them, it is good for you and your local cycling community. It is a bank of knowledge and knowhow that will help you develop and grow as a cyclist.
When you visit the various LBS, you can let them know what the other shops have offered you. Buying a bike is a significant investment, and sometimes bike shops will include things like a bike fitting, or bottle cages and bottles, or various other items to help persuade you to buy from them. So, it’s worthwhile to ask. Many bike shops also include a yearly tune up free of charge for bikes bought at the store. So, ask about that as well.
Another benefit of “shopping around” is the chance to develop a rapport with the LBS you ultimately decide to support.
Step 5: Wait! Don’t Buy Yet! Get a Fitting!
Remember the “there is no such thing as a fast bike” from earlier? That’s true. But if you want to be fast on your bike, you need a fitting. It is worth making room in your budget for a bike fit, and it should be done before you buy your bike. Why? Because no two bodies are alike, and not all bikes will fit every body.
It does you no good to buy a bike that will never fit you, only to suffer through injuries and discomfort down the road. I see this too often. A branded dealer has a vested interest in selling a certain brand, or they have a lot of stock left over they need to move, and so they recommend you get that bike or brand. But a fitting may have ruled that brand out. Ultimately the rider gets injured, under performs or both, and ultimately has to pay for a proper fitting and they find out their bike will never fit them. They need a new bike. That can be a very expensive and very painful experience.
Using plumb lines, strings, and measuring angles with a goniometer, and then adjusting seat height or cleat position is not a fitting. That is a bike adjustment. What’s the difference? A bike adjustment adjusts you to the bike. It squeezes or stretches you so that you “fit” on the bike to the best of your body’s ability.
In comparison, a bike fitting will take several hours, and most of it won’t be done on a bike, but rather a machine. This allows the bike fitter to fit the bike to you. The result is you are much less likely to suffer injury from normal riding and you will be in the fastest, most comfortable, and safest position for YOU on the bike.
I will stress this again, make a bike fitting part of your must have list. It is invaluable. Bold. Underlined. Full stop.
Step 6: Buy Your Bike or Don’t
Still not sure about buying a bike? There are other options. Consider renting a bike from an LBS. Or maybe borrow a friend’s bike. If you join a tri club, many athletes will let you borrow one of their bikes (probably an older one) for a training ride or race. All of this will help you test out and feel different bike types, components, and accessories. And then, go back to step 1, and repeat!
One last note. A coach can also be invaluable for guidance, advice, and support throughout this process. As a coach, we want our athletes to succeed and be healthy, and we have no other ulterior motives nor brand loyalties. So, if you have a coach, ask him or her. It is just one more benefit of having a coach!