The Artist: More Bike for Your Buck

Outside magazine, March 1996

The Artist: More Bike for Your Buck

No matter what your budget, designer Scot Nicol offeres strategies for buying a solid machine
By Andrew Tilin

Scot Nicol, builder of high-end bike frames, pauses in the middle of the Pedal Pusher bike shop in Santa Rosa, California, dumbfounded by the inventory. "Look at all the cranksets, the dual-suspension frames, the rows of bikes," he remarks, ambling amongst the hardware. "Imagine all the questions."

Not that Nicol, 41, has cause to wonder what the bike-obsessed public wants. His 15-year-old company, Sebastopol, California-based Ibis Cycles, will sell nearly 2,000 bikes this year--at $2,000 (for a steel, front-suspension mountain bike) to $10,000 (for an all-titanium off-road tandem) a pop. But he insists that despite the highbrow craftsmanship, he hasn't lost touch with the concerns of the average pedaler. "Whether you're building an expensive frame or buying an entry-level bike," he points out, "there's still a lot to figure out by the seat of your pants." In deference to his years of experience, we asked Nicol to show us the finer points of a good steed--no matter what size the outlay.

"In this range, most frames are made overseas," explains Nicol. "So look for the MADE IN TAIWAN label, because the Taiwanese are really good welders. They're much further along than the mainland Chinese." The importance of this, says Nicol, is quite basic: A well-built frame ensures proper wheel alignment and sufficient durability. After the frame, Nicol advises that you focus on wheel weight. "Make sure you get aluminum rims, and if you have $80 left over, splurge on a set of Kevlar-bead tires. You'll shed half a pound per wheel."

"Now you're into suspension," says Nicol. "But you still want the front wheel to go where you tell it to go, which means you need a fork that's torsionally rigid." How to tell? Turn the handlebars until they're parallel to the frame, push the bike forward from behind the saddle, and watch for deflection in the front wheel. "If the wheel flexes, moving the brake shoes and cable," he explains, "then the suspension legs are moving independently. That you don't want." Other details worth looking for, says Nicol, include cable routing that steers clear of the muck-attracting down tube and bottom bracket, and cranksets with chainrings that are bolted on, not welded, since only the former allows you to customize gearing.

"The folks who spec components really have to know how to juggle," remarks Nicol. "Does the buyer want bar-ends or smoother suspension? Lighter wheels or a shock-absorbing saddle?" In general the largest manufacturers, who purchase parts in bulk, offer the best-specced bikes. "When you see a mix of components," Nicol adds, "some real thought has gone into the bike. For instance, you might see Shimano's Deore LX hubs on a bike otherwise outfitted with the company's lesser STX components. For a minimal price increase--maybe $15--you get 24 speeds instead of 21."

$1,250 and up
"Components come and go," says Nicol, "but at this price you can buy a frame that will last." He says the first thing to look for is a frame with butted tubes, which are thicker in high-stress areas and thinner elsewhere to pare ounces. As for the metal, Nicol favors titanium. "It's strong, it's half the weight of steel, and it'll never rust," he says. Finally, Nicol is very high on full-suspension frames, which he says should move at least three to five inches in the rear to absorb the biggest bumps. "Realistically," he says, "full suspension is the only way an old fart like me can still go long."

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