What makes a truly great bicycle? Is it the frame material? The craftsmanship? The geometry? High thread count tires run at the optimum pressure as administered via a $275 floor pump?
If you’re shopping for your next bike (and let’s be honest, if you’re a cyclist you’re always shopping for your next bike) you’re no doubt grappling with this very question. We live in an age of unprecedented choice when it comes to bike stuff, so when you’re standing before the vast buffet that is the retail bicycle marketplace, how do you even know where to start?
Well, as you begin your search you certainly won’t be wanting for input. The bicycle companies will each assure you that their offerings are the best and provide you with a heady blend of hard data and purple prose to back up their claims. The bike reviewers will endeavor to parse this all for you by riding the bikes themselves for a relatively short period of time and making their own recommendations. The local bike shop will either cut through all the bullshit and give you the straight dope, or they’ll try to sell you on a bike they can’t get rid of—you won’t be sure which. All of this will be liberally seasoned with group ride chatter and Internet commentary, and after you’ve gorged yourself on it all, you’ll be more confused than you were when you started.
And yet incredibly the system works (for the most part), because the truth is bicycles today are almost uniformly good, which means it’s pretty unlikely you’ll end up with a bad one. (Please note that this does not apply to department store bikes. While I do believe that they are a good thing, they are, in the context of a bike this discussion, bad.) This should come as a relief if you’ve ever found yourself poring over a geometry sheet and wondered if that one (1) degree in headtube angle is going to be the difference between your next bike handling like a scalpel or handling like a shopping cart. (Spoiler alert: you probably won’t even notice it.)
So why is it that bikes are so good? Well, bicycle manufacturers have been at it a long time—the safety bicycle has been around since the late 19th century, and we’ve been tweaking the derailleur since the 1930s—so unsurprisingly we’ve got this stuff pretty well dialed in by now. Of course, new technology always takes a little while to tweak, which is why aluminum frames used to be kinda stiff, carbon frames used to be kinda fragile, and so forth. And yes, there’s always a learning curve when it comes to adopting a new standard, which is why things like axle spacing and interfaces are still evolving, and why as a bike customer it’s always good to wait until a design has been around at least a season or two rather than be an early adopter.
Over a century and a half of collective human cycling experience coupled with modern manufacturing techniques and materials means that buying a bike isn’t all that much different from buying a pair of sneakers: if it’s your size and it feels good on your test ride, odds are you’re going to wind up being pretty pleased with your purchase.
Alas, all this quality doesn’t necessarily make shopping any easier. Because the industry has gotten so good at making performance bikes, and because it adapts so quickly to new trends (what used to be a handful of old guys in Italy is now a global value chain) there’s a lot of sameness in bikes and bike components, which is good, and bad. For example, as far as the average rider can tell, Shimano’s top-end Dura-Ace drivetrain is virtually the same as its mid-market Ultegra version (just lighter), which in turn is nearly indistinguishable from its more budget-oriented 105 product (lighter, and a little crisper), and so forth. If you're willing to pay the premium for the lightest-weight and most refined product, you can, but even if you're on a tighter budget, you'll still get parts that function smoothly and reliably. Moreover, all this is equally true across brands. The old saw that “Campy wears in while Shimano wears out” was barely true when it emerged way back in the 20th century, but it’s totally absurd today now that all this stuff works so well—even the entry-level shifty bits from the various drivetrain manufacturers make the premium component groups of yesteryear feel like rod shifters by comparison.
But the bad—or at least confusing—thing about all this sameness is that it can make gaining entry into the world of cycling feel almost prohibitively bewildering. We’ve got more bicycle sub-genres than ever, and seemingly every company now offers its own iterations of the cross-country mountain bike, and the trail bike, and the enduro bike, and the aero road bike, and the gravel bike... This means that even once you’ve narrowed it down to which type of bike you want, you’ve still got 20 browser tabs open as you pore over the small differences among a bunch of nearly identical bicycles, at which point you may feel compelled to close them all for a while and do something much more fun and spontaneous, like shop for mutual funds.
So while it’s exceedingly hard to wind up with a bad bike, it’s also exceedingly hard to wind up with a great one if you’re too wrapped up in counting pennies and grams and millimeters and degrees. If you already know for certain that you want to buy a specific “genre” (road race, gravel, XC mountain, what have you) but you can’t decide between Brand X, Y, or Z because they’re all so similar, zoom out and remember it’s as much about how you feel about who's selling you the bike. Does one come from a local bike shop with whom you can (or want to) build a relationship? Or are you the self-sufficient and/or antisocial type who doesn’t mind foregoing all that and saving a few bucks in the short term by shopping online? There’s certainly nothing wrong with the latter, but if you’re just starting out on your cycling journey the long-term value of the former could be incalculable.
If you’re not exactly sure what type of bike you want, look to the companies that defy category, because for all this sameness there are still plenty of bicycles out there that stand apart. Jones Bicycles may look like mountain bikes at first blush but they’re endlessly versatile machines suited to virtually any cycling application, and they achieve this without resorting to the evils of suspension. Rivendell has married practicality, beauty, sublime ride quality, and an almost pathological aversion to cycling trends for decades now. Surly still makes bikes that have given birth to entire subcultures, and in addition to completes they offer frames that allow you to create a Frankenstein’s Monster with the most unlikely components in your parts bin—and they’re cheap! And Crust Bikes is managing to synthesize the sensibilities of all the three. Companies like these aren’t constrained by making bikes for use in a sanctioned cycling discipline, nor are they trying to make a bike that’s just like a competitor’s bike, only slightly better. They’re just making their own idea of a great bike their way, grams and fashion be damned.
Rather than researching the spec sheets, you’ve really got to research who you are and how you like to ride. Once you figure that out you’ll find your bike—and the results may surprise you.