Photo soon to be updated with a road sister
Following up on my Vélo Bleu and mountain bike commutes to the office, I prioritized getting a solid road bike for regular commuting and escapades into our beautiful back country. I say “prioritized” because, as you may recall, I’m also dealing with plumbing issues in my kitchen. However, the problems it has caused aren’t urgent, don’t affect anyone else, and since my insurance has already been notified, I’m fine to wait until my finances are where I can afford the repairs. I do still need to call my trusted plumber to confirm what needs to be done, but that quote won’t cost anything. Meanwhile, riding on the Promenade to work, re-experiencing my old love of road cycling, a long-dormant dream was reawakened: to have my own road bike. It’s the perfect time in road cycling at large, too, because established manufacturers are making entry-level and intermediate frames out of aluminum, using components that are worthy sisters to their pro-grade siblings, at prices you could hardly imagine ten years ago. It used to be you had to shell out about two grand for a quality setup that would last for years; nowadays solid, speed-capable aluminum road bikes worth their salt start at around 800, with 1000-1200 being a sweet spot in terms of value. It’s not a small amount of money, but nor is it all that much when you consider use and maintenance.
Cheaper bikes of any type tend to sacrifice on frame and component quality. I’ve seen this with mountain bikes: I’ve had my GT since 2006, and have yet to even replace the disc brake pads on it (I do go lightly on them). The chain, shifters, derailleurs, shocks, crankset and cassette, even the cables, are still all original and working beautifully. This with an investment of about 30-40 euros per year in bike shop maintenance. Meanwhile, some other mountain bikers (only some, most are enthusiastic and friendly), who bought much less expensive bikes and scoffed at me for spending 1800 on my GT, ended up singing a different tune after failures. The worst type is a frame failure, which I’ve seen twice now in French off-brand bikes less than four years old (those sold by big-name sports stores with the store brand). When a frame breaks, it can kill you, as it nearly did one guy who barely avoided a broken seat tube through his abdomen. The good news is that mountain bikes get more frame stress than other types of bike, so it’s more rare to see frame failure on non-MTBs. As for components, the cheapest entry-level components don’t often last more than a few years of regular use. In terms of overall cost, paying more for better quality is worth it: I paid 1800 for my GT seven years ago. I’ve only put 240 euros of maintenance into it (40 x 6 years to be generous, some years were only 30 euros), and about 400 euros’ worth of tires and inner tubes. That works out to just over 2400 euros total, over 7 years, which is 340 euros per year, or less than 30 euros per month. And it’s still going strong. In terms of utility, that’s less expensive than most gym subscriptions. In terms of enjoyment, it’s priceless… I love cycling and the outdoors, can hardly imagine a better way to spend time.
After a couple weeks getting up to speed on modern road bikes, I dropped by my trusted bike shop, Vélo Concept on Boulevard Raimbaldi in Nice. (Their website has been down, so I don’t link to it here. It’s best to go in person anyway, they’re great.) Sure enough, within five minutes I was shown a bike that seemed it would be perfect, and true to this bike shop, they encouraged me to look at it online at home and think about it. I did that, and was seriously impressed. It’s a BH Sphene 105, the top model in the entry-level Sphene line, which is still “only” 1100 euros. It’s more expensive than the others because it has components that are related to professional-grade ones, in this particular case, Shimano 105 with an FSA Omega compact double crankset. If you’re going “what”, no worries, a couple weeks ago I was too. I rode a 1970s Japanese steel road bike as a kid. That was the last road bike I used regularly. My vocabulary had basically been “front gears”, “back gears”, and “shifters”. The translation is easy: a crankset, les plateaux in French, are the front gears and crank arms, to which pedals are attached. Back gears are the cassette, also cassette or pignons in French. Component lines change regularly, so it’s natural to have to look into them in order to find your bearings. Shimano’s 105 groupset/gruppo, as a set of shifters, derailleurs (the mechanical bits that actually perform the shifting), brakes, crankset, cassette, and chain are called, is Shimano’s everyman offering that’s known for being smooth and solid, and thus a bit heavier than other, pricier gruppos, but performance is so good that the guy at the bike shop said he races in 105. Now. You may have noticed that a groupset includes a crankset, when the crankset on my bike is an FSA compact double… not a Shimano 105. FSA makes nice cranksets, and a compact double is a relatively new invention that is gradually making triple cranksets (three front gears) obsolete, because with 10-speed cassettes (most had been 9-speed in the past), there’s not much of a gearing difference between a compact double paired with a 10-speed cassette, and a triple paired with a 9-speed cassette. (It does also depend on the cassette, but going into that would complicate things for this blog post.) Additionally, having only two gears in front makes a difference in size and mechanical capabilities. Chain lines, meaning the angles a chain can take depending on gears used, are more acute on a triple crankset than on a double. Also, having a third gear up front makes the pedals spaced slightly wider, and shifting a bit clunkier. Small differences, but they do add up when you ride regularly.
As for bike size, this is the most important reason I went to my bike shop, second only to the fact that they’re awesome and I’m happy to give them business. While you can order a bike online, in general you’ll be better off ordering from a bike shop, for fit and price. Why price? Well, when you get a bike from a shop, usually a free fitting is part of the price, whereas if you order online, a fitting will be extra. A fitting takes 45 minutes to an hour. Why get a bike professionally fit? If you’ve ever ridden a city share bike, or borrowed a friend’s bike, and ridden it more than half an hour, you’ve probably gotten sore. You’ve probably also blamed that soreness on being out of shape. In reality, if you had sore tendons (knees especially), joints (wrists and shoulders), or a sore back, it was not because you’re out of shape, it was because the bike didn’t fit you. This is hard-earned experience talking: when you ride a bike that fits you, with proper posture: arch your back (don’t ride with a straight back) and flex your elbows, and you’re out of shape, your muscles are sore. Never joints. I want to repeat that, because it’s important: I have never had sore tendons or joints from mountain biking. On the other hand, the Vélo Bleu I rode for an hour and a half did a real number on my knees and wrists. If you want to ride regularly, and more than a half-hour at a time, a bike fitting is worth every penny for the physical benefits alone. It also helps you go faster, but that’s mainly important if you’re the type who likes to ride fast (I am).
Doing it yourself has pitfalls: looking at the BH Sphene online, their site said someone my height, 180cm would take an L, which starts at people who are 175cm. The usual caveat for women’s morphology doesn’t apply to me – I have a long torso for a woman, shorter legs, and so am rather close to a man’s body type. However. When I went back to the bike shop yesterday to order my Sphene, he took some preliminary measurements, and put me on the display model M just in case. It turns out that my short arms make up for my long torso… and I need an M to ensure that I can flex my elbows properly. And that’s just the preliminary fitting. I never would have guessed; my mountain bike is the equivalent of a men’s large and fits great, but road geometry vs. MTB geometry (frame shapes, essentially) makes a big difference.
So! If some of what I said was as new for you as it was for me a couple weeks ago, now you too have what it takes to go out and look at bikes with new eyes. One last tip: there’s a warning I’ve always heeded and feel I have to pass on out of courtesy. If you are the sort who enjoys bikes, never try a bike you can’t afford. Because if you like it, and chances are you would… you WILL find a way to pay for it. As soon as I got on the shop’s display model, I knew it was a good thing I hadn’t tried any others, and hadn’t looked into road bikes any earlier, because even stationary, it felt like one sweet ride. Look what happened: I’m postponing plumbing repairs for two rubber wheels on an aluminum frame. And I’m excited about it!