Confessions of a Cycling Journalist — Part One: Buying Yourself a New Bike
May 22nd, 2017
May 22nd, 2017
Guy Andrews has worked for over twenty years as a cycling journalist, author and editor. Before that, as a bike mechanic, teacher and an enthusiastic, but not particularly successful, bike racer. In 2006 he founded and co-published Rouleur and edited the magazine for over nine years. He also edited and published several critically acclaimed titles produced by Bloomsbury’s Rouleur imprint including; Coppi, Velo, Maglia Rosa, Le Mètier and The Peloton. Guy has also been author of several books on cycling, including 'Greg LeMond: Yellow Jersey Racer' and 'The Brooks Compendium of Cycling Culture'. He is an avid collector of vintage photo-reportage magazines, especially those on cycling, and he’s also a bit of a luddite.
The Best Belt-Drive and Internally-Geared Bikes for 2018
What is a Women-Specific Bike?
Best 2018 Budget Mountain Bikes for Under £1,000
Bespoked - The UK's Handmade Bicycle Show announces talks
Did you know we have a marketplace too?
We've got a new, dedicated Marketplace, with no hidden fees or commission.Find your next bike
As the founder of Rouleur, who edited the Magazine for nine years and wrote bicycle reviews for 15 years, as well writing many cycling-related novels, it's safe to say that Guy has learned a thing or two about bikes, but after retiring from the magazine, he needed to buy a bike of his own. Simple eh? Well, apparently not. Hence we've broken Guy's pop at the industry into a whole series. Enjoy!
It was ten years ago that I tested my last bike for a cycling publication. I can’t remember what bike it was, but it was very good. I probably gave it 4.5 stars. Maybe even 5. I packed it up in its box and unemotionally sent it back, I wasn’t remotely attached to it. Bikes had started to blend into one. The following week I decided I’d had enough of bike testing, I wanted to get back to enjoying riding and let my body adjust back to sitting on a familiar bike again, so the bike testing stopped and I moved on. I was fortunate to have a bike at home that I was happy to be stuck with, so I rode it loads, because the right bike makes you want to ride loads. And that’s the fundamental issue with a bike - it should be an extension of you. It may say other ‘stuff’ to some people, sure, but it needs to make you happy and the right bike will. Even ten years ago it was hard to find a crap bike though, the market was starting to flood with hundreds of great value, well-made bikes to suit just about any budget, surface or weather situation. Not much has changed, albeit the marketeers adding a few new ‘disciplines’ of riding genres for us to enjoy and the buoyant cycling market has become awash with some great bikes. Lucky us.
I needed a new bike and away from being in the thick of the cycle industry that meant that I’d have to buy one
A £500 bike nowadays would be enough to get this fussiest of grumpy bike testers into a lather and, in short, bike manufacturers are currently producing some amazing bikes, I’ve said this hundreds of times since that it’s actually harder to build a bad bike nowadays than it is a good one – And that’s not just an old hand being cynical, because I like the fact that there are loads of options and buckets of choice (as long as it’s carbon and in that tennis-racket-finish-grey-black, but I digress…) So, when buying a new bike, how can you go wrong? I may have retired from trying to find another way to say, “…the bike cornered like it was on rails” or “the rear end felt laterally compliant”, etc, etc, but I certainly haven’t given up on cycling. After a couple of mishaps on my old bike I needed a new bike and away from being in the thick of the cycle industry that meant that I’d have to buy one, anyway I was ready for a change. After twenty years of ‘borrowing’ bikes it was time to grow up, time to put my money on the counter.
The Problem with Being Average
I’m an average sized, medium build and medium height person. I have slightly short legs and slightly long arms, but that’s about the limit of my ‘unusualness’. I’ve never been in need of a custom frame with extended tubes or overly slanting seat angles. Mostly I ride a bike that fits somewhere in the middle. A 54 or a 55 usually does it for me. This should be easy. I wanted the right balance of bike, I didn’t want to have to compromise just because that was all they had in stock, I wanted a bike that would fit properly, using a regular sized stem and without the bike not looking ‘quite right.’ Despite bikes making massive leaps in materials and price points there’s still some bizarre looking shapes and tube dimensions going on and even though I’m sure that works in a wind tunnel or on a computer program, I don’t want an ugly or disproportioned bike either because my mantra is: If it looks right, it usually is. Here comes the first problem. I simply couldn’t find a 54cm frame with a 54cm top tube with a head tube that didn’t resemble electricity pylon proportions. All the bikes that filled my requirements just looked downright weird. Some meant I’d be too high at the front end and some too low. Flipping and changing stems until it feels right are philosophical and aesthetic no-nos as far as I am concerned… I spent hours searching but at each turn a manufacturer throws in a curve ball. “Who on earth designs these things?” I started to think and it looked like it was me that had the problem. It isn’t. Some of the geometry charts are all over the place with different measuring points, how they define tubes and even angles can be a minefield and I started to change tack…
I’ve been very interested (and heartened) in the past decade or so, by the resurgence of custom frame builders in the USA and UK – why is that happening? Although their waiting lists didn’t suit my schedule this time (and more of this in a later instalment), I was tempted by a few. They are also a little pricey (the price is high for very good reason and more of this too later) but I needed something fast, I was living away from my shed of old bike parts at home and being completely bike-less, it needed to be off the peg. But that wasn’t proving easy.
I blame mountain bikes. They democratised buying a bike, which of course was a good thing in part, but it also made cycling a ‘small, medium and large’ business
I blame mountain bikes. They democratised buying a bike, which of course was a good thing in part, but it also made cycling a ‘small, medium and large’ business and for the cyclist, who comes in a variety of different human shapes, that was a very bad thing. At the time it was a genius bit of retail marketing, it kept manufacturing simple, shops could keep stocks low and meant the one-size-fits-nobody philosophy prospered. The American and Japanese brands of the mid-eighties saw that there was potential and went for it. But the result was a simplification of bike sizing and this has bitten the road bike manufacturers in the arse ever since, because they can’t have 20-odd different sizes for bikes that are made in a cake mould. On a very simple level, this means that the contemporary cyclist fitting mistakes are usually:
- The saddle is way too high for the frame size
- Reach is too long (often in small sizes)
- Handlebars, therefore, end up in a weird place (which is a feature all in itself)
- Stem lengths vary from anything between 80mm to 150mm
- Frame too big/small in some dimension or other
My point here is many bike buyers have grown accustomed to compromise. Of course stems and seat posts are adjustable for length, but the one issue will always be where is your weight on the bike? How does the bike handle with the bars down by your knees and your saddle higher than a five bar gate? A bike should fit without compromise, you should stand back to admire it and not have to think, “now, if it wasn’t for that head tube that looks like a pepper mill in a cheap Italian restaurant, I’d love it…”
now, if it wasn’t for that head tube that looks like a pepper mill in a cheap Italian restaurant, I’d love it…
When I started road cycling in the early eighties a road geometry chart was harder to decipher than navigating Cape Horn, yet despite the inaccessible nature of their catalogues, some high-end manufacturers made a frame with two top tube lengths, so dialling the ride was akin to going the fully custom route… (more on that later, too) But even then, being properly fitted on a bike by a qualified and experienced fitter (who could read the size charts) was essential, some of the best were (and still are) frame builders because they see a multitude of problems and they know what the material and geometric parameters are. Nowadays there’s science and computerised fit systems to help, which is great but in my experience mostly adds confirmation to the 100+ years of underpinning bicycle building knowledge. Regardless, I started to look backwards to go forwards and realised that even as late as 2004 Colnago’s signature carbon fibre C40 came in 20 different sizes… And one that fits me perfectly. So a C40 it is… If only I can find one on eBay. And that’s decided then? Mind made all up? Well, no, not really – because the next problem for any bike buyer is one that I’m sure gives many people sleepless nights: “Brand Prejudice”… and for that can of worms, you’ll have to wait for part two.