Finding the perfect bicycle can take a little research, but it’s time well spent. What’s the first thing you think about when considering a new bicycle purchase? Is it the color, frame material, or the fit? It’s probably a combination of these, yet riders often forego their favorite, ultimate bike color choice in favor of price. Sometimes we choose to save a bit by going with the cheaper frame material, but just as you would want a car that sets your senses alive so that every time you are ready to drive you get excited, so too should your bicycle color and material choices be determined by your favorites.
Sure, you can choose the cheapest craigslist ride you can find, park it in a lonely cobwebby corner of your musty garage where spiders might crawl over the saddle more than you, but why? Wouldn’t it be better to do more than buy the bicycle? Don’t you want your heart rate to jump at the mere thought of climbing onto your bike and hitting the trail or road? Of course you do!
Let’s talk color
There are two main elements to the color factor of your bike: frame and components. Back in the bicycle stone ages of nineteen-o-something through to about 1984, bicycle components were all the color of metal — steel and/or aluminum. Then Shimano released an all white component group called Sante, and all bets were off.
Most component manufacturers (Campagnolo, Shimano, Suntour, and SRAM) continued making mostly metal-colored components, with a dash of black, but by the turn of the millennium or so, we had white and black (and polished steel or aluminum) components. Now, there are all kinds of colored components from manufacturers like Chris King and FSA among others.
Why does this matter? Well, that brings us to the important topic of frame color.
There is a reason why in movies and shows the kids who get bicycles as gifts always get a red bike, and it’s not all that complicated. It’s like getting a shiny, crisp red apple, or climbing on a fire truck, or even the cliche of the red sports car. Red is fast and exciting. But not everyone wants a red bike, for some favor blue or purple or black or white. My favorite bike is blue and orange. It’s probably no coincidence that it’s the one of the only bikes I’ve won races on.
Erik Moen says frame color may be the second most important thing about your bike after fit. You want to love your bike, right? Well, we all love colors, for each conjures a different emotion. So think about the color of your bike before you plunk down the dollars. If simply looking at it gives you goosebumps or makes your heart rate rise a bit, it’s probably a winner. Make sure it fits right too by getting your correct measurements beforehand.
Even if you can’t find just the right color for your frame, or you just need to bring back the motivational shine to your favorite ride, you can have it custom painted by outfits such as CycleArt, Seattle Powder Coat, and Spectrum Powder Works. How cool is that? Think about the cool designs your barista makes atop your favorite espresso drink. Somehow, that extra bit of care makes the drink actually taste better. A sweet custom bike paint job is a lot like that.
Back in the bicycle stone ages again, frames were all made of steel, but today there are carbon fiber, aluminum, titanium, steel, and bamboo frames. Choosing a frame material often comes down to how the bike fits and feels on a test ride. Well, that and bling factor.
How the bike feels has as much to do with the frame’s geometry as it does the material used in its tubes. For example, there are titanium frames built for touring and racing (among other uses). The racing frames have aggressive geometry that makes the bike more responsive. While the titanium touring frame may look fast, it’s less responsive and more flexible, so you will have a softer ride for those long miles. That means you’ll work a little harder, but you will also last longer as a tradeoff. So ask your seller or bike shop about geometry. What type of bike is it, and how does that fit with your intended use?
With its light weight, super stiff tubes, and responsiveness, Titanium is the ultimate bike frame material. It’s also virtually weather-proof, so if you live in a wet climate, you can be less concerned about your bike frame rusting. Titanium bikes are also the most expensive, but if you have the budget, you can bet on being happy for years to come. Check out Ti Cycles or Seven Cycles to get an idea of price range.
Steel is real, as the saying goes. It’s softer, yet heavier, and is seemingly bomb-proof. A steel frame and fork can last thirty or more years, which is ideal if you are on a tight budget. Steel frames feel great, can survive a crash or three, and will always have street cred. If you bend a derailleur hanger in a crash, you can often bend it back without sacrificing frame integrity (try that with an aluminum frame… it ain’t going to happen). Plus, steel comes in more colors than you can count, so you’re likely to find just the right one. Steel is excellent for training, racing, touring, and commuting.
Nearly every bicycle shop sells steel frames, and there are plenty of bicycle frame builders who can build a custom frame to your exact specifications. (In fact BikePT’s own technical advisor, Michael O’Brien, is one of them!) Steel may just be the material of choice for the perfect bicycle.
Carbon fiber is for those times when you are so fit you can’t possibly eek any more efficiency out of your sinewy muscles, so you want to lighten up your frame to go faster up hills and over dales. It’s also great for softening the bumps in the road. Carbon fiber provides an insanely smooth ride and keeps you from wasting energy, plus it’s super lightweight and responsive (and has major bling factor).
There is a significant price difference between a steel or aluminum frame and carbon fiber. Carbon fiber frames tend to cost an average of 25-50% more or higher, however the prices have begun to even out over the years as carbon fiber has become more common.
Early carbon frames suffered from annoying creaking and popping sounds, but as the carbon grades improved during the last few years, frames have become more pleasantly silent.
One down side to carbon fiber is that it can catastrophically break when crashed, and if that happens, you will have to replace your frame. Some companies have crash replacement discounts to address this issue. A cool feature on most carbon frames is the replaceable derailleur hanger, which is handy if you crash and bend the hanger, a common issue on any bike.
Aluminum is a nice way to save some moola on your next fantastic frame. The problem with aluminum is that it fatigues, cracks, and eventually breaks, and it’s nearly impossible to repair. It also tends to start creaking loudly over time (about one year if you ride weekly), which can be incredibly annoying to hear on each revolution of the pedals.
The good news about aluminum, however, is that it’s light and rides nicely. My cyclocross frame is aluminum, and I practically love the thing. It has lasted for over a decade, and I’ve had some of my best races on it. I chose it because the measurements were a perfect fit, and it is lightweight, which is important because it means I can sling it over my shoulder without bruising my scapula or clavicle, and run just a little faster with it.
Bamboo bikes seem fairly amazing. I mean, who would have thought you could ride on sticks? Calfee Designs thought it, and they make a pretty compelling case for bamboo bikes (and not just a case, but a whole range of bamboo bikes to boot). Because of its perimeter strength, light weight, and stiffness, bamboo is apparently the ideal bicycle frame material. Read more about bamboo bicycles.
Don’t forget bike fit!
No matter your choice of frame material, the most important factor in finding the perfect bicycle is the fit. When your bike fits right, you will enjoy the rides and have continual motivation to go feel awesome on a bike ride.