Sunday, May 15, 2011

The uncensored Guadzilla guide to buying a bike

Some time ago, I wrote a little FAQ on Bikeszone for people in India looking to buy a bike. In my usual haste, it had a bunch of typos.  And based on what I have read since, I think some people were not really getting the point.

So I have decided to post an updated version of that guide, free of the limitations of avoiding cuss-words.

Step 1: Understand a few things
Let's get this out of the way right now.  There is no single "perfect" bike for you, no matter what your budget.  There is this thing called free market, see - it means a bunch of companies all make products, many of which are virtually identical and some of which have minor differences in some areas.

To use an analogy, think about bikes as women.  At the top of the line, you have Angelina Jolie (my wife to be), Megan Fox, Katrina Kaif and others.  Yes, they are different.  Some people might prefer one, others might prefers others but pretty much all of us would be happy - and on our knees, both in thanks and for other reasons - to ride any of them.  At the middle end, you have your cute co-worker, that girl who you regularly see at the Barista next to your house and others: also attractive and more attainable by most people.  At the bottom end, you have the fat rejects from Tamil films.  If nothing else is available, they will do.  Nothing to brag about, but functionally, they get the job done.

Ok, now that I have managed to offend just about every PC person on the planet, let's get serious.  Bikes work the same way.  The top-end bikes are great, mid-end bikes are good enough for 99% of the population and while the entry-level bikes may not be very glamorous, they still get the job done.   And since bikes are pretty simple devices in many ways, the difference between entry-level and top-end is a lot less than the difference between Jabba the Fatt and Angie.    

Furthermore, regardless of which level of bike you are looking at, there is no single "ideal" bike.   Each bike at a given level is more or less equivalent to the others in the price range, with some minor differences that may set it apart.    Emphasis on "minor" and "may".    

To make things even worse, you will not be able to tell if these differences really matter and if they do, which one is best suited for your needs, by reading a spec sheet.   You will need to go to a store and check it out in person.  

Think about it - if one bike at a price point was clearly better than another, why would the second bike even exist or sell in the market?    

So this post will not give you a brand and model to buy.  It will help you decide what features to look for. After that, you can do more searches to identify models that fit your needs and budget, and then you need to get off your ass, go to a bike shop and try out these bikes.  Don't expect to be hand-fed.

Read this section over and over again until you believe it and accept it.  No, really.  Read it again.  If you are not convinced, go read this instead, because there is no point you going any further.

So with that in mind, let's get on with the program.

Step 2: Decide on your needs 
In theory, there would be 1 bike that does everything well.  In theory, Katrina Kaif and Angelina Jolie should also be fighting over me.  Alas, reality can be irksome.  Katrina is not interested in fighting over me and no single bike does everything either.  You can try to get a bike which tries to do a bit of everything, and end up with a compromise that does nothing well, or you can be honest with yourself, decide what the primary function of the bike is going to be, and get something suited for that.

If you are going to ride the bike on tarmac for most of the year, do you really want to get a mountain bike just so you can go off-roading once a year?  Do you also buy a pick-up truck instead of a sedan just because once a year you will need to transport some boxes?

So here are some potential uses (we will get into bike types, features, etc in more detail later):

(a) Commuting or general usage -- it is a good way to get exercise, be environmentally-friendly and save money as well.  A commuting bike will focus on comfort, have space to carry a change of clothes/briefcase, have mudguards and will be easy to ride in a city

(b) Fitness -- a fitness bike is likely to be ridden on tarmac and pretty much any bike can be used for this purpose.  You can look a the list of bike features later and decide what works for you

(c) Racing/long rides -- here, the emphasis is on efficiency, comfort and speed.  Usually, you want a bike designed for road use.

(d) Off-road riding -- if you want to ride trails, climb hills, fly down dirt tracks, you want a mountain bike.

And sometimes, the answer may be to buy 2 bikes that specialize in 1 area each, rather than 1 bike that does neither well.

Step 3: Select a budget
Now, this gets tricky.  A lot of people have a price expectation of bicycles that is based on the Rs 1500 Hero cycles that are common everywhere.  The fact of the matter is, high-quality bikes are not cheap. A top-end hardtail mountain bike runs $3000 or Rs 1.5 lakhs.  A top-end full-suspension bike runs Rs 2.5 lakhs. Top-level racing bikes range from Rs 1.5 lakhs to Rs 6 lakhs.  Dont run away... I am not saying that you have to spend this much money to buy a bike.  I am just saying that bikes are pretty high-tech pieces of equipment, something that is not immediately obvious to a newcomer who has only seen the iron behemoths that are prevalent in India.

What your extra money generally gets you is:
- lesser weight - and the lighter you go, the more expensive it gets to reduce weight further
- higher quality components, which work better and last longer (better/faster shifting, better brakes, etc)
- more features (full suspension, hydraulic disc brakes)
- modern materials and R&D (high modulus carbon, higher grade steel, double-butted Al)
- improved performance (faster shifting, better power transfer, etc)

Generally speaking, there are 2 approaches here: one is to get an inexpensive bike so that you know whether or not you are really into it.  The other is to get as nice a bike as you can afford - this is not only cheaper in the long run, but also, if you have a nicer bike, you are going to enjoy riding it a lot more. Sometimes, a really low-end bike, especially one loaded with useless features and junk components, can actually put you *off* biking.

Only you can decide for yourself on which option makes sense for you.   But generally speaking, open up your purse strings.  If you can spend Rs 10k-40k on a phone, you can damn well spend more than Rs 6-7k on a bike.

Step 4: Decide what features you want
From section (2) above, it should be clear that for a given price point, the more features you want, the less the quality of each of those features is going to be.  And if you want a lot of features and high quality in each of them, you are going to have to pay more.  

So be careful about selecting features that you really NEED, as opposed to WANT.  Sometimes, it is better to have fewer, higher-quality features than a lot of features of shoddy quality. 

Of course, there is also the argument that sometimes having a bike that you really like can inspire you to ride more, and so maybe you want a bike which has features that you want.   Fair enough - but if you think you fall in this category, loosen up those purse strings and be prepared to spend more.  

In short - don't expect a free lunch.    You want more features, functionality or technology?  Pay more.

So let's now talk about features and where you need them.

(a) Rear Suspension:  Let me keep it simple.  You dont need it.  Full suspension is for extreme trail riding, with lots of roots, rocks and bumps and a good full-suspension design is *not* cheap.  If you are on BikesZone as a first-time bike buyer, and your budget is under Rs 1 lakh, avoid rear suspension like the plague.  It is going to suck (if it works at all), it is going to make your bike heavier and slower and it will NOT make the ride any more comfortable.  Trust me on this.

Repeat after me:  You do not want rear suspension.    It doesnt matter what roads you ride on.

(b) Front Suspension: You need front suspension ONLY if you plan to ride a lot of trails.  You do not need front suspension to ride on tarmac, no matter how potholed it is.  Yes, it helps a little on rough roads but imposes a weight penalty, cost penalty (top-end full suspension forks cost over Rs 35,000 - even a decent budget fork costs over Rs 10,000), handling penalty and speed penalty (not as efficient as a rigid front).  

You *especially* don't want a cheap front suspension -- it has all the disadvantages listed above and doesn't even work very well.  Tire type, tire pressure and choice of bike frame (steel vs aluminum) will make a bigger difference in ride quality.  Yeah, I know - where you live, the roads are crap.  Newflash - that is true for most of us in India.  Trust me, you dont need suspension to ride on these roads.

(c) Disc brakes:  Disc brakes are nice to have, but by no means a necessity.  Remember those Rs 5 lakh racing bikes I told you about?  The pros ride them at 80-90km/hr on downhills and they dont have disc brakes.   Remember - these are bicycles we are talking about, not motorbikes.   This whole "disc brakes are better" mantra is something started by ignorant people.

Disc brakes are useful in the sense that they work better in rain and mud (esp mud) but by using proper techniques, you can stop quite well with rim brakes as well (and besides, unless you are a loco MTBer, how fast are you going to be riding in the wet anyway?).  Good rim brakes are better than cheap disk brakes, are easier to adjust, easier to maintain and better value, especially if you are on a budget. 

On tarmac or gravel roads, at the speeds that you are most likely going to be riding, rim brakes will have more than enough stopping power to send you flying over the bars.    So you do not NEED disc brakes.

(d) Bike frame: Most good-quality entry to mid-level modern frames are made of Aluminum these days b/c it is lighter and easier to hydroform into various shapes.   High-end frames for racing are made of carbon fiber, but I am assuming you are not at the stage of spending Rs 1.5 lakhs on a bike yet.  

Steel is making a comeback and for a good reason - steel absorbs road vibrations a lot better and so can make the ride a lot more comfortable.  A steel bike with a steel fork in the front (so no suspension) can actually be a lot more comfier than a cheap Al bike with crappy front and rear suspensions.  Yes, inexpensive steel is heavier than aluminum, but unless you are racing, the tradeoffs can be worth it.

(e) Tires: Tires typically come in 2 flavors: 26" diameter, which are the fat bad boys that go on mountain bikes and are used for off-road riding, or 700c, which are the larger, skinnier tires that you see on road bikes and which are intended for tarmac use (there is also a third type of tire - the 29" MTB tire, but I'll leave that aside for the time being).  

There is a second number along with this, representing the width of the tire (in inches, for 26" tires or mm for 700c tires).  So a sample tire may have its size given 26x2.0 or 700x25.  Typical mountain bike tires tend to be in the 2.0-2.2 thickness range (thinner tires are more for racing).  In road bikes, 700x23 and 700x25 tires are for racing, 700x28 to 700x32 tires are for general use and 700x35 or fatter tires are for touring, where you are carrying 15kg+ of cargo on the bike.

Everyone likes those big, fat mountain bike tires. They look bad-ass. They look big (and we are mostly guys, so bigger is better...).  They look hardcore.  And they are great for off-road riding, where they provide extra cushioning and oodles of grip.

However, on tarmac, skinny tires roll a lot faster (with less effort, to boot) and can have a deceptive amount of grip: a lot of people avoid them b/c they are afraid of falling or skidding out, but that fear is unfounded.  It does take a ride or two to get used to them, and the difference in speed compared to a mountain tire is mind-blowing.  So if you want to go fast, get skinnies.   And they have a lot of grip on tarmac as well - in fact, slicks can actually be better at cornering on tarmac than knobbies.

However, fat tires add a big degree of comfort. Larger air volume + lower pressures == built-in suspension and a plush ride. If you are going to be riding relatively short distances, or comfort is more important than going very fast, then get fatter tires. Try to get them in a slicker tread (less knobs) if you are going to be riding on the road, to reduce the rolling resistance - you dont need heavy knobs for road riding.

(f) Handlebars: A lot of people prefer straight handlebars (which are used predominantly in Mountain Bikes).  The benefit of those is that you ride in a more upright position, which can be comfier, especially if you are not very flexible or have a few extra pounds on the waist.  A lot of people are also put off the thought of drop bars (those curved, rams horn like bars you see on racing bikes), thinking that they are harder to handle, and you need more practice/skills in order to manage.  Rubbish.  It takes 1 ride to get used to drop bars. Drop bars give you a few more hand positions, which is nice for extended rides.  And if you want to go fast, drop bars let you get into a lot more aerodynamic position and let's face it, they look pretty cool to see and to ride - there is a great thrill of being hunched over in the drops and flying at speed.  

Another misconception about drop bars is that they put you in an aggressive, hunched over position.    With a race-oriented bike, yes.  But there are plenty of other bikes with drop bars which put you in a more upright position.    

Ultimately, however, go with what makes you comfortable - just make sure you get it for the right reasons and not based on misconceptions that one is harder to manage than the other.

(g) Gears: Gears are good. If you are riding mainly in flat terrain, you dont need too many gears (or even any gears). But if you want to ride hills, gears are your friend. Gears are advertised in a range of numbers, with 24 speed or 27 speed being quite common these days. These are typically written as 3x8 or 3x9, which means 3 gears at the pedals, and 8 or 9 gears in the rear. More gears typically means smaller spacings between each gear, not necessarily a greater *range* of gears. This means that with more gears, you are better able to fine-tune and get the perfect gearing for any situation - it doesnt mean that it will necessarily become easier to climb a big mountain with a 27 speed geared bike vs a 24 speed geared bike.

Also, without getting into a lot of details on gear ratios, even a 27 speed geared bike really has around 14 distinct gear ratios, more or less - there is a lot of overlap, and there are some combos which are not supposed to be used. So dont fret too much about the number of gears - focus, instead, on how easily the gears shift (especially the ones in the front - those tend to be a bit temperamental, especially with budget gear shifters).

Step 4:  Some recommendations on bike types
When you go to a bike showroom, it is hard to not get seduced by mountain bikes.  They are amazing pieces of technology, they are brawny, they look cool and they had macho names like Sultan, Jet, Leviathan and more.  Road bikes are slim, svelte and have names like Pista, Madone and Roubaix.  So naturally, you are going to want to buy a mountain bike.

Umm.  Think again.  Are you REALLY going to be bashing around on mountain trails?  REALLY?  Or will you just do it once or twice, and then stick to using this bike as an urban commuter?  Remember what we started this thread with - know thy intended usage.

If you want to go trail riding, by all means buy a mountain bike.  Expect to pay atleast Rs 15,000+ (Rs 20k+ if you are heavier than 70kg) for a good, trail-worthy mountain bike with front suspension that works, and which is robust enough to withstand the shocks and impact of trail riding.   And walk away from any bike that has a rear suspension.   That rear suspension is going to be crap and more importantly, because it still costs money to put it there, it means that other parts are going to be worse.    At a budget of Rs 50,000 or less, you want to get a hardtail mountain bike - ie, front suspension only.

The more rough your intended trails, the more money you will need to spend, but for most beginners, this is a good starting point.  Yeah, there are cheaper options but they will more or less suck.  Companies to look at: Trek & Cannodale are 2 top global brands in India - they may cost a little more than generic brands, but you will get a quality product that works well (compared to a lot of other bikes which look like mountain bikes but which will die within half an hour on the trail).  Merida is the world's largest manufacturer of bikes and is also a good option to consider, although it is not as much of a premium brand as the other two and their customer service in India leaves a lot to be desired.  If you are on a tighter budget, then consider the B'twin Rockrider bikes sold by Decathlon.   Although they have a fair bit of generic components, some of the specs look good and they've gotten good reviews from trail riders recently.  

Avoid Firefox for actual trail riding. I have yet to see a Firefox bike that I would take on a trail. I'd much rather walk, thank you very much.

If you want to race/go fast, get a road bike.  These are not going to be cheap. Expect to spend north of Rs 30k for a Merida, closer to Rs 40k for a Trek or Cannondale.  But now you are getting a bike that is built for speed and with components that, while on the budget end of the scale, will still give you years of service and performance.  Cheaper options include LA Sovereign (no reviews of it, however) or Firefox (couple of happy users here on BZ) and recently-introduced road bikes by B'twin/Decathlon.
Road bikes and mountain bikes are specialist bikes - they do one thing, and they do it really well.

However, most people seem to be looking for a bike that they can use to go to work, to ride around for exercise and maybe even go on an occasional trail or two, but primarily use on tarmac - a general-purpose bike.  For such people, the ideal bike is a hybrid bike, which combines the best of both mountain bikes and road bikes. 

Some features of hybrids:
- thinner tires than found on a mountain bike (but fatter than on race-oriented bikes) - typically 700x28-700x35 or 26x1.5-26x1.8 slicks, depending on the wheelset. This gives you a good mix of speed and efficiency.
- upright handlebars - comfier position
- front suspension or all rigid - on a cheaper end, you want all-rigid; at a higher budget, you can go for a front sus if you want, but remember what I rode earlier: it is a tradeoff.

Bianchi and Trek both make good hybrid bikes for a fairly reasonable price of approx Rs 20,000 or so and these are again, international-standard bikes.    Schwinn has launched the Sporterra series which clocks in in the Rs 9-13k range and which is also functional, although parts are not as nice as on the Bianchi and Trek.

Another sportier option for people looking for a versatile bike is a cyclocross bike.  This is similar to a road bike but with a few differences:
- the design allows for fitting of thicker tires - up to 700x32 or even more
- the handlebars are higher, so a more upright position
- often, you can fit racks and fenders
- the geometry of the bike is such that it is more stable, unlike race bikes which tend to be more quick-handling

A cross bike can function as your commuter, your race bike or even a tourer.   The downside - there are very few options available in India.  Kona Jake is the only one that I can think of.   Otherwise, you will have to import the bike - expect to pay Rs 50k or above for one.

To use a car analogy: Mountain bikes are the SUVs of the bike world - powerful, tough, go-everwhere bikes.  And just like SUVs, a lot of people buy them to ride on tarmac... which works, but there are other choices which are better for this application.  Road bikes are the convertible sports cars of the bike world - fast, sporty, not very practical for general usage (but daaaammmn, did I mention "fast"?  As in, put-a-grin-on-your-face-and-make-you-think-you're-Lance fast?).

Hybrids, on the other hand, are the minivans on the bike world. More utilitarian, good value for money, practical for daily usage, etc.   Cross bikes are like the sports sedans - a good mix of utility and performance.

Step 6 - find the bike with the correct fit

The best of bikes will suck if your fit is not correct.   Your ass will hurt.   Your back will hurt.   Your hands will go numb.   Your knees will hurt.   Your willy will not rise.  

The problem is, there are maybe 6 dealers in India that I can think of who know how to fit you to the correct-sized bike:  Krish in Hyderabad, Venky and Rohan in Bangalore, Sami and Alpesh in Pune and Prabodh in Mumbai.   There may be a few more but not a lot.

So what do you do?  I will post a guide to bike fitting soon as well but until then (and even after that), use the power of the Intrawebz to educate yourself.   Here is a starting point: ... _links.htm

Peter White's article on that page is a great first read.      Competitive Cyclist has a good fit calculator on their website which will give you an approximate starting point.    If you buy a bike with those approximate specs, you can easily adjust your fit by changing some inexpensive components.      Remember - there is a lot more to getting a good bike fit than just making sure there is 2-3" between your crotch and the bike's top tube.

I will end with an editorial.  A lot of people think we are insane to spend the money we do on bikes. My friend, who lives in Delhi, drives a Ford Endeavor (when he can get by with a Zen) and shakes his head in puzzlement at my how much my bikes cost.  My response to that - I ride my bike daily, it keeps me fit, it gets me outdoors, it reduces my carbon footprint and it is FUN.

Compared to the many other things we spend so much money on (clothes, mobile phones, cars, holidays, etc), a bike is shockingly good value.  And if you buy a good bike, you are more inclined to ride it, have fun and stay fit.  Something to think about...


  1. Hi Gaud,

    I have been an avid reader of your blog and i enjoy and appreciate your writing style. Keep writing, you have a solid "fanbase" :).

    however, this is something i'd want you to please look at , if only copying were the best form of flattery :) ...


  2. Hi Guadzilla,
    Reading your article here made me clear about my purpose to buy a cyclocross. Do you find any increase in the brands who would sell Cyclocross in India? I was cost conscious, so can't go for importing one. Is it possible to get a cyclocross for 20K?
    And one more request, please can you give any link so that I can connect to Sami and Alpesh or may be Prabodh?

  3. hello - i am looking for an entry level hybrid around 15-17k range. read your article quite informative. any good options you can recommend...will be grateful to you.