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When I first started cycling, I had commitment issues, meaning I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, so I scoured the internet for cheap road bikes and made my purchase. It was fire-engine red with 14 speeds, though it didn’t always shift into all of them. At the time, I thought I’d found a great deal and I went cheap to ensure I wouldn’t regret the purchase.
But that was a huge mistake.
First-off, the bike was difficult to put together. The shifting was always wonky and a couple of times I was left nearly stranded on the side of the road. It was a monstrosity and because of its excess weight, I always felt slow and out of shape. I had it for about a year before I finally stopped riding it because of frequent knee pain, something I later found out was due to the fact that the bike didn’t fit me well.
With that bike, I quickly discovered that with cycling, you get out what you put in. You can either have a junker car that’s unreliable, but saves you some cash or you can spend a little more for something that’s safe and a blast to drive. Cycling is no different.
Cheap Road Bikes: What they are and why you should avoid them
Everyone has a different definition of cheap. In this case, I’m using it to describe something that’s low quality meaning. Here are the tell-tale characteristics of cheap road bikes.
- Constructed out of low-grade materials with a low quality paint job. The ride quality or bike fit may suffer as a result. Plus they’re unnecessarily heavy.
- Poorly pre-assembled, little to no quality control before they’re shipped, thus causing a greater likelihood of equipment failure or difficult user assembly.
- Made up of inferior parts. Any bicycle is susceptible to wear and tear, but if you begin with cheaper parts, you’ll be more likely to have to keep replacing them, which can lead to a series of hidden costs and frequent maintenance over time, meaning you’ll be paying a bicycle mechanic to try to fix the bicycle’s original shortcomings.
- Assembled with parts that are difficult and expensive to replace. Many cheap road bikes rely on aftermarket parts to keep the cost down, but when they fail, finding a replacement part is much more difficult and often more expensive than replacing parts on a better bike to begin with.
- Barely protected by a limited warranty. The mass-retailer warranty for Pacific Cycle, Schwinn’s parent company, requires that buyer’s pay return shipping, which is often more than the bike cost originally, and offers a limited warranty. Most name brands offer a limited lifetime warranty and a crash replacement policy.
So what should you look for in a road bike? Here are a few guidelines to ensure you’re getting the most bang for your buck, while still making a good investment.
A checklist for Finding Quality Road Bikes
How many speeds does it have?
Today’s road bike technology is up to 11 speed, which refers to how many cogs are on the rear cassette. The more speeds, the smaller the gear jump when shifting. Many cheap road bikes have a rear cassette with seven speeds (you may see this bike listed as a 14-speed, meaning it has two rings on the crankset and a rear cassette with seven rings).
The downside to seven speeds is that it’s difficult to find drivetrain replacements parts for this technology, as it’s considered pretty outdated. Ideally, I would aim for a bike that’s at least an eight or nine-speed. This will save you any hassle and make future upgrades much easier.
Is it a recognizable brand?
Yes, the majority of bikes are all made in the same factories, but they vary in terms of testing standards. An article in Cycling Tips explains that “you just don’t know the process, materials and quality control that these cheap no-name bikes have been through. If the worst were to happen and your frame snapped in half while going down a descent you don’t have anything to fall back on. Reputable bicycle brands need to go through homologation procedures in order to import and sell.”
Does it come in multiple sizes?
If a bike comes in one size or the size is listed based on wheel size, move on. Bicycles come in sizes for the same reason pants do. Chances are you can’t wear your neighbor’s pants, so you shouldn’t be riding his bike either (ok, we’ll stop there). Everyone is different in height, flexibility and reach, so everyone needs to be fit to a bike that’s uniquely right for them.
A word on Assembling a Bike Yourself
If safety is a concern or you don’t know the difference between a flat and a Phillips head screwdriver, you should pay your local bike shop for assembly.
Because you’re not a bike mechanic. Maybe you’ve pieced together a couple of chairs from Target in your day, but you’re not riding that furniture downhill at 30mph. When a news station in Orlando investigated pre-assembled bikes from local big box stores, what they found was astounding: improperly functioning brakes, loose stems. It was a lawsuit, and a trip to the emergency room, waiting to happen.
A shop will ensure that rim brakes aren’t rubbing, cables are installed properly and all bolts are tightened to the manufacturer’s specifications. This collection of seemingly small things can actually lengthen the bike’s lifespan and increase the comfort of the ride.
It’s also a good idea to become friendly with your local shop, who can perform regular maintenance and help with simple adjustments like the cable stretch that occurs as you ride your new bike.
The Bottom Line
A bicycle is actually a rather complicated system of interworking parts. Get it right and you’ll no-doubt enjoy the ride and only experience the occasional mechanical. Cheap road bikes are another story and are frequently heavy, uncomfortable and in need of constant repairs and new equipment. If they’re assembled incorrectly, they can also be a safety hazard or wear out prematurely.
If maintained correctly, a good bicycle should last a lifetime. Invest in a decent frame and fork upfront and you can slowly upgrade as your needs change.
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