Bicycle Recommendation Short List

Last Update:  28 May 2006


This is an informational, non-commercial site. No products are sold on this site.


Table of Contents

Introduction

Where to Buy

City

Comfort/Hybrid

Commute

Mountain

Road

Touring

Folding & Travel

Tandems

Sizing

Retrogrouches
Why Steel Frames are Preferable to Aluminum Frames
Why Threaded Headsets, with Quill Stems, are preferable to Threadless Headsets

Compact Frames versus "Standard Geometry" Frames

Conclusion


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Introduction

This site recommends specific makes and models of bicycles in several different categories. I'm often asked to recommend bicycles, and I decided that a site like this will save me from sending the same advice out over and over again via e-mail. Often the best choices in a category are not from well known manufacturers, and are not widely sold, but they can be located with a little effort. I make no attempt to evaluate every bicycle on the market; this site simply answers the oft-asked question, "which bike should I buy?"

Do not shop for bicycles by price, shop by the type of riding you will be doing. There is no single bike that covers all types of riding, though there are some types that are suitable for more than one type. I.e. a touring bicycle is often suitable for commuting, some road bikes may be suitable for light touring. With a change of tires (or a new set of wheels for fast changes), a mountain bike can be okay for commuting. On the other hand, a touring bicycle is a little heavy for hilly century rides (though if you strip off the racks, fenders, etc., it's not too bad).

The recommendations are based on experience, facts, as well as my valued and informed opinions. By no means are these the only decent choices, they are just good choices.

Prices listed may vary by dealer. These are either MSRP prices, or prices I've seen at selected bicycle shops.

Beware that bicycle manufacturers tend to de-content from year to year, rather than raise prices on the same model. I.e. they'll move to a less expensive aluminum frame from Chro-Moly steel to save money, or they'll move down a level in the component group. So you can't go just by model, you have to go by year as well. Sometimes you can find excellent deals on previous year's models. Once in a while, a manufacturer will actually upgrade a model. I.e., after problems with aluminum frame failures, Marin Bikes upgraded their Bear Valley model from aluminum to Chro-Moly steel.

The key features to look for are Chro-Moly frame (not aluminum), standard geometry (not compact), and threaded headset (not threadless). Sometimes you have to compromise on one or more of the key features. Alas, the bicycle industry does what it has to do to move product, and the fact is that reducing manufacturing costs and creating new models with "all the latest disappointments," is the way they survive.


Where to Buy?

In general, a bicycle shop. While locally owned shops are the first choice, Performance Bicycle carries Fuji and Jamis, both of which have some excellent bikes. Fuji also has some excellent commute bicycles, but doesn't sell them in the U.S.. Some REI stores carry some good bikes, i.e. the Breezer line, though REI's Novara brand is a disappointment. Look for a shop that carries a wide range of products from many different manufacturers.

Look for a bicycle shop that carries products from several different manufacturers, as opposed to a "tied" shop, which sells only products from a single manufacturer (i.e. similar to a car dealer). The tied shops are okay if you already know that the bicycle that you want is from the manufacturer that the tied shop carries, but often these shops will try to sell you something that they carry, not something that meets your exact needs. As far as I know, only Trek has exclusive dealers.

A web based retailer like BikesDirect.com, BicycleBlowout.com, or The Bike Way, may be okay, if you know how to assemble your bicycle properly, including truing the wheels. I would only go this route if the specific bicycle you want is not available at a local shop, not simply to save a little money. Warranty issues will be a hassle, but on a Chro-Moly steel framed bicycle you're unlikely to ever have a frame failure, and other components usually don't fail during the warranty period. One good thing about some of the web-based shops is that they are allowed to sell previous year models from manufacturers that forbid web-based sales of their current year models. But often the models from older years are much better than the current models.

If you are very price sensitive, wait for a good sale. I.e., the best shop in my area has annual 10% off sales, and they have these annual sales every three months! They had an unprecedented 15% off sale during the 2004 Super Bowl. Haggling is okay, but margins on complete bicycles are pretty small, around 35-40%, so don't expect to get too much off the regular price, maybe ask them to throw in a pump and some water bottle cages instead (the margins on accessories are very high).

Whatever you do, stay out of places like Target, K-Mart, Wal-Mart, etc.


The Bicycles


City

A city bicycle is popular for bopping around a college campus, riding on multi-use trails, etc. Inexpensive, often single speed or equipped with an internal multi-speed hub. No suspension, nothing fancy. Designed to be able to carry stuff with optional racks. Look for a Chro-Moly steel frame, a height-adjustable quill headset, the ability to attach racks and fenders, and (gasp) even a kickstand. This is the kind of bike that would sell like crazy if a major manufacturer would be daring enough to produce it.


Recommendation: KHS Montana Tour, $879. Chro-Moly frame, integrated hub dynamo, fenders. Probably you want to lose the seat-post rear rack, and install a regular rear rack. Could be a commute bike as well, except for the lack of a chainguard. Discontinued, but you might find a used one.

KHS Montana Tour


Comfort/Hybrid

Used for casual riding on roads or multi-use paths. Upright riding position. Look for a height-adjustable quill headset, the ability to attach racks and fenders, and (gasp) even a kickstand. You really want to avoid a threadless headset on this type of bicycle, because it will make the handlebars too low, but this is relatively easy to do since most of these bikes don't have threadless headsets.


Recommendations: Jamis Citizen ($249), Jamis Aragon ($299). Unfortunately, Jamis decontented the Aragon, and dropped the excellent Chro-Moly frame. But in this price range, a Chro-Moly frame is a rarity. The Specialized Expedition line and the Giant Cypress (base model only) are also good choices. The decline in quality of the lower cost bicycle shop bikes, has coincided with an increase in quality in higher end mass-market bicycles. However the extra $100 or so for a bicycle shop bike is often well worth it, just for the quality of assembly.


Jamis Citizen


Jamis Aragon


Commuter

A commuter bicycle has the following components from the factory:

You just hop on, in your street clothes, and ride (day or night). Look for a Chro-Moly steel frame, a height-adjustable quill headset. Well, you can look for a Chro-Moly steel frame, but you won't find one on any available commute bicycles sold in the U.S.! In Japan, you can get something a little better.

For more details on commute bikes, visit http://commutebike.com

Recommendations: Specialized Globe, $770. Probably will have to be special ordered.

 

Specialized Globe


Mountain

Recommendations

Marin still makes three steel mountain bikes, which range from a street price of around $550 up to around $1500. Check REI, since you'll get your dividend on these. Also, look for sales of previous year's models; I picked up a 2004 Bear Valley for $390 from http://reioutlet.com.

I am not qualified to evaluate full suspension mountain bikes, so I will not make recommendations.


Hard Tail-Low: Marin Bear Valley

Bear Valley

2004 Model Owned by the Bicycle Academician


Hard Tail-Mid: Marin Eldridge Grade

Eldridge Grade


Hard Tail-High: Marin Pine Mountain

Pine Mountain


Road

It's getting very hard to find a classic Chro-Moly road bike, as most manufacturers are in a race to the bottom in terms of frame geometry, frame materials, and headsets. Fortunately, a few decent road bikes still exist. Look for a standard geometry (non-compact), Chro-Moly steel frame (not aluminum), and a height-adjustable quill headset (if possible). Road bikes have suffered the most from cost-reductions by manufacturers, resulting in a lot of very undesirable road bikes. Try to avoid aluminum frames and compact frame geometry. If you can't find a current-year model that fits your needs, look for new road bikes from earlier model years, i.e. Marin Portofino 2003 (Sora) for $600 and Marin Verona 2001 (105) for $1000; both of these bikes have Chro-Moly frames, threaded headsets, and non-compact geometry.

Recommendations

 Low: Fuji League, $270-370. A very good deal on a classic road bike. Chro-Moly frame and fork. Old-fashioned downtube shifters.

 

Fuji League


Mid-Low: Bianchi Brava, $510-$600. Chro-Moly frame, carbon-fiber fork. Amazingly good value. Hurry before Bianchi wrecks it.

Bianchi Brava


Mid-Low: Motobecane Cafe Latte, $550. Chro-Moly frame, upright position. May need a headset extender or Speedlifter.

Motobecane Cafe Latte

To Purchase, See: http://bikesdirect.com/products/motobecane/cafe_latte.htm


Mid-Mid: Motobecane Cafe Noir, $800. Chro-Moly frame, upright position. May need a headset extender or Speedlifter.

Motobecane Cafe Noir

To Purchase, See: http://bikesdirect.com/products/motobecane/cafe_noir.htm


Mid-High: Trek-Lemond Wayzata, $1000. Chro-Moly frame, upright position. May need a headset extender or Speedlifter. Discontinued, but you might find a used one.

Trek Lemond Wayzata


Mid-High: Trek-Lemond Poprad, $900. Chro-Moly frame. May need a headset extender or Speedlifter. Probably want to upgrade to a triple crankset at time of purchase, adding another $100 or so.

Trek Lemond Poprad


Very High: Trek-Lemond Arrivee, $2750 (titanium).  Probably want to upgrade to a triple crankset at time of purchase, adding another $100 or so.

Trek-Lemond Arrivee


Touring

You can do an occasional short tour on any bicycle that can accept a rear rack. For longer or frequent touring, an actual touring bicycle should be purchased.

Touring bikes will have a full complement of braze-ons for racks, bottles, and pumps. All touring bicycles, except Cannondale, have Chro-Moly steel frames for durability (aluminum frames won't stand up to the rigors of fully loaded touring). Touring bicycles will usually have 36 or 40 spoke rear wheels (sometimes even a 48 spoke wheels), to stand up to the heavier loads placed on them by loaded panniers.

A touring bicycle will have many of the following characteristics:

Touring bicycles went out of style in the late 1980's, and there are not a lot available anymore. If price is a big concern, consider a used Miyata 1000, or original Specialized Expedition (not the new Specialized Expedition which is a hybrid/comfort bicycle).

It is a shame that fully-loaded, self-contained touring has gone out of favor, as it is quite an enjoyable recreational activity, at least in my opinion. I've led many bicycle tours, throughout the U.S. and the world, and these vacations were the best vacations that I can remember.

Look into getting S&S Torque Couplers installed on your touring bicycle (note, S&S Torque couplers cannot be retrofitted onto aluminum frames)


Recommendations

Low: Fuji Tour, $700. Chro-Moly frame.

Fuji Tour or Windsor Tourist Road Bike

Reportedly, the Windsor Tourist Road Bike is exactly the same as the Fuji Tour. It costs $700. There was someone selling these on eBay for $550, probably another sales channel for http://bikesdirect.com.


Mid: Trek 520, $1100. Chro-Moly frame. May need a headset extender or Speedlifter. The included rear rack isn't as good as on the Fuji. You may need a riser for the handlebar stem.

Trek 520


Mid: REI Novara Randonee, $950.

An excellent value in a true touring bicycle. May need a headset extender or Speedlifter. Wait for an REI sale where they offer 15% or 20% off one item. This is a better choice than the Trek 520. You may need a riser for the handlebar stem.


High: Bruce Gordon BLT ($1845 with racks). Available with 700c or 26 inch wheels (26" model is BLT-X)

bgblt.jpg (58527 bytes)

Bruce Gordon BLT


High: Koga-Miyata Randonneur, $2200. Chro-Moly frame. 40 spoke rear wheel. The ultimate touring bicycle. It comes with everything, just spend the big bucks, and hit the road.

Koga-Miyata Randonneur


High: Heron

Heron Fancy Pants Touring Package


High: Sakkit

 

Sakkit Touring Bicycles come in four models


Folding & Travel

Extremely Compact (16" wheels): Brompton T-6, $1025. I own three older Brompton L3-T models that were made in Taiwan, under license, by Neobike (prior to Neobikes executives being thrown in jail for intellectual property problems with Dahon). The T-6 is much better than the ones I own. The downside to the Brompton is that it is way too expensive. The KHS Cappuccino, while it uses 18" wheels instead of 16" wheels like the Brompton, has a better ride, and is half the price. 16 inch tires and tubes can be hard to find (the 16" tires used on the Brompton are not the same size as the 16" tires used on kids bikes).

 

Brompton T-6

Three L3-T Models Owned by the Bicycle Academician


Compact (18" wheels) for commuting: KHS Cappuccino, $430 or so. This is a very good deal on a compact folder with suspension. It's half the price of a Brompton, yet offers a "Bromptonesque ride" according to Momovelo. 18" tires and tubes are very hard to find. See http://gallery.bcentral.com/Gallery/ProductDetails.aspx?GID=4038672&PID=2848161&page=1&sortOrder=0 for a good price.


Compact (20" wheels) for commuting: Dahon Boardwalk D6, $250. A very good price for a a very capable compact folder. Doesn't fold as small as a Brompton or a Cappuccino, but it's 1/4 the price. Maybe not quite as good to carry on public transport as a Brompton or a Cappuccino, but to carry in the trunk of a car, it's probably not worth spending the extra money on one of the more expensive, smaller, folders.

   l-boardwalkd3.jpg (27486 bytes)

Dahon Boardwalk D6


Compact (20" wheels) for touring: Dahon Speed TR

This is an excellent 20" touring bicycle, comparable to the much more expensive Bike Friday models. Not sure if the rear rack is standard, it was in 2004. Available front dynamo hub, Hella lights, and fenders. I have a 2004 model, which has the advantage of a height adjustable steering column.

Dahon Speed TR

2004 Model Owned by the Bicycle Academician


Compact (20" wheels) for touring: Gaerlan gotravel. I do not own one of these. I have met the builder and owner of the company on several occasions on folding rides in San Francisco. This is the best choice for a disassembleable bicycle for traveling, a much better deal than a bike Friday. The standard front derailleur system, versus an internal rear hub, is a big plus.

Gaerlan gotravel


Full Size (26" wheels): Dahon Matrix, $500. Aluminum frame. Very good price considering the components.

Dahon Matrix


Full Size (700c wheels): Dahon Allegro

When I look back on my first folding bicycle, a $150 Dahon 16" 3 speed, which was pretty junky, it's hard to imagine that Dahon would one day produce a road bicycle that rivals models from Trek-Lemond. The Allegro has a steel frame designed by Tom Ritchey. It weighs 18.3 pounds. It disassembles to fit into a suitcase, but without connectors on the tubes as on an S&S Torque-Coupler equipped bicycle. The only negative is that it costs $2000. This is essentially the same bicycle as the Ritchey Breakaway.

Dahon Allegro


Tandems

Tandems generally carry price tags that are far higher than two equivalently equipped singles, when logic would dictate that the price be much less. This is because tandems are not a mass market product, and most are made by small manufacturers.

Trek's T1000 is a good value, and it often goes on sale for well under $2000. Many years ago, when the MSRP was around $1700, I bought one for $1100, and this was not the cheapest price (one store had them for $1000, but didn't have the size I needed). Many Trek dealers don't carry the Trek tandems, since tandems are a slow-moving product. I think that Trek came out with a tandem to appease their tied shops, who wanted a product in that segment.

There are now many aluminum tandems available (for many years, only Cannondale had an aluminum tandem). These are best avoided due to the huge tube sizes needed to build a strong enough frame for a tandem. If you must buy an aluminum tandem, look into a Santana model that uses two parallel smaller tubes to compensate for the weak aluminum, rather than something like the Cannondale which use a huge boom tube to compensate.

Look into getting S&S Torque Couplers installed on your tandem at the time of manufacture (note, S&S Torque couplers cannot be installed on aluminum frames, other than on Santana models, and only at the time of manufacture).


The so-called "off-road" tandems are also suited to on-road city riding with a change of tires to slicks, though for long road rides, a model with 700c wheels is preferred.

Low-Burley Samba ($1500) (off-road)

BurleySamba05.jpg (33531 bytes)

Burley Samba


Low-Burley Rumba ($1800) (road)

BurleyRumba05.jpg (36358 bytes)

Burley Rumba


Mid-Burley Rock 'n Roll ($2000) (off-road)

BurleyRNR05.jpg (33563 bytes)

Burley Rock 'n Roll


Mid-Trek T1000 ($2310) (road)

t1000.jpg (17487 bytes)

Trek T1000


High-Santana Arriva ($3900) (road)

arriva.jpg (18583 bytes)

Santana Arriva


Very High-Bilenky Signature ($5900+) (road)

bilenkysig.jpg (43092 bytes)

Bilenky Signature


Sizing

Avoid the temptation to buy a bicycle that is too small (except on a mountain bike, avoid the temptation to buy a bicycle that is too large).  The chart below has some general guidelines, but the usual warning about different manufacturers having different ways of measuring applies. Beware that many manufacturers now use threadless headsets which lack any height adjustability, so do not believe that you'll compensate for a too-small frame by raising the seat and handlebars. It's a judgment call when your ideal size is between two available sizes. Most of this doesn't apply to folding bicycles.

 

City/Comfort/Hybrid/Commute

 700c wheels

Inseam Frame size
CM Inches CM Inches
69-74 27-29 48 19
74-79 29-31 51 20
76-81 30-32 53 21
79-84 31-33 55 22
81-87 32-34 58 23
88-97 35-38 60 23.5

 

Road

 700c wheels

Inseam Frame size
CM Inches CM Inches
69-74 27-29 48 19
74-79 29-31 51 20
76-81 30-32 53 21
79-84 31-33 55 22
81-87 32-34 58 23
88-97 35-38 60 23.5

 

Touring

 700c wheels

Inseam Frame size
CM Inches CM Inches
69-74 27-29 50 20
74-79 29-31 53 21
76-81 30-32 55 22
79-84 31-33 58 23
81-87 32-34 60 24
88-97 35-38 62 25

 

Mountain

26" wheels

Inseam Frame size
CM Inches CM Inches
66-71 26-28 33 13
71-76 28-30 38 15
76-79 30-31 43 17
79-84 31-33 46 18
81-86 32-34 48 19
84-89 33-35 51 20
91-99 36-39 53 21

"If you find something you really, really like, buy a lifetime supply;
 because it'll either be changed for the worse or go out of production."
Quote from Rivendell Bicycle's Web Site

Retrogrouches

There have been many technological advances in bicycle componentry and metallurgy over the years. Chro-Moly steel is better than hi-tensile steel, titanium is better still. Indexed shifting has advantages over friction shifting, and the move to Hyperglide freewheels has enabled much smoother shifting. With each of these improvements there were trade-offs in cost and complexity, but overall they resulted in better products.

We have now entered a new phase in bicycle manufacturing; the race to the bottom in terms of manufacturing and productions costs. Most production has moved to China of course, though higher end products are still built in Taiwan, Japan, and the U.S.. Most low to mid-range frames are now low-cost aluminum instead of more costly Chro-Moly steel. Few manufacturers still use frame lugs, because tig-welding is much less expensive. Design changes have reduced the number of different frame sizes and the number of different length fork/steerer tubes that need to be produced.

The label "retrogrouch," is now applied, inappropriately, to individuals that object to changes that are resulting in poorer, not better, products. Invariably, these changes have been adopted by the bicycle manufacturing industry in order to lower costs, not to improve the product.

Fortunately, there are still products available, in each segment, that haven't adopted these changes. But often you'll have to pay a premium for features that used to be standard on all mass-market bicycles, because only the higher-end specialty products can afford to not be in the race to the bottom in terms of manufacturing costs.

I will go into the three main areas of cost reductions that have resulted in, what many believe to be, poorer products; aluminum frames, threadless headsets, and compact geometry.


Why Steel Frames are Preferable to Aluminum Frames

The aluminum versus steel debate is one of the most enduring arguments on Usenet. Proponents of aluminum play fast and loose with the facts, and come up with all sorts of creative analogies (the most popular being the airplane analogy, debunked below). They never give up, despite losing the debate on aluminum versus steel every time!

The best dissertation on the relative trade-offs of frame materials, can be found at: http://www.anvilbikes.com/story.php?news_ID=16&catID=3.

Here's the bottom line: bicycle manufacturers moved to aluminum alloys from Chro-Moly steel because of cost. It is much more cost effective to build a lightweight aluminum bicycle than a lightweight steel bicycle. However aluminum has some undesirable characteristics. It is weaker, and more brittle than steel, so to compensate, aluminum tubes need to be of a larger diameter and have thicker walls. As a result of the larger diameter tubes, aluminum bicycles are stiffer than steel bicycles. Aluminum fatigues after less stress cycles than does steel; this is not an issue for the casual rider, but it is an issue for the enthusiast that expects to keep the same bicycle for a decade or more (i.e. I still use a touring bicycle from 1984!).


Standard Rationalizations used to Sell Aluminum Frame Bicycles

  1. The frame has a lifetime warranty, so it must be good.

  2. The frame has a lifetime warranty, so if it breaks, you're covered.

  3. Millions of aluminum frame bicycles never have a problem.

  4. You'll never ride enough for the fatigue limit to be reached.

  5. Other parts of the bicycle are made from aluminum, so why not the frame?

  6. Airplanes are made from aluminum

  7. This frame has been tested and certified by the EFBe

  8. Many racers use aluminum frame bicycles so they must be reliable.

Every one of these items can be shown to either to be untrue, or immaterial to the real issues. They are side issues, and there are people that fall for them because they don't look beyond those rationalizations.
  1. A lifetime warranty is no guarantee that a product is good, it only assures you that you can get a replacement (though this is not necessarily assured).
  2. Frame breakage warranties cover a replacement frame, as long as the manufacturer decides that the breakage is covered. But it does not cover other components that break when the frame fails. It may not include transferring components from the broken frame to the new frame. Often the manufacturer will offer the owner a new bicycle at 50% of MSRP, since in that way the manufacturer still makes a profit, and the shop doesn't have to transfer components.
  3. The fact that most aluminum frames don't fail, does not address the fact that the aluminum frame is much more likely to fail.
  4. This actually is often not true, since there are many owners that do ride enough for the cumulative stress levels to result in fatigue. This is not an issue for the casual rider, but it is an issue for the enthusiast that expects to keep the same bicycle for decades.
  5. This is a very weak argument, that ignores how other parts are constructed and how they are stressed. And some other aluminum parts do fail due to fatigue, such as the handlebars.
  6. See section about airplanes, below.
  7. See section about EFBe, below.
  8. Actually, most racers use carbon-fiber frame bicycles, but in any case the requirements for a racing bicycle are very different than what the typical recreational rider needs. As stated at http://www.smartcycles.com/frame_materials.htm: "The earlier problems of aluminum's tendency to fail after only a short time has been basically solved. But the lifetime of an aluminum frame is not and will not be that of a steel bike. The rider has to accept that in his search for high-performance, compromises must be made. These are not lifetime bikes. They just aren't!" 

It's unfair to call people that don't understand all the issues 'dumb,' because it is not reasonable for them know every detail about the product they are purchasing. They should be informed by the salesperson of the trade-offs between aluminum and steel frames. The problem is that many bike shops don't carry a wide range of steel bicycles anymore, since many manufacturers have dropped steel (or titanium) except at the very high end. Trek is happy to sell you a Lemond Wayzata, Poprad, or Arrivee, but other than the Trek 520 touring bicycle, none of their road bicycles are steel (thankfully, no one is making aluminum touring bicycles).

Ironically, it's the chain bicycle and sporting good stores that are offering the best selections. Performance offers a wide selection of Jamis and Fuji models in both steel and aluminum. REI carries Marin, and still offers one Novara in steel.


What About Other Aluminum Components?
Proponents of aluminum frames will often try to shift the debate to other components on the bicycle that are fabricated from aluminum; it's a clever tactic, that does fool some people. I.e., they'll say something like, so you're saying that aluminum frames aren't as good as steel frames, so you must favor steel wheels over aluminum wheels. This is a weak argument technique because each component is subjected to different types of stress, and their are different trade-offs to be made. You know that you've won the debate when they try to change the premise!

Aluminum is used for many bicycle components, including cranks, seat posts, stems, hubs,  rims, and brake calipers.  In most cases, this is not an issue because these components are either not stressed in a way that would cause fatigue and failure, or because they are so over-specified that they do not experience sufficient flexing to cause fatigue. If one of these components does fail, it is an inexpensive repair, though some of the failures are very dangerous.

There have been catastrophic failures of aluminum handlebars, especially on mountain bikes and on odd shaped bars such as what is used on the Brompton (see http://www.bromptonbicycle.co.uk/index.cfm?fuseaction=ownerinfo.safetynotices2). Aluminum handlebars on mountain bikes fail often, due to the excessive flexing, and should be replaced periodically. A handlebar failure can be very dangerous, and can result in serious injury.


Aluminum Frame Recalls

Here are some of the aluminum frame recalls that I found in a few minutes on Google:

http://www.cannondale.com/bikes/tech/recall-114903.html
http://www.mcnews.com/anforum/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=85957&whichpage=2
http://www.marinbikes.com/recall/"
http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/prerel/prhtml04/04113.html
http://www.recall-warnings.com/cpsc-content-03-03066.html

Other recalls of Aluminum Components

http://www.recall-warnings.com/cpsc-content-05-05543.html
http://www.recall-warnings.com/cpsc-content-05-05506.html

No recalls of steel frames were found.


Inspect for Cracks Periodically
If you do buy an aluminum frame bicycle, be sure to periodically inspect the frame and handlebars for cracks. I have no idea why the woman below decided to do this inspection in the nude, in the middle of a Marin County fire road (other than it was a very hot day). I came across her while I was hiking in the Marin Headlands, and she asked me to photograph her (always carry an SLR with a lens hood and a tripod, it makes you look like a professional, and you will get many requests for photographs). Argh, she has a threadless headset as well as an aluminum frame; clearly she did not consult this web site prior to making her purchasing decision, but I did not want to give her a hard time about her bicycle.

inspectcracksc.jpg (50648 bytes)


What Other Experts Say about Aluminum versus Steel

http://www.serotta.com/pages/helpyouchoose.html#materials states: "Aluminum is popular among many bike manufacturers because it is the least expensive, easiest to form, cut, weld, and finish. So from a manufacturing perspective, it's very desirable. It's also very light, so the marketing departments are fond of it too. While aluminum offers reasonable value, it does not offer optimal ride qualities, typified by bone-jarring, fatiguing harshness. Long-term durability is significantly less than in steel or titanium."

http://www.rivendellbicycles.com/html/101_framematerials.html states: "Good engineering can guard against cracks, but historically, aluminum frames do not have an exemplary record in the crack department. Harder to repair than steel. Requires large-diameter and/or thick walls to achieve sufficient strength and stiffness, so "strong and stiff" aluminum frames are chunky looking. That isn't necessarily a con."

http://www.spectrum-cycles.com/61.htm states: "If you are looking for a bicycle that will last longer than a few seasons, consider the fatigue numbers associated with aluminum.  Aluminum frames accumulate fatigue over the miles.  That fatigue will eventually result in failure. Another problem with many of the aluminum frames now is their lack of vertical compliance. Aluminum frames offer a stiff ride but they do so at the expense of comfort."

http://www.bikexchange.com/askmech.htm states: "No aluminum is going to hold up as well as steel. That being said, most manufacturers will give you a lifetime warranty on aluminum frames, and in reality, the failure rate is quite low."

http://www.dahon.com/framematerial.htm states: "When it comes to "liveliness" and road feel, steel is still the material of choice for many discerning cyclists. A well-built steel frame can last a lifetime."

http://www.sheldonbrown.com/frame-materials.html#serviceability states: "For extended travel in less-developed areas, steel is probably still the best choice, because in the event of damage, repairs can be made by anybody with a torch and brazing/welding know-how."

http://www.torelli.com/home.html?http://www.torelli.com/tech/material.shtml&1 states: "The mechanical characteristics of aluminum are inferior to steel. It will fail more quickly under repeated stress. So, the diameters and wall thicknesses must be increased, but not as much as would be called for to make up entirely for the reduced tensile strength of aluminum."

A good discussion of frame materials and weight can be seen at: http://www.anvilbikes.com/story.php?news_ID=16&catID=3

The bottom line is that aluminum frames are okay, but they don't have the longevity of steel frames, and many people find the stiff ride objectionable. Sure there are lots of rationalizations put forward by the bicycle industry, from the manufacturer all the way down to the retailer, but this doesn't change the facts. It's all a business, and profits come first, which is not necessarily a bad thing.


EFBe Certification--A Red Flag of Bicycles to Avoid!

The bicycle manufacturers very much want to promote the sale of aluminum frame bicycles, but have been hampered, at least on the high end,  by all the aluminum frame failures and recalls. Enter EFBe, a company in Germany that saw an opportunity to turn a profit by "certifying" bicycle frames. The whole thing is a hollow joke in industry circles. A bogus test, by an "independent" laboratory, that manufacturers have to pay to say that their products are okay.

Two good articles regarding the EFBe "Certification" can be found at:

Commentary on the EFBE Frame Tests

EFBe Frame Test: how NOT to test a Bicycle

The EFBe certification does serve a valuable purpose. You can be assured that any manufacturer that is desperate enough to have to get their frames "certified" by this company, is a manufacturer to avoid at all costs.


Airplanes, Bicycles, and Aluminum

' Airplanes are made from aluminum and they don't fail, so aluminum is fine for bicycles'

Aloha Airlines Boeing 737, Flight 243, 28 April 1988
Aluminum Airframe Failed due to Metal Fatigue

Invariably, when the aluminum versus steel debate pops up, someone chimes in with an analogy about airplanes. They ask why we're not worried about aluminum airplanes falling out of the sky, but we're worried about aluminum bicycle frames breaking. I'm convinced that buried somewhere in the sales training from Trek, Cannondale, and/or Specialized, there is an FAQ that tells salespeople to use the airplane analogy to address concerns from customers about aluminum framed bicycles.

Like most analogies, it's a poor one. The fact is that we are worried about airplanes falling out of the sky. Recall the 1988 incident in Hawaii where an Aloha Airlines Boeing 737 suffered a structural failure. This was an inter-island plane, which had an abnormally high number of compression/decompression cycles, which fatigued the aluminum skin, causing stress cracks that propagated from rivet locations. Amazingly, only one person was killed (a flight attendant who was sucked out during the decompression). Of course the solution here was not to make airplanes out of steel, it was to increase inspections, and limit the number of stress cycles before an aircraft is taken out of service.

http://www.anvilbikes.com/story.php?news_ID=16&catID=3 states: "When discussing aluminum, someone always brings up airplanes. Airplane design showcases what aluminum does best: acceptable strength and a low relative weight. But, aluminum's lack of a fatigue limit is one very good reason why there is stringent monitoring of dynamically or cyclically stressed aluminum structures."

Also see: http://plane-truth.com/fatigue_details.htm, http://www.abqtrib.com/archives/news04/041204_news_bright.shtml http://www.navioneer.org/Information/Aviator/Aviator-Jun-2002.pdf, and http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/2001/Jan/18/118localnews1.html

The very best part about the airplane argument, is that when after it is debunked, the person who brought it up in the first place invariably says something like, "well you can't compare airplanes with bicycles!"


Why Threaded Headsets, with Quill Stems, are preferable to Threadless Headsets

Threadless headset equipped bikes are less expensive to manufacture than quill stem equipped bikes, so you give up adjustability in exchange for a lower price. The false rationalizations for threadless headsets are often that the threaded headsets "always got loose," and that threadless headsets are lighter, stiffer, stronger, and more durable. The facts are that properly tightened threaded headsets didn't get loose, and that the differences in weight, stiffness, strength, and durability are inconsequential.

Manufacturer's like threadless headsets, not only for the lower materials cost, but because they have to manufacturer only one fork, with a long steerer tube, which can then be cut to the necessary length. No more manufacturing several different forks with specific lengths of steerer tubes. Unfortunately, except on higher end bicycles, the steerer tube is cut to too short a length at the factory. Look at pictures of road bicycles with threadless headsets, and notice how much lower the handlebars are than the seat. There are ways to raise the handlebars, but they require extenders or new stems. On higher end bicycles, the shop can cut the steerer tube to your desired length, and insert spacers between the headset and the stem.

Many riders prefer a more upright position when they ride (seat more or less level with the handlebars). With a quill stem on a threaded headset it is a simple matter to adjust the height. The range of adjustability is not large, but the stem is already tall enough to be about level with the seat, even before it's extended to the maximum. With a threadless headset you have a very limited range of adjustability, and it requires adding or deleting some spacers. For a wider range of adjustability you must buy steer tube extenders.

Some manufacturers are beginning to use longer steer tubes, to give more height adjustability, i.e. Jamis does this. It looks rather strange when you do select the shortest height, since you have several inches of steering tube protruding, but this is purely a cosmetic issue.

Long Steering Tube and Spacer Stack on the Jamis Quest. With the handlebars in the
lowest position, the stack protrudes, but at least you get a wide range of heights.

If you pack the bike for shipment with a threadless stem, the fork is no longer held in. When you reassemble the bike, you'll have to mess around with the headset preload. You'll have to re-install the spacers, assuming that you didn't lose them. This isn't an issue with threaded headsets.

The bottom line is that threadless headsets came into being solely for the benefit of manufacturers. If at all possible, select a bicycle with a threaded headset and a quill stem; these still exist, but not on a lot of bicycles.

Trek has a new line of bicycles called "Road Comfort." These come with adjustable stems and a longer steer tube with spacers to raise the place where the stem clamps on to the steer tube. This is a good idea. You can always have the steer tube cut shorter if, in the future, you desire a more crouched over position. Unfortunately, these new models are still compact frames, and are made out of aluminum.

One advantage of threadless headsets is the elimination of the need for a headset wrench, since you need only an Allen wrench to set the headset. A headset wrench costs about $11.

Correcting the Problems with Threadless Headsets

Whenever a product is worsened, someone comes up with a clever way to correct the newly introduced problems. There have been products developed to correct the problems created by threadless headsets. The adjustable stems, and the extenders, are only for 1 1/8" steering tubes (as found on mountain and hybrid bicycles). Most road bicycles use 1" steer tubes. However you can use adapters to use these on 1" steer tubes You'll need a new stem if you use the 1 1/8" riser on a 1" steer tube, since the old stem is 1". There may be extenders for 1" steer tubes, but I couldn't find any.


Zoom Adjustable ATB Stem for 1 1/8" Steer Tubes

Nashbar Adjustable ATB Stem for 1 1/8" Steer Tubes


75 mm 1 1/8" riser (other sizes available). For Threadless Stem Risers, Click Here


The most versatile solution to the problem of threadless headsets is the Schulz Speedlifter. It should be about $60 in the U.S.. May not yet be available in the U.S.. While I am happy to see such a wonderful device on the market, it's rather depressing that you now have to spend $60 to get back functionality that used to be included for free!

    

Speedlifter


Compact Frames versus "Standard Geometry" Frames

Compact frames (frames with a sloping top tube) were introduced by manufacturers seeking to reduce the number of different size frames that they had to manufacture. With three or four sizes of compact frames, the manufacturer can tailor the bicycle to fit most customers. They simply use a longer seat post to fit taller riders. They can also use a longer steerer tube and use spacers between the headset and the stem. The false rationalizations for compact frames are that the smaller frame is lighter, and "livelier." Of course the longer seat post negates the benefit of the lower weight of the compact frame.

There is a very good article about compact geometry frames on the Cannondale web site at: http://www.cannondale.com/bikes/innovation/sloping.html which states: "there's a disturbing trend among some bike companies to re-tool their road frames by shortening the seat tube and slanting the top tube down from the head tube. This new design "breakthrough," they argue, saves frame weight. And if you take their claim literally, they're right - a shorter seat tube does make a bare frame a little lighter. What they don't tell you is that their complete bicycle actually weighs more than a bike with a conventional geometry. Why? You have to use longer (and therefore heavier) seatposts and stems on smaller frames to fit the rider properly, and their added weight more than off-sets the few grams saved by their sloping top tube frames.

While an aluminum frame and a threadless headset may not be the best choices, they are not all that terrible, and the cost savings over the alternatives are significant. But a compact frame is very undesirable, and the cost savings are NOT worth it. Whatever you do, avoid compact frames on road bikes. Get a properly sized, "traditional" geometry frame.


Conclusion

There are a lot of very poorly designed bicycles out there, as many manufacturers are in a race to the bottom in terms of design, components, and frame materials. But there are still some decent bicycles available if you look hard enough.

Many of the so-called "advances," i.e., aluminum versus Chro-Moly, threadless versus threaded, compact versus traditional, are done to save money, then reasons are invented for them to sound plausible to people that don't know any better. I feel bad for the bicycle shop owner who is forced to repeat the manufacturer's rationalizations in order to stay in business.


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