Thursday, April 17, 2014

Day 17: My Ten Rules of Bike Buying

(I pre-wrote this post as I'm on a short road trip with my brother. Probably no biking today
edit: we got home early. I pulled the Buzz off the for sale rack and did a lap around Avery Park)


I buy and sell more bikes than any reasonable person probably should. Through the years, I've developed a few lessons learned that I've been meaning to pull together. These aren't your typical Bicycling magazine buyer's guide tips (eg, "pick a shop, not a bike", "fit is the most important thing", or "don't forget to budget for a jersey, helmet and gloves!" because God forbid you ride in a T shirt). No, these are specific to me, but perhaps some have broader application.

Rule 1: Just because it's a deal, doesn't mean you should buy it.
Especially at year end time, it's relatively easy to find bargains: 50% off new prices aren't impossible to find. However, our market is pretty efficient, so those half off values likely reflect the value of that model, which will show up come resale time.

I'm also trying to get into the mode of thinking which current bike the new bike would supplant. If I can't readily identify a current bike to be broomed out the door, maybe I don't really need new one.

Rule 2: Price doesn't matter
I haven't seen any positive correlation between how much I spend on a bike, and how much fun I have on it. Shouldn't an expensive, new, light, high tech wonder bike be more fun? Not in my experience. Indeed, I see more of a negative correlation: the less I spend on a bike, the more I tend to like it (the "cheap and cheerful" effect). Maybe it's due to lower expectations. Maybe it's because I'm not worried about damaging the bike or it's resale value. Maybe it's simply lower expectations. In any case, I had more fun rides on my $79 Performance Access than I did on my I-don't-even-want-to-think-about-it more expensive custom 29er.

More expensive bikes are typically lighter, but that makes zero difference out in the real world.

Rule 3: Used, not new.
Oftentimes on forums, a newbie will ask what bike to buy with X budget. Helpful but misguided people will tell him to get something used, due to the better value. This is true, but not particularly helpful--if you're asking for buying advice from strangers, you probably don't know what models are out there, how they fit you, how much they should cost, or how to adjust and repair them when you do get the bike. On the other hand, if you know what you want, buying used can save you a quick 40-60% over a new price. Bike depreciation is steep, and experienced buyers should take advantage of it.

Another brilliant thing about bicycle buying is the transaction costs are so limited. If you buy a new motorcycle or car, for instance, you immediately have to pay for tax, license, and insurance, all sunk costs. If you buy a used frame and don't like it, you're probably out only $50 for shipping, unless you paid way too much in an ebay frenzy.

Rule 4: Test rides are nice, but not a magic bullet.
Another buyer's guide catechism is "test ride, test ride, test ride." Maybe this works in Southern California where shops stock all the latest models. Try finding an XL steel mountain bike frame to test ride in Ohio (if you find one, please let me know). Furthermore, what's a test ride really tell you? New bikes are fun, so it's always exciting to throw a leg over something new. But it's also going to feel odd and different, and you probably won't ride it long enough to really understand the details of it. And taking a "test ride" by riding a lap around the parking lot on a mountain bike is almost useless. Maybe it will give you an idea of fit, but...

Rule 5: Fit is important, but not THAT important.
A second brilliant thing about bikes is their adjustability. Back when I was into motorcycles, you basically couldn't change the fit in big ways (well, yes you could, but it's much more difficult). Need more legroom? Go buy a different machine. Compare that to a bicycle, where you can adjust the seat post on any bike over a 10" range. Stems and handlebars are widely available in any size or shape you could imagine to tweak your fit. As long as your bike is ballpark close, you can make it work. For instance, I shoot for an effective top tube of 630mm on my mountain bikes, but I can work with anything in the range of 615~645mm.

I'll take a moment here and talk about professional fitting. Another typical piece of advice is that this is a worthwhile addition, maybe a requirement. I admit I'm ignorant here: I've never paid a bike shop guy $150 to look at me on a bike. But there's only three points that matter: your feet, your butt, and your hands. So move those points around until you're comfortable. And this will change over time: I can run my bars lower in the fall than in the spring, for instance. Listen to your body and make changes.

Somehow, cyclists have managed for over a hundred years without pro fits. It's a pretty recent fad.

Rule 6: Look out for "box checkers."
Maybe from my engineering background, but I'm particularly susceptible to this. I'll work up a list of requirements (this head tube length, that chainstay length, these dropouts, etc), and eventually find a bike that checks those boxes. In my experience, the overall bike is often disappointing. For example, my OS Blackbuck turned out like this: skinny steel tubes, check! Tall head tube, check! Split shell EBB, check! But those goofy curved seatstays didn't appeal to my traditional senses, I never grew to like them, and eventually got rid of it. Twice.

Rule 7: But think hard about "negative box checkers."
I'm going to call "negative box checkers" a list of things you know you don't like or don't want in a new bike. Based on your past experience, these are things that have soured you on previous bikes. Use that hard won experience and avoid them in the future.

For me, examples of these are:
- aluminum hardtail frames
- short head tubes
- track ends with gears and discs
- too short of a seat post extension (it just looks wrong)
- slack front ends
- oddball standards that don't have more merit than demerit (PF30, I'm looking at you)
- caliper brakes on road bikes
(d'oh, my new Krampus has half these features... call me a hypocrite)

This can change, though. I'm slowly warming up to slacker front ends. Maybe.

Rule 8: Never custom
Sometimes, you can make up enough requirements that a bike that checks them all is hard to find. Then, you decide to get a custom frame instead. The problem here is that your expectations get too high, and the custom may not deliver. Also, why doesn't the market already supply that combination you want so bad? Is it because no one else has your subtle taste, or is it because that combination doesn't have any value? And when your custom dream frame doesn't work and you eventually sell it, prepare for a bloodbath on resale value. Ask me how I know.

If you're 6'7" with a 32" inseam, you have my permission to get a custom frame. I'm mostly making this point so I can re-read it when I think I need to go custom in the future.

Rule 9: Don't buy the same bike again.
Sometimes, a box checker is so appealing that I think it will be better the second time around. Vooddoo Dambala. Salsa Casseroll. That Blackbuck. If you didn't like a bike the first time around, you probably won't like it the second time, either (the exception, of course, is if you had to sell it the first time for financial or spousal reasons)

Rule 10: Just buy it, and don't be afraid to sell it
Buy with your heart. If you like the way a bike looks, it mostly fits you, and will match your riding style, get it. It's just a bike. It doesn't require the level of commitment of a marriage. Or of owning a cat. If a bike doesn't work for you, doesn't appeal to you, dump it and move on. It's only hardware, and nothing is irreplaceable.

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