The process of purchasing a new bike this fall served to reinforce my long held beliefs as to which parts contribute the ride quality of a good bike and which parts are peripheral. If you are considering purchasing a bike, new or used, it is important to understand what to look for.
However, before talking about the bike itself, I will first talk about the importance of a good fit. While test riding bikes over the last year I found that riding bikes that were not fit properly to me to be a real detriment. It did not matter how good the prospective new bike was, I was happier on my old Tarmac because it was fit to me. Only after mimicking the fit of my bike on a test ride bike could I really appreciate what that particular bike was capable of achieving. After borrowing a couple of bikes while on vacation this summer, I learned that I would much rather ride a mediocre bike that fit me well than ride a super performance machine that was ill-fitting. Because I am currently averaging over 10 hours per week collectively on my bikes, it is essential that my bikes fit well. If you purchase a new bike, it essential to get it properly fit to you, if you want to maximize your investment and enjoy your bike to the fullest extent possible.
Now let’s look at the bike itself. There is an old saying in the bike world which says the frame is fifty percent of the ride quality, wheels are thirty percent, and everything else contributes to the remaining twenty percent of the ride quality. In over 40 years of riding seriously, I have not seen anything to chase me away from this perspective, at least for road bikes. To get more specific, I rank the importance of the various parts in the following order: frame, wheels, tires, crankset, pedals, chain, and then everything else (I consider the seat and your shoes to be very important components, but since they are part and parcel of a good fit I did not list them here). My list prioritizes the pieces that come into play every pedal stroke. With each of those pedal strokes, power flows through the pedals, into the crankset, through the frame and chain, and then into the rear wheel. The rear wheel then pushes the bike forward with those driving forces flowing back through the frame and into the front wheel. On a 15mile ride, depending upon your speed and cadence, there will be somewhere from 5,000 to 10,000 pedal strokes. Every second the parts I just listed get a big workout and thus have a big impact upon ride quality. However, one might go minutes without shifting and even longer without braking. Obviously we want those parts to work well when needed, but even the basic level brakes and shifters found on our entry level road bikes work quite nicely. Thus I would argue that the quality of these parts is of secondary importance. Focus on getting the best frame and wheels your budget allows, then you will get the most bike for your money.
As I said, the ranking above is for road bikes. On a mountain bike, at least one being ridden aggressively off road, the importance of the shifters and brakes is significantly elevated. By necessity, shifting and braking forces on a mountain bike are considerably greater, plus those components are typically working in a harsher environment. Dust, dirt and water will all make shifting and stopping more difficult and add wear to the system. Good tires also make a huge difference in a mountain bike’s performance. Cornering, braking and acceleration are all dependent upon good traction. The proper tire for the conditions, and good suspension to keep the tires in contact with the ground, are critical to maintaining traction. Without good traction, the best mountain bike is useless. The frame is still critical to the performance of the bike. The wheels need to be strong and light in order to have a quality ride. Pedals tend to take a beating and need to provide a good connection to the bike and thus are quite important. Finally, the chain is under great duress due to the forces and dirty environment. Get a good chain!