Posted by: Travis | March 31, 2010

Travis’s Guide to Cycling Style and Cultural Norms Part 2: Equipment

For bike racers, equipment is probably the subject we spend the most time thinking about, the subject we spend the most time talking about, and absolutely the subject we spend the most money on. When trade show season rolls around (mostly Eurobike and Interbike, when bike companies debut their upcoming products), groups of cyclists chatter endlessly about how light so-and-so’s new carbon wheels are, or whether or not so-and-so’s power meter is going to actually work. For tech geeks and engineers that race, the equipment aspect of cycling is huge.  So here are ten rules/guidelines for road cycling equipment.

  1. Use the right tool (bike) for the job – This is really simple, but probably the most often broken of any rule i’ll mention here. Basically, buy a bike that suits the way you’ll ride it. If you’re going to commute to work on your bike, get a bike made for commuting. If you are planning on doing lots of centuries (100 mile rides, usually organized), get a relaxed geometry bike that offers a more plush ride. If you are going to race, get a race bike. When people break this rule they usually buy a high end, pro-quality carbon race bike because they want to ride ‘what the pros ride’ or ‘the best bike’ (assuming the best bike is the also the most expensive is totally wrong) and then force it to do what they want. For the most part, pros care about 2 things on their bikes: is it light? Is it stiff? Even though they do races that take 6-7 hours, they could care less how comfortable the ride is. They want it to be FAST. So if you are planning on riding centuries or touring, for god’s sake, stay away from the high end race bikes. All they’re going to do is make you miserable when the miles start creeping above 50. Similarly, if you are an entry level rider, get an entry level bike. Like i said before, cycling is a tough sport. Before you invest $10k in equipment, try it out on a less expensive bike and make sure you like it. There are plenty of great aluminum bikes to be had for under $1800. If you’re new to the sport it will be a while before you’re ready for a carbon race steed anyway. Cycling is one of those things that you can’t fake. No matter how nice a bike you’re riding, if you go on a group ride and you don’t know what you’re doing, people will be able to tell in an instant. If you’re on a high end carbon race bike, to the other riders around you, you’re a jackass trying to buy your way into something they’ve been working on for years. If you’re on a moderately priced aluminum bike, you’re still new, but atleast you’re easing your way into the sport. Don’t believe me on this? Check and see how many high end race bikes there are with low mileage because the owner ‘is too busy to ride’ or ‘has an injury and can’t ride anymore’.
  2. Buy one level down from the top of the line – In general, the best bang for your buck equipment options in cycling are one level down from the top of the line. There are tons of people in cycling that are going through a midlife crisis and have to have the latest and greatest everything. Bike companies know this, so they put a super premium price on the top end equipment. However, the stuff one step down from the top of the line stuff is normally the top of the line stuff from last year or the year before, but painted differently and with the price cut by 40%. As a general rule, with bike stuff (and this applies to bike frames, shoes, clothes, components, wheels, helmets… you name it) you can spend about 60-70% of the price of the top of the line stuff and get 90-95% of the performance. Is it a little heavier? Usually, but what’s a few grams when most of us have an extra few pounds on our bodies that we could stand to lose?
  3. Use clipless (road) pedals – Most people that are new to cycling get really freaked out by the thought of having your feet locked into the pedals. But the increased efficiency and comfort alone are well worth the day or two it takes to get comfortable with clipless pedals. Here’s my advice: go to the bike shop and buy some clipless pedals. Chances are that the mechanic at the shop will put them on for you if you ask nicely, and if you take your shoes, they’ll probably put your cleats on your shoes too. Next take the bike home, put your shoes on, put the bike next to a wall that you can lean on and just practice clipping in and clipping out until you get the hang of it. After you start to feel comfortable start rolling around and doing it on the street. You’ll find that getting out is easy, just a deliberate twist of the ankle. After a while it will become muscle memory and you won’t even have to look down to do it. Will you fall down? Probably once or twice, but only your ego will be bruised. Trust me, it’s worth it. And while we’re here, get road pedals (we are talking about road cycling after all, aren’t we?). Don’t be fooled by how easy it is to walk around in cleats for mountain bike pedals. You’ll be spending much more time (i hope) on your bike than you will walking around Whole Foods buying groceries. For those long rides you’ll want the large surface area that a road pedal provides. Mountain bike pedals have a much smaller surface area, so your feet will get hot spots and hurt. It ain’t fun. Just get road pedals.
  4. For road cycling, get a road helmet – Similarly, if you’re going to be road cycling, the general rule is to get a road helmet. Mountain bike helmets have those little visors on them and having one is a big faux pas with roadies. Not sure why that is, as it really isn’t a big deal to me, but it’s a big deal for some people. What i do when i want a visor to shield my eyes from the sun or from rain drops is wear a cycling cap under my helmet. Another note about helmets: expensive helmets don’t do a better job of protecting your head than less expensive models (come to think of it, they probably do a worse job), they are just lighter and better ventilated. What’s up with the $200+ price tags of those helmets when you can get a similar one for $40? I really don’t know.
  5. Wear eye protection all the time – This is a big one for safety. Wear eyewear all the time. Even when it’s dark. An overwhelming number of cyclists wear Oakley sunglasses. They make great eyewear, with a few models aimed at cyclists that have interchangeable lenses (most guys have a dark tint for sunny days, light tint for cloudy days, and clear for night time rides and rainy days). Most of Oakley’s lenses these days are hydrophobic so water (and sweat) runs right off of them, and also keeps them from fogging. They’re great sunglasses and they last a long time, but they’re also pretty expensive. These will shield your eyes from debris out on the road, as well as protect your eyes against UV rays from the sun, and keep your eyes from drying out in the wind. Find something that works for you and wear it every time you ride.
  6. Wheels – A few quick words on wheels. In my opinion, wheels are the last place you want to cut corners when it comes to durability. Your normal, everyday (read: training) wheels should be damn stout. We’re talking DT Swiss 465’s or Mavic Open pros hand built with 28 or 32 spokes. Sure, they’ll be a little bit heavy, but are you going to have any doubts about them when bombing down a 45mph descent? No way. Keep your everyday wheels aluminum. When aluminum fails it bends, when carbon fails it shatters. Wheel problems are really annoying to deal with, especially when you’re out in the middle of nowhere with no cell phone reception. Play it safe, get beefy, durable, aluminum wheels. That being said, on race day (and only on race day), it’s okay to pull out those carbon tubulars (and they should be tubulars). Why? Carbon wheels are about being light, stiff, aerodynamic, and fast at the cost of a harsh ride. When you’re training or out on a saturday rides, none of those things really matter. Don’t be that guy that brings his deep dish carbon rims on the group ride. If you’ve got something to prove by going fast do it in a race. Why should they be tubulars? Tubulars are lighter, usually less expensive, they have a certain suppleness that clinchers don’t have, and you can run them at lower pressures without having to worry about pinch flats. Plus, they’re way euro pro if you care about that sort of thing.
  7. No carbon bars/stems – This is more my rule than a greater cycling rule, but many cyclists follow it. Like i said before, when carbon fails, it shatters. Do you want the part that allows you to steer your bike and control your brakes to suddenly be rendered useless while flying down a busy street at 30mph (see Hincapie, George, about 29 seconds into this video) ? I don’t either, so you will ALWAYS find me riding aluminum bars and stems. Sure they’re a little bit heavier than the carbon stuff, but the aluminum parts are also much cheaper (where talking about half the price).
  8. Trainers are a necessary evil – If you want to race you have to train during the winter. Unless you live in south florida and don’t have a day job, you;re going to be contending with darkness, cold, and precipitation, be it rain or snow. Trainers hold your back wheel off the ground and apply resistance so that you can train indoors. Another option is rollers, which are 18″ wide machined aluminum drums that you set the bike on top of and then balance on as you ride. There’s nothing to keep you on the rollers, so it develops bike handling skills and keeps you focused. Riding rollers is a skill that takes a while to develop, but is also kind of the essence of that old school euro pro-ness that some roadies seem to be after their whole lives. I’ve got both a trainer and rollers. I tend to use the trainer for high intensity ‘power’ work and the rollers for low intensity endurance work.
  9. Get a power meter – If you’re serious about racing, get a power meter. It will help you more than the carbon bike or those deep dish wheels. Before i got a power meter i had no idea what i was doing training wise and felt like i was just shooting into the dark on how to do intervals correctly. If you aren’t planning on racing it isn’t a big deal, but if you are, by all means, invest in a power meter. You’ll be glad you did.
  10. No valve stem covers or washers/nuts – Okay last one, and admittedly, this one is a little nit-picky. When you buy spare tubes for your tires they come with a little metal washer/nut that screws onto the stem and a little black cap that fits over the valve stem (the thing you connect the pump to to pump up your tires). Throw both of these away. The little black cap serves no purpose what-so-ever other than making it take longer to air up your tires. The little washer/nut puts undue stress on the junction between the metal valve stem and rubber tube that takes miles off the life of your tubes. Not putting the washer on may mean that your valve stem rattles against the rim a little bit on rough roads, but it’s nothing a little piece of electrical tape around the base of the valve stem won’t fix. On that note, go to the pharmacy and get a bottle of talcum powder (baby powder). Lightly dust it over your tubes before installing them, as it also allows your tubes to move around a big in reaction to stresses instead of tearing.

So, that’s it for part 2. Look for part 3 sometime in the next week or so.



  1. I’m looking forward to this series. You are totally more a racer that I, but I think you’re right on so far. Anticipating the rest of your thoughts.


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