This is part one of a three-part series.
Darned this whole bicycling hobby… I never expected to become this obsessed over it. But after reading this three-part series, you’ll realize that I’ve become pretty passionate about riding… and why I purchased a new bike recently.
I’ve ridden a bike since I can remember. I started on a tricycle like any other two-year old. When I was a about four-years old, I rode a used yellow steel-frame two-wheeler with solid tires and training wheels (the training wheels eventually came off). At seven, I got a cruiser with the hi-rise (or “ape-hanger”) handlebars and a banana seat (those seats were apparently cool in those days). I think it was a knock-off of the Schwinn Sting-Ray. At 12, I finally got a “grown-up” bike: a Kent 10-speed road bike. I rode it until I was about 18 (or, should I say, outgrew it?).
So after many years of not riding a bicycle, I started riding again this past spring . In May, I purchased a Trek 7.3 FX fitness bike . I think the best way to describe it is that it’s a hard-suspension hybrid bike with wider (34c) road tires. It’s great for commuting around town: it sits up very well, it provides a fairly comfortable ride, and I can get a pretty decent workout, especially with all of the hills around me (I swear I live on top of a hill). I love riding it.
Expectations of my current bicycle
When I decided that I wanted to start riding a bike again this year, I asked myself what kind of riding I wanted to do. My intent was to commute to and from my part-time job and around the neighborhood, and to spend a little time riding leisurely (Sunday afternoon bike rides with my fiancÃ©e). I also considered getting fitter, hopefully as a result of the other two activities.
The leisurely rides quickly became fitness rides alone, and I found myself spending a lot of time on my bike pushing to ride faster and longer. I especially noticed that my upper body was trying to change positions when I hit the 45-minute mark. I added handlebar extenders for different hand positions, which have helped. I also wanted more power getting up hills, so I purchased SPD clipless pedals and bicycling shoes. Finally, I had a professional bike fitting that revealed how my seat was too low, so that was corrected. That’s when the professional told me that my bike just barely fits me (on the small side).
Even with all of the adjustments and add-ons, I still didn’t feel as comfortable as I could be. I noticed that I was still trying to bend down into a more aerodynamic position, as if on a road bike. My hands were looking for different positions than what the handlebar extenders could provide; I even tried adjusting them down once. I constantly found myself working hard to climb hills. I think part of my motivation to really start training was my inability to really climb hills (and later, the wind).
As I stated above, I also realized that I was spending more time riding for fitness than for either commuting or slow, fun rides. On longer rides, I often found myself trying to bend over and look for some relief, as if I were riding a road bike, and I tried to pick up the pace. I knew I was getting stronger on the bike, and I wanted to use that momentum into riding more.
Despite the changes I experienced, I still love the 7.3 FX. It’s still a great bike for commuting, leisure rides, slower group rides, and trails.
Even though I would feel fatigue set in after 45 minutes, physically and mentally I still wanted to keep riding. Pushing myself would help, but I also realized that I needed to start working on my upper body to help with the long-term rides. I picked up Eric Harr’s “Ride Fast” book and started following the training course: riding, strength training, and stretching (I’m still working on the nutrition aspect). I recently completed the ride training, but due to the changing fall climate, I have resigned to riding indoors. I’ve almost hit 35 miles per hour (mph) on my FX, and I can now do intervals at 25 mph.
I later picked up a book called “Fitness Cycling” by Dede Demet Barry, Michael Barry, and Shannon Sovndal, MD. Despite my efforts to improve various aspects at once, Barry, Barry, and Sovndal recommend a phased-in approach to improving riding ability. Although I haven’t started any formal training from this book, I have learned and incorporated some other practical things from it. This has helped to keep my desire to ride longer.
I also wanted to start riding with a group to keep adding to my experience and to find longer, more exciting routes. I can move pretty well on my FX, even though it does seem like a workout at times. But most groups prefer riders to have a road bike. One group-ride leader wrote:
“The rides I lead are in pretty hilly areas west of town and are really limited to individuals with road bikes. The gearing on a hybrid, the weight of the bike and width of the tires would make it very difficult to keep up. I would discourage anyone who does not have a road bike from going.”
‘Nuff said… of course, much of the side of town in which I live is really hilly. With all of these factors taken into consideration, I started shopping for a road bike.
Research and considerations
Before jumping in and buying a new bike, I had to reevaluate my riding style and needs. My main goal is to ride: far and long, up hills, and (somewhat) fast. However, I still wanted to consider commuting as an option. I have a rear rack on my FX, but many road bikes above the entry level do not accommodate them (the exception is a touring bike) and focus instead on riding. I added a rear rack to my 7.3 FX so I could latch a backpack or a grocery pannier to it, but I haven’t used it to date (I also have a bicycling-specific backpack). So I chose to focus on the fitness side of riding and to keep the commuting to a backpack.
I wanted a bike that would give me a somewhat upright ride while still allowing me to ride like the wind (well, maybe more like a breeze… or a whisper). I’m also really pleased with how well my Trek has held up. Trek is based in Waterloo, Wisconsin, and I prefer supporting local companies. I have no aspirations to race, so I don’t need to purchase a super-light, all-carbon bicycle (nor can I afford an American-made OCLV carbon bicycle). But I do want to just hop on and ride, go far, get lost, and still make my way back home.
I also started selecting bicycles and researching them on the Internet. I started focusing on the Trek Pilot 2.1 (more on that below). One of the most useful sites is RoadbikeReview.com. Although the reviews for even some of the previous year models are out of date, not much has chnaged over the past two or three years. Other sites that I found useful include howstuffworks.com – Consumer Product Guides, Buzzillions.com, and TeamEstrogen.com.
I have been happy with my bike and with the service I receive at my local Trek dealer. It focuses on decent bikes and excellent customer service (the store’s motto is, “We take care of you. Period.”). One significant perk is that it offers free adjustments on any bike that you purchase there, and the tech staff are experienced and knowledgeable. I am especially impressed with the great customer support that I’ve received from both shop and sales associates. Also, as I mentioned, I want to support a local company. So it is probably no surprise that I started looking at Trek bicycles for my next road bike.
I reviewed other brands as well: Giant, Specialized, Schwinn, and Raleigh. They all sell decent bikes. But for the reasons I mentioned above, I chose to stick with Trek (although Schwinn is now owned by PacificCycle out of Madison, Wisconsin, I preferred the Trek set up to the Schwinn Fastback line).
My options became apparent as I started researching available road bikes. The focus was on comfort and road riding. Since I had a recent professional fitting done, I knew what size bike I needed. The apparent choices became the Portland (commuting bike) and the Pilot (compact road bike).
When I started looking at new bikes, I started with the 2007 Pilot 1.2. It’s a good semi-entry-level road bike with compact geometry (that means that it is shorter than a traditional road bike). The bike is designed to provide more of an upright position, putting less stress on the rider’s back. The Pilot 1.2 frame is made of aluminum with a partial-carbon fork, and has less expensive Shimano components (Tiagra). Unlike the Portland, it uses regular rim brakes. Because of the aluminum frame, Trek included mounting for a rear rack. For under $1,000, it would be a good choice. Unfortunately, my local Trek dealer could not locate a Pilot 1.2 in my size through its network, and Trek discontinued the model in 2008.
Trek’s lack of a 2008 model Pilot 1.2 led me to start looking at the Pilot 2.1, available both in 2007 and 2008. The Pilot 2.1 builds on the 1.2, but offers slightly better geometry and better frame material and components. For the extra $500, the mostly aluminum Pilot 2.1 adds carbon where it counts: partial-fork, seat stays, seat post, and stem post. These locations help with road vibrations; aluminum doesn’t absorb road shock well (or so I’ve learned first-hand). Due to the carbon seat stays, the Pilot 2.1 doesn’t have mountings for a rear rack, making it unsuitable for touring or mounting a rack. If I want to commute on it, I will need to carry items in a backpack; fortunately, I purchased a nice Novara backpack from REI earlier this year.
I also considered the Trek Portland commuter bicycle. The Portland is essentially a road bike. It provides a more upright riding position, as you would expect from a commuter bicycle. The frame is aluminum with a partial-carbon fiber fork. It even sports the same Shimano components (Ultegra and 105). The big differences, though, are the disc brakes, the saddle, and the fenders (included on this bike, optional for others). It also comes equipped with slightly wider tires, but they’re still narrower than the 34c tires on my 7.3 FX. The Portland seems like it’s designed for people do some serious, all-day commuting, such as bicycle messengers.
With the Pilot 1.2 no longer available, I decided to compare the Portland and the Pilot 2.1.