Cyclist FAQ

Whether you’re new to Lycra, or been here a while, there are lots of questions out there that (at least in my cycling groups) are asked, and answered, quite frequently. Below is my attempt to capture them, both with my own answer, and where necessary a counterpoint.

Starting out

Q: What do I need to get going?

A: At minimum, a bike. Doesn’t have to be an “awesome” bike, but you will probably want to match the bike to the type of riding you want to do, Get a road bike for roads, or a gravel bike for things that aren’t roads but aren’t quite write-a-will-before-you-ride-this (i.e. a proper mountain bike).

FWIW, while I have a mountain bike (MTB), it’s one of those 1990s no suspension guys that was/is the original gravel bike. I do not ride the crazy stuff, more power to those that do; just trying to keep my collar bones where they belong (unsuccessfully).

Q: What are the types of road bikes?

A: Endurance, race (aka climbing), aero.

Or at least that’s the way it was a year ago. This is the year of the smooshing everything into a single bike frame. In broad strokes, every bike is getting more aerodynamic. In some cases, enough that the aero range is going away.

Q: What kind of road bike should I buy?

A: If you’re just starting out, endurance is safest.

Like many of the answers here, it depends on your goals. Endurance bikes will not be the fastest bikes out there, but they going to be the most relaxed (read comfortable).

If you want to go fast, then one of the newer aero-race/climbing bikes is a great place to end up. They aren’t as fast as an all out aero bike, but that’s a small loss for gains in other areas like weight and comfort.

Q: Do I need an expensive bike?

A: No. There are definitely differences in performance and/or comfort between expensive bikes and cheap bikes, but the biggest factor in whether you will enjoy it, keep up, be slow, etc. is you and your legs.  For e.g., I spent $800 on my first road bike (used Trek Domane), and it was totally fine. There are plenty of riders out there crushing it on $500, $600, etc. bikes. Spend the amount of money you’re comfortable with, and enjoy the bike. The most important thing is that you’re out there, enjoying the outside, getting fit, on a bike.

Q: Should I buy a used bike?

A: Yes.

Like a used car, the best way to pay less for a better bike is to get a used bike. There are obvious cost/benefits to doing that though. One is the lack of a warranty (not aware of any bike OEM whose warranty survives an ownership transfer), the other can be a lack of after-sales support. Most local bike shops (LBS) are totally fine with helping you out with service and support, and some even offer a pre-sales check for used bikes (just like you’d get for a used car, right?). If you’re comfortable with the process, and want to save serious $$$ on a bike, you cannot beat the used market.

Of course this works better in some markets than others. I’ve personally bought two great bikes from the Boulder, CO Craigslist (thanks 182lb climber!). So it might be a bit different in your area, doesn’t hurt to look though.

Counterpoint: No

Buying a used item carries inherent risk that is greatly reduced when buying new. You get a warranty, you get pre-sales and after-sales support, at least most of the time; if you’re not, choose a different LBS. You can get a great bike for good price if you know what to look for. Don’t be afraid to ask, that’s what we’re here for :).

Q: Then why do expensive bikes exist? Why does everyone seem to have one?

A: I will deny saying it, but the biggest reason is signalling, and I am just as guilty of this as anyone else (Acid Mint SL6 S-Works Tarmac Disc =  yummy). Moving beyond that: the same rider on a $12,000 bike will be faster, experience better shifting, and potentially be more comfortable than an $800 bike. Will it be $11,200 faster, shiftier, more comfortable? No. But unless you spent most of that $ on gold plating, it will look all those things :).

Most bike ranges start around $2,000-$3,000 and go up quickly from there. As you spend more in a family of bikes you generally get lighter, although not necessary better, components and wheels. The most important aspect of any bike is the frame, everything else can be upgraded. So don’t sweat the 105 v Dura-Ace dilemma too much.

Q: Is there a sweet spot for how much I should spend?

A: It depends a lot on your goals, and where you are in the whole MAMIL thing. If you’re just dipping a toe in, start with a reasonably priced used bike if you’re comfortable going that way (see above for a more detail discussion). Worst case, you should be able to sell it for close to what you paid for it. Once you’re good with cycling as an activity, then it makes sense to ramp up your spend. Here again, the value is in used bikes, but in most cases there won’t be a warranty and the after sales experience will be roll-the-dice. If you can afford it, and value a warranty, something in the $2,000-$5,000 should get you 99% of the way to having something that is great and signals all the right things ;). Feel free to reach out if you have any “is this a good bike” kind of questions, happy to help.

Q: Besides a bike, what are the most important things to get?

A: Assuming you’ve already made the transition to wearing Lycra, the most important thing is a comfortable saddle.

I’ve never been happy with the stock saddle for any bike I’ve bought. Put in the time, try a bunch of them. Unfortunately saddles are a highly personal item, so there isn’t a “best” saddle. Some local bike shops (LBS) have testers, so you can sample a bunch of different makes/models for a few rides to find one that works for you. It should go without saying that if you take advantage of this service, and find a good fit, you should buy the saddle from the LBS. Do the right thing.

Personally, I’ve found that buying used saddles from eBay/Facebook, trying them out, and selling the ones that didn’t work out was the best strategy for me. But, my local bike shop wasn’t helpful at all in this area. The difference in price between SRP at a local bike shop, and the money I’ve saved doing that is pretty massive, and it’s very easy to run a test that’s more than a few days in length.

The second most important thing is a bike computer and associated sensors. For me, this was the critical factor in getting fitter/faster on the bike.

Q: Do I have to wear Lycra?

A: Yes. If you want to go fast, anything that makes you more aerodynamic saves watts. Anything that saves watts, makes you faster. Don’t worry, it stops feeling weird after a couple weeks.

Q: Should I buy a torque wrench.

A: Yes.

Q: At minimum, what tools (besides a torque wrench) should I own?

A: In order:

  • floor pump
  • chain lube (not really a tool, but roll with me)
  • chain checker
  • cassette tool
  • hex/Allen keys

Q: How often should I replace my chain?

A: Trust your chain checker. On an 11 speed chain anything more than .5  means replace it.

In practice, the frequency will depend on the conditions you ride in (winter kills chains), and type of rider you are (repeated 1400W sprints will shorten your chain life, looking at you Alex). I haven’t yet found a clear relationship between the number of miles and the lifespan. Lubing your chain frequently helps a lot though.

Q: How often should I lube my chain?

A: Depends on the conditions and miles you’re putting in. Riding in the snow/rain/mud? Every single time, no exceptions. if you use a combo cleaner lube, it only takes 5-10 minutes to do it. Your chain says “thank you”. For dry summer miles, I usually do it every week or two (200-400 miles), but here again it depend on the number of miles and whether I’ve gotten caught out in the rain.

Q: Should I store my bike inside?

A: Yes. Garage = good, basement = better, bedroom = best.

The last one might be a joke, but you want to keep it safe and away from the elements. The lower the humidity, within reason, the better.

Q: I crashed, should I replace my helmet?

A: If you hit your head, yes. Do it even if there’s no damage on the helmet. A concussion, or worse, isn’t worth $80-$300.

If you’re not sure if you hit your head, check the helmet over for any marks. If you find something, you hit your head. See above.

Q: Should I ride in a group?

A: Yes.

Riding in a group is a massive help in making you faster. It provides social support, a yard stick to measure your progress, and encourages you to get out there when the weather sucks. Do it.

Counterpoint: No.

Structured training in groups is hard. Don’t do that, unless you’re on a team. Then see above.

If you live where there are real hills, climbing can be hard to organize, especially in a larger group, due to wildly different power-to-weight numbers. It can also be safer to descend alone, or at least in a very small group.

OK, all sorted. What’s next?

Q: What pedals should I use?

A: SPD. Don’t @ me.

Q: Should I buy a disc brake bike.

A: Yes.

Unless you have a heirloom collection of rim brake wheels, join the modern era. Enjoy your newfound braking confidence.

Q: Should I buy a carbon bike?

A: For road: Yes, maybe.

It’s hard to go wrong buying a carbon bike, but I wouldn’t prioritize carbon over everything else. The frame is the most important part of the bike because everything else pivots around it and is relatively easy to upgrade. In order, I would preference carbon/titanium/aluminum for road use. Carbon is lighter and can be molded into more aerodynamic shapes. So there’s a good chance you’ll get a faster and more comfortable bike for less money than titanium.

Titanium is a great choice for a comfortable or custom bike (anyone over 6’5″ might want consider it). It is expensive though, or at least I haven’t found a titanium bike that wasn’t suspect that wasn’t pricey.

Nothing wrong per se, with aluminum either. It is the most cost effective material here, and plenty durable, at least in the short term.

For gravel: Maybe, no.

If you want the lightest fastest gravel bike; carbon is the way to go. If price isn’t a barrier and the crash resistantness of carbon concerns you, you will crash just a matter of time, then get a titanium frame.

Personally, I highly recommend aluminum frames for gravel use. They are durable and cheap, so you don’t mind (too much) when crashing or riding in terrible conditions. I also use my aluminum gravel bike as my winter/nasty weather bike. Throw some studded tires on there and get out in the snow :).

Q: Are wider tires faster?

A: Probably not, but they are more comfortable.

Q: Should I get a professional bike fit?

A: Yes.

A proper fit on a cheaper bike is light years better than a poor fit on an expensive bike. Expect to pay $300-$500 on a good fit. I generally recommend the Retül method, but as long as the fitter knows what they’re doing, and most importantly listens to you, you will get great value from the experience. It might seem like an expensive and unnecessary spend, but even though it’s possible to DIY 70-80% of the way there, it is totally worth it.

Plus, the technology is fascinating, at least in a Retül fit. Pay attention to the why, it will help you later if you need to make tweaks. Get pampered, enjoy it.

Q: Do I need to upgrade my wheels?

A: Yes.

Unless you bought the top-of-the-line model, and even then: maybe.

Only rarely will you find a stock bike with wheels that can’t be improved on. In most cases, it won’t clear out the bank account either (see below). Better wheels are the second biggest change you can make to the system (the first is a better you, but that’s a different topic ;)).

Q: Are expensive wheels worth it?

A: No.

Well, it depends on what your goals are, and what you consider “expensive”. As I might not have mentioned, there’s some signalling going on in MAMIL’g, and nothing signals APEX PREDATOR like a $3,000 set of wheels. Except, that you don’t generally see the legit apex predators (i.e. the guys who solo past you at 30mph) riding $3,000 wheels.

There are completely legitimate reasons to spend significant money on wheels, and there are completely legitimate reasons to spend more than you need on high quality wheels to have a massively better after-sales (i.e. warranty and support) experience. If that better fits your cost/benefit preferences, prioritize a good warranty over other things.

Q: Should I get a smart trainer?

A: Yes.

Structured training matters. Doing it inside is easier. Especially in the winter. Nuff said.

In the weeds

Q: Is “aero” worth it?

A: YES!!!

Unless you’re riding MTB slow, or spending significant time on 10%+ grades (kudos if you are), aerodynamics trumps everything. Hands down, no questions. BUT, there is a lot of nuance here.

If you only care about going up hills faster, then you need to strike a balance between reducing weight and aerodynamics.

If the hills are at altitude, less but still yes.

If you only ride in a group, aerodynamics still matter, mostly when you’re pulling (in front), but anywhere else in the pace line they matter much, much less. There is absolutely no question as to whether “aero” looks cooler than “not aero”. Well, all the way up to, but not including, skin suits (eww) and those stupid looking full-aero helmets.

Q: Do skin suits and those stupid looking full-aero helmets make you faster?

A: Yes. If you’re riding by yourself, aero is KING.

Anything that makes you more areo will make you faster; unless you’re riding really slow. So definitely a balance to strike between looking like a triathlete and being cool, but there is again, no question there, aero is KING.

But, you are 85% of the drag on the bike. Get low, lose the Members Only jacket and get your bum in some proper bib shorts and a tight jersey. Getting started with aero doesn’t have to mean overhauling the bike. In fact, it probably shouldn’t. Things you do to the bike are pretty solidly in the “marginal gains” category.

Q: Does weight matter?

A: YES!!! Power to weight is KING (or maybe one of those Roman dual counsel things with aero).

But, keep in mind that the heaviest thing (sorry, not sorry) in the system is you.

Shaving 1kg off the bike is a massive triumph; mostly realized in sum of many small, perfectly executed decisions. Congratulations on your spreadsheet and dedication to OCD. Welcome to the club. FWIW, I have a reasonably strict (except when I break it) $1/g ROI rule on bike parts.

That said, unless you’re already in pro-level shape, shaving 1kg off you is pretty effortless. Maybe you only have one scoop of ice cream, or two pints of beer, tonight. Not trying to offend, just being honest here. Obviously there’s a balance to be struck between monastic living and hedonism. Find the point that works for you.

Q: What about rolling resistance?

A: Reducing rolling resistance will make you faster, no doubt. A watt (or three) saved is power in the bank, but I’m not sold on the push towards wider tires for reduced rolling resistance when considering the system as a whole. At the speeds I ride, a 23c/25c front/rear setup with the right tires is faster than anything else I’ve tried. Remember aero is KING, weight is KING. Rolling resistance is an also-ran.

Q: Do I need a power meter (PM)?

A: Depends what your goals are.

If you just want to ride, then no. If you want to get faster via structured training, and have the best method for pacing, then YES. Personally, I find a PM to be an invaluable tool on the bike, but I’m a numbers guy.

Q: What kind of power meter (PM) should I buy?

A: The best place to measure power is as close as you can get to the source (i.e. your feet). Which means that the most flattering power meters are the pedal kind because the further you get away from the pedal the higher the loss; for e.g., measuring at the rear wheel could be as wrong by as much as 5%. Unfortunately, pedals are a consumable item, so I recommend going one step up the chain and getting a crank based PM. Something that measures total power, and ideally something thing that can do true left/right balance is best. Many people have a power imbalance, I am one of them.

The only way you know if you’re in this group is by using a PM that can do L/R balance, and when there is a massive imbalance it usually indicates a fit or physiological issue so you have a way to tweak/measure/fix it. Balance issues are variable as well, so where some PMs will let you adjust for an imbalance, they only provide a fixed fudge %. For me, my balance is generally 50/50 out of the saddle, terrible at recovery effort levels, and all over the place (as bad as 60/40 and 40/60) in the space between depending on what I’ve been doing to my body (e.g. skiing, because I fall a lot, isn’t good for my power balance). If you can’t get L/R balance, then at least with a total power system (e.g. spider based) you get a real number that you can use to calculate FTP and pace off of.

Counterpoint: The market is 80% left side only for a reason, and that reason is cost. Dual power setups are expensive, and some people would argue unnecessary. If you don’t have a power imbalance (counter-counterpoint, how would you know if you’re only measuring one side?), there’s no reason to 2x (or 2.5x) the cost of getting a one-sided PM. Just replace the left crank with a PM enabled  arm, and done.

Q: Does power meter (PM) accuracy matter?

A: Yes.

Some might argue that consistency is the most important thing, and they have a point, up to a point. If you’re only using one PM, and it’s consistent in its wrongness the number it gives you doesn’t really matter that much. If it’s consistently wrong in the upwards direction then it can even make you feel better about your power-to-weight than is justified – and we know that feeling good generally nets better results.

One of the key benefits to riding with power (having a PM on your bike) is around pacing. As long as the PM is consistent, it works. Assuming you pay attention to the numbers it tells you, and don’t go chasing every rabbit on the road (guilty).

Where that falls apart is when we add other PMs to the mix. If you have a smart trainer (get a smart trainer, see above), it will have a PM. If the numbers are wildly different, that’s a problem. Your training won’t happen at the right level, so you’ll risk over-training or detraining.

Q: What size tires should I run?

A: Generally, 25/28c. But it depends a lot on what your goals are.

If you want to be the fastest rider you can be, smaller is generally better, especially on the front wheel. When in doubt, follow the 105% rule.

There is a natural trade-off in comfort and speed though. A wider tire will be more comfortable (I ride 37c on my gravel bike for exactly that reason) because it is the best, and only on most bikes, suspension that is in the system. Are a few watts saved worth getting beat up on 23c tires? If you’re not doing time trials (TT), probably not. That said, where I dabbled with 28c initially, I’ve personally found that 25c strikes a good balance in aerodynamics (read speed), durability, and comfort. Heavier riders will probably find that balance leans more towards the 28c though.

Q: How deep should my rims be?

A: 45-50mm is a safe sweet spot. You get some aero benefit, but it’s still manageable from a weight and cross-wind perspective.

Aero is KING, but so too is weight, at least in some contexts (sorry). In most cases the balance between aero/weight/manageability is in the range mentioned above.

If you want to go fast on flat roads, where weight doesn’t matter as much, the deeper the better. But there is something of a learning curve with deep wheels when it comes to cross winds.

The deeper you go the more cross winds hurt you. They slow you down as you micro correct for the wind pushing on your sail-like rims, and they can also sweep the bike in extreme circumstances. I am speaking from experience here, as I have set of 65mm aero rims. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that on most days, it is easier to maintain speed at 20+mph with them than on my 35mm rims. NO DOUBT. But as the side winds pick up, the story changes. Work on your forearm strength and do not take your hands off the bars if it’s windy; I’ve had some close calls with gusts.

Q: How wide should my rims be?

A: 28mm external.

Queue hate mail: I would not buy anything narrower than 28mm. You get the flexibility to sort-of follow the 105% rule with 25c. Most 25c tires measure out around 27.x, where x is a number greater than 5. You can run 23c, which usually end up in the ~26mm range, when you want to CRUSH THE TT, but you can still run 28c without too much “ice cream cone” apparent.

Q: Is wider than 28mm better then?

A: No, not unless you go pretty deep.

Relying heavily on the expertise of the great, but incredibility vulgar, Hambini for this one. He mentioned in one of his Q/A sessions that you need to go deeper than 50mm (or maybe 55mm) to offset the hole a 30mm wide rim cuts in the air. That said, if you have the arm strength, 55+mm is still pretty manageable.

Bonus round

Q: What is a rabbit?

A: A cyclist, preferably in Lycra, that you can see in the distance which encourages irresponsible behavior. Rabbits need chasing, and hopefully passing. VO2Max session incoming.

Q: Do I need to shave my legs?

A: No, but you will be faster if you do.

Q: What is a Phil?

A: A cyclist who only does 1/2 the ride in search of KOM glory.