book review - bikie | september 03
book review - inside the peloton | november 03

overtures and beginners

surprisingly enough, i have recently been asked by hundreds (one or two) people as to what sort of bike they should buy/build to start getting fit. differently to years gone by, there is no more stipulation that these should be mountain bikes as used to be the case. mountain bikes should be for mountain biking, though i am still mystified as to why kids of ten need to have full suspension mountain bikes one minute, and are happy to scrap about on bmx the next. from the sublime to the ridiculous.
anyway, having been asked for advice (and i'm sure they wished they hadn't) i was more than happy to describe at more than great length how to go about ending up with the ultimate bike, the entire history of the tour de france, ernesto colnago's shoe size and the relative merits of aluminium versus steel as a frame material. they did ask.
donning a cloak of apparent seriousness for a moment, there are a growing number of folks having either become disillusioned with mountain biking or simply looking for an alternative. it's a relatively well known fact that many of the world's top mountain bikers train on the road: look at miguel martinez of mapei who has been showing his front wheel more than once during this year's tour, or cadel evans who managed to wear the pink jersey in his first giro d'italia.
anyway, the first option is whether to buy a frame (new or secondhand) and put bits on it, or buy a complete bike. under normal circumstances, for a complete beginner (certainly from the mechanical angle) the latter is by far the preferable option since you at least know everything fits and works when you lift it out the box. however, mechanical knowledge works independently of cycling ability, so it may well be that a hopelessly inexperienced cyclist could quite easily assemble a state of the art cycle. the difficult bit is knowing which bits to buy.
if we go for the complete bike scenario, then choices are slightly limited, in that you don't always get the bits you want and you probably won't realise until later on. the choice of frames at the bottom end will be either plain gauge cromo steel or plain gauge aluminium. neither particularly light, nor particularly 'springy'. by the latter, i refer to the apparent ability of the rear triangle to react in a decidely forward motion when standing on the pedals hard on the way up a hill or when pretending to be mario.
my first frame was made of reynolds 531 which was very nice (red) and which was the first bike i had assembled from scratch including building the wheels (one of which i still use now, some eight years down the line). when this frame was accidentally damaged - a pedal fell of the bike shed roof and landed on the top tube; don't ask - i upgraded to a reynolds 653, which still sits forlornly in the shed. the rear triangle of the 653 frame used 753 reynolds tubing and, while i figured that i was not nearly experienced enough to feel the difference between the two, there was a definite 'spring' from the rear end when i was doing my robert millar impressions.
since components are fairly easily upgraded and new cheap components work pretty much just as well as new expensive components (the latter just cost more and continue to work well for longer - oh, and they're usually a good deal lighter), the best bet would be to buy a bike with a fairly high grade frame that will be worth fitting with better grade components from either shimano or campagnolo. cannondale used to be particularly good for this sort of thing, since the bikes at the bottom end used the same frames as the ones at the top, the difference being the components. this made it a better investment to buy one of their lower grade bikes without feeling the necessity to scrap all and start again as the ability and - hopefully- spending power increased at a later date.
we've been through the materials game in previous posts - steel, aluminium, titanium and carbon fibre, pretty much in order of cost, though for some reason pinarello have a steel/carbon framed opera at almost the same cost as colnago's ct1 titanium/carbon bike. rest assured, however, that beginners are unlikely to be buying either of these.
aluminium is almost 'de rigeur' in todays peloton and, with the amount of investment that the big bike companies have in these type of frames, they make up the bulk of the offerings. aluminium has a reputation of being a might on the harsh side as regards ride, but is certainly efficient at transmitting pedal power into forward motion. unfortunately, at the bottom end, it tends to feel a bit 'dead'. steel is almost always likey to be heavier and the 16.5 offering from dedacciai seems only to appear on the higher priced bikes, so anything at the bottom end should be resonably comfortable over long distances but unlikely to be as directly responsive as the aluminium frames and almost certainly heavier. what constitutes a heavy bike? well pretty much anything over 20lbs/9kg would be regarded as heavy. the current average seems to be around 18lb/8kg but cycle sport has portrayed stuff at around 14lb/6.3kg. needless to say, the latter would cost more than it's advisable to spend for an entrant to the cycle world.
how much should you spend? at one time the lower ceiling for a mountain bike was around £300. mountain bikes are manufactured in greater numbers than road bikes, as are their components and i would tend to suggest that the lower limit for a decent road bike would be around £400. this isn't an invented number - i did a quick poll through the adverts at the back of the comic and this would seem to be a general lower figure. this is for complete bikes, off the shelf or built up by specialist shops. it might be possible to obtain something for a bit less under the heading of 'winter training bike' but since nobody's too bothered about weight on a winter bike, these would be better considered as a winter training bike when you already own a decent bike for the good weather (whenever that that will be).
if you go along the route of buying the bits and slinging them together in a vague approximation of a bicycle, be aware that, besides the bits themselves, you will need the necessary tools to fit the bits onto the frame. you'll need a selection of allen or hex keys, a bottom bracket tool to fit the particular model you have chosen. there were days when bottom brackets from any component manufacturer you cared to mention could be fitted with the one set of tools. nice, expensive workshop bottom bracket tools that are now all but obsolescent. as you would now expect, shimano tools differ from campag and even different models within the same manufacturer's range tend to use different tools. you'll also need something to fit the headset with unless it's one of the new hiddensets but then you'd need a frame that would accept such. and unless you can build wheels, you'd need to buy those from someone who does. so while it seems to be more common for roadies to have bikes built from bits (as opposed to mountain bikers), it can be a bit more expensive to build by yourself than to buy one pre-built. bear in mind that any tools that you purchase are unlikely to see heavy usage in proportion to their cost. and also bear in mind that if you do embark on your own build, don't expect the local bike shop to roll out the red carpet if you take the bits round and ask them to finish the job if you run out of ability. if you didn't buy the bits from them, don't even think about it.
personally, unless they've invited you to ride in this year's vuelta and you need a topline road bike, i'd advise buying a complete bike new or secondhand (see the classifieds in the comic each week if you're in the uk) and learn as much as you can before you think about a second bike. many top bike riders know little or nothing about bike mechanicals, nor could care less as long as they win often enough. if you decide to opt for the diy approach and know not alot, get hold of a decent book about cycle mechanics. try amazon or bicycle books.
as someone who has nearly all the tools after fixing other folks' bikes for years, my next bike (see last post) will be the usual diy job, and i'll enjoy every minute of it.

i'd also like you to remember that i am undertaking the second annual washing machine post century ride on sunday 4 august, round the mountains and valleys of islay. if anyone fancies joining in for even part of the distance, drop me a line to, or, if you're feeling generous, you can sponsor me for the ride. this year i'm raising funds for islay pipe band

Remember, you can still read the review of 'the dancing chain' the utterly excellent book on the history of the derailleur bicycle by clicking here

any of the books reviewed on the washing machine post can probably be purchased from or

as always, if you have any comments on this nonsense, please feel free to e-mail and thanks for reading.

this column almost never appears in the dead tree version of the ileach but appears, regular as clockwork on this website every two weeks. (ok so i lied) sometimes there are bits added in between times, but it all adds to the excitement.

on a completely unrelated topic, ie nothing to do with bicycles, every aspect of the washing machine post was created on apple macintosh powerbook g4, ibook and imac computers, using adobe golive 5 and adobe photoshop 7. needless to say it is also best viewed on an apple macintosh computer.