Last Updated: 04/28/2010



The heart and soul of a bike is the frame. And when chosing a road frame one should consider the 3 F's:
  • Frame Material
  • Function (or type) and
  • Fit
  • I think this is roughly the order you should make your decisions. First determine what kind of frame material you want. Second, determine the style of bike you want. Then, make sure you get a good fit.


    Frame Material: Debates among cyclists over the relative merits of different frame materials are waged with religious fervor. And there is really no peer pressure to conform like that exerted by cyclists. It will happen like this... You will be on a group ride and a rider will pull away from you, seemingly without effort. Or, a friend whose opinion matters to you will hoist your bike to feel its heft and you will notice a quick flash of a furrowed brow. And just like that, a seed of doubt will be sown. Further comments by others will help that seed sprout and sooner or later, you'll end up disliking your bike. The best and only defense against this is to consider the materials and style of a frame carefully and buy the type that gives you the most peace of mind. You will need that to deal with the comments, no matter what you end up with.

    There are 3 major choices among frame materials these days: carbon fiber, aluminum alloy and steel. There are others like titanium and even bamboo, but nearly all bikes you will look at will be 1 of these 3 materials. You can read the "technical" arguments for and against all of these materials on the web sites of manufacturers and you can listen to those same arguments rehashed by other cyclists. But don't expect to hear a convincing argument 1 way or the other. The debate rages on and on and on.

    My advice is go to several bike stores and to test ride racing bikes made from the different frame materials. I hate racing bikes (and so should you) but they are the most common road bikes and their geomtires are all nearly identical, so this will give you a reasonable apples to apples comparison of similar bikes made from different materials. You should see for yourself if you can atually feel a difference on the road. You should also familiarize yourself with the looks and traditions of the different materials. Materials and style are closely linked. I go into more detail on these styles on my Frame Materials and Fashions Web Page.

    As for me, I ride lugged steel. Lugged steel frames are beautiful and they make me happy. They last an incredibly long time. My frames are all 30 years old and going as strong as when they were new. But this should mean nothing to you. You need to find out what makes you happiest.

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    Function: is determined by the frame's geometry and a handful of other design features. There are 5 basic kinds of road bikes that are avaiable on the market today and you should spend time test riding bikes in each of these categories to feel the differences for your self. The simplest way to think about their differences is in terms of the bike's wheelbase. Roughly speaking, bikes with a short wheelbase like to turn quickly while bikes with long wheelbases like to straight. A second major distinguishing feature is the type of brake and with that, the maximum width tire you can fit on the bike. Bikes with "short reach" calipers will generally accept tires up to 25mm. Bike with "long reach" calipers will generally accept tires up to 32mm. And bikes with cantilevers or linear pull brakes will take the widest tires. With these mentioned, here are 5 main types of bikes:

    Personally, I'm a huge fan of the Sport Touring design. I go into more detail on frame geometries on my Frame Geometries Web Page. The one bit of personal opinion I'll state here is that I think racing bikes are horrible. I never recommend them to friends. If you want some thing that looks like a racing bike, get an event bike so at least you can run wider tires.

    There are several other design features that have a big impact on how well a bike frame is suited to your intended purposes. Some frames will not accept moderate width tires, much less wider tires, thus limiting their use. Frames are generally built to accept a certain style or size of brake. And different uses require fenders or racks, both of which need special fittings. I go into more detail on these features on my Bike Frame Design Web Page.

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    Fit: Bad fit makes your body hurt and undermines your performance. But getting a good fit is hard and can literally take years. Much has been written on the subject of bike fit and I will not attempt to give specific advice. Instead, I will offer 4 generalities.

    First, understand that there are different styles of fit. The best advice on this subject that I've seen is the essay "The Traditions of Road Riding and Our Three Styles of Fit" at the Competitive Cyclist website, which defines 3 different styles of fit: a low handle bar competitive fit, a more sensible "Merckx" fit and a touring oriented fit. Second, once you understand the different fitting styles, use their Fit Calculator to determine your frame size and buy a frame based on their formula driven suggestions. Thirdly, fine tune the fit by changing components such as the handlebar stem. The best article I've read on adjusting your fit is by Peter White at his website. Fourth and finally, seek good bike shops that offer fitting services, but don't let ex-racers steer you toward a low-bar racing type of fit.

    I will state one bit of opinion here - Don't buy a bike unless you can get the bars level with the saddle. Bikes that force your handlebars low force you into a low bar racing position, which in my opinion, doesn't work for most riders. I go into more detail on these fitting issues on my Frame Fitting Web Page.

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