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I am shopping around for road bikes now, and I wanted to know what components to look for. I am not talking about the frame, carbon or otherwise, I mean types of shifters, brakes, cranks, rims, etc.

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7 Answers

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As with any other equipment, it depends on how much you would like to spend...

The main difference between a cheap and a better bike is the quality of the materials and the comfort/performance they provide!

I have several cheap bikes and two "better" bikes, the differences between these are:

  1. better derailleur system, both the front and back, it makes a lot of difference!
  2. better shifter (the cheap one has a thumb-type shifter, and the better has a shimano trigger-type shifter), for me having trigger-type shifter is a huge difference in comfort
  3. better brakes (you could go for the v-brakes, but there are some flavors to choose from; you could also go for a disc-brake; also the brake levers can make a lot of difference also!)
  4. tyres, normally the cheap bikes have sub-par tyres and tubes.
  5. obviously the wheel (good rims, good spokes, I have noticed that indeed!)
  6. the frame, weight, strength, shape (cheap frames can affect a lot on the way you ride, but honestly I've had cheap frames and loved them!)
  7. seat, a good seat and seat post are important.
  8. overall, good materials, that don't disintegrate after some time and resist (as possible) to the corrosion.

I may have forgotten something but this gives you an idea.

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what makes the difference in the derailleur system? You claim that there is a difference however you have not really told us what it is. Could you offer more explanation? –  sixtyfootersdude May 30 '11 at 13:15
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@sixtyfootersdude from my experience, the derailleurs that come with a cheap bike are very weak (material-wise) and not very accurate (you can skip cogs), not to mention that probably aren't destined to trigger-shifters, at least the cheap ones I have. A better derailleur will have a more accurate shifting function I can vouch on this one, I have both cheap and better bikes and am in the process of swapping some components and the derailleur will be one to swap. Mind you that I see some advantages in a thumb shifter but IMO the derailleur can be the key, even for this shifter type. –  jackJoe May 30 '11 at 16:38
    
@sixtyfootersdude aditionally, the cheap derailleurs that I have and that may come with the cheap bikes, can (mine do) have a poorer fine tuning mechanism, for instance, the cable can't be "tuned" at the derailleur's end, or the high + low callibration is in such a place that I can hardly see what I'm doing, also the springs are very bad. –  jackJoe May 30 '11 at 16:41
    
Cheap bikes often come with cranks that have the chainrings welded on to the crank arms, and cannot be replaced without replacing the entire crankset and possibly the bottom bracket as well. Often these cheap cranks are made of steel instead of aluminium alloy due to the cheaper cost of those lines. Steel is usually not as desirable for this purpose on higher end bikes due to the extra weight vs aluminum. –  Benzo May 25 '12 at 19:28
    
Note that lower spokes is also not necessarily a good thing. High end wheels with low spokes are typically built better than lower end ones (which may end up weighing more than a wheel with more spokes) and be less durable. –  Batman Jan 13 at 6:07
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After the frame, wheels are the second most important element of a bicycle. Wheels are also the second most expensive and at times even more expensive than the actual frame. In terms of advice on buying a bike, start with your budget and back into the best frame, wheels then components money can buy. Another strategy some guys use is to buy the bike with the best frame/gruppo combo possible, then know they will upgrade wheels when $$ begin to flow again in a few months. I have used both of these strategies successfully, but now prefer the first as most components are very good...but that is not true of all wheel sets.

Off the cuff, without an overly detailed answer, cheap versus expensive can be summed up in 4 words: comfort, efficiency, weight and durability.

If you give me an idea of what type of riding you are looking to do and how much you are looking to spend, I will gladly provide some decent steeds to take a look at. Or if you look at a couple of models and want some feedback, I am sure you will get lots of responses if you post again here!

Good luck!

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manufacturers of bike components (there aren't that many) universally put up their line in "groups". These go from the cheapest, which often have no name at all, to the most expensive. Shimano's top-of-the-line for road bikes is "Dura-Ace", for instance. With "Ultegra" below that, and then "105", and so on. Better components are lighter, often rebuildable, and usually operate in a very "slick" manner. Often the difference is hardly perceptible... And in some cases the "better" components are also more complicated and more likely to be in need of constant adjustment.

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True as far as it goes. In my experience, however, higher end components are rarely more in need of adjustment compared to more basic components. Although often their owners are more in tune with what out of adjustment feels like, and are often maniacal about wanting perfection. So it may feel like that is true. Myself included :). –  zenbike Jun 21 '11 at 17:50
    
I haven't actively compared components for about 20 years, but back then one problem was that component manufacturers produced a dozen different models of essentially the same thing -- often a different one for each bike manufacturer. This prevented you from doing an "apples-to-apples" comparison of bike componentry, since you never quite knew if two different models of, say, a derailer were really substantially different in quality or only different in model number and perhaps finish. This has apparently changed a little since Shimano gained a monopoly, but I don't know how much. –  Daniel R Hicks May 25 '12 at 20:52
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A good derailleur will change smoothly while under heavy load, i.e. while you are still peddling. They will also be capable of upgrading or changing the cassette, (the bundle of cogs at the rear) for different gear ratios and will have more options to do so. The same applies to the crank-set i.e the 2 or three big cogs at the pedal end/

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New road bikes are generally available from two sources: your local bike store (LBS) and online. Not all brands are available from both types of distribution channel. That makes it harder to compare apples to apples.

Too, your LBS/brick & mortar retailer probably has a clearance sale starting sometime around August where they attempt to clear out inventory, so they can make space for next year's models. If you want to compare apples to apples, keep that in mind. You can get some very good deals in this way, which can be hard to beat online. The online-only sellers almost never have any kind of substantial sale.

In light of that, let's look at a couple of examples.

Lynskey Helix with full Ultegra drivetrain ($4950 assembled)

vs.

BikesDirect Motobecane Le Champion with full Ultegra drivetrain ($2100 assembled).

These bikes are very comparable in many respects. Both have a titanium frame, but the Lynskey frame is made in the USA, whereas the Motobecane frame is made in Taiwan. The Lynskey frame has a certain cachet among cyclists which the Motobecane frame does not have. If you were to compare the two frames side-by-side, you may find that the welds on the Lynskey are slightly prettier than the welds on the Motobecane. (The frame builders at Lynskey might be using multiple layers of weldment to help achieve that.) The other components are pretty comparable; I own and have ridden many miles on both the Aksium and Equipe wheels, for example, and there isn't much difference. The fork on the Lynskey is nicer and more expensive, but apart from that, all the components are entirely comparable in terms of price and quality. You can read online reviews of both bikes, and they both review favorably. The price for the Lynskey, however, is $2850 more.

This is sort of an apples-to-apples comparison, in that both bikes are available online and you can get them through certain dealers.

Take another trio of road bikes and compare:

Trek Madone 4.7 with a mostly-Ultegra drivetrain ($3150 MSRP)

vs.

Specialzed Tarmac SL3 Expert with a mostly-Ultegra drivetrain ($3900 MSRP)

vs.

Motobecane Immortal Force with a mostly-Ultegra drivetrain ($1600 MSRP).

Look at the specs for each of these; you have nicer wheels on the Specialized, and there are other differences. But all the frames are made in Taiwan, so far as I know. A big part in the price difference comes from paying for the distribution channel. The dealer has to make a profit to stay in business. Trek & Specialized are mainly distributed through brick & mortar retailers; BikesDirect has some brick & mortar retailer distribution, but mainly they sell online.

Full disclosure: I ride a Motobecane Le Champion with the titanium frame; I have about 4100 miles on the bike, and I'm totally happy with it. I also have a Trek Fuel EX 8 that I scored on clearance from a brick & mortar retailer. So I have no problem to buy either way.

Bottom line, you have to decide how much you are willing to pay for brand name cachet and LBS support. But I think it is fair to conclude that the dealer-centric brands cost more.

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LBS support is a big deal for most people - sizing a bike from just measurements is difficult, especially for people who haven't owned multiple bikes before. –  Batman Jan 13 at 6:03
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There is a big difference in component quality, for example I have a bike equipped with Ultegra and another bike that has mixed Sora and Tiagra groupset. As mentioned above Shimano Ultegra is fairly expensive while Shimano Tiagra and Sora are near the bottom of the range.

The cheaper Sora/Tiagra groupset requires constant attention, the shifters and the brakes feel spongy to the extent that I replaced the brakes with Ultegra after a few months as the Sora brakes felt unsafe. This did not entirely cure the problem as the main culprit are the shifters/brake levers. Replacing them is very expensive.

The Ultegra components are stiffer as they use better materials. They last for years and do not corrode as much as their cheaper cousins.

It does depend on usage, racing cyclists buy top of the range components because they are light and perform well even under maximum load and stress. If you are a weekend warrior that likes to potter around and do not need ultra-efficient brakes to get yourself out of trouble then go for the lower end components.

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You are forgetting the third segment of the biking population: the commuters. People who bike every day not to go fast or for exercise primarily, but to get from point a to point b. What do they want? Quality? Durability? Cost efficiency? The answer is all of the above. I find buying components for my daily commute is the hardest. –  Chris Belsole Sep 26 '12 at 22:56
    
True, I have a Dawes commuter bike that is 14 years old which has very basic bottom of the range shimano. It mostly works fine with very little attention. Mind you my daily commute is two miles to the railway station. –  James Piggot Sep 28 '12 at 15:44
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Just go for the cheapest derailleur you can buy. They all have a big spring, two jockey wheels and a cantilever system. Both expensive and cheap ones wear out at about the same rate. They both get gummed up with crud. When new, they shift identically... why wouldn't they?. When really worn out, the jockey wheels wobble and shifting isn't so precise. Maybe the few, very expensive derailleurs with jockey wheels that use bearings may last a little longer (perhaps they don't, perhaps they're pointless) ... but why pay 4x for this benefit?

Forget all this nonsense about "better quality material, better made" - and no-one being able to tell you what specifically is better. It's all marketing rubbish for gullible consumers.

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If I am understanding you correctly I am going to have to disagree with you. If there was no difference in components on a bicycle then a WalMart bike would be of the same quality as one at a bike store. –  Chris Belsole May 19 '12 at 12:54
    
I think user's point is that you can't tell what the difference might be, even if you read all the marketing literature and reviews. Is component B really better than component A from the same manufacturer, or is it just a different color coat of paint. Remember that there's a big advantage for the mfgr to use the same design, the same dies, etc, for making several different models. –  Daniel R Hicks May 25 '12 at 20:59
    
There may be a difference in the metallurgy or in the finish, but there may not be -- If Shimano slaps a new "Ultra-Super-Duper-Sexy" label on a component and jacks up the price 30% there will be some number of people who buy it, and Shimano will have more money in their pocket for essentially zero effort. –  Daniel R Hicks May 25 '12 at 20:59
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The fact that people will currently buy a derailleur if Shimano says it is better,pretty much on faith in what they say, is based on 50 years of experience with Shimano's products and finding that what they say is truth. That reputation is only 2 generations of product from failure at any given time. If the next generation comes out and they say it's the best of the best, and it isn't, then at least the majority of people will not buy the generation after. I strongly disagree with this answer, and also with the comments by @DanielRHicks, obviously. –  zenbike May 26 '12 at 4:13
    
There are some sheep that will buy whatever they're told, but they aren't the majority. And good products aren't made for them. They are the idiots that buy knock offs and say it's all about the label. They forget that the label had to have a quality, and a reputation first, for the label to be worth anything at all. –  zenbike May 26 '12 at 4:14
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