Test riding bikes. Sometimes it’s a lark (please don’t let on to the salesperson, although it probably shows), especially if you run across a company-sponsored demo event, and sometimes it’s an earnest part of looking for a bike, or trying different drivetrains and wheels.
Why do people test ride bikes, and what are they (or should they) be looking for? Is it fit, differences in components, frame design, graphics, or ride quality? Does a more experienced rider look for something different than someone about to buy his or her first bike?
Here’s some comments about test riding (more directed at roadies but generally applicable to most bikes and riders) from the perspectives of three local shops, and a short video taped at a manufacturer’s demo event.
Your First New Bike…Or First One You Actually Are Paying For
Basically, you’re coming into this knowing road bikes have two wheels, some sort of gearing, and a seat that isn’t looking particularly inviting. Take heart: there are good people out there who are willing to help.
Show up with an open attitude, and wear shorts and shoes with a nice, stable sole. Flip-flops and stilettos really don’t work well (don’t laugh, it happens).
Expect to get an eyeball fit, which involves adjusting saddle height and possibly a tweak to the saddle’s fore-aft position, and flipping the stem or slighly rotating the bars so the brake/shift levers are more comfortable.
Don’t expect to be put on a trainer and have a tech break out tape measures, goniometers, plumb bobs and other tools of the fitter’s trade: this is stuff that happens after you’ve settled on a bike. And the extensiveness (and additional cost) of a fit may be related to what kind of bike you’re buying, how you will use it, and if you are stepping-up to cycligng shorts, clip-in pedals and compatible shoes.
From the shop’s perspective, the object here is to see if your particular arrangement of arms, legs and flexibility let you look neither scrunched up nor stretched out like a string bean.
Kristen Lawrence at Two Wheels One Planet notes that, “Most new riders know the general categories but are surprised at the types of bikes that are available.” And while most newbies don’t really appreciate nuances in shifting and component design, especially from one manufacturer to another, almost everyone can discern a difference between carbon and aluminum frames.
Your job is to get a feel for the bike. Is it smooth? Nervous? Quick, damp, too reactive, or ponderous? Most important, is it fun to ride?
Rock n’ Road’s Charles Hawkins enjoys helping riders of all stripes “…sort out how they’ll actually use the bike from perceptions of what they want.” He likes the “Blank slates” that new riders often present: it helps to get them on the right bike for their needs. What does he look for? “I watch how they sit, balance their weight, and hand and arm position.”
What About Riders That Already Know This Stuff?
More experienced riders often are taking a more sophisticated approach, which may include assessing characteristics like geometry, stiffness and quickness, usually subservient to concerns about weight. Ounces, not dollars, are more top of mind, along with the cachet of the frame (brand and/or material) and components going on the bike.
At least two component manufactures have picked up on this. Shimano and Campagnolo have established demo and test programs designed to let their top-line gruppos be the star of the experience (check the web sites for details and participating shops).
We’re not talking about entry-level or often even mid-level bikes. Wherever you go, you can probably expect a little to a lot more attention and sophistication in how your test ride is approached.
Bring your pedals, shoes and saddle, along with your bike…or at least notes about your saddle height, fore-aft position (relative to the bottom bracket) and distance from the tip of your saddle to the center of your handlebars. If you’ve been to a fitter, you may have a printout of these and of the many other fitting variables.
If your testing frames (and not components), here are a few hints from Hank Iglesias at Edge Cyclesports:
- Ride your regular route, if possible, or at least include some climbing, straights and turns, both fast and slow.
- Make sure you’re really isolating what you’re experiencing in the frame by using the same wheels for each frame tested. Wheels can have a huge effect on what you’re feeling.