I'll share a secret. Any article identifying the best of anything, involves an agenda. And when it comes to reading about the best road bikes, the agenda involves marketing.
Over a 10 year period the Cycling Industry has seen massive growth in the popularity of road bike users. And while there's a visible corresponding diversity of riding styles and motivations, Cycling's dominant marketing agenda buried in racing remains the same. I'm here to say the dominance of this pitch for racing is unwarranted. Why? Because it doesn't take much to see the many buyers investing in "best bikes" that simply aren't the best bikes for them.
Slammed stems or a tower of spacers, saddles pushed forward, short stubby stems installed, bars and hoods angled back ... all are typical changes by consumers who've bought badly. The stream of altered mass produced bikes entering our store is endless and it occurs to me this is endemic of a larger problem.
The issue lies as much in consumers trying to live unobtainable dreams as much as a dominant marketing culture that pushes the wrong reasons to buy a bike. Let me explain.
It's become obvious to me, in the face of all these Frankensteinian alterations, that the looking glass of racing which consumers standardise best bikes, is now a washed out selling tool reiterated through online reviews, magazines, in bunch conversation, and alas in bike shops. This looking glass holds the Podium of Professional road racing in highest regard with the top priority focused on speed and power transfer.
The same market attention is currently focused on the big brands, which is of no surprise when they invest in events, various publications, sponsorship advertising and media coverage. The big brands own spotlight position in the largest marketing tools on the planet, the Grand Tours and in particular the largest sporting event in the World being the TDF. The relationship between qualities of best road bikes and big brands is obvious.
Where's the problem with this?
The issue starts with the shifts we've seen in why cyclists ride, and the reasons more than ever before don't involve racing. A majority of road riders are out to equally enjoy the company of the bunch, the freedom of the bike, travel trips and affectionately known coffee rides. And while you can argue those same riders are offered variations of at least 3 different styles in any large brand (aero, race, endurance), they still look for performance bike qualities to offer them the best ride. And by qualities I mean choosing stiffness and lightness over comfort and security. You only need to look at the bloke who just bought a Peter Sagan special for his coffee rides then added 10cm of spacers to understand the problem.
Riding a bike designed for a World champion sprinter who practices extreme core workouts while doing the splits isn't going to promise us more enjoyment on our ride. In fact, when we add the spacer tower we negatively affect bike handling and destroy performance advantages.
Why don't we wonder that so much esteem for "best" road bikes involve pure performance qualities?
As a test, I just googled "best road bikes" and immediately came upon an article for new riders. Terms to showcase "best bikes" include, "performance gains", "wind tunnel tested", "power transfer", "screams professionalism", "designed with pro pelotons in mind". Now, I'm not bemoaning customers wishing to use the same equipment as the fastest and strongest members of the Pro Peloton. However, I'd like to throw spotlight on brand association of sponsored Teams who produce what are widely considered best bikes.
It's common to assume you cant go wrong by choosing a model or bike brand ridden by the greats on Pro Tours. Surely I hear you say, they represent the best. Of course, bikes used at the likes of the TDF hugely influence the market and drive criteria such as speed, lightness, stiffness, power transfer, torsional strength, and aerodynamics. If you think you as a rider are immune to the pure racing agenda that markets best bikes, don't forget that the look of road bikes as well as their technical advances throughout the years are largely in accordance to UCI regulations.
Whilst highly esteemed brands such as Specialised, Trek and Giant, stimulate the appearance of intrinsic worth by their inclusion in Pro Tour Races, we've seen a trend in consumers drastically altering their generically sized bikes. Swapping out cranks, wheels, tyres, saddles, or adjusting bar height, reach, drop or width as well as stem length is considered normal practice for everyday riders who require more comfort or to assist them in further reaching individual riding goals.
David Piacenti, Gianni Pegoretti and Matt Cazzaniga discussing the merits of custom frames from the DeAnima Studio, Pergine Valsugana. Photo credit Alison McGregor
In the face of the multiple adaptations an average rider makes to their bike, long standing custom frame manufacturers loyal to creating the perfect frame for clients' unique individual characteristics remain undervalued. In other words, with the rise of generic mass produced brands there's a neglect of age old Companies that specialise in custom frames and who can correctly complete an entire build the first time. This means the need for alterations by unsatisfied consumers is eliminated.
As the unique approach taken by small Companies who create custom frames (in the true sense of the word) is overlooked, the consumer vision is instead overrun by the apparent success reigning throughout mass manufacture.
As consumers who pay to ride bikes (as opposed to being paid to ride bikes), we actually deserve better than the Pros.
Rudi Casati and David Piacenti analysing aspects of custom carbon frames, Casati Workshop, Monza, Italy. Photo credit Alison McGregor
As discussed we ride for different reasons, in different terrains, are in particular stages of our life and with or without injuries. Not only should road variables change the criteria for the term best bikes, but so too should our physiology and flexibility. We don't have full time massage therapists, sports psychologists, nutritionists, physicians, bike fitters, or bike manufacturers rooting for our everyday athletic needs. To account for this, and as consumers who pay to ride bikes (as opposed to being paid to ride bikes), we actually require more than the Pros.
Taken from the showroom of Tiziano Zullo, showing Zullo in the race days of frame building. Italy : Photo credit Alison McGregor
For a majority of us, the reason to get on the bike rarely involves podium aspirations. While the next hill can pose a good opportunity to beat the bunch, is it reason enough for us to buy a TREK because Porte repeated his winning streak on the TDU Willunga Hill stage?
From the sidelines it seems a blessing to belong to sponsored teams like Trek-Segafredo or Mitchelton-Scott. They get to ride incredible machines with the latest high end components and, if you're a male Pro, your riding fortune is celebrated across multiple platforms. Brands enjoy their wins through widely disseminated comments of journalists who've themselves gained technical insight during exclusive pre-release launches. As road bikes go, the information on performance driven technology is truly astounding and inspiring.
Watching the welds during the building of a custom steel frame at the Cicli Barco Workshop, Italy. Photo credit Alison McGregor
All this funnels into the consumer consciousness. It not only affects the view of what is best, it obviously shapes what they purchase and ride themselves.
At the same time, frame builders specialising in road bikes are comparatively disregarded by a market that values generic consumerism.
But one thing I've learnt through years in the bike industry is that a brand that saturates the market doesn't make a better bike. The reasoning behind this confounding assumption by consumers lies in the history of frame manufacturing itself.
Acknowledging the detail provided by the Cicli Barco Team, who customise bikes for amateurs and Pro's alike, Italy. Thanks to the Barco family with David Piacenti. Photo credit Alison McGregor
Unknown to many consumers is that there are a few frame builders remaining in Italy. The majority of them are situated in large factory style warehouses that hold numerous machines and tool filled benches. Years ago hundreds of hand produced frames were built in these spaces per month. But in a short space of time work grew quiet as Asian manufacturing provided cheap fast turnover options and hence began to take on the workload of local Italian Brands.
The Italians lost a bulk of their work and employees were let go. Contracts were lost and, of the Companies that remained operational, often only family members continued to work.
A newly built custom carbon frame. Realised through the distinct measurements and the history of its rider, Casati workshop, Monza, Italy Photo credit Alison McGregor
Thankfully the art of frame building was kept alive even while some were forced to fix street signs to keep their businesses running.
The current role played by these same Frame builders and their labels is obscured in contemporary Cycling history. But Brands like Zullo or Cicli Barco act like a persistent residual layer settling in after a storm. Left behind in a state of neglect they reformed their business model to utilise an incredible skill set and knowledge base. Both own a past that contributed to frames ridden in pro racing teams, and they continue to make impressive frames today.
For brands like Chesini, Bixxis, DeAnima or Epoca, the restrictions of design are only set by the parameters of imagination. For these brands custom isn't limited to paint work. Tube length, shape, frame geometry, material and joinery is all customised. Match this with their historic connections to high performance race bikes and you've another entire world of frame possibilities available. And before you even mildly entertain the idea that these builders are outdated, many continue producing bikes for renowned brands and numerous professional riders today. For obvious reasons, this fact isn't broadcasted.
Chesini frames built to spec. The details express the individuality of each owner as each tube is thoughtfully cut and attached appropriate to idiosyncrasies of the riders. Verona, Italy. Photo credit Alison McGregor
Meanwhile, rather than broadening the options for a growing audience, the marketing of mass produced bikes have succeeded in limiting options through their eyeglass focus on the best. The lacking awareness in consumer consciousness that frames can be built beyond 5 general sizes, XS S M L XL is an example of this.
So many qualities created by custom frame builders are missed on frames that remain outside the dominant brands dictating "the best". Count independent stores carrying brands beyond those represented at Grand Tours and you'll understand the result of generic esteem.
In comparison to the individual custom frame, the cycle of mass produced frames is breathtaking. From moulds the frames are rapidly made available to consumers. They're tweaked each year to convert intense research into technical upgrades. They inspire and motivate customers with the public launch of stiffer, lighter, faster, most nimble models. Their cycle of life is dynamic.
Instead, with smaller frame manufacturers, the quality and reason behind every joint can be traced to the very hand that welded it and the mind that designed it. In the same factory you'll find the specific customisation of a bike that truly conforms to the individual needs and wants of its rider. You'll find this in the blending of a frames geometry with its material, and its construction.
Handmade, and handpainted frames within the Chesini studio. Verona, Italy. Photo credit : Alison McGregor
While one rider may be short in stature in her mid 50's and training for her next criterium, another may have an inflexible body due to sitting at the computer all day and focused on longer weekend rides. Both have $15,000Aus in hand looking for the best bike. I'd like to suggest that the best bike on a shop floor may not be their best at all. It could very well be found on the factory floor of a small custom frame builder who can alter the smallest of details according to a clients needs and wishes. This is where the generic marketing mould of what is best can clearly be broken. This is where any client can really possess their most consummate bike.