Posted by: Ian | November 5, 2010

How to Buy a Bike

It should be easy to buy a bike: just go to a bike shop, check out what they have and what suits you best, adjust it and ride away. This is exactly how I got my Kona Dew Deluxe, which was the second bike I bought for myself. It was quick and easy and I got the bike at a reasonably good price. However, the Kona was the bike the shop wanted to sell me more than it was exactly the bike I wanted to buy. I’m not sure that I even took it for a test ride. It was very decent and did the job but I ended up selling it to Shaun.

My other bike purchases have been more thoughtful although the last one, which was the most considered, was a nightmare. I’ve come to realise that buying a bike involves a number of important choices and not all bike shops can help with all of the them. Buying online involves a different set of compromises. Here’s my Buy a Bike checklist:

1. Choose a bike

Ironically, this is where a bike shop can be least helpful. The natural approach of reading reviews and drawing up a shortlist to try is likely to be very frustrating. If I could have one and only one bike it might well be a Condor Fratello. However, there’s only one bike shop in the world that sells them so if you can’t get to Grey’s Inn Road you’re out of luck. The next bike I’d want to try would be an Enigma. I don’t know any shops that stock these and most shops don’t carry any titanium bikes at all (and steel alternatives to the Fratello are rare). Even if you want an aluminium or carbon bike, the selection that any one shop carries is limited to the suppliers they have sales arrangements with, and even with these I rarely see the model I want in the size I want in stock.

2. Choose a size and get fitted

When I bought my Tempo I had a proper fitting on the rig at the Condor shop first to determine the right frame size for me. This took about an hour and was, if I recall correctly, done at my cost. This worked out very well. When I bought my Felt I couldn’t get it from a shop (I tried) and ended up having to buy it on Wiggle. Although I got it at a great price, I ended up paying £175 of my saving back to Bespoke to get the set-up optimised. This has worked out really well too. When I bought my Van Nicholas Amazon I used the online sizing guide, which is no substitute for a proper fitting. When I bought my Tricross (from Evans) and my Kona (from Ralph Colman) the size was guessed by eye and the only “set-up” was a quick first approximation of the saddle height. When I bought my Astraeus I used the Bespoke fitting to choose a frame size. However, I chose a frame size for the Zephyr and got a free upgrade to the Astraeus due to Van Nic’s inability to source a stock Zephyr frame. It remains to be seen whether the Astraeus can be set up well for me.

Crucially, the frame size on one bike is not necessarily the same as the frame size on another due to differences in geometry and even measurement (for example, some are based on centre to centre tube measurements and some aren’t).

Obviously for riders whose journeys are all, say, twenty miles or less this isn’t a huge issue, but by mile 100 on a long ride you know all too well when it’s wrong.

3. Choose components

Stem, bars, saddle and pedals all need to be factored into the fit. The groupset and accessories are a matter of budget and preference. The more miles you ride the more important they are.

4. Choose where to get it serviced

I like to do most servicing on my bike myself but there are inevitably times when a job is so tricky or would takes (me) so long that it’s worth getting it done at a shop. One of the local bike shops in Taunton gives free labour on servicing for life if you buy from them, which ought to be worth a lot. However, having taken bikes into three of the Taunton shops for servicing I’ve found that only one of them is reliable, and it’s not the one that’s free. Condor offers high quality servicing but it’s very expensive and you need to plan it well in advance. Servicing at Evans is as overpriced and as random as the sales experience.

Bearing all of this in mind, it’s easy to see how you can have a bad bike-buying experience. I’ve seen plenty of customers in bike shops where the assistant has given them about the same amount of help as if they ordered a hamburger. In such stores, there is restricted choice, the pricing isn’t wonderful, the sizing is at best done lazily, the components sold are the ones that happen to be attached to the frame and there is little chance of subsequent high quality service care. That’s why the combination of getting an independent fitting from somewhere like Bespoke and then buying online is so appealing. As I’ve detailed over prior posts, my experience buying online from Van Nicholas was shocking. Most recently, they explained that the reason they cabled the bike so tight that I can’t flip the stem is that it looks bad in photographs, the reason they shipped me an FSA headset instead of the better Chris King one that I paid for is that they’ve withdrawn support for Chris Kings and I got a good price anyway so I should suck it up and, most breath-taking of all, the reason they didn’t tape the bars is that bars like mine are “9 out 10 times” cabled with only sticky tape to hold the cables in place rather than using proper bar tape. Meanwhile, back on planet Earth there are other companies that offer a proper online service. For example, a colleague at work just took delivery of an Enigma. He called them up with his frame size and after a discussion about the components he wanted, over which they were very flexible, he got his bike shipped (from England) within a couple of days.

Although independent fitting + online buying makes sense, I prefer the idea of buying from a shop. Condor can be infuriating at times, but when things go your way they tick all the boxes and offer a model for other shops: fantastic bikes (in carbon, steel, aluminium or titanium), proper fitting, great component range and solid servicing. This turns out to be expensive. Ideally, I’d like more local shops like the excellent Bicycle Chain in Taunton to be able to offer a similar experience. We should support them by getting bikes from them, when they can provide what we want, and if the shop is going to offer the whole pre-sale/post-sale package we should pay the list price to keep them profitable rather than holding them to price match internet sites that incur no store/staff costs. Good online retailers like Enigma and Wiggle (who these days offer a very usable “buy and try” proposition) should prosper and good shops that employ enthusiastic and competent staff should prosper too. Weak shops and poor online retailers equally deserve their fate.



  1. Hi Martin,

    The Yukon is a fantastic bike. I’ve taken it on two five-day trips where I cycled in varied conditions/terrains and covered up to 100+ miles a day. Despite being loaded with two heavy panniers and at times going up some very steep hills the bike made it all feel easy and was an absolute joy to ride throughout. When I’ve used it in and around London, without the panniers, it’s been surprisingly fast. Every time I take it for a ride I’m reminded what a great bike it is.

    With regards to the kit, I wouldn’t change anything. If you’re planning on using the bike as a tourer and/or getting a rack I’d highly recommend the Tubus Logo that VN have as an option. It’s expensive, but, in my opinion, worth it. Just make sure they don’t forget to fit it – as they did with me.

    As wonderful as the Yukon is, however, the experience of buying it directly from Van Nicholas was, as Ian said, far from enjoyable. My main recommendation to you would be to buy the bike from a UK dealer and not directly from VN. Something else worth mentioning is that I had to get the Yukon re-cabled as the cables at the front were cut far too short and I was unable to raise the stem. Ian had the exact same issue with his Astraeus.

    Hope that helps. Let me know if you’ve got any other/specific questions.

  2. Hi Martin. Emily can comment on the Yukon since she has one. It’s a great bike but personally I wouldn’t buy another VN because the process is *so* painful. Enigma, Litespeed and others sell great Ti bikes that are easier to buy. Even when you do specify the bike with VN it’s a crapshoot whether you get your spec. For example, I ordered, was invoiced for and paid for a Chris King headset that I never got. Also Emily paid for Ti bottle cages that she still doesn’t have. The bikes are fine but I’m mystified by how the company survives.

  3. Hi again, I replied before still nearly buying the Van Nicholas Yukon, I have noted your comments before about the issues but I presume you are happy now? Are there any changes that you would make to the kit you specified if you bought it again

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