For most of the world, the bicycle is a commodity recreational device, different from a basketball only in its cost and the number of moving parts it possesses. There is, however, a whole industry devoted to making machines special enough to elevate a simple form of transportation into a quality-of-life experience. Those experiences—when a bike ride becomes an event—are a life altering pursuit for many of us. Finding the bikes that can give us those experiences are, to one degree or another, what we are really talking about when we compare notes on bikes.
All well-written product reviews are meant to give the reader the objective details of the item in question before evaluating if the product actually delivers the manufacturer’s stated goals for the product. It’s this second bit that guys at many of the bike magazines tend to miss. If ever you want to read a truly impressive review of a high-performance product, check out automotive writer Dan Neil’s (of the Los Angeles Times) review of the Mini Cooper. This review was cited by the Pulitzer committee when it awarded him its eponymous accolade for criticism. Neil’s work is distinguished by his attention to the vehicle’s stated purpose and its performance relative to its category. Well, that and his Swiss-precise language.
Given that our lives are so occupied by jobs and relationships plus tasks that aren’t fun or rewarding, we don’t get nearly as much to spend time on our favorite activities as we’d like. And because there isn’t much need for Consumer Reports to investigate whether or not the latest integrated seat mast rig descends well, the only reviews worth reading (or writing, for that matter) are those that point to exceptional products, those items that are so superior they will increase our enjoyment while on a ride. Done right, such a review can provide enough enjoyment to keep us excited about the sport even if the sun is down and the temperature outside is below freezing.
So on one hand, there’s virtually nothing in the road bike market that anyone needs to be warned about, at least not with the sort of urgency that you’d depend on a friend to mention, say, an invasion of army ants or a new reality show. On the other, there exists the opportunity to excite the reader with a heads-up to a guaranteed good time and the knowledge that they are shorter on time than California is on rain.
So why bother? Diversity. Road bikes are more diverse in their ride experience and range of expression now than at any time in history, save at the inception of the bicycle itself, when inventors had yet to agree on just what a bicycle was.
Twenty years ago, it was possible to look at five production road bikes and the only difference between them would have been the paint and minor differences in geometry. If the frames didn’t all use the same Columbus tubing, the tubes still possessed the same diameters and wall thicknesses. Trying to find a difference between such bikes is like claiming a Big Mac is healthier than a Whopper. Spare me.
Today, unless one really takes time to look at geometry charts, it is easy to dismiss some of the differences in bikes as just fancy marketing copy. But that’s just not the case. If you inspect the lay-up schedule for each size of a given model you are likely to find changes in the lay-up to give each size the same flex pattern relative to rider weight, rather than stiff small frames and flexy big frames. Formerly, the only time you saw geometry changes between models of 700C wheel bikes were the changes found in time trial, track and cyclocross bikes. Now, some manufacturers offer a second high performance road bike that offers a different ride experience.
Years from now, we may look back on the early 21st century as the golden age of the road bike. Bicycle design has never been more advanced. Fit has never been more scientific. Materials have never been stronger or lighter. Riders have never had more opportunities to find comfort. Craftsmanship of custom bikes has never been higher. Frankly, there have never been more reasons to have half a dozen hooks in the garage. The only real question is whether or not a bike review tells you something useful. Reviews should be a useful tool in finding the perfect bike. After all, having the perfect bike for the day's ride is pure PRO.