Psyched to bike: Dipping your toes into the cycling stream starts with buying the right rig
Part 1 of our guide to getting into bikes
In a valley teeming with pros and joes-level cycling enthusiasts — the idea of clipping into a mountain, gravel or road bike for the first time can seem daunting. Strapping into spandex and bib shorts and possibly getting heckled by perturbed drivers or flatting 15 miles from home in a rainstorm? Sounds like the worst first-day-of-high school nightmare imaginable.
Mike Brumbaugh, owner of Venture Sports and a dedicated ‘roadie,’ totally gets the insecurity of feeling unable to fit in with the “cool kids” — who in this case would presumably be those going very fast and wearing very, very tight clothing, perhaps? (So, maybe just like some of our actual high school experiences).
“Yeah, it’s intimidating. Let’s say I’m 30 pounds overweight — you go into a shop and you’re around all these super fit people and it’s like, ‘wow, how am I going to relate to those folks?'” he rhetorically asked, echoing the ethos of newcomers who think getting into biking — especially in the Vail Valley — is a jump too far.
“Every shop in this town is going to be super friendly. All we want is for you to be out riding your bike. We don’t care if you race, use it to commute or a combination thereof.”
The plain message from the cycling-obsessed for the cycling curious — no matter the starting point — is pretty simple: you have the power to make this the summer of getting psyched to bike.
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Finding the right rig
Once you’ve acquired spousal approval to financially invest in a new outdoor recreational activity, the next step is to head to one of the area’s bike stores.
“First off, there’s a lot of really good shops in the valley,” Brumbaugh said, listing off a few he’s not partial to in Mountain Pedaler, Moontime Cyclery and Pedal Power.
“If you walk in and say, ‘hey look, I’m new to this, what do you think?’ I think most of the stores are going to point you in the right direction.”
For those envisioning mostly paved trails or with goals of ascending Vail Pass or riding the Copper Triangle, a road bike is the best bet. Similar in appearance but with a slightly tweaked frame construction, new-age gravel bikes allow for wider tires, better stability and thus a more comfortable ride on road and smooth gravel mixtures. Hard-tail or full-suspension mountain bikes of the clipless and platform pedal variety, equipped with straight handlebars and knobby tires, are perfect for ripping up and down single track trails from Vail Mountain to Gypsum and everywhere in-between. Whether you’re looking to dip into any or all three worlds, it’s a good idea to set a budget when you start shopping around.
“What can you afford? Don’t bother looking at bikes above your budget,” advised Avon’s Suzie Snyder, a five-time XTERRA U.S. Champion. While it’s certainly possible to buy a bike worth more than the car you’ll transport it in, that’s not necessary, even for those hoping to develop serious racing chops.
“If you want something fresh, you don’t need $4,000 to get on a mountain bike,” stated Mountain Pedaler head mechanic Marshall Troutner, who said bikes with just a front shock and hydraulic disc brakes can retail for under $1,000 brand new.
“Buy from your local shop and you’ll usually get a deal on tunes and adjustments, too.”
Brumbaugh agrees, adding, “You can get a lot of bike for a couple thousand dollars. Even if you get really fit, it would take a lot to have that bike hold you back.”
What exactly is the difference between the $2,500 bike and the $15,000 one? It mostly comes down to component quality and overall weight. That’s one reason why the next step is so important: test ride, test ride, test ride.
“Sometimes you sit on a bike and just know it’s the one,” Snyder continued. “Other times you learn that you like the feel of certain components — Shimano vs. Sram — better than the other, the feel of one system better than another, etc.”
Both brands’ brake hoods, brake levers and shifting systems look and feel different. Each company also makes different levels of those drivetrain systems. Similar to a car’s various trim levels, the lighter, high-performance components cost more than mid and low-level options. The price point of the bike is commensurate with those components, too, meaning you won’t find a cheap frame with plush components — except maybe on a custom build listed on Craigslist. Speaking of which, be careful when using the private seller route.
“If buying a used bike, check the condition of it,” Snyder said. “If you don’t know much about bikes, bring a friend with you who does.”
Even though his store sells bikes, Troutner said shoppers shouldn’t completely ignore the used bike market.
“There are a lot of used bikes out there, and Vail Junior Cycling has an annual bike swap to help find the right one for you,” he said of the fundraising event for area junior racers on June 3-4.
Like everything, to some degree, you get what you pay for, which is why Snyder advises against simply getting the cheapest option possible. According to Brumbaugh, when you go from $2,500 to $5,000, you do get twice the bike.
“But from $5,000 to $10,000, it’s maybe a 3% difference,” he continued. “The differences become smaller and smaller. We don’t push people towards $10,000 bikes, but we do sell them.”
Those thin margins are podium-altering for some, but for not most. Of bigger consequence is probably deciding between the different bike categories, particularly in this region, where gravel, road and mountain options are equally plentiful and enjoyable. If you’re hung up on road or gravel, Brumbaugh’s advice is to test both terrains with whatever ride you currently have.
“Head up Salt Creek or Gypsum Creek Road on a road bike until it gets rough and see if you like getting off road without dumping money into a gravel bike,” he said. It works the other way, too.
“We’re finding some people who want to do the Courage Classic or Ride the Rockies and they’re just taking their gravel bike and switching wheels,” he continued, noting that even a gravel bike is simply a more comfortable choice on certain paved roads in Eagle or Lake County.
“I think the gravel bike is a good Swiss army knife of a bike if you’re looking to do different things and explore different areas.”
Along the comfort lines, when it comes to mountain bikes, Brumbaugh said he almost never sells hard tails anymore.
“Full-suspension is such a much more enjoyable experience,” he said. Given the steep, technical nature of the region’s single track, Brumbaugh recommends a bike fork with 130-140mm of travel, which he likens to the one-ski quiver for off-road pedaling.
“Just like the 100mm ski underfoot can do the bumps, the crud, powder and carving,” he said. “If you’re coming down Lee’s Way or Pipeline or one of those iconic downhill trails we have, that bike is going to do that really well, but it will pedal well, too.”
Even though 29er wheels are the latest rage in mountain bike marketing circles, Brumbaugh said that 27.5-inch wheels might be the right choice depending on rider height. Shorter cyclists can avoid toe overlap — when the pedal of a small frame actually hits a turning front tire — by going with the 27.5-inch wheel.
“It’s more maneuverable for someone who is smaller and shorter,” he said.
Eventually, cyclists might wish to invest in extra accessories such as GPS computers and extra tires. Some of those things are good buys for newbies, too, according to Troutner.
“Additional features like dropper seatposts might seem appropriate for more experienced riders, but they will give you confidence and safety no matter your experience level,” he said.
Though Brumbaugh can’t imagine not being clipped into his pedals, he said roughly 40% of his staff has switched to flat pedals on their mountain bikes in the last few years.
“We call them shin shredders — really aggressive metal studs on the pedals,” he described. Regardless, it doesn’t need to be a social sticking point or one which separates the pretenders from the hard-core.
“There’s a movement towards flat pedals just in the last couple of years,” he said. “It’s not, ‘oh, you don’t clip in, you’re not a serious biker.'”
E-bikes aren’t cheating
“If you want some assistance getting up the hill, e-bikes are more popular than ever,” Troutner said.
Electric bikes, or e-bikes, which are equipped with an electric motor to help riders while pedaling, have been as much a source of controversy in the cycling community as they have a means of access to the sport for a population who otherwise wouldn’t think or be able to try. Troutner noted that it’s important to know the “class” of e-bike one is riding and to check local trail restrictions before taking the plunge.
“Many local trails are closed to all motorized vehicles, including e-bikes,” he said. “Eagle County paths only allow certain classifications of e-bikes.”
Class 1 and Class 3 are pedal-assist only, but a Class 1 motor only helps up to 20 mph whereas a Class 3 can reach 28 mph. Class 2 has pedal-assist mode up to 20 mph as well, but is also equipped with a throttle-powered mode.
“We sell a lot of e-bikes,” Brumbaugh said.
“And they’re now able to ride the hill to Beaver Creek without stopping or go up Vail Pass or ride from Edwards to Vail. Those are huge success stories,” he continued before hearkening back to his opening message.
“We got a person out there getting on a bike, which is what it’s all about.”
Stay tuned for the next stories in this mini-series, including basic bike maintenance, places to connect with the cycling community, bike etiquette and local routes.