Before I worked in the bike industry, I was of the view that if you wanted to buy a road bike then your focus should be on the gearing of the bike, but I now know that the frame is the most important part of the bicycle. The frame provides strength and rigidity and largely determines the handling. The gearing which definitely matters, plays a secondary role.
Just like many road bike buyers, when I bought my current carbon-framed bike I used the level of gearing on the bike as the key determinate. I first decided whether I wanted an aluminium or carbon frame and then I decided that I wanted Ultegra level gearing or better. Once that decision was made, I set about developing a short list of bikes that met this criteria. I also decided that I wanted to buy a women’s specific bike.
Just to give you an example which concerns a friend of mine (a male friend). He cracked his carbon bike frame recently. Let’s call the brand M. I believe the frame had a manufacturing fault and over time the weak point gave way and it literally snapped and tossed him off, just behind me on a weekend ride.
This left him without a bike and I suggested he might like to ride another brand well known to me. Let’s call this brand S. So he decided to go ahead and we sold him the S frame and moved the running gear from his previous M bike to his new S frame. This included all the running gear of the bike, wheels, handlebars, saddle – all except the frame, forks and seat post. He happily reported after riding his new bike that it was awesome and completely different from riding his previous bike. This leads me to conclude that the frame was the key element in the equation. Sure he has fairly highly specked running gear (but not the highest), and yet his old bike was not ‘awesome’.
I’m not the only person who has come to this conclusion. In May 2011, Triathlete magazine provided the following advice to one of its readers: When it comes to how your bike fits, rides, handles and reacts, the frame is the most important physical part of the bike. The frame is also usually the most expensive part of the bike and the most involved to replace. Buying a bike with the right frame the first time can not only help you enjoy the benefits of a better riding and performing bike now, but can also save significant money down the road as you will only need to buy some new parts, instead of buying a whole new bike, to upgrade. In the greater scheme of things, individual components are relatively easy to upgrade at the time of purchase or down the road. I’ve never heard of a race being won or lost because one rider had Dura Ace or Red derailleurs and another did not; if higher average riding speed is the determining factor, a better frame or wheels will always trump the difference between component levels.
For women’s specific bikes, some companies make smaller versions of men’s bikes while others simply change the frame colour. Brands like Specialized that put more effort into their women’s specific bikes focus on rider needs, using anthropometric research and feedback from female riders to create road bikes that improve fit, efficiency, and confidence. Like the custom alloy tubing or carbon layups used on our women’s road frames with size-specific tubing that optimises the ride quality for each rider size. This makes the bikes climb and accelerate faster, while also making them more compliant. So rather than just making each frame a scaled down or up version of the others, each frame is developed to give it the best ride possible.
So I’m not suggesting you rush out and buy an expensive carbon frame and then fit it with Shimano Claris gearing. However I am saying that if you did, you’d have a better bike than if you bought a cheap poorly engineered carbon frame and fitted it with Shimano Dura Ace Di2.
Bike manufacturers match their better frames with comparable gearing so higher levels of running gear indicates that the frame is a better quality.
And ultimately it all comes down to fit. The frame needs to be the right size for you. This obviously applies to both men and women when buying a bike. You can do a few things to tweak a bike to fit but if it’s too big or too small it will never be fun to ride.