At the moment it’s me and Mrs K trying to work out what kitchen to get, but I’ve had similar moments from buying vans, cars, tools etc. Basically anything where I know absolutely bugger all about the subject, spend the first part of any research process sucking in far too much information, get utterly swamped by possibilities and others’ opinions and start to utterly hate the whole process. And then, if I really need to get whatever the new thing is, I shunt all the hype out of the way and work out exactly what it is I really need or like and that really strips down the suitable options.
So when you’re looking at bikes, what are the real standout aspects of different bikes and brands? And does that help buyers cut through a sea of increasingly similar, utterly competent and sorted options using almost the same angles and components in each category?
The price is right
The main splitter is always price and there are some brands like Boardman, Decathlon, Calibre, Planet-X and others that proudly sit in the Daewoo, Dacia, Magnet, B&Q category – saving money by selling online or from big multi-channel superstores and stripping any excess elements out of the process. It’s interesting to see that those are the brands that seem to have been hit most dramatically by recent price increases though and value for money definitely isn’t as miraculous as it once was compared to bigger brands.
Then there’s a second tier of bargain brands that have gone hi tech, delivering properly cutting-edge technology and designs showed off with fancy marketing but still using the most efficient selling strategies to give them an edge on the big shop brands. Canyon are obviously the apex brand here but other brands like YT, Raidon and Ribble are all doing their best to emulate the Koblenz Kings but generally with a smaller range of products, and sometimes sizing.
The whole sizing thing is an area where companies can easily save money by not bothering to provide super small or outsize options which never sell as well as the mediums and larges. That means the few companies that go out of their way to provide bikes for the tiny or the towering are gold dust for those outside the usual offerings.
You don’t have to go to the extremes of sizing either. I get more questions on my YouTube channel from people asking how tall I am (180cm, 5’ 11” for the record) and whether they should get a medium or large than any other comment. That means for all their excellent acronym loaded suspension, carbon fiber building experience and Project One custom options, Trek’s M/L frames are possibly the brand's strongest reason to buy. Specialized has also completely changed its sizing strategy to an S1-S6 model based on dramatically shortening seat tubes and taking leg length out of the equation as a result.
Sometimes it’s not an obvious, unique feature that’s the real strength either. While Specialized has lost its monopoly on SWAT type internal storage it still does it better than anyone else. The easy switch geometry of its Stumpjumper Evo might be the clincher for some riders, or the excellent Mission Control systems on its Levo e-bikes. But if I had to pick the best reason to buy a Specialized it would be because of the company’s customer support. Thankfully most brands do a much better job of sorting out issues than they might have done in the past, but Specialized has always been the gold standard. When I worked in a Specialized dealer in the late 80s/early 90s we used to be furious with the ‘Just Riding Along’ cases it used to warranty, often giving the rider a much better bike than before just to get them back on the trails faster. And from what I’ve heard Specialized is still doing it now and this isn’t just casual goodness of heart. I saw the warranty manager job for Specialized UK advertised a few years ago and the job requirements and responsibilities ran to 47 pages or something ridiculous.
In a similar vein, Santa Cruz had already stirred up the aftercare market with its ‘no questions’ asked lifetime warranty on frames. But when the company extended it to its Reserve carbon wheels that was a proper game changer in terms of flexing its product confidence and putting the heat on other brands to respond. Like Trek and Specialized, Santa Cruz also invests heavily in trail building, advocacy and other projects that grow and strengthen mountain biking in the background.
You don’t have to be a mega brand to invest deep in your customers or just put back into the community or mountain biking in general either. Tiny UK brand Cotic is a key supporter of local and national initiatives like Ride Sheffield and Trash Free Trails, guaranteeing a warm fuzzy feel if you put some business its way.
Brands like Cotic, Stanton, BTR, Pipedream, Curtis and Shand also stand out for their materials choices, giving their bikes a signature ride feel and aesthetic, or you can go super niche with tiny but growing bike builders like Coal, Ra-Bike or Howler who showed awesome machines at the Bespoked Handbuilt Bike Show.
Bikes don’t have to be titanium or steel to stand out structurally either. Orange and Nicolai make their iconic alloy frames in-house, mixing signature folded monocoque frames and massive fish scale welds respectively. They also add distinctive suspension setups, geometry skews and gearbox / e-bike innovations to the mix because they’re small enough to survive with a specific customer base rather than having to compromise to hoover up mass market.
Your wish list
But even when you circle back to the big brands it’s important to check that they still tick the boxes that matter to you. Is there room for your favorite sort of bottle or size of tire? Can you fit your lights to the bars? Is it silent or does it echo? Do your calves clear the linkage without rubbing? Or – and this is often massively overlooked and undervalued – does your local shop sell and support your chosen bike? Because if you do have a local dealer in your corner when you need a last-minute workshop save, or support with a warranty case chase then that could be the most important, love or hate ‘feature’ of your overall bike buying choice.