Here’s a handy roundup of advice for people buying a bike in 2021. Here’s what we’ll cover:
- Hybrid Bikes
- Gravel Bikes
- Mountain Bikes
- Random Thoughts
This post is inspired by a message from one of my high school friends:
“Any advice on buying a bike? I haven’t ridden since freshman year of college. I’m just looking for something casual (like 2-3 times a month) that I can ride on suburban streets but also dirt roads/trails (but not crazy off-road mountain biking). I’ve heard of gravel bike or hybrid bikes.”
The person asking this question mentioned the Co-Op Cycles DRT 2.2, which goes for about $1,800, as a possibility.
I figured he’s not the only person considering buying a bike in 2021. So rather than dump all my thoughts into email or FB messenger, I’ll just turn it into a blog post to help out anyone else facing a similar situation.
Are Hybrid Bikes Any Good?
Let’s tackle the hybrid question first. Hybrids as we knew them aren’t as big a slice of the market anymore. They were the wimpy offspring of a road bike with skinny 700c tires, swept-up handlebars, a short wheelbase and a very upright seating position.
I hated them during my bike shop days. Now in 2021, bikes like the Kona Dew with their 26.5/650B wheels, disc brakes and more-maneuverable geometry have totally crushed that same corner of the market: the person who mostly rides city streets, but also wants to hit unpaved paths. With a change of tires, the Dew and other bikes like it will let you ride some trails without killing you (keep in mind it doesn’t have a suspension fork). I like the Dew so much that my brother and I pitched in to buy one for our dad – he absolutely loves the thing.
I suppose there are probably some 1990s-style hybrid bikes out there. But they’re really not good for anything.
What About this Gravel Bike Thing?
I’ve already written about gravel bikes extensively. Still, I see a split in this category between hardcore off-road only gravel bikes and the “road plus” or “all-road” category, which is how I’ve built my Lynskey Urbano.
Either way you slice it, I love gravel or all-road or whatever. They are super-stable on the street next to a road bike. They’re in their element on unpaved paths. And in the right hands, they can chew up singletrack mountain bike trails. (I don’t consider myself the right hands — I still prefer a mountain bike for that sort of riding.)
I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling someone who hasn’t really ridden in 20 years to get on a gravel bike to go forth and shred the singletrack, though. That is best left to experienced roadies or mountain bikers who have their handling skills down pat.
Gravel Bike Recommendations
So for my friend here, I’m gonna say that a gravel bike is great as long as he really has no intention of hitting real mountain bike trails. With that said, I’d recommend the State Bicycle Co All-Road Black Label.
The standout specs to me are the 1X chainring setup, carbon fork, tubeless wheelset and excellent Vittoria tires. I’m pretty sure the shifters and derailleurs are made by Microshift. So it’s serviceable more than spectacular.
Still, it’s a lot of bike for the money. A lot.
A few hundred more bucks brings the All-City Cycles Space Horse Tiagra into the frame. (Tiagra, by the way, is the grade of Shimano components on the Space Horse, which is available in various build options. Tiagra is a lower-end Shimano group but still solid – the next levels up are 105, Ultegra and Dura-Ace. Below Tiagra from low to high are Claris and Sora. The gravel-specific GRX group exists in three flavors: RX400, RX600 and RX800. Which sounds a bit like a weird pharmacy, but whatever. )
I love the steel frame on the Space Horse — a lot of old bike dudes love the ride of steel, plus the durability. As a brand, All-City Cycles also oozes personality. Their bike just look f-in’ cool. One concern I have about All-City Cycles is that they can be hard to find at a local bike shop. Many bike shops can get them, but it’s unusual to see them on the showroom floor.
What if I Want a Mountain Bike?
If my friend decides to go for a mountain bike, I will always say that if you’re spending less than $2,000, you should buy a hardtail. Avoid rear suspension below that point!
I also favor telling less-experienced riders to go with a mountain bike. Yes, they’re not as fast on city streets. But the maneuvering and fit is more-forgiving than a gravel bike.
What I’d look for in this price range is a Shimano Deore build kit. I’d avoid SRAM’s SX group. The general consensus on SX is “plasticy shite.” SRAM’s mountain bike component levels start pretty much at SX, then NX, then GX and then into fancy stuff with so many Xs you’d swear they were shooting porn.
Shimano’s minimum level of competence starts at Deore (which is actually fantastic stuff for the $$$) and progresses to SLX, XT and XTR. Alivio is below them all. Avoid it.
Fork-wise, you’re really not going to get anything great here — a Rock Shox Recon is the best you can hope for. The Recon isn’t actually bad, though.
When it comes to getting a lot of mountain bike for the money, the brands that are my top-of-mind for me are Salsa, Kona and Marin. They not only offer good value, but they seem to be plugged into what’s going on with modern geometry. They’re also relatively easy to find at local bike shops, which is important.
One concern: Every bike in the price range seems to come with tires that are a minimum of 2.4 inches wide, with some non-plus sizes going to 2.6. I typically ride a 2.3 (usually something like a Continental X King). When those tires wear out, I’d opt for something less chubby.
So what bikes have this?
The Salsa Timberjack was the first one to come to mind. It seems Salsa no longer has a Deore version of the T-Jack, just the upper-level SLX and XT stuff. One of the reasons I like the T-Jack for my friend is that it has mounts for EVERYTHING. This guy is a hiker – I could see him getting bit by the bikepacking bug, and Salsa had exactly these kinds of shenanigans in mind when they created the ‘Jack.
Now here’s an outlier: If my friend wants to keep it casual, maybe he doesn’t even need gears at all. Maybe he needs an overgrown BMX bike like the Kona Unit.
A singlespeed can do a lot. You can use it for coffeeshop runs … or you can race the hell out of it like I do with my Domahidy.
Plus, if he hates it, he can revel in using all the dick puns in his Craigslist ad.
But I’d predict that nobody can hate a singlespeed. They are versatile, capable and low-maintenance. I’ll also add that Kona has a knack for frame design and geometry. The Unit is also so cheap that he can slap a good suspension fork in it the very day he buys it — he might even be able to swing a good deal on that upgrade since he’s buying a bike, too. Can you imagine that bike with a new-generation Marzocchi fork on it?
I really wish State Bicycle Co. still offered their Pulsar model. That 29er would’ve been PERFECT for my friend.
What About the Co-Op DRT 2.2?
The Co-Op bike mentioned earlier doesn’t do much for me. I’ve not enjoyed riding a 26.5+ wheel/tire size at all. Those huge-volume tires can smoothly roll over a lot of stuff, but they are serious work to pedal. They also don’t like changing directions with near the agility of a non-plus tire. The components are decent SRAM NX stuff with Shimano brakes — an astute pairing. I’ve never had a problem with SRAM shifting, but I’ve never loved their disc brakes. I’ve always preferred the feel of Shimano disc brakes.
Going with Co-Op also men’s that REI is going to be your bike shop, which doesn’t sit well with me. Aside from a few flagship stores, the accessories and parts sold at most REI stores are substandard. You’re also going to find better mechanics at specialty bike shops. REI does sell Salsa at some of its stores. Again, though, REI just isn’t outstanding at bike stuff.
I’m not recommending “direct-to-customer” brands in this case. A new rider is going to wind up needed shop support. For best results, I recommend buying local from a shop that makes you feel welcome. You’re buying the shop just as much as you’re buying the bike.
It’s also important to budget for other stuff: hydration (pack, water bottles/cages or both), bike shorts, tools, etc. This can get in-depth, so I won’t cover to many of those variables here. I might actually have to do a “shit every new rider needs” sort of post.
What About the Big Brands?
You’ll also notice that I didn’t mention the big brands like Specialized, Trek, Giant or Cannondale here.
To me, they don’t offer near the bike for the money that these other brands do. Aside from the brands I’ve mentioned in this post, I’d also look at Marin, who has lately proven they know how to offer some real value.
Not only do I find the big guys a lesser value, I also just find them boring. As one of my friends observed long ago, a bike is like your personal X-Wing fighter. Go with something that offers some panache and individuality — and maybe support a company that has some spirit.
The Used Bike Question
Buying used can get you some extra bike for the money. At least, most of the time. The bike industry is going through some serious supply chain issues right now, and used bike prices are higher than you might expect.
Also, buying used is a tricky proposition for someone who hasn’t spent a long time working on their own bikes. If you’re considering this route, it’s best to have a friend who’s a serious bike nut to help. This is also a good time to plug for a singlespeed — they just have fewer vectors for serious problems.
Final Thoughts on Buying a Bike in 2021
I’ve done the bike advice dance many times before. My friend probably didn’t expect this much of an info dump, and it will probably spawn follow-up questions. I’ll update here as the conversation evolves.
Knowing what I do at this moment, though, the bike I recommend is the Salsa Timberjack. It’s an excellent value from a reputable brand. The State gravel bike is a great value, but the handling qualities of a gravel bike present a steeper learning curve than a mountain bike like the ‘Jack.
Also to come in a future post — another buddy asked me about buying a full-suspension mountain bike. So we’ll break that down in the future.