Test Riding? Use Caution.

When you are looking for a new bike, what is the first thing that you think to do? Most likely you plan to test ride bikes. This has been the common practice in the bike industry for years and is still what most shops will tell you to do when looking at new bikes. Unfortunately test riding will not tell you as much as you’ve been led to believe, and can often lead to choosing the wrong bike based upon bad information. Riders beware.

How are test rides limited? The first major limitation of most test rides is the fit of the bike(s). You may think a bike is a better match for you simply because on your test ride it was set-up to fit you better than another bike which in reality may have been a better bike for your needs, but just was not set-up as well. Test riding requires having good established fit coordinates in order to select the correct bike, and set it up properly. Based on this, two items in particular are of the utmost importance:

1. You get a good bicycle fit first and that the fitting includes documentation that tells how a well suited bike should be set.

2. Work with a shop that knows how to set bikes up to match your fitting.

If you do find a shop that can set bikes up to match your fit numbers for you to test ride, which is not as easy to find as you might think, you still face a number of obstacles to effectively test riding.

First, it used to be easy to at least get on the right size bike for a test ride, now it is more difficult as frame sizes are no longer standard between brands and models. Just because you can get a bike set-up to your riding position by varying stem lengths and angles, that does not mean that these stem lengths and angles are correct and will allow the bike to handle and ride as intended (read our article on Bike Set-Up to learn more about this). Based on this, it can be easy to test ride a bike that is actually not the right size for you and that has been forced to fit.

Second, the key contact points on bikes – the bars and saddle – can be very different bike-to-bike, which can lead to a very different feel. This can distract you from discerning the actual differences between the frames and instead be attracted to the way a certain saddle or stem feels and not how the actual bike rides and handles.

Third, the wheels and tires on a bike significantly alters its ride characteristics. Two otherwise identical bikes will feel very different if they don’t have the same wheelsets on them and have tires that are inflated to the same tire pressure. Ideally, a wheelset’s ride characteristics should be matched to the needs of the bike and the rider. If you are not careful, you may find yourself judging the wheels more than the bike on a test ride.

The true goal of test riding bikes is to discern the differences between the various frames you are riding. The frameset is the essence of a bicycle, as the rest of the components are modular and can be changed as needed. If you keep the three caveats mentioned above in mind, and focus on the differences between the framesets, you may get some idea of the ride and handling characteristics the bikes display. Bear in mind, though, that you will want to try to test ride in a similar manner to the type of riding you normally do. If your average ride is 20-40 miles long, spinning around the parking lot in street clothes and tennis shoes will tell you very little.

It is imperative to keep in mind that even as limited as the utility of test rides is, these limited benefits only apply to stock bikes as you will be buying an exact version of the bike you just rode. If you are looking at having a custom bike built, test rides not only tell you nothing, they can actually serve to confuse you. It is impossible to ride a “stock” version of a custom bike and learn things of value since not only is the geometry on a custom bike specific to your needs, many custom bikes also have their ride characteristics (such as drivetrain stiffness and vertical compliance) adapted to meet the needs of the rider for whom the bike is being built. This obviously cannot be done before the bike is built for that rider, and thus you may test ride a bike with very different build parameters than suit you, leading you to have a false impression of how well the frameset actually suits you or rides.

Whether your next bike is stock or custom, test rides are not a very reliable way to select a new bike and frequently lead to compromised decisions. So, how do you find the perfect next bike? Work with a knowledgeable fitter and bike designer who will set you up properly, work with you to determine the best frame/bike options, and work closely with the manufacturer to insure that the bike is exactly what you want. Stock or custom, the end result will be a no compromises bike that does exactly what the engineer who designed it intended.

Note: MBFA members practice “Rider First” fittings and bike set-up and selection practices and offer a range of high quality bike and frame offerings in stock and custom models.