Bicycles: Tailor-Made Rides

With 20 percent more bicycle models available than in 2009, the market has become tailored toward specific riding preferences. The latest road bikes have aerodynamic, wind-resisting designs, while mountain-bike engineers continue to tinker with wheel size to provide a comfortable ride on bumpy terrain.

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Bicycles generally are regarded as simple machines. But with roughly 20 percent more models on the market than existed in 2009, the category has become increasingly complex and crowded. We found more fits, functions and styles than ever before. For example, Specialized, which is one of the largest manufacturers of bicycles in the United States, now has 374 models, compared with 267 just 3 years ago.

The number of choices is enough to make your head spin, but the bright side is that you’re more likely than ever before to find a bike that’s tailored specifically to your riding preference. In the past 3 years, manufacturers have focused particularly on introducing more dual-suspension mountain bikes that have 29-inch wheels, which deliver more stability than do 26-inch wheels on rough terrain, more wind-resisting triathlon bikes and more hybrid bikes that have elaborate European-style accessories and designs that are meant for riders who want to look trendy while they run short errands.

Meanwhile, carbon-fiber frames are trickling down in price, and the latest aluminum-frame bikes are more rugged than ever before.

BIG WHEELS TURNING. Mountain bikes that have 29-inch wheels (29ers) still were a novelty 3 years ago when compared with the 26-inch-wheel standard, but the two formats have reached sales parity.

As a rule, 29ers and their respective components typically are 1–3 pounds heavier than are comparable 26-inch models. But manufacturers have become savvier in the past 3 years in building compact frames and shorter tubes that help to reduce the cumbersome handling and large size that were typical of earlier 29ers. As a result, today’s models are more sure-footed on bumpy terrain and, as we found, make mountain biking flat-out easier and safer for riders.

The average cost of a 29er is roughly $500 more than that of a comparable traditional mountain bike, says Matt Wiebe of Bicycle Retailer and Industry News. But that should change in the next 2 years as the competition increases.

The changing market doesn’t mean that 26-inch mountain bikes will disappear, however. Many riders prefer them for their superior agility in descents or quick turns, and it generally is agreed in the bicycle industry that riders who are shorter than 5 feet 4 inches will find that they fit better.

In the next year, mountain-bike shoppers will be confronted with yet another tire size from which to choose—the 27.5-inch wheel, or its more common name, the 650b, which is derived from a French sizing standard. This actually is an old standard that’s making a comeback among manufacturers that are trying to deliver a mix of performance characteristics that’s between those of a 26-inch mountain bike and a 29er. We haven’t ridden a 27.5-inch mountain bike, but experts tell us that the wheels feel almost as nimble as do those that are on a 26-inch model, and they roll over obstacles much better.

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A few models from smaller companies came out in the past year. We expect that starting in September 2012, we’ll see a surge of 27.5-inch mountain bikes from major manufacturers. So far, only Jamis, KHS and Norco have announced such models, but we heard that many more are coming.

LESS OF A DRAG. Three years ago, road-bike designers introduced models that had a reduced weight and improved ride comfort. The biggest trend these days among road bikes is models that create less aerodynamic drag as you push through the air. Just as improving aerodynamics will improve fuel efficiency in your automobile, wind-tunnel testing shows that doing the same on a bike will allow you to go faster while you expend less energy. Therefore, the latest models have taller wheel rims, teardrop-shape frame tubes and cables that are hidden inside of the frame.

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