A Planning (Mis)Adventure

Ok, so I’ve started making it publicly known that I’m intending to cycle across America – it’s far more difficult to back out when there’s the weight of peer expectation added to the personal intention.  What I need now is a bike.

Yes, I’ve got a couple of bikes already, and I have done one metric century – a fortnight ago – on my CX, with road tyres fitted.  But I’m not convinced this is the bike I want to rely on for a 4,500 mile epic.  First off, despite having had it for 2 years, it’s still not a comfortable bike to ride (ok, that’s maybe more due to the stock saddle).  Being a specific Cyclocross, it’s not particularly suited to customisation to touring spec.  Then there’s the twin failings in that it’s ok but not best-suited to hills, and that it’s ok but not best-suited to going fast on the flats; while it is pretty quick going downhill, I wouldn’t say it’s particularly stable and it’s definitely not a comfortable riding position for long descents.

So what are my options?  Grin and bear it or splash the cash on another bike.  I’m drifting further and further towards the latter.  Or at very least, I’m enjoying the online window-shopping!  When I say enjoying, I mean that form of sadistic and infuriating enjoyment more typically experienced by bewildered golfers.

Where to start!?

The internet is such an incredible wealth of knowledge and advice that it should be simple to narrow down the options to a working short-list of potential new bikes.  Yet, to the layman like myself, this great library is confusing and frequently contradictory.

Groupsets are particularly troublesome.  Until very recently, I thought that 9-speed meant only 9 gears (which makes sense because when we think of a 5-speed gearbox in a car, that car has only 5 forward gears, plus reverse).  I also thought that 18 gears were unanimously better than 15, and 21 gears better still – the more gears the better, right?  This is as daft as considering that 18 year old whiskies are unanimously better than 15 year old whiskies.  Of course, gears and age – in their respective analogies – are only part of the package.

The number of ‘teeth’ on the ‘chainset’ or ‘chainrings’ and ‘free-wheel’ (4 new terms for me right there (literally only just got the connection, while writing, of the chainset being the collection of chainrings, duh!)) not only didn’t mean anything, but I didn’t know enough to consider that it might mean something.  Now I know that this means something, but I’m a bit confused as to what that is.

My current (mis)understanding!?

Lets take an example of this and look at my current Merida CX3 which has a 46,36 chainwheel and 12-28, 10-speed freewheel.  Correct me if I’m wrong but my understanding currently goes like this:

The chainset (at front, connected to the pedals) has a big ring of 46 teeth and a small ring of 36 teeth; and a rear cassette with 10 rings ranging in size from 12 teeth to 28 teeth.  Therefore, the lowest possible climbing gear has a combination of 48 teeth (36+12), and a highest possible fast-riding gear of 74 teeth (46+28).  Right/wrong?

If we were then to compare this against the Kona Honky Tonk, which besides having a great name, has a 34,50 chainset and a 9-speed, 11-32 cassette, I would suggest the Honky Tonk to have a lowest possible climbing gear of 45 teeth, and a highest possible fast-riding gear of 82 teeth.  Therefore, by my limited – and quite possibly incorrect – interpretation, the Kona is going to be both easier to pedal up hills (as it can offer a gear with fewer teeth: 45 vs 48) and be faster on the flats/downhills (as it can offer a gear with more teeth: 82 vs 74), than my Merida CX.  Again, please report back if I’m interpreting/understanding (in)correctly.

The rest…

Brakes are easy though, calipers or discs, yet then with upgradable possibilities of v-brakes and hydraulic braking systems.  Discs are reputed to give greater all-weather breaking control, but I reckon are as much personal preference (as performance) versus v-brakes.  My old bike (Barracuda Zombie) – which I had for about 10 years before it got stolen – had v-brakes, and I swear they were at least as good as the disc-brakes on either of my current bikes.

Then there’s the branding.  Even I knew of Shimano.  I didn’t really know what or who it or they were, but I knew of it/them.  I now know they make component parts of groupsets – as do other companies – and that as with most product ranges which can be diversified by quality, and thus pricing, this is as true with their groupsets.

But here lies another major sub-point of confusion.  One piece of advice that frequently pops up on bike forums and review websites, is to chose a bike which features groupset parts entirely from one range.  Yet, to go back to the Kona Honky Tonk, this bike features parts which are Shimano Sora, Shimano Tiagra, Shimano R451, Shimano HG50, FSA Vero and KMC HG53 – so not only not all of the same groupset, but different manufacturers also.  I have discovered what Sora and Tiagra are, but where within Shimano’s parts quality hierarchy does R451 and HG50 fit in?

So there may be exceptions to the rule (if it were ever even a rule!) that groupset components should be of the same range/manufacturer.  It took quite a bit of deciphering to discover all this groupset information, but I thought I had finally cracked it when google offered up a page from Evans Cycles, setting out Shimano’s quality hierarchy of groupset ranges.  Until that is, I started finding bikes which featured groupsets which did not feature within this hierarchy.  Evans Cycles do state “There are less expensive Shimano components available” so I naturally assumed that these additional Shimano groupsets were these cheap-and-nasty sets which should probably be avoided at all costs.

Until that is again, when I happened upon a further twist that revealed Shimano’s hitherto discovered hierarchy to be only one of two (or perhaps more?) parallel hierarchies distinguishing groupsets specifically for road bikes and for mountain bikes.  Which I suppose makes sense – once you know to think of it – unless of course you are as me and have a cyclocross bike, which is kind-of both and kind-of neither road and/nor mountain bike.

So I reckon I’ve got some more research to do before I get anywhere near the checkout of my local bike shop…

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