Test rides are usually short, and you have so many things to think about that getting an accurate impression can be difficult.
First, remember that a new bike will feel different from an older bike. These differences are most apparent to your contact points — hands, feet and seat.
Saddles, for one thing, have changed dramatically over the years. You should seek to find one that works well for you — not what anyone tries to force on you. If you already have one you like, just swap it out from your old bike to new. If not, it’s a good idea to find a shop that will let you do more extensive testing to see how it feels.
Modern brake/shift levers have a fatter and longer body, so at first they’ll feel bulky to your hands. That’ll soon pass. You’ll probably like them better than your old narrow levers (and you won’t miss the brake cable sticking out of the top).
Contemporary clipless pedal systems are more secure than old-time toe clips and straps, and most allow your feet to pivot freely several degrees during pedaling. The feeling can be a unnerving at first.
Before taking a test ride, use the measurements of your old bike (assuming it fits you) to duplicate your position. Check seat height, reach to the handlebar and saddle setback (the distance from the seat’s front tip to the center of the bottom bracket axle, using a plumb line).
By having a nearly identical position, you can get a better feel for how the new bike actually rides. A good shop will swap stems so you can alter the reach, but once the fork’s steerer tube is cut, handlebar height can’t be altered too much.
Stiffness and Stability
Now for riding characteristics. There are so many variables in the way a bike feels that subjectivity is part of the process. Let’s begin with two important factors, stiffness and stability:
The best way to test a bike for stiffness is to put it in a fairly large gear — say 53×19, or maybe 50×16 in a compact crankset — and accelerate from slow speed or stand and power up a hill. Either technique will expose insufficient stiffness in the bottom bracket. The bike may feel squishy or the chain may rub on the front derailleur cage. Some riders don’t mind this degree of softness because they rarely ride in ways that expose it, but others can’t stand it.
Stability is an issue on descents. It may be impossible to do a test ride where you go fast enough to see if the bike shimmies. But even in a parking lot you can ride no-hands to check how solidly it tracks. And you can take some corners fairly fast to see if it lays over predictably.
On the test ride, go through this checklist:
- Is your position comfortable? Do you feel too stretched out or hunched up? Is the handlebar too wide or too narrow?
- Are your contact points comfortable? Do your sit bones feel supported on the saddle, or is it too narrow? A shop should be willing to substitute for the saddle on a new bike so it doesn’t become a deal breaker.
- How does the bike behave? It may feel quicker than your old bike, but beware if it seems to have a hair trigger.
- How about compliance? Find some rough pavement. Does the bike chatter and jolt, or actually seem to buffer the impacts?
Finally, stand back and ignore everything but your own basic instinct. Does the bike feel right? This is a tremendously subjective judgment but an extremely important one.
Buying a new bike is always fun, but a little scary, too, because it’s a hefty investment that you want to last for several years. Do your research, do your test rides, and it’ll be nearly impossible to make a bad choice.