A quick question: what’s the best road bike in the world?
Surely this is the ultimate question in the road cycling geek’s big list of things to argue over. There are probably 42 answers… All contestable and subject to revision daily, as more and more bikes are unleashed for our endless temptation.
As with all unanswerable questions (e.g.. is there a God, which is the best State to live in, what’s the best country in the world, who is the world’s greatest author and what’s the best music band in the world?), everyone has at least an opinion. Society is shaped by the way people answer questions such as these. Remember the Spanish Inquisition? That’s one way to answer questions pertaining to God. Or driving a few planes into the World Trade Centre. Or the Second World War, the First World War and even the Peloponnesian Wars. Clubs, tribes and friend circles are defined by localised consensus on how we might answer any of the great unanswerable questions. Football clubs anyone?
Our consideration of the ‘best (road) bike in the world’ is one of these biggies. Not something to go to war over. But a Big One nonetheless. And, as a Big One, there is no universally agreeable answer.
But there are ways of dealing with the utter unresolvability of this question. First, we might, and many do, simply partition their personal answer to country of origin. Eg. the best bike in the world MUST be Italian. Or French. Or from the USA. That’s one approach.
Some might just go by price. What’s the most expensive? Some might go by weight. What’s the lightest road bike in the world? Or exclusivity.
And there are always those extraordinarily tiresome types who use the annoyingly simple metric of simply declaring that whatever bike they might have is, by virtue of their astounding good taste, THE best bike in the world. That’s pretty much the metric many people I know use for answering questions about religion, choice of motor car, musical taste, or the best place to live. Most of us have some biases of this kind that colour, or at least taint our thinking on questions such as these.
And then there are the scientistic types. These are the lab coat set who propose to address THE big questions through the purity of science; measurements, quantification: proof! You’d be stunned to know how many seemingly intelligent people go for this line; that the bogus measurement routine is a valid response to dealing with tricky questions. Academics often suffer this appalling quantitative disease. Why a disease? Because not all the dimensions of any unanswerable question are amenable to measurement.; so insistence on quantification disfigures the rich field of choices that the more subjective realm can inform. And, really, it’s often he case that the best things about the things we are wanting to rank and rate are completely incompatible with measurement. Like the aesthetic dimension. Like all the ‘feel good’ bits that drive our choices.
Besides, who would want a bicycle that an accountant might assess to be the best? Or who would want a bike that a Human Resources bot might determine to be the most Politically Correct?
So… knowing that this is an unanswerable question, and that anything that I might suggest by way of an answer is a single sand grain in an entire beach of prospective, legitimate answers, I feel compelled to have a go because I am on the hunt for a new bike and the bike I want is one without the usual constraints that shape my choices. This is my once in a lifetime crusade to pick the Best bike I can find. Or more precisely, I want a bike chosen without all the usual constraints of money, lack of information, of what’s in stock and what’s not. I want to wallow in my own prejudices, biases and sense of the aesthetic. I am not buying this bike for anyone else! And I am NOT recommending my particular choice to anyone else. This is an entirely personal crusade. The most self indulgent thing I have ever done! (It’s a good thing I hate cars… buying the ultimate bicycle is at best 5% of the cost of searching for the ‘ultimate’ car. Besides, to my mind, the ultimate car is always parked permanently in a wrecking yard…)
I gave myself a year for this search. Research is what I do. So researching this particular question was going to be a pleasurable journey. Knowing that, at the end, there will be NO perfect choice, and that, perhaps, the final choice might actually prove to be unavailable or unaffordable, I wanted at least my search to be uncompromised. It costs no more to search without constraints than it would to search with all those usual qualifiers of economics and the practicalities of the market place to constrain my choices.
My aim was for a short list of Five. To narrow the field, I subscribed to 10 cycling journals and numerous web forums. I tracked bicycle industry news like a zealot. I harassed and harangued every person who’s opinion I imagined was worth a listen (and often some who’s opinion was not). I collected test reports with the dedication of a hypochrondriac searching the web for an imagined disease. I looked, I listened, I visited bicycle shops. Everywhere I went.
I decided from the start to avoid the custom route. I know some would say that having a bike custom made is the ultimate path. But I am not that patient and I want a bike that others might also have. I need the reinforcements of reviews along with the validation that those reviews might provide. Custom bikes are a once off and almost never reviewed by the cycling press. Custom bikes are too exclusive for someone in permanent search of others who might have made the same choice as me… It’s a tribal thing.
To reach my short list of five, I would allow only one simple rule: no bike on my list could be second to any other; just different. It should not be possible to find a better bike than one on my list; just a bike that’s different. Of course, I am not actually defining criteria like ‘best’ or ‘better’ in any measurable way, because at this level, choices are beyond the resolution of quantifiable measurement. This short list of five will be sitting above the altitude of objective measurement. At this level, we are in the realm of the spectacularly, wonderfully, embracingly subjective. I am not buying an office stapler here. I am buying a work of art. A pice of history. A statement. So, I can embrace rather than pretend to avoid my cycling biases. The search is tough. If I were to find any test report that justifiably faulted any aspect of any bike, that bike would not be on the list. But context matters. Criticisms need to make sense and they need to matter. If a bike has a design fault that is repeatable and serious, it’s off the list. If a criticism is about aesthetics, I will be my own judge.
Without even the delusions of pseudo scientific method in place, I had fun massaging my list down to five. Five universally lauded bikes. Five bikes that have never attracted any kind of serious negative comment. Five winners.
Here’s my list:
Pinarello Dogma II
BMC Teammachine SLR 01
Already, you are questioning and arguing my choice! I can hear you from here… Where is the Giant TCR Advanced Rabobank? Where are the top end offerings from Ridley, Parlee, Trek, Cervelo, Specialized, Fuji, Canyon, de Rosa, Bianchi, BH, Orbea, Time, Merida or Merckx? And did you notice my Italian bias? As I said, this is my choice and me wallowing in my own context of aesthetics and mechanical art.
And yes, A bike is a frame plus a set of parts. I can’t avoid the latter. I have to choose there too. I have to wade into the perpetual fires of equipment choice: Campagnolo, Shimano or SRAM. I already have bikes with Super Record, Record, Dura Ace, Ultegra and SRAM Red. I detest Dura Ace with a passion (shifting like a broken spoon flapping in a bowl of porridge). I kind of like Red (a proper click) and I am passionate about Super Record (20,000km without adjustment, even once. A serious. Proper. Click). And on top of that. Electronic or mechanical? Another subjective nest of snakes. With that admission, my audience here has splintered into three abuse hurling shouting camps. Such is mountain climbing into the stratosphere of the ultimate bike… I made it simple. Campagnolo Super Record. EPS (electronic), or mechanical I’ll decide in due course.
And then there’s the wheels. I want 50mm deep carbon clinchers. I don’t care for tubulars these days. I’m not going to argue with myself over that any more. I had tubulars for 10 years. I want my rims with an aluminium braking ring. I have a set of Fulcrum all carbon clinchers: never again. Sometimes, it’s nice to stop…
Here are highlights from my review notes:
Pinarello Dogma II. Innovative frame geometry, superbly stiff, but compliant. Fast, but OK for all day rides. I love curves! I love Pinarellos (I have three already). History. Aesthetics. Pedigree! Italian, yes, but Taiwanese cleverness with monocoque. Overpriced. Paying for the brand. A bike dentists tend to buy. I am not a dentist… $16,000 on the road with Super Record EPS. The obvious choice. Too obvious? Tour de France winner but under the wrong rider… Who could forgive Sky colour scheme! Have they no shame? Do I really want 4 Pinarellos?
Look 695. Iceberg clean looks! Zen. Efficient. Brilliant. Stiff (super). Purebred to race. Fast. Too associated with Shimano. Eccentric. Understatement. French! Unmistakingly French! Lack of bling equates to more bling than bling. $11,000 on the road. Hard to convince the distributor not to taint with Shimano Dura Ace.
BMC Teammachine SLR 01. Ruthlessly efficient. Innovative rear end. Home spun carbon! Light! Stiff. Won the Tour de France. Underdog. Clean zen like aesthetics. Good climber. Good in a sprint. But climbing is great. I am a climber. I love hills. Yes. Great price too. Save $6k on a Dogma. $10,000 on the road. With SRAM Red. A Swiss made analogue of the Giant TCR Advanced Rabobank Team Issue bike with which I have been totally, and utterly enthralled for the past year.
Wilier Zero.7 Where did this one come from! I always liked the Cento 1. But this is a breathtaking statement that must have embarrassed Pinarello big time. Ultra light weight, ultra stiff, but ultra comfortable. A reconciliation of opposites! A pure, unmitigated, unapologetic statement of Italian art. Hair standing on back of neck looks. Expensive… Innovative new carbon technology you’d have expected from Pinarello – or Giant – first. One of the oldest bike makers on the planet. Hardly zen-like looks! Bling on bling. Only from Italy. Put Shimano on this and die. $15,000 before the pedals but with Super Record EPS and Fulcrum Red Wind XLR/Campagnolo Bullet wheels. Rationality takes a hike. I am in love.
Colnago C59 Especially with disc brakes! Understated, overstated, all at the same time. Lightish, but not light. Stiff, but not too much. Lugs! Made in Italy. Customisation possibilities are endless. This one is not from a distributor of boxes. Passion on wheels. I can’t find a single colour scheme I actually like… Old school. Last of its kind. A lifetime keeper. Colnago too often goes over to the dark side of Shimano. Shame! Colnago and Pinarello should shop locally when it comes to component choices. Take a look at Wilier… $12,000 if I go for mechanical Super Record. The bike to aspire to after a lifetime of bike love. Pure bicyclism!
And…the Giant TCR Advanced Team Issue Rabobank is not on my list because I already have one… As good as a Dogma at 1/3 the cost! Flawless. Magnificent. Logical.
And the winner? Or, perhaps more appropriately put, which one did I choose? Isn’t it obvious? Stay tuned for the next instalment.