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Better Ways to Roll: The Expansion of Versatile Bikes

Plus: Expert Picks in Road, Mountain, Hybrid & Comfort Models

New adventure bikes have extra-wide tires for smooth riding on paved and unpaved surfaces, while a majority of mountain bikes in 2015 lineups now have 27.5-inch wheels. Meanwhile, major manufacturers make e-bikes that give riders a motorized boost.


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Recently, we noted the rapid growth of the number of bicycles, or bikes, that were designed for increasingly specialized niches. That growth hasn’t abated. However, bicycle manufacturers seem to be splitting their development efforts between these and models that are more versatile rather than more specialized. In other words, it’s more likely now than at any time in the past 10 years that you can find a single bike that can suit multiple purposes.

Riders who want a road bike now can find a wealth of choices that are fast on pavement and dirt roads while boasting a better all-weather performance than ever before. Likewise, mountain-bike technology progressed to the point where you can conquer huge climbs as well as race down challenging descents.

Technology hasn’t passed over casual riders. So-called e-bikes, which have rechargeable-battery-powered motors that amplify your pedaling, now are trickling into the United States.

GO BIG. Previously, almost every manufacturer sold at least one endurance road bike, which is distinguished by upright handling and seating positions and 25-millimeter (mm) tires, compared with the 23-mm tires that are on traditional road bikes. We found that the 25-mm tires provide better traction and roll faster than 23-mm tires do, but what’s new is that the latest iteration of road-bike tires are even wider.

Every major manufacturer now sells so-called adventure bikes. These bikes have tires that measure up to 40 mm in width, which allow the rider to tackle smoothly any type of paved or nonpaved road surface. Adventure bikes also are designed to allow for adequate clearance between a 40-mm tire and the bike’s brake, fork, frame and seat. (In other words, you can’t put a 40-mm tire on a regular bike.) Adventure bikes start at $460 and include the aerodynamic drop-style handlebars of conventional road bikes. Adventure bikes also typically include disc brakes, which deliver more stopping power and require less maintenance than do conventional caliper brakes.

As a result of the differences, adventure bikes are 2–3 pounds heavier than are conventional road bikes. The extra weight won’t make a noticeable difference to most riders when they ride uphill, according to physiologist and cycling coach Allen Lim. The extra weight, "doesn’t slow you down much, even on a really steep hill, at least not in the range of 200–230 watts that most consumers might work at,” Lim says.

The advantage of wider tires is that the increased cushion and grip provide worry-free exploration of unpaved roads.

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Regarding disc brakes: Three years ago, we predicted that major manufacturers would perfect their disc-brake systems so the price of road bikes that have them would fall below $2,500. That hasn’t happened. Why not? Disc brakes aren’t expected to receive approval for competition by cycling’s international governing body, Union Cycliste Internationale, until 2016 or 2017. As a result, most manufacturers postponed the development of disc brakes on their road bikes until 2016 at the earliest.

Likely to arrive sooner are lower priced tubeless tires for road bikes. Experts say tubeless tires provide a cushier ride than do tube tires while, of course, reducing the incidence of flat tires.

Twelve wheel manufacturers (companies that sell wheels and tires) and eight tire companies (companies that just sell tires) now manufacture tubeless road-bike tires. That’s twice as many as did 3 years ago, and we expect the number of companies to double again in the next 3 years.

Tubeless tires still are rather pricey at around $60 each, which is roughly twice as expensive as tube tires. However, tubeless wheelsets dropped in price. (Tubeless wheelsets consist of a pair of wheels in which the rims have an airtight seal that makes tubeless tires easier to install.) We found at least one tubeless wheelset that costs less than $500, which is half of the price of what the least expensive option cost 3 years ago. (Regular wheelsets cost about $200.)

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IN THE MIDDLE. Mountain bikes that have wheels that are 27.5 inches in diameter hit the market 3 years ago; now, the majority of new mountain bikes include 27.5-inch wheels. (Such bikes also are known as 650Bs in reference to a French sizing standard.)

In the past year, the three largest bike manufacturers in the United States—Giant, Specialized and Trek—started to phase out 26-inch mountain bikes from their lineups.

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Giant believes so strongly in the 27.5-inch wheel size that its entire 2015 mountain-bike lineup (save for its least expensive entry-level model and one specialty model) uses either 27.5-inch or 29-inch wheels. Specialized’s 2015 mountain-bike collection includes only five bikes that have 26-inch wheels. Only 11 of Trek’s 98 mountain bikes use 26-inch wheels. The rest are split between 27.5-inch and 29-inch wheels.

“It’s increasingly rare” to find a 26-inch bike among midrange or premium models, says Todd Seplavy of GT Bicycles, which is a bike manufacturer.

We found that mountain bikes that have 27.5-inch wheels feel more stable and roll over obstacles more easily than do models that have 26-inch wheels. We found that 27.5-inch-wheel models are easier to maneuver than are mountain bikes that have 29-inch wheels, which typically weigh 2 pounds more than do mountain bikes that have 27.5-inch wheels. We also found that mountain bikes that have 27.5-inch wheels are more accommodating to riders who are shorter than 5 feet 4 inches than are bikes that have 29-inch wheels, which typically have a higher top tube because of the larger wheels.

The average cost of a mountain bike that has 27.5-inch wheels is roughly $150 more than that of a comparable 26-inch mountain bike but $150 less than that of a comparable 29-inch mountain bike, says Matt Wiebe of Bicycle Retailer and Industry News.

In addition to 27.5-inch wheels, the latest mountain bikes now include at least 5 inches of suspension travel. (Suspension travel is the vertical movement of a wheel from the top of its shock to the bottom.) In other words, today’s mountain bikes are able to absorb bigger bumps than ever before without jolting the rider.

Most mountain bikes still have 4–5 inches of suspension travel. In general, bikes that have at least 5 inches of suspension travel cost $100 more than do comparable bikes that have less.

Previously, mountain bikes that had at least 5 inches of suspension travel were considered too sluggish for all-around use. They not only were heavy, but we also found that they required more pedaling energy to move forward.

However, advancements over the past year in frame construction decreased the average weight of the newest mountain bikes by as much as 1 pound. Also, the latest forks and rear shocks protect riders from impacts better than ever before. As a result, we found that the new crop of mountain bikes that have at least 5 inches of suspension travel can climb hills as well as dedicated cross-country race bikes do and still have enough handling to steamroll downhill trails.

Another up-and-coming feature that we believe is deserving of serious consideration for mountain bikers: a seat post that can raise and lower instantly at the push of a lever. These so-called dropper posts add about a pound to a mountain bike’s weight, but we found that they deliver a tremendous boost in confidence and safety on tricky terrain. That’s because most dropper posts lower the saddle 5–6 inches, which gives the rider much more room to maneuver and also lowers the rider’s center of gravity for more stability.

Dropper posts typically cost $100–$500 when they’re purchased as an accessory. Many 2015 models include them as standard equipment, and those models cost $100 more than do bikes that have comparable specifications but no dropper posts.

E-BIKE INROADS. E-bikes, which are popular in Europe, emerged in the United States in the past 2 years. They look like traditional bikes, but a rectangular motor and battery pack typically are attached to the frame near the rear wheel. E-bikes start at $1,000, but the average price is $3,000. As of press time, Specialized and Trek were the only major U.S. manufacturers that made e-bikes.

We found that an e-bike feels like a regular bicycle, except that you can go much faster with a lot less work. Most e-bike models can boost your pedaling power by as much as two-fold, so if you typically cover 15 miles in an hour on a traditional bicycle, an e-bike would allow you to travel roughly 30 miles over the same time.

An e-bike’s battery range is typically a little more than 30 miles before you have to recharge the battery. The battery and motor make an e-bike heavy—at least 40 pounds. After the battery is depleted, you have only your legs to drive all of that extra weight.

Nevertheless, we found that e-bikes are tremendously fun, and we believe that prices will fall in the next 3 years as the category evolves. In other words, more riders will be able to afford an extra boost.

James Huang is the technical editor of BikeRadar.com and Cyclingnews.com. He has written about bicycles for 10 years. 


Fatter is Better

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If you want to tackle atypical bicycle terrain, fat is where it’s at.

Fat bikes, which have tires that are twice as wide as are those of conventional mountain bikes, allow you to pedal safely year-round in sandy and snowy conditions where standard-width mountain-bike tires normally would sink.

Fat-bike tires are 4–5 inches wide, which is roughly twice as wide as are the tires of conventional mountain bikes. Fat-bike tires also are inflated to just 4–15 pounds per square inch (psi), compared with the typical 30–50 psi. Fat bikes are designed to allow for adequate clearance between the extra-wide tire and the bike’s brake, fork, frame and seat, so putting a fat-bike tire on a conventional bike wouldn’t work.

Fat bikes weigh about 5 pounds more than do comparably equipped conventional mountain bikes, so they’re more difficult to ride uphill. However, given their better capability in snow, the fat-bike craze has been the hottest in the nation’s snow belt, says Tim Krueger, who is an industry consultant.

“People wanted to ride year-round but couldn’t,” Krueger says. “Then the fat bike came, and now the trailheads are as full in the winter as they are in the summer.”

Most bicycle manufacturers now include at least one fat bike in their 2015 lineup. Fat bikes are more likely to be bought by avid cyclists who want to expand their riding season into the winter months, so most models tend to cost at least $2,000. That said, we expect a wider range of prices in the next 3 years as the category evolves.


Smart Bikes and Smart Accessories: Advance Your Ride

At press time, startup company Vanhawks was expected to introduce in July 2015 the first road bicycle that connects to your smartphone through Bluetooth. The Valour (starts at $1,249) provides you with directions, road conditions and traffic notifications while you pedal.

When you program your starting point and destination into your free Valour mobile application, the bike will communicate with your smartphone’s GPS to analyze road and traffic conditions and determine the fastest possible turn-by-turn directions. The directions show up in the form of arrows on an LED screen that’s built into the bike’s handlebars.

The Valour also has two sensors that determine whether obstacles or traffic are within 3 meters of your blind spot. If so, the sensors will send a signal that causes the handlebar grips to vibrate.

For now, the Valour is the only smart bike that’s planned for the United States. However, three companies are developing smart handlebars or smart handlebar mounts that connect to a smartphone’s GPS and provide turn-by-turn directions. It’s unknown as of press time when any of those products will be available, but we expect smart handlebars to cost roughly $300.

Meanwhile, two Bluetooth-enabled keyless bike locks—Mesh Motion’s BitLock ($119) and Velo Labs’ Skylock ($159)—were expected to go on sale in July 2015. Both look like typical U-shape bike locks, but they unlock when you touch a button on the lock only while your Bluetooth-enabled smartphone is within 3 feet.

A different take on the smart bike lock is the Linka ($109) by Velasso. It’s a Bluetooth-enabled circular lock that mounts to a bike frame and includes a steel bolt that locks around (and, thus, immobilizes) the rear wheel. To lock the Linka, you tap its button three times (or hold for 3 seconds), then the lock waits for a signal from an app that’s on your smartphone before it wraps its bolt around the rear wheel. When you return, the lock recognizes your smartphone and automatically unlocks the bolt. As of press time, the lock was expected to be released by the end of 2015.