Bike Reviews Are Useless. Here’s How to Parse the Noise.
Did you know that over 87% of online content consists of people reviewing stuff? Probably not, because I just made it up. Still, it might as well be true, because there are a lot of reviews out there: movie reviews, car reviews, people on Yelp whining about the service at their local Chipotle, the list goes on. Humans are consumers, and reviews are a fundamental part of the act of consumption, so it’s only natural that our discourse contains a whole lot of it.
Of course, in addition to being consumers, humans are also emotional creatures, and each one of us experiences things differently. That’s why many so may reviews are highly subjective and therefore of little to no value. Here’s why this is especially true of bicycle reviews.
One reason is that most companies marketing high-end bikes are making stellar products. As long as the designer hews reasonably close to the basic concept and doesn’t try anything to stupid or gimmicky they’ll probably come up with a really good bicycle.
So, how do you choose from among all these great bicycles? Bikes come with different frame materials, different component groups, and different geometries. Don’t you need a reviewer to tell you if you should choose between Brand A or Brand B, or between the aluminum bike or the carbon one? Well, assuming you’re starting with a good quality bike and not one with a Lightning McQueen theme you found next to the lawn fertilizer, there are two factors that matter way, way more than any others—yes, even frame material—and they are:
- Does the bike fit?
- Is the bike designed for what you’re gonna do with it?
If the answer to either of those is “No,” the bike’s gonna suck. If the answer to both of those questions is yes—and you can afford it—then you’re probably looking at a winner. Sure, you can absolutely read a roundup of “44 of the best gravel bikes you can buy in 2023” (an actual tweet from an actual publication), but it’s a complete waste of time, like plunging your hand wrist-deep into a bowl of M&Ms and trying to pick out the very best one.
That’s not to say all these bikes are exactly the same, but if you’re looking at specific bikes for specific applications they’re usually way more similar than they are different. Moreover, when you ride two similar bicycles back-to-back, you’re usually not feeling what’s better or worse about them, you’re mostly just feeling those minor differences, and after awhile you get used to whatever those differences are and they quickly disappear.
A reviewer comparing the GravelBlaster SL and the PebbleShredder Pro is going back and forth between two different bikes with different tires and different saddles and different bars and different bar tapes and different shifters and all kinds of other minor differences that nevertheless go a long way towards informing your first impression of a ride and then making a recommendation based on all these minor subjective differences that mostly just amount to a bunch of noise.
But the differences between bikes that actually matter are the objective ones. Like maybe it’s really rainy where you live, the GravelBlaster SL has eyelets for fenders, but the PebbleShredder doesn’t—this is information you can actually use. Certainly a good reviewer will point this out, but then again so will the spec sheet, and all too often important details like this get lost or ignored amid rhapsodic descriptions about the bike’s “ride quality,” which is the cycling equivalent of “mouth feel.”
Then there’s the fact that when someone’s reviewing a bike they’re reviewing it now; even a “long-term” review usually only amounts to several months of riding. However, the truth is it takes years to get to know a bike, just as it takes years to get to know a person. Sure, you may think you could marry the person you’re dating, but you don’t know if you love them until you’ve experienced something truly horrible together, like a layoff, or a death in the family, or a lengthy poetry reading. Similarly, you don’t really even begin to know a bike until you’ve been through at least several sets of tires and brake pads and maybe a chain or two. Really, you probably shouldn’t even bother reading a bike review unless the reviewer has pulled the crank and overhauled the bottom bracket. Unfortunately nobody abides by this principle, which is how we ended up with BB30 in the first place.
Perhaps most frustratingly, you should only read reviews from people who love bikes, but if you truly love bikes it’s almost impossible to review them. For people who love bikes, whichever bike you’re riding at the moment is your favorite, and then you get on another one and that one becomes your favorite. You might as well ask dating advice from a compulsive womanizer.
Okay, so if bike reviews are useless, then what are you supposed to do? Well, the media is like a bag of Kirkland trail mix, and the bike media is no exception, so all you can do is pick through it and try to extract the healthy stuff. You can also seek out people who do the sort of riding you do, or at least are interested in doing, and learn from them. This too comes with its share of risks—reading about bikes on Reddit and other forums can be like learning about sex in the schoolyard—but hands-on experience from people outside of the industry who live and breathe cycling can be incredibly valuable. Through these channels you’ll also learn about bike companies that are actually doing something different, and you might ultimately find that something different is for you.
But of course the most valuable knowledge of all is the knowledge you acquire yourself, and when it comes to that there’s no substitute for experience. So take some chances, buy used stuff, be safe, don’t be afraid to experiment, and most importantly, get out there and ride.