Red flags to avoid when buying a budget bike

As the old cliché goes, if the deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. Here are ten things you need to look out for when buying a budget road bike

Clock14:10, Tuesday 26th December 2023

If you're wanting a brand new bike for less than about £500/$650/€550, you're in tricky territory. There are plenty of well-designed and well-built bikes in this price bracket, yes, but hidden among them are also some truly terrible bikes. These clunkers lurk on the pages of the internet and in bike shops, waiting for an unwitting cyclist to get lured in.

To help you avoid buying a really bad bike, keep this list of red flags in mind. Spot any of these, and you can be pretty confident that the bike you're checking out is worth avoiding.

No website

Mysterious new brands pop up on online marketplaces all the time, and lots of them seem to offer great value. Be cautious: most of the time, these niche brands are just dirt cheap, non-labelled frames that someone has bought en masse, added stickers to, and sold off as a cool new brand. They don’t come with the research and development time, the experience, or the warranty that you get with an established bike brand.

Usually, you can identify these ‘sticker brands’ by giving them a Google. Often, they only exist as a page on eBay or Amazon, and don’t have a website or set of actual retailers to vouch for them.

Granted, pretty much anyone can cobble together a website these days, so this isn't an iron-clad check. But if a brand doesn’t have a website, you can assume that it’s not a proper brand, it’s just a cheap frame that someone’s slapped a sticker on. Avoid them and stick to reputable brands.

No geometry chart

If this is your first time buying a road bike, the geometry chart probably seems like double Dutch. To an extent, that’s OK – as long as you can try a bike before you buy it and make sure it fits, you don’t need to be able to read the geometry chart.

But whether you read it or not, the bike you’re looking at should, at the very least, have a geometry chart listed on the website or product page. This is an indicator that it’s a serious bike, for serious riders – the geometry chart shows the proportions of the frame, which riders use to decide whether a bike will fit them without seeing it in person.

If a bike is listed without a geometry chart, it’s not aimed at serious cyclists, because serious cyclists rely on a geometry chart. And you are a serious cyclist, aren’t you?

No reviews

These days, pretty much every bike that gets released from big brands is professionally reviewed. So if you’ve found a bike which no reviewer has touched, it’s probably because it’s not worth buying.

Cycling media has their ear to the ground on new releases, and if a bike’s worth buying, they’ll want to share it with their audience. If not, they probably don’t think it’s worth your time or money.

Bad reviews

If the bike you’re looking at did get picked up by reviewers, have a proper read. What did they say about it? If it’s got bad reviews, take note. It’s often useful to read a few different reviews to get a broad sense, but generally, these reviewers know what they’re talking about.

Colour is the main selling point

We all want our bikes to look nice. But when deciding on a new bike, it can be tempting to go for the bikes that look the nicest, rather than the ones that perform the best. Producers of cheap bikes know this, and draw attention to the colour choices they offer, rather than the specification of their bikes.

The best bike manufacturers provide lots of options of colours, sure. But generally speaking, they don’t offer a customiser where you can choose the colour of the frame, fork and wheels. They’re far too busy designing and producing quality bikes - and if they do, it's usually as an add-on, like the Cannondale's Special Project Alex Paton used to modify the colourway on his CAAD13.

If you get the sense that a brand is trying to sell you on colour options rather than bike specs, it’s probably a cheaply-produced, overpriced bike.

Bells and whistles

OK, we need to caveat this one by saying that every new bike comes with a bell – it’s a legal requirement. But we’re talking about figurative bells and whistles: whacky frame designs, funky features, bold claims in the product page.

If you’re getting a bike that’s at the lower end of the market, the chances are that all those add-ons are just bits of tinsel designed to catch your eye. At this price range, quality is often synonymous with simplicity: any added extras are taking budget away from the important stuff, and designed to distract your attention from the poor quality of the bike.

Deep profile wheels

The deep profile wheels you see on high-end bikes are really expensive. They’re handmade from carbon fibre to make them super light, super strong, and super aerodynamic.

So if you spot deep-profile wheels in this low price bracket, you can safely assume they’ve made some serious corner cuts.

Generally speaking, deep wheels on budget bikes will be made from aluminium. They’re designed to look good, not to ride well. These wheels will be incredibly heavy and slow, and it’s likely that the bearings will be low quality, and probably not sealed off from the elements.

Non-STI levers

Even on bikes that cost less than £500/$650/€550, you can get modern STI (‘Shimano Total Integration’) levers. These are a type of lever that combines the brake and gear levers in one neat device, giving you clean, uncluttered handlebars and easily accessible gear shifting.

The cheapest bikes on the market will be equipped with old-fashioned gear shifters mounted on the tops. These are going to offer a dramatically worse shifting experience, as you’ll have to move your hands to the tops of the bars to make a gear change. If you're not confident riding with only one hand on the bars, you might really struggle to change gear. Which is not what you want.

Non-branded components

Shimano makes a number of component groupsets for the lowest end of the price range, so even on the cheapest road bikes, you can expect to find Shimano branded parts. If you’ve found a bike that comes with non-branded components, it’s probably worth moving on.

Non-branded components have no guarantee of quality, and will likely be made in the simplest way possible, so instead of gears and cogs that are carefully machined, they’ll likely be die-cut and stamped into shape. The shifting performance will be poor, the weight will be high, and the lifespan will be short.

If you're looking for a budget bike, scepticism is key

With so many no-nos, it might feel like finding a decent bike at the bottom end of the price range is impossible. In fact, all it takes is a bit of research. Keep your eye out for reputable brands, be sceptical of things that seem too good to be true, and aim for a simple, quality bike, rather than something over-complicated or flashy.

You can explore more buying advice over on the GCN website, linked here.

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