The Insider’s Guide To Building A Road Bike and Going On Your First Long Distance Ride

Note: This is a guest article by my friend Jason. It’s not the normal type of article I have here, but I asked him for this specific article because I was interested in the information. If you’ll remember, I have plans to ride Route 66 by bike. I don’t know when that will happen, but it’s on my “fun things to do when I’m not already doing something fun” list. If you’re ever planning on doing a long distance bike trip you’ll get lots out of this information.

In May 2010, I completed my first solo long-distance bike trip. I rode from Chicago to Detroit over the span of 3 days, traveling just over 300 miles. When I first got the idea to do this, one of my goals was to build/assemble the bike I’d be riding. There were two reasons for this. One was to save a significant amount of money by not paying retail price for a bike that someone else put together in a bike shop. The other was so that if something needed to be fixed/adjusted along the way, I’d have the requisite knowledge to do so. When I was in my teens, I frequently worked on my BMX-style bike, replacing and upgrading parts as needed. That bike, however, only had one speed and as such I’d never worked on a bike with multiple gears, shifters, and derailleurs.

Having never done a ride of this proportion and not really knowing anyone who had, I spent a lot of time researching the equipment I’d need and just as importantly, where I could get this equipment for the lowest price possible. Everything I bought can be found on the internet but as I will explain, there is an advantage to getting some of this stuff in a store (even if it costs a few bucks more). I’ve also included some after-the-fact observations – things that I really want to stress to anyone attempting to ride 50+ miles in a day.

I just completed the same trip again this past weekend, and with only a few exceptions all of the equipment I describe below worked out well enough that I relied on it for both rides.

Of course, the right equipment can only get you so far. The information I provide here will get you off to a great start but it’s up to you to train effectively so that you are physically ready to attempt such a thing. How? It’s not rocket science. I trained for my first trip by starting off with short to medium distances of 30-40 miles and then adding another 10 miles or so each week until I was confident I could go 100 miles in a day and then wake up and do it all over again… and again.

I’d also suggest getting yourself as close to your ideal body weight (whatever that is) as you can by throwing out the junk food and eating a healthy diet. If the combination of a healthy diet and logging serious miles on a bike doesn’t make you shed the pounds, I don’t know what will. I didn’t alter my diet at all last year, but did so roughly one month before I started training this year and it worked wonders for my energy levels and stamina. What worked for me was Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Body. Yes, I was skeptical at first but the results speak for themselves. I started at 180 pounds on March 6 and as I write this (May 16) I weigh 159. I’ve done no rigorous exercise over that span other than riding my bike 2-5 hours/day, 1-2 days a week. I’ve gained noticeably more muscle mass in my arms and legs throughout the training process, so that’s at least 25 pounds of fat gone in 2 months. Boom. Anyway…

Wheels

I bought my wheels from Bicycle Wheel Warehouse and would stick with these guys unless there is a specific brand/model you want and they don’t have it. They build wheels by hand and do a great job. From what I remember, their prices are pretty competitive. Some online retailers just put the spokes on there but don’t “true” up the wheel, so either you have to know what you are doing and adjust them yourself, or take your wheels to a bike shop and have them do the adjustment (for a price). I spent $190 on a set of Mavic Open Pros and I think they are pretty kick-ass. They came with Shimano Ultegra hubs which are compatible with the Shimano rear cassette I bought, and they were good to go right out of the box. You can configure spoke/stem/hub options on whatever you buy here, if you want to.

Frames/Misc Parts

I bought my frame, handlebars, and seat post from Bike Island. Their website looks somewhat questionable, but my order was delivered quickly and the shipping was/is free. I bought the cheapest frame they had in my size that also included the stem/fork/headset. Most are frame-only, so if you went that route you’d have to buy the rest of the parts I just mentioned separately. There are videos on YouTube that show you how to measure yourself for a frame, and you need to figure that out first. Selection at Bike Island is somewhat limited, but this place generally only carries quality components so that you don’t have to pick through a bunch of garbage to find something good.

Where I bought my crankset, brakes, rear derailer, and cassette…

I kind of get the impression that Jenson USA probably doesn’t have the best deals all the time, but for whatever reason when I was pricing stuff out last year they had great prices on previous-year SRAM components. It’s definitely worth giving them a look. My brakes and “drivetrain” are all SRAM. They are newer to the market than Shimano but from everything I’ve read the quality of their products is comparable. Even better, their prices are usually significantly cheaper than Shimano’s for equivalent-tier stuff. My components came from the ’08 and ’09 Rival series, which is the bottom of their three price tiers (Red > Force > Rival). I couldn’t be happier with what I have, so I can’t imagine why you’d need to upgrade unless you’re entering the Tour de France or something. I found places that sold the whole Rival set (brakes, crankset, levers, etc) as a bundle but as I was pricing things out, I found it to be cheaper to order the components separately. That may or may not still be the case.

Tons of parts, generally low prices

Nashbar’s selection can be a bit daunting, but they have pretty much everything you could ever need. I used this site mainly for odds and ends; things like brake lights, head lamps, extra cable, chains, tools, etc. I got my front derailleur here as well, since I already knew what model I wanted (’09 SRAM Rival) and they had the best price.

And now for some general advice…

Pedals

I’d recommend clipless pedals/shoes, though they aren’t a necessity. If you’re not familiar with them, clipless pedals use a locking mechanism to attach to the bottom of special cleated riding shoes. Since the foot is locked in place, clipless pedals basically allow a rider to pull up as well as push down on the pedals for more efficiency and power. I did last year’s ride on a set of cheap platform pedals with toe-clips and a pair of running shoes, but I’m sure it was more difficult as a result. I also had a numb big toe on my left foot for almost 2 weeks following the ride. Not good! Buy these in-store somewhere, or at least try some shoes on and figure out exactly what you want before ordering online.

Bike Computer

I bought a Planet Bike Protege 9.0 Wireless 9-Function Bike Computer. It tells you speed, temperature, distance, etc. A bike computer really doesn’t have to be anything fancy. I chose the wireless version because I didn’t want to have another wire cluttering things up on my handlebars, and it was only $5 more than its wired counterpart. Come to think of it, a bike computer is probably not even totally necessary but I like to know distances/current speed instantly without having to mess around with mapping software on my phone. It’s up to you. For $40 (or less), I think it’s totally worth it.

Lights

  • Headlamp: Get something that takes AAA or AA batteries and is bright. I got a 2-watt lamp, which I think is plenty: Planet Bike Blaze 2Watt LED Headlight It cost $50, which I know sounds totally crazy for what is basically a small flashlight. But when my cheap ($12) LED one kept running out of juice on US-12 at 10pm near New Buffalo, MI and I had to keep stopping in the dark to recharge it, I would’ve gladly paid $200 for the one I have now.
  • Tail Light: Just get something cheap. I got this one: Planet Bike Blinky 5 If you’re spending more than $15 for a tail light, you’re probably overpaying. Brightness isn’t as big of a deal as it is with a headlamp since it’s only there so people can see you, not so that you can see the road. Again, make sure it takes AA or AAA batteries!

Padded Bike Shorts

I personally wouldn’t take a 40+ mile trip without my padded bike shorts. Your ass may vary. The brand/style I have is water resistant and breathes really well. I am not a fan of the Spandex look, so the fact that these could pass for normal cargo shorts is a big plus in my book.

SmartWool Socks

These. An absolute necessity, as far as I’m concerned. They magically keep your feet dry and don’t bunch up like cotton socks do over time. They make different thicknesses; I’ve tried the Light and Ultra Light. I like Light the best. SmartWool socks are usually $10+/pair, but you’re crazy to do a 300+ mile ride without bringing 2-3 pairs. Especially if it rains. At all. I also bring Gold Bond powder just in case. Wet feet -> Blisters -> Misery. For you vegans reading this, I’m not sure if there are non-wool alternatives that perform as well as SmartWool. That would definitely be worth looking into, though, unless you plan on burning several thousand calories/day without breaking a sweat.

Water Storage

I have a small CamelBak, which I really like, but as long as you have some way of carrying at least a liter of water you should be fine. The water pouch in my pack is rated at 3L, but I think it’s actually closer to 2.5L. I found that I was consuming roughly 1L for every 35-45 miles. My CamelBak was also my clothes/supplies storage space but I plan on getting a rack this time around so I can shift the extra weight from my back to the bike’s frame.

Padded Cycling Gloves

Another absolute necessity. If you ride more than 40 miles or so without them, the palms of your hands WILL be destroyed regardless of what kind of handlebar grip tape you use. I got my gloves at REI. Try some on before buying. Most of the ones I tried on did not fit well. Look for plenty of padding at the heel of the hand, and preferably cut-off fingers so your hands don’t get too hot. Cut-off fingers also make you look meaner!

Avoid The “Gram Trap”

When shopping for bike components/frames you’ll see that prices vary wildly for things that seem functionally equivalent and get nearly identical reviews. This is usually due to weight (and brand, of course). The component manufacturers love to brag about how many grams something weighs. The fewer the grams the better, since less weight theoretically means you go faster. If you’re at your optimal body weight and are competing in races, by all means pay attention to grams. It will give you a slight competitive advantage. If you’re a normal person, like me, don’t worry about it. Carbon fiber is all the rage due to the fact that it weighs less than aluminum and is still reasonably strong. In practice, though, it’s not as big of an upgrade as the manufacturers would have you believe. For instance, the difference between the aluminum SRAM brake/shift levers I have (340g) and the following year’s carbon-fiber version (325g) is 15 grams. As far as I can tell, they are identical in every other way except, of course, price. You know what else weighs 15 grams? Six U.S. pennies. Yeah. Yet, my aluminum levers cost me less than half of what the carbon ones would have. And yes, I know older stuff is normally cheaper anyway but my point is that if you have the chance to go way cheaper at the cost of a few grams, go for it.

When shopping for this stuff online, it’s easy to get bogged down in details because you don’t have a lot else to go on without having the thing physically in front of you. My advice would be to pick a price you’re comfortable with, find products in that price range, and then search around bike review forums (there are a ton of them) for reviews from regular people who have those products. If the reviewer starts blabbing about grams, go onto the next one. Be more concerned about durability/ergonomics/ease of use and by the time you get it on your bike, you won’t know the difference anyway.

After all that, if you’re still concerned about weight, my advice is this: bust your ass and drop 5-10 pounds (if you have it to lose). That will offset all of the lighter upgrades you were planning to buy. Congratulations, you just saved hundreds of dollars!

REI

You can buy a lot of these accessories at REI. I signed up for their membership co-op. There is a membership fee and I don’t remember how much it is, but my first purchase of a CamelBak, shorts, a helmet, and some socks (at the new member discount) more than paid for the lifetime membership fee. They also pay out a dividend on past purchases. I don’t plan on buying enough stuff there to make it really matter, but the new member discount helped me save a couple bucks up front. Ultimately, you will probably be able to save a little money if you buy things like socks, gloves, shorts, etc. from the sites I mentioned previously as opposed to in-store (just like with any other type of product), but it’s nice to be able to try them on at one place and avoid the hassle of having to return things that don’t fit.

What Else?

Of course, there are plenty of things besides equipment to consider when attempting long-distance rides. If serious riding is something you’re interested in and you have questions about training/preparation, nutrition, road selection, etc., hit me up on Twitter: @sigsegfalt. I’d be more than happy to tell you what I’ve learned, and to hear about any cool trips you might have planned.

{ 16 comments }

JL goes Vegan

This is really great information! I agree with padded shorts — I use shorts with a thinner chamois (tri shorts) for rides under 30 but definitely need more for half-centuries or longer. I’m with you on the SmartWool, too — winter or summer the perfect sock. Just now dealing with the moral dilemma of veganism and wool (but that’s my journey, not a judgment)

Karol, anxious to read about your bike adventure!

Karol

I’m still not sure what to do about the SmartWool. I had a pair and they were good. But now I used synthetic moisture wicking socks and they work well. Not sure how they’d hold up on a long bike tour though.

Jenny

Wow! I just did a Chicago to Detroit tour a week ago, though I did it in 5 days. Nothing like biking in 45 degree pouring rain, right? I rode the road bike I already have and ride daily anyway, but some day I’d like to build up my own touring bike like you describe so I could have a rack and panniers.

Karol

Oh sweet! When Jason did the ride last year he had a ton of rain and cold weather to deal with as well.

Salvatore Greco

WOW DUDE…. This is an INSANE resource for this… I think this SINGLE blog post is making a TON of bicycle sites jealous!!!

This seems to be all the rage… A girl from my town here in Florida, got fed up with life recently and just rode all the way to Cali using nothing but GOOGLE MAPS on her mobile device lol.

Thanks for this… and Karol, when Roller Coaster Tour is Done… and Route66BikeJourney.com begins…. COUNT ME IN!!!!

Karol

Yeah, Jason is a meticulous researcher so even though it’s not like a normal article here it adds more sweetness than most articles I write. I agree, incredible resource.

Route 66 bike tour is tentatively scheduled … for early Summer 2013! haha

Joseph Rice

this was a sweet guest post. i’m going to share this one with all my biker friends.

Karol

Nice! Thanks Joseph!

Elana Miller

Hey cool post idea. I’m the process of trying to buy a road/get around town bike. I’m not quite at the “build my own bike” stage.

On a totally unrelated topic to this post, I just watched the interview you did with Tyler for Guerrilla Influence Formula. Really good! Do I detect a slight accent? Maybe from the Polish youth? People tell me all the time they think I have an accent, but I’m a born and bred Californian, so I don’t have an excuse :-)

Karol

Well, I was born in Poland, but I came here at the age of 1 so I shouldn’t have much of that accent. What you likely hear is my Michigan accent coming through. :)

Craig

I’ve ridden from NY to Boston for charity… some of these things sure would have come in handy then!

Thankfully, I ride a recumbent, so the padded shorts are a non-issue for me.

Susan Alexander

Karol: Great post.

I totally admire someone who’s into bike building. I’m not sure I’ll ever quite get there, but I’ve learned to never say never.

Great resources. Thanks so much for sharing. I’d like to share a few back:

Great site on cycling gear (with how to use info):
http://www.dcrainmaker.com/

For your women readers: my fave padded shorts are from Mellow Johnny’s:
http://bit.ly/lWq34O

Love my CycleOps Fluid Trainer – I’ve gotten many, many rides in over the years that never would have happened otherwise (works especially well with a good playlist and my eyes closed at 5:30 a.m.)
http://bit.ly/jsYMWg

I did a great trip last summer in France – the group I was with rode parts of some of the stages of the Tour de France while it was going on. Super hard. Super awesome. It was a treat, a month later, to ride on Martha’s Vineyard, which is very flat. I’ve ridden in Colorado as well (Vail and Colorado Springs). Both great.

Let me know if you’re ever in NYC and we can loop around Central Park a bit.

Susan

Karol

Thanks for all the additional links and input Susan!

I’ll be in Brooklyn in August, but won’t have a bike. I’d like to take you up on that ride another time though!

Jonathan

What an awesome “diversion”. I have wanted to do a long distance bike ride for as long as I can remember, inspired way back when by the writings of Ken Kifer.

Karol

Not familiar with Ken Kifer. Just looked on Amazon, but didn’t find anything. Where can I find his writings?

Wong Jia Jun

Wow, quite a professional explanation for building up our own road bike.
For me it’s been around 10 or more years that I didn’t ride a bike, and I miss that feeling of riding a bike and capture the natural wind and speed on the bike. :D
Any images of the bike that is complete set and build? Interest to see. :p

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