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Smart Buying

Road Bikes on the Fast Track

Cycling enthusiasts have plenty of great bikes to choose from -- or you can order a bicycle built especially for you.

Wander into your local bicycle shop these days -- and brace for sticker shock. The price tags on sleek road bikes might set your eyeballs spinning. The hefty prices reflect rising costs for titanium and other high-quality materials. But the truth is, cycling has found a hot market among upscale buyers looking for a truly high-tech ride. Quite a few 2006 models retail for $2,500 to more than $4,000. It's possible, though unnecessary, to spend a whopping $10,000 on a bike.

Bike manufacturers are as eager as anyone to indulge expensive tastes. But before you go out and spend thousands of dollars on a ride, think about how much bike you really need. If you just want a bike to tool around town, you can get by with a "hybrid" bike for a few hundred bucks. A hybrid -- essentially a cross between a mountain bike and a road bike -- has a heavier frame and thicker tires than a road bike. But it can be an ideal re-introduction to cycling if you haven't pedaled much since eighth grade or you cannot imagine going much further than the nearest pub or the bike racks at the train station.

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A good neighborhood bike dealer can outfit you for around $500 with a durable ride. The Trek 7500 hybrid, for example, is simple and sturdy. You sit upright, and you'll feel fewer jolts than with a lightweight, racing-style road bike with drop-down handlebars.

Bikes for the long road

What if you're a cycling enthusiast and want to ride 35 or 50 miles a day with a partner or in a group? Constant refinements have made production-model road bikes better than ever, with lighter, tougher frames, lighter wheels, ever-smoother gear systems and more precise handling almost standard. This is the type of bike you should expect to pay up for. A Trek Madone or a Serotta Fierte cost about $3,000 at All American Bicycle Center, in Damascus, Md., near my home. And they could be all the bike you would ever want. Lower-priced road bikes, at about $1,000, aren't awful, but you'll be hauling some extra weight because inexpensive frames and components are heavier. In a hilly area, in a hot climate, if you ride in fast company, or if you like to clock 50 miles a day, you'll regret the extra heft.

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Custom-built bikes

Your options don't stop with what you can find at your local bike store. Maybe you're a skilled cyclist who yearns to go faster and harder. You've got back or knee problems. Or you're unusually tall, short, or plain difficult to fit, with long legs and short arms. Then you're a candidate for a custom-built bicycle. I know of what I speak, because two years ago I presented Debbie, my cyclist-wife (she sometimes puts it in that order), with a built-to-order Serotta titanium bike ordered through All-American Bicycle Center.

Deb is 5 feet 2 inches and has short arms. She's been on the road since college, picking up the sport from her late father, an enthusiast who toured back roads in West Virginia. But this is the first bicycle Deb's ever owned that "feels like it's an extension of me," she says. Or, "you forget about the machine you're on, it becomes invisible" says Matt Bracken, part of the management team at Independent Fabrication, a Boston-area custom bike builder that builds about two bicycles a day at an average price of $7,500.

I've gabbed with other cyclists (the word "bikers" refers to the likes of Ben Roethlisberger) at club rides and organized events, and everyone I've ever asked is positively wild about his or her custom-built bike. Maybe it's the fame of Lance Armstrong, or perhaps it's all the aging baby boomers looking for fun ways to shed pounds, but the bike business is rolling.

Mike DeSalvo, owner of DeSalvo Custom Cycles in Ashland, Ore., says he builds 130 to 150 bikes to order a year, at prices from $2,600 to $5,500. That's twice as many as he crafted a couple of years ago. DeSalvo, one of perhaps a hundred tiny independent builders in America, says from when he gets your deposit until you have your bike, you'll wait three to five months. He says he knows of other bike builders who are backed up for two years.

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Every expert will tell you the most critical aspect is fit. The process begins with a detailed set of measurements.

There are two ways to do this. One is to go to a dealer and have a certified fit expert (the shop owner or a master mechanic who is trained) sit you down on an assembly that resembles a bicycle frame with a seat but without wheels. Like a tailor, the bike fitter takes your dimensions -- height, reach, inseam, shoulder width and more -- and sends the data to the manufacturer.

Or you can correspond directly with the factory, often online, by completing a form with the same personal information. Independent Fabrication describes this process in the Custom Frame Order Guide at its Web site, www.ifbikes.com. Independent occasionally builds a bike directly for a customer without a fitting at a bike shop, but only if the buyer lives a great distance from a dealership. And there is no change in the price. The small bike builders have no interest in competing directly with their often equally small dealers.

Once you place an order, the artisan responsible for your frame may call to discuss some particulars, such as how comfortable you are leaning far forward or if you prefer to be more upright. You'll have a few decisions, such as whether you want to pay up for titanium or carbon fiber or economize with the slightly heavier and stiffer steel. A titanium frame will probably cost you $2,000 now, while steel is half that. The rest of the bike's price depends on your choices of gear systems, wheels and tires, and paint and trim.

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But the heart of a bicycle is the frame. It's a work of geometry and engineering, so bike builders rely on computer-aided design hardware and software. As they work, your bike progresses from a dream to a set of specifications to an image on a screen. Then the skilled craftsmen and women do the welds and the rest of the construction.

If you're buying a bike directly from the factory, people there will discuss your options and finish up the cycle so it's ready to ride. You can make arrangements to come pick it up yourself.

Another allure of a custom bicycle is the look. Just as you can order an automobile and select a color scheme and trim, you can personalize a bicycle in countless ways. Independent Fabrication has more than 30 paint and decal options, including vinyl words and phrases ($50 a word) and, of course, your name. You can leave a frame unpainted (titanium looks great, like bright silver) and just go with decals -- a good idea if you're counting every tenth of an ounce. Believe me, the pros do. On that score, a gossamer-weight carbon water-bottle holder can cost $75 but makes it easier to grab your drink while you're moving along at speed.

The bike industry offers a limitless variety of seats, wheels, grips and bar ends. Those are useful so you have several hand positions, which helps to avoid hand and wrist fatigue on a long ride. And once you're out there 20 hours a week, you'll want, and probably decide that you require, several drawers full of jerseys, shorts, wind and rain jackets and, not to be flippant, color-coordinated helmets and shoes. But it all starts with the wheels.