Little innovations make a big difference for riders

Design changes in bikes this season have something for just about everyone on the trails, tracks or road

All bikes tend to look alike at first. But a closer look reveals some clever design innovations this year that give world-class triathletes, gonzo mountain bikers, traveling tandem aficionados and raw rookie road riders alike exactly what they want: a little more speed, a lot more versatility, way more practicality and even an economical deal that might leave you enough to buy a nice pair of bike shorts.

The Ironman champ's wheels

Scott Plasma Team Issue: Aerodynamic carbon-fiber speed machine for triathlons and time trials that was ridden by 2014 Hawaii Ironman winner Sebastian Kienle. Includes add-on hydration nose cone, glove box and high-end Zipp wheels.

Likes: It must be fast; after all, it won. The striking Darth Vader look is the result of an unusually integrated design, which hides cables inside the tubes and seamlessly blends a clip-on water bottle up front and a storage compartment on the top tube. Although road racers can remove the latter items to meet UCI requirements, the bike is actually more aero with them on, Scott claims. Nice wind-cheating touches to the frame include a relatively small down-tube profile (to cut the side-gust disturbance in windy Hawaii) and "turbo" chain stays, which have a slight drill-bit-like twist from vertical to flat, from front to rear (which supposedly cleans up "dirty" air turbulence). The wheel set, Zipp's 404 front and 808 rear, is the Ironman gold standard. Despite all the aerodynamic stuff, it's fairly comfortable during a grueling 112-mile ride because of the height-adjustable aero bars.

Dislikes: It's not tax deductible.

Price: $11,999; Premium model, $6,999.

Two, three, four bikes in one

Pivot LES Fat: Do-it-all carbon-framed, non-suspension mountain bike with massive wheel clearance and adjustable chain stays to accommodate a wide range of tire sizes, including 4-inch-wide "fat" tires, 29er off-road wheels, and skinny road wheels.

Likes: The versatility. Fat bikes are cool and everyone wants one — until the snow melts. Now, instead of a heavy, ponderously slow hippo taking up space in your garage all spring, summer and fall, you just swap out the wheels and get a 29er mountain bike, a road touring bike, a single speed, 10-speed or 20-speed, or something in-between. To keep an ideal geometry and tire clearance for whatever wheels and tire combo you choose, the bike includes Pivot's patented Swinger II dropout system, which effectively adjusts chainstay length via an indexed adjustment arc of the dropouts. To maintain proper front-end angles, it comes with two headset cup options (0 millimeters and 18 mm). The bike is RockShox Bluto suspension-fork compatible, and includes Pivot's internal routing and access ports, rear rack mounts, internal dropper post routing and three water bottle mounts. The frame and fork together weigh 5.2 pounds.

Dislikes: Are you ready to have a lot of extra wheels lying around?

Price: $2,599 for frame/fork/headset; $4,699 for complete bike with carbon fork and Sram XO1.

Easy take-apart tandem

Ritchey Break-Away Double Switchback Tandem: Steel-framed tandem that comes apart in several sections and packs in two suitcases (included).

Likes: Easy to travel with. The biggest hassle of a tandem (I know — I own one) is transporting it, a problem solved by Ritchey's simple, ingenious Break-Away system. The system requires a simple unscrewing of a few quick-disconnect cables and tightening/loosening three frame couplers with standard 4 mm and 5 mm Allen wrenches (as opposed to specific tools required on coupling systems used on other tandems). An additional benefit: You get two bikes in one, as the disk-brake-outfitted frame accepts 700c road wheels/tires and 27.5 mountain-bike wheels/tires.

Dislikes: All tandems are expensive, and this is no exception. It'll be twice the price below when you're done building the bike, which is only available as a frame and fork.

Price: $2,995 (frame and fork only).

Beginner disk-brake road bike

GT Grade Alloy Claris: Economy 16-speed aluminum road bike with a carbon fork and disk brakes.

Likes: A real deal. Somebody at GT is a good shopper, because combining an aluminum alloy frame with carbon-fiber fork, disk brakes and Shimano's Claris 16-speed drivetrain gives you a fast and safe beginner road bike at a price no other big-name brand can touch. Disk brakes are simply better than the century-old rim brakes, but not all road bikes have them yet — especially at this price. You can pay a couple hundred more to upgrade to nicer 20-speed bikes from Diamondback, KHS and GT itself, but for a good, economical intro to road cycling, the Grade Claris makes the grade. GT's signature "triple triangle" frame design is distinctively stylish too. The stock 28c-width tires are comfy enough to ride all day on and can handle some gentle fire roads.

Dislikes: It lacks a triple chain ring (i.e. "granny gear") for getting up hills at a slow, easy pace, which some beginners may miss.

Price: $870.

Wallack is the coauthor of "Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100 — and Beyond."

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