A Beginner’s Guide to Choosing a Road Bike
A Beginner’s Guide to Choosing a Road Bike
This article doesn’t go into much detail about how you should choosing a road bike. Instead, if you walk in and say, “I want to buy a road bike,” we’ll ask a common question a good bike shop employee might ask. We’ve broken this guide into three steps (with a fourth preferably), and you’ll find that these steps are often intertwined.
Step 1: What type of road riding are you planning to do?
The first answer is why you are interested in road cycling – it’s important to be honest with yourself. Is it for competitive racing and fast cycling, or is it for a more gentle leisure ride to raise your heart rate? Do you want to commute to work, or just hang out on weekends when the weather is nice? Or maybe you’re interested in longer rides and gravel roads, in which case maybe something like a gravel bike might be a better option?
Road bikes can mean different things to many people. Your local roads also vary greatly. Of course, riding the pristine tarmac in Switzerland is not the same as taking the back roads in Australia. Beyond that, not everyone has the same fitness, flexibility, or athleticism. The bike industry has something for almost everyone, but that doesn’t mean every bike is right for you. Different roads, riding styles and body types have all contributed to the diversity of modern road bikes. In the simplest sense, most brands’ road bike lines fall into three key categories:
Modern all-rounders are the kind of bikes you often see in the Alps during the Tour de France, so some call them climber bikes or general classification bikes. This is a bike designed to balance light weight, stiffness, comfort (sometimes) and aerodynamics – all to cover different roads as efficiently as possible.
The Giant TCR is a great example of a modern all-around race car. It has light weight and high stiffness as its priorities, but then also incorporates some ride comfort and aerodynamics.
These bike types often feature quick handling and aggressive fit that favors more experienced and/or sporty riders. They also usually come with 25 or 28mm wide tires and taller gearing. Just about every brand that sells road bikes has one, but popular examples include the Giant TCR, Specialized Tarmac, Trek Emonda, Cannondale SuperSix, Scott Addict RC, Merida Scultura, BMC Teammachine, and Canyon Ultimate.
aero road race
With similar handling and fit as an all-around racer, aero road bikes often trade absolute light weight for aerodynamic gains. These bikes are usually the most efficient option on flat or rolling terrain and are usually a good choice for more powerful riders. As most all-around race cars have become increasingly aero, dedicated aero race cars have lost some of their appeal.
Cervelo’s S5 is a machine designed to run fast. Aerodynamics comes at the expense of increased weight, reduced ride comfort, and increased cost.
Specific examples of aero road bikes include the Trek Madone, Giant Propel, Merida Reacto, Scott Foil, Ridley Noah and Cannondale SystemSix. This style of bike is also generally considered a premium product and therefore not suitable for smaller budgets.
Road to Endurance
Modern endurance road bikes are designed to take advantage of the sporty nature of the all-around racer, making them easier to use, comfortable and versatile. The fit is more relaxed, the ride is generally more compliant, the gearing is lower (easier to climb), and the steering characteristics are generally less tense. These are Volkswagen’s road bikes.
It’s worth noting that not all endurance road bikes are the same (and the same goes for road race bikes). Some are more relaxed and casual in design, while others are closer to racing.
Endurance road bikes exist at all price points, however, you’ll find that most entry-level road bike options generally tend to be bikes of this variation. Some popular examples of endurance road bikes include the Trek Domane, Specialized Roubaix, Cannondale Synapse, Giant Defy (and Contend), and Focus Paralane.
The Trek Domane Al Disc is an example of how endurance road bikes are changing. Domane is ready for mixed road riding.
Gravel bikes have boomed in recent years, and road sales have flattened. As a result, many of the latest endurance road bikes try to draw the line between road bikes and gravel bikes. Sadly, the “endurance” category has lost some of its luster among consumers, so in some cases (not all), the all-around brand is the bike industry’s way of adding a little bling.
Generalists, generalists, and how to tell them apart
While most road bikes fall into one of the three categories above, some noticeable convergence is sure to happen. Many race bikes now offer generous tire clearance, a wider gearing range, and even some decent ride comfort, making them more attractive to a larger market. Many brands have made their all-around racers more like their aero racers, and even loosened the fit and handling of these bikes. As just reported, some people have pushed their enduro road bikes to the gravel.
Cervelo Caledonia is the epitome of the modern all-rounder. This is an endurance bike with the characteristics of a race bike. More and more brands offer such all-around road bikes.
There are a few ways to help you remove marketing distractions and decipher where each bike is. A good tool is the bike’s “trajectory map”, which indicates how fast it is turning. The smaller the number, the faster the processing. Broadly speaking (there are many other factors that can affect this), trail numbers below 59mm suggest the bike is designed to feel fast and race-like, while 60mm and above should make the bike feel more docile.
The maximum tire clearance allowed and stock width are also a good indication of the bike’s intended use. Most modern race bikes will have 25 or 28mm tires, while enduro and all-road bikes typically have 30-32mm tires. Fender compatibility will also help determine whether the bike is built for racing or fun. The same applies to whether the bike has an easy-to-spin sub-compact crank or a compact crank (48/32 or 50/34, respectively), or a more race-like gearing (52 or 53T big ring).
For those living in wet climates, the ability to run full-length fenders is often a must. Most endurance road bikes are designed to work with full-length fenders, a feature rarely seen on dedicated race bikes.
Step 2: What is your budget?
The second step is likely to be the key deciding factor in your eventual bike purchase. So how much are you willing (or able) to spend? In the simplest sense, spending more will get you a higher-performance bike that is lighter, possibly more aerodynamic, more durable, and possibly even more comfortable. However, there are notable exceptions to this, and there is no doubt that the law of diminishing returns plays a big role in the world of road cycling.
Here are some key elements to consider. Many of these are larger topics, each offering a rabbit hole of research.
A more modest budget might keep your buying decision on an aluminum or steel frame. A bigger budget will open the door to carbon fiber or titanium for you. (Price ranges vary widely from one local market to another.)
An important point to note is that the exact type of material used is far less important than how the material is used. A beautifully designed aluminum frame is more fun to ride than a poorly designed carbon frame, as are all material choices.
Carbon fiber offers some impressive engineering potential. Most notably, it can form shapes that metal is difficult to form, while the material’s directionality can be used to adjust stiffness and comfort. Still, just because the frame is carbon doesn’t mean it’s better.
In other words, almost everyone at CT would rather ride a great aluminum frame than a mediocre carbon fiber frame. In general, you should invest in a good frame (appropriate) before worrying about the parts that are bolted to the frame.
The question of rim versus disc brakes is one of the most heated debates in modern road bikes. In short, the big names in the bicycle industry treat rim brakes as old technology, and almost all of their product development investment goes into progressive disc brakes.
Rim brakes are still the lighter option and will give you a lighter bike for the same price. At the same time, disc brakes are designed to provide better braking control (especially in wet conditions), open up clearance for wider tires, and are fast becoming the only option for many popular bikes from the big brands.
wheels are important
After the frame, the wheels (and tires) probably have the biggest impact on the ride. Discerning the differences between wheels can take an experienced eye, but some key factors to look out for are rim width (trends are at least 19mm wide), high-quality build with even spoke tension, and hub durability (e.g. DT Swiss and Shimano).
Wheelset weight can also be a factor in the feel of the bike. Roughly speaking, a road wheelset over 1,600 grams is considered to be on the heavy side, while wheelsets over 2,000 grams are often seen on entry-level bikes.
Transformation type and component level
Typically, the more you spend, the more gear your bike has and the smoother they run. As with most things in cycling, there is an inverse relationship between component weight and price.
The vast majority of road bikes on the market today feature Shimano components, with rivals SRAM and Campagnolo appearing on high-end bikes. Shimano’s component hierarchy, from cheapest to most expensive, is as follows: Claris, Sora, Tiagra, 105, Ultegra, and Dura-Ace. SRAM’s road ratings are Apex, Rival, Force and Red. (It’s hard to find Campagnolo on a complete bike).
The Shimano Tiagra is a fairly entry-level kit, but its shifting capabilities are excellent. The most obvious disadvantage is on the scale.
Those looking at Shimano Ultegra or higher bikes may need to decide between mechanical or electronic shifting (click the link for a full discussion on this topic).
It’s worth noting that the frame and wheels will play a bigger role in how well you enjoy the bike than the parts that are bolted to the bike. If you have a choice, buy a better frame and wheels first, then a better derailleur and shifter.
Where to buy
The internet age has brought a relatively new decision for bike buyers: buy from your local bike shop or buy it yourself online? The former gives you hands-on service and maybe access to the local riding community, while the latter is likely to have a price advantage.
Buying direct to consumer may mean you’ll get a bike in a box. Assembly and setup is one of the reasons to go through traditional channels, but making sure you get the right bike is the most critical reason.
Personally, I think buying a bike online is best left to people who know exactly how they like their bike to fit and are able to do basic maintenance themselves. For others, the hands-on experience and service a good local bike shop can offer has the potential to make a big difference to your cycling fun.
new or used
Following that last point is a decision on what to use and what to use. No doubt your money can go further with a used bike, but there are always risks associated with it. Much like the last point, I would suggest buying a used bike is only a good idea if you are confident in your bike’s fit and know basic maintenance to assess the condition of your bike.
extra cost budget
If you’re new to cycling, be sure to budget for all the extras you’ll need to ride a bike. Almost all new bikes don’t include pedals, and you’ll probably need some shoes to go with them as well.
Then, the cost of all the other must-haves will quickly add up: helmets, bike shorts/bibs, bottle cages, spare parts to fix flat tires, pumps—the list goes on.
Step 3: Fit Matters
Road cycling is a fairly stationary sport and you tend to ride in a stationary position for long periods of time. Gone are the days when road bikes were a pain to ride – you should be able to pedal without any discomfort. However, with the wrong size or setup, not only will you be uncomfortable, but you could put yourself at risk of injury. So making sure the bike fits you correctly is crucial.
Here, it’s important to be realistic about your flexibility and athleticism and choose the right bike. Aggressive racing might not be ideal if you don’t remember when the last time you touched your toes. Enduro bikes are designed for the masses, and most riders probably prefer this style of bike because it offers a more relaxed riding position.
The race bike is designed to keep you in an active riding position and reduce the frontal profile to the wind. In contrast, enduro bikes are more upright and put less stretch on the handlebars.
If you’re not sure where to start, then I highly recommend finding a good local bike shop. Experienced bike shop staff will be able to advise you on the right size bike and style for your needs.
When comparing multiple brands, it’s important to know that there is no industry standard for how bike sizes are marked. A 54cm frame from one brand may be equivalent to a 56cm frame from another brand, and the same applies to brands marked small, medium and large.
Thankfully, there’s a great guide to how the bike fits and compares to other bikes: Stacked and Reachable Figures. These two numbers are still the most reliable way to compare actual sizes between various bikes.
Step 4: If you can, take a test ride
This last step is something I’ve strongly recommended in the past, but the current pandemic era makes it all but impossible. The current supply of bikes is so limited that bike shops no longer offer demo fleets as they used to. It would be great if you could drive around the block even longer, and I encourage you to do so. However, there’s a good chance you’ll need to buy your next bike without testing it. If this is the case, get advice from someone you trust.
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