Buyer's Guide to Road Bikes
What type of road bike should I buy? It's a question we hear often. Whether you're looking for the best beginner road bike or a top-end racing bike, we're here to help. Today, the best bike brands offer more models than ever in a wider variety of price points, and there is a dazzling array of options to choose from. Drivetrains run from standard, entry-level fare all the way to ultralight, 22-speed electric-shifting systems; brakes come in an astounding variety including lightweight dual-pivot calipers, aerodynamic hidden-mount rim brakes, and powerful hydraulic discs; and wheelsets run the gamut from sturdy to aerodynamic to ethereally light.
We'll explain the decisions you need to make and offer advice on everything from frame materials and wheels to gearing and component choices.
Types of Road Bike
Road bikes are offered to suit a wide assortment of riding styles and disciplines. Some are incredibly lightweight and super responsive but may not feel great when you take them out on imperfect road surfaces. Aerodynamic bikes are designed for maximum speed and efficiency but might not be the most comfortable ride for long days in the saddle. Endurance road bikes may ride beautifully on rough chip-sealed roads, but can have a little more heft to them when it comes time for a climb. Here are the three most common varieties.
Nothing is more iconic to bicycling than the traditional performance road bike. They conjure iconic mountain summits, long rides through gorgeous countryside, and heroic battles for the podium. They deliver a responsive ride and excel in general road situations. Performance bikes are usually excellent climbers, but also can be a real boon in windy conditions where an aero bike might be blown around. However, race-oriented models do sacrifice a little bit of comfort and compliance in favor of superior stiffness.
Aero road bikes are built to save time, cheat wind, and maximize your potential. Using advanced manufacturing techniques, highly shaped tubes and wind tunnel testing, aero bikes can give you a significant advantage over traditional equipment. The deep-section tubing uses a little more material than their performance cousins, so they frequently weigh a few hundred grams more, and aero bikes can be buffeted by crosswinds due to their increased tube sizes.
Endurance bikes really excel when the going gets rough. Longer wheel bases, taller head tubes, larger tire clearance, and tuned construction generally lend more stability and compliance: perfect for long rides and bad roads. They are not as light as a traditional road bike, and don't provide the aerodynamic advantage of an aero bike. But, their smooth ride keeps you comfortable and consistent over rough terrain. This actually saves energy, leaving you stronger, faster, and more relaxed at the end of the day.
Anatomy of a Road Bike
Road bikes are loaded with high-tech componentry. The frame, wheels, fork, tires, crank, cassette, and pedals can all impact how the bike will ride. An overview on every single part and how it applies to every single bike would be unwieldy, so here's an overview of some spotlight components on road bike.
Road bikes commonly use 2 chain rings, paired to a ten- or eleven-speed cassette. The front derailleur shifts the chain across the chain rings while the rear derailleur moves the chain from cog to cog. Value-minded bikes will have fewer cogs (or speeds) on the cassette. A drivetrain with 2 chain rings and 10 cassette cogs will have 20 speeds (2 x 10). The more speeds on a cassette, the smaller the gaps between shifts. Say you're pedaling up a hill and your legs are starting to burn—a downshift on a 10 speed cassette will be less noticeable than a downshift on a 7 speed cassette.
Electronic shifting is becoming more common on road bikes. Instead of the traditional cables used to move derailleurs, electronic systems use servos, programmable switches, and a battery. These systems are incredibly fast, and can be programmed in almost limitless ways.
Weight, hub engagement, and shape all have massive impact on how well a bike performs. With advances in carbon fiber, aluminum, and tire technology, rims are getting lighter, more aerodynamic, and faster. A lighter rim decreases the rotational weight of a wheel, making it easier to accelerate and change direction. Another factor to consider is shape. Deeper, more aerodynamic rims save energy over a long ride, but can be troublesome in crosswinds.
Some wheel systems include tubeless-compatible rims and tires. Tubeless systems use a sealed rim and special tire that locks into place. This allows riders to run lower, more comfortable tire pressures and provides additional protection from flats. This is a special system and can be complex to get set up, but is relatively trouble free once you're going.
Caliper brakes are mounted to the bicycle frame and apply pressure directly to the wheel. These have long been the road standard and have a number of benefits over disc brakes: calipers are lighter, can offer better modulation and are a bit easier to service.
Disc brakes have been commonplace on mountain bikes for the last decade, and are now appearing more frequently in the road world. A brake lever actuates a caliper; the pistons in the caliper compress the brake pads on to the rotor which, in turn, slows the wheel. The benefits of disc brakes are excellent stopping power and all-weather dependability.
Either system requires specialized frames, forks, and hubs. Therefore, you generally cannot switch from one to the other on the same frame.
Bike Frame Materials
Road bikes are generally made from steel, aluminum, titanium, or carbon fiber. There is no "right" or "wrong" material. Remember, two frames can be constructed of the same thing yet have entirely different ride qualities due to variations in geometry, assembly, and material manipulation. This is one of the reasons it's so important to test ride the bikes you're considering.
Carbon fiber (also called "carbon" and "composite") is unique because it's not a metal. It starts out as a fabric that's impregnated with resin. The resulting material can be formed into tubes or shaped in molds and is usually cured with pressure and heat, turning the material into a solid structure. Frames made from carbon fiber are extremely light, stiff, and durable. Carbon's greatest advantage is that it can be manipulated in endless ways. Builders can fine-tune it to provide just about any ride quality. Carbon is a popular material for forks due to its lightness and natural ability to absorb shocks.
Aluminum was first used in frame construction in 1895 and quickly became one of the most popular materials for bicycle frames. Advances in aluminum alloys and construction techniques have given bikes a better ride and made them more cost effective to produce. Many frames use immense water pressure, a process called hydroforming, to create complex tube shapes that reduce weight and refine ride quality. In general, aluminum is a lighter weight, more responsive ride than steel, but is not as light or comfortable as carbon fiber.
Steel has been used by frame builders for well over a century. It offers excellent ride quality and durability. There are many different steels available, from standard 4130, better known as "chromoly," all the way to boutique stainless steel tubesets that offer even more refined rides and lighter weight. Steel frames are famous for their combination of responsiveness and comfort, though they are generally heavier than those built of lighter materials such as aluminum and carbon, and can be prone to corrosion if not taken care of. Steel is also an excellent fork material. It's plenty strong, and it also absorbs shock to soften rough roads.
Titanium (also called "ti") is one of the longest lasting, lightest, and most expensive frame materials. Some cyclists and experts feel that it combines the best characteristics of all the other frame materials. It rivals aluminum in weight, is as comfortable as steel, is impervious to corrosion, and has a sprightly ride. Titanium frames are expensive to produce, which helps explain their higher typical purchase price. The two common types of titanium are 3Al/2.5V and 6Al/4V. These designations refer to the amount of aluminum (Al) and vanadium (V) used in the titanium alloy.
Tips to Make Your Purchase Perfect
Now that you have an idea on what road bike to get, it's time to come into our store and do some test riding to see how the models compare in person. This will complete the picture and give you a chance to see what you get at the various price points.
- Proper fit is much more important than price. No matter how nice the bike, it will be uncomfortable if it doesn't fit you properly. Come in to see us so we can size you and ensure that you get the right bicycle.
- Buy once. It's almost always less expensive to get the frame, wheels and components you want initially than to upgrade later.
- Remember, you'll need a few accessories before you head out on a ride. A water bottle and cage, bike computer, new helmet, and pedals will complete the package so you can get out on the road!