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Buying your first road bike is a pivotal moment in any rider’s cycling life.
You can expect to be spending a few hundred pounds, with plenty of models costing more than a perfectly decent car – so you want to be sure you’re making the right choice. Which is where this guide comes in.
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What is a road bike?
A ‘road bike’ is very much an umbrella term describing a machine designed for riding on tarmac. These bikes have narrow tyres, a lightweight frame and (in the vast majority of cases) drop handlebars to allow for multiple hand positions.
What types of road bike are there?
Riders who choose to spend their time cycling on the tarmac are of course varied, with many different motivations. Some use their road bikes to commute, others enjoy long drawn out days exploring the countryside, whilst some want to push the boundaries of their bodies to travel as fast as they can. Then there are those who want to do a little bit of everything, for as little money as possible.
As a result, there are many styles of road bike. Key differences are found in the geometry – the dimensions of various elements of the frame which position the rider in a way that runs on a scale of ‘relaxed’ to ‘head down/flat back’, as well as the components.
Here’s a look at some of the key road bike genres to help you narrow down your search:
Endurance/sportive road bikes
Comfortable road bikes designed for all-day riding, with a slacker geometry which puts the rider in a more upright position, often with wider tyres and disc brakes which work better in the wet, examples include the Trek Domane and Giant Defy.
Aero road bikes
Designed to slice through the air, aero bikes are stiff and efficient race machines which offer little comfort – such as the Trek Madone. Expect an aggressive geometry, putting the rider in a long and low position, with a high level of integration, including an integrated stem, hidden brakes and internal cable routing.
Road race and lightweight road bikes
Bikes designed for all-round road racing will have an aggressive geometry, like an aero bike, but will often be lighter and able to provide greater compliance. Quick handling is a must-have, too – these bikes are the GC riders of the bike world, examples include the Specialized Tarmac or the Cannondale SuperSix.
Entry level road bikes
You can pick up a road bike for just under £300 but you’ll get one that will keep you smiling for longer at the £1000 price point. The Specialized Allez is a popular entry level model, and Carerra and B’Twin bikes are also fast selling options.
Gravel and adventure road bikes
A lightweight frame and road handlebars combined with knobbly tyres, disc brakes and mud clearance mean gravel and adventure road bikes are ideal for mixed terrain riding, on and off-road.
Flat bar road bikes
Some popular road bike models are available with flat handlebars, like a hybrid bike, for those who don’t feel confident with or don’t feel they require a drop handlebar.
Women’s road bikes
All of the above are available in women’s specific designs – this sometimes involves tweaks to the geometry, or could mean that the key touch points are swapped to offer a better experience for female riders.
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Road bike frame material
The frame material used has a dramatic influence on the overall ride quality of a bike. The four most common options are carbon, aluminium, steel and titanium.
Quality carbon is by far the lightest, and most compliant (comfortable) material. Carbon can also be moulded into any shape – so it’s the most popular when it comes to aero bikes. The weakness of carbon is that it can be damaged in a crash, and that damage isn’t always immediately obvious.
Aluminium is usually mixed with another metal (such as silicon or magnesium) – to form an alloy. The combination of metals varies between alloy frames, and will be altered depending upon the level of comfort and stiffness required. Lighter frames will be butted – ideally triple butted – which means the material is thinner where it can be, to save weight, and stronger where it needs to be stiff.
Good aluminium can be lighter than bad carbon – but in most cases it’s heavier. However, it is generally stronger so a popular option amongst racers who want to rely upon their bike after a crash – the Cannondale CAAD12 is an example of an alloy crit racing steed.
Most alloy bikes will come with a carbon fork and seatpost, which will drop the weight of the bike and offer greater compliance – dampening out the bumps along the way.
Steel is a more traditional option. It’s generally heavier, but famous for its springy ride quality, and its pretty fail-safe in terms of longevity. Titanium, by contrast, is a hard-wearing metal that’s much lighter than steel.
Road bike components
So you know you want a comfortable endurance bike constructed with an aluminium frame, or an aero road bike with a carbon frame. Eventually (after some furious googling and hopefully a test ride or two) you’ll select a brand and a model family.
Most bike models are available at a variety of different price points. Generally, the frame remains largely the same, and the differences between the rungs on the price ladder relate to the groupset and other components.
The vast majority of built bikes come sporting Shimano groupsets, the hierarchy starting at Shimano Claris and topping out at Dura-Ace. The more you spend, the less likely you’ll need to upgrade at a later date.
Disc brakes are becoming more and more common. They offer more effective braking, especially in the wet when compared to rim brakes. Mechanical disc brakes are cheaper and still use a steel cable to move the pistons, whilst the more expensive hydraulic discs are even more reliable and use a sealed, fluid filled system.
Most built road bikes come with entry level wheelsets, and these are a very common early upgrade that can make a big difference to your ride.
The road bike tyres fitted also impact the ride. Traditionally, 23mm tyres were the most popular, but wider 25mm options have become the norm due to the better cornering they offer. Endurance focused machines may even feature tyres over 28mm, and you can expect a greater volume on gravel and adventure bikes.
Top tips for choosing your first road bike
You’re making a pretty big investment, and the bike you choose could be your companion for several years – so ensure you make the right selection.
You can get some really great deals with direct only sellers, but you can rarely test ride these as they’re not often available in bricks and mortar bike shops. However, frame geometry, material and construction make a huge difference to a bike’s ride quality. Wherever possible, get down to a store where you can test ride a bike or look for a ‘demo-day’ near you.
Leave some in the bank
The wheels on most built bikes are perfectly adequate for training and general riding, but racers will want to upgrade – so if performance is your target then you might want to factor an upgrade into your spending plan. Most bikes come without pedals, so you can choose your own option. Other commonly swapped components are the saddle, stem and handlebars.
Buy a bike that fits
It doesn’t matter how good the deal, don’t buy a bike that’s too big or too small because it’s reduced. Ideally, buy your bike at a store where they can size you up and help you to change any components (stem/handlebars/saddle) required for a comfortable ride.