Road Bikes: Everything You Need To Know To Choose

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Road bikes are great for riding longer distances while going fast. A road bicycle is built for traveling at high speeds on paved roads. When compared to other styles of bicycles, a road bike has it’s own common features. The tires are narrow, high-pressure (100 psi (700 kPa) or higher), and smooth to decrease rolling resistance.

What are road bikes made for?

Road bikes are made for one thing, and one thing only. And that’s speed. With a lightweight frame, usually made out of carbon fiber, and narrow, high pressure tires for rolling fast and far on smooth, paves surfaces. No other bike such as hybrids, folding, and especially mountain bikes can keep up with them on tarmac.

Road bikes come in different types

Road bicycles also come in different types such as endurance. Most riders pick these types of road bikes because they feature a more upright riding position for comfort. Have slightly wider tires and gear ranges. And sometimes, vibration-absorbing technologies in the frame and/or fork.

With this type of bicycle you can go out for slow scenic rides, or ride like lighting up hills and straight roads. You will also meet a lot of other like minded riders who will push you to become a better, faster rider. And this is all possible because of these bikes speed, agility and efficiency.

What to do before buying a road bike

Before you decide to go out and purchase a road bike, its important that you find out what type of bicycle you’ll need. Stop in your local bike shop and ask a lot of questions, and then check out the various models that match your requirements.

Here are some questions to consider asking beforehand:

  • What style of bike do you ride now? Do you ride a hybrid, city bike, mountain bike, folding bike, etc?
  • What style of bikes do your friends ride and advise you to get? Do all your friends ride road bicycles? If they do, you’ll want to get something similar in order to keep up.
  • What is your budget? Road bikes range from about $1,000 up to $10,000 or even more. Don’t forget to budget for accessories such as bike shoes, clothing and basic repair equipment, too.

A knowledgeable bike specialist can give you all the details on frame materials, frame geometry and components, so use this article as a starting point to help you make a more informed discussion.

What Is a Road Bike?

Road bikes are made for speed!
Road bikes are made for speed!

Road bikes are bicycles designed to take you as far and as fast as your legs can manage on paved surfaces. The road bike gets its name from the terrain it is designed to be used on – the road.

At first glance, the road bike hasn’t changed a great deal over the years. Compared to a complex full-suspension mountain bike, it’s a traditional bicycle with a near-identical silhouette to those raced 50 years ago.

Of course, there’s nothing traditional about the carbon fibeer frames and electronic 24-speed drivetrains we see now on high-end machines. Modern bikes are faster, more comfortable and more technologically sophisticated than ever before.

Here’s a quick look on what typically sets road bikes apart from commuting, touring, mountain and hybrid bikes.

Features

  1. Very lightweight frame, wheels and components.
  2. A drop (curled) handlebar, though some have a flat bar like a mountain bike.
  3. Narrow wheels and tires.
  4. A composite (carbon fiber) front fork.
  5. No front or rear suspension.
  6. Men’s and women’s styles and a wide range of sizes.

Function

  1. Intended for fitness enthusiasts, event riders and competitive riders.
  2. Designed for paved surfaces (roads, bike paths); not recommended for rough or unpaved surfaces.
  3. Allows riders to go farther and faster than most other types of bikes.
  4. Suitable for vehicle-supported multiday touring, though they’re usually not designed to carry heavy loads.

Road bikes do not have rack attachment points which are found on urban, touring and commuter bikes. You can still use a road bike for commuting.

Just be prepare to carry your gear in a daypack or messenger bag instead of in rack-mounted panniers.

Road bike models look similar to each other. But there are subtle but important differences in the frame design.

Sport geometry

Most road bikes are designed with a sport (recreational) geometry. These bikes are ideal if you plan to ride up to 3 times a week and log from 20 to 150 miles a week.

A sport road bike, is designed to allow for more comfortable days in the saddle for longer one-day “endurance” events, known in some parts of the world as sportives.

Road bike geometry.
Road bike geometry.

These bikes look very much like a racing bike, but their geometry and more upright setup allow for enhanced rider comfort over the long haul.

They often have mounts for fenders, they have forks and seatstays that allow for wider tires, and some have vibration-dampening inserts to boost comfort on less-than-pristine road surfaces.

Disc brakes for all-weather stopping power may also be in the offing, and a wide gearing range is typical.

Performance geometry

Road bikes with a performance (race) geometry appeal to the competitive rider. These bikes require the rider to be more flexible and stretched out to improve aerodynamics. And are more responsive to steering input. Performance bikes feature a stiffer frame, higher end components, lighter wheels and a steeper price tag.

Flat bar

Flat bar road bikes are similar to bikes with sport geometry but have a more upright riding position. This style of road bike is popular for commuting (easier to look about and observe traffic).

Or if you don’t anticipate riding on the drops (lowest part of a curled bar) but still want a comparatively nimble bike. Flat bar road bikes are commonly equipped with entry- to mid-level components.

Buying tip: Select a bike with sport geometry unless you plan to use the bike for triathlons or road-bike racing.

Frame Materials

The most common frame choices are aluminum or carbon fiber.

Aluminum

Aluminum.
Aluminum.

The most common bike frame material, aluminum is known for being corrosion resistant, fairly light (though typically not as light as carbon fiber), and having a high strength-to-weight ratio. It’s also reasonably affordable, making it a popular choice for riders and racers on a budget.

Most aluminum frames are very good at providing a smooth ride, and they are generally less expensive than carbon fiber. Most aluminum-frame road bikes come with a composite (carbon fiber) front fork to absorb some road vibration and give an improved ride quality.

Carbon Fiber

Carbon fiber.
Carbon fiber.

The primary advantage of the material is that at a given stiffness, carbon fiber is significantly lighter than aluminum, steel, or titanium.

This lower density also means carbon frames do a better job of absorbing (rather than transmitting) road vibration than an aluminum frame, which translates into a more comfortable ride.

They are also more expensive than aluminum-framed bikes due to their labor-intensive manufacturing process.

However, the ride quality can vary widely depending on the design of a specific frame, so don’t assume superior results.

Buying tip: If you must have the lightest and strongest, then a carbon-fiber frame is going to be your best option.

If you tend to ride for fun and fitness without aspirations of being the fastest, then an aluminum frame will suit you well.

Key Bike Components

Road bike components.
Road bike components.

A bike’s components bring the whole riding experience together for the rider. The groupset keeps the bike moving smoothly and efficiently. The brakes ensure you stop just as fast as you accelerate. Groupset wise, you can never really buy a bike with a “bad” groupset.

Major components include:

  • Drivetrain (crankset, rear cassette, chain, derailleurs, brake levers, gear levers).
  • Wheels (rims, hubs, axles, spokes).
  • Brakes, handlebars, seat and seatpost, pedals.

Groupsets

A groupset comprises of brakes and the drivetrain, which is thought of as the bike’s engine room. The drivetrain consists of the cranks, chain rings (front cogs), chain, cassette (cogs), derailleurs and shifters. It’s a closed circuit that propels the bike.

A groupset is a set of matching components from a component manufacturer. A bike model with a groupset has a refined, stylish and consistent appearance compared to a bike containing a miscellaneous assortment of components.

The groupset is a commonly used shortcut to define the quality of a bike and to compare different bikes. Shimano and SRAM are the most popular component suppliers of drivetrains.

Cranksets and Gearing

Let’s have an in depth discussion about gearing, starting with the crankset. This is the componentry that the pedals turn and that rotate the rear wheel via the chain.

A road bike will have either a triple, double or compact crankset. This refers to the number and size of chainrings (located by the pedals).

  • A triple crankset has 3 chainrings; it is often paired with a 9-speed cassette on the rear wheel to give it a total of 27 gears. This configuration is most common on entry-level road bikes and provides a wide range of gears for cyclists.
  • Double and compact cranksets both have 2 chainrings up front and are paired with a 10-speed cassette in the back for a total of 20 gears. A compact crankset has smaller chainrings with fewer teeth than a double, giving it a lower range of gears.
Compact crankset

A compact crankset is a common arrangement on bikes with a sport geometry, as it gives a similar range of gears (from low to high) as a triple but for less weight.

A compact or double crankset also offers better heel clearance to the crank arm than a triple crankset, which prevents the potential issue of annoying shoe rub on each turn of the pedals.

Larger chainring vs smaller chainring

The larger chainring gives you bigger, harder to turn gears that move you further per pedal revolution – so it’s suitable for higher speeds – while the smaller chainring gives you gears that are easier to turn but move you a shorter distance per pedal revolution – so it’s suitable for lower speeds, including riding.

Buying tip: If you are new to road cycling or you’re going to be riding up steep hills or canyons, you will want a triple or compact crankset. Strong cyclists and flat-land cyclists may prefer a double.

Chainring Teeth

The range of teeth on the rear cogs (cassette) also influences the gearing range of a bike. The highest gear (smallest cog) will have 11 or 12 teeth. The lowest gear (largest cog) may range from 23 to 28 teeth, or up to 32 teeth in the case of the SRAM Apex model.

The SRAM Apex drivetrain is a recent innovation that offers a gearing range greater than that of a triple, but it uses a compact crankset. This is achieved by having more teeth on the rear cassette than has previously been possible on road bikes, due to a change in the rear derailleur design.

Changing the rear cassette is a relatively inexpensive way to change your bike’s gearing, but there are potential compatibility issues. Talk to a bike shop mechanic if you want to change the gearing on your bike.

Wheels

The type of wheels on road bikes are important.
The type of wheels on road bikes are important.

The wheels on your bike literally keep you moving and have a considerable impact on your ride quality. Sure the drivetrain will push you along, and the frame will also have a significant impact on ride quality, but the wheels are the first element of the bike to feel road vibrations, surface imperfections and changes in terrain.

One of the most important traits of a wheelset is its role in transferring your efforts on the bike to an outcome on the road, so matching the right wheels for your riding style is important, as is having a reliable set that still offers sound levels of performance.

So before you go shelling out for a shiny new set of wheels, check out the following:

  • The weight of the bike.
  • How well a bike accelerates and carries momentum.
  • Bike aerodynamics and handling in wind.

Unless you choose a custom-built bike, you don’t get a choice of wheels when you buy a bike. You can, however, choose to upgrade to a better quality wheelset once you own the bike.

As with all things cycling, the higher up a bike is in its model range, the lighter and faster the wheels will get. Recreational and fitness riders are less likely to concern themselves with the wheel choice than competitive cyclists, who can totally geek out over wheel selection.

Buying tip: A wheelset upgrade is widely considered the best return on investment for decreasing bike weight and increasing its responsiveness.

Pedals

Here’s the benefits of road cycling pedals. Most road cyclists prefer clipless pedals because the secure connection between the shoe and pedal translates to great power and efficiency during each stroke. Road bike pedals often feature cleats with a 3-hole design.

Basic road bike models may come with platform pedals, often with toe cages, but nearly all higher-end models are sold without pedals.

Bike manufacturers assume that a road cyclist has a preferred pedal system for use with his or her existing cycling shoes.

This allows you to make the decision instead of requiring the bike shop to exchange perfectly fine pedals for a different brand or model.

In order to pedal efficiently and be at one with your bike, you should use cycling shoes and clip-in (a.k.a. clipless) pedals. Not doing so is like fueling a high-performance sports car with low octane gas—it will still go, but will lack oomph.

Pedals come in a number of popular brands (including Shimano, Look, Time and Speedplay) and a range of models within each brand. A higher price indicates better bearings, lower friction and less weight.

Brake Levers and Gear Shifters

Brake levers and gear shifters.
Brake levers and gear shifters.

At one time, brake levers and gear shifters were completely separate mechanisms located on different parts of the bike. Now they are often integrated. The exact mode of operation can vary by the brand and model.

By test riding different bikes, you may develop a personal preference for the functioning of one style over another. With Shimano models, the brake lever doubles as one of the gear shifters. With SRAM models, the gear shifter is a smaller lever tucked in behind the brake lever and is independent of the brake mechanism.

Buying tip: Be sure you can maintain a good grip on the handlebars while braking or changing gears. Try shifting and braking with your hands on top of the bars as well as in the drop position.

If you have smaller hands, ask if the levers have reach adjustment and how that works. It could be a simple screw adjustment or a shim addition.

Getting the Correct Frame Size

Most road-bike models are available in up to 6 different frame sizes, with women’s specific frames often offered as well. It is important to get the right frame size for your body geometry.

The correct frame size for you will be noticeably more comfortable and exhibit better handling manners than a frame that is too large or small.

Frame sizes may be expressed either in centimeters—which measures the length of the seat tube—or the more generic XS through XL size range.

Be aware that women’s and men’s bikes with the same stated frame size are not the same frame. A woman’s frame will be shorter along the top tube, as women typically have both a shorter torso and shorter arm length than a man of the same height.

How do you find out what frame size suits you?

An experienced bike salesperson can often tell by looking at your proportions, but many bike stores use a fitting system or calculator such as the Bike Fit Kit to determine a suitable frame size for you.

Your bike salesperson should also ask you questions about your current riding experience, flexibility, riding style and intentions in order to provide a more nuanced frame size recommendation.

Although standover clearance over the top tube is important, the more critical determinant of size is the length of the bike, as this affects the reach from seat to handlebars.

Being measured to determine your recommended frame size is not the same as a bike fit. It is just the starting point.

Read more about bike fit near the end of this article.

Road bikes along with other bicycles is a good value

In comparison to your other transportation options, bicycles offer tremendous value for the money. Bike brands are highly competitive, too. The full retail price (not an inventory closeout price) of a bike offers a good basis for comparison between brands and models.

The biggest factors affecting the price of a bike are the:

  • Frame material
  • Quality of the components

A carbon-fiber frame will cost you more than an aluminum or steel frame, and higher quality components will cost more than basic components.

To justify spending more, first consider: a) what you can afford, and b) if you intend to regularly use the equipment. Try to clearly identify your needs and intentions and what level of bike quality will keep you satisfied.

Buying tip: It usually costs less money in the long run to buy a higher quality bike now than it does to buy a less-expensive bike and upgrade the components later.

Keep in mind that you may need to set aside another $100 to $250 for a set of pedals and the same for a pair of cycling shoes.

Choosing road bikes at the bike shop

Take Test Rides

Ask if you can test ride several bikes. With the help of a sales specialist, you should be able to narrow down your selection to 2 or 3 bikes. Even though they may have similar prices and components, they will feel different to ride.

Take each one for a 10-15 minute ride, ideally over some varied terrain including a short hill.

In most cases, one bike is just going to feel better for you than the others. You want a bike to become a natural extension of your body.

Buying tip: Go with the bike that feels right. Ideally, it should be suitable for your current needs as well as when your riding time and experience level increases.

Get a professional bike fit

It’s important that your road bike is suitable for your size. Make sue you get the proper stance and leg positioning needed to get the most out of every pedal, without having to strain. ​

Wrist Pain – If you spend a lot of time on a bike that is too big or small, your wrists will begin to take the brunt of the bad positioning.

Correct frame size is a great start

The correct frame size is a great starting point for a good bike fit. The other mandatory step is having the bike shop check and set the proper seat height for you before you head out the door.

The next step up is to invest in a professional bike fitting. This allows you to turbo-boost your riding experience by fine tuning your relationship with the bicycle. Bike fitting services are offered by most bike stores.

A professional fitting includes observation, measurement and adjustment to set your shoe cleat position, seat height and horizontal positioning, reach and drop to the handlebars, and body angles in relation to the bike.

The goal is to optimize your comfort on the bike and reduce or eliminate any aches and pains.

It also enhances your pedalling efficiency and bike handling so you can better enjoy your riding.

Taking road bikes on adventures

Go on a road bike adventure.
Go on a road bike adventure.

Road bikes are great for going on adventures. With their lightweight frames usually made out of carbon fiber. Narrow, high-pressure tires that have very low rolling resistance. And gearing made for going fast up hills and on the flats. Road bicycles are unlike any other type of bicycle.

Unlike hybrids, folding, city and mountain bikes, road bicycles allow you to cover a lot of ground, FAST! You can go riding with a group of friends. Or go on a whole-day adventure all alone.

Just make sure you tell someone where you’re going. The exact route you’ll be taking, and make sure you stay on it. And above all, have FUN!

Learn more about road cycling: Here

CHECK OUT THE BICYCLE COMMUTING GUIDE: HERE

LEARN MORE ABOUT MOUNTAIN BIKING: HERE

WHERE TO BUY A BIKE:

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