Published on July 26th, 2016 | by Start Cycles0
Road Bike Buyers Guide
Choosing your new road bike can be quite a daunting task! We’re spoiled for choice when it comes to brands, style and price points. Where do you start? Below, we’ll guide you through the major factors that should be considered when choosing a road bike and why they’re worth bearing in mind.
Road bike styles: Sportive/Endurance, Adventure, Aero or Lightweight
Not all road bikes are born equal, in that where one feature may make a bike perfect for time trials, this same feature would reduce the bikes suitability for long sportive rides or multi-day tours. Cycling is now more popular and more diverse than ever, riders needs have changed and the manufacturers are offering different bikes to accommodate these different requirements. We’ll focus on the most popular broad categories to try and simplify the buying process for you.
Sportive or Endurance bikes
Sportive events are rides organised on specific routes with distances varying from about 20 miles to longer events being in excess of 100 miles. These rides are all about personal challenge, improving fitness, taking in the scenery and simply enjoying being out on your bike. A sportive is not a race.
The design emphasis of a sportive bike is to be comfortable. To achieve this, the geometry is tweaked to place the rider in a naturally more upright position. A longer head tube (the part of the frame that the fork fits through) and shorter top tube will effectively raise the handlebars and reduce the reach respectively. An upright position on the bike will reduce lower back and neck pains over longer distances. The wheelbase is also usually longer; this improves stability at speed and creates a more comfortable ride.
Tyre width will also determine ride comfort. Sportive bikes will be setup with tyres ranging from around 25 to 32c, the wider offering more comfort and grip.
Sportive frames are designed to be more vertically compliant, meaning they will absorb vibrations and bumps in the road better than a typical aero, race or time trial (TT) bike. In carbon frames, the layup of the material is manipulated to allow for this compliance. In alloy and steel frames, different butting and tube profiles can be used to increase vertical compliance.
Gearing is also very important, for longer days in the saddle you’ll need a range of gears that is wide enough for any situation. Most importantly, it’s a good idea to have a compact chain set with a very low gear option for those long steep climbs you may find yourself riding up after an already long day in the saddle. Most modern road bikes offer a double chainset (two chain rings) and are available in three popular sizes:
- 50/34 tooth (compact) – most popular size
- 52/36 tooth (semi compact)
- 53/39 tooth (standard) – more suitable for racing, or strong riders
Note: The lower the number of teeth on the front ring, the easier (lower) the gear will be. The inverse applies to the rear cogs on the cassette – lower numbers, higher/harder and faster gear.
The rear cassette on a sportive bike would normally have a lowest cog with between 28 or 32 teeth.
Road race bikes
For racing, performance is everything! These bikes are designed for racing, with all the design emphasis being placed on speed and efficiency, rather than comfort. It is worth noting that modern road bikes are noticeably more comfortable than race bikes used to be.
Road racers will fall into one of three categories:
Climbers are generally built slim and carry very little extra mass, they focus their training towards delivering maximum power to weight ratio to make them ascend as fast as possible. Sprinters focus on power, even at the expense of carrying additional body mass. Flatter, faster course suit printers and more hilly courses will suit the climbers better. All-rounders will be good on all types of courses.
The bikes for these riders will need to be different, a climber’s bike will be designed to be as light as possible – every gram will be saved where possible. Lightweight is everything to a climber!
Sprinters benefit from road bikes that are stiffer (flex less under extreme load) and more aerodynamic. Creating aerodynamic shapes and adding stiffness will result in a heavier frame compared to an all-out lightweight bike, but aerodynamic benefits (achievable above around 20mph) will be greater than the hindrance of the additional weight.
Racing is fast paced and there’s no time for spinning an easy gear while taking in the scenery. Average speeds through a race will be relatively high and so the gearing of the bike needs to be higher and across a narrow range. A narrow range of gears means that you’ll have closer ratios within the range, this makes it easier to maintain your ideal cadence (pedalling RPM) at a given speed.
Geometry for race bikes is more aggressive than sportive bikes, they feature longer top tubes and shorter head tubes – naturally stretching the rider forward and lower to be more aerodynamic. The wheelbase of a race bike is usually shorter than a sportive bike, this keeps the handling more precise, and although it may be a bit twitchier at speed – a racer should have the skill to remain comfortable.
Aero/TT (Time Trial) Bikes
Aero/TT road bikes are probably the most specialist style of road bike available. By this we mean that they really only have one use, time trial and triathlon racing. Where a sportive road bike can be used for time trial racing, you couldn’t ride a TT bike over a long and hilly sportive course with much success! TT bikes are simply designed for all out speed over relatively short distances. They take aerodynamic geometry and lightweight materials to the limit, resulting in a wholly performance orientated machine. To ride, TT bikes are relatively uncomfortable and less stable when compared to a road bike due to the lower front end which forces the rider into a more aerodynamic riding position. Overall this results in TT bikes being a lot faster but with this they become more difficult to ride and control, especially over longer distances. This style of bike is not used for group riding as they’re not as easy to manoeuvre as a normal road bike, making it an unsafe choice to use in a bunch. TT bikes come with their own unique aero bar configurations, with the bars pointing straight out parallel to the frame, again forcing riders to assume a more aerodynamic riding position. Some of the unique characteristics of TT bikes include:
- Aerodynamic frames with a teardrop cross section rather than the tubular shape common on sportive road bikes. This frame shape vastly improves the aerodynamics of the bike, reducing air resistance in the direction of motion – though it can make the bikes slightly more susceptible to side winds, particularly when coupled with the deep-sectioned rims.
- The frames are also made to be a lot stiffer and rigid when compared to a sportive. This again improves efficiency, allowing maximum power output to be transferred through the drive train and into forward motion.
- Deep sectioned rims further improve the aerodynamics of the bike and so minimising the effort needed to ride fast. Deep-section wheels significantly reduce aero-drag when compared to traditional shallow rims. Deeper wheels experience less drag and so there is potential that a 95mm-deep rim could save a rider up to 35 watts versus a box rim in a 40km time trial.
- As mentioned above, TT bikes have straight out in front, frame-parallel handlebars. This forces you to ride with arms extended out in front of the bikes frame, lowering the shoulders and head and so improving aerodynamics and efficiency.
- Time trial events are typically run over faster, flatter courses and the gearing on the bike needs to be suitable. Closer, higher ratios are required to maintain your optimum cadence. A standard chainset (53/39t) and a cassette with ratios of 11-25/28t are most popular.
Adventure/touring bikes are of a similar breed to sportive bikes in that their geometry is designed towards comfort rather than long distance speed and performance, though this is where the similarities end.
Touring and adventure bikes are designed to be ridden over longer distances in the greatest possible comfort and often with the ability to carry larger loads/luggage and panniers. This is useful for multi-day cycling trips or possibly commuting. Some of the key features of touring road bikes which differentiate them from Sportive bikes are:
- Touring bikes are often made from steel rather than alloy or carbon fibre. Steel frames naturally offer more compliance (comfort) without sacrificing strength. Another advantage of a steel frame is that if you find yourself in a remote area and the frame is damaged in some way, you’re more likely to find someone who is able to weld/repair a steel frame than alloy or carbon. Alloy is also a popular choice, the benefits of it are that it doesn’t rust and offers better performance in a lightweight package. Carbon fibre is not used for this type of bike, as it’s not a robust material in terms of enduring the rigours of touring (locked up in racks, loaded on vehicles, laden with luggage etc).
- These bikes have a relaxed feel to the geometry with the rider in a more comfort-orientated upright position. Touring and bikes are available with both flat and dropped bars, depending on preference.
- Touring bikes have more fittings on their frames. This allows them to be fitted with front and rear mud guards, kick stands and panniers for touring and carrying luggage. There may also be more room within the frame to accommodate luggage which sit within the middle of the bike.
- Adventure/Touring bikes come fitted with wider, “nobbled” tyres for better grip when riding off road on dirt trails and gravel paths. Wider tyres also provide a more stable platform which is crucial when riding with heavy paniers.
Cyclocross bikes are designed to be raced over undulating muddy/grassy courses whilst retaining the look, geometry and feel of a road bike. Not designed for all-out speed, cyclocross bikes come with drop handlebars and narrow gear ratios for better choice of gears at moderate speeds, typically with a double chainset in a 46-36 tooth configuration.
Gravel bikes are very similar to cyclocross bikes, but they are designed with comfort as a higher priority over performance. While cyclocross bikes have grippy, soft compound knobbly tyres, a gravel bike will typically have a faster rolling, longer wearing and heavier duty tyre. These bike bikes are designed for dirt roads, gravel tracks etc, and require a wide range of gears adequate for higher speeds and slow climbing speeds. A gravel bike can be seen as a slimmed down, better performing adventure bike. In other words, it’s designed for similar terrain, but to be used in a more sporting manner – possibly even raced on gravel/dirt roads.