Male biker riding on a road under an underpass

How To Choose The Best Road Bike

How To Choose The Best Road Bike

Whatever your goals are for cycling—fitness, fresh air, speed, community, great scenery—there’s a bike for you. Road bikes commonly include drop bars, which allow a lower, more aerodynamic position, skinny tires to improve speed, and gearing that allows for the most efficient climbing and descending. But beyond that there are key differences that you need to understand to find the best bike for you. Let’s get started.

Ask Yourself These Questions

Before choosing a bike, you need to think about the riding you’ll do in order to focus your search and get what’s best for you.  

Where am I going to ride?

Lots of hills? A lighter bike makes climbing easier. But lighter bikes usually cost more, and if most of your riding is flat, you’ll get less benefit. Rough roads? Consider a gravel bike.  

How long is my average ride?

The distance you ride and amount of time you spend on your bike are critical pieces of info. If you plan on riding for several hours at a time, consider a more relaxed geometry, higher handlebars, and more upright riding position.

Is there a specific type of riding I want to do?

Entering a triathlon or other competition? Make sure your bike meets the rules. Some sports require specific brakes or frame geometries to be eligible. Similarly, if you buy a very specific bike, like a time trial or triathlon bike, you may find it uncomfortable and inefficient for daily riding.  

What’s my budget?

No surprise: Cycling can get pricey, fast. Every frame or component upgrade will cost more. But the lightest and fastest may not always be the best choice, especially if durability is a priority. And when you’re creating a budget, keep in mind that you’ll likely need to buy pedals, a helmetcycling shoeslightsrepair tools, and maybe a phone mount. Once you have a range in mind, stick with it. 

Types of Road Bikes

Now that you’ve given some thought to your riding plans and bike budget, these bike categories will help you find the right model. 

All-Around/Sport Bikes

This generalist design is built to handle all parts of the road well without excelling in any one specific category. They’re often more affordable than high-performance and niche bikes. 

Aero Bike

An aero bike is designed for aerodynamics, to move as quickly and efficiently as possible. These are often incredibly expensive and reasonable only for the most enthusiastic enthusiasts. 

Endurance Bikes

Endurance bikes are built for comfort on longer rides. Even riders who favor shorter outings might choose an endurance bike for the balance of speed and comfort. These bikes often have a longer wheelbase (the distance between the wheels) for a more stable ride, as well as slightly wider tires and a less rigid, more forgiving frame. 

Race Bikes

Race bikes are exactly what they sound like. They’re incredibly lightweight, geared for speed, exceedingly expensive, and often uncomfortable. If you need a race bike, you know who you are. Everyone else stay away.

Gravel Bike

These bikes are built for riding on rougher terrain like dirt roads or gravel paths. They often have a more relaxed riding position, a long wheelbase, and wider, knobbier tires.  

Specialty bikes

There are a slew of road bikes designed for incredibly specific uses. You may see classifications like time trial, triathlon, cyclocross, and fixie. Each is built for a specific task and won’t make a great bike for anything but that purpose. If you get hooked on road riding, you’ll likely find your way to a specialty bike eventually, but by then you’ll know a lot more about what you want.

Men’s and Women’s Bikes

Some models are made specifically for women. These bikes have the same high-quality components and materials. The biggest difference is the fit and geometry, such as frames shortened in certain areas to better fit a woman’s body. But don’t get fixated on gender-specific models. The important thing is fit and comfort. If that comes from a women’s bike, great, but if it comes from a men’s or unisex bike, that’s fine too.

Frame Material

What your bike is made of will greatly affect how it feels to ride and, importantly, how much it costs. You’ll see a variety of materials, and sometimes manufacturers combine different ones. For example, it’s not uncommon to see an aluminum or titanium bicycle with a carbon fiber front fork. Here are the most common types you will see:

Steel

Steel is incredibly strong and affordable, but it’s also heavy. You won’t see a modern steel road bike unless it’s an exceptionally cheap model or if it’s created by hand by an enthusiast. You’ll find plenty of vintage road bikes made of steel. 

Aluminum

Aluminum is one of the most common bike frame materials, especially for entry- and intermediate-level models. It’s light and strong and will last for many years. While it’s not as light as some other frame materials, its affordability, in combination with its performance, makes it a great choice.

Carbon Fiber

Exceptionally light and impressively strong, carbon fiber has become more affordable in recent years and can now be found on mid-range road bikes in addition to the top-of-the-line models. It’s also incredibly rigid for its weight, giving it a stiff ride that pros love for its efficient transfer of power.

Titanium

Light, durable, and strong. Titanium has it all, including the price tag. If it’s in your budget, you won’t be disappointed.

Male cyclist riding a bike wearing a blue The North Face shirt

Frame Size

Getting the right bike size is crucial. A bike that’s too large will feel ungainly and keep you from getting the most power out of your pedaling. A bike that’s too small will be uncomfortably cramped, with your handlebars and saddle too close together.  

Frames are often measured in centimeters, from the center of the bottom bracket to the top of the seat tube, but sizes are not perfectly universal. Test ride a bike to see how it feels. Some brands offer a sizing chart that will steer you toward the right size in their catalog, with the help of a few measurements, like your inseam and height. Just remember: You’re the boss when it comes to determining comfort. 

Components

This is where bike buying starts to sound complicated. The components are just about everything that is attached to the frame, and they have a profound effect on performance. This includes things like your drivetrain (which includes your crankset, rear cassette, chain, derailleurs, and shifters), and your brakes, wheels, and tires.

Drivetrain

The entirety of your drivetrain often comes as a set from a single manufacturer; this is known as a groupset. You can trust the components of a groupset will work together smoothly (they include your crankset, rear cassette, chain, derailleurs, and shifters). Groupset components can be made from aluminum, steel, carbon fiber, and even titanium. The materials, of course, affect the price. Choose a groupset that fits within your budget. The more expensive options often have nominal weight-saving benefits that you won’t notice if you’re not competing.

Gearing

Bike wonks can go on and on about gearing and gear ratios. That might be you someday, but until then here’s all you need to know. 

Road bikes often have 1, 2, or 3 gears on the front “crankset” and 9 to 11 gears on the rear “cassette.” Using a larger ring in the front will make it harder to pedal and a smaller ring will make it easier to pedal. Alternatively, using a larger ring in the back will make it easier to pedal while a smaller ring will make it harder. The relationship between the number of teeth on the front gear and rear gear is the “gear ratio.”

Having two gears in the front “crankset” is most common. Having three gears on the crankset is often a mark of a cheap road bike, while a single gear on your crankset is becoming more popular as it’s easy to use, weighs less, and requires less maintenance (since there’s no front derailleur). These types often offer fewer options for gear ratios, though.

For most riders, the gear sizes that come standard on road bike drivetrains will give you a range of gears that are perfect for climbing hills, descending quickly, and everything in between.

Shifting

Drivetrains use one of two methods of shifting: mechanical, where pushing a shift lever pulls a cable and shifts the bike, or electronic, where the push of a button signals your derailleur to shift with the help of a small electronic motor. Mechanical shifters do need to be tuned and maintained but the price of electronic shifters makes them a poor choice for most beginners and intermediates. On most road bikes, your hands will rest on your handlebars next to your shift levers and brake levers. Make sure the fit is comfortable so that you can ride with your brakes and shifters within reach. 

Brakes

Most people think about going fast when buying a road bike, but slowing down—safely and quickly—is critical. That makes brakes one of the more important buying decisions.  

Rim Brakes

Rim brakes work by squeezing the rim of your bicycle tire between two brake pads. They are the more traditional option, and may be cheaper, but they don't work as well in wet or muddy conditions. Some styles of competition require the use of rim brakes, though, so know what your needs are. 

Disc Brakes

Disc brakes squeeze a metal disc that rests at the center of your wheel. These brake more quickly and confidently and are less affected by the weather or mud. They may cost more but their higher performance is quickly making them a standard option.

Wheels and Tires

Wheel material: Most wheels are made of aluminum or carbon fiber. Carbon fiber wheels are strong and durable, and lighter than aluminum (but pricier). Unless you need the highest performance setup, aluminum wheels will give you the performance you want at a reasonable price. Most wheels are size 700cc, and there’s no reason to complicate it. 

Tire width and texture: Narrower tires (18mm) are fast and efficient, but more likely to get flats on rough roads. Wider tires (28mm) are a good choice for rougher surfaces. Most road tires are smooth, but some bikes, like gravel bikes, have textured tires that improve traction. The tires that come with your bike will likely work well.

Tubeless tires: These tires do not have an inner tube inside of them to maintain pressure. Rather, they use a sealant in the rim to keep air in the tire. Tubeless tires are less likely to flat though they’re often more expensive and do not work with all wheels. 

Inflating tires: Most people are familiar with the Schrader valve (which cars have), but many road bikes use the narrower Presta valve. With Presta valves, you’ll need to unscrew a small cap at the end of the nipple to fill the tire. Just make sure you have a bike pump that matches whichever style valve you have. 

Pedals

Pedal choice has become so subjective that many new bikes don’t come with pedals at all. You decide what pedals to buy after getting the bike. 

Clipless SPD-SL Pedals

These are most common for road biking and will require a road biking shoe that uses the same system. The advantage of clipless pedals is in power and efficiency, since your feet are firmly attached to the pedals and you can pull up as well as push down on every stroke. 

Basket Pedals

If you’re less confident about “clipping in” to your bike, consider basket pedals. These have a strap that goes over the top of your foot. This allows you to put force into your upward stroke, for some of the efficiency of clipless pedals, but without making you feel awkwardly attached. 

Flat Pedals

This is what you used as a kid. With flat pedals, you can only power the bike when you push downward, which is not efficient compared to the other options.   

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.

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