If you’re in the market for a road bike, there’s a lot to consider. Here, I will take you through everything I feel is important when looking at a new steed. I will explain my experiences in my years of cycling and also through working part-time in a bike shop and all the knowledge that I have accumulated. This will be an honest guide and I will explain what areas are best to prioritise on and what areas are best to upgrade in the future. I also intend for this to be an article that I will regularly update as time goes by, so do feel free to check back once every so often.
When looking at a road bike (or any bike for that matter), I feel there are 4 main areas to look at and in order of importance, here they are:
- Wheels and Tyres
- Finishing Kit
The frameset consists of the frame and fork. In my opinion, this is most important because unless you buy a new bike, you’ve got this frameset for a while. (Or alternatively, if you’re mechanically able, you could buy a not-so-great frame with brilliant parts and upgrade the frame in the future and put all those parts onto it…) You can upgrade the parts that hang off the frame if they are not up to scratch. There are two important things to look at when you’re looking at a frameset in my opinion – frame materials and intended use.
There are generally four main types of materials used in a frame – aluminium, carbon, steel and titanium. Aluminium and carbon are the most prevalent in the bike industry and account for most mainstream bikes that are on the market. Aluminium is generally much cheaper to manufacture and accounts for bikes mainly around the £1000 mark. Carbon is generally the exotica material people crave for in a bike and can generally be found from £1200 upwards. Carbon is generally regarded as a better material as it dampens road vibrations and is much lighter and with carbon, manufacturers can create more complex tube shapes. However, it is extremely important to note that there are varying levels of both of these materials. Higher-end aluminium is much better than a lower-grade of carbon and I’d generally argue that if your budget is less than £1500 on a full RRP bike, go with aluminium as you’ll get a much better specced bike and it will feel more lively and ultimately, be a better ride.
On aluminium bikes at entry level prices, it’s important to have a look at the material the fork is made from. I would only ever buy a frame with a carbon fork as carbon will dampen the vibrations on the front end before you feel those vibrations at the handlebars. I would personally steer clear of a bike with an aluminium fork – the difference is night and day.
Make sure you have a look where the frame material used in a particular bike ranks in a brand’s hierarchy. Specialized, for example, have two grades of aluminium – E5 and D’Aluisio Smartweld and their carbon bikes range from FACT 8r carbon all the way up (9, 10, 11) to 12r carbon reserved for their S-Works level of bikes. I would always say get the best frame you can, for the reasons I stated before, you’ve got that frame generally until you buy a new bike.
The next important thing to consider frame-wise is style of frame and then geometry. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as “a road bike”. There are many different sub-categories. This guide will exclusively be dealing with road bikes, not cyclocross / adventure / touring / TT bikes (which I may write about in a future post).
With road bikes, I would split them into four categories:
An endurance road bike (people also refer to these sometimes as sportif or granfondo bikes) are bikes that are designed for comfort or longer distances. They are generally taller on the front end so you’re not in a very low and aggressive position and the top tubes are generally shorter, again so you’re not too stretched out. Many brands build in specific compliance features to aid comfort in the frame for the rider – for example, Trek and their use of IsoSpeed decouplers in some of their frames.
A race bike, I would argue, is the nearest definition to a road bike. These are bikes that are comfortable enough for any riding you want to do, generally lightweight but in comparison to an endurance bike, they are more aggressive in position.
A climbing bike, not as prevalent as the other three categories, is a bike purely designed to be as light as possible for you guessed, climbing. In terms of geometry, these borrow mostly from a race bike.
An aero bike is a bike purely designed with aerodynamics in mind, for maximum speed. These types of bikes will quite often use aero / kammtail tubing which often means that they compromise on comfort although with bikes like the Trek Madone, this is not always the case. If you want to go as fast as possible or race and don’t mind sacrificing on some comfort, this is the bike for you.
Of course, road bikes aren’t strictly confined to these categories and you will find many that will fall in different places on the spectrum or even with a bike like the BMC Roadmachine, a bike that BMC envisage as ‘the one-bike collection’, designed for all of these types of riding.
I would have a good long think about what it is exactly you want to do and achieve with this new investment and go for the frame that best suits your needs. There’s no point of you buying an aero bike when your goal is to complete a 200km sportive for example, likewise if your looking at racing, there’s no point getting something more for endurance.
That said, if you buy a bike and want to adapt it to another style of riding, there’s nothing stopping you. For example, if you bought an aero bike but then found you wanted to ride sportives on it, in order to make the bike even more comfortable, you could look at sticking some wider tyres on, fitting thicker bar tape, upgrading to a carbon handlebar / seatpost. Just because you have a road bike that doesn’t quite match your riding needs, it doesn’t mean that you’re doomed. But still, if you’re in the market to purchase a new bike, you might as well get the style of bike that initially matches what you want to do on it.
To make things easier, I have created a table with many of the big brands and their different models and what categories they come under.
The groupset are the parts that hang off the frame, as it were, and is the collective term for the shifters, brakes, chainset, front and rear mechs, chain and cassette. I will go into more detail on a future post about groupsets but in essence, all of the major manufacturers (Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo) have different levels of groupset to suit different price points hence why I’m going to go straight in with using all of the jargon.
The most important thing as of writing is the braking due to the rim brake / disc brake divide at the moment. This is due to the fact that the frame needs to be specific for the braking system. I’ve previously written a detailed post on the evolution of disc brakes which you can read about here and this will hopefully help you make a decision.
With any groupset, I would urge you to go to 11-speed (11 gears on the back) with regards to gears if you can as it means the jumps between each gear are much smaller and you still have the same range. You can generally find Shimano 105-equipped bikes from about the £1000 mark and what it means is that in the future, if you are to upgrade to a presumably better bike and want to interchange wheels between them, you haven’t got the headache of incompatibility. That said, if your budget doesn’t stretch, you can always look to upgrade in the future, particularly if you do get the cycling bug.
Shimano tends to be the groupset manufacturer that tends to be sold on most bikes. It’s all very good stuff and works very well. SRAM and Campagnolo aren’t quite as common but all three manufacturers all offer intuitive shifting and braking at different price points. Again, stay tuned for a future post where I will go through these in more detail.
Pay attention to the gear ratios that are specced on the bike as well. The gear ratios correspond to the number of teeth on the chainrings and cassette. When it comes to the chainrings, most bikes typically tend to have 50/34 (50 teeth on the bigger chainring, 34 on the inner chainring), which is good for climbing and most people are comfortable with this configuration. Race and aero bikes and pro riders often have bigger gearing with 53/39. 53 means you can reach a higher speed, but you’d need to really be going some to spin out a 53-11. To accommodate in between, race bikes can also come with a 52/36 which is a nice compromise – you’ll spin out a 52 less easily than a 50 but then the climbing gear isn’t as tough as a 39.
Adventure Road bikes and even some endurance bikes may either have a sub-compact (which is a 48/32 or 46/30) to give you an even easier climbing gear and Cyclocross bikes are often 46/36 as the gear range that you need to cycle off-road is much closer – you wouldn’t need a 50 for example.
Some cheaper bikes or touring bikes may still come with a triple chainset which is often a 50/39/30 to give you an easier climbing gear. Bear in mind though that triples are not as efficient as you have a lot of duplicate gears.
Some bikes, particularly Adventure Road and Cyclocross are now coming with single chainsets and a wider-range cassette at the back. This offers a cleaner look, less weight as you ditch the front mech, cable and shifter and systems such as SRAM 1x incorporate additional measures for chain retention such as clutch derailleurs and narrow/wide chainrings to better hold the chain and stop the chain slapping on the chainstays.
Speaking of the cassette, this is the other thing to bear in mind in conjunction with the chainset gear ratio. Most bikes come with an 11-28, offering a good fast gear with the 11 and a nice climbing gear with 28. Race and aero bikes may come with an 11-25 or 11-23 which aren’t as easy for climbing but it means that the jumps between each gear are smaller. Endurance bikes and adventure bikes may come with 11-30 or 11-32 which is a nice, wide range as you get an easier climbing gear but remember that the jumps between each gear will be bigger. With 1x groupsets, it’s not uncommon for the single chainset to be combined with a 11-36 or 10-42 cassettes to give you that wider range. However, you cannot fit these onto a normal 2x groupset as the derailleurs’ cage isn’t long enough to reach those bigger cogs.
If you see yourself in the future wanting to upgrade to electronic gears such as Shimano Di2 or Campagnolo EPS, you need to make sure the cables in the frame are internally routed as the battery for the groupset sits inside the frame.
Also, when looking at bikes, have a look and see what you’re not getting. A particular bike may advertise itself as having a Shimano 105 groupset but on closer inspection of the spec sheet, you may only be getting the 105 shifters and mechs and the rest of it isn’t 105. Brands do this, most of the time (there are some exceptions), for cost-cutting purposes. A bike might have an FSA chainset for example, or a KMC chain or Tektro brakes. I wouldn’t worry too much about these, particularly for a chain for example as you’ll end up replacing that at some point anyway after it’s worn. However, I would be a little weary if the brakes were downgraded, such as Tektro as these typically won’t offer as much stopping power and may lack bite. You could change the pads out for some cartridge pads once they’ve worn out and that will dramatically improve them or perhaps upgrade in the future.
Wheels and Tyres
Wheels and tyres are paramount to how your bike rides and a good set of wheels and tyres is a vast improvement compared to a shoddy set. With most bikes, the wheels and tyres are unlikely to be up to par with the frameset and groupset and this is often deliberate. What would be the point in buying a bike with deep section, aerodynamic wheels when you’re after a really shallow, lightweight set?
Unfortunately this logic doesn’t quite translate with tyres and tyres are in my opinion, even more important, than wheels as they are your main contact point with the ground. Unless the tyres that come on the bike really are pants, I don’t see any need in upgrading straightaway as you may as well wear out the tyres that came on it and then subsequently upgrade. However, when it does come to buying new tyres, do not skimp – even the ride of an utterly rubbish bike can be transformed with good tyres as is the case the other way around.
When it comes to upgrades, the wheels and tyres should generally be the first thing you do as it will make the world of difference to your bike – tyres, again because they are the main contact point with the ground but also wheels because it reduces rotating weight. You’re far more likely to reap more benefit upgrading your wheels as opposed to a stem for precisely that reason.
I have noticed a couple of brands such as Trek, for example, are beginning to offer consumers the option of the same bike but with an upgrade in wheels for a nominal cost. If the wheels suit the type of riding you want to do, this is probably a brilliant deal and saves you the job of upgrading down the line. But for I’d say 90% of cases, the wheels are always sub-par in comparison to their respective frameset and groupset they’re paired with.
The finishing kit is essentially the rest of the bike – the seatpost, saddle, handlebars and stem. These aren’t as important as the frameset, groupset and wheelset but are still something you should have a look at.
However, what is important is I would set some money aside (included in your budget) for potentially, a new saddle, handlebar and stem. It is impossible for manufacturers to spec these parts perfectly for you as everyone is so different. I wouldn’t rush with changing them straightaway (except maybe for the stem as this aids in bike fit) but after a few rides, you’ll know whether or not these parts work for you. I won’t go into what saddles or handlebars you should look at here but don’t be surprised if you find you need to change these.
Whilst not essential as well, it would be worth having a look and seeing what material these parts are made from. Most of the time, they’ll be aluminium but carbon is a nice upgrade in these areas (not always for saddles though) as it can aid in comfort as they dampen vibrations from the road.
A Note on Prices
I just wanted to highlight as well that you really don’t need to spend a ridiculous amount of money on a bike. From experience of working in a bike shop and from my own personal riding of riding bikes at different price points, the biggest differences in spec come towards the comparative lower end of the market. The minimum I would spend on a bike would be £400 (as of present) as generally but not always, anything lower is likely to be majorly flawed in some way – I’ll reiterate a point I made earlier on in that I would never buy a bike which didn’t have carbon forks on it.
The biggest differences come as you go up to the £1000 mark and I would say £1000-1200 would be where you could find a brilliant Shimano 105-equipped high-end aluminium frame. Notice that in the space of £500-700ish the lengths of difference from comparative Shimano Tourney or Claris-equipped bikes at the beginning of the range. Of course, you need to take every single bike you look at for its own merits but I have found this generally to be the trend.
I personally wouldn’t bother with carbon unless you want to spend upwards of £1500 as generally but not always (unless there is a sale), it will be inferior to its higher-specced aluminium alternative both in frame and components. As you spend even more venturing into the £2000-2500 category, you then get better quality frames and higher end components. And then after that, you then access the best frames with the best components but I personally see no need to spend more than £3000 as you then start to spend a lot more money for not all that much difference.
I hope everything here makes sense to you and if you have any questions at all, please feel free to leave me a comment and I will get back to you promptly. It can be a daunting process buying a road bike but I’m of the philosophy that I’d much rather you know what you’re buying than just blindly head down to the bike shop or press the ‘order’ button online and pick out the first thing you see. After all, a good bike could be the make-or-break if you choose to pursue cycling or not.
I must stress that it is difficult to find the perfect bike that ticks all of these boxes. You may find you need to compromise somewhere, but with your own research and from my experiences that I have detailed in this article, hopefully you can work out what would most suit you.