You couldn't pick a better time to shop for a new road bike. Today, manufacturers offer more models than ever in a wider variety of price points. And component companies make an exceptional array of top-notch wheels, brakes and shifting systems that operate like never before. For example, it's possible to get 20-speed drivetrains that shift blink quick, and wheelsets so light that pedaling is effortless. In fact, there are so many attractive choices today, that if you just walked into our store, you might be overwhelmed.
Don't be. Having a lot of choices is a wonderful thing because it drastically increases the likelihood you'll find the perfect bike — as long as you know a little about what's available.
To help, we've put together this comprehensive guide for finding the ideal road rig. We explain the decisions you need to make and offer advice on everything from frame materials and wheels to gearing and component choices. To start, though, you need to do some self analysis (therapist not required).
Answer These Questions
Answering these questions will ensure that you get the best bicycle. We'll be able to show you models with the right features for your needs, interests and budget. And you'll soon be sailing down the pavement with a big grin on your face. There are lots of fascinating variables in choosing a modern road bike. The rest of this article explains these choices so you'll have an easier time selecting your dream machine.
But first, realize that fine bicycles are built of all these materials. Also, two frames can be constructed of the same material yet have entirely different ride qualities due to differences in geometry, assembly, tube shapes, and material manipulation (reinforcing a tube, for example). Which is one of the reasons it's so important to test ride and feel the bikes you're thinking of buying.
A tip for inspecting frames: Look for a tubing decal on the seat tube or down tube. Sometimes manufacturers provide these and they usually help explain what brand and type of material is used in the frame. We're happy to elaborate if you have questions. Just ask.
Entry-level steel-frame bikes are usually less sophisticated than those typically favored by discerning cyclists and steel fanatics. But, the affordability of the lesser steel frames usually allows you to get a better level of components. And, it's possible to make a fine-riding steel frame on a budget by cutting back on some of the frills that add cost. For example, such a frame might feature less-costly TIG welding and straight-gauge tubes compared to the fancier lug construction and butted tubes (varying tube wall thicknesses) on the higher-end model.
High-quality steel frames integrate great design, superior assembly, and better alloys in the tubing. A popular quality steel for bicycle frames is American SAE 4130 steel, better known as "chrome molybdenum," and referred to as "chromoly" or "chrome-moly." And, there are plenty of other impressive alloys offered by tubing suppliers such as Columbus, Tange and True Temper. Frames built of these materials are famous for their combination of responsiveness and comfort.
Steel is an excellent fork material. It can be formed into any shape; even aero ones. It's plenty strong. And, it also absorbs shock to soften rough roads. Steel forks are heavier than those built of lighter materials such as aluminum and carbon.
You may hear that aluminum has a more jarring ride than the other frame materials. But, while this used to be the case in its early years, it's not a problem today thanks to new aluminum alloys, tubing enhancements and improved construction techniques like hydroforming (shaping tubes with high-pressure water). These allow the frames to absorb shock better than ever while still offering the lively ride that makes aluminum so popular.
This magic ride is attributed to aluminum being one of the lightest frame material. It makes aluminum frames great choices for racing and time trialing. And, unlike most steels, aluminum won't rust; another advantage.
There are various types of aluminum tubing in use by manufacturers. Some common types are 6061 and 7005, numbers that refer to the alloys in the aluminum such as magnesium, silicon and zinc (pure aluminum isn't strong enough for bike use). And, there are some super-light tubesets such as scandium.
Aluminum forks are generally stiff and light, and can be shaped aerodynamically. They also offer good vibration damping to smooth the ride.
Titanium is hard on metalworking tools, requires expensive titanium welding rod and must be joined carefully in a controlled environment. Consequently, titanium frames are expensive to produce, which helps explains their higher typical purchase price over aluminum and steel.
The two common types of titanium are 3Al/2.5V and 6Al/4V. These designations refer to the amount of aluminum (Al) and vanadium (V) alloys used in the titanium. 6Al/4V is more expensive, lighter, harder to machine and stronger. But both titanium alloys are excellent; they may even be combined in a frame.
Titanium forks are rare and very expensive due to the additional costs in material and construction. Also, because extra strength is needed in the fork steerer (the upper tube), ti forks usually outweigh other high-tech tillers. These two considerations are why most ti frames come with carbon forks.
Carbon's greatest advantage is that it can be manipulated essentially in endless ways (because builders can orient the fabric strands however they want), which means it can be fine-tuned to provide just about any ride qualities desired. So it's possible to achieve supreme lightness with outstanding rigidity (for maximum pedaling efficiency) and top-notch compliance for comfort, too. What's more, carbon is impervious to corrosion and can be built into beautiful shapes producing Ferrari-like looks.
Like titanium, because construction is somewhat complicated, and because carbon fabric and resins are in high demand by other industries, carbon frames can be on the top end of the cost spectrum. To describe these frames manufacturers use terms such as "high modulus" and "void free," which tells you that it's high-quality carbon material and stellar construction. Sometimes, these designations appear on frame "tubing" decals.
Carbon is a popular material for forks due to its lightness and natural ability to absorb shocks. Plus, carbon forks are built for optimum handling too. As you spend more money you get full-carbon forks. There are also carbon forks that use steel or aluminum for the steerer (the fork tube that's inside the frame). And, there are tapered carbon forks that are wider at the base of the steerer for enhanced handling.
All that has changed. Today, many if not most road bikes feature wheels that are marvels of engineering. They're prettier, more aerodynamic, durable and light, sometimes super light. Why is this important, you ask?
Because when you cut wheel weight, you drastically improve a bike's climbing, acceleration and handling. This happens because wheels are rotating weight. And this type of heft is felt most by the rider. In fact, a few-hundred grams reduction at the wheels feels more like a few pounds reduction. On the road, it's an amazing feeling, like suddenly dropping 10 pounds of body weight.
Box-section rims are light, accelerate quickly, and provide the most comfort. Aero-shaped rims are stronger, have less wind drag, and are stiffer (less comfortable). It's important to consider wheel feel when you're test riding bikes. You might prefer one type to another.
When choosing a rim or wheel type it's also important to consider where and how you ride, as well as how much you weigh. For example, a 140-pound rider who spins leisurely mostly on rough pavement, will probably prefer a box-section rim for its additional comfort. But, a competitive 200 pounder on smooth roads will much prefer the stiffness and speed of aero-section hoops.
There are many wheelsets on the market designed for general and specific types of riding. Most use minimal spoke counts (traditional wheels have 32 spokes), which cuts wind drag and wheel weight. Super-light wheels are excellent for climbing. Aero wheels are usually a little heavier and intended to cheat the wind for an advantage during long rides and time trials.
You might consider upgrading however, if the tires are the wrong width or design for your predominant type of riding. One important difference is bead type. Beads are found in both edges of the tire. They're the parts that grip the rim to hold the tire on the wheel. Less-expensive tires use wire beads, which add weight (remember that rotating weight is the most important kind). Better models have Kevlar (a super-tough fabric) beads.
Tires with Kevlar beads are called "folding tires," and they're a great upgrade if you want lightweight wheels and lively handling. These tires cost more, so expect to pay for them. But, the additional expense is worth it if you want optimum ride quality.
Another reason to swap tires is to get a different width. Tire width determines how much air it holds, which in turn decides ride softness. It also affects how the bike handles, and rolling resistance and durability.
You'll find the tire's size written on its sidewall as "700 x XXc," where XX is the tire width in millimeters (700 refers to the nominal outside tire diameter in millimeters, a European standard called "700c"). We're happy to discuss tire ride differences with you. Here's how the sizes compare:
About 650c Wheels
Tubeless And Tubular Tires
There's another type of tire found on some road bicycles and available for wheelsets with rims made for them. It's called a "tubular" and also known as a "sew-up," (you'll see why in a second). Tubular tires are common in professional road racing because they have a true round profile, which offers a slightly smoother ride than standard tires, something favored by those who spend entire days in the saddle.
This round profile is due to the tubular's casing being sewn together at the bottom. There's a tube inside just like inside standard tires, but it's sewn inside, which means repairing flats requires a lot more work. (On the road, you simply replace the tire; to fix the tire, you must do minor surgery on it.) Besides the smoother ride, tubular wheels and tires are usually slightly lighter than standard models, too, because of the fact that tubular rims are simple box sections.
Tubulars aren't common on our road bikes because of the hassles involved in fixing flats and also the fact that to mount the tires, you must glue them on the rims. However, if you're racing, you might like to give them a try. And, if that's the case you'll want to learn about tubular tire gluing and tire repair.
The newest road tire type is "tubeless." Just like motorcycle and car tires, these are run without tubes, which eliminates pinch flats, saves a little weight and significantly improves ride quality. These, too, require a special rim, so bikes with wheels with tubeless-compatible rims will accept tubeless tires. This is because with tubeless tires the tire and rim fit together with an airtight bead lock. And, there are no holes inside the rim, and a special Presta valve that's installed in the rim. We expect to see tubeless on more road bikes in the future. Right now, they're only found on a few of our models.
Keep in mind that many road bikes come equipped with wheelsets, which include hubs so you may or may not get hubs from the same manufacturer as the rest of the components on your new bike. Also, some bicycle manufacturers make or have made their own components, and you might see these on a bike instead of the brand found on most of the other parts. And, it's a common practice to upgrade certain components where the company feels it's beneficial. So, for example, you might get the next-level rear derailleur on a bike as a way for the bike company to add a little extra value.
So, how do you decide what to buy? It comes down to your price range and which group offers the features you want (i.e. weight, number of gears, appearance, quality). Usually, you can narrow it down to a couple of groups. And, at that point, a great way to decide is to ride and compare. If you can feel a difference in braking and shifting, go with the bike you like better.
To help you understand what's what with modern parts packages, here's a brief overview (we're happy to go into detail so please contact us or visit if you'd like to learn more or have questions):
Chainrings and Cogs
The sprockets on the rear of the bike are called "cogs," or, if you're referring to the entire cluster of gears, it's called a "cassette" or "freewheel." The cassette is attached to the rear wheel and drives the bike as you pedal. Depending on the components on the bike, there will usually be from 8 to 11 cogs on the rear cassette.
How Many Gears?
How many gears to get depends on how and where you ride. If you're reasonably fit and bike in flat to rolling terrain, you'll probably be fine with a double chainring and 9 to 11 rear cogs. If it's hilly and you're getting into shape, consider a compact crankset. They provide the simpler double-chainring shifting up front with a small enough small chainring for easier climbing, too. Triple cranksets are an option for those who climb high and aren't super strong, too. The third chainring (sometimes called the "granny gear") offers even easier climbing than the compact crankset's smallest chainring.
When considering how many rear cogs to get, keep in mind that you'll have plenty of gears even if you get a 9-cog cassette. If you go to a bike with more cogs (you can't increase the number of cogs unless the bicycle accepts that cassette), you can either choose a wider range of gears or more-closely spaced gears. The latter is excellent for racing and training because it makes it easier to fine-tune pedaling effort. Wider gearing offers easier low gears so it's ideal for mountain riding and for when you're not in tip-top shape.
Know Your Numbers
Pondering A Compact Or A Triple
A triple crankset gives you a third, even smaller chainring than what's on a compact crankset. So, it's great if you scale steep climbs, carry loads and travel long distances. Even if you don't use the small chainring all that much, it can be a lifesaver at the end of a long ride when a tough climb stands between you and home. Triple-chainring drivetrains shift slightly more slowly than doubles, which is a consideration if you're riding for a good time in a century, for example.
If you're not sure which is right for you, we recommend coming in and trying the various drivetrains to feel how they work for you. It's also helpful to talk to your friends who ride and see what they recommend since you'll likely be hitting the road with them and enjoying similar rides.
The Fun Part
Thanks for reading. We look forward to helping you select the perfect road bicycle!