You’ve decided to splash out on a new road bike? Congratulations! Your new steed could become your best friend on relaxed rides through the country, leg-sapping sportives or heart pounding races.
Finding the right road bike can feel daunting when there is so much choice and the vehicle in question is one on which you plan to spend hours aboard. We’re here to turn that daunting experience into an exciting one.
- How much you want to spend
- What you’re going to use the bike for
- Any specific requirements brought about by that usage (pannier racks, mudguard eyelets, a low stack height to allow an aero position)
Those considerations should be applied to each element of a bike's spec – its frame material, groupset and geometry.
Wherever possible, make sure you test ride the bike before you buy it, and ideally have someone with experience look at you on the bike and give their advice on the fit. Following a test ride, give yourself a couple of days before buying – this ensures you don’t make a snap decision.
Styles of road bike and the women’s specific geometry
Where once a road bike was a simple racing machine characterised by drop handlebars and skinny tyres, the industry has developed over the decades to provide a myriad of options created to suit different styles of rider.
It’s worth remembering that the differences between these styles are about tailoring the experience to the rider. Alterations are subtle and can largely be placed on a ‘scale’ of race bike to relaxed. A race bike could be used for a sportive, and vice versa. Buying a bike that closely matches you and your riding just helps you to get the most from your machine.
If you want: performance over comfort, aggressive position
A road race bike might not list its pedigree in the title, but you’ll likely find words and phrases such as ‘race ready’, ‘stiff’ or ‘aggressive’ in the product description.
These bikes will generally have a low ‘stack’ and short head tube, with a fairly long top tube. They allow the rider to get into a more aerodynamic, racing style position. You might find a lack of mudguard eyelets or pannier racks, and potentially aero features might make for slightly more complicated maintenance, which is worth being aware of.
The tubing will likely be quite wide - this creates stiffness that makes a bike fun to sprint on (but less likely to absorb road buzz).
If you want: A comfortable ride that will cope well with hills and uneven roads
These bikes will generally put the rider in a more relaxed position, more suited to long miles with plenty of climbing.
The top tube might be shorter, and the head tube taller. There will likely be pannier and mudguard mounts, so the bike could double up as a touring machine or commuter. A compact chainset and wide ratio cassette will often be fitted to allow for intended climbing.
Tyres may be wider, to offer more comfort - especially on bumpy roads and disc brakes are common to allow for speedy stopping in all conditions.
Gravel Bike or Adventure Bike / Cyclocross Bike
If you want: The chance to get off the beaten track, and comfort on the road
The fastest growing segment in road cycling, at the moment, is the ‘Adventure’ or gravel bike. These grew from the cyclocross genre – bikes designed for racing on and off road.
Cyclocross bikes have a fairly racy geometry, but are more relaxed than road race bikes to offer off-road handling. They’ll have wide, mud ready tyres and the majority have disc brakes, with a high bottom bracket to clear rocks.
Adventure bikes are also for mixed terrain use, but offer a more upright position, and the tyres will often be wide and capable of gravel paths, but less suitable for muddy fields. The bottom bracket may be lower to offer a more powerful, road bike style pedal stroke.
A cyclocross bike will be best if you plan to hit the trails, whilst an adventure bike will be best if you’ll stay mainly on the road but want to explore some light rocky paths. The wide tyres, disc brakes and relaxed geometry of adventure bikes make them well suited to commuting and those who prefer comfort over speed.
Where do women’s bikes come in?
Nearly every brand takes a different approach to the women’s specific bike debate. Some offer an identical frame to their unisex versions, with a women’s saddle, narrower handlebars that make it easier for small hands to reach the brakes, and shorter cranks on small models.
Read more about women's specific bikes here
Quality brands will adjust geometry for smaller bikes - regardless if they make women's bikes. Fork angles, as an example, will reduce with the seat tube and top tube. If they don’t, it could well be a red flag – the bike might not ride as well in a 48 sized frame as a 56.
Others offer a completely redesigned frame, created around feedback from female riders or based on anthropometric data – in many cases this means providing a bike closer to the sportive end, with a taller head tube and shorter top tube. Some say this is because women’s actual body measurements are more suited to this, others suggest it’s more related to experience and riding style preferences. These brands may even alter the carbon layup to better suit a lighter women’s body.
So what’s right for you? The honest truth is that you need to find out for yourself. As a rule of thumb, shorter women are more likely to benefit from a women's specific design - because it's been created around a smaller frame. However, brands design bikes to suit the ‘average’ – but you might not be ‘average’ anyway. So test ride women’s and unisex bikes. Where possible, ask to try a unisex bike with narrower handlebars fitted, or remember that you can adjust these after purchase for a better fit.
Road bike frame materials
Frame material has a huge impact upon comfort, weight, longevity, and price. The most common materials these days are aluminium and carbon, but steel and titanium have their merits too.
Aluminum was the most popular choice in the 1980s and 1990s, replacing steel as the new, lighter standard in road bike material.
These frames are often actually aluminum alloy – a mixture of aluminum and another component, such as magnesium or zinc – this allows them to be made stronger.
Aluminum alloy frames are generally lighter than steel, heavier than carbon, and in most cases have a slightly harsher ride feel than both. More expensive aluminum bikes will have a carbon fork; this lowers the weight on the front end of the bike and dampens out road buzz that can be transmitted through the handlebars on an alloy fork.
The high majority of entry-level road bikes have aluminum alloy frames - they're a good value option if you want something fairly light, without breaking the bank.
The racer’s choice – carbon is most prominent in the pro peloton because it’s lighter than aluminum, as well as being strong and comfortable to ride.
Carbon is not a metal – it’s made from strands of carbon, which are bonded together with resin and formed using a single mould.
Brands will often refer to ‘carbon modulus’ – this is a measurement of stiffness. Ideally, you’d want high modulus carbon in areas where stiffness is desirable – the bottom bracket particularly, and lower modulus carbon in seat stays and the top tube since this will make for a more comfortable ride.
Built bikes vary in price depending upon the components. Generally, a carbon bike will be lighter than alloy. However, remember that a carbon frame with cheaper components could be heavier than an aluminum frame with top of the range components, so don’t assume it’s light just because you see the ‘C’ word.
Carbon is also more susceptible to damage – so though they’re light and the ride quality is smooth and blissful, they don’t make the most practical winter bikes. One crash doesn’t spell the end for the frame, but it is easier to crack carbon than it is to dent aluminum.
Steel is the old school material of choice. In most cases, it’s considered fairly heavy, though top of the range steel is butted – meaning tubing is made thinner where possible – saving a great deal of weight. Steel frames are often hand crafted by artisans.
The plus side in steel is that it’s generally very smooth to ride – due to the way the material has a spring to it and flexes with the riders movement – and it lasts, basically, forever.
When someone buys a titanium frame they are usually buying ‘THE BIKE’ – the bike that will last them forever, and ever, and ever. Ti is super strong, as well as being super light.
Titanium is often considered the Ruler of frame material – it’s both light and incredibly strong, as well as often offering a 'springy' and comfortable ride feel. Unfortunately, it’s often also rather expensive.
Road Bike Groupsets
It’s not just the frame that contributes to the weight of a bike – so does everything else on it, and the groupset plays a large role.
This comprises of chainrings, cranks, cassette, derailleurs, chain, gear levers, bottom bracket and brakes.
In many cases, when building a bike brands will use a mixture of components – for example opting for Shimano 105 cassette, chain and chainrings, and Tektro brake calipers. This usually allows them to save money on the overall package, but the cheaper parts are often those you will find yourself upgrading first. So ideally look for a full matching groupset.
The most common groupsets are Shimano or SRAM, with Campagnalo featuring on a smaller number of bikes. Each requires a different movement to shift gears, and the ‘best’ is down to personal preference.
In terms of value – Shimano’s entry level groupset is Claris, followed by Sora, Tiagra, 105, Ultegta, then Dura Ace. SRAM starts with Apex, followed by Rival, Force, and SRAM Red.
The higher up the scale you go, the more expensive the bike gets – but with it you get lighter weight, crisper shifting and longevity – mainly due to you not wanting to upgrade rather than the components actually lasting longer.
All groupsets will shift when you ask them (provided you maintain your bike) – the more expensive sets will just be sharper and quicker to do so. If pootling through country lanes is you plan, you’ll probably be more than happy with an entry level groupset, but if you want to ride fast, fire round corners, and always be in the optimum gear to chase down the pack, you’ll be looking down the Dura Ace end.
Road bike gearing
Gearing is another area of the groupset to consider. Chainsets are commonly double, triple, or compact.
A double chainset gives you two choices – a big ring (52 teeth) and a little ring (38 teeth). You’d want a double if you want to be able to go fast super on flat roads, as the larger chainring offers more resistance, but your smallest gear won’t be as manageable as that on a compact.
Built bikes are very often specced with a compact chainset (50T/34T) – the biggest gear offers a little less resistance than a double, but this allows the inner ring to be smaller, which is helpful on tough hills. More recently, super compacts (48T/32T) have arrived, offering an even smaller gear.
A triple chainring (50/39/30) offers one smaller ring, which means you’ll have even more help on the hills – so it’s a good option if you find them intimidating. This said, a triple chainset does weigh more, and the majority of women get on fine with a compact.
The cassette offers more variability. A close ratio cassette (such as an 11-23) means the gears are close together, so you can always find the perfect gear – this is good in competition when you don’t want to waste any energy. However, this means your biggest cog (lowest resistance) has 23 teeth which is not generally considered a climbing gear.
A wider ratio cassette (11-32) means the gears are very spread out, you’ll notice a distinct difference when you shift, but you’ll have a lot more scope to drop down the gears on a hilly sportive.
Road bike brakes
With the new addition of many disc braked road bikes on the market, another question enters the equation – discs or rim brakes?
Discs offer fast stopping – even in the rain. They also don’t use the rim, which means that winter grit and grime doesn’t get caught between rim and braking surface. Though they do add weight, disc brakes also allow the rims to be lighter as these don’t need to be reinforced for braking.
Generally, the wet weather braking means that disc braked road bikes are better for people who want to ride in any weather conditions, and perhaps don’t hold low weight as their number one concern.
Bikes with caliper brakes are generally lighter. The brakes are a little easier to maintain, and of course if you want to race in any British Cycling (UCI governed) event, you can’t have disc brakes as they currently aren’t considered safe – due to the quicker speed at which they stop a rider in a peloton.
Test ride, test ride, test ride!
We've looked at the key considerations: road bike geometry, frame material, and components. Those are all technical details with fairly black and white answers. To explore the grey areas - the less numerical, emotional response to a bike - you've got to ride it.
Though buying online can be a tempting way to save money, there's no substitute for the experience of buying from a bricks and mortar store where you can test bikes, ask for advice (and return for regular maintenance and a friendly face). Where possible, buy from a dealer who will let you try out a few bikes for comparison - take each for a short loop with a couple of climbs and descents. And make your choice one that you'll love to live with for years to come.
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