How to buy a Road Bike
This guide will make you feel smarter, more informed and totally ready to start the process of buying a new or Used Road Bike in 2017 and 2018.
Table Of Contents
- Important Questions to ask Yourself
- How is one road bike different from another?
- Road Bike Frame Geometry
- Frame Composition
- Brand Selection
- Buying a Used Road Bike
- Mechanical vs. Electronic shifting Systems
- Rim vs. Disc Brakes
Note: Purchasing a pro-tested used bike? You can find more specific information for that project in our other guide, How to Buy a Pro Used Road Bike." Additional information is available here, regardless the type of road bike you’re wanting to buy.
Are you ready to get into Road Riding or are you looking to upgrade your current ride to a higher end road bike? We wrote this guide to help you get through what can be a really confusing process - there are so many choices - and end up with the road bike that is just right for you.
Melanie Ware’s story
Melanie Ware, a recreational road cyclist, wanted to bump up her intensity level and transition from doing 30-mile group rides to training for a grueling century, or a 100-mile day. Looking ahead at that much greater distance, Ware thought that it made sense to match the vision with a better road bike to help her make it happen. Ware had watched her husband custom-build his bike, and she did not want to have to make all the choices that are part of a custom road bike build.
"I did some research on a variety of brands and stock models, and was overwhelmed by choices," she said. "By making a selection from… new, closeout model bikes, … I found a fabulous, fun bike at a great price."
Ware’s story is repeated all across the country, every day – with varying levels of satisfaction with the shopping process; this guide aims to help you get the best bike with the least amount of hassles.
While there are 59.67 million people in the US who rode a bike within the past year, generating a $6.2 billion market, each of riders, like Melanie, also has her own individual needs and desires.
What are yours? No matter how your cycling fitness or competitive goals are evolving, getting your own road bike or upgrading your current model allows you to advance toward them.
Buying a road bike should not be stressful or confusing – but it can start to feel that way when you don’t yet have enough information on the process and a sense of more of the distinguishing features and reasonable expectations.
Knowing that buying a road bike is your next course of action, the next question is going about this purchase as intelligently as you can. This guide will help you get organized and (quite literally) out on the road.
STEP 1. Answer these Questions
The first step in buying any bike is to establish where, how far, and how often you'll realistically going to ride the bike in order to establish how much you should budget for the purchase. We call this process, "Establishing the Intended Use". Once we answer these simple questions because everything else will start to fall in place once we review the answers.
Where do you want to ride?
If you think you will spend time off-road, and you will you be racing or want to ride some singletrack that isn’t too technical, or even muddy conditions - think about a cyclocross bike. If you think your off-road riding will likely be limited to unpaved, uneven surfaces and you are more focused on comfort, think about gravel bikes, also known as adventure bikes.
If you plan on riding exclusively on road, your pace and style of riding will determine a lot about which type of road bike to consider. If you like to ride at a sustained smooth pace of 15-20mph for a few hours you will probably really dig endurance bikes. Especially if you are concerned about being too hunched over or if you’ve had joint pain or back pain in the past.
If you like to ride at a sustained pace of 20-25mph and average 200+ miles per week, or enjoy smashing your friends on Strava, or are training seriously for this year’s racing campaign, you will probably get a kick out of aero road bikes and even a pro road bike. These bikes will be light enough, stiff in all the right places and feature all the newest advances in road bike technology to give you huge advantage and time savings in your next race.
How far do you typically ride?
This question will help you think about how much to weight comfort in your buying decision. If you plan on doing centuries, and you are NOT racing, an endurance bike will be a really good decision. It is more upright than an aero bike and there is vibration dampening in various places (frame, fork, seatpost, and sometimes hidden under the handle bar tape). If on the other hand, you plan on racing and are trying to move into more serious racing categories, you will really appreciate riding a faster stiffer and more aerodynamic road bike.
How often do you ride?
It might seem like a throwaway question, but this one is really important and ties in really closely with the previous question in determining how much you should budget for your new road bike. Like all of the other questions, it is important to answer them honestly based on how you actually ride versus, "Once I get this bike I plan on riding 600 miles a week and improve my average speed from 12MPH to 29MPH after my first month of training."
What is Intended Use and why should it determine how much bike I Buy?
The answers to the above questions really help define your bike’s intended use. If you are going to ride 10 miles twice a month only in the summer, then an aluminum road bike that is outfitted with Tiagra components would probably be a great decision. If on the other hand you are riding 300 miles a week year round because you are lucky enough to live somehere with perfect weather (here’s looking at you Southern California) and you are on your bike 5-6 days a week this same choice could get you into trouble.
If you are riding on an entry level bike with entry level components (that weren’t designed for a serious level of use) you will experience maintenance issues and repair costs will add up quickly. Cheaper parts break faster and go out of adjustment much quicker than more premium parts.
Can’t I just start the road bike purchase process with my budget?
You can, but you will find it easier to figure out what type of bikes will meet your needs the best and then figure out if it meets your budget. And if you just plain love a bike that is a little out of your price range, buying it can, as Carl Richards wrote in one of our favorite NY Times article, make you the happiest over the life of the bike.
Speaking of bikes, let's get technical for a bit to help you get up to speed.
What is a road bike?
A road bike (see examples) is simply a bike intended for use on paved roads – as opposed to one built for rough terrain. We’ll get into the different types of road bikes below. Generally they have drop handle bars and feature skinnier tires than hybrids and other commuter or city bikes (although there are some exceptions below) and the the basic assumption is that this type of bike is built for higher speeds and much longer more efficient distances. These bikes are typically much more lightweight than other categories with weights coming in from 13lbs up to the low 20's.
How is one road bike different from another?
As hinted at above by Melanie Ware’s specific needs, the differentiation between bikes is not simply that one approach is "better" than another but that there are a complex range of factors and concerns (budget, safety, design, aesthetic, weight, brand, etc.).
Just like a Porsche and a Kia are both cars, Pinarello and Schwinn both offer road bikes. While they might share the same general shape, that is about all they have in common from a quality and ride perspective.
These are road bikes, after all and the difference in quality between a cheap road bike and a premium can be extreme, just like in our car example above. Beyond the comfort of the ride and the general performance of the bike, the amount of attention to detail exhibited by a manufacturer (and a Seller, especially in the case of used road bikes – see our 55-point inspection) will help determine that you actually get to your destination safely.
Road Bike Categories Explained
You’ve probably heard tons of different names of road bike categories bandied about, but here they are explained in detail so you can find the right type of road bike that will work best for you:
Endurance Road Bikes
Ready for the long haul? An endurance road bike is engineered for minimal vibration over the course of a long distance – enhancing your comfort so that you can focus on your pace, rhythm, and surroundings. These are great for people who love to ride centuries, or Gran Fondos. These bikes will compromise a little stiffness for improved comfort.
Aero Road Bikes
Ready to fly? You can soar with an aero bike, which takes aerodynamics as its primary point of direction. The aero bike is designed to cut through the wind, treating it, as Linda Richman would have said on Coffee Talk, "like butter." These bikes are usually engineered to compete at the highest levels of amateur and pro cycling events (think US Pro tour or the UCI World Tour). The tube shapes have to pass restrictions placed on them by race governing bodies so while they are more aerodynamic than other road bikes (think foil shaped tubes, brakes hidden in the frame and internal cable routing among many other weight saving and aerodynamic enhancements), they aren’t as aerodynamic as time trial bikes that have less restrictions placed on them. While they cut through the wind they have to have all the characteristics of other race bikes; they are super light, stiff in order to crush it in the sprints, and have fantastic cornering capabilities.
Gravel / Adventure / Allroad
While endurance road bikes give you the ability to go far comfortably on paved roads, gravel or adventure bikes allow you to do so on more uneven surfaces like unpaved roads? That’s the gravel bike (see examples, and a how-to- guide if you want to build your own). These machines can have flat or drop bars, depending on the rider’s preference.
The focus here is on versatility, stability, and all day comfort.
These also typically have tons of mounting options so you can carry your gear for the long haul - multiple water bottles and rack mounts to carry panniers in the front and in the rear too.
All of the design decisions and component choices of the gravel bike focus on reliability and strength over light weight. You could certainly ride your gravel bike on a century or a long charity ride like RAGBRAI (that we love and sponsor), but you would have a tough time taking your endurance road bike on 100 miles of rough dirt roads.
Cyclocross is very similar to the gravel or adventure bike – although it is better understood in terms of its intended purpose. This type of bike is built for a certain form of racing called (wait for it) cyclocross. This racing form uses a drop-handlebar road bike on a short course. "Courses include features like mud, sandpits, barriers and steps or slopes too steep to ride, forcing riders to run, as well as easier sections," notes road.cc.
These bikes feature knobby tires for great traction, easier or lower gear rations and tons of tire clearance so that you can run wide tires (up to 45mm wide in some cases). Brakes are often disc brakes and operate fantastically in all weather conditions, and are lower maintenance (you don’t have to worry nearly as much about keeping your wheels true as bikes with road bikes that have dual pivot caliper brakes).
Cyclocross bikes tend to come in one of two styles: cyclocross race bikes that are super light and have less water bottle mounts and no rear rack mounts, and secondly the more versatile cyclocross bikes that many riders turn into a year round commuter bike or touring bike. The second group is often in the budget cyclocross bikes category and appeal to a wide swath of riders.
Other than these general subtypes of road bikes, there are obviously other ways that these types of bikes might be categorized when you look to purchase them: for instance, they might be used, or pro-tested, or both – as covered in our piece, "How to Buy a Pro Used Road Bike."
How do you determine road bike size?
Getting the sizing correct is one of the most important aspects of buying a bike. The right size will be more comfortable, safer, and more efficient (i.e., every watt of energy you generate by pedaling is translated into your rolling forward and improves your speed).
Are you getting a bike online? Measuring must be performed carefully. The most important measurement is the inseam. Take a roll of tape, and find the distance from your inner thigh at the crotch down to the ankle. You can then use our Road Bike Sizing tool to gauge which size of road bike will be right for you.
It doesn’t replace getting a custom bike fit, but it approximates which size of bike will help you ride as comfortably and powerfully as possible.
What is road bike geometry?
Bike geometry is a catch-all phrase for the angles and measurements that apply to different tube lengths and other components -- especially related to the frame. The geometry of a bicycle is critical because the angles at which the different parts meet one another will heavily influence how the bike rides. It's not just about the parts but the sum of the parts, and the geometry says how that sum, or aggregate, is organized.
To think of it another way, the geometry of the bike is critical because it determines your position on the bike which will directly how comfortable you are and how powerful you are as you ride.
A key takeway about Geometry is that when you test ride a bike and love how you fit the bike, you can try to match that bike's geometry as a guide while shopping in store and online. Almost all manufacturers post their bike geometries online (see the image below for an example), so you can download the geometry of the bike you love and compare other bikes to it while shopping. If the shape matches you'll probably really like the potential bike with few if any modifications.
How does geometry apply to subtypes of Road Bikes?
Endurance bikes have higher handlebars than the average bike because they have a particularly tall head tube. This helps the rider sit in a more upright position which many find to be more comfotrable over long distances as it reduces pressure on the neck wrists, hands, and elbows.
An aero bike, on the other hand, will use a top tube that is longer in order to get the rider in a lower more aerodynamic position allowing one to ride much faster, albeit less comfortably.
The way that these two geometries (basically, endurance and comfort vs. aero and racing) actually feel when you’re riding will be immediately obvious if you compare them on a test ride. Basically, the racing one with the longer top tube (rather than a taller head tube) will shave significant time off as you rack up the miles, but your comfort will determine how many miles you can ride.
Another feature that you might note related to racing style bikes such as an aero model is that the tubes tend to be more of a foil shape – again, for better ability to make your way through that air.
The most common Road Bike Frame Materials
What makes up your frame? Bubblegum and cotton candy? Hopefully not. Those are not standard bicycle frame materials. Four of the most common ones are:
1.) Carbon fiber Road Bikes
Carbon fiber is used for a lot of the more elite bicycles. It tends to be considered the premium way to go for a racing bike. This type of frame is made by weaving together carbon fibers. A large majority of the premium bikes we sell at The Racery are bikes with carbon fiber frames, carbon fiber forks and other carbon fiber parts like Seat posts, derailleurs etc.
This material is known for both being stiff and lightweight. It does come in different qualities or grades. The durability and strength of the frame will be impacted greatly by the grade. Look for "high modulus" or "high mod" as a descriptor of particularly strong carbon fiber. Rigidity is a good thing: you don’t want the bike to be compromised under high stress. The strength-to-weight ratio, a critical number to use to refine a bicycle, is 18% higher for carbon fiber than it is for aluminum.
The way that the carbon fibers are arranged within the mold (along with things like the number of fibers and the weave density) will greatly influence the feel of the ride. Resin is a big factor too: its type and consistency impact the ride too. One final aspect that you want to know when you’re really looking for high quality is the space where there is not any carbon fiber or resin – the void. This void is typically about 1% when the manufacturing outcome is considered ideal.
2.) Aluminum Road Bikes
Road bikes are often made with aluminum; however, it is generally not the material that is used for racing or high-performance models. The ride can become uncomfortable, and has at times been unfairly characterized as being too harsh, on aluminum. Then again, it is relatively rigid, doesn’t weigh much, and is highly affordable.
3.) Steel Road Bikes
Steel is another material that is often used for a road bike frame. Steel is known for delivering great comfort and safety (because its handling is strong). The one issue with steel is that it is comparatively heavy (outdone by both of the above two materials in that department), so it is usually not the choice of racing enthusiasts.
However, steel is available across a spectrum. Lower grade steel is found on mass-market, low-priced bikes, while high-tech heat treating or air core methods are used for the higher-end models. If you are looking for a high end steel frame look for some of the steel tube sets made by Columbus, True Temper, Dedacciai, Tange, and Reynolds. While you might have heard of the Reynolds 853 steel frames of ols as the pinnacle of steel frame materials, Reynolds and the other tube companies have made huge advances allowing manufacturers to build steel road bikes with lighter tubes, that ride amazing - if you can find a great Reynolds 953 bike, get excited.
4.) Titanium Road Bikes
The strength and low weight of titanium make it the preference of many people within the cycling world. Note that it is stronger than both aluminum and carbon fiber.
Also be aware that a so-called titanium frame is generally built out of an alloy that has a small amount of aluminum (3-6% typically) and vanadium (usually 2.5 to 4%) – as noted by Andrew Montgomery of Sportive Cyclist. "These titanium alloys are stronger than the pure material," says Montgomery.
Notably, titanium is costly, so expect that to be reflected in those models.
How do you pick a brand of great Road Bikes?
A brief note on brand selection. You obviously have various companies competing for your business, and the way each of those firms’ products ride will be a little different – just as their suppliers, manufacturing processes, and other elements vary.
If you want to just get a sense of a few models and different brands, here are sample bicycles from some of the most trusted and respected brands in the cycling world:
Road Bike Components
Components are all of the parts that make up a bike except for the frame, wheels, and fork and are thus the second most important factor in your road bike selection. The individual components matter, and can make a sizable difference in the ride quality and performance of your road bike. If you love how a bike shifts you are loving the components. If you like the position you're in as you descend down a mountain, then you are loving the frame's geometry.
Shimano is the Goliath of the bike components market, With approximately 70% of Road Bikes coming equipped with their parts. SRAM is trying to change that and capture a larger share of the pie, and each brings their own unique set of advantages to the table.
While there are some who swear by one brand or the other, for the most part, they offer comparable component groups. SRAM generally tries to compete on weight, as many of the components are lighter than Shimano's offerings.
Both brands offer multiple levels of products representing entry level, standard and premium equipment. SRAM has their Force line as their lower-cost option while their high-performance products fall under the SRAM Red moniker. Similarly, Shimano has their Sora gruppo as their entry level, Tiagra and 105 as their standard level components, Ultegra premium brand and their ultra premium gruppo is named Dura-Ace.
The third major component maker for road bicycles is Campagnolo. This Italian bike component manfucturer has long made what are considered some of the finest mechanical drive components in the world. Their electronic shift systems follow that premier lineage and can be found on the most expensive of road bike offerings.
The Key Takeaway about Components
Try different bikes that feature all three major brands of Gruppos (or parts kits that include shifters, brakes, dearailleurs, cranks, and cassettes) if you can before buying. You will find that you might prefer the feel of one shifter over another. You might also find that one version shifts better while climbing. You make find that you prefer the brake modulation of one gruppo over another. And since you're making a big investment in your riding, you should as many bikes as possible before buying a bike in a local bike shop or online.
Well, we have talked about the geometry of the bike and how the components will come together. However, it’s an essential topic to also look at the various components themselves.
Here’s why: knowing about the components (examples) will give you a better sense of functionality and how to differentiate from one model to the next.
Let’s look at some of the considerations related to three of the biggest component decisions: shifting system, brakes, and tires.
What is mechanical vs. electronic shifting?
In which era would you like to live – mechanical or electronic? Either answer is fine.
The shifting system on your bike manages and controls the changing of gears. Components like this are always being developed and refined by manufacturers. Mechanical systems have been around longer, but electronic systems are now preferred by many cyclists.
How do these differ? From a basic technical standpoint, the mechanical version uses cables. The rider adjusts the gear shifter, pulling or releasing the gear cable, allowing the derailleurs to shift the chain from one chainring in front or gear in the cassette in back thereby making it harder or easier to ride. This technology has been steadily improved over many decades.
A wired or wireless electronic shifting system will move the chain back and forth and is driven by electronic signals and typically respond faster – more seamlessly – to your request.
What are rim vs. disc brakes?
Rim brakes are the traditional version; the new version is disc brakes.
A rim brake has a brake caliper that is attached to the bicycle's frame with a brake pad that rubs right on the side of the wheel on what's called the braking surface. As the pads grab the wheel, the bike slows down.
Disc brakes are rapidly becoming the standard expectation for a growing number of road cyclists. These brakes offer obvious benefits.
Disc brakes work a little differently and are based on the time tested brakes used on many motorcycles. They have calipers that are also mounted on the bike's frame that also feature braking pads, but instead of grabbing the wheel itself, they grab a much smaller metal disc, called a rotor. The benefit of disc brakes are that they work in all kinds of weather conditions (even if it is raining), and your wheel choices are no longer constrained by whether or not they are compatible with cantilever brakes that can't line up with your braking surface - this allows you to swap out wheels (if the frame has enough clearance) so you can have a narrower faster set of 700c wheels for summer and a wider more rugged set for when you want to ride with larger tires.
What tire diameter and width should you choose?
When your tire has a larger diameter, you should get a more comfortable ride. Tire width will also give you better stability. You can tell the tire size by looking on the side of the tire. 23-25mm width tires have always been the standard – but that has changed in the era of the disc brake, with 28mm tires on the rise. Just keep in mind that you are looking for an ideal balance of stability and speed, depending on what your specific goals are for the bike. Racing = smaller tire sizes (18-23mm) while if you are going for more comfort shift into a bigger tire size (25-28mm) and if you are off-road at all it would be likely that you would be using a 700 x 30 - 45mm
Is Buying a Used Road Bike a Sound Decision?
That is a fantastic question and is one of our specific areas of expertise at The Racery. We know that many riders wouldn't want to buy a used road bike online out of fear that the bike is not in as good condition as the seller describes the bike. The seller can also photoshop out blemishes etc.
Many might wonder if the bike is damaged. You might wonder if you'll have to replace the drivetrain soon after you buying it. What about the wheels and the headset? No one wants to have to order new components soon after getting the bike itself.
LOOK FOR A COMPREHENSIVE BIKE INSPECTION.
You need to know that the bike has not taken a beating and be primed to fall apart – and that means buying from a shop that completes a full and meticulous inspection of every bike it offers.
As an example of that piece, let’s look at our 55-point inspection. This inspection, part of our RIDE ASSURANCE, scrutinizes all aspects of the bike. We confirm that the paint condition is in great shape and that the bike does not have any paint chipping, bend, carbon damage, or dings. We verify that the wheels are completely round and true. Chain wear of the drivetrain is checked. (Note: To check chain wear at home, you can get a general idea with a ruler, as indicated by PARK TOOL: choose a rivet and align it with the zero line; now count to 23 rivets, and you should hit the 12" line; replace the chain if it is any more than 1/16" off that alignment.)
Here are a few other samples of points within our 55-POINT INSPECTION – which is, of course, much more extensive:
- Frame & Fork – We check the front fork for pressure and operation; inspect the headset; and check the bottle cage bolts.
- Wheels – We inspect the rims for cracks and wear; inflate the front and rear tires to the correct PSI; and check the rotor for balance and wear.
- Brakes – We assess the brake hose, housing, and cable; and adjust the pad height and angle.
- Drivetrain – We check the shifting; look for wear and tear on the pulley; and inspect the end caps on all cables.
- Stem/Bars, Seatpost/Seat – We ensure that the saddle is level to the ground and verify the torque of the stem bolt.
Why would you want to buy a Used Road Bike?
The benefit to buying a Used Road Bike is that they are often on sale for around 50% off standard retail prices. These great road bike deals are truly hard to pass up. Especially if the bike has passed a rigorous inspection like the one we put in place for our Ride Assurance Program.
This is a lot of information to digest above, we realize. It can be a daunting task to get a bike because you feel that you are making a huge decision all at once.
To Sum Up the Buying Process, establish the intended use of the bike. Try different bikes to see what fits and which components you like. Then get familiar with which geometry works for you and use it as a guide when looking at bikes online. Once you buy your road bike, ride it and over time upgrade the parts to improve the fit and performance. If you are experiencing pain, go to your local independent bike shop that specialized in custom bike fitting and have them help you.
Russ Bengtson notes in Complex that future upgrading should be expected, if you want to improve your ride. Seats and pedals are often replaced immediately after purchase, he says, adding, "[T]he frameset is the biggest building block of your bike... [T]he rest can always be changed."
Keep in mind that we're here to help you as you look for your next road bike.
Are you looking for a high-quality road bike? At The Racery, each of the bikes we ship is assessed, cleaned, tuned and documented by our in-house pro mechanics using our 55-point inspection process. See The Racery Ride Assurance.