Beginners Guide to Road Bikes

When I started cycling back in the ’80s, purchasing a road bike was simple. You cruised to your local bike shop, got sized for a frame (the majority of which were steel), and picked out your bike. Voila! You’re a bike owner. But nowadays, there are so many options and variables that it can be intimidating and overwhelming.

Yellow Cannondale Synapse
Getting the right bike will increase your enjoyment of getting started cycling

My goal in this post is to pull back the curtain, figuratively speaking, to demystify the terminology and verbiage so you feel at ease and confident shopping for a new road bike.

What Type of Bike Do You Want?

No, I’m not trying to be a jerk, it’s a legitimate question. Putting it another way, what type of cyclist do you see yourself becoming?

Here are the general breakdowns:

Recreational

If you’re looking for a bike to roll to the pub or to peddle along the beach, then you don’t want a road bike. You’d be best served with a hybrid type bike, which has a comfortable upright position and suited for roads and cycleways.

Commuter

If you’re planning on cycling to and from work, a road bike could work but you’d be better off with a bike that’s built for tough roads, has mud guards, and can carry bags or panniers. Most road bikes don’t fit that bill; move on. You might also want something that folds up like a Brompton so it is easier to take it on the train.

Touring

If your idea of cycling is strapping on a tent and sleeping bag to a bike for long treks, then you’ll want a touring bike. Like the commuter bike, it too is designed to be a workhorse and not for speed or endurance events. This too deserves a separate article.

Sportives/Club Events

If you’re wanting to ride in sportives or club rides, then a road bike is for you. Wanting to do rides over an hour to help get fit? A road bike will help you achieve these goals.

Racing

If you obsess about the Tour de France and live the mantra, “Everything is a race!” you definitely need a road bike!

The Heart of the Road Bike: The Frame

The frame, whether it’s constructed of steel, titanium, aluminum, or carbon fiber, is the most important feature to consider when shopping for a road bike. The material used for the frame determines how it performs as does its geometry. In fact, Tim Allen, who works at Soigneur in London, summed it up this way: “Geometry creates a bike’s personality.”

Geometry refers to the various measurements of the frame like the wheelbase (measured from the front drop out to the rear drop out), the height (measured from the center of the bottom bracket to the top of the seat post) to name a few. To the untrained eye, all frames look geometrically the same, like a diamond. But upon closer inspection, you’ll notice certain angles and dimensions are altered. The impact of which affects:

  • Power transfer
  • Responsiveness
  • Steering/handling
  • Cornering
  • Climbing/ascending

For the sake of this article, I’ll dispense with going into detail about geometry as it requires a doctorate in engineering and physics. Not really, but it is a science, nonetheless! I suggest finding a local bike shop that can point out how different frames perform and which would work for your style of riding. If you’re the engineering type and just love reading about math, here’s a good article on frame geometry.

And while I’m on the topic of bike shops, when you purchase a bike, make sure the shop offers a bike fit. This entails more than you straddling the top tube! It involves donning your cycling shorts and shoes, mounting your potential bike (that’s secured to a trainer), and letting them measure and adjust the bike so it’s a good fit for you. I can’t stress enough how valuable a fitting is and how it can eliminate many of the common pitfalls one encounters from cycling, like numb hands and feet and general discomfort while riding.

Frame Materials

As if choosing a bike isn’t complicated enough, determining what frame material is best can be just as daunting. First off, there isn’t the “perfect material” although cyclists who ride steel frames boast, and usually with much bravado, “Steel is real!”

Here’s a concise breakdown of each with the pros & cons:

Aluminum

Pros:

  • It’s the most common material for frames
  • Non-corrosive
  • Fairly lightweight
  • Reasonably affordable

Cons:

  • Fatigues more than the other materials
  • Is not easily repairable
  • The ride can be stiff; may not be ideal for endurance rides

Carbon Fiber

Pros:

  • Popular on higher-end frames
  • It is significantly lighter than the other materials
  • Stiff, responsive ride yet absorbs road shock

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Prone to fractures

Titanium

Pros:

  • Resists corrosion and fatigue
  • Long-lasting; lightweight
  • Absorbs road shock

Cons:

  • It’s a rare material so it’s expensive
  • Labor intensive to build
  • These frames are very expensive

Steel

Pros:

  • Cheaper material; easier for builders to work with
  • Smooth ride
  • Resists fatigue; easily repaired

Cons:

  • It is the heaviest of all the materials
  • Prone to rust/corrosion
  • Expensive to mass manufacture

As you shop for a bike, you’ll discover that entry-level bikes tend to be made of aluminum while the top-end models are carbon or titanium. This leads us to our next topic: cost.

Prices and Budget

I advise new riders to stay around £750-£1250 price mark. They can get a quality bike for a reasonable price and see if they like cycling. From there, you can always upgrade your bike with more expensive components or wheels. Of course, if you’re Mr. Money Bags and don’t want to heed my financial advice, you can expect to start at around £1,500 and go up to £382,600 (!!!) for the Trek Madone “Butterfly.”

Another option is a used bike. You can find stellar deals from clubs or on-line sites, especially if Mr. Money Bags, who dropped his life savings into a bike, discovered after a few rides he hates cycling. Most sellers will let you know how many hours or miles they’ve logged on the bike and if it’s been in a wreck. However, Caveat emptor: “Let the buyer beware.” The last thing you want is a bike that has crashed or has frame fatigue. This can lead to unpreventable crashes and wrecks which can have devastating results. If you feel purchasing a used bike is your best option, befriend a local cyclist who can inspect the bike or let your local bike shop give it a look over.

Components

Like purchasing a car, a bike’s components are comparable to the bells & whistles the car manufacturer offers: cheaper models have less expensive components while top-tier bikes offer the crème de la crème. What are the components? They are everything BUT the frame, so it is the…

  • crankset
  • rear cassette
  • derailleurs
  • brakes
  • brake/gear levers
  • wheels (hubs, rims, spokes.)
  • handlebars
  • seat post/seat
  • pedals

Bike manufacturers stock their road bikes with the crankset, derailleurs, brakes, brake/gear levers from one of the following major manufacturers:

  • Campagnolo
  • Shimano
  • Sram

All are quality manufacturers and each brand offers different levels of components. Typically, the more expensive components are lighter than the entry-level, which for a new cyclist (in my humble opinion) is irrelevant. You’ll need to build your fitness and power before you become a gram-counter looking to shave off minuscule weight.

As I said at the beginning, purchasing a bike years ago was easy because there weren’t many frame options or any technological changes. Nowadays, there are two innovations you need to understand to be a savvy shopper.

Electronic Shifting

Unlike the traditional method of moving a lever to change gears, electronic shifting offers a button to press located, typically, on the brake hood. Electronic shifting doesn’t require cables and shifts gears faster than the conventional models and you will find this usually on high-end bikes. I still have the lever type and they work fine for my riding style, so if you’re a budget-minded shopper, you may find a deal at your local bike shop that’s trying to sell models with this type of shifting. If you do opt for electronic shifting, make sure the battery is FULLY charged before going on a ride. I’ve been on more than a few rides when a buddy bemoans the fact that his battery died and he’s stuck with a “fixed-gear” bike…and we have hills to climb!

Disc Brakes

The biggest advantage disc brakes have over the caliper/pad system is that wet weather doesn’t affect the braking performance and their stopping power is superior. On the other hand, if you’re budget-minded, you can get an amazing and safe bike with caliper brakes that will serve you well.

Wheels

Aside from the frame, wheels are the next important component of your bike regarding handling, weight, and performance. There are two materials to choose from: aluminum and carbon fiber, the latter being the most expensive.

With that all said, I advise new cyclists to start with the wheels that came with their bike, which in most cases will be aluminum, and consider upgrading after logging some serious miles. As a new cyclist, I doubt you’ll notice the performance difference between a set of low-end and high-end wheels.

As you progress as a cyclist, and you become more performance-focused and in-tune to what you prefer on the road, upgrading to new wheels can be life-changing. Okay, that may be a bit extreme, but you will feel the difference. Bear in mind that this “life-changing experience” comes with a hefty price tag so be prepared for sticker shock!

Since most riders want a bike that is as light as possible, especially for climbing, carbon fiber wheels are the next investment. Not only is the weight difference significant, but they also absorb road shock giving you a smoother ride and are stiff and aerodynamic which translates into speed and performance. However, if you have caliper brakes you’ll need to purchase brake pads that are suitable for carbon. On another note, I had a set of carbon wheels and caliper brakes but found that when it was wet, it took longer to stop than with aluminum wheels. Something to take into consideration.

Pedals

This is going to sound like some odd-ball cycling voodoo, but your new bike will only come with inexpensive platform pedals. Yes, even if you buy the shop’s most expensive bike, it still comes with…cheap pedals.

Because there are a variety of pedal styles to choose from, logic dictates that the manufacturer wants you to have pedal options. So here they are…

  1. Platform. As a new road cyclist, diving into the clipless system where you’re “locked” to your pedals can be intimidating. If that’s the case, stick with the platforms, and develop your riding skills, endurance, and confidence. Bear in mind that your foot may slip off, which can cause an injury or accident, and your pedaling power and efficiency will be underdeveloped.
  2. Toe clips and straps. These were the predecessor to the clipless system and can be a nice segue into the clipless pedal. The strap adjusts allowing you to determine how secure your shoe is in the toe clip so you can practice removing and replacing your foot. Another advantage is you can wear street shoes.
  3. Clipless system. This system requires a cycling shoe with a cleat on the bottom that clips in and out of the pedal much like ski boots into skis. “But if you clip in, why is it called clipless.” Yeah, I know…more cycling voodoo. I have no idea, so let’s stay calm and carry on! The reason these are the preferred choice is that they keep your feet from slipping off the pedals, maximize efficiency, and enable you to pull through the pedal stroke for a smoother cadence.

I hope this has helped simplify what can be a complicated process as well as boost your confidence to shop for a road bike. Keep the rubbers side down and I’ll see you on the road!

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