Want to ride far and fast on the road? You need a bike designed for the job.
The term ‘road bike’ generally refers to a lightweight, aerodynamic bicycle whose primary purpose is to devour miles of tarmac at high speed.
Road bikes feature fast-rolling 700c wheels and thin, high-pressure tyres; drop handlebars for improved aerodyamics; a stiff, lightweight frame and up to 30 gears.
Lighter, faster and more responsive than mountain bikes and more comfortable and efficient over long distances than flat-barred hybrid bikes, a road bike is the ideal choice for fitness and leisure riding, road racing, touring and even commuting.
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Learn more about the different types of road bike, the various materials used in frame construction, what to look for in a first road bike and what advantages a female-specific bike can offer the lady rider.
Different types of road bikes designed for the needs of very different riders – from super-stiff racing machines to comfortable long-distance tourers, from entry-level all-rounders to cutting-edge carbon fibre speed weapons.
The type of road bike that is right for you will depend not only on the budget available but also on the type of riding you intend to do.
Road bikes aimed at racing enthusiasts are designed with light weight and efficiency taking priority over comfort. For optimum power transfer, racing bikes feature super-stiff frames with long top tubes, short head tubes and steep head and seat angles for a ‘stretched out’ racing position, with the handlebars generally positioned below the level of the saddle. Bikes like this are often described as being ‘race’ bikes and are more suited to the experienced rider.
Road bikes for leisure or non-competitive riding – including the increasingly popular cyclosportive or simply ‘sportive’ types of long-distance organised cycle events (including charity cycles), as well as fitness riding or winter training – will make more concessions to comfort and everyday practicality. A relaxed frame geometry allows for a more upright riding position that is less aerodynamic than the ‘flat back’ racing style but far more comfortable for the newcomer or leisure cyclist. Frames will feature ample clearance for wider, more comfortable tyres as well as mounts for mudguards and even front and rear racks. Bikes like this are often described as being ‘endurance’ or ‘sportive’ bikes, and are ideal for either beginners to the sport or for those who value comfort over long distances and rough surfaces.
When buying your first road bike there are a number of things to consider. Firstly, determine whether your first bike is to be an introduction to the world of racing, or as is more likely, for fitness, leisure or distance cycling (e.g. A charity event). Most entry-level bikes will be geared towards the latter, with ‘endurance’ frame geometry providing a more upright riding position, although many of today’s budget all-rounders are more than capable of holding their own in a local club race.
Sizing is essential when it comes to enjoying your bike safely and comfortably – nothing is more important than having a bike that fits so consult a manufacturer’s sizing chart carefully.
Most road bikes will come with a double front crankset, featuring two chainrings combined with a nine, ten, or 11-sprocket cassette at the back. Some higher-end bikes may come with a single ring crankset. This is fairly new technology for the road bike following innovations in the gear ratios available from the rear cassette. With cassettes now capable of hosting up to 12 sprockets, some manufacturers – particularly component maker SRAM – now offer single ring formats with the same spread of gears once only possible with double chainsets. Alternatively, some entry-level bikes may have a triple chainring format, which is heavier but much cheaper technology providing a wide range of gears for very hilly areas.
Another advancement is the compact double setup – two smaller chainrings up front offering a lower gear range for hill climbing without resorting to the hefty third chainring.
Look out for carbon fibre front forks and a carbon seatpost to take the sting out of the roads; strong, lightweight wheels with good-quality hubs and durable, puncture-resistant tyres of 23-28mm in width. Twin sets of bottle-cage bolts are handy for mobile hydration while frame mounts for mudguards – or at least enough frame clearance to attach ‘race blade’ types that don’t require bolting-on – will ensure all-season suitability.
The frame is the heart of any road bike, and improvements in technology and materials mean that excellent quality frames are available to riders even at the budget end of the market. The most common materials used are aluminium, steel, carbon fibre and titanium
Aluminium – Relatively inexpensive to manufacture, aluminium frames are found on many bikes in the low- to mid-range sectors of the market and offer reasonable performance at a good price. Lightweight, strong and stiff, aluminium is however sometimes perceived to be a harsher ride than carbon fibre – although any difference between top-end alu frames and lower-end carbon are minimal, and plenty of experienced riders prefer an alu steed.
Carbon Fibre – Bikes in the pro peloton are built around a carbon fibre frame for good reason. Strong, stiff and lightweight, carbon is also favoured for its vibration damping properties, making it comfortable over long distances but also very efficient at power transfer. As the technology has matured carbon frames have begun to appear on bikes at lower price points, bringing the material’s benefits with the grasp of the ordinary rider; while even budget bikes nowadays can feature a smattering of carbon components.
Steel – Steel-framed road bikes offer a supple, springy ride much beloved by those who favour ride comfort over optimum stiffness and light weight. Not the racers’ choice owing to a weight penalty, and rare among production bikes from major manufacturers, but remains very popular among long-distance tourers and lovers of the classic steel ‘spring’.
Titanium – Lightweight, strong and supple, titanium offers ultimate all-round performance but at a premium price due to how difficult it is to work with. Because it doesn’t corrode or lose its ride characteristics over time, titanium is sometimes the material of choice for riders looking for a ‘bike for life’.
Materials aside, road bike frames are often classified as ‘traditional’ or ‘compact’ (also ‘sloping’) geometry. Traditional frames feature a horizontal top tube, with compact frames featuring a sloping top tube. The relative merits of each design are open to debate and are often a matter of rider preference, with traditional frames regarded as stable and comfortable and compact frames being quicker and more responsive, with a lower centre of gravity.
One important point to note is in relation to sizing – because of the sloped top tube, compact-framed bikes of an equivalent reach (distance between saddle and handlebars) to traditional models will carry a smaller frame size. For example, a 56cm traditional frame will be equal to a 52cm compact frame. Compact-framed bikes are also typically available in a smaller range of sizes, with seatpost height adjusted to suit the rider.
Women have a different body geometry to men and the range of women-specific road bikes on offer reflects the different needs of female cyclists. Because women tend to have longer legs in proportion to their torsos than men, women’s-specific bikes will have a shorter top tube to bring the handlebars closer to the saddle while still enabling full leg extension.
They can also feature adjustments such as a relaxed head tube angle and lengthened head tube as well as a slightly steeper seat angle, all aimed at increasing comfort and stability.
Women’s-specific bikes will also often have a greater standover height than men’s and be available in a smaller range of sizes. Handlebars are narrower to reflect narrower shoulders while brake levers are sized to fit smaller hands. Women’s saddles are also different to men’s – shorter and wider at the rear to support the sit bones of the pelvis, with ergonomic padding and cut-outs to protect soft tissues and relieve pressure.