So, you’ve decided to buy a road bike. It’s a big moment, one that will soon be followed by you riding lower on the handlebars, racing across the pavement faster than your mountain bike or casual cruiser ever allowed and likely wearing more spandex than ever.
But with so many options available — and at so many price points — walking into a bike shop can be a daunting experience. That’s why it’s smart to do some research ahead of time to know what you’re looking for. To help, we’ve broken things down into a few basic categories, and have enlisted an expert to provide guidance along the way.
IF YOU’RE BRAND-NEW TO CYCLING …
“The first thing to figure out is what type of bike you want,” says Woody Smith, president of Richardson Bike Mart, a shop that’s been around since 1962. “What kind of terrain will you be on? What are your goals?” Your answers can help to determine the best bike for you.
He breaks things down like this:
Aero Bike: These sleek, flat frames help you slice through the wind. They’re built more for speed and less for comfort.
Race Bike: Built to be lightweight, race bikes are great for going up hills and will be the easiest to propel forward. But averaging just about 5 percent lighter than non-race bikes, a new rider is less likely to benefit from the weight difference.
Endurance Bike: Smith considers this the best all-around bike for new riders. They’re comfortable and still plenty fast. “It’s only minutes slower over a 50-mile ride,” he says.
Gravel Bike: The fourth major style of bike, and really more of a bonus category in Smith’s opinion, the gravel bike is basically an endurance bike. But it’s built to use bigger tires and can therefore go on multiple roads, so it’s more of a hybrid style. It’s robust nature makes it a great option for people who commute to work or whose ride includes unpaved country roads.
Regardless of which type of bike sounds most appealing, Smith says test riding is still the best way to figure out the best bike for you. New cyclists especially will need to spend some time testing out various bikes to find one that’s comfortable and meets their specific needs.
IF YOU WANT TO LOG SOME SERIOUS MILES …
Smith notes that aero, race and endurance bikes are all ridden by top cyclists, even Tour de France athletes who ride thousands of miles per year. So you should still choose whichever bike feels best to you. But, in general, he prefers endurance bikes for riders who will be spending lots of time in the saddle.
He suggests looking for something with a lightweight carbon frame, and if you’ll be logging a lot of miles, then opt for endurance tires. “Performance wheels and tires make you go fast, but they also wear out quicker,” he says.
Another consideration is your components, which include the shifters, breaks, front and rear derailleurs, chain, crankset and cassette. Smith says there are several levels of components to choose from, so pick something durable.
“If you’re riding 400–500 miles per month, you’ll get 10 years out of those high-end components,” he says.
And then there’s the saddle. Don’t just settle for whatever comes standard with your bike. Test a variety of shapes and sizes to find one that’s comfortable and supports your sit bones properly. Otherwise, you’ll be in for some unpleasant rides.
IF YOU’RE ON A BUDGET …
Most road bikes start around $700 for an entry-level option. For this amount, you can get a well-made bike that will get the job done. But if that’s too much money, Smith suggests looking for pre-owned bikes.
“If the bike’s only a few years old, you can often get a great deal on a better bike at a cheaper price,” he says. He notes that for $500–600, you can usually find a bike that retailed for $1000 or more. But he stresses the importance of knowing the bike’s condition before you buy it. “Make sure the store cleans it up and tunes it up, and ensure there’s no frame damage. There’s no CarFax for bikes.”
Perhaps the most important consideration for budget-conscious buyers is the fit. You want to get sized for your new bike.
“Fit is everything,” says Smith. This includes the size of the frame, the angle and height of the seat and handlebar and pedal positions. “If you’re fit properly and can ride comfortably, then a $700 bike will feel better than an expensive one.”
IF MONEY IS NO OBJECT …
Got some cash burning a hole in your cycling kit pocket? Well, it’s easy to spend it when you start looking at top-of-the-line road bikes. According to Smith, the best bikes start around $8,000 and go up to $15,000 or more.
The first place to put your money is in the frame. Typically, the more money you spend, the lighter the bike gets. Next up, choose top-of-the-line components to improve your shifting and breaking. This is when you might even consider electronic shifters — they don’t really improve performance, but they do allow for more precise shifting, and they sure feel cool. If you’d like, you might also pick up a couple more gears to help you on hills.
He also mentions that, due to weight reductions, better components and wheel and tire upgrades on the higher-end bikes, you’ll go faster. Moving from a $1,000 bike to a $2,000 bike might give you an extra mile per hour, and spending another $1,000–$1,500 could give you another one mile per hour edge. “You might not feel the difference as much on flat roads, but on hills and in the wind, you’ll really notice the extra speed.”
Of course, like with most things, there is a threshold. You can keep customizing and spending to your heart’s content, but after a while, the upgrades top out.
“The difference between a $1,000 bike and a $3,000 bike will wow you,” he says. “Going from $3,000 to $6,000 will wow you less. At a certain point, double the price doesn’t mean double the wow.”
He notes that $3,000–$4,000 is a real sweet spot, and that once you go much higher than that, the performance increases are incremental — more for serious racers than average riders. That said, if you can afford it, those little increments will give you every advantage you can get.