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Road Bike Buyer’s Guide

Words by Tony

on 28/10/2015 16:42:57

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Whether you are buying your first road bike, or like us, you're hooked and you want to upgrade your ride, this guide will steer you through the occasionally confusing world of road cycling and arm you with the right information to make the best buying decisions.

Where to start

The good news is, it's never been a better time to buy a new road bike. While the likes of Wiggo and Froome might belt around France on bikes costing anything up to £10,000, you don't need to spend anywhere near that much. Rapid development in technology and international competition have made entry-level bikes excellent value for money.

Prices for a bike that will last and give you a proper riding experience start around £500, which includes bike set-up, your first service and a quality bike fit. You can spend less, but you'll either get sub-standard components or be left on your own to build up the bike, determine how to fit it correctly to protect your knees, back, hands and shoulders, and service it once it beds in.

Your cycling objectives

The best place to start is understanding what you want to achieve with your bike. Do you want a comfortable bike that's good for fitness training, but you're not concerned with speed or the latest technology?  Or, are you interested in the sport, joining a club, doing challenging rides for speed and/or distance?  Your budget and the type of bike you select should be guided by your objectives, and this guide should help you make more informed choices. What are you paying for?

£500 - £10,000 is quite a range, so how do you decide what's right for you?  For example, is it more important to spend extra to get a carbon fibre frame or would you be better off with a less expensive frame and better gear shifters, brakes and wheels?  If it's an upgrade from your current bike you are looking for, how do you choose the best frame, groupset and wheels for you?

Frame Materials

The frame is the heart of your new road bike. It's where the majority of the budget goes. Frames can be made from a range of materials, and the most common are steel, aluminium, titanium and carbon fibre. Each is a very worthy material in its own right.

Aluminium is the most common frame material for bikes costing under £1,000. It's an easy material to make bikes from, which keeps the cost down, and it's a very good material for road bikes, as it's stiff and light. Better aluminium frames will use butted tubes (where the wall thickness is varied along its length) which makes them lighter and can offer more comfort.  The latest frames boast some advanced features and design touches, such as internal cable routing.

Steel is a lovely material to build a road bike from. However, it's most often found on custom bikes and those designed for touring these days. It's heavier than aluminium, but has wonderful comfort properties, which is why it's become synonymous with comfort bikes. The latest stainless steel tubesets from Columbus and Reynolds demonstrate the material's suitability for competitively lightweight race bikes, but they don't come cheap.

Once the most exotic material of them all, titanium is as light as aluminium and comfortable as steel, making it a wonderful material for bicycles. It is, however, difficult to work with, and this has ensured that it has always been an expensive option, though it is steadily becoming slightly more affordable. It also does not corrode or suffer from fatigue wear, so it can be a "bike for life"

Finally, carbon fibre is the fastest growing segment. This is the material that most people want their road bike frame to be made from, however, carbon frames are NOT all equal. There's a huge difference between cheap and expensive carbon, down to the type of fibres used, the ratio of carbon fibre to epoxy bonding material, and how it's manufactured. In some cases, you may be bouncing down the road on what is little more than a plastic bike. In others, sophisticated lay-up of the carbon fibre layers means a magical combination of stiffness, comfort and low weight. 

While it's entirely conceivable that you'll want a carbon fibre frame, don't discount aluminium. Often you will get an aluminium bike with far higher grade wheels and components than you could get on a carbon bike of a similar price, and that will contribute to a lower overall weight. That can lead to a far more enjoyable ride experience than you'll get from a carbon bike where the manufacturer has cut corners (heavy wheels, low spec groupset, etc.) to make a price point. So don't just put carbon at the top of your list because your friend has just bought a carbon bike!

Bike Fit is more than just choosing the right size frame!

Choosing the right size bike is absolutely critical when buying a road bike, but it's just a starting point. We don't simply rely upon brand's sizing charts. We will size you up by putting bikes on a turbo trainer in the store to ensure we source the right frame size for you. Bike sizes vary by manufacturer, and the right size for you will differ based on factors, such as your ratio of leg length to torso length and the objective of the bike design (racing or endurance).  In addition, the popularity of riding for fitness, versus racing, and long distance training has led most bike manufacturers to develop “endurance” road bikes to complement their existing race bikes. Endurance bikes are designed to be a bit more comfortable and less aerodynamic than full-on 

Once we have you on the correct frame, we then go the extra mile to provide a dynamic bike fit service. That means we film you while you are riding on the turbo, so we can make key measurements while you are in motion, not simply sitting on the bike. Our bike fit includes the following

  • Setting up your cleats (rotation, fore/aft, inside/outside) to ensure your knee tracks straight up and down
  • Knee over Pedal Spindle (KoPS), which is fore/aft movement of the saddle to minimise the shear forces on your knee
  • Saddle height to ensure your muscles are working in their most powerful range of motion
  • Handlebar reach and drop to get the right balance between aerodynamics and comfort to achieve your cycling objectives.

shimano-tiagra-groupGroupset Components

The groupset comprises, essentially, the moving parts on your bike apart from the wheels, so it's your gears, shifters, derailleurs (mechs), chain, crankset, bottom bracket and brakes. The quality of these components makes a great difference in the reliability of shifting, effort to brake and comfort for your hands. There are three major manufacturers that you're likely to encounter: Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo. Shimano has, by some margin, the greatest market share.

The pecking order for Shimano goes like this, from entry-level to top-end; 2300, Sora, Tiagra, 105, Ultegra and Dura-Ace. Campagnolo starts with Veloce, then Centaur, Athena, Chorus, Record, Super Record. SRAM offer four road groupsets; Apex at the entry-level, Rival, Force and Red. Pay more and you'll get a higher performance, lower weight, or both.

Each system uses a very different shifting design and it's down to personal preference which you choose. Shimano, Campagnolo, and, recently, Sram also offer electronic shifting versions of their top-end groupsets although they still command high prices. While they won’t necessarily make you faster, they do offer automatic adjustment of the front

Compact, standard or triple chainset

The chainset (the part the pedals attach to) comes with chainrings of various sizes. Most common is a “compact”, which is a low ratio chainset (34 teeth on the smaller chainring and 50 teeth on the big chainring) that will make getting up hills easier. A “standard” chainset is favoured by racers. A larger pair of chainrings (usually 39/53) makes it easier to hit high speeds, but you need to be stronger to climb steep hills. It's still possible to get “triple” chainsets, which have three chainrings, on road bike, although they have mostly been replaced by compacts, which offer nearly the same spread of gears but are lighter and simpler to use. Triples are good for those who want the very lowest gears, for example, if you are carrying a lot of weight on your bike, such as cycle touring with a rack and panniers (saddlebags).

The wheels make the bike

The next important area of your new bicycle is the wheels. Aside from the frame, the wheels will heavily influence how the bike rides, feels and responds. Lighter wheels will ride faster with less rotating mass. Lighter and faster tyres will feel more responsive and supple over the road surface.

When researching your new bike, a bike with decent wheels should be high on your list of priorities. While you can easily replace components like the rear derailleur and other components that will eventually wear out, the wheels take up a large chunk of the bike's overall cost, and therefore more expensive to upgrade.

DIVERGE15Disc brakes on road bikes

Disc brakes have been popular on mountain bikes for more than 10 years, and they have been added to some road bikes in the last couple years. Rather than braking with pads rubbing on the wheel rim, disc brakes have dedicated rotors attached to the wheel hubs and callipers mounted onto the frame (rear) and fork (front). The benefits for mountain bikes are clear, rather than braking on a muddy rim, you have a dedicated braking surface far away from the muck and mire. Disc brakes also offer more power and better modulation, and they don’t wear out you rim. It’s not as black and white for road bikes, however.

The limiting factor in how hard you can brake is often the grip the narrow, high pressure road tyre has with the road surface, so too much power can cause a skid.  Disc brakes can add 1 – 2 pounds on the weight of the bike, as the fork and frame have to be strengthened to deal with braking forces at the mounting points, and the callipers and rotors weigh more than rim brakes. On the plus side, especially if you have or may upgrade to carbon fibre wheels, the braking is progressive and consistent in all weather and temperatures. Carbon surfaces are notorious for inconsistent braking performance.  As well as eliminating inconsistent braking, wheel rims can be made lighter when they don’t need a specific braking surface.  So, our advice is to definitely consider disc brakes if you have, or may buy, carbon fibre rims. If you’re going to ride alloy rims for the foreseeable future, then disc brakes are a nice to have, but not a top priority.

Cyclo-cross & “Gravel Grinders”

Finally, there are road bikes designed for riding off-road. Cyclo-cross bikes are designed for racing off-road, including hopping over small obstacles and being carried for short distances around larger ones. They are effectively racing bikes modified for this specific use.  Gravel Grinders, on the other hand, are comfort-focused road bikes that can also be ridden on gravel roads, tow paths and bridleways. They have fatter tyres for better traction, and disc brakes are the norm.  The fatter tyres, fittings for mudguards and more relaxed geometry make for good winter training bikes. They are also growing in popularity as road cyclists look for more variety in their local riding.

Summary

We are here to help you match you with the best bike for your riding objectives and budget. We'll make sure you get the right size and set it up correctly for you in any case, but we can also discuss the trade-offs and pro & cons of your different choices. We are all cyclists and enthusiasts, so we are keen and able to help.