Although you might never know it if you’ve ever seen a novice bike buyer in action, picking a road bike should involve a lot more than just deciding on your favourite colour.
This machine will be your companion during moments of ecstasy, delight, glory, and even moments of worry and despair. To say it should fit you like a glove is right in one respect, but it should do more than that — it should provide you with the confidence to ride in any situation and the inspiration to keep hopping aboard. From how it fits, to frame material, choice of gears, brakes and even wheels, Matt Lamy explains how to choose the right first road bike for you.
First of all, what is a road bike? In its purest essence, a road bike is a bicycle built for speed on smooth surfaces. That’s not to say comfort has to be sacrificed, but the frame and components should have been designed to be as light as possible while still providing the most efficient power transfer. In real-life shorthand, though, road bikes are bikes with dropped handlebars. These provide you with a range of handholds, from relaxed on top of the brake hoods, to head down and powering on the drops.
The most crucial quality your first road bike needs to have is it must fit you correctly. Having the wrong size bike has the potential to cause all sorts of problems, from physical aches and pains, to simply putting you off riding because you don’t enjoy it. Especially in the case of your first road bike — and we’d recommend it for every bike you buy — there’s no better option than going into a store (to find your nearest Evans Cycles click here) and sitting on a few different bikes under the watchful eye of an experienced shop assistant. It’s not simply the case that the saddle has got to be at the right height, in the case of road bikes your reach to the handlebar is crucial: too long and you’ll feel too stretched out; too short and you’ll feel constricted and hunched. Enjoyable and effective bike control is also reliant on you fitting your bike correctly, so this has to take precedence before any other factors.
Until very recently, most new road bike buyers would have faced a pretty simple choice when it came to frame material: anything you like as long as it’s aluminium. Steel was reserved either for very cheap, low-quality bikes or — in chromoly form — much higher quality, almost boutique options. Meanwhile, carbon-fibre was reserved for upper-middle range bikes and beyond. But with manufacturing technology becoming cheaper, the lines have blurred somewhat. Really good chromoly bikes are still generally outside the typical budget of new road cyclists, but carbon bike prices have come down significantly.
That said, most respected mainstream manufacturers only start their carbon bike ranges above £1,000, and we’d be very hesitant to suggest you buy a carbon bike for anything less. Mass-produced carbon frames still vary enormously in quality, especially at the budget end of the market. While well-made, well-designed carbon frames offer great strength, comfort and weight saving, poor carbon frames offer none of these benefits. Also, to be able to afford a carbon frame, you may find your budget is hit in a potentially more important area.
On the other hand, aluminium road bike frames have been around for decades and even at entry-level prices, bike buyers now have access to very technologically advanced products. A well-designed aluminium frame should offer impressive levels of strength, comfort and weight saving, yet be affordable enough to also include some good components within the budget, too.
In terms of fork material, it’s quite rare to find anything other than carbon-bladed products fitted to entry-level road bikes from major brands. These will generally be relatively light but offer good, secure bike control and even a little bit of comfort. In contrast, aluminium forks tend to be quite stiff and harsh. While in theory steel forks can help take the sting out of the road, in reality at this end of the market, they will have been fitted purely to save money and will probably be heavy and unrefined.
While frame choice is always the headline factor on a bike purchase, we’d go so far as to say that component choice will have a more significant effect on your own personal experience of cycling. In short, once you’re happy with your choice of frame, try to buy the model with the best specification possible. Decent entry-level road bikes come with Shimano Claris gears, which offer great value, but if you can extend your budget to models with Shimano Sora components (not to mention Shimano Tiagra, SRAM Apex or even Shimano 105 or SRAM Rival), you will find gear shifts and general operation all the more rewarding. Sora would be a brilliant first groupset, while 105 or Rival offers all the functionality you’ll ever need even as an experienced leisure, sportive or challenge event rider.
As well as the drivetrain there is the question of braking. Again, there is the small matter of fashion, with everybody currently raving about disc brakes and especially hydraulic discs. Certainly, disc brakes are very effective, particularly in wet conditions, but as this is your first road bike, don’t get into the mindset of thinking they are a necessity. Both financially and in terms of developing your riding skills, using caliper brakes — which are themselves very good — is the best way to start. You may find the brakesets on the bikes you are interested in will be from the same manufacturer as your drivetrain components, or you may find that if your bike’s specification budget has been squeezed just a little, they are from another manufacturer such as Tektro. Do not worry, Tektro is still a respected brand. If any components don’t seem to be branded, though, find out why.
(Upgrade tip: a quick and inexpensive upgrade to aftermarket replacement brake blocks will drastically improve the performance of all caliper brakesets.)
Wheels tend to be the component that riders of entry-level bikes upgrade earliest. That’s not to say that the wheels that come on lower-priced road bikes have anything wrong with them, they just tend to be slightly heavy and over-engineered (it’s a fair trade-off — new road riders tend to be slightly heavy and over-engineered themselves!). Better wheels can really invigorate a bike’s performance, but they won’t necessarily come cheap — expect to spend at least double what your stock wheels would cost to see a significant performance difference.
In the vast majority of cases, entry-level bikes will have own-branded wheels, or items from companies such as Alex. As a general rule of thumb, if a manufacturer is confident enough to put a name on a product, it will be decent quality if not necessarily featherweight and ultra-fast. Be wary of completely unbranded wheelsets, though. If in any doubt, ask to go on a test ride of any bike your interested in — poor quality wheels are often quickly noticeable.
Tyres are something that can easily be upgraded in time. However, as with wheels, a good set of reliable rubber from a name brand — Kenda, Schwalbe, Hutchinson, Michelin, Continental, Bontrager, Specialized, Vittoria — will start you rolling with confidence. And if they are 25c or 28c wide, they will feel a little more comfortable and forgiving than thin 23c tyres.
Now we come to the contact points, which will have some bearing on your initial comfort levels. If you’ve been fitted to the bike in store, the assistant should be able to ensure it has the right width handlebar for you, and you might need to alter stem length to get the reach perfect. While changing handlebar is a relatively big job (and usually not necessary unless you have particularly narrow or wide shoulders for your height), swapping stems is easy and can be done at home by even a novice rider with a multitool.
Saddles on road bikes, especially among inexperienced riders, can look rather daunting but do not be put off. While most of their length might be quite narrow, this is not the part of the saddle that will bear the brunt of your weight. Even road bike saddles are designed to give adequate support for your sit bones and over a short time of regular riding with padded shorts you will quickly grow used to it. In any case, if you do want to change your stock saddle, it is a quick, easy and inexpensive process.
The last area to look at is pedals, if only to understand where your journey to becoming an experienced cyclist begins. Entry-level road bikes often come supplied with simple flat pedals. These are not particularly light or technologically advanced, but they will do initially as you grow used to your bike. In time, though — and no matter how scary you may think the prospect is right now — you will want to upgrade to clip-in pedals because they provide a more secure pedalling experience and better power transfer. Right now, though, that’s for another day.
In a moment we’ll look at some great entry-level road bikes, but one last word on the buying process. Don’t forget that you can save money and pay for your bike in tax-free monthly installments by using the government’s Cycle to Work provision. You can ask for up to £1,000 of bike and approved cycling kit, including road bikes and associated equipment. To find out more about Evans Cycles’ ‘Ride-to-Work’ scheme, click here.
Three fantastic first road bikes
Pinnacle Laterite 1
Here’s a bike to set you off on an exciting cycling road of discover. The Laterite 1 takes many influences from Pinnacle’s legendary Dolomite series but features them in a top-value form. Don’t think you’re missing out on anything, though: the Laterite 1 comes with a carbon-bladed fork, Shimano Claris gears, Tektro dual-pivot caliper brakes, and even Schwalbe Lugano tyres.
Trek Domane AL 2
Trek’s entry-level bikes used to be given just numbers rather than names but not any more — this is a fully-fledged Domane model and the spec sheet shows why it deserves the title. High-quality aluminium frame, carbon-bladed fork, Shimano Claris gears, fantastic Bontrager finishing kit and wheels that are even tubeless ready, for an important first upgrade.
Jamis Ventura Comp
OK, we said don’t go breaking the budget just to have disc brakes, but if a manufacturer is going to give them to you effectively for free, you’d be a fool not to take them! The Ventura Comp is an incredible package: fantastic aluminium frame, carbon-bladed forks, fine Shimano Sora gearset and Tektro Lyra mechanical disc brakes. Possibly the ultimate first road bike.