How to Buy a Road Bike

If you're considering purchasing a new road bike, or just studying up on the subject for future reference, there are basically three things to know about road bikes: frame materials, frame geometry, and components.

First: Materials Manufacturers, these days, make bikes from predominantly three materials: aluminum, steel, and carbon fiber. Each material has different properties that lend a different feel to the ride of the bike. Makers choose their frame material depending on the particular ride characteristics for which they're looking. Sometimes they'll use a combination of materials.

Aluminum is the prevalent material used by bike manufacturers today. Builders like it because it's lightweight and stiff. Being stiff, frames made of aluminum flex less under load, directing more of the rider's energy into forward motion. Thus, a bike made of aluminum will have a fast, nimble feel to it. However, because it is stiff, aluminum can lend a bumpy, less comfortable ride to the bike.

Steel on the other hand, which has been used to make bikes for a hundred years, can be very stiff, but in general, steel gives a bike a smoother, more stable, more comfortable ride. It is a more pliant material, and therefore, absorbs road vibration well. Besides being very strong and reliable, steel can also be repaired when aluminum or carbon fiber may not. However, steel bikes weigh a little more.

Carbon fiber touts the best qualities of both steel and aluminum. It's a very versatile material. It can be "laid up" to be stiff or compliant, depending on what part of the frame it is used, and depending on what ride qualities the builder wants in the bike. It does have a couple of drawbacks. One is that carbon fiber is very expensive. However, the price has come down over the past few years, and we're seeing more and more bikes being made of it. The other drawback to carbon fiber is its inherent weakness to withstand impact. It is more easily damaged than steel or aluminum, and damage is difficult to evaluate. Cracks in the material that may render a bike unsafe to ride, are not always visible..

Second: Frame Geometry. As the term implies, frame geometry refers to the lengths of the frame tubes and the angles at which they are assembled. The frame geometry, like the frame material, effects how the bike rides. More specifically, the frame geometry determines how the bike handles. A touring bike, for example, has a longer wheelbase, more fork rake, and less acute angles in the head and seat tubes. As a result, a touring bike handles more like a Mercedes or a Lexus: smooth, stable, and comfortable, desirable qualities for a bike to be ridden great distances, loaded with heavy gear, or used for commuting. Conversely, a bike made with more acute frame angles, a shorter wheelbase, and less fork rake, handles more like a Porsche or Ferrari: light, quick, and fast, desirable qualities for racing or for just the joy of performance. The frame geometry also affects the fit. Variations in top tube lengths, for example, change the fit by changing how much you lean over. You'll find that frame geometries will run the gamut with respect to fit and performance..

Third: Components. The components used on a bike, i.e. the wheels, brakes, derailleurs, etc., also contribute to a bike's ride quality. Higher quality components are made from better materials, machined to closer tolerances, and have finer finishes. That means they work better and last longer. The shifting feels crisper, more precise; the braking faster and more controlled. Name brand components include Shimano, Campagnolo, and SRAM. Shimano dominates the market, although SRAM is making inroads on the higher end. Of course Campagnolo, the classic Italian manufacturer, is still recognized for their fine high-end road bike components.

When you're looking at road bikes, you'll often hear words like "105" or "Ultegra". These are simply the model names of the different Shimano component groups. Most manufactures will make a bike featuring these groups, and you'll notice that the prices are about the same for bikes with the same component group. In other words, everyone's "105" bike will run around $1500, given that they have similar frames. These days you'll see more bikes with a mixture of other brands of components. With the recent rise in production costs, i.e. in raw materials, transportation costs, and currency issues, manufacturers are holding down prices by using more generic parts on their bikes.

Now that you know the three fundamentals of road bikes: frame materials, frame geometry and components, forget all that. You don't need to know any of it to buy a bike. Here's how you buy one. Find a bike shop you like, decide how much you want to spend on your bike, determine your proper frame size, test ride a few, and take one home.

Your Bike Shop: It's nice to establish a relationship with your bike shop. You'll be going back for service, accessories, and information; and knowing the folks at your bike shop, and them knowing you, simply makes your visits there more enjoyable. It's a relationship kind of business. Moreover, a good shop will fit you properly, show you how to operate your new bike, and help you get started in your cycling.

How Much to Spend: You'll find that bikes are very competitively priced from brand to brand and store to store. At a given price point, you'll see similar, if not identical components used on the different brands of bikes. That'll make your shopping a little easier. As with anything, the more you spend, the higher quality you'll get. With bikes, nicer ones ride better and last longer. Of course the more you ride, the more you may want to spend on your bike. Also, remember that you'll have your bike for a long time. So, spend what you can on it up front.

Size: Manufacturers measure their bikes differently. Thus, you may ride a different size bike in a different brand. That's OK. In any case, you determine your proper frame size by standing over the bike. You should clear the top tube on a road bike by an inch to an inch and a half. However these days, with the advent of sloping top tubes, you may have more clearance over the top bar and still be on the right size bike. The other critical dimension to be aware of when sizing your bike is the reach from the seat to the bars. The proper reach depends on the type bike, the type of riding, the build of the rider, and sometimes other considerations such as injuries or back issues. The reach can be best assessed on a test ride, which is the next step in selecting your new bike.

Test Ride several bikes. Simply observe how they fit, feel, and handle. Note that the fit and feel of any particular bike is not defined by any single element, such as the frame material, but rather by the combination of elements: the frame materials, frame geometry, and components. Be sure you are comfortable on the bike. Try out the brakes and gears. Also test ride some bikes at different price points. Although, you'll find that the features don't really change as you go up in price, you'll notice that the better bikes will have a smoother, lighter, more solid feel to them. You'll be able to feel the differences from bike to bike when you ride them, even if you don't have any experience.

So, let's summarize. There are three things to know about road bikes: frame material, frame geometry, and components. That's the technical stuff. The way you buy one is to pick your bike shop, decide what you want to spend on your new bike, get on the right size, test ride a few, and take one home. You'll know when you find the right bike. It's sort of like buying shoes. When you "try on" the right one, it just feels good. Enjoy the process.

Happy Trails.


12 Comments so far...

Thank you for the very informative article. I have friends who ride and work in bike shops and I still feel they are "used Car salesmen" when I ask questions. Youe article explained everything needed to know

-Posted on Apr 2nd, 2009 by Dan

Excellent article! The site is great. Everything you will ever need to know about bicycling, including price info. In the comments there is a typo in "Useless". He mistakenly left "I'm" before he started. What a spoil sport! The dude is a dud. Some people would complain if you put them in heaven. Note he didn't bother leaving his name. Does he feel guilty?

-Posted on Mar 14th, 2010 by Tom

A year on and this is still the best, most objective and pertinent advice i've found to date!

-Posted on May 8th, 2010 by Ryan

Excellent guide, I'm just getting into the bicycling scene and this helped quite a bit.

-Posted on May 24th, 2009 by Tein

Useless. this article doesn't tell me anything profound about cycling. I felt this information could be applied to any general topic. "how to buy a computer"...not all bad i think this article could improve by naming the specifics of what each component of a bike does...intro into some bike terminology or things that you can do to chose a bike that is upgradeable, and what to upgrade first....etc.. ty

-Posted on Jul 16th, 2009 by No nickname

Apparently "No Nickname" is synonymous for "No Brain". USELESS? Did you not read the title? This was not about upgrading or a primer on cycling in general it was advice on what to look for when shopping for a bike. So when you shop for computers you consider materials?

Info presented was concise and useful explaining materials and components and unbiased towards their shop or brands. Thanks Mike!

-Posted on Jul 27th, 2009 by SeeGee

Was very informative. Thanks!

-Posted on Jul 28th, 2009 by chris

Very helpful. Im looking at a Miyata, a 58 cm on craigslist, its hard to come by big frame bikes being that im 6' 2". ;)

-Posted on Aug 29th, 2009 by beejee

Great starting point for me as I look to buy my first serious road bike. Thanks!

-Posted on Sep 21st, 2009 by Dix

Thanks for the info. It's very helpful

-Posted on May 1st, 2010 by Alex

Thank you Mike! This is exactly the starting point I have been looking for!

-Posted on Jun 13th, 2010 by AK

Thank you for this information! I am in the "information gathering" stage and you've given me many things to consider!

-Posted on Jul 1st, 2010 by LilCog