Buying your first road bike can be a daunting experience. Getting the right bike (one that fits you first and foremost) can literally mean the difference between pleasure and pain. The following contains some handy tips on what to look for and the options available. Ultimately, if in doubt, talk to someone in the club or a bike shop for advice and ride the bike before you buy.
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, 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 a cheap material to make bikes from, and it’s a very good material for road bikes: it’s stiff and light. The latest frames boast some advanced features and design touches.
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. Frames with Deda, Easton, Columbus stickers, highly praised tubing manufactures, will command a premium.
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 – and heavier riders! It’s heavier than aluminium but has wonderful comfort properties, which is why it’s become synonymous with comfort bikes. However the latest stainless steel tube sets from Columbus and Reynolds demonstrate the material’s suitability for lightweight race bikes, but they don’t come cheap.
Once the most exotic material of them all, titanium is as light as aluminium and strong 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.
Finally, carbon fibre. Arguably this is the material that most people want their road bike frame to be made from. Once an ultra expensive choice, carbon fibre is now available at some very low prices, making it affordable to a large section of the bike-buying public.
Carbon frames aren’t all equal though. There’s a huge difference between cheap and expensive carbon, down to the type of fibres used, how it’s manufactured and other important factors that make a big impact. Carbon is wonderful in that it can be relatively easily manipulated by designers to tick whichever boxes they desire. Carbon offers light weight and, in the right hands, can be both stiff and comfortable.
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 group set) to make a price point. So don’t just put carbon at the top of your list because someone else has just bought a carbon bike!
Choosing the right size
Choosing the right size bike is absolutely critical when buying your first road bike. Take advice from a bike shop but don’t be tempted go for a bike that is too small or too large just because it’s a bargain. Only with the correct size bike for your height and dimensions will you really get the most out of your new hobby as well as avoiding injury.
Picking the right size can be difficult though. Generally, road bike are measure in centimetres but the way in which frames are measured varies between manufacturers. They’re not all the same. Some offer three sizes and some offer 10 with smaller increments between them. However, as everyone has their own individual body shape it can get complicated.
The best thing is to have a good look at the size chart on each manufacturer’s website, and sling your leg over any bike you’re considering buying. If you can get a short spin on a bike, even better, as you’ll know almost instantly if it fits.
If the bike fits…
Bike fit services have become increasingly popular, and many bike shops offer such a service. They’ll give you expert advice and will even fit you on the bike in the shop to make sure you leave a happy customer. There are several parts of the bike that you can change to help find a good fit (and a good bike shop will be invaluable here).
Saddle height and its fore/aft position can be adjusted, the height of the handlebars can be raised or lowered with spacers on the steerer tube. Stems come in a range of lengths with 10mm increments to help you get the right reach and in a variety of angles to further adjust and refine your position on the bike.
These are all changes that a good bike shop or a friendly member of ACC will happily assist you with!
The “group set” comprises, essentially, the moving parts on your bike (gears and brakes) and there are three major manufacturers that you’re likely to encounter: Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo. At entry-level prices, Shimano is the most popular choice.
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 and, at the very top, 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, a lower weight, or both.
Each system uses a very different shifting design and it’s down to personal preference which you choose. Shimano and Campagnolo also offer electronic shifting versions of their top-end groupsets although both command high prices. Electronic gears will no doubt trickle down through the price points. It probably won’t be long before it’s on bikes we can all afford.
If you have smaller hands it may be worth looking for Campagnolo gear shifters as these are smaller and thinner than the other manufacturers, and they also require less “swing” to change gear.
Standard, Compact or Triple Chainset?
The chain set (the part the pedals attach to) comes with chain rings of various sizes. Most common at entry-level is a compact, a low ratio chain set (usually 34 teeth on the smaller chain ring and 50 teeth on the big chainring) that will make getting up hills easier.
A standard, or double, chain set is favoured by racers. A larger pair of chain rings (usually 39/53) makes hitting higher speeds easier. We would not recommend this option for beginners!
It’s still possible to get triple chain sets on road bike, although they have mostly been replaced by compacts – which offer nearly the same spread of gears but they’re lighter and simpler to use. Triples are good for those who want the very lowest gears, and they’re ideal for really steep hills or riding in the mountains.
In our area of the Peak District gearing is important and we would recommend selecting a low gear option as a beginner. It is always possible to change gearing as you get fitter and stronger but crawling up, for example, the hills out of Ilam is miserable if you are struggling and “pedalling squares”.
Either a triple or compact double chainset at the front. These will typically be:
Triple: 50:40:30 – number of teeth per chain ring
Compact double: 50:34
That is at the front….the size of the rings at the back is equally important – and easiest to change. The largest ring gives you your lowest gear (when combined with the smaller one at the front) and the smallest, the highest gear (when combined with the bigger on the front). The rear gears are referred to as the block or cassette or rear mech(anism). With a 10 speed bike there are 10 gear rings, 8 speed only 8 gear rings and so on.
This rider would suggest that the largest rear ring at the back is the critical one in terms of selecting your gear ratio. This should be, for beginners, with either a compact double or triple chain ring combination, at least 28 (teeth). If you can, try and get 30 or 32 (not all manufactures offer these as they are mountain bike orientated gears – don’t be put off with that, however). One note of caution – the rear derailleur mechanism (hanger) – the arm through which the chain runs that hangs down – comes in typically 3 sizes – short, medium and long. To try and explain this here is too much detail. Just make sure that that the hanger on your rear mechanism is compatible with the gears on the block you select.
These days almost all road bikes use ergo lever shifters on the handlebars to change gear.
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. The selection of wheels available is mind boggling and therefore confusing. I suggest you ask what wheels are included in your bike “package” – check them out on an on-line bike forum (e.g.www.bikeradar.com/forums)
You can always ask the cost of upgrading the wheels to the next level. Wheels are very easy to upgrade after purchase so do not get too exercised on this issue at this stage.
Using “cleats” or clip in pedals is a natural progression for many riders. These provide better a much better connection to the pedal and will improve your efficiency when riding by allowing you to pull as well as push on the pedals.
There are a number of different options on the market.
Road systems – Look are one of the best known manufacturers
full cleat (e.g. Look Keo) is what the professionals use but… they are difficult and slippery to walk in (up steep hills, for example!), because they stand proud of the sole of the shoe. A better solution for beginners is probably the SPD cleat. Smaller and recessed in to the sole of the shoe, so making walking easier. A smaller surface area against which to push so these are much better when fitted to a rigid sole – see below.