If you’re looking for good advice on buying your first road bike, you’ve come to the right place.
We tested eight of the best road bikes for around $1,000, and we spell out the highs and lows of each below. Of all eight, our testers found that the Specialized Allez Sport, the Giant Defy 3, the Cannondale CAAD8 Sora and the Jamis Ventura Comp rode particularly well. Read on to find out why.
What you should look for
Two of the biggest differences between the bikes – and what will determine which is the best for you – lie in the geometry and gearing.
Some of the bikes, such as the Felt F85, are more aggressive and racy, with a lower front end and a gearing range suited for flat, fast roads. Others, like the KHS Flite 450, are more relaxed, with an upright position and gearing that can make molehills out of mountains.
To call out the geometry and the gearing for each of the bikes below, we note the height of the head tube (the vertical frame tube at the front of the bike that helps determine handlebar height) and the cassette size (the range of gears on the back wheel).
At the price point, all the bikes feature aluminum frames with carbon fiber forks. All of the bikes also feature “compact” cranks, which mean the chain rings are 50- and 34-teeth, instead of the standard 53/39. This means easier pedaling for you. Total weight for a 56cm bike is about 20 pounds for each.
Six of the bikes have 9-speed Shimano Sora drivetrains, which downshift with a button and upshift with the brake lever. The other two bikes have 10-speed Microshift systems, which use two buttons to shift. Both systems work fairly well, although shifting on both is much easier when riding with your hands on the tops of the handlebars instead of down in the curved drops.
To get a good feel for these machines, our five-rider test group rode these bikes on two test tracks. One is a windy, 2,500-vertical-foot climb. The other is a bumpy dirt-road loop.
Specialized Allez Sport Compact (2012 winner)
- 17cm head tube
- 12-27 cassette
Verdict: Compared to the price-point competition, Specialized’s Allez Sport rides away with it
With a better set of components and wheels on this A1 aluminum frame, you could race this bike all the way up to the Tour of California. Yep, it rides that well. And it lends credence to what manufacturers learn when pushing to develop bikes at the top of the sport.
But as is, the bike simply rides great. It’s comfortable, the geometry is very good, and the 12-27 gearing gives you just enough for those steep hills.
And while we appreciate the Allez Sport for its race-bred pedigree and great ride and handling, it can also slot in under a first-time rider flawlessly with a few simple adjustments. One example: the Specialized EliteSet stem offers four positions for a huge range of handlebar positions, for everything from high-performance racing and riding to comfortable cruising.
Giant Defy 3
- 18.5cm head tube
- 11-25 cassette
Verdict: One of the most advanced frames in the category; if it were equipped with lighter wheels and a wider gear range you could really fly
Giant brought their expertise in forming aluminum alloy to this bike, with geometry that will gently and comfortably coax a new rider onto the road.
The frame and geometry are spot on for the new or less-flexible rider, with an 18.5cm head tube, but that means it isn’t as versatile as some in the category for a low position.
Also, the 11-25 cassette is the smallest in the category, which could make steep hills challenging for some.
If you’re keen on Tour de France geometry, you can get a carbon Giant TCR frame with the same geometry as the Rabobank team use for just $1,850. But otherwise, the Defy 3 is Giant’s best bike for introducing a new enthusiast to the sport.
Cannondale CAAD8 7 Sora
- 17 head tube
- 12-27 cassette
Verdict: A great all-round road bike
In some ways, it’s relatively easy for the big bike brands to make an impressive bike for $10,000 – it’s quite difficult to produce an all-round performing machine for $1,000. Cannondale pull this off quite remarkably with the CAAD8 7 Sora.
Our test riders all commented on how balanced the ride was: responsive when pedaling, yet comfortable over rough roads; easy to steer, yet not nervous. Even the accompanying components qualify as just right – we found both the saddle and handlebar tape comfortable, yet not too squishy.
Cannondale made their name with aluminum road bikes decades ago, and their legacy continues at this price point.
Jamis Ventura Comp
- 18cm head tube
- 11-26 cassette
Verdict: A solid steed at the price; the package proves greater than the sum of its parts
Jamis’ Ventura Comp is a good-looking bike. The Kinesis 7005 series alloy frame sports predictable angles, which set the tone, while a carbon steerered fork and Ritchey components offer a story to tell that others in this price range cannot offer.
Putting the Ventura Comp’s wheels to Tarmac further enforce that first impression. While nothing really jumps out as thoroughly impressive, nothing ruins your experience either, and that – with this price tag – means at least half the battle is won.
- 17cm head tube
- 11-28 cassette
Verdict: A very stable bike that would be great for a cautious new rider
For a new rider who’s unsure about a road bike’s handling, the Trek 1.2 could be a great solution, as its slow steering makes it stable at low speeds.
All our testers commented on how well the Trek 1.2 rode in terms of comfort and stability. While not super stiff or quick to turn (attributes a racer might look for), the Trek 1.2 was easy to steer at slow speeds, and felt comfortable and stable over rough pavement and on choppy dirt roads.
Also, the Trek comes in more sizes than any in our test: the eight-option array runs from a tiny 43cm to a towering 62cm.
- 11-25 cassette
Verdict: A solid, entry-level race bike
The Felt F85 is a snappy, race-ready bike. Of the eight bikes in our test, it has the raciest geometry, with a stiff frame and fork to reward sprint efforts and hard cornering.
If you aren’t looking to race – or to ride group rides like races – then the Felt might not be the bike for you. The hyper-responsive chassis also felt somewhat harsh when riding on rough paved sections and choppy dirt backroads.
But the F85 excelled on descents, tracking predictably through corners without any noticeable flex. And the bike rode admirably going uphill, too.
Scott Speedster S40
- 11-28 cassette
Verdict: Good chassis, but weak brakes
Although the Scott Speedster S40 offers good geometry that should suit most types of riders, the weak brakes prevent us from giving an all-out endorsement of this bike.
Of the eight bikes in our test, the Scott Speedster S40 had a middle-of-the-road ride. None of our testers raved about it, but none griped too much, either.
The wheels were a little soft (we like stiff wheels) and the tire casings were a little hard (we like soft rubber). But all in all, the bike still handled fine.
KHS Flite 450
- 19cm head tube
- 11-34 cassette
Verdict: Huge gear range, but a couple of mistakes
On paper, the KHS Flite 450 should have won our test. It sports a relatively comfortable position, big tires and super-low gearing. The enormous 11-34 cassette made molehills out of steep mountains. However, the noodley frame, toe-overlap and misplaced rear brake boss break this deal.
Our test riders didn’t like how the flexible frame felt when coming downhill in corners, but they were more concerned with how the front of their shoes hit the front wheel when making tight turns, and how weak the brakes felt on steep descents.
Another problem with the frame was how the rear brake sat low enough to rub the tire when the wheel was slightly out of round – which it was.
Perhaps the last problem was due to the wide, 26cm tires (most of the other bikes in our test have 23cm tires), which could have been added to the bike after the frame was designed for 23cm tires. A benefit of the 26cm rubber means the added volume definitely adds noticeable comfort on choppy or dirt roads.
Gearing can make a big difference, especially when going uphill. The KHS, left, has the biggest cassette (and thus the easiest climbing gear) on test, with a 34-tooth large cog. The Giant, right, has the smallest, with a 25-tooth large cog
The Felt F85 and the KHS Flite 450 come with 10-speed MicroShift shifters, with two buttons on the outside of the brake lever used to shift. The other six bikes come with nine-speed Shimano Sora shifters – you shift with a thumb button on the inside of the shifter body and with the brake lever itself via a lateral push