While road bikes may seem simple, there’s a huge number of things to consider when buying a drop-bar machine and this guide will help you select the best road bike for you.
Endurance (sportive) vs. race bike geometry
Road bikes fall into two general broad categories; race and endurance.
Race bikes put the rider’s torso in a lower, more aerodynamic position and typically have more aggressive geometry for quick handling.
Endurance bikes put the rider in a more upright position and the frame angles are a little more relaxed for confidence-inducing stability and long-distance comfort. These are sometimes also known as sportive bikes.
In either category, you should expect to pay between £500 and £1,000 for a high-quality, entry-level machine that will give years of trouble-free service.
The best way to learn the difference between the two is to ride both, either through test rides at an event or a shop, or by borrowing a bike from a friend.
As with any product, bikes come in good/better/best levels.
The main points of difference are the frame materials (aluminium bikes tend to be cheaper, while carbon fibre frames are lighter but more expensive. Steel and titanium frames tend to be more niche), the parts (strong, light, cheap – pick two) and the wheels (see previous parenthetical).
A bike’s drivetrain (or transmission) and brakes are collectively referred to as the ‘groupset’. For help with the various technical terms, don’t miss our guide to the anatomy of a bicycle.
Road bike groupsets explained
Road bikes used to be called 10-speeds, referring to the two chainrings up front multiplied by the five cogs in the rear.
Shimano and SRAM are, by far, the most common drivetrain brands, although you will also find Campagnolo, Microshift and FSA components out there too.
In general, endurance bikes have smaller gears, meaning it’s easier to get up hills, while race bikes have larger gears for higher top-end speed.
Bigger chainrings mean more outright speed (and effort), and smaller chainrings – dubbed compact – mean less effort.
For a detailed breakdown of the options, see our buyer’s guide to road bike groupsets.
How to get the correct road bike size
Bike fit is critical. A budget road bike that fits you like a glove will feel and handle much better than an ill-fitting superbike.
While most brands have bike fit charts on their websites, it’s vital to just go and sit on the thing if you are new to cycling.
Once you learn what fit works for you, you can shop using the charts; in the meantime, try bikes as you would shoes.
Once you have selected the right size frame – which any good bike shop can help you with – you then need to get your bike’s saddle height correct and adjust the handlebar height for comfortable riding. Again, a professional fit at a good shop is invaluable here.
Most good shops will work with you to fine-tune other elements of your fit too, such as the distance to the handlebar, the angle of the handlebar and even the feel of the saddle.
Note that saddle preference is highly personal; there’s no universal right answer here. The best road bike saddles will be supportive while allowing sufficient blood flow in your delicate areas, and not get in the way of pedalling.
Many saddles are considered unisex, but some of the best women’s road bike saddles have features specifically tailored to female anatomy.
Just try a few until you find something comfortable – many saddle manufacturers will also offer demo services via their dealers.
What tyres will my road bike come with?
Most road bikes come with slick or very lightly treaded tyres.
In recent years, it’s become more common to spec wider tyres on road bikes. Race bikes are often fitted with 25mm-wide tyres, while endurance bikes come with 28mm or even 32mm tyres.
Regardless of the width, all of these tyres will roll fast and the wider tyres give you a little more cushioning (and speed over rougher road surfaces) in exchange for a little more weight.
The best road bike tyres will offer a combination of speed (low rolling resistance), grip, and puncture resistance.
Tyres are one of the easiest things to change, so you don’t need to worry much about what the bike comes with. That said, if you are keen on maximising the comfort of your bike, make sure the frame has clearance for wider tyres.
Again, race bikes that favour aerodynamics will typically skew towards skinny tyres, while the endurance bikes that deliver comfort will generally have plump rubber.
If you’re unsure how to pump up your tyres, check out our comprehensive article.
Should I buy a road bike with rim or disc brakes?
For decades, road bikes used caliper rim brakes, where blocks of rubber squeezed against the rims.
Now, however, the majority of mid-range and high-end road bikes come equipped with disc brakes, which have been used on mountain bikes for many years.
The disc brakes vs. rim brakes debate is endless but, in short, discs offer superior braking in wet weather, but are heavier and slightly more hassle to maintain.
Rim brakes are still common on more affordable bikes, and they remain a perfectly viable option for many riders.
Note that the majority of rim brake bikes cannot be converted to discs and vice versa, so once you’ve made your choice, you’re committed to it.
What do I need to go on a road ride?
Your road bike will come nearly complete, but you will still need to purchase a few things before you go for your first road bike ride, including water bottle cages, water bottles, supplies to fix a flat tyre (inner tube, tyre levers, a CO2 inflator and/or a pump) and perhaps a saddle bag.
If you buy at a shop they will be glad to set you up with these things.
Most bikes will come with a set of cheap plastic pedals and these won’t stop you enjoying your road bike, but investing in a set of clip-in (confusingly known as clipless) pedals will massively improve performance and control.
Best cheap road bikes – best road bikes under £750
Getting into road riding needn’t cost you a fortune. Even just £350 will buy you a bike that will get you started with the world of road riding, although spending even slightly more will get you a significantly better bike.
Best road bikes under £1,000
The best road bikes under £1,000 are a great place to start if you have a bit more cash and are new to cycling, or if you’re unsure how much riding you’re actually going to be doing.
Best road bikes under £2,000
The pro-level superbikes that fall into the price range beyond this bracket are truly amazing and it’s easy to be tempted by them.
But don’t worry if you can’t get your hands on one without remortgaging your house because the best road bikes under £2,000 still bring you into serious – and seriously good – bike territory.
Best road bikes under £3,000
This sort of price range used to be the sole preserve of the dedicated race bike. But the profile of this section of the market has now changed and the best road bike under £3,000 is now just as likely to be a sportive/endurance model.
BikeRadar’s 2021 Road Bike of the Year
A special place must be reserved for the overall winner of our Bike of the Year award. For 2021 that title was awarded to the outstanding Boardman SLR 9.4 AXS Disc Carbon.
You can find all of the bikes shortlisted for our awards in our BikeRadar Bike of the Year 2021 feature.