While road bikes may seem simple, there are 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.
The following guide will take you through everything from the type of road bike you should buy to what you need for your first bike ride.
You can skip to the relevant sections by hitting the links below or keep reading to find out everything you need to know about the best road bikes.
- What kind of road bike should I buy?
- What are road bikes made from?
- Road bike groupsets explained
- Rim brakes or disc brakes?
- Aluminium or carbon fibre wheels?
- What tyres will my road bike come with?
- Best road bikes by price
- BikeRadar’s 2021 road bike of the year
- How to get the correct road bike size
- What do I need to go on a road bike ride?
What to consider when buying a road bike
What kind of road bike should I buy?
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.
The best endurance road 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.
Underneath these two broad categories are more niche categories, tailored to more specific demands.
The best winter road bikes tend to fall into the endurance category and you could make a case for the best touring bikes to be in this category, too.
A growing category of road bikes is electric road bikes, which have motors to help assist you on your ride.
While many bikes are built around unisex frames, there are also road bikes designed specifically for women.
What are road bike frames made from?
One of the main differences between road bikes will be the material used to make the frame.
Many of the most expensive road bikes will be made from carbon fibre, because it has a high strength-to-weight ratio, allowing brands to create lightweight and efficient bikes.
The best aluminium road bikes can offer a ride experience and a similar level of performance to carbon road bikes but are generally more affordable, due to aluminium being a cheaper material. They do tend to be heavier, though, but not always by that much.
Many of the most affordable road bikes are made from aluminium.
The best steel road bikes offer classy and classic looks, and many riders say this frame material gives a ride quality like no other, absorbing bumps in the road while providing a ‘zingy’ ride feel.
The best titanium road bikes are often a large investment due to the difficulty of working the material. But, like steel, they are desirable for their unique feel, appealing looks and their exclusivity.
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 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.
Rim brakes 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.
Aluminium or carbon fibre wheels?
With few exceptions, road bikes will come with 700c wheels with either aluminium or carbon fibre rims.
Aluminium rims come as standard on many road bikes, particularly at the lower end of the price spectrum, as they are relatively cheap to produce.
Carbon rims are becoming increasingly common on new, complete bikes. Wheels with carbon rims can be even lighter than those with aluminium rims, and they can be more aerodynamic too, because the high strength-to-weight ratio of the material means manufacturers can create ‘deep-section’ rim profiles that aren’t prohibitively heavy.
If you have a rim brake bike, the rim material itself takes the brunt of the braking force. This makes aluminium rims a popular choice because when the rim eventually wears down through use, it’s cheaper to replace aluminium rims than carbon rims.
Aluminium rims also provide a better braking surface than carbon rims in wet conditions, so many riders will fit aluminium rims to their bike in winter, saving their wheels with carbon rims – if they have them – for summer.
The growing popularity of disc brakes has made much of the debate between aluminium and carbon rims redundant, however. Because disc brakes bind with a metal rotor attached to the wheel rather than the rim itself, riders can now opt for carbon rims regardless of weather conditions or season.
What tyres will my road bike come with?
Most road bikes come with slick or very lightly treaded tyres.
While extremely narrow tyres used to be commonplace, it’s become more common to spec wider tyres on road bikes in recent years. 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.
How to choose a road bike by price
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 bikes under £3,000 are now just as likely to be sportive/endurance models.
BikeRadar’s 2021 Road Bike of the Year
We’re yet to choose our Road Bike of the Year 2022 winner, but for 2021 that title was awarded to the outstanding Boardman SLR 9.4 AXS Disc Carbon.
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 won’t 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 do I need to go on a road ride?
So you’ve decided on your new road bike, but if you’re new to road cycling, what else do you need to go on your first road bike ride?
The most important thing you will need is a road bike helmet.
While here in the UK a helmet is not mandatory by law, it is advisable to wear a helmet to help minimise the risk of serious head injuries.
Many of the best road bike helmets will be lightweight, breathable and focus on ensuring comfort for long days out.
A growing trend in road bike helmets is technology that will protect your head against rotational impacts. A popular option used by brands is the third-party technology MIPS, but other brands have their own version, such as Lazer’s KinetiCore.
Wearing a helmet is important for safety but how you wear a helmet is equally important, because without the correct fit, a helmet’s protection can be compromised.
While you can use your normal shoes to go for a road bike ride, the best road bike shoes will often be lighter, more ventilated and stiffer for greater pedalling efficiency (although, whether cycling shoe stiffness actually matters is a subject of some debate).
They will often be slimmer than day-to-day shoes, more aerodynamic and with closing systems that won’t get caught in your bike.
It’s worth taking the time to find the right shoes for you, because the fit of cycling shoes can vary greatly and can be as personal a choice as the best bike saddles.
Road cycling shoes will often come with mounts for three-bolt cleats, which are compatible with road bike pedals. Others will come with holes for two-bolt cleats, which are compatible with mountain-bike style pedals. Some may even come with mounts for both types of cleats.
Some road cyclists opt for mountain bike pedals that are compatible with two-bolt cleats, because these enable them to use shoes with treads for walking. These systems are also typically easier to clip into and often offer a dual-sided platform, making them more beginner-friendly.
You can read our guide on SPD vs SPD-SL pedals to find out whether a three-bolt or two-bolt cleat system is best for you.
Just as there’s no reason to stop you from riding your road bike with normal shoes, there’s no reason you can’t head out in your normal clothes either.
But there is a whole world of cycling kit – from socks to headbands – tailored to the specific demands of cycling.
One of the most valuable pieces of cycling-specific clothing to consider is a pair of the best bib shorts or best women’s bib shorts. These are close-fitting Lycra bottoms with pads designed to keep your bottom comfortable on long rides.
Many cyclists will opt for a cycling jersey because these will help wick sweat away and have pockets on the back to carry supplies.
Wearing form-fitting clothing is also an easy way to make yourself faster on the bike, if that interests you, as it is more aerodynamic than baggy clothing.
As with virtually any outdoor activity, it’s worth investing in a good waterproof jacket.
If you’re heading out for a long day’s cycling, or even a short ride, staying hydrated is important.
Supplies to fix a flat tyre
One of the great things about road bikes is they enable you to cover great distances with ease, but this does mean being prepared to fix a flat tyre is wise because you don’t want to end up stranded.
In order to fix a flat tyre, you will need tyre levers and a pump. You can fix a small hole in an inner tube with a puncture repair kit, but many riders opt to carry a spare inner tube to make for a quick repair.
If your bike has tubeless tyres, you will need to take a tubeless tyre repair kit. These contain plugs that help the tubeless sealant within the tyre seal the hole back up, so you can re-inflate the tyre using a mini bike pump and carry on riding.
It may also be worth having a CO2 inflator with you on your rides. This will supply enough pressure to seat the tyre beads back on the rim, if you’ve had to remove them to carry out a repair.
Alternatively, a spare inner tube can be fitted to a tubeless tyre with a puncture that can’t be fixed with plugs and sealant alone.
Rather than carrying your spare tools and parts in your jersey pocket, using one of the best saddle bags will free up room in your pockets, and mean you can leave the tools attached to your bike so you will never forget them when going out for a ride.
You don’t need a bike computer to start using your new road bike, but many riders quickly realise their value and how they can enhance your time spent on the bike.
The best bike computers will provide information such as your speed while you ride, help you navigate, create a record of your rides if you’re starting to train, and give you the data to upload your rides to apps such as Strava.