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 £700 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).
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.
These days, most road bikes have two chainrings and between 9 and 12 – or now, even 13 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.
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 off of charts; in the meantime, try bikes like 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 saddle and handlebar height correct. 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 handlebars, the angle of the handlebars and even the feel of the saddle.
Note that saddle preference is highly personal, there is no universal best answer here. Just try a few until you find something comfortable. Many saddle manufacturers will also offer demo services.
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, with race bikes often coming fitted with 23mm or 25mm-wide tyres, and endurance bikes 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.
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 below.
Should I buy a road bike with rim or disc brakes?
For decades, road bikes have used caliper brakes, where blocks of rubber squeeze against the rim.
Now, however, many road bikes come equipped with disc brakes, which have been used on mountain bikes for many years. Discs offer superior braking in wet weather, but are heavier.
In general, you will find disc brakes on many new endurance bikes and caliper (rim) brakes on a majority of race bikes – though this situation is changing quite rapidly.
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 to hit the road, including water bottle cages, water bottles and supplies to fix a flat (inner tube, tyre levers and either CO2 cartridges and/or a pump).
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 £600
Getting into road riding needn’t cost you the world – even just £350 will buy you a bike that will get you started with the world of road riding.
Our full buyer’s guide to the best cheap road bikes can be found below.
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.
Our full buyer’s guide to the best road bikes under £1,000 can be found below.
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.
Our full buyer’s guide to the best road bikes under £2,000 can be found below.
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.
Our full buyer’s guide to the best road bikes under £3,000 can be found below.
BikeRadar’s 2020 Road Bike of the Year
A special place must be reserved for the overall winner of our Bike of the Year award. For 2020 that title was awarded to the Cannondale SuperSix EVO Carbon Disc Ultegra.
You can find all of the bikes shortlisted for our 2020 awards and the sub-category winners on our Bike of the Year hub.
This article was last updated in March 2020.