Choices abound for road bikes and this guide will help you select the best road bike for you.
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Endurance vs. race bike geometry
Road bikes fall into two general categories: race and endurance. Race bikes put the rider’s torso in a lower, more aerodynamic position and have steeper angles for quick handling. Endurance bikes position the rider more upright and the frame angles are a little more relaxed for confidence-inducing stability and long distance comfort. In either category, you should expect to pay between $600 and $800 for a quality, entry-level machine.
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 (aluminum bikes are cheaper, while carbon fiber frames are lighter but more expensive), 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 chain rings up front multiplied by the five cogs in the rear. These days, most road bikes have two chain rings and 9, 10 or 11 cogs in the rear.
To learn more about road bike groupsets check out our buyer's guide here.
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 machine 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 sit on the thing if you are new to cycling. Once you learn your measurements, you can shop off of charts; in the meantime, try on bikes like 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.
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What tire will my road bike come with?
All road bikes come with slick or very lightly treaded tires. In recent years, it's become more common to spec wider tires on road bikes, with race bikes often coming fitted with 23 or 25mm-wide tires, and endurance bikes coming with 25 or even 28mm ones. Regardless of the width, all of these tires will roll fast and the wider tires give you a little more cushioning in exchange for a little more weight.
Tires are one of the easiest things to switch out, 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 tires.
Again, race bikes that favour aerodynamics will typically skew towards skinny tires, while the endurance bikes that deliver comfort will generally have plump rubber.
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 better braking and are unaffected by wet weather, but are heavier.
In general, you will find disc brakes on many new endurance bikes and caliper brakes on virtually all race bikes.
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.
Your road bike will come nearly complete. 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, tire 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.