Road.cc Buying Basics: Buying your first road bike

What to look out for if you want to get into cycling and buy your first road bike

by David Arthur   June 13, 2014  

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If you're looking to buy your first road bike, you are in the right place. Road.cc's Buying Basics will steer you through the occasionally confusing world of road cycling and arm you with the right information to make the best buying decisions. And we start with buying your first road bike.

Where to start

The good news is, it's never been a better time to buy a new road bike. While the likes of Wiggo and Froome might belt around France on bikes costing anything up to £10,000, you don't need to spend anywhere near that much. Rapid development in the past couple of decades has seen entry-level bikes look ever better value for money, with much of that high-end technology trickling down to bikes we can all afford.

First, you need to decide how much you are prepared to spend. What's your budget? Prices can start from about £250 and, generally speaking, the more you spend the lighter and better specified a bike will be. There is no right price. There's great choice between £300-500 these days and from £600 to £1000 you're entering the territory of truly capable road bikes. And beyond that, well you're entering a world of choice to suit all tastes.

Do your research

So, with a budget in mind, you want to do some research. Sure, you can just walk into your nearest bike shop, slap down some cash on the counter and leave with a road bike... and there's nothing wrong with that. But a bicycle is an investment and like most expensive investments, it's worth spending some time researching the options.

Our forum is a great place to ask questions about road bikes, and our review database gives you valuable advice for sorting the wheat from the chaff. Both very good places to start. Below we outline some of the important considerations to think about.

Frame materials

The frame is the heart of your new road bike. It's where the majority of the budget goes. Frames can be made from a range of materials, the most common are steel, aluminium, titanium and carbon fibre. Each is a very worthy material in its own right.

Aluminium is the most common frame material for bikes costing under £1,000. It's a cheap material to make bikes from, and it's a very good material for road bikes: it's stiff and light. The latest frames boast some advanced features and design touches.

Better aluminium frames will use butted tubes (where the wall thickness is varied along its length) which makes them lighter and can offer more comfort. Frames with Deda, Easton, Columbus stickers, highly praised tubing manufactures, will command a premium.

Steel is a lovely material to build a road bike from. However, it's most often found on custom bikes and those designed for touring these days. It's heavier than aluminium but has wonderful comfort properties, which is why it's become synonymous with comfort bikes. Howvever the latest stainless steel tubesets from Columbus and Reynolds demonstrate the material's suitability for lightweight race bikes, but they don't come cheap.

Once the most exotic material of them all, titanium is as light as aluminium and strong as steel, making it a wonderful material for bicycles. It is, however, difficult to work with and this has ensured that it has always been an expensive option, though it is steadily becoming slightly more affordable.

Finally, carbon fibre. We'll not argue, this is the material that most people want their road bike frame to be made from. Once an ultra expensive choice, carbon fibre is now available at some very low prices, making it affordable to a large section of the bike-buying public.

Carbon frames aren't all equal though. There's a huge difference between cheap and expensive carbon, down to the type of fibres used, how it's manufactured and other important factors that make a big impact. Carbon is wonderful in that it can be relatively easily manipulated by designers to tick whichever boxes they desire. Carbon offers light weight and, in the right hands, can be both stiff and comfortable.

While it's entirely conceivable that you'll want a carbon fibre frame, don't discount aluminium. Often you will get an aluminium bike with far higher grade wheels and components than you could get on a carbon bike of a similar price, and that will contribute to a lower overall weight. That can lead to a far more enjoyable ride experience than you'll get from a carbon bike where the manufacturer has cut corners (heavy wheels, low spec groupset) to make a price point. So don't just put carbon at the top of your list because your friend has just bought a carbon bike!

Choosing the right size

Choosing the right size bike is absolutely critical when buying your first road bike. Take advice from the bike shop but don't go for a bike that is too small or too large just because it's an absolute bargain. Only with the correct size bike for your height and dimensions will you realy get the most out of your new hobby.

Picking the right size can be difficult though. Generally, road bike are measure in centimetres but the way in which frames are measured varies between manufacturers. They're not all the same. Some offer three sizes and some offer 10 with smaller increments between them. However, as everyone has their own individual body shape it can get complicated.

The best thing is to have a good look at the size chart on each manufacturer's website, and sling your leg over any bike you're considering buying. If you can get a short spin on a bike, even better, as you'll know almost instantly if it fits.

If the bike fits

Bike fit services have become popular these days, and many bike shops offer such a service. They'll give you expert advice and will even fit you on the bike in the shop to make sure you leave a happy customer.

There are several parts of the bike that you can change to help find a good fit (and a good bike shop will be invaluable here). Saddle height and its fore/aft position can be adjusted, the height of the handlebars can be raised or lowered with spacers on the steerer tube. Stems come in a range of lengths with 10mm increments to help you get the right reach. These are all changes that a good bike shop will happily assist you with.

We'll look at bike fit services in a more in-depth article soon.

Components

The groupset comprises, essentially, the moving parts on your bike (gears and brakes) and there are three major manufacturers that you're likely to encounter: Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo. At entry-level prices, Shimano is the most popular choice.

The pecking order for Shimano goes like this, from entry-level to top-end; 2300, Sora, Tiagra, 105, Ultegra and Dura-Ace. Campagnolo starts with Veloce, then Centaur, Athena, Chorus, Record and, at the very top, Super Record. SRAM offer four road groupsets; Apex at the entry-level, Rival, Force and Red. Pay more and you'll get a higher performance, a lower weight, or both.

Each system uses a very different shifting design and it's down to personal preference which you choose. Shimano and Campagnolo also offer electronic shifting versions of their top-end groupsets although both command high prices. We'll see electronic trickle down through the price points. It probably won't be long before it's on bikes we can all afford.

Compact, standard or triple

The chainset (the part the pedals attach to) comes with chainrings of various sizes. Most common at entry-level is a compact, a low ratio chainset (usually 34 teeth on the smaller chainring and 50 teeth on the big chainring) that will make getting up hills easier.

A standard, or double, chainset is favoured by racers. A larger pair of chainrings (usually 39/53) makes hitting higher speeds easier.

It's still possible to get triple chainsets on road bike, although they have mostly been replaced by compacts – which offer nearly the same spread of gears but they're lighter and simpler to use. Triples are good for those who want the very lowest gears, and they're ideal for really steep hills or riding in the mountains.

The wheels make the bike

The next important area of your new bicycle is the wheels. Aside from the frame, the wheels will heavily influence how the bike rides, feels and responds. Lighter wheels will ride faster with less rotating mass. Lighter and faster tyres will feel more responsive and supple over the road surface.

When researching your new bike, a bike with decent wheels should be high on your list of priorities. While you can easily replace components like the rear derailleur and other components that will eventually wear out, the wheels take up a large chunk of the bike's overall cost, and therefore more expensive to upgrade.

So there you go, some useful tips and hints for making the right choice when it comes to buying your first road bike. 

7 user comments

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A very good,clear and concise article.

brucethebruce's picture

posted by brucethebruce [14 posts]
25th April 2013 - 14:44

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Good stuff - worth raking heed of if you are new to the sport. How about some info on the different types of bike ie road, cross, hybrid & mountain?

posted by Neil Smith 48 [16 posts]
4th October 2013 - 10:06

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Things I wish I'd known before buying my entry level bike:

- If you get Sora, you're stuck with Sora. The older versions of higher up group sets are impossible to buy in 9-speed flavours (e.g., 9 speed Ultegra 6500). So you can't upgrade individual parts without replacing everything. It's also a bitter pill when individual Sora parts cost as much as 105 (brake levers in particular). Same thing will happen to Tiagra, now that 105 has moved to 11 speed.

- If you get unbranded brake callipers, you shouldn't wait too long to replace them. Not only will they be poor performing, but the screws and bolts will rust on if you're riding much in the wet. I learned this the hard way -- the front calliper on my Trek 1.2 is now welded to the front fork and will need drilling off.

- You should replace the brake pads on an entry level bike immediately with a higher-up-the-range pad (e.g., Ultegra), or a third party branded pad (Koolstop, Clarkes). You'll be glad you did. Not only will those unbranded cheap pads not work in the wet (I couldn't believe how awful those were on my first wet ride), but you'll find little shards of aluminium from your alloy rims embedded in the pad after a few hard rides, and it'll wear the rims out. Good brake pads are cheap and very easy to change, so you might as well.

- Headset bearings (and likely wheel bearings) may not be fully sealed. You should get them checked (or learn how to check them -- it's really easy) and replace them when they start looking manky. Cane Creek cartridge bearings fit my Trek perfectly.

- The cheap saddle on your entry level bike will be truly awful, if it's anything like mine was. Charge Spoon saddles cost £25 and are the most amazing things (though obviously individual preference plays a large part here).

- Road pedals from online bike retailers are half the price of those at your LBS. I actually started out with my old MTB SPDs, and changed once they got ditched.

- A track pump is essential for keeping those 700x23's up to pressure.

- Your frame will be 'comfort' geometry, which is fine. However, if it's a bit too upright, you can move your stem down by one spacer quite easily.

- Crud RoadRacer mudguards work well on some frames that won't easily take full-time mudguards. My Trek has mudguard mounts, but a quick read of online reviews made it clear that the 'Bontrager approved' fitted mudguards were not actually worth even trying. If you want permanent mudguards, you need to make sure the bike really does support them. SKS Race Blades work OK on frames with even less clearance...

- If you ride in the wet without mudguards, your entire bike, including brake callipers, drivetrain and of course the underside of the frame will get covered in oily black sand that will cause an amazing amount of damage. So will your shoes and clothes. Overshoes are good, though they get ruined by putting your foot down at lights and walking in them. My favourite overshoes are Endura FS-260s.

Don't know if that's any use to anyone, but thought I'd share since this is something I went through last year and some of it (especially the brake calliper) still sticks in my mind...

posted by adrianoconnor [37 posts]
1st June 2014 - 18:17

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Some advice I got many years ago when buying a hardtail mountain bike and have applied to every purchase since: Find your shortlist of bikes, ones that you can afford, that are a good fit, the right spec and that are a nice ride. From these, buy the one which looks the best - this is the bike you'll want to keep riding! Cool

posted by factor41 [9 posts]
13th June 2014 - 19:24

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I went for a Ribble nera-corsa carbon frame speced up to £1000 for the cycle-to-work scheme. I've progressively updated it with better wheels, saddle and this year Ultegra group set. It's dam good in my opinion, and fits me like a glove.

Best upgrade was the wheels, boy that made a huge difference.

The saddle was important for longer rides. The goup set has made it bueatifully smooth.

I've ridden this machine around the lake-district for 6 years, it handles the hills decends through corners like its on rails. After 6 years I'm still really love this bike.

Endorphines going up and adrenaline going down, who needs drugs?

posted by banzicyclist2 [187 posts]
13th June 2014 - 20:38

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Great This i s very helpful to new cyclist.

And can consider diy carbon bike by yourself

Go out, have a fun riding.
Spend some time to build your own bike.

narcissus's picture

posted by narcissus [6 posts]
14th July 2014 - 8:09

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My first proper bike was from a newish brand which offers better spec than the competition for the price, but the frame felt like it 'fishtailed', and I never knew where the backend was. It was rubbish to ride. Established brands will sell you a less well specced bike on a good frame.

posted by DrSport [6 posts]
27th July 2014 - 22:50

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