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   August 6, 2012  

Velocite Geos - riding 2

If Britain's incredible run of success in cycling this year - with the first ever Tour de France victory courtesy of Bradley Wiggins and dominance in the London 2012 Olympics - has inspired you to take up cycling, and 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, it's never been a better time to buy a new road bike. While Wiggo might have belted around France on a bike 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.

Next time...

So there you go, some useful tips and hints for making the right choice when it comes to buying your first road bike. Next we'll offer some suggestions at different price points, and start to look at the more detailed aspects of buying road bikes.

2 user comments

Oldest firstNewest firstBest rated

A very good,clear and concise article.

brucethebruce's picture

posted by brucethebruce [11 posts]
25th April 2013 - 13:44

like this
Like (38)

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 - 9:06

like this
Like (38)