[This article was last updated on February 12, 2018]
If you like to go fast, then you want a proper road racing bike. Here’s why.
It’s a sunny afternoon in May and I’ve just slogged my way up an Italian mountain. I enjoy climbing, but I’m a long, long way from being good at it, though the light carbon fibre bike I’m riding really helps.
But now comes the good bit, a long descent that starts twisty and ends in a die-straight road on glass-smooth Tarmac through a tunnel and into Trento. I start by screaming round the curves, leaving behind the riding companions who waited for me at the top. I’m tucked deep, weight on my outside foot, banking hard into the hairpins, aiming for the smoothest line through the apex, using the whole road to hold my speed.
I’m doing 80 km/h when I hit the tunnel and my Garmin loses signal. I glimpse a roadside speed warning showing a number that starts with 9 as I plummet. Thanks to a tailwind I’m suspended in a bubble of silence as the walls rush by. Rock-solid stable under me, my bike is the only thing stopping me becoming an untidy smear on the blacktop. It’s glorious.
Moments like this are why I adore road racing bikes. The handling and cornering accuracy of a good race bike make it the most fun bike you can ride if you love to go fast.
What makes a race bike?
Let’s be clear: we’re talking here about bikes intended for racing. That means low handlebars, long top tube, and a flat-back, stretched position. Combined with the typical geometry of a race bike — 73-74° seat and head angles and short chainstays — these are bikes that feel quick, respond quickly but predictably to steering, but are still comfortable all day, as long as you’re flexible enough to handle the position.
It’s the ride and handling I’m talking about here. Other features you’ll typically find on an elite racer’s bike are optional. Not everyone can get all the way down to the bar position produced by a long stem, slammed all the way down, for example, but a low bar puts your weight over the front tyre and helps with adhesion and handling.
Similarly, you’ll find the gears on an elite bike biased to the high end, with a 53/39 chainset and more than likely an 11-23 sprocket cassette. That’s fine if you’re very fit or in the Fens, but there’s no shame in going for a compact, 50/34 chainset or wider sprocket range. Even the pros have been known to use compacts and the latest version of Shimano’s pro-grade Dura-Ace groupset offers an 11-30 cassette.
Some other things are vital though. Race bikes have either very light light wheels, or, even better, aero deep-section rims. Light wheels add a bit of speed on hills, just by lightening the whole bike, but aero wheels add speed everywhere, which far outweighs the disadvantage of their extra weight.
A light, stiff frame is also a must, so you’re looking at aluminium, carbon fibre, titanium or one of the more exotic steel alloys like Reynolds 931 or Columbus Spirit. If weight matters to you — and if you’re considering a race bike it probably does — then carbon fibre is your likely choice as even the best metal frames still give away a couple of hundred grams to composites. But metals still have their merits. For very tall riders, a large-tubed aluminium frame can be usefully stiff while still light, and the characteristic zing and spring of steel and titanium means they have plenty of fans.
Traditionally, race bikes have used side-pull caliper brakes at the rim to stop, but you now have other options. Shimano’s Direct Mount brakes are a caliper brake with a firmer mounting that comprises a pair of bosses on the frame or fork. Direct Mount rear brakes are often tucked under the chainstays for a cleaner look.
But the big news in brakes of the last few years is discs. If you’re going to race, then at the moment you have to use caliper brakes, but away from the race course, you can take advantage of the better braking and longer rim life that come with discs.
What are race bikes good for?
In short: going fast. That includes racing, of course, but you don’t need to race to enjoy riding a race bike, you just need to enjoy adding the ‘swish’ of a finely-tuned bike to the sounds of the countryside.
These bikes are good for any riding where speed is the aim, then, and that can include fast commuting, especially if you’ve a long way to go. Your options for carrying stuff are pretty much limited to a rucksack (or ‘bikepacking’ bags,see below) but if you choose carefully you’ll be able to find a bike that will take 25mm tyres and low-profile mudguards like Crud Road Racers or SKS Raceblade Longs, so at least you’ll get a dry bum as well as a few extra minutes in bed.
What about multi-day riding? With the right bags, and maybe a change of gearing to compensate for the extra weight, a race bike makes a great fast tourer. However, there are no rack attachment points on most race bikes, and it’s almost certainly a bad idea to bodge one on to a lightweight frame. You’d be adding loads that the frame’s not designed for, and the short back end of a race bike means you won’t have heel clearance anyway.
The better option is to look at the gear used by unsupported ultra-distance racers. For events like the TransContinental Race, riders carry the bare minimum of possessions in a large saddlebag, sometimes supplemented by a bag in the frame or a handlebar bag. This set up works really well if you’re staying in hotels or B&Bs (or sleeping in bus shelters, TransCon style) and the bag being in line with your body means it doesn’t affect your aerodynamics as much as panniers.
Five great race bikes
There’s a huge variety of race bikes to choose from, and a vast price range. To give you a flavour of what’s out there, here are five great bikes, covering the price range from very reasonable to “you could get a car for that!”
Often when we're reviewing bikes under a grand we highlight areas where upgrades are needed or even welcomed – but there is none of that with B'Twin’s Ultra 900 AF. It's a cracker straight out of the box, offering one of the best ‘bang for buck’ options you're likely to find for 800 of your British pounds.
That's not to say the Ultra isn't upgradeable. With a stiff, triple butted aluminium frame, it could easily accommodate some bling upgrades without overshadowing the main component.
That term 'value' constantly rears its head whichever way you look at the Ultra. Shimano's 105 11-speed groupset is rare to find on a bike at this price, and it even includes the 105 chainset, an area where many manufacturers skimp to shave the price.
We loved this bike’s Ultegra-equipped big brother, and like the Tarmac Comp this is a smart-looking and well-packaged bike that offers the sort of fast and engaging ride that will suit budding racers.
The position and ride is what you would expect from a race bike; it strikes a good balance and is very accommodating of new cyclists as it is to experienced racers. The 20mm headset cap limits how low you can go on the front but that could easily be swapped out for a zero rise cap.
Like previous generation Tarmacs it’s easy to live with. There are no handling quirks, it's very predictable and you feel right at home very easily. This is a bike that can equally be ridden all-day long in comfort, booted around a tight and twisty criterium circuit, ridden to work, used on the chaingang, or just lazy Sunday morning rides to the coffee shop. It's happy pootling or going flat out.
If you want to put that race licence to good use, smash those Strava KOMs or just want a fast, comfortable, easy-to-ride road bike, then the Boardman Road Pro Carbon SLR needs to be on your shortlist. With a full-carbon frameset, SRAM Force groupset, Mavic Ksyrium wheels and weighing in at just 7kg (15.5lb), the SLR is a real contender even before you take the price into account – and that challenges even the direct-to-consumer specialists.
The Road Pro is a stunning bike to look at. That mirror effect silver paintjob makes it stand out, especially in the sunshine; you're going to get noticed for sure.
That beauty isn't just skin deep, though. In a cycling world where bikes are starting to cross as many disciplines as possible, the Boardman knows exactly what it is: a proper race bike that just begs to be ridden hard. It likes being on the tarmac, getting chucked downhill on the ragged edge of the tyre's grip, or being sprinted hard up that 20 per cent climb without the slightest hint of flex from the frame.
There are few brands as synonymous with aluminium as Cannondale, with its fabled CAAD – 'Cannondale advanced aluminium design' – series. The US company built its reputation on aluminium frames, and even though it has invested heavily in carbon fibre in more recent years, it remains fully committed to aluminium in a way few brands are.
The new CAAD12 is a finely honed bike with a level of comfort and refinement that makes you wonder why you would buy anything else, and certainly wonder why aluminium lasted such a short time as the cutting-edge of racing bicycle technology back in the 90s. It's so smooth that it outshines many carbon fibre road bikes we've tested over the years. It's nothing short of marvellous.
The Shimano Dura-Ace shifting and hydraulic disc brakes are very rich icing on a fine cake. The brakes have a firm feel with oodles of power even with just one finger caressing the lever, and fine modulation that means no risk of locking a wheel. The gears are a joy; when mechanical shifting is this light to use, you wonder why you would want electronic Di2.
The Trek Madone 9 Series features novel technology that results in a fast and very comfortable ride, but as is often the case with innovative engineering it doesn't come cheap. Nevertheless, this really is an exceptional bike.
In short, the Madone 9 is an aero race bike tweaked to be comfortable by the inclusion of Trek’s IsoSpeed decoupler, which smooths over the lumps and bumps to an appreciable degree. The effect is subtle, but it is noticeable.
The combination of IsoSpeed and the aerodynamic frame profiles gives the Madone 9 an almost-freaky pairing of soft seating with a super-fast feel. It shoots up to speed quickly and maintains that speed beautifully.
Climbing feels great on this bike. It's punchy on the short, sharp climbs, zippy when you get out of the saddle, and it feels good when you sit down for a long slog with your hands resting on the top of the Madone XXX integrated bar/stem.
Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.
Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.
Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.
The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.