Buying a new road bike can be tough. Do you go for a cheap carbon bike or a more expensive aluminium bike frame? What about a steel frame? And what groupset, wheelset, and finishing kit do you aim for? What even is a finishing kit?
With a huge array of technical terms to learn and component set-ups to understand, finding what's best for your money can feel like climbing an alpine epic.
After reading this handy road bike guide, however, you'll be in gear and pedaling with ease through the various road cycling options.
Road cycling terms
Here's a quick run-through of the main terms used when talking about road bikes. These terms will feature in product descriptions when you're researching your bikes, so it's a good idea to familiarise yourself with them and their importance.
- Drop bars: Drop bars are the classic racing bike u-shaped bars most commonly seen on road bikes. These bars offer a choice of riding positions: on the 'hoods', when gripping the handles on the top edge of the horizontal bars; and in the 'drops', gripping underneath the bars at the bottom of the bend. This often used for sprinting. Drop bars compare to flat bar road bike bars, which are more rare but still available and most commonly found on commuting bikes.
- Flared bars: Flared handlebars are most often used on gravel bikes, widening the turning circle of the bars to allow for more precise steering and increased control.
- Gravel bike: Gravel bikes or adventure bikes are a hybrid between a road bike and a hard-tail mountain bike, allowing you to ride off-road as well as on tarmac. Wide tyres, climb-focused gearing, and more robust frames usually also feature.
- Geometry: Bike geometry changes to help the ride achieve the position they're looking for, whether that's a more upright position for long climbs or a low position for aerodynamic advantage when sprinting. Time trial and aero bikes offer a low position for maximum speed, while endurance bikes will have a more upright, comfortable position for climbing or more leisurely riding.
- Finishing kit: The finishing kit usually refers to the a road bike's stem, handlebars, and seatpost. These are important aspects of any bike, contributing to stability and comfort.
- Groupset: The groupset refers to the bike's drivetrain - the cogs, gears, chain, and controls, like brake levers and gear levers. There are three main manufacturers, each of fairly equal standing. All three offer component sets at varying levels of quality and price, arranged in hierarchies. While a good groupset is important for smooth operation, they are are easily upgraded.
- Wheelset: After the frame, the wheelset probably plays the biggest role in your road bike's performance. Contributing hugely to the overall weight, stability, agility, acceleration, deceleration, and overall speed, a quality wheelset should be at the top of your priorities.
- Carbon forks: Aside from featuring on carbon frames, carbon forks are also fitted to many aluminium frames for the shock absorbing abilities and lightweight construction.
- Electric road bike: An electric road bike provides battery-powered assistance while pedaling. Mostly used by commuters, leisure riders, those nursing long-term injuries, and thrill seekers, they're incredibly fun and hugely popular.
- Tube, tubeless, and tubular: Road bike wheels come in three main formats: classic tube set-ups, with an inflated inner tube and exterior tyre - often called clincher; tubular tyres, which are stitched closed around the inner tube to reduce weight - most often used by pro riders; tubeless tyres are sealed to the wheel rim with no inner tube and offer lots of performance benefits, such as lower tyre pressures without loss of performance.
Check out some of these detailed guides for more information on some of the terms above.
Beginner road bike buying advice
If you're looking looking for an entry level road bike, then the chances are you're new to the world of skinny tyres and drop handlebars; so what should you consider when buying your first road bike?
There are three key points to consider:
- Frame material - Beginner road bike frames are normally aluminium or steel. Aluminium is a light, strong and affordable material for bike frame manufacture. Steel is more of a 'heritage' option but provides a very robust and comfortable frame.
- Groupset - The drivetrain on a starter road bike will likely be 8, 9 or 10 speed, which refers to the number of cogs on the cassette at the back. Most road bikes will then have a double or triple chainset on the front - providing between 16 (2x8) and 30 (3x10) gears in total. The more gears your bike has, the more chance you have of being in the "perfect gear"; though the highest gear and lowest gear are often similar, regardless of how many "speeds" your gear set-up is.
- Wheelset - On a beginner road bike, you will probably find shallow section, high spoke count wheels. This is to provide the rider with confidence and ensure the wheels are durable and reliable in all conditions.
For more information on buying your first road bike, read our dedicated 'Beginner's guide to buying a road bike'
Intermediate level road bike buying advice
So you've ridden your first few sportives, and you've booked your first cycling holiday... it's time for an upgrade. Intermediate road bikes strike that delicate balance between affordability and performance; designed to provide you with a fast and fun ride.
Here are the key stand-out points about 'Intermediate' road bikes:
- Frame material - You're now into the price range of carbon fibre; this is a fantastic modern composite material which provides a great mix of stiffness (aiding power transfer), comfort, and weight saving construction.
- Groupset - With the upgrade in price, you'll see an upgrade in gearing. Expect 10 or 11-speed drivetrains on an intermediate road bike; likely in the form of Shimano 105 or Ultegra, SRAM Rival or Force, or Campagnolo Potenza or Chorus.
- Wheels - As you spend more on your wheelset, you will see the benefits in terms of performance. Better wheel bearings, lighter spokes and rims, and deeper profile rims will all translate into lower rolling-resistance, better efficiency, and improved aerodynamics.
- Disc brakes - Disc brakes come into the equation more frequently with intermediate level road bikes. Read the section in this road bike guide, for more advice on the advantages of disc brake road bikes.
Advanced level road bike buying advice
It's time for the big guns. You want to race, you want to be the fastest you possibly can be - you want a lightweight road bike with pro-level capabilities. Those sound like the attributes of an advanced level road bike.
- Frame material - Carbon road bike frames are the most popular frame material for advanced level road bikes. They offer high levels of stiffness and the lightest weight possible.
- Transmission - Electronic gearing is increasingly popular on advanced level road bikes. Shimano's Di2, SRAM's AXS eTAP, and Campagnolo's EPS provide you with electronically controlled gear shifting, while the latter two have expanded into 12-speed options for their road-going component sets.
- Wheelset - Advanced road bikes are all about marginal gains, so expect to find carbon fibre wheels, often with deep-section rims; providing aerodynamic and weight advantages.
What materials are road bikes made from?
As highlighted above, road bikes come in a wide variety of frame materials. From aluminium to carbon fibre - they all have their advantages:
Carbon fibre framed road bikes - Carbon fibre is used in top of the range road bikes because it provides a superb balance of stiffness and light weight. Because it doesn't come in pre-shaped tubes, it can also be moulded into exotic and aerodynamic shapes; making it ideal for high-performance bikes.
Steel framed road bikes - Steel is still a popular and traditional material to use for bicycle frame manufacture. Steel frames are renowned for their comfort, strength, and durability.
Aluminium framed road bikes - This is the most common material for bike frame manufacture, and it provides a very respectable balance of comfort, performance and reliability. Aluminium bikes are stiff, lightweight, and strong.
What kind of riding can I do on a road bike?
Road bikes can be used for a wide variety of pursuits and activities.
On a 'drop-bar' road bike, you could be either road racing or on your daily commute; they are highly versatile machines. It is worth also noting that for specific pursuits, such as time trials and triathlons, highly aerodynamic road bikes are the way to go.
If you're facing mixed terrain, then a gravel bike or adventure bike is probably the best option. Road bikes are specialised for road use, and not designed to handle the rigours of off-roading due to their tyre width and rigidity.