The ideal bike depends on what type of riding you plan to do
Light and fast, road bikes are designed specifically for cruising on paved roads. They range from casual touring bikes to superfast racing or triathlon bikes. Unlike mountain bikes, road bikes aren't good at handling potholes or navigating dirt trails, however.
Many race and triathlon riders look for speed when they choose a road bike. Their riding style involves aggressive pedaling in a bent-over position to optimize aerodynamics, and comfort is secondary to the ability to sprint and accelerate quickly. Casual riders and commuters, who prefer comfort over speed, should choose road bikes that are heavier and thus more stable.
Major road bike manufacturers produce dozens of models at a range of prices using a variety of components and frame materials from steel to titanium. Many experts say that even beginner riders should expect to spend at least $500 on a new, entry-level multi-speed road bike to avoid frustration.
Entry-level bikes costing less than $1,000 typically have aluminum frames and feature lower-quality components like triple rather than double or compact cranksets. Many serious cyclists dislike bikes with triple cranksets because they don't shift as precisely, but they do tend to make it easier for beginners to power up hills. Most manufacturers offer a choice between a triple or compact crankset on even entry-level road bikes.
Mid-range road bikes for enthusiasts and beginning racers usually cost $1,000 to more than $3,000. These include a few full-carbon frame bikes, although most are aluminum frames with a carbon seat stay, fork or rear triangle to better absorb road vibration. Depending on the brand and the price of the bike, mid-range components vary from mostly Shimano Tiagra on less expensive models to Shimano Ultegra as the price increases.
Performance distance road bikes made for the serious racing hobbyist typically start at about $3,500; this report doesn't cover the high-end triathlon or time-trial bikes in which the triangle frames alone can cost more than $5,000. In this category you'll find lightweight, full-carbon frames designed to dampen road vibrations, allowing you to ride longer before becoming fatigued. These bikes also come with race-quality components such as Shimano Ultegra or Dura-Ace.
More manufacturers now offer road bikes designed specifically for women with narrower handlebars, women-specific seats, smaller frame sizes and shorter top tubes, meaning a shorter reach to the shifters. In addition, the single-speed road bike has become popular with urban commuters and college students. Without the expensive gearing, these bikes are deceptively inexpensive but sport many of the same design traits of multi-gear road bikes.
To choose the best road bikes that offer a mix of performance, durability, comfort and value, we looked at a variety of expert reviews from both U.S.- and U.K.-based specialty publications and websites. Bicycling Magazine, Road.cc and Outside evaluate bikes on a regular basis, and many have annual "best of the year" lists and buyer's guides. Of course, different experts have different priorities, so we balance these reviews by considering the owner opinions found on a variety of websites including Buzzillions.com and Amazon.com.
In some categories such as cheap road bikes and single-speed road bikes, we rely more heavily on user feedback.
Best Road Bikes
Carbon frames are lightweight but rigid
High-mileage cyclists and aspiring triathlon or race competitors can easily spend thousands of dollars on a custom-designed road bike. But experts say improving technology has reduced the cost of high-tech carbon frames and high-end, lightweight components, so most riders can get a solid-performing road bike without hitting the $5,000 mark.
Advanced cyclists looking for the best road bikes prefer carbon fiber frames over aluminum for their light weight and rigidity, and the Trek Madone 6 (*Est. $3,800) gets our nod for the best road bike. It's based on the same design that claimed nine of the last 12 Tour de France victories. Reviewers like its precise steering, quick acceleration, long-haul comfort, hand-built quality and ability to customize through Trek's Project One program.
Trek completely redesigned the 2013 Madone with Kammtail Virtual Foil (KVF) aerodynamic tube shapes in the fork, downtube, seat tube, headtube and seat stays, and added integrated brakes in the fork and behind the bottom bracket. Road.cc names it Superbike of the Year, calling it "one of the very best road bikes out there." Site editors also rank the Trek Madone 6 the No. 2 Bike of the Year, saying, "It's stiff enough to handle all the power you can throw at it yet also incredibly comfortable."
The Specialized Roubaix SL4 Expert Compact (*Est. $3,600) is another favorite in this category. While the Roubaix includes a variety of builds and price points like all Specialized models, this is the same design that Tom Boonen rode to his 2012 Paris-Roubaix win. The five models in the Roubaix line receive the SL4 designation formerly reserved for Specialized's race bikes, including the Tour de France-winning Tarmac SL4.
Specialized continues to refine the Roubaix line first introduced in 2004, and the current version is as fast as a race bike but easier to control and more comfortable, according to reviewers. Testers say the carbon frame's new Zertz vibration-damping technologies help the bike track smoothly over rough roads. Although the Shimano 105 cassette is a step down and the chain is only Tiagra, testers had no issues and the Ultegra Compact crankset works flawlessly.
The SL4 Expert's wheels are its only downfall, say users and experts who found them relatively heavy. In addition, one reviewer says the rims rubbed on the brakes when pedaling hard from a standing position.