How to Buy a Road Bike

Updated May 31, 2013

What the best road bike has

The ideal road bike balances performance and comfort, attributes that are linked directly to its individual drivetrain components: chainset, shifters, derailleurs, chain and cassette. The component manufacturers you should know are Japan's Shimano, Italy's Campagnolo and America's SRAM. In many cases, riders will buy a bike and then upgrade individual components to suit their preferences. When shopping for your next road bike, be aware of these basics:

  • Frames. Aluminum is the most common material used in recreational bike frames. Lighter carbon and even titanium, which helps displace vibrations, is popular for high-end racing models.
  • Wheels. Probably the second most important feature of a bike after its frame is the wheels. Riders commonly complain that bikes with otherwise good components have wheels that are heavy, and many switch out the stock wheels for a lighter pair.
  • Cranksets. More expensive professional racing bikes often come with a double rather than triple crankset -- two chain rings up front instead of three -- that can be difficult for recreational riders in hilly terrain. Ask about options based on your riding style.
  • Cassette. Ten-speed gearing in the rear derailleur is standard on mid- to high-end road bikes, although some entry-level models often have nine-speed or eight-speed gearing.
  • Weight. Many high-end bike manufacturers don't list the weight of individual models, while mid- to entry-level bikes can range from 19 to 29.5 pounds.
  • Saddle. Different seats are designed for various riding styles depending on where riders put more of their weight, but even an excellent saddle will be uncomfortable if you haven't sized the bike correctly.

Know before you go

Before you shop for a road bike, there are a few questions you should consider to be sure the ride you pick is the best model for you.

What style of riding will you do? Will you use the bike just for commuting to work, or are you a long-distance rider and race enthusiast? This makes a difference when choosing between a triple or double compact crankset. Although many serious cyclists look down on road bikes with triple cranksets because they don't shift as precisely as doubles and compacts, triple cranksets tend to make it easier to power up hills.

What size frame do you need? Determining the proper size frame for your new bike is essential for both comfort and efficiency. If you choose a frame that's too big, you'll find it difficult to control, reach the ground, or even reach the shifters and brakes. A frame that's too small will be not only uncomfortable and inefficient to ride, but you also run the risk of injuring your knees. Most road bike manufacturers offer a variety of sizes, so visit your local bike shop to get a feel for what specific measurements you'll need if you're ordering a bike online.

What's to come

The more extensive use of carbon technology in today's road bikes also means lower production costs, resulting in more affordable but light bikes as the technology trickles down to cheaper models. Modified forks and chainstays are designed to reduce vibration, and longer wheelbases provide a stable ride since they allow sharp turns with ease.

The use of electronic shifting is becoming a popular option on many mid- to high-end bikes, but it adds more than $1,000 to the price. Another trend is hydraulic disc brakes. A number of 2013 models have been introduced with this as a standard feature rather than an option, which also slightly drops the bike's weight and optimizes its aerodynamics.