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Buying Guide: Road Bikes

By: Saundra Latham on May 12, 2017

The best road bike has

  • A strong, lightweight frame. Aluminum is the most common material used in recreational bike frames. Lighter carbon and even titanium, which helps displace vibrations, is popular for higher-end models, especially those meant for racing.
  • Light, reliable 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. Many switch out the stock wheels for a lighter pair.
  • An easy-to-pedal crankset. 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 local bike shop experts about the best options based on your riding style.
  • Versatile speeds. 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.
  • A comfortable 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.
  • Reliable brakes. While most bikes still have rim brakes that clamp the wheel's rim to slow the bike, an increasing number use more-sophisticated disc brakes that employ a rotor on the wheel hub activated by hydraulic pressure. Both types of brakes have their pros and cons; disc brakes are a bit more precise, while rim brakes are lighter and simpler to repair.

Know before you go

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 big difference in choosing a bike, including when deciding 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.

Will you be traveling with your bike? Whether you will be taking your bike for a weekend away, heading to the local park, or traveling for a race, you may want to take in to consideration the impact of travel on your bike purchase.  A lighter bike may be easier to maneuver on and off of a bike rack whereas a bike with a smaller footprint or a folding frame may be best for cyclists who will be traveling distances or commuting on a bus or train.

Do you plan on battling the elements on your bike? While a little bit of rain is no big deal for most quality road bikes, riders who face consistently wet, muddy, icy or snowy weather may want to look for a bike with disc brakes instead of more-common rim brakes. Disc brakes have more reliable stopping power, especially in less-than-ideal conditions.

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 – this is especially critical if you're ordering a bike online.

Set aside more cash for accessories. The bike is your main expense, but remember all the odds and ends you'll need to accompany it. Those may include a well-fitted helmet, a tire repair kit and pump, spare tubes, chain lubricant, cycling clothing and shoes, and even pedals – yes, pedals, which are often missing from higher-end road bikes because manufacturers assume riders already have a preferred brand. And, if you're going to need to transport your bike, you'll need a sturdy bike rack. And don't forget a good bike lock, which we cover in their own report.

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