You couldn't pick a better time to shop for a new road bike!
Now more than every before, manufacturers offer a huge variety of models in a wide range of prices. And component companies make an exceptional array of top-notch wheels, brakes, and shifting systems that operate more efficiently than anytime in the history of cycling. For example, it's possible to get 20-speed drivetrains that shift blink quick, and wheelsets so light that pedaling is effortless. In fact, with so many attractive choices, walking into our store might just blow you away! Don't worry. We're here to help you find the perfect bike; to help us out though, you should familiarize yourself with what's available.
Below, you'll find a comprehensive guide to your ideal road rig. We explain the decisions you need to make and offer advice on everything from frame materials and wheels to gearing and component choices. The first step however is for you to do some self analysis (therapist not required).
Questions to Consider
Before making any decisions, define yourself as a rider. How you'll use your bike? Where will you pedal once you've had the machine for a while? The following questions will help you narrow down your top candidates:
- A new cyclist?
- Thinking of commuting to work or around town?
- Looking to improve fitness?
- Interested in touring?
- Training for an event?
- Getting into road racing or triathlons?
Next, ponder the following:
- Consider how many miles you might log per week, or year...
- Think about your tendencies in purchasing other things. For example, do you demand the highest quality, or are you more apt to look for reasonable quality and lower cost?
- Do you want trick, high-tech gadgets or are you satisfied with simpler designs?
- Additionally, it's helpful to have a budget so that you can focus your selection process on the appropriate models.
Answering these questions will help you sample the models with the right features for your needs, interests, and budget. And you'll soon be sailing down the pavement with a big grin on your face! There are lots of fascinating variables in choosing a modern road bike, so now that we're defined your style, let's explore the options!
Frame And Fork Materials
Although over the years there have been such interesting designs as bamboo (still available!) and plastic frames, most current road bikes are made of one or blends of these three materials: steel, aluminum, and carbon fiber. We get into the differences below.
But first, realize that fine bicycles are built of all these materials. Also, two frames can be constructed of the same material yet have entirely different ride qualities due to differences in geometry, assembly, tube shapes, and material manipulation (reinforcing a tube, for example), which is one of the reasons it's so important to test ride and get a true feel for the bikes you're thinking of buying.
A tip for inspecting frames: Look for a tubing decal on the seat tube or down tube. Sometimes manufacturers provide these and they usually help explain what brand and type of material is used in the frame. We're happy to elaborate if you have questions while inspetcting a particular model. Just ask!
The most traditional frame material, steel, has been used by framebuilders for well over a century. Many types of steel tubing are available and the material is easy to bend and shape. Plus, there are myriad methods of assembly making steel very adaptable to cyclists' needs. It also offers excellent ride quality (compliance), durability, is easily repaired, and quite affordable. If there's a knock on steel, it's that it tends to be heavy when low-quality tubing is used (like in cheap bikes sold at department stores). High quality chromoly steel or manganese steel alloys are virtually impervious to corrosion, but cheap types can rust if treated carelessly.
High-quality steel frames integrate great design, superior assembly, and better alloys in the tubing. A popular quality steel for bicycle frames is American SAE 4130 steel, better known as "chrome molybdenum," and referred to as "chromoly" or "chrome-moly." We like the Surly all-steel bike lineup, as well as the Trek 520 touring model; each company uses its own proprietary 4130 Chromoly alloys.
Steel is an excellent fork material. It can be formed into any shape; even aero ones. It's plenty strong, and, it also absorbs shock to soften rough roads. Again, a form constructed of steel will be a bit heavier than those built of lighter materials such as aluminum or carbon.
Aluminum was first used in frame construction in 1895, bu! it didn't come into wide use until the 1980s when large-diameter tubing was conceived and construction processes were perfected. Now, it's the most popular of frame materials; however, it's still subject to the same variances in assembly and quality as steel, and like steel, the general rule is that with higher prices, you can expect higher quality of tubing and better construction.
You may have heard that aluminum has a firmer ride than the other frame materials. But, while this used to be the case in its early years, it's not a problem today thanks to new aluminum alloys, tubing enhancements, and improved construction techniques like hydroforming (shaping tubes using high-pressure water). These advacenements allow aluminum frames to absorb shock better than ever while still offering the lively ride that makes aluminum so popular.
This magic ride is attributed to aluminum being one of the lightest frame materials, as well as one of the most efficient in terms of energy transfer to the rear wheel making aluminum frames great choices for racing and time trialing.
There are various types of aluminum tubing in use by manufacturers. Some common types are 6061 and 7005, numbers that refer to the alloys in the aluminum such as magnesium, silicon, and zinc (pure aluminum isn't strong enough for bike use). In fact, there are some super-light tubesets that include various metals, such as scandium: Trek and Cannondale, for example, are leaders in aluminum technology, and their alloys may contain as many as 11 other metals and materials in addition to the aluminum.
Aluminum forks are generally stiff and light, and can be shaped aerodynamically. Both Trek and Cannondale use carbon forks on most of their aluminum road bikes for improved compliance (read "comfort").
Carbon fiber (also called "carbon," "composite," or "graphite") is unique because it's not a metal. It starts out as a fabric (or sometimes just a thread that's woven into fabric) that's impregnated with a glue called resin. The resulting material can be turned into tubes or shaped in molds and is usually cured with pressure and heat, turning the material into a solid structure. Frames made of carbon are extremely light, stiff, and durable.
Carbon's greatest advantage is that it can be manipulated in endless ways because builders can orient the fabric strands however they want; this means it can be fine-tuned to provide just about any ride qualities desired. So it's possible to achieve supreme lightness with outstanding rigidity (for maximum pedaling efficiency) and top-notch compliance for comfort, too. What's more, carbon is impervious to corrosion and can be built into beautiful shapes producing Ferrari-like looks.
Because construction is somewhat complicated, and because carbon fabric and resins are in high demand by other industries, carbon frames are usually at the high end of the cost spectrum. To describe these frames, manufacturers use terms such as "high modulus" and "void free," which tells you that it's high-quality carbon material of stellar construction. Sometimes, these designations appear on frame "tubing" decals similar to what you'll see on steel frames.
Carbon is a popular material for forks due to its lightness and natural ability to absorb shocks. Plus, carbon forks are built for optimal handling, too. If you spend more money, you can even get full-carbon forks, but there are also carbon forks that use steel or aluminum for the steerer (the fork tube that's inside the frame), and there are even tapered carbon forks that are wider at the base of the steerer for enhanced handling.
Wheels and Tires
Not too long ago, when you bought a new road bike, you got fairly run-of-the-mill wheels comprised of decent rims, spokes, and hubs. These wheels were reliable and worked just fine, but they didn't really add any pizazz to your new two-wheeler.
All that has changed. Today, many if not most road bikes feature wheels that are marvels of engineering. They're prettier, more aerodynamic, durable, and light (sometimes feather light). Why is this important, you ask?
Simply put, when you cut wheel weight, you drastically improve a bike's climbing, acceleration, and handling. This happens because wheels are rotating weight. And this type of heft is felt most by the rider. In fact, a few-hundred grams reduction at the wheels feels more like a few pounds reduction. On the road, it's an amazing feeling, like suddenly dropping 10 pounds of body weight.
Bike companies use a variety of different tires on their road models and usually, the tires are good for 1,000 to 2,000 or more miles depending on your weight, riding style, and whether the tire is located on the front or back. So, the chances are pretty good that you'll be fine riding on the tires that come stock on your new bicycle.
You might consider upgrading, however, if the tires are the wrong width or design for your predominant type of riding. One important difference is bead type. Beads are found in both edges of the tire. They're the parts that grip the rim to hold the tire on the wheel. Less-expensive tires use wire beads, which add weight (remember that rotating weight is the most important kind). Better models use Kevlar (a super-tough fabric) beads.
Tires with Kevlar beads are called "folding tires," and they're a great upgrade if you want lightweight wheels and lively handling. These tires cost more, so expect to pay for them. However, the additional expense is worth it if you want optimum ride quality.
This being New Mexico, thorns are a hazard to your tires, two ways to attack this issue are kevlar belted tires (kevlar across the tread) or internal tire liners.
Another reason you might swap tires is to get a different width. Tire width determines how much air it holds, which in turn decides ride softness. It also affects how the bike handles as well as rolling resistance and durability.
You'll find the tire's size written on its sidewall as "700 x XXc," where XX is the tire width in millimeters (700 refers to the nominal outside tire diameter in millimeters, a European standard called "700c"). We're happy to discuss tire ride differences with you. Here's how the sizes compare:
About 650c Wheels
Some time-trial bikes, as well as some compact, smaller models come equipped with 650c wheels, which are smaller diameter than 700s. These are a little lighter and slightly stronger, and they accelerate faster than standard 700c wheels. But, 650c wheels sometimes ride a bit rougher (smaller, lighter riders can compensate by dropping tire pressure slightly), lose momentum a bit faster, and cover less distance per revolution (strong riders will require taller gearing). So, if you're comparing bikes with both wheel sizes, be sure to test ride them to feel the differences for yourself — that's the best way to decide.
Tubeless and Tubular Tires
Most road bicycles today are equipped with tires called "clinchers," which contain tubes inside. These tires are held on the wheel with a mechanical fit. The tire beads "clinch" the rim.
The newest road tire type is "tubeless," and they're rapidly gaining popularity. Just like motorcycle and car tires, these are run without tubes, which eliminates pinch flats, saves a little weight and significantly improves ride quality. These, too, require a special tubeless-compatible rims, able to accept tubeless tires. This is because with tubeless tires the tire and rim fit together with an airtight bead lock. There are also no holes inside the rim and a special Presta valve is installed in the rim.
There's another type of tire found on some road bicycles and available for wheelsets with rims made for them. It's called a "tubular" and also known as a "sew-up," (you'll see why in a second). Tubular tires are common in professional road racing because they have a true round profile, which offers a slightly smoother ride than standard tires, something favored by those who spend entire days in the saddle. However, the use of tubulars has diminished significantly over the years with the advent of high performance clinchers and tubeless tires.
The main companies making full lines of road components (sometimes called "groups" or "gruppos") are Shimano, SRAM, and Campagnolo. These makers offer different levels of components to suit the various rider levels from entry-level to pro racer. A group is typically comprised of brakes, hubs, chain, cassette, bottom bracket, crank, derailleurs, shifters, and headset.
Keep in mind that many road bikes come equipped with wheelsets, which include hubs so you may or may not get hubs from the same manufacturer as the rest of the components on your new bike. Also, some bicycle manufacturers make or have made their own components, and you might see these on a bike instead of the brand found on most of the other parts. And, it's a common practice to upgrade certain components where the company feels it's beneficial. So, for example, you might get the next-level rear derailleur on a bike as a way for the bike company to add a little extra value.
As you spend more money, parts get lighter (with the use of less material; and carbon at the higher price points), and the bearing quality (bearings are what the hubs, headset, pedals and crankset spin on) improves. Higher-level components shift and brake slightly better, too — though even entry-level braking and shifting is exceptional on modern systems.
So, how do you decide what to buy? It comes down to your price range and which group offers the features you want (i.e., weight, number of gears, appearance, quality). Usually, you can narrow it down to a couple of groups, and at that point, a great way to decide is to ride and compare. If you can feel a difference in braking and shifting, go with the bike you like better.
Regardless of what bike you choose, it won't be much fun riding it if the gearing isn't appropriate for your fitness level and where and how you pedal. Fortunately, all component groups offer a variety of different gearing options, and we can also modify things if needed to suit your needs. Here's what's involved:
Chainrings and Cogs
There are sprockets on the front and back of the bike. The ones attached to the crank are chainrings. A crank may have 2 or 3 chainrings ("double" or "triple"). Triple cranksets include a small inner chainring (sometimes called a "granny") that offers easier hill-climbing gears. But during the last few years, "compact" chainring arrangements (usually 34-50 or 36-50, as opposed to the standard "racing" setup of 39-53) have become far more popular than triples. These offer a wide range of gear ratios, capable of hill riding for most people, but with crisper shifting, mostly due to not having the extra chain required to support a triple.
The sprockets on the rear of the bike are called "cogs," or, if you're referring to the entire cluster of gears, it's called a "cassette" or "freewheel." The cassette is attached to the rear wheel and drives the bike as you pedal. Depending on the components on the bike, there will usually be 8 to 11 cogs on the rear cassette.
How Many Gears?
To figure out how many total gears are on a bike, simply multiply the number of chainrings by the number of cassette cogs. For example on a model with a triple crankset and a 10-cog cassette, you have 30 gears — quite an upgrade from the 10-speeds so popular years ago.
How many gears to get depends on how and where you ride. If you're reasonably fit and bike in flat to rolling terrain, you'll probably be fine with a double chainring and 9 to 11 rear cogs. If it's hilly and you're getting into shape, consider a compact crankset. They provide the simpler double-chainring shifting up front with a chainring small enough for easier climbing, too. Triple cranksets are an option for those who climb high and aren't super strong, too. The third chainring (sometimes called the "granny gear") offers even easier climbing than the compact crankset's smallest chainring.
When considering how many rear cogs to get, keep in mind that you'll have plenty of gears even if you get an 8-cog cassette. If you choose a bike with more cogs (you can't increase the number of cogs unless the bicycle accepts that cassette), you can either choose a wider range of gears or more closely spaced gears.
You also need to decide on the range of gears on your rear cassette. In the table to the right is a guide to some commonly available sizes and what they're designed for:
The Fun Part
Now that you have an idea how to choose your road machine, it's time to come in to our store and do some tire kicking and test riding to see how the models compare in person. This will complete the picture and give you a chance to see what you get at the various price points. Here are some final tips:
- Buy once! It's less expensive to get the frame, wheels, and components you want initially than to upgrade later.
- Proper fit is much more important than getting a good deal, and only by coming in to see us can we size you and ensure that you're looking at the right size bicycles.
- Manufacturers pack as much value as they can into each bike model, but sometimes compromises are made in component specification or frame quality to reach a more attractive price point. If a bike you're interested in has parts or features that appear to be uncharacteristic for its price, try to figure out if any corners were cut, or ask and we'll explain why the price is low (or high).
- It's best to pick out the features and components that best meet your needs, then see what the bike costs.
- Be prepared to spend a little extra because usually you'll want a few important accessories with a new bike such as a bottle and cage, pedals, shoes, a cyclo-computer, a new helmet, etc..
Questions? Stop by the shop! We look forward to helping you select the perfect road bicycle!