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The Noob’s Guide to Picking the Right Road Bike

September 2013
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My first two road bikes were purchases borne of necessity. I had to have a road bike because I got too fast for my mountain bike – I geared out regularly, or in everyday English, I was so fast I couldn’t move my legs fast enough to gain more speed. My Cannondale SR400 Criterium was purchased from a private seller through Craigslist because I, A) needed a road bike, and B) didn’t have a lot of money to put down on a road bike. Unfortunately, my second road bike, a Trek 5200 was necessary because A) the Cannondale was a 54 cm frame, not a 56 as advertised and getting me to fit on that tiny thing was impossible (too far forward, geometry was all wrong), and B) the Trek was composite rather than aluminum (which meant lighter and more forgiving). In other words, I loved cycling so it would be nice to enjoy it comfortably.

My latest bike, a Specialized Venge had little to do with need and a lot to do with want. The components on my 5200 are not dead yet, but that’s a pretty big “yet” considering they’re 14 years old – there’s the need. On the other hand, my Venge has got to be one of the sexiest most comfortable things on two wheels for someone who wants to go fast, comfortably.  It’s both and I’d had my eyes on that bike since the owner of our local bike shop put it on display above the cash register island, it was just a matter of time.  Truth be told, I got lucky with the new bike – I had an eyegasm when I saw it and I’d have loved it if the ride was stiff as hell but in the end, it’s more forgiving than my 5200…

Picking a decent road bike is not a complicated process if you know what you’re looking for. If you don’t, it’s daunting.  Assuming of course, you’re just going to buy a complete bike, you won’t have to worry about choosing wheels, a fork, handlebar, stem and all of the rest of the components – you just end up with a bike.  There are different levels of each model of bike to consider though.  Take the Specialized Venge that I bought, I’ve got the “Comp” version – the Venge is the Ferrari of bikes and I’ve got the Ferrari California. It’s the cheaper Ferrari, but it’s still a Ferrari.

In the 2014 Venge line alone, there are eight different models to choose from and they range in cost from $3,100 to $12,000. On top of that, you’ve got eleven Tarmac models from $2,100 to $10,500 (these are the two main race bike lines from Specialized). In other words, there’s a lot to choose from.  Then, take into account that you’ve got Cannondale, Trek, Giant, Merckx, Scott and at least two dozen other brands on top of that… Holy smokes, it can make your head spin. Well, I’m here to offer some suggestions that should make the process a little bit easier because that’s what I do.

First things first, choose your maximum amount that you’re willing to spend on a road bike:

Entry-level bikes ($800-$1,400) have aluminum frames. Going back to the first paragraph, it’s a stiffer ride so you’ll want one that has a carbon fork to smooth out rough roads.

Mid-level sportive bikes (made for long rides) ($1,500 – $2,500) on the low-end have aluminum frames but you start getting into the composite frames above $2,000 (sportive is a type of long group ride – think centuries and metric centuries – these bikes are designed for long distance comfort, not necessarily speed).  These tend to have a bit of a “squishy” feel to them – I’ve heard it described as riding with the rear tire at half pressure.

High End sportive and race bikes ($2,600-$4,000) feature carbon frames and start getting into the racing components – Shimano 105 and better. The sportive bikes are a bit more forgiving on rough pavement  while the race bikes are stiffer, and thus faster.

Elite race bikes ($4,100-$15,000) are top of the line stuff, baby.

Now, to make this more difficult, you have to take components into account as well, not just steel, composite or aluminum frames – and this makes things tricky.  It helps to know what you plan on doing with your new bike – and for the purposes of this post, I’ll stick to what I know: Shimano. SRAM makes a good product (if it is famous for being “clunky”) and Campagnolo enjoys almost cult-like status.  If you are going to race your bike then you should settle for nothing less than the 105 line of components (or the competitor’s equivalents).  They’re race-ready.  If, on the other hand, you’re only planning on tooling about the countryside at 15 mph, the Tiagra line will probably do you just fine and you’ll save some cash.  If you’re like me, out for the long rides (60-125 miles) and faster club rides (20-25 mph average speeds) then I’d recommend sticking with the race minimum 105’s.

Armed with this knowledge, search the different manufacturers for the best frame and component package you can find – and make sure you find it appealing visually if that matters to you.  For me, visually appealing was a deal breaker – I spent several hundred dollars more than I had to so I could have a bike that I like to look at.  Also, you can purchase a bike online and save a bundle – though you’ll end up putting it together, by yourself (or you can pay someone to put it together).  I chose to purchase my new bike at my local shop because I’d rather he get my business.

Once you have a good idea of what you want, all that’s left is to get sized up.  Rather than offer advice on that here, you’re a noob – you need the experience of being measured up for your bike, you’ll learn a lot.  Now I will offer this; if you look at my “Bikes” page, you’ll see that my Trek has a straight top tube while my Venge has a tapered top tube… With the tapered tube, the bike is designed to fit a wider range of cyclists.  In other words, my Trek is a 58 cm frame and my Venge is a 56 cm frame – I measure out to a 58 cm frame but I was able to go with the smaller (more nimble) frame because of the tapered top tube.  I opted for the 56 because it should handle better (and it corners much better than my 5200).

Be prepared, when it comes to the fitting – you may require a different stem or bars to get you into the proper position on the bike.  I know my shop wouldn’t charge for that if the bike is built at their shop (they’d swap components from stock), but your shop may be different. Also, remember, new bikes don’t come with decent pedals like what you’d want to use on the road.  You either have to purchase a new pair and shoes or, use the old toe clip style.  There are a lot of reasons for this, including State regulations (really) and the fact that there are so many styles of shoes, pedals and cleats out there. Once you buy your pedals though, you will hold on to them for as long as they last – you are not expected to include them if you sell your bike for an upgrade.

A few final thoughts – unless you are planning to be fast enough to race, don’t worry about getting the lightest bike on the market unless you can truly afford it.  Bike weight is important in the mountains, but your weight is more important.  Pick the best component set and frame you can afford. The high-end components (105 and Ultegra) are really that good.  I didn’t discuss wheels in this post, but the carbon rims are nice if you can afford another grand or two.  Finally, once you’ve chosen the best bike you can afford, and have taken delivery, don’t ever ride anything that has better components.  Once you find out how nice they are in comparison, you’ll be buying a new bike within months – trust me on this.

Lastly, once you have your new steed, ride it. Daily.  Become an enthusiast, not just a weekend tool-about.  Enjoy being the most efficient animal on the planet.

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11 Comments

  1. […] The Noob’s Guide to Picking the Right Road Bike […]

  2. this makes so much sense now, after i picked an entry-level bike. the search really was — as you wrote — “daunting”, without direction or information. and, frequently, in shops, sales personnel who were also avid cyclists weren’t able to dial back their descriptions or “jargon” so this noob could understand them. i often just smiled and thanked them, and then beat it to the door without committing. it took almost 6-mos of looking to settle on a specialized dolce. this isn’t a grand bike, but it’s a heck of a step up from a 30-year-old steelie with just two working gears. what’s your take on handmade bikes? bikes like those by georgena terry and tom kellogg?

    • bgddyjim says:

      I don’t have an opinion on handmades, other than I want my next bike to be one – and a steelie at that. A friend of mine used to build them and I know he put a lot into them.

    • bgddyjim says:

      I was just getting out of a meeting when I replied to this last night. I apologize for not being more attentive… Getting a handle on the jargon is SO tough! I still struggle with it.

      • i’m not sure why you’re apologizing. there’s no need. i truly was thankful to find a spot in your blog where i might actually be able to ask questions answered so a layman might understand. and, after riding a specialized this season, i’m interested in making my second bike a handmade steelie, too. so, i’ll be looking forward to seeing am eventual post that announces the start of your process and the actual process. cheers!

      • bgddyjim says:

        It’s all good then. 😉

  3. masitim says:

    Nice post Jim. Great info as always. I agree with weronika as I was in same spot a year ago. One thing that helped me was that here in Minneapolis there are a number of bike shops. So while I was shopping for a bike, I was also shopping for a bike shop that I was comfortable going into to ask questions and learn. The one I like is a challenge to get to after work with traffic but well worth waiting until the weekend for and never disappointed.

    Tim

    • bgddyjim says:

      That’s a great point you have there Tim. I was so very lucky in this regard… My local shop owner’s brother was my gym teacher in grade school. I was a part of the family as soon as I introduced myself.

      Having a shop you can rely on and trust is HUGE!

      And thanks brother.

  4. […] the type of components you want.  I delve deeply into just what to look for, if you have interest, here so I won’t get too deep into that in this […]

  5. Kirk Arthur says:

    The great thing about bikes, like other tech, the prices for the cools stuff come down pretty quickly. Carbon bikes are available now in my local shops for about $1200.

    • bgddyjim says:

      Too true! The only bummer there is when you pay top dollar for a bike and three years later you can get one with better components and wheels for the same price you paid. Been there.

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