Spring is in the air, even if it is still well below freezing (20-40 degrees F below normal), and the new batch of soon-to-be cyclists are starting to peruse the web for tips they can use to help them pick the right road bike. I had a search inquiry pop up in my stats yesterday that really piqued my interest: “fast entry-level road bike” Now, while there are, for all intents and purposes, fast bikes, when we’re looking at entry-level road bikes, it’s more about building fast legs than being able to pick an entry-level road bike that’s faster than another. That said, there are certain steps that can be taken to improve one’s odds of becoming fast on an entry-level bike. The important point here is that if you can become fast on an entry-level road bike, when you upgrade to a mid-range or high-end road bike, you’ll be a bit faster and a lot more comfortable.
To start this out, there are several important factors to look at when picking out a brand and 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 post.
For an entry-level road bike, as defined by cost: $800-$1,800, you get an aluminum frame with a carbon fork and a range of options for components from the cheaper (and heavier) Shimano Sora line, all the way up to the 105 or even Ultegra line if you’re willing to go to the upper end of the range above. If you’re planning on racing your entry-level bike, racers I know suggest nothing less than Shimano 105 components. I own bikes with 105 and Ultegra components (one step up) and while the 105’s are great components, the Ultegra line is simply fantastic.
Now, I’ve got enough bikes and I’m deep enough into cycling that I can’t foresee the need for an entry-level bike in my future, but if I had to choose one, I’d go for the Specialized Allez Expert ($2,400 – Ultegra) or the Secteur Expert Disc ($2,000 – 105) because I like the geometry and the component line. The frames, especially the Secteur, are very close to my Venge and I don’t know what it is about the Venge’s geometry but it fits me like a glove – I am amazed at just how comfortable I am on that bike.
That said, in an entry-level bike, all of the major brands offer a decent range of models if $800-$1,800 is what you consider affordable, neither will be appreciably “faster” than the next when comparing similarly priced road bikes. The important differences in cost at that range is in the components. The better the set of components, until you get to the very upper end (Dura Ace), the lighter they are and better they work. This isn’t to say the low-end components don’t work, they do. It’s just that the better components work better and are generally less finicky to keep in tune (my experience suggests Ultegra is the best in the Shimano line for weight, durability and excellence in staying tuned though 105 is an excellent line as well). The big difference is in crispness and speed of shift, not whether the components “work”.
More important will be the setup of the bike – and this is important if you want a fast bike. Most entry-level bikes are set for comfort rather than speed. To explain this entirely is a bit more technical than I care to get into for this post, but the manufacturers leave the fork long and use spacers to raise the stem, and thereby, the handlebar. A higher handlebar means a more comfortable, less aerodynamic ride. To set up an entry-level bike more like a race bike (higher saddle, lower bar) you can either experiment by placing the stem below the spacers or you can have the fork modified to limit the number of spacers below the stem. Also, it helps to order a bike on the lower side of your size range: At 6’0″ tall, my range is 56-59 cm frame (depending on the manufacturer of course – for Specialized and Trek I’m 56-59). I own a 58 cm Trek that’s got a bit less of a drop and my race bike is a 56 cm frame. For examples, I’m going to stick with Specialized because I own a few of them and I know the geometries. We’ll be looking at 4 bikes: The Allez (entry) geometry matches up with the Tarmac (mid to high-end race bike) and the Secteur (entry) matches up with the Venge (high-end race [though it does not match up as closely as the Allez and Tarmac – you’ll see]).
But let’s look at the Allez superimposed over the Tarmac:
All that needs be done to change the Allez’s geometry to get close to the Tarmac is to drop the stem. Now, if you’re looking for speed, you simply order the smaller sized bike in your range… You’ll have to hike the saddle up and you’ll drop the stem down and voila! You’ve got an aero setup on a $800 bike. Let’s look at the Venge and Secteur:
Not quite as close, but you get the idea, same theory – you get the smaller bike in your range, slam that stem and the cyclist will be in a much more aerodynamic position on a relatively reasonable bike.
Then all that’s left is to ride your bike… A lot. You get fast, upgrade your wheels considerably (wheels on entry-level bikes are crap – if you want another easy way to gain speed, this is where to start), and you’re well on your way… To buying the Venge. This is the crappy thing about cycling – once you get that entry-level bike, if you find you love the sport, you’ll be upgrading as soon as you have (or can borrow) the cash. Why do you think I own the Venge. 😉
It is what it is. Happy Hunting.
PS: Steven Burkard, in the comments section below, added that buying a used bike is advisable as you can buy a nicer race bike for close to the same cost as a new entry-level. I agree, as I did the exact same thing and ended up with my Trek 5200, full carbon with Ultegra components for less than I’d have paid for the most basic Trek or Specialized entry-level bike. Be sure, if you’re in the market, to try that route as well.