How should I buy a road bike?

Despite being a relative newcomer to cycling, I seem to get asked this a lot, so rather than write the same advice out every time I thought I’d put my opinions down here. This is mostly aimed at the casual cyclist looking to gain fitness, commute or just have fun.

I’ve tried to avoid fashion or hype and provide links to elaborate on my suggestions. I love new shiny kit as much as the next cyclist, but you should be under no illusions that having slightly lighter wheels or carbon fibre cranks is going to make a measurable difference to your riding. However, you might pedal harder on expensive kit if you’re keen to feel that you didn’t waste your money. You only have to look at the wide variety of bikes on which people rode Paris Brest Paris or the guy who did the Tour de France route on a Chopper to realise that you don’t need the latest greatest kit to take on ambitious rides. So don’t re-mortgage your house just yet.

What’s most important?

Fit. The size. The shape of the bike compared to the shape of your body. Nothing I mention further down is more important than this.

Get this wrong and your riding will be inefficient and uncomfortable. No of top-of-the-range groupset will compensate if your knees are locking out or your hands hurt from pressure on the bars.

A bike that fits will be a joy to ride, you’ll be able to ride further in comfort and want to do so more often, so you’ll end up fitter and faster. Fit is more important if you intend to be riding all day.

So how do you get it right? There’s a risk that the guy in the shop may want to sell you the bike which is in front of you, so it’s a good idea to have an idea of your right size before you start shopping. You can work this out for yourself with a tape measure and some online advice. If you’re really serious or an unusual size, you can also seek the advice of an independent professional. A good local bike shop ought to help you get the basics right, however.

If you’re serious about efficiency and/or comfort, then once you’ve bought a bike that is roughly the right size you can pay to have an expert “fitting” to work out your optimal saddle height, reach, crank length, etc. If you’re keen on increasing your speed, this is probably money better spent than that groupset upgrade. For the casual commuter however, unless they have any serious issue with comfort, a full professional fit would be excessive. If you don’t have the budget for that, but want to sort out some comfort issues yourself, there’s a helpful guide to DIY bike fit here.

Practicalities…

You should ask yourself what kind of riding you intend to do. Some things like pedals or saddles are easy to change, but other things are more fundamental. I’ve probably missed a few, but here are some questions you should think about.

  • Do you want drop bars (more aerodynamic, more varied hand positions for comfort), or straight (simpler, better control on rough ground), or something else?
  • Do you want to carry kit on the bike? This is generally easier and more comfortable than carrying it on your body, especially for longer distances. Not all bikes have rack mount eyelets built into the frame and while there are alternative solutions, they might not be ideal if you want to carry anything other than bike spares and clothes. If you want to carry a lot, then it may be worth going for a touring bike which will having longer chain-stays so that your heels clear the rear panniers when pedalling.
  • Do you want to fit full mudguards? They don’t noticeably affect aerodynamics and can make you and your kit a lot drier and more comfortable as well as being friendly to the guy behind, provided they’re long enough. On the other hand, if you’re strictly a fair weather cyclist who’s planning to hang up the bike in winter, you might not want to bother. If you do want full mudguards, you’ll need to think about frame clearances and what size tyres you plan to use (see next point). If your frame doesn’t have the clearance their are various compromise options available.
  • How wide do you want your tyres? Wider tyres are by far the biggest factor in a comfortable ride, especially on rougher roads. Suspension parts may take the bigger shocks, but a large volume tyre is the best thing for absorbing vibrations. Wheel-build, frame material and handlebar design, etc make a negligible difference compared to tyres. Wider tyres can be run at a lower pressure without risking pinch-flats. They may look less sporty but, up to a point, they’re just as fast as skinny tyres. If you’d like especially wide tyres, it may affect your choice of brakes, which are often the limiting factor. Caliper brakes have limited clearance, while cantilevers and disc brakes allow much more.

Don’t worry too much about…

  • The saddle. This is easy to change and is a personal choice – no one saddle will be right for everyone. It’s hard to tell in advance what will suit you, so if you find you don’t like the one which comes with the bike, you might need to try a few others out. Expensive ones won’t necessarily be more comfortable, but are often lighter. In my experience the angle the saddle is tilted at can have a large affect on comfort, so it’s worth tweaking before you bin an awkward perch.
  • Weight. The weight of the bike and components makes a small difference to acceleration and climbing, but remember to consider any weight difference as a fraction of the all-up weight – bike + rider + water bottles + equipment. 500g may sound like a lot, but for a 75kg rider on a 10kg bike with 1kg of water and 1kg of luggage it’s around 0.6% and unlikely to be noticeable. You also shouldn’t get too hung up on “rotating weight” either.
  • Frame material. There are fast riders doing huge distances on bikes made from carbon, steel, aluminium, titanium, bamboo and more. They’re all perfectly serviceable. Steel and titanium are reputed to offer more comfort, absorbing road vibrations. This is no doubt true, but dwarfed by the effect of slightly wider tyres or having your weight nicely shared between feet, hands and bum.
  • The number of gears. If you know your optimal cadence to 2 decimal places, then maybe having an 11-speed cassette will increase your power output. For normal people 8 speed is plenty, some do fine on one. Nothing wrong with having more, but don’t pay through the nose in the hope it will revolutionise your ride. What is more important is how low your lowest gear is. That will make the biggest difference to your average speed. You can compare different combinations with Sheldon Brown’s online gear calculator. For reference, unless you live in a very flat part of the country, I suggest your lowest gear should be no higher than a Gain Ratio of 2.5 or 33.7 inches.

I suggest you do…

  • Buy from your Local Bike Shop (LBS). If you like the fact that there’s a small, independent retailer in your town, if you’d like to be able to pop in there for last minute spares and repairs, then you should at least consider buying a bike from them. They’re usually helpful, friendly and provide a better service than the big chains.
  • Take the bike for a ride. If you haven’t owned a road bike before, try several at different places before you buy. Bike designs will vary in their handling due to their geometry. Some will feel stable, others more manoeuvrable, maybe even “twitchy”. The easiest way to see the difference is to ride a few at a variety of speeds and see what you prefer. Try a wide variety and make notes.
  • Save some money for extras. Remember that once you buy the bike you’ll probably end up spending some money on gadgets, tools, spares, tyres, chain lube, lights, clothing, shoes. Don’t completely hit the budget so that this stuff has to wait.
  • Get a bike that excites you. You could tick all the boxes above and completely waste your money if you’re not enthusiastic about your new steed. If you love the bike you’ll ride more, get fitter and go faster.

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