Finding the best road bike for you
Want to buy a road bike? Make sure you buy a bike that meets your needs, whether you want to commute to work in the city, travel long distances, or race in a triathlon.
Many of us never lost our love for the two-wheeled bicycle adventures we first had as kids, and many folks have adopted biking as their major means of travel. If you have a yearning to pedal on in adulthood, you might start by buying a new bike that takes advantage of modern equipment which will allow you to go further and faster than the rusty beater buried somewhere in your garage.
There are two general categories of bicycles: the road bike, which is meant to be ridden on paved roads, and the mountain bike, which is designed for trails. A good road bike is the proper vehicle for commuting, touring, exercising, and racing. Road bikes come in several flavors, too: urban/commuting, touring, sport/racing/triathlon, and recumbent. Below, we've detailed the types and included some current bike deals to get you started.
How to Buy a Road Bike: The Basics
Handlebars on a road bike come in a couple of styles. Dropped handlebars are curved below the middle, and straight towards the ends. Curved handlebars allow a rider to crouch in a more aerodynamic position, which is important when riding into the wind or attempting to maximize speed by cutting down on wind drag. However, straight handlebars are more common on commuting/urban bikes because they allow for a more comfortable upright position.
Road bikes typically come with narrower tires and lighter wheels than mountain bikes, as this cuts down on the friction with the road and makes travel easier. A racing bike can have tires as narrow as 20mm! Commuters usually choose a wider tire, however, because it offers greater puncture resistance and more cushioning, which translates into a smoother ride.
Wheels, in addition to tires, are a big deal in bicycling, too. The heavier the wheel, the more work it takes to keep it moving. One way manufacturers lighten a wheel is by removing spokes. Racing or triathlon wheels may have 20 spokes or less, while a touring bike will have 36 or more. If you're a larger adult, we recommend choosing wheels with more spokes.
The actual frame of any bicycle must fit a rider properly. It must be big enough to allow for the full extension of the legs, and long enough to ride in an aerodynamic position. The gender association of bike frames also matters more than you think: Men and women are built differently with different proportions between torso height and leg and arm length. The typical bike built for a male won't fit most women properly.
Both men's and women's bike frames are made of one of three materials: steel, aluminum, or carbon fiber. Steel is the least expensive and absorbs road shock well, but tends be heavier. Aluminum makes for a stiff, responsive frame while minimizing weight. Carbon fiber is the best for combining light weight and a comfortable ride, but is the most expensive.
Getting on your way requires that you not only are seated on a well-fitted frame, but that you can reach the pedals. And believe it or not, pedals come in a variety of types. For urban biking, if you plan to wear your street shoes, you'll want simple flat pedals. For touring, nothing beats the modern recessed cleats. The SPD system by Shimano — and similar ones by other manufacturers — recesses the cleat into the sole of your shoe so you can walk normally, yet allows your foot to clip to the pedal so you can apply force on the upstroke as well as the downstroke. The other type of cleat, favored by those who ride for speed, protrudes from the bottom of the shoe and clips into the pedal. This large cleat spreads the force on the pedal over a wider area of your foot.
Now that the basic frame of the bike has been established, it's time to talk gears. Gears are what allow even the relatively out-of-shape cyclist to climb a steep hill, and what give good tailwind and allow cyclists to hit speeds in excess of 40 mph. Urban bikes typically have fewer gears, allowing manufacturers to keep the price down. However, sport/racing/triathlon cycles will have up to 20 different gears that operate from two chainrings in front and 10 sprockets on the cluster at the center of the rear wheel. Touring bikes usually have three chainrings, giving them a total of 27 or more gears. For the novice road bike warrior, more gears is a good thing.
But what to do with all those gears! Shifter levers allow a rider to change gears, and it's a skill to shift without removing your hand from the handlebars. Many bikes come equipped with shifters on the brake lever or thumb shifters adjacent to the place where riders grip their handlebars.
The Best Road Bike For Every Category Type
The Urban/Commuter Bike usually requires the rider be in a more upright position, thus putting most of his weight on the seat. The best commuter bikes come equipped with a basket, rear rack, and fenders for carrying briefcases and bags, and minimizing splashes. Unless you're commuting in a mountainous area, a wide array of gears isn't necessary. The 2013 Schwinn 700c Network Men's Commuter City Bike ($238.06 with free shipping, a low by $1) has a steel frame, fenders, a rear rack, straight handlebars, Schwinn components, and seven speeds, making for a great casual city bike.
The Touring Bike is built for long distances. It is a longer bike, which distributes the weight of the rider and offers a softer ride. It comes with braze-ons for racks in front and back, and has definitely should have plenty of water bottles holders. Add a handlebar bag and you're ready to ride up either coast. The 2013 Novara Randonee Bike in Pinot Green ($1,199 with $60 s&h) can get the job done as it has the benefits of a steel frame, a 30-gear Shimano Deore LX deraileur set, heavy-duty 36-spoke wheels, a rear rack, and more.
The Sport/Racing/Triathlon Bike is built for those who want to go fast: it has a short wheelbase to maximize efficiency. And its drop handlebars or triathlon bars (straight with elbow rests in the center) allow riders to tuck down and bore into a headwind. Zoom past the competition on the 2012 2013 Cannondale Synapse 6 Tiagra Compact Bike in Indigo Blue ($1,149 with free in-store pickup). It boasts a lightweight aluminum frame, carbon blades, a Shimano Tiagra crankset, 32-spoke wheels, and 700x25c tires. Note that pedals are not included.
The Recumbent Bicycle is for those who would rather not sit on a saddle. These odd-looking machines actually put the rider in a reclined position, alleviating the weight on the rider's back. Though not very efficient on hills as they tend to be heavier, these bikes are best suited for flat-road riding. And, since many are built by hand, recumbent bikes also tend to be much more expensive than traditional road bikes. The Cruzbike Sofrider V3 Bike in Midnight Blue ($1,195 with $75 s&h, a low by $86) is a classic recumbent bike with its up-top steering and a long wheel base.
While you're out buying a new road bike bike, don't forget to pick up a few bicycling essentials. A helmet is a must if you value your life. A lock is will keep your bike in your possession, and a bicycle computer will make your ride more fun.
Tom Barlow is a contributor to dealnews.com, where this article first appeared.