Knowledge Level: Intermediate
Designed for covering miles of tarmac quickly, there’s no doubting, especially if you’ve come from riding a mountain bike or a hybrid, the wonderful efficiency of a road bike. From top of range pro standard machines to entry level models, what key characteristics are common to all road bikes and what differentiates them from their trail, track and time trial cousins?
For many people the defining characteristic of a road bike are the drop handlebars.They facilitate a lower more aerodynamic riding style and give you the choice of three hand positions. On the flat bar-tops is good for relaxed riding, climbing in the saddle or rough road surfaces. Riding with your hands on the hoods is ideal for cruising along, climbing out of the saddle or, with wrists leant on them and hands hooked over, riding hard into the wind. The drops are there for when you want to ride hard, if you’re descending or launching a sprint.
Drop handlebars are produced in different shapes. Classically curved drops are rounded and nowadays are most commonly seen on the track. Ergo or anatomic bars are very popular and have flat sections that are designed to offer more natural and comfortable hand positions. Compact drops have a relatively small amount of drop between the bar tops and the bottom of the drops. This makes for a less aggressive and more comfortable position on the drops and are popular on sportive bikes.
Brakes and shifters
Prior to 1990, when Shimano introduced their STI (Shimano Total Integration) system, brakes and shifters on road bikes were separate components with the shifters sited on the bike’s downtube. The brakes and shifters are now combined into an integrated unit that allows you to shift gear and control your speed whether riding with your hands on the hoods, on the drops, seated or standing out of the saddle. The exact shifting mechanism varies between manufacturers with Shimano favouring the brake lever and a paddle, Campagnolo a paddle and a thumb switch and SRAM their single paddle “double tap” system.
Which system you choose comes down largely to personal preference but, if you’ve got smaller hands, you should choose a system that allows you to adjust the reach to the levers. In the UK, the left hand lever operates the rear brake and controls shifting of the chainrings and the right hand lever the front brake and shifting of the rear cassette. On the Continent and in the States, the brakes are the other way round so beware if you hire a bike. Electronic shifting is now becoming more popular and typically the buttons are sited in similar locations to the mechanical shifters from the same manufacturer.
Frame and geometry
The most common frame materials for road bikes are alloy, steel, carbon fibre and titanium. To find out more about the pros and cons of these different materials, go here.
With road cycling encompassing disciplines from short, intensely fast and technical crits to day long sportives, frame geometries vary massively. Aggressive racing bikes will tend to have steeper seat angles and shorter head tubes and, although such bikes can deliver startling performance and handling in the right hands, if you’re fairly new to the sport or targeting sportives a more relaxed geometry erring towards comfort and stability will be preferable. Increasingly higher end road bike frames are prioritising aerodynamic performance and adopting many features, such as deep profiled tubing, hidden brakes and wheel hugging seat tubes, more typically found on time trial bikes. Talk to your local bike shop and more experienced riders, be honest about your experience and riding intensions and find a frame that’s suited to you.
All road bikes will have drillings for two bottle cages but not all will have drillings for mudguards or panniers. If you’re intending to commute on your road bike or use it to log winter miles, make sure it has the drillings you require.
Modern road bikes will typically have two or three chainrings combined with a rear cassette offering 9, 10 or 11 sprockets. A standard road racing setup would be a 53/39t double chainring with a 11-23t cassette. For most sportive riders or for winter training, a compact chainset with 50/34t chainrings and a wider ranging 11-28t cassette delivers more hill friendly gearing. A triple chainset can offer an even wider range of gears but has largely been superseded, outside of touring applications, by compact doubles and super wide spread cassettes offering up to a 32t sprocket. As with frame geometry, it’s a good idea to talk to your local bike shop and they should be able to advise you on the most appropriate gearing for your riding requirements.
Clipless pedals, where a cleat on your shoes attaches to the pedals, offer the most efficient pedalling system on the road. Although the idea of being attached to your bike might appear daunting, releasing your feet is easy and soon becomes second nature. In general road clipless pedals have one-sided engagement, as opposed to two or even four sided on mountain biking pedals, and have a wider platform to spread out the more constant pressure.
Wheels have a significant effect on how a bike performs and handles and as manufacturers, even on fairly high end bikes, tend to spec fairly low quality wheelsets, they’re often one of the first components that you’ll upgrade. Find out more about wheel options but, especially for commuting, winter riding, sportives and training miles, you can’t go far wrong with a decent set of handbuilt standard section alloy wheels.
Apart from at the highest levels of the sport where tubulars are still used, clincher tyres with an inner tube are most popular on the road. However tubeless clincher set-ups are becoming increasingly commonplace. Tyre choice is always a trade-off between performance and durability. Super lightweight tyres might feel great and save you a few seconds but they also may cost you minutes as they’re more prone to punctures.
Tyre width is another decision to make, with road tyres typically varying between 19c and 28c. The most commonly used width is probably 23c but many riders opt for the increased ride comfort of a 25c or, for winter training, even a 28c. Just make sure you check that your frame and mudguards can accommodate the width of tyres you require.