Road Bike Buyers Guide

Road bikes are fast, fun and built for speed. Think large wheels, thin tyres and drop handlebars. The road bike market has exploded recently, with many more makes and models on offer. So how do you choose? With our help, of course.

In this in-depth guide, we provide an essential run-down of road bikes, covering what they are, standard features to look out for and how to choose the best road bike for you.

What is a road bike?

Road bikes are designed for riding quickly and efficiently on the road. Built for speed, modern road bikes are advanced machines that pack a massive amount of innovation into small frames and slim tyres.

There are a few things just about all road bikes have in common. You’ll see all road bikes with skinny tyres with minimal tread. These tyres are designed to minimise rolling resistance, but don’t worry – they’ll keep you safe on the road in the wet.

Road bikes will all have the familiar ‘drop’ handlebars that curve forwards. Drop bars are versatile, allowing you to choose the most comfortable position for you as you. You can lean forward with your hands on the drops while sprinting, or sit in a more upright position while climbing, the choice is yours.

The brake levers and gear shifters are usually combined, and stick out from the front of the handlebars. They allow rapid gear changes and, unlike the old-fashioned gear shifters located on the frame, you won’t need to take your hands off the bars while using them.

Talking about gears, you’ll find road bikes have a variety of gear combinations with at least two rings at the front and between 7 and 11 at the back. It’s essential to choose the right gears for the type of riding you’re doing, or you could find yourself stuck halfway up a hill.

What to look out for on a road bike

Road bikes are available across the whole spectrum from racing to relaxing, so we’re sure there’s a road bike for you. Before we start talking about makes and models, here’s the low-down on the crucial components and features of road bikes.

Frame materials

Road bike frames are typically built from metal (steel or aluminium) and carbon. Each material comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. Here’s how they compare:

Steel

Steel is the traditional material used for road bike frames. It’s durable and provides a comfortable riding feel as the flame flexes slightly. There are lots of different grades of steel, so you can find cheap steel frames and high-end steel frames. Steel frames are notoriously hardwearing and corrosion-resistant, but the payoff is that they can be heavier than other materials.

Aluminium

Aluminium bike frames are the most common on the market. They’re good value, light, and stiff. The stiffness of the frame can make the ride feel a little harsh, as the lumps and bumps of the road are transferred to the rider. Modern aluminium frames can be engineered to ride beautifully, so don’t be put off.

Carbon

Lightweight, durable and flexible – carbon bike frames are loved by racers and riders. Bike designers use intelligent manufacturing techniques to manipulate the material, creating a super-light frame that’s stiff in one direction and flexes in another. This means carbon bike frames are the most comfortable around.

Historically only available on higher-end bikes, you can now pick up a carbon bike for a reasonable price. So what’s the downside? Carbon fibre can be fragile, and if the frame cracks anywhere, then it’s unsafe and either needs to be professionally repaired or replaced.

Metal frame carbon forks?

Carbon forks are better at soaking up the vibrations from the road than either steel or aluminium, which is why it’s common to see a carbon fork combined with a non-carbon frame. This is because you feel vibrations from the front wheel and front forks through your hands.

Brakes

Previously all road bikes came with traditional rim brakes, but disc brakes are making a breakthrough. Let’s compare the two:

Rim brakes use a calliper mounted to the frame and held near the outside of the wheel. When you pull on the bake lever, the calliper squeezes brake pads onto the rim of the wheel, slowing you down. They’re lightweight, cheap, and easy to maintain, but are less effective in wet weather and over time will wear out your wheel rims.

Disc brakes use a separate brake rotor and mount the callipers near the middle of the wheel. Modern disc brakes perform flawlessly in all conditions, and because they apply pressure to a rotor and not your rim won’t wear out your wheels.

Disc brakes are more powerful than rim brakes, which reduces stopping distances. They are however very slightly heavier.

Disc brakes are an excellent choice if you ride in all weathers, or use your bike for commuting. Our 2020 range of Carrera road bikes come with disc brakes fitted as standard, delivering superb stopping performance.

Gears

Road bikes come with a wide selection of gears suitable for riding up hills, down them and sprinting through straights. Typically you’ll find either two or three chainrings up front, and 10 or 11 at the back giving a wide variety of gears to choose from. If you’re a city-commuter who won’t be hitting the hills anytime soon, then a 23t or 25t rear cog should be fine. If you’re looking to climb mountains, then look for a more generous rear cog of 28t or 30t.

If you’re looking for stripped-back simplicity, our Quella single-speed bikes feature a fixed gear for fast city riding.

Pedals

All road bikes will come with standard pedals that allow you to jump and ride, but many prefer to use clip-in pedals with cleats. Specially designed road pedals and cleats provide a more efficient transfer of power from the pedal to the wheel.

Initially, it can feel strange to clip into your pedals, but you’ll appreciate it when you’re trying to put the power down or riding up a hill. If you’ve never used them before, you’ll need to put in some practice before hitting the roads.

Mudguards and panniers

If you’re going to use your road bike for commuting or light touring and need to carry luggage, then look for mounts for mudguards and panniers. Mounts are threaded holes on the frame located near wheel axles that can be used to mount mudguards to your bike. You’ll find them on some metal bike frames.

Mudguards won’t stop the rain from landing on your head, but they will prevent water from splashing you and your clothes – and riders or behind you too. They can also reduce road muck and mud hitting your drivetrain.

Fitting a pannier rack allows you to safely carry panniers – which is more comfortable than carrying a backpack or bag. Load them up with your work clothes, laptop or lunch and hit the road. Panniers are highly practical and are easy to remove when you want to up the speed.

How to choose a road bike

Choosing a road bike can be complicated, and with such a huge range of makes and models, where do you start?

Think about where you’ll use the bike most often. Are you a commuter who wants a reliable road bike for daily riding? Are you training for a sportive and need something that will feel comfortable for a whole day ride? Are you a racer that’s looking for speed-machine?

By identifying where you’re going to ride and how you’re going to ride it, you can start to narrow down your selection.

There are bikes for all sorts of specific needs and niches, but they generally fall on a spectrum between racing and endurance. Pure racing bikes such as our Boardman SLR range are lightweight and built for speed. The lightweight frames will come fitted with premium components, ready to tackle a sportive or race.

Endurance bikes, including our Carrera bike range, are engineered to provide a more comfortable ride as you munch the miles. All Carrera models come fitted with memory foam saddles and wider tyres to absorb road imperfections and reduce road vibrations.

When deciding on a road bike, here are some of the factors to weigh up:

  • Stiffness or compliance – race-oriented road bikes will be stiffer and will feel harsher to ride. Endurance bikes will have a little more ‘give’ to soak up the lumps and bumps. Stiffness = speed, compliance = comfort.
  • Long and low or short and tall – racing bikes have a long and low geometry, which stretches you out into the most aerodynamic position possible. Endurance bikes bring the handlebars closer to you and raise them up, providing a more upright – and therefore comfortable – riding position.
  • Fast handling or stable handling – tight angles and a short wheelbase on race bikes make them handle precisely, particularly while going fast. Endurance bikes are more relaxed and stable, but may feel slightly slower to react.
  • Fast or features – racing road bikes are stripped back to the bare essentials, to keep weight low and speeds high. Endurance bikes are more likely to feature disc brakes and have a frame that can accommodate wider tyres. They may also have mudguard and rack eyelets.Gravel bikes, adventure bikes and cyclocross bikes

Gravel bikes, adventure bikes and cyclocross bikes all share much in common with road bikes, which may appeal to you.

Gravel and adventure bikes are built for on-road and off-road fun - perfect if you want to throw in a bridleway or two on your favourite road loop or plan a weekend bikepacking adventure. Cyclocross bikes are designed for racing on muddy courses and are built for all-weather riding.

For more information on these versatile bikes, check out our guide to gravel bike sand adventure bikes, and our article on commuting on a cyclocross bike.

Expert advice

Hopefully, this guide has helped to provide some help for you in choosing a road bike. You can view our range of road bikes online or visit a Halfords store where you’ll be able to check out bikes from Boardman, Carrera and Raleigh as well as many others.

If you have any questions on choosing a bike or any of the essential accessories you might need, speak to one of our trained staff who can help you find the best road bike for you.

Shop the full range of road bikes