How to Buy a Road Bike

Lisa’s Note: Some of this information might be over your head if you’re a newbie biker. Don’t worry–Michael explains it all pretty well. While this is a lengthy post with lots of technical detail, I suggest you save this post for the future when you decide it’s time to buy a road bike. It will come in handy when trying to figure out the difference between all the options!

This is Part 2 of How to Buy a Bike

See Part 1 Here.

by Michael

Having previously discussed why you shouldn’t buy a cruiser, let’s discuss why the vast majority of you should be shopping for either a road or hybrid bike. In this instance, a hybrid bike refers to any number of terms given to bikes like commuter, town or city bike. There are a lot of words for these types of bikes but the reality is that they’re bikes intended to be ridden on pavement the majority of the time and have flat handlebars.

The differences between these bikes are, for the most part subtle. The entire focus of a road bike is on performance. This means that they tend to weigh less. Road cyclists are usually obsessed with their weight and the weight of their equipment. I heard Lance Armstrong say that for every extra pound you carry, you will lose about 1 mph of speed. He’s of course talking about weight and how it relates to the highest levels of competition but the point is important. The more your bike weighs, the more you’re going to struggle to ride it. The more you struggle to ride your bike, the less you’re going to want to ride it.

The focus of hybrid bikes is versatility. The main differences are the following:

Flat handle bars
Wider tires
A more upright (or less aggressive) position
Different shifters and sometimes different brakes

Hybrid - Flat Bars
Road Bike

The flat handle bars are intended to offer the most comfortable riding position possible. When you’re on a road bike, you will find yourself resting your hands on the back of the brake levers 90% of the time.

This is the most comfortable position on a road bike but you’re supposed to carry your weight on the “karate chopping” portion of your hand, not the palm. If you carry your weight in the middle of your palms on the back of the brakes on a road bike, your hands will eventually go numb. I found this out the hard way last year when I road 80+ miles of Reach The Beach. The flat bars on hybrid bikes are rounded and this should enable you to ride for expended periods of time without loss of sensation in your hands.

The wider tires give you more contact with the pavement. This will result in better traction when you encounter unusual surfaces like dirt and gravel. However, a wider tire will weigh more and result in more friction. This will cause an increase in difficulty when pedaling. These tires can be smooth like road bike tires, knobby like mountain bike tires, or something in between the two.

Riding with a more upright position may be easier on your back, depending on your weight. Keep in mind that the more upright that you sit, the more weigh you’ll be carrying on your saddle and therefore are more prone to saddle related discomfort. We should probably talk about why road bikes have such an aggressive riding position at this point.

Often times it appears that people on road bikes are attempting to look like racers even though they are clearly not racers. What’s the point of this aggressive riding position if you’re not racing? There are two real reasons that I can think of. First, you’ll encounter less wind related resistance as you get lower. This makes it easier to ride when it’s windy, especially when you the lowest part of the bars (called the drops) and really reduce your riding height. The other, and most important reason, is that you will carry a larger percentage of your weight split between the saddle and the handlebars which will increase the duration that you can ride in a session. By reducing the weight that you carry over the saddle, you’ll find it to be more comfortable to ride for longer periods of time.


Better weight distribution = Less potential discomfort

The only negative aspect of having flat bars on your bike that I can think of is that you don’t have variety and your arms may grow tired after you’ve been riding for awhile. You can install bar ends which can give you some variety which shouldn’t add much weight.

Bar Ends

Shifters and Brakes

Shifters can be quite different between the bikes. Hybrid shifters work either by flicking thumb/index finger levers to go up/down gears or by rotating the grips (less common). You may find yourself accidentally shifting gears with the grip style shifters when you least want it. Road bikes typically have the shifters as a component of the brakes. You nudge the levers to shift up/down. Road bike shifters can be reached from atop the brakes or down on the drops.

Thumb Shifters - Mountain/Hybrid Bikes

Brake Shifters – Road Bikes

Hybrid bikes can also have an internal hub for gearing which prevents the chain from accidentally flying off the gears. It’s supposed to be a fool-proof system, if you will but comes with some additional weight. Systems like this almost guarantee that if something goes wrong, you’ll need to take it to a shop for repair.

And finally, brakes. There are basically two types of brakes for hybrids — caliper based and disc brakes. Caliper brakes apply a rubber pad to the rim of your tire(s) to slow it down. Disc brakes have an additional metal plate around the axle of your wheels and a caliper presses against them to slow you down. Disc brakes provide better stopping power but they tend to be heavier and sometimes these are powered by fluid which makes them even heavier.

Caliper Brakes
Disc Brakes

The frames on both can be made out of metal (aluminum, steel, or an alloy) or a man-made composite, like carbon fiber. Each has an advantage but each also comes with drastically different price points. Aluminum bikes tend to be the most affordable and are usually featured on entry-level bikes. Steal will cost you a little bit more, be a little bit heavier, but will absorb more of the bumps on the road than aluminum will. People that ride steal bikes love them as they are pure and old school. Carbon fiber will be the most expensive option available, the lightest option available, and will absorb a ton of road noise. The pros all ride carbon fiber.

Carrying Your Stuff

The last thing to consider is how you’re going to carry your stuff with you on a bike and you need to make this decision before you buy a bike. Backpacks are comfortable but you will get hot wearing one. I prefer to ride with a backpack but it’s also pretty cool in the pacific northwest so heat isn’t the same concern here that it is elsewhere. They now make backpacks meant for cyclists. These often have a soft frame that gives the backpack more shape which will prevent whatever you’re carrying in the bag from annoying you while you ride. If you want a messenger bag, make sure you get one that has a strap that goes under your arm as well. This prevents the bag from rotating around your body when you pedal. Messenger bags are nice because you can easily access all your stuff while you’re on the bike, should you need to.

Messenger Bag

The other popular solution is pannier bags. The important thing here is to make sure that your bike frame is compatible with racks because you have to screw them into your frame to attach them. I have never seen this as an option for a carbon fiber frame and it’s not always an option on road bikes. It is usually an option on hybrids but you will certainly want to know this when you buy your bike.

Pannier Bags

Bottom Line: MONEY

What’s all this going to run you? Well, your entry-level road and hybrid bikes are going to set you back about $700-$1200. $1200-2000 you can get an upgrade in many components and at $2000+ you can get rigged with the silky smooth carbon fiber.

Don’t forget to budget for a helmet, pump, lights, and maybe a trainer!

Here’s how I’d make the decision between the two bikes:

If you’re getting something to ride less than a couple of hours a week and want to run errands on, you should be leaning toward a hybrid. If you want to be able to ride over an hour per session and don’t intend to ever take it off-road, you should get a road bike.

Lisa’s QUESTION: Are you considering a bike purchase? If you already have a bike, how often do you use it for fun and fitness?

21 Responses

  1. Very useful and very timely. My husband and I are considering bikes in the very near future but we want something that we can take off road too. It all gets very confusing so I appreciate this post very much! I’m very much looking forward to having a bike this spring and summer.

    1. I’m glad you are finding it helpful! It sounds like a hybrid is the best of both worlds. I used to use Michael’s old hybrid before I got my road bike and I liked it a lot.

  2. As a three person family with eight bikes…I would add that looking at “last season” bikes is a great way to save a little money with no loss of quality. Or – a way to increase quality for the same amount of money. We have probably saved over $1000 this way.

    1. You are correct Lisa! In my 3rd part of this series, I mention that January and February are the best months to buy a bike in as stores try to make room for 2011 inventory. They may even be willing to strike a deal with you in order to sell the bike.

  3. My husband and I just got Specialized Crosstrails for Christmas. LOVE riding now after I got accustomed to the seat. Ouch.

    I’d love to see a picture of the correct way to rest hands on the bars. I rode trails for 18 miles at a state park (my longest ride so far) and my fingers were totally numb by the end.

    1. Kelly–you know Michael complained about numb hands during our Reach the Beach ride last year. He was doing the 80 miles. I did 55 and my hands don’t go numb but my wrist KILLS me if I don’t wear my tendinitis brace. I will have Michael talk about bike posture.

    2. Simple solutions!

      1. Don’t use the “Death Grip”. Hold the grips lightly in your hands.
      2. Try not to bend your wrists.
      3. Try varying your grip positions.
      4. If all else fails, try raising your handle bars.

  4. My husband bought us a Cannondale Tandem last year so we could exercise together on a equal plain.

    I did rather well considering lack of strength, but I got to tell you I was beat after 40 minutes on the thing. We’d go up hills and I was spent. I felt so bad because he had to take the majority of the power.

    Now I am riding his Cannondale on our Trainer in the house. I like it, but still find I tire fairly quickly unless I keep it at a easy resistant.

    I also have terrible pain on the hands, do you have any recommendations what I could use to help? I have gloves, but they do no good.

    1. We saw a couple on a tandem bike doing Reach the Beach last year! It looked cool but they were also slower so I bet they were having to work really hard because of the added weight from 2 people. And don’t feel bad about tiring out on a trainer. Trainers are HARD. Much harder than riding outside.

  5. I am loving these blogs on how to purchase a bike. I really want to run. I don’t know how to describe it, I have always loved the thought of running and really want to do it. Unfortunatly at the moment my weight is too much for me to run. Physically I could probably do it, but I fear I will injure myself.
    I think cycling is something I could start with. I appreciate the information that you and Michael are sharing. I now feel empowered enough to go into a bike shop and have an intelligent conversation about buying one. Thanks guys!

  6. Lisa and Michael, thanks for crafting such informative posts on biking. I learned a lot. My ride is a Trek hybrid from a LBS. I chose it because it’s solid and was significantly less expensive than the range you quote. It’s not fancy at all, but I have a lot of weight to lose, so I’m happy with a bike that I can ride without concern. I live in the PNW, too, so I took the rack off the car in December and won’t put it back on until March. The rest of the year I ride trails once or twice a week. When I’m lighter, I’ll read this again and buy a light bike!

    1. Hey Alan- I’m really glad you liked Michael’s post about bikes. I think it will be a great way to lose weight. You live in Seattle right? I understand bad weather. Get a trainer! Ride inside! Hybrids are great bikes.

  7. (apologies for the length of this comment!) I bought my first road bike last summer while preparing for my first ever century ride: the Portland Century! After being a committed bike commuter for several years, I was exercising a little bit but still significantly overweight and unhappy with my health. I have had joint problems in my wrist, ankle, and knee (including knee surgery in college), and the extra weight really doesn’t help.

    Anyhow, I took the plunge by signing up for the Portland Century and started training on my commuter hybrid, which is a relatively heavy bike but one I’ve had since middle school and I adore it (it’s a Bianchi Avenue). I even did hill training (long and short reps of climbing) on it! I always intended to buy a road bike but was hesitant because of the cash outlay.

    Finally, it was very clear that I had simply reached the edge of my endurance on the hybrid. I needed a bike that didn’t exhaust me to ride after 50 miles (turns out I’m still pretty tired after 50 miles!!). So I bought a swanky new road bike on a loan from my dad, and I have been thrilled with the purchase! It takes a LOT of getting used to. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If you are used to riding in an upright or relatively-upright position, the more aggressive posture of a road bike is uncomfortable and you’ll have aches and pains in weird places for a while. I still do, and I completed a century in August! But there is no comparison in terms of the weight of the bike and the efficiency over long distances. It’s a machine built for sport riding, and the posture engages your core in a way that upright positions don’t.

    Flush with my victory — I think I was literally the last person to actually cycle across the finish line in the PC, but cycle across it I did! — and with the incredible feeling of power in my body, I recently signed up to do the AIDS LifeCycle in June….. 545 miles over 7 days, SF to LA. Go big or go home, right?

    I’m still overweight, though I’ve lost ~17 pounds since I signed up for the Century (and gained a LOT of muscle). Now that I need to build even more endurance, I’ve put my road bike on an indoor trainer for the winter and do my thrice-weekly commute on my trusty hybrid steed. I try to do 45-120min low-resistance spins on my trainer three times a week so that I’m in some kind of bike saddle every day. It still kills me, even now. I think I switch hand positions every 1-3 minutes. Really!

    My advice to anyone hesitating is JUST DO IT. Cycling for sport isn’t for everyone, but cycling to enjoy the fresh air and the park and the rather remarkable phenomenon of self-propulsion can be for everyone. If you aren’t sure about what to get, get a good hybrid. It’s cheaper and sturdier. You can even replace the flat handbars with swept-back ones. You’ll know when you’re ready for a road bike.

    Give it a go. You might be surprised.

    1. Hi Eva! Thanks for commenting. I would love to hear more about your experience with the Portland Century.

      I love your review of the two bikes you had. It does make a difference having a proper bike (and lighter weight bike) for long distances. I didn’t know just how much of a difference until I got a road bike. And you are also right about the weird aches and pains. I had been riding on Michael’s old hybrid bike because all I had was a mountain bike. I sat upright on the hybrid. Then when I got my road bike I was surprised at how different it was. It was hard. It was like learning how to ride a bike all over again. I also had weird pains. My neck and shoulders would be hurt for days after a long ride because I was hunched over and I had low back pain. I eventually got over it with more practice on the bike.

  8. A few years ago I bought a bike, I wanted a road one and my wife wanted a hybrid. We ended up with two cyclocross (Specialized Tricross sport). Here are the benefits:
    – Really strong seat stays to carry a kid in a seat (or luggage)
    – mtb 11-32 cassette to help climb some hills carrying a (double) child trailer
    – Allows for wide 32c tires (maybe larger) to take it off-road (off the pavement)
    – Comfortable riding position compared to a hybrid
    – Slightly higher than a road frame for ground clearance
    – Suicide brakes are a plus when following a 2yo with training wheels at speeds bellow 10km/h
    – Very strong, I’m 6’1″ 240 pounds, add 35 pounds when I’m with my 4yo 😀

    Of course it’s not just good things:
    – It’s heavy (22 pounds) compared to a road bike. I thought it was negligible since I’m fat but it does make a big difference.
    – It’s heavy
    – not as smooth as a road bike (cheap tiagra / Deore LX but I guess that could be true for any kind of bike)
    – Did I mention that it was heavy ?
    – I guess it looks kinda silly with 23c and that wide fork with v-brakes but who cares 🙂

    Even with all the good things when my kids are older I will get a true road bike. As if we didn’t already have enough bikes already, my garage is starting to look like a bike shop.

  9. This is a great post. I’m interested on reading the first part of this post. It is really subject for saving for future reference as it have lot of information about road bikes and it will teach you a lot. Thanks for sharing this post as it can help lot of newbies in road bikes. Hybrid Bike Reviews

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