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?