Literally volumes have been written about buying a road bike. To me this information clouds rather than clears the bicycle-buying decision. It’s sort of like reading about swimming and believing you’ll know how before you even get in the water. The only sure way is to get a little wet while a competent professional guides you along the way. But you didn’t come to this page to be told not to come here, so here are a few things to consider.
Road bikes as opposed to other bike designs are optimized for performance rather than for commuting or casual riding. Riders of road bikes typically want to go as fast or as far as possible even if some comfort or visibility is lost. Their selected routes are usually rural rather than urban to minimize traffic and intermediate stops and starts, and they often travel in groups with other riders. Their bike designs and riding positions may seem a little illogical to the commuter or fitness rider, but they help them achieve their goals.
A cyclist must overcome aerodynamic resistance (drag), friction and gravity to propel his machine down the road. Drag represents roughly 80% of the total. Road bikes differ from other designs mostly to minimize drag. The most noticeable feature is the drop bar handlebar that places the rider in a low, aggressive position to minimize his frontal area that the wind hits. Time Trial bicycles are the ultimate extension of this. Overcoming the other resistances (friction and gravity) are mostly handled by the materials and components selected. For example, lighter weight frame materials and low gearing will help climbing as much as possible.
Major distinctions in road bikes aren’t as numerous as many think. You really have only a couple of key decisions to make before honing in on the bike of your dreams. The first decision is between Performance/Racing or Endurance. Performance/Racing designs stress rapid acceleration and very precise handling. Most often the front fork and seat tube are more upright and the rider is positioned slightly more forward than on an Endurance road bike. Handling is much quicker but the rider may fatigue sooner. Endurance designs recognize that the rider must provide all the energy to move, steer and stabilize the bicycle and that the rider has finite energy. Designers of Endurance road bikes make allowances to preserve that energy. Often the wheelbase is slightly longer and the center of gravity is slightly lower than a Performance/Racing road bike. Seat and head tube angles are a bit more relaxed. This makes the bike more stable requiring less effort to keep the bike upright and going straight. Often a more comfortable ride accompanies these design changes. Less effort means more energy to go longer but at the expense of the precise handling and rapid acceleration. The competitive cyclist who is all about speed will likely prefer a Performance/Racing design but the overwhelming majority of road riders are better served by Endurance bikes. This design is for those who ride for fun, fitness and competition. Be aware that you can go just as fast and have as small a frontal area on an Endurance bike. It’s just not as “quick” as a Performance/Racing bicycle.
The second question is Carbon versus Aluminum. There is no question that carbon is better. Design engineers can manipulate tubing shape and characteristics (compliance, stiffness, elasticity, etc.) to achieve the ride quality and performance they desire. Metal tubing is less amenable to such manipulations. Carbon road bikes are also considerably lighter than aluminum ones. Carbon’s only drawback is cost – and that’s becoming less and less of an objection each year. While designers of aluminum bicycles aggressively chase the stiffness of carbon bikes (adding cost in the process), the cost of carbon fiber continues to decline as international production and demand for all things carbon increases. The difference between a high quality aluminum bike and a low cost carbon bike is now less than $1000. The cost between a middle-of-the-road carbon bike and a similar aluminum bike remains closer to $2000.
Beyond this the more you pay for your bike the better it gets. You can select higher grades of framing material (lighter and stiffer), lower friction and lighter components (wheels, shifters, derailleurs, etc.) and nice accessories (power meters, computers, lights, etc.).
There’s a lot to be considered. Your best chance at getting it all right is to visit a bike shop with informed staff that can help you identify the best model/size for your specific needs and desired experience. No one does it better than The Bike Pedaler in Shreveport. Please come in and let us prove it to you.