Tips for Buying a Beginner Road Bike

As I mentioned in my Giant Cypress Review, after not riding a bike for 20 years a hybrid bike was a good start back — however after a couple of months I realized that I really wanted a road bike.  While I liked those quiet rides alone in the country, there was a local bike club with some really neat longer rides where I could both get great exercise and socialize a bit with others who enjoyed bicycling.  Most towns have similar clubs — but, to keep up with the pace on those group rides I needed a more “serious” bike.

Remember, I am a cheapskate who started out looking for a bike under $200 to ride around with the kids and maybe do some exercise.  Now, I was looking at more serious riding and more serious cash.  Having now gone through the process, here are my Tips for Buying a Beginner Road Bike:

  • Get Ready to Spend Some Money.  As I said, I’m pretty cheap.  That said, remember this is not just some bike that you are going to ride around the block with the kids — this is a bike that you’ll be (a) exercising strenuously on; (b) spending a decent bit of time on; (c) be riding miles away from home on; and (d) approaching speeds of 50 miles per hour going down some hills (remember your bike helmet!).  Given all of that, it really is worth it to spend more.  Yes, you can get a cheap bike from a big-box-retailer, but if you do the research (and I have) on those, you’ll see that most of the reviews of those have tons of complaints — and also, those cheap bikes are usually a lot heavier also (which matters up hills).  After trying to be cheaper, but doing my homework, I finally realized I would be much better off with a more expensive bike from a bike shop.  And now, in retrospect, if I had it to do over again I might actually spend more than I did.  I’ve spent hours on my bike, and when you think about it, for that amount of time cycling is actually a less expensive hobby than golf or most other hobbies.  So, how much is the minimum?  I’d say that for a new road bike, you’ll probably have to spend around $700 to get a new, decent quality beginner road bike.
  • Flat Bar or Bent? In recent years road bikes with flat bars have become popular as “fitness bikes”, because they allow a more upright riding position and can be more comfortable on your hands.  Actually, for those who haven’t ridden a road bike recently, you should know that most road bike riders with conventional bent handlebars these days spend most of their time on the “tops” and “hoods” (top of the brake/shifter), and not a lot on the “drops” (lower portion).   Also, to save weight most bikes with bent bars combine the brake and the shifter levers (you squeeze it to brake, move it sideways to shift), so most people riding with bent bars also need biking gloves, because if you ride very far with your grip around the brakes/shifters, it is not that comfortable bare-handed.   That said, I would probably recommend bent handlebars unless you have a bad back and need to ride more upright.  In any event, you may want to test drive both kinds to see what you like.
  • Brand/Components. As I mentioned before, you should probably buy a “bike store brand” of bike, rather than one at your local big-box-retailer.  That will usually get you into good bikes like Trek, Giant, Cannondale, Specialized, Fuji, Scott, and the better Schwinns (much different from the Schwinns sold at big-box stores).  This will usually get you a bike with a good frame and decent quality components.  Most likely your crank/cassette/shifters will be some version of Shimano — the more you pay, the better version you get (Shimano 105 is generally better than Shimano Tiagra, which is generally better than Shimano Sora/Shimano 2300).  If I had it to do over again, I probably would go with at least Tiagra, rather than Sora that my bike has.  Oh, and make sure you are happy with the brakes too!
  • Double or Triple Crank? One component in particular is the crank (where the pedal arms go into, that turns the chain).  Most beginner road bikes have a “triple crank”, meaning their are 3 rings of gears on the crank, while a lot of more expensive bikes have a double or compact crank, with only 2 rings of gears.  I think most beginners can benefit from having a triple crank (making hills a little easier), and many experienced riders still use triple cranks in hilly areas.
  • Frame. Road bike frames can vary a good bit — some with slanted top tubes that allow a shorter reach and require a less-bent-over riding position, some with long top tubes that require a lot of bending over, etc.  Frames also come in different sizes that are not consistent among different manufacturers.  This is where a good bike shop comes in handy, so you can sit on different types and get fitted by a professional.
  • Fit. There are lots of places for adjustment on a road bike, and since you’ll be spending a good bit of time and exercising vigorously on it, you should be sure to get a good fit.  From deciding between Medium and Medium/Large to adjusting seat height, seat position, handlbar height, handlebar position, etc., having a pro at your local bike shop help you really can be worth the money to help you avoid strain/pain that a bad fit could lead to.
  • Where to Buy. As you may be able to tell, if you are a beginner cyclist I would seriously recommend that you buy a road bike from your local bike shop instead of a big-box-retail store or online merchants.  I love saving money as much as anyone, and do a lot of my shopping online, but for a starter road bike you really need to go in and try out different bikes, take one around the block (most bike shops allow this), and get a good fitting (most shops will help some, though some charge $$ for a really detailed fitting).  Also, every road bike will need adjusting after about a month or so of riding (during this time brake lines and shifter lines stretch a little, and other things shift a bit) and every good bike shop includes this in the price — while most big-box retailers either can’t do it or charge extra for it.
  • Buy New or Used? With eBay and Craigslist and other online marketplaces, there are some good deals around if you know exactly what you want and either trust the seller or can inspect it before you buy it.  Like cars, with used bikes you could be buying someone else’s problems — and end up with a lot of repair bills.  For this reason, and the reasons above, I think beginner road bike buyers should probably stick to a new bike from a local shop.  However, there are some good deals on used bikes also — so if you decide to buy used, I would definitely budget to have a shop inspect it (if possible) and give it a tune-up (definitely) before you ride miles from home on it.
  • Extras. Don’t forget to budget a little extra for the inevitable extras.  You will have to have a water bottle cage (holder) and big water bottle on your bike for sure.  Also, some road bikes don’t come with pedals (since some riders like to choose their own).  Many beginner road bikes come with cheap seats that you’ll want to replace quickly.  Road bike tires are high-pressure and need to be pumped before each ride — and they usually have a smaller valve (a Presta valve) than other bike and car tires, so you need a pump or adapter that work with those valves.  And, don’t forget a bicycle helmet — I never wore one when I was growing up, but remember you might even get up around 50 M.P.H. going downhill on a road bike, so better safe than sorry.

In my next post I’ll let you know what I chose for my beginner road bicycle and give a detailed review of my bike.  Until then, please be sure to use the comments form below for comments and questions.

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