So you want to buy a road bike?

I’ve always been keen on cycling, ever since I was a kid, but I didn’t really know that much about the bikes themselves. Back in 2010, I decided I wanted to get a proper road bike, not a dirt cheap one, but certainly not a super-expensive one, but I ran in to trouble when it came to selecting a bike, mainly due to the lack of understanding of all the options that you are faced with when looking at the technical specifications. Therefore, this short article is my take on what you really want to concentrate on, and more usefully, what you should be safe to ignore. If you’re someone who understands bikes and their different components, then this article isn’t for you – it is truly for people who want to get a road bike, but don’t know what to look for when comparing bikes.

So, let’s take an example. The Specialized Allez Sport 2013:

I’ll copy and paste a screen grab from EBC’s web site, just in case the above link ever dies (click on the image for a bigger version):


OK, so what is important here? Well, there are three main things to look for, although rarely will you be able to see one of the items. They are:

  1. Frame and fork
  2. Wheels
  3. Groupset

That third item is the one you won’t see. It is basically everything which makes up the drivetrain (gears etc) and your brakes. It is a lot of components together, but don’t worry, I’ll explain that shortly.

First, the frame and fork. Unless you’re spending big money, your frame will likely not be carbon. The main thing for your frame is the weight of the bike. If it was a carbon frame, your bike would be lighter. However, they are expensive, and if you are in the market for a carbon framed bike, you really shouldn’t be needing to read this article. Lots of bikes come with carbon forks, and that’s cool, but ultimately, most of the frames themselves will be (in my experience) aluminium or steel. I often read things like “A1 Premium Aluminium, fully manipulated tubing with smooth welds, 1-1/8″ lower bearing” which doesn’t mean a whole lot to me, but bottom line, it’s not carbon. And that’s really not a problem, unless as I say you want to spend big bucks.

The thing is, most often you will get a bike with a good frame, and crap wheels and groupset. And so on to those areas we go.

The wheels will almost certainly be shit. No matter what cost the overall bike, the wheels you will get on a stock-built bike will let down the overall bike. But that’s ok – it’s something you can easily upgrade at a later date. My Specialized Secteur came with a pair of Alex S500 rims, which are shit. But they were still good enough for 3 years of use before I threw them away for something better. Therefore, in 99.9% of cases, you should just assume that your wheels are not going to be up to much, and that when you are comparing two similarly costing bikes, the wheels will be crap on both. This is the first big thing you want to consider upgrading at a later date.

And so on to the groupset. What is that? Well, you are mainly wanting to pay attention to a few things: the derailleurs, the brakes, the shifters (shift levers), the crankset and the cassette. Ultimately, all you really want to look for in terms of quality is the make and models. The odds are that they will be made by Shimano, although SRAM are becoming more popular. Shimano have a number of models, such as (in increasing levels of awesome):

  • 2300
  • Sora
  • Tiagra
  • 105
  • Ultegra
  • Di2

At current prices, a full groupset of Ultegra would set you back £700. That’s the same cost as that entire bike above. However, the above bike oddly comes with a mixture, almost entirely Sora with, for some inexplicable reason, a Tiagra front derailleur (aka mech). I can only imagine that is a typo – if I wanted either mech to be upgraded, it would be the rear mech, but either way, it’s basically a Sora groupset. That’s not that good, but still reasonable. The full 105 groupset is about £500, Tiagra is around £375, and I don’t think you can buy off the shelf anything below that, so you’re getting the idea that 2300s are probably about 59p. However, that’s what is on my commuter, and it’s perfectly functional. Yes, I’ll upgrade it sometime in the future, but when I do, I can’t imagine going for anything higher than Tiagra. The higher they are, the lighter they are and therefore the faster they will wear out. If you’re going to be doing a lot of commuting miles, you don’t want Ultegras. They are on my summer bike, and they are awesome, but there’s no chance I’d put them on my commuter which will see more than 3k miles this year (barring injury, illness, typhoons etc). But this, to me, is the main thing you should pay attention to when comparing bikes, and wondering why one bike is a little more than another.

As for SRAM, there’s less choice:

  • Apex
  • Rival
  • Force
  • RED

There are loads of arguments about how to compare these to Shimano, and the fanboys of the interwebs have a field day on this, but ultimately, I believe RED to be equivalent to Di2, Force vs Ultegra, Rival vs 105 and Apex are Tiagra. As I say, the SRAM fanboys would say RED is better than Di2 and that Force is equivalent to Di2… pfft. Whatever. You get the idea – and again, if you’re looking at your first proper road bike, Apex or Rival is really what you would be looking at.

There are also Campagnolo groupsets, but you rarely see them on lower specced bikes, so I’m ignoring them completely.

Let’s take an example in comparison, and have a look at the Allez Elite 2013:


So what we see here is the same frame, the same wheels, but an entirely different groupset. Tiagras across the board. Is it worth an extra £175? Well, let’s see what else is different. A different stem and saddle, from what I can make out – not a big deal. So realistically, a groupset upgrade is the difference. Whether it’s worth it or not is up to you – but you are talking about a step up in quality of one of the three main components of the bike, which at least explains why the price is higher.

One final major point to take note of – the size of the cassette and whether you have a “double” or a “triple” set of chainrings (which are the rings that your chain goes on next to your pedals). A double has two chain rings on the cranks (where your pedals are), and a triple has (you guessed it) three. Three gives you the ability to go up steep hills. Unless you live in the French Alps, I recommend getting a double. I bought a triple and I never go in the small (aka granny) ring, even on super-steep Edinburgh hills. If you get a double with a “compact” pair of chainrings (50/34), you should be totally fine. The compact basically means that it allows you to go up hills easier, because it has a smaller small ring. It also has a smaller large ring (50, in this example), so you can’t go quite as fast, but the difference between a 50 on a compact and a 53 on a “standard” double isn’t going to make that big of a deal, and you’ll likely rarely get to that speed anyway, whereas you will almost certainly benefit from having a smaller small ring so you can get up hills easier without killing yourself.

Note that I say this despite having a standard double on my summer bike – that’s a risk I’m taking, and if/when I take my bike to the Alps, I will invest in a compact crankset. But for standard Scottish hills, I’ll take them on with a 53/39 and a 11/28 cassette.

And therefore – the cassette. They also come with two numbers, but that is just specifying the smallest and largest cog. The large cog is your lowest gear, therefore the larger the top number on the cassette, the slower you can go. The smaller the bottom number, the faster you can go. Therefore, compare a 12/25 to a 11/28: the latter is better for both hill climbing and speed; the 11 allows me to go faster on the flat, but the 28 allows me to get up hills easier. I have no clue why anyone would get an 12/25 over an 11/28. Maybe someone will tell me one day, until which I will assume everyone with a 12/25 is mad.

I have run out of advice for a novice road bike purchaser. Feel free to tell me if I’m talking shit.

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