Walk into any ERIK’S Bike Board Ski and you could see upwards of 80 different road bikes. It’s not surprising that shopping for a road bike can be an overwhelming experience for customers with so many options. When it's your first road bike, it only gets more overwhelming, but at ERIK’S it doesn't have to be.
The differences between road bike types and models (and all bikes, really) stem from a trend toward specialization in the bike industry. In other words, there's a specific bike for every purpose. What shoppers need to know is where they plan on riding and how they plan on riding. After that, it's a matter of knowing which road bike best suits those needs. What follows is a brief overview on the different types of road bikes, what distinguishes them, where they excel and who would want to ride them.
There are two main types of road bikes: flat bar and drop bar. Although most of this article will be focusing on traditional drop bar road bikes, it's important to appreciate the merits of the flat bar road bike.
Flat Bar Road Bikes - All About Comfort and Quickness
Also called fitness bikes, hybrids and commuter bikes, Flat Bar Road Bikes
have become increasingly popular over the past few years and for good reason. First, they are comfortable and easy to ride. The rider is in a neutral body position. This means that when you're riding a properly sized flat bar road bike, you won't be stretched long and low like a racer leading the peloton, but you also won't be sitting as upright as the Wicked Witch of the West (think cruiser bikes). The result is that the rider steers with their hands and shoulders while having strong, intuitive control of the bike in a comfortable body position. Second, these bikes are fast. They combine light materials, like aluminum frames and carbon forks, with a position that inspires a lot of confidence. That adds up to speed without the need for a learning curve or padded shorts. Riders hop on the bike and go.
These bikes are typically all-purpose in design, so they can go on everything from bike lanes to gravel to unpaved dirt roads for the truly adventurous. Their ease of use, comfort and versatility are why so many people have found flat bar road bikes to be the right bike for their ride.
Drop Bar Road Bikes - All About Speed and Efficency
If flat bar road bikes are so great, then why would I want a drop bar road bike? Drop Bar Road Bikes
are faster than their flat bar cousins, and with a little riding discipline, they can be more comfortable on the longer rides. They're engineered to be fast and efficient, whether you’re in a sprint or on a long-distance ride.
To narrow your options, it helps to answer two questions. First, do you want to go fast or do you want to go far? A bike built for speed will feel very different than one built for distance. Even novice riders will feel it easily, and it's that dramatic a difference that cuts the selection of bikes in half. The second question is will you be riding on smooth or rough roads? This is about the demands being placed on the bike from both a kinesiological and a technological perspective. If a bike is engineered for pavement, it won't have to deal with mud jamming up the brakes, but it will have to account for responsiveness of control at high speeds far more than one engineered for gravel. Answering these questions—pavement versus off-road and speed versus distance—simplifies the bigger question: How do you intend to ride your road bike?
Performance Racing Road Bikes - All About Speed
Let's say you want to go fast on pavement. One of the key traits of Performance Racing Road Bikes
is the ability to efficiently transfer rider effort to the bike. Every time you pedal, the frame wants to bend. This bending saps up rider effort rather than propelling the bike forward. To go faster, performance bikes are more rigid than their counterparts. They also force the rider's body into an aerodynamically and physically efficient position. There is a big drop from the height of the hips to height of the hand position that reduces wind resistance while forcing riders to engage core muscles for stability as well as quads and glutes for power. Properly done, this sitting position will distribute weight very evenly between six contact points (feet, hands, and sit bones), which means an effective and comfortable position.
With all this efficient speed, the ride demands precise control. The rigid nature of performance bikes helps a lot with this as it expresses every crack and subtle variation of the road. Furthermore, the bike won't bend under rider weight when leaning into a turn. This rigidity allows for better control and reduces power loss during turns. They also tend to have what are called “steep” head tube angles that tuck the front wheel in underneath the upper body, which allows for very responsive steering. A shorter distance between the wheels also complements this need. All of this adds up to a swift responsive ride.
Triathlon Bikes - All About Aerodynamics
are the drag racers of the bike world. They put the rider in a position that targets muscles not used in running or swimming. They are aerodynamic because you cannot ride in a peloton (team) in a triathlon, so they go incredibly fast in a straight line. On the other hand, they don't turn or climb as well as performance bikes, and they typically weigh more.
Who should ride a Tri Bike? First and foremost, these bikes are perfect for someone who wants to go fast and needs to do it alone. To get the most of them requires riding discipline and better-than-average flexibility. And remember, they can be punishing on the body. Riders trade a little comfort for speed.
Endurance Racing Road Bikes - All About Distance
Still fast, Endurance Road Bikes
are specifically engineered to smooth out the riding surface, absorb bumps before they get to the rider, and reduce strain on the body. Born in races over cobblestones, these bikes are popular among experienced and novice riders alike. One of the key features found across the board is a body position that reduces strain on the back, neck and shoulders. These bikes usually do this through a taller head tube, which allows the rider to sit in a more upright position. This relaxed position tends to make endurance road bikes quite popular among beginning riders as all of a sudden a thirty-mile ride sounds short and very achievable.
In addition to that more upright position, endurance road bikes tend to have the front wheel further out in front of the rider. This results in a longer wheelbase, which helps the bike keep a straight line more easily. Instead of responding to the minute direction of the rider's eyes, these bikes listen to the hips. These bikes need a little more input and participation from riders to turn, which means that on those century rides through farm fields, riders can go ahead and enjoy the view while letting the bike keep rolling forward.
The long wheelbase of an endurance bike also means a smoother ride, forcing vibration to travel longer distances and keeping you steady over the bumps encountered along the way. To complement this, most brands add vibration-inhibiting materials into the frame. Specialized has the “Zertz Inserts” and Bianchi has the “Countervail Technology,” for example. The tricky part is that these innovations have to accomplish vibration control without sacrificing the efficiency of the frame too much. The end result, when you combine a relaxed body position with a smooth yet still efficient frame, is a bike that allows riders of every level to push the limits of endurance and explore new roads and vistas previously beyond their reach.
Adventure Road Bikes - All About Going Anywhere
What if speed is less of your concern, and you’d rather go far to explore gravel and dirt roads? Sounds like you need an Adventure Road Bike
Take the upright positioning of an endurance road bike, which alleviates strain on back, neck, arms and hamstrings, and drop the rider a few millimeters down. Doing this positions the rider closer to the ground, lowers their center of gravity, and makes them more stable on uneven terrain. Then, give this bike clearance for wider tires that provide greater traction over just about any terrain and control through any conditions—dirt, mud, rain, snow, anything. Add disc brakes to it all and you’ve got an adventure bike! This type of bike often incorporates vibration-limiting technology along with wider, softer tires, which means not only is it a bike that can go on most any path, but it can do it without destroying the rider.
Bikes engineered specifically for adventure riding are fairly new to the scene. Historically, riders would use a touring bike. These bikes provided an upright riding position, but they typically had frames made of heavier steel as compared with lightweight steel alloy, aluminum or carbon builds of modern adventure bikes. Like touring bikes, adventure bikes come with fittings for racks and fenders to carry gear for multi-day trips.
Where these bikes really perform well is off-road. If you come across unpaved roads on one of these, you don’t need to go home to get your mountain bike first. That's why adventure bikes are fantastically popular with experienced riders, as they can explore brand new routes previously not rideable on other drop bar road bikes. They're also popular among beginners because they allow them to go just about anywhere, and adventure is what pulls riders on the saddle day in and day out.
Adventure bikes are still relatively fast on pavement, but they are significantly slower than performance and endurance road bikes. These bikes weigh more and are less aerodynamic. The versatility to handle anything also makes them slower. They're great for long trips with gear but not fast sprints.
Cyclocross Road Bikes - All About Mud
The mix of a performance road bike and adventure bike is a Cyclocross Bike
. These bikes put the rider in the aggressive body position of a performance road bike while adding the ability to put wider tires on for the similar traction of an adventure bike. “Cross” bikes are responsive, maneuverable and fast on the dirt, but they are typically rigid. They have disc brakes and the tire clearance to fit massive knobby rubber on the wheels. However, they typically come with a lower gear range because they're made for slogging through mud all day long, which limits them on the open road.
This Is Where the Fun Starts!
So there you have it; the road bike basics. If you want to go fast on a variety of routes with a comfortable riding position, the Flat Bar Road Bike
might be perfect for you. If speed is your absolute top priority, Performance Bikes
will get you there quickly. Triathlon Bikes
will let you go fast without the peloton. For distance, Endurance Bikes
will lengthen your reach. Adventure Road Bikes
will let you go just about anywhere (with a load). And Cyclocross Bikes
will go fast and handle the mud.
In the end, it comes down to how the bike feels to you. After you’ve done research, pick a nice day and roll into ERIK’S to test ride a few road bikes. You won’t know which one is right for you until you get your butt on a few saddles. Happy cycling!