At ERIK’S, we literally have hundreds of different road bikes. With so many options, it’s not surprising that shopping for a road bike can be an overwhelming experience. When it's your first road bike, it only gets more overwhelming, but 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. The question you need to answer is “What is My Riding Style?” After that, it's a matter of knowing which road bike best suits those needs. What follows is a brief overview of the different types of road bikes, what distinguishes them, where they excel and why you would want to ride them.
Within the road bike category, the choices in styles of bikes, materials, and components are seemingly endless. The central thing to think about is what’s important to you as a rider.
A Flatbar Road Bike crosses the line between a road bike and recreation bike. For the rider that wants some of the efficiencies and speed of a road bike but with a more upright riding position, they’re an excellent choice. These are a popular choice amongst a wide range of riders, from those looking for a great workout, an efficient and fun commute, or doing charity rides.
If you aim to ride as fast and hard as possible, or even race, then you should look at Performance Road Bikes. Performance road bikes put the rider’s body in a lower and more aerodynamic position. The handling of the bike is also going to be quicker.
If you’re looking for even more speed – especially in the wind - an Aero, or Aerodynamic, Road Bike is for you. Designed to go ridiculously fast by reducing a rider’s frontal profile as much as possible with a short headtube and aerodynamically shaped tubes which gives riders much less resistance to overcome.
If your preference is to rack up miles, an Endurance Road Bike is a great option. This style balances between comfort and performance. The rider’s position on an endurance road bike is slightly more than on a performance road bike and the handling is designed to be more stable. These bikes usually have design features to help reduce road vibration to make long days in the saddle a breeze.
If you do triathlons, there are specific tri bikes that you should consider. These bikes are designed with aerodynamics as their driving force as triathlons usually mean riding without the benefit of a draft from other riders. These bikes also come with more hydration options to enable the rider to ride long distances without needing to stop for water.
If you are participating in the many gravel events in your area or you’re wanting to load all your gear for a bikepacking adventure, consider an Adventure and Gravel Road Bike. Not only are these perfect for loaded trips, but they also offer the option of getting off the paved road, so your ride doesn’t haven’t to stop just because the smooth road does. They’re even a popular option for commuting. You can learn more about these bikes on our Adventure Bicycle Buying Guide.
A Cyclocross Bike, as the name implies, is designed for cyclocross racing. But they can handle so much more and are often purchased for anything but competition. They can handle everything from gravel to off-road to all-season commutes.
If you’re looking for a simple means of urban transport, a Single Speed Road Bike gets rid of the gears to reduce maintenance and cost. If you’re really brave (or the ultra-purist), many of these can be run as a fixed-gear bike.
One way to classify road bikes is by their handlebars: flat bar and drop bar. Although most of this article will be focusing on traditional drop bar road bikes, flat bar road bikes are a great option that should be considered when looking at a road bike.
Also called fitness and commuter bikes, flat bar road bikes are the most popular of any category of bikes - 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 and efficient. They can feature light materials, like aluminum and carbon fiber, with a position that inspires a lot of confidence. Riders hop on the bike and go.
These bikes are typically all-purpose in design so that they can go everywhere from roads to bike lanes to gravel 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.
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?
Still fast, endurance road bikes is a category 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 engineer vibration-inhibiting designs into the frame. The tricky part is that these innovations have to accomplish vibration control without sacrificing the efficiency of the frame too much. The 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.
For an even smoother ride, Specialized developed the Future Shock to help soften bumps in the road. The Future Shock is a lightweight suspension system above the head tube that absorbs vibrations and bumps to make your ride more comfortable and efficient. You can read more about the Future Shock here.
What if speed is less of your concern, and you’d rather go far to explore gravel and dirt roads? It sounds like you need an adventure or gravel bike!
Take the upright positioning of an endurance road bike, which alleviates strain on back, neck, arms, and hamstrings, and drops 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 and gravel 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 almost any path, but it can do it without destroying the rider.
Specialized also uses the Future Shock on specific models of their adventure and gravel bikes. The Future Shock is a lightweight suspension system located above the head tube that absorbs vibrations and bumps. This lets you have a more comfortable and efficient ride, allowing you to have even longer backroad adventures. You can read more about the Future Shock here.
Bikes engineered specifically for adventure and gravel 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 and gravel bikes. Like touring bikes, adventure or gravel 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 and gravel 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 to the saddle day in and day out.
Adventure or gravel 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.
You can learn more about these bikes on our Adventure Bicycle Buying Guide.
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 allow the rider’s body to get into an aerodynamically and physically efficient position. There is a big drop from the height of the hips to the 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 is 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.
An Aero, or Aerodynamic, Road Bike is designed to go ridiculously fast! The main priority of aerodynamic bikes is to reduce drag and be as slippery as possible in the wind. 85% of resistance a rider needs to overcome is from themselves, so it makes sense to reduce a rider’s frontal profile as much as possible. As a result, the headtube on aero bikes is short creating a lower frontal profile and having less resistance to overcome.
The overall shape of aero frames is aggressive and angular. Aero bikes will commonly have a straight and flat top tube, opposed to lightweight and endurance bikes which will generally have a slopping top tube to add compliance. The straight top tubes create a short distance between the seat tube junction and the seat for improved stiffness. Additionally, it reduces the frontal profile of the bike.
The extra material required for aerodynamic tubes adds to the weight of the bike, as a consequence aero bikes are heavier than lightweight bikes even if they share the same geometry and specifications. But this added weight is overshadowed by speed gains achieved by the aero shaping of the tubes. In head and, especially, in cross winds an aero frame can even work as a sail and help 'push' the bike forward.
Triathlon bikes are the rockets of the bike world. They put the rider in a position that targets muscles not used in running or swimming. They are aerodynamically designed because in most triathlons you cannot draft off of other riders, so they need to be able to slip through the air with ease. On the other hand, they don't turn or climb as well as performance bikes, and they typically weigh more.
Who should ride a triathlon 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.
The mix of a performance road bike with and adventure and gravel 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 and gravel bike. “Cross” bikes are responsive, maneuverable and fast on the dirt, but they are typically rigid. They often 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.
Single Speed Road Bikes are all about simplicity and purity. Their family tree is wide and can be traced from aggressive track-racing frames on one side to repurposing older frames for urban use. Purpose built single speed road bikes can be found with drop bars or flat bars to fit a rider’s desires. By having only one gear the bikes have very little regarding maintenance and are lower in cost. This makes them ideal for urban transport. For the ultra-purist, many of these bikes can be run as a fixed-geared bike, which means that if the rear wheel is turning the cranks are turning. No coasting.
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