How to Buy Your First Road Bike

Performance doesn’t have to cost a fortune—here’s what you need to know to pick a winner
718 Cyclery, Brooklyn. Photo by Chris Lesser

A cheat sheet for buying your first road bike.

Whether you're shopping for your very first road bike or are finally upgrading from that 10-speed hand-me-down that dates back to the 1970s fuel crisis, 2012 is a great time to be in the market for a new road bike.

Cycling is one of the few vehicle-based sports in which enthusiast-level consumers can buy the same exact equipment that the top professionals race in competition. Want to take home a Formula One car? Forget about it. How about an exact replica of the BMC SLR01 that Cadel Evans rode to victory at last year's Tour de France? For $13,000, you can ride it home.

But you don't have to max out your credit card just to get in the game. Most manufacturers field options for about $1,000—a rung or two up the ladder from the $700 or $800 opening price-point, but with plenty of performance for new riders to grow into.

With some exceptions, there’s not a whole lot separating Brand A’s entry-level bike and Brand B’s bike at the same price, so don’t get bogged down in PMAs (Proprietary Marketing Acronyms) Here's what you need to know to cut through the confusing marketing clamor and take home a winner.

Shop The Shop
Finding the right shop can be more important than finding the right bike. Bike shops—especially high-end ones—can be magnets for goons, so if you're not digging the elitist vibe of the first place you walk into, turn aro              und and find a shop that feels right. There are plenty of great options out there. Most will include some sort of preventative service plan, and the best will offer complimentary bike fitting and a tune-up schedule with your bike purchase, and the best will bring benefits like free basic maintenance classes and a calendar packed with group rides of all ability levels.

Test Ride, Test Ride, Test Ride
You wouldn't buy a new car without taking it out on the highway, would you? Don't be bashful about getting past the parking lot when shopping for a new bike—bring your riding gear and put a few miles on your prospective new ride, and try out different models back-to-back if possible. If you can schedule this mid-week rather than a busy weekend, you’ll get more attention and feel less rushed.

Material Science
Carbon fiber frames have come a long way in the last several years, but the technology hasn't come all the way down to the $1,000 price-point bike—not yet, anyway. At this level expect an alloy frame, and look for one with a butted top and down-tubes—which are thicker at the ends for strength and thinner in the middle for weight savings. Most $1,000 aluminum bikes will, however, come with a carbon fiber fork, which helps cut weight while smoothing out vibration from harsh road surfaces. Steel frames endured as the material of choice for Tour de France race bikes up through the mid 90s and are still available (and loved by many). Lightweight performance steel bikes can cost thousands for a frame alone, but Jamis offers a nice Reynolds steel complete bike for a cool grand.

Some opening price-point bikes skimp on spec by pairing a 7- or 8-speed rear cassette with a triple-ring crank, which provides an ultra-wide, useable range with extra-forgiving low gears. But unless you're planning on long-distance touring, you'll likely outgrow the triple-ring crank quickly. Plus, the extra complexity shifting three gears up front instead of two can be cumbersome for new riders. A so-called compact crank—usually with a 50/34 front chainring combination—coupled with a wide-range 9- or 10-speed rear cassette offers practically the same overall gear range with simpler front shifting. All bikes at this price-point will have integrated shift/brake levers (downtube shifters have thankfully gone the way of the Dodo.)

Bike Fit
Most bikes in this price range already frames with "performance-oriented" geometry, with slightly taller head-tubes to put the rider in a more comfortable riding position.  Bikes at this price-point will come in multiple frame sizes, either in T-Shirt sizing or as centimeter-figure frame size—measured from the bottom bracket to the seatpost collar. The best models will each come with appropriately sized handlebar widths, crankarm and stem lengths to match frame size. Any bike shop worth its salt won't send you out the door until its staff has conducted a proper bike fit to double-check that these components work for the end riders’ unique proportions. The best shops will dial in your saddle position (height, for and aft), won't charge you for minor component changes, and will at least give you a credit for your stock seat, stem or bar if you need to upgrade to a better-fitting model.

Don't sweat the pedals. Most bikes at this level come with plastic or cheap alloy platform pedals equipped with toe-cages and straps. These are fine for the test ride and to get used to the bike, but not much else. Do yourself a favor and invest in a good pair of clipless pedals and complementary cycling shoes with a stiff, supportive sole. Most bike shops will install and adjust cleats and pedals for free at time of purchase.