Maybe you’ve been riding bikes for years and are ready to switch things up, or you’re new to bicycles and are excited to pick up a new hobby. Either way, at some point we’ve all found ourselves wondering, “What is a Road Bike?”
Well, don’t be turned away by the neon Lycra and shaved legs, the history of road bikes is extensive and with decades of technological developments, there are countless bikes to choose from and something to fit each person’s unique style and needs.
From afar, road bikes look intimidating, like they are only for “serious” cyclists. But this is far from the truth. Road bikes come in more varieties and prices ranges than ever before, inviting people of all ages to find the perfect bike for their goals and their budget.
Regardless of their price tag, road bikes are all designed with the same purpose in mind – to be the most efficient bicycle for riding on the road. They are so efficient that the only limitation for your riding is, well, you!
But what makes them so efficient and fast on the road? Let’s take a closer look at these impressive machines to understand what makes them so unique.
Table of Contents
The History of Road Bikes
The earliest bikes, dating back to the mid-1800s, were made of wood, did not have pedals and were known as swiftwalkers. Shortly afterwards, the first pedal cycles were invented, but these remained very uncomfortable, since they had yet to include rubber tires.
The next notable bike design was the penny-farthing bike, which is widely known due to its large front wheel and small rear wheel. These were very popular, despite being prone to accidents, and more comfortable with the innovative use of solid, rubber tires. By the end of the 19th century, chain-driven bikes were developed and solved many of the inconveniences associated with early bike designs. They were much lower to the ground, easier to control and to stop, included air-filled tires, making them a more comfortable and easy-to-use mode of transportation.
The modern form of road bike racing dates all the way back to the late 19th century, shortly after the development of the chain-driven bike described above. Since then, the design of the bike looks relatively unchanged, maintaining a similar frame structure and the emblematic thin tires, but it has undergone extensive development and improvements to become the modern marvel it is today.
The top-of-the-line bikes ridden by professional racers today are constructed with astoundingly lightweight, carbon fiber frames and utilize electronic drivetrains to maximize the bicycle’s efficiency. The advancements made to the road bike have made it faster and more comfortable than ever before, turning it into a graceful machine that riders from the 19th century could not have imagined possible.
Whether you’re racing at the professional level or just looking for some fun rides on the weekend, the most important part of selecting a bike is finding one that fits you. A properly fitted bike will make every ride more enjoyable and leave you eager for the next. With that in mind, let’s break down the fundamental components of road bikes and discuss the technologies used today.
The frameset consists of the frame and the fork, making up the basic structure of the bike. Almost all road bike frames are designed using the two-triangle frame and are most commonly made of aluminum or carbon fiber.
Aluminum frames are more affordable and are found on entry-level bikes, but they provide a comfortable ride and are a lightweight option. Carbon fiber frames are the gold-standard for modern road bikes, being incredibly lightweight while also providing a very smooth, comfortable ride. They are stiff, fast and, as a result, found on more expensive road bikes than aluminum frames.
Road bike frames can also be steel or titanium, but these are less commonly selected materials for road bikes. Like the frame, the fork is usually made from carbon fiber on more expensive bikes. Forks can also be a carbon-aluminum combination or entirely aluminum on lower-end models. The frame and fork are normally a packaged-deal and sold as a frameset (for those looking to build their own bike) or as part of a complete build.
The geometry of the frame has become more compact over time, making it more lightweight. Bicycle manufacturers are constantly optimizing the frame design to make it as light as possible, while maintaining stiffness where necessary and enough compliance to keep the ride quality comfortable.
The top tube of the frame is generally more sloped on modern bikes, increasing the standover height which makes the bike easier to stop and generally more comfortable for the rider. The down tubes have become larger in diameter, utilizing thin-walled tubes to maximize stiffness for efficient power transfer and to reduce the weight of the frame.
Determining the correct size and style frame is the most important part of selecting a new road bike. Later in this article, we will go into detail about the various styles of road bikes and what type of riding they are most suitable for to help you determine what best suits your needs. Please reference the sizing table included below to help select the appropriate frame size for you.
However, we still recommend that you take a trip to your local bike shop to be properly sized and fitted according to your unique proportions.
Road bike wheels are designed to be light and aerodynamic.
They have lower spoke counts to reduce weight and utilize the teardrop-shaped cross section that is proven to reduce drag. Road bike wheels and tires used to be extremely narrow, but, over time, they have gotten slightly wider. This has been proven to be more aerodynamic and increases tire volume, creating a faster and more comfortable riding experience. It is now common to see 25mm tires on race bikes and 28-30mm tires on endurance bikes. Road bikes rely on quite high tire pressures to minimize rolling resistance, ranging from 70 to 120psi.
Road bike tires also have a minimal tread pattern, if any at all, to further reduce friction and rolling resistance. Touring bikes and All-Road bikes are a bit of an exception, sometimes accepting tires wider than 2” and using very low tire pressures, maximizing comfort and off-road traction.
Drop handlebars are a distinct mark of a road bike. They are the tried-and-true handlebar that has been used for decades, offering a few different riding positions: the tops, the hoods, and the drops. The tops are on either side of the stem and are a comfortable position for cruising and climbing. The hoods are the tops of the brake levers and are another comfortable riding position that provides more leverage for climbing and sprinting. The drops are the lowest part and are a controlled and aerodynamic position for fast descents.
Drop bars are offered in a variety of shapes and widths to suit your needs and preferences. Wider bars are becoming more common on All-Road and touring bikes, due to the added control for off-road riding. The height and reach of the drop bars can also be adjusted and are crucial to a proper bike fit.
Flat bars can be available for a road bike but are not as common as drop bars. If a road bike has flat bars, it is often considered a Fitness Hybrid bike or a Hybrid bike and has many similarities to a road bike. It is worth noting, however, that the drivetrain components on a drop bar road bike are superior to that of a fitness hybrid, so it is worth adjusting to the drop bar shifting and breaking for the improved ride performance.
The drivetrain of a road bike consists of the crankset, the cassette, the derailleurs and the shifters. There is an enormous variety of options and combinations for drivetrains. Different drivetrains aim to achieve difference goals, so the drivetrain of a road racer will look quite different from that of an all-road adventure rider.
The crankset of a road bike typically consists of two chainrings, the most common being the “compact” crankset with 50/34 teeth. There are other teeth combinations available for the chainrings, but the compact is by far the most common set up found on road bikes for hobbyist road riders. Another option that is gaining popularity is the 1x (pronounced “one-by”) that uses a single chainring. The 1x originated in mountain biking, but it has since found its way onto all-road and adventure bikes due to its simplicity and effectiveness.
The cassette is mounted directly to the rear wheel of the bike and consists of 8-12 sprockets depending on which model bike you purchase. Higher-end bikes tend to have more sprockets, creating a wider gear range and more gearing options. Road bikes typically have a smaller cassette range, commonly 11-28 teeth or 11-30 teeth, providing plenty of options to find the right gear to match your cadence, or the speed at which you pedal. Touring bikes, all-road bikes, and bikes with a 1x crankset often have a much wider gear range, providing more variation and making it easier to spin up steep terrain.
The derailleurs are the mechanism that change gears on the bike, physically moving the chain across the cassette and the chainrings. Most derailleurs are controlled by cables and springs, mechanically linking the derailleurs to the shifters on your handlebars. Higher-end bikes offer higher-end derailleurs that are lighter and shift more quickly and crisply than less-expensive options. Top-of-the-line bikes even offer electronic derailleurs that are wirelessly linked to the shifters on the handlebars.
The shifters on a road bike are built into the brake levers, providing both shifting and breaking in a single unit. The shifting on a road bike may take some getting-used-to for a first-time road cyclist. The function of the shifters varies depending on the specific components, but they typically require sideways pushing of the break lever and a secondary lever underneath the break lever. Some also use a combination of a thumb lever and sideways movement of the break lever. While this may be an adjustment for a new rider, road bike shifting and breaking allows your hands to remain securely in position on the hoods and is a safe and efficient way to control your bike.
Types of Road Bikes
Road bikes were originally designed with one terrain in mind: road. Over time they have evolved to handle additional terrains and to accommodate different athletic goals than simple transportation or road racing.
Now, you can find road bikes that are designed for off-road adventures or designed for comfort when spending a long day in the saddle. While these bikes rely on the fundamental road bike components described above, they feature unique design variations that have made them more suitable for their respective purpose. Read on to learn more about the types of road bikes and their intended purposes.
Touring bikes were the original road bike designed for carrying loads, specifically for bicycle touring. Bike touring involves loading up gear, food, and water for long distance adventures, often times spanning more than one day.
To accommodate this goal, touring bikes are designed to be rugged and durable to handle the heavy load they must carry, so the weight of the bike is not a high priority. As a result, the frames are often constructed from steel and are designed to accept wider wheels than typical road bikes. The frame geometry is more relaxed, allowing you to be in a more upright, comfortable position for long days on the road.
The drivetrain also features a wide range of gearing, allowing riders to spin easily up steep hills to minimize fatigue. Touring bikes allow for mounting racks and panniers to the frameset, so you to pack your gear directly on your bike and take everything with you.
Endurance bikes are an excellent choice for someone who is looking to ride their bike exclusively on the road but desire something more comfortable than a race-inspired road bike. Like race bikes, the lightweight construction of the bike is a top priority, and they often utilize the same drivetrain components and frame materials.
What makes endurance bikes unique is the level of comfort they bring to a road bike, allowing you to spend longer days in the saddle. The frames often feature mechanisms for absorbing vibrations before they reach the rider, minimizing fatigue from riding on the road. These mechanisms vary from frame design geometries to polymer inserts in the frame that absorb vibrations.
Some endurance bikes also utilize suspensions in the head tube and the seat post, further reducing the vibrations that travel through the frame and reach the rider. The frame geometry of an endurance bike is more relaxed, allowing you to be in a more comfortable riding position.
Endurance road bikes are still light and quick on the road, but they bring a new level of comfort to the road bike that allows you to spend longer days on the road and only get sore in the right place: the legs.
All-Road bikes are the do-it-all bike for riders wanting something that can tackle any road surface and keep up with their adventurous spirit. Start on the road, veer off onto that dirt singletrack, and take the gravel road back home.
All-Road bikes combine elements from a variety of different road bikes. Built to be light and quick like a cyclocross bike, slack geometry like an endurance bike, and the durability of a touring bike, these bikes really can tackle it all. All-Road bikes accept wider tires suitable for off-road terrain, feature disc brakes for reliable stopping power in any condition and offer wide gear ranges. Some All-Road bikes even include rack and fender mounts, and they can be used for light touring or bikepacking.
As the name suggests, aero bikes are designed to be as aerodynamically efficient as possible. Every element of an aero bike is designed to reduce drag and wind resistance. The frame, wheels, and handlebars all utilize more aerodynamic shapes than a typical race bike. Even the brake calipers are often tucked into or behind the frame to reduce wind resistance. As a result of the focus on aerodynamics, aero bikes are somewhat faster than typical race bikes and can outperform them in certain situations, such as fast descents or flat stages. However, aero bikes are also heavier than race bikes and, as a result, are not the best bike choice for long and steep climbs.
FAQ about Road Bikes
What is the difference between a road bike and a mountain bike?
A road bike is designed specifically for riding on roads, whereas a mountain bike is designed much more challenging off-road terrain. Road bikes are typically lightweight, rigid frames that are designed to be fast on smoother surfaces and do not offer the durability of intense off-road riding.
Mountain bikes, on the other hand, are much more robust and durable. They offer front suspension and some even offer rear suspension as well, and they can handle challenging mountain bike trails, jumps, rocks and roots. Both are excellent tools for their respective terrain.
What is the difference between a road bike and a racing bike?
A racing bike is a type of road bike, designed to be as light and fast as possible. Racing bikes typically have more aggressive geometry, top-end drivetrain components, and higher gearing that suits the demanding fitness level of competitive racers. Racing bikes are the high-performing, competitive cousin to the road bike.
How much should I spend on a road bike?
A good entry level road bike offers an excellent ride at a reasonably price, and you can find a number of good options for under $1,000.
If you’re looking to get a good carbon road bike with a higher-quality drivetrain, you can expect to pay upwards of $3,000. From there, there really is no limit to how much you can spend on a road bike, with professional level race bikes coming in at a price close to that of a car!
What are road bikes good for?
Road bikes are a good form of low-impact exercise, and a properly fitted bike is a great way to get active without any aches and pains. Bikes are also a good mode of transportation as an alternative to your car and can be a fun way to commute to work. Bikes are a great way to spend more time outside, see more places, and get a break from sitting in your car in traffic.
Does wheel size matter for a road bike?
Wheel size is pretty standard for a road bike, with 700c being the most common size available. Tire width can vary and provide different ride qualities, thinner tires being faster and wider tires being more comfortable and controlled when off-road.
If you’re looking to ride on paved roads exclusively, select a 25mm tire if you want to go fast or a 28mm tire if you want a more comfortable ride!
So now that you’ve answered the question, “What is a road bike,” now what? Do you want to ride on the road all the time, take your solar camping gear with you for an overnight adventure, or do you want a bike that is fast on the road and eats up the dirt trails, too?
Once you know where you want to ride your bike, you can decide which type of road bike would best suit your needs. Keep in mind that today’s bikes are built to last years and thousands of miles. If you can pay a little more now for a bike that will still suit your needs in a few years, it will be a worthwhile investment.
Now, it’s time to head over to your local bike shop and go for a test ride! Most bike shops do not operate on commissions and are run and staffed by people who just love to ride their bikes. They can be a great source of information and their most important goal is to find the right bike for you.
So, take your time, shop around, and enjoy the experience of picking out your first, or next, road bike.
Mitchell Turk is outdoors enthusiast with a lifelong passion for bicycling. He previously worked at his local bike shop before entering the world of engineering, and he may even enjoy geeking out over bike tech more than riding his bike!
Originally a roadie, Mitch dabbled in mountain biking for a couple years and then jumped on the gravel bike bandwagon. He now spends his free time seeking out gravel rides and weekend-long excursions. His ideal outing combines biking, hiking, and climbing for a whole-mountain adventure.