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Road bike buying guide: How to choose the right style of bike

Joseph Delves
15 Sep 2021

A guide to the many different types of drop-handlebar bike and what to look for when buying

In the beginning, there was the racing bicycle, and it was good. With drop bars, skinny tyres and a head-down, bum-in-the-air riding style, it quickly came to populate the earth. But as the bikes multiplied, so they began to change and grow in variety.

Racing bike begat touring bike. Touring bike begat endurance, cyclocross, and gravel bike. On and on to create a bewildering universe of different bicycles, each evolved to suit its own habitat (and occasionally the whims of their creators’ marketing departments).

While the average road bike will happily take on most duties, there is almost certainly a bike out there designed to excel in any niche you can imagine. So, if proof were needed that there’s definitely space in the shed for one more bike, here’s our guide to the wide world of drop-bar bicycles, how to tell them apart, and which your life is missing…

The endurance or sportive bike

Near-pro performance with gearing and comfort levels to suit only moderately pro cyclists.

Take a spin on a pro team bike, and your first thought will likely be, ‘Wow, this is fast!’ However, the next will be, ‘Wow, this is uncomfortable!’ followed quickly by the realisation that you haven’t got enough gears to climb even moderately sized hills. This is because while everyone likes a little sprinkle of pro-rider stardust, most of us aren’t suited to riding the same bike as our heroes.

Sportives aren’t races in the traditional sense, but riders still want to perform well. To this end, sportive bikes take racing geometry but temper it slightly. Front ends get higher so as not to cripple your back, handling gets less twitchy, and frames become more compliant. As getting to the top of a big climb is likely to be an achievement in itself, they’ll pack in a wider ratio of gears along with mountain-taming compact chainsets. 

See our guide to the best endurance bikes as chosen by the Cyclist editorial team here

Don’t be lulled into thinking these bikes will be either cheap or slouchy, though. At the top of the market, they feature carbon wheels and electronic gearing. They’ll also be a blast to ride.

Key features: Slightly relaxed geometry for comfort. Wide range of gears. Sensible finishing kit with an emphasis on support. Designed to be fast yet forgiving

The cobbles specialist

Relaxed geometry and tyres with traction for brutal terrain

The spring Classics are a world away from the smooth roads and sunny glamour of events later in the calendar. These races criss-cross the farm tracks of Europe’s Low Countries. With the weather often as unforgiving as the roads, the bikes need to be tough.

Bouncing over the pavé (that’s French for cobbles), larger than average tyres allow riders to run lower pressures to increase grip and comfort. While pro-level race bikes tend to be stingingly harsh, most companies build additional bump-eating capabilities into their Classics bikes. Examples of this include the decoupled seatpost on Trek’s Domane that flexes to absorb impacts.

Often also branded as endurance bikes, in recent years, Specialized’s similarly designed Roubaix has also experimented with features including a FutureShock system the adds suspension between the stem and the top of the headtube. Although it might add a little weight, Classics winners like Peter Sagan figure that it’s worth taking the hit if it means reaching the final sprint less fatigued.

Key features: Compliant frame lessens shocks from the road. Slightly extended wheelbases and slacker head angles for stability. Larger tyres for traction on rough surfaces. Greater clearance for grotty roads

The gravel bike

Go anywhere both on and off-road 

If you’ve grown sick of traffic or just fancy upping the nature quotient of your rides, you might want to try gravel riding. A catch-all term for rides that take in unpaved roads and trails along with occasional stretches of tarmac, the gravel genre has gone from niche to mainstream with alarming speed.

Dedicated gravel bikes now come in all shapes and sizes. At one end, you have bikes with mountain bike width tyres, incredibly relaxed geometries, and fixings to take all manner to racks and bags.

Read about the best gravel bikes on the market according to Cyclist 

Made for exploring wild places or maybe a weekend away with a lightweight tent, at the opposite end of the spectrum, you have bikes that look like beefed up road racers with deep-section wheels and electronic gearing.

United by slack, stable geometry and lots of room above the top tube, they practically invite hoodlum type behaviour. Strong enough to cope with terrain usually the preserve of mountain bikers, their powerful brakes mean you can generally get yourself out of trouble if you get a little too enthusiastic.

Key features: Powerful brakes. Massive range of gears for carrying loads and tackling backcountry climbs. Stable handling to inspire confidence on rough terrain. Strong frames and wheels with large volume, fast-rolling tyres

The aero road bike

As fast as you can go thanks to improved aerodynamics 

As racing bikes began to butt up against the 6.8kg minimum weight limit imposed by the UCI, manufacturers were forced to look elsewhere for marginal gains.

Aerodynamics provided a second front in the quest to go faster for less energy. These slippery customers take many of the design features of time-trial machines and pack them into a UCI-legal bike for bunch racing.

Tubes are squished into wind-cheating profiles. Brakes and cables are integrated or tucked away, while wheels are as deep as possible without becoming dangerous when buffeted by the wind. This makes them ideal for breakaway specialists who spend hours riding alone ahead of the bunch.

A more in-depth look at the best aero bikes on the market at the moment

With bladed tubes and deep-section wheels, these bikes formerly had a reputation for being harsh to ride and a handful in crosswinds. Improved design means this is less the case now. However, if you’re main concern is comfort, you’re probably in the wrong place. Reinforcing this idea is the fact that aero bikes will generally use a racing geometry that’s agile and efficient but can be stressful and twitchy compared to slacker designs.

Key features: Race-orientated bikes for solo escapes or riding on the front. Low and narrow position for the rider. Aerodynamic wheels and frames. Extreme examples can suffer in terms of handling.

The cyclocross bike

Bikes made for racing in the mud 

Cyclocross is bonkers. If you’ve never spectated or raced, it’s hard to explain its appeal. Taking place over the winter months, riders thrash around off-road in the mud on machines ill-adapted for the terrain, stopping to shoulder their bikes and vault over obstacles. It’s as if a bunch of roadies had accidentally entered a steeplechase. Also, it’s huge in Belgium. And ridiculously good fun.

Cyclocross bikes are essentially road bikes on steroids – very light, stiff and aggressive, with high bottom brackets to stop pedals from getting stuck in the mud. Tyres are wider than road bikes but limited by the regulations to 33mm.

With races lasting an hour, pure cross bikes didn’t previously feature bottle cage mounts. Nevertheless, their robustness and versatility made them popular as all-rounders – something manufacturers have cottoned on to by making modern designs more suited to multi-use riding. Increasingly overlapping with the racier end of the gravel segment, some firms like Cannondale now make a single model and offer it in both gravel and cyclocross specifications.

Key features: Knobbly 33c tyres and plenty of clearance to stop mud jamming the wheels. Primarily designed for racing. Easy to carry for running up and over obstacles. Cyclocross specific gearing. MTB pedals.

The touring bike

A traditional way to explore by bicycle while carrying luggage

If your dad bought a Dawes Galaxy at some point during the 70s, get it out of the shed because it’s still a great bike. The archetypal touring bike hasn’t changed that much over the years. Still a segment that appreciates the comfort and reliability of a steel frame, the ability to carry large amounts of luggage front and back are as prized by cyclo tourists as carbon and superfluous sprockets are by roadies.

Of course, things have changed slightly. Most touring bikes now sport disc brakes, not cantilevers. Increasingly wider tyres and tubeless technology are also favoured. Gearing tends to be broad, and you might even see the odd triple chainring set-up.

We think the Dawes Galaxy is the perfect bike and here's why...

However, instead of searching for the most sprockets, riders will often use more straightforward nine or 10-speed cassettes for improved reliability and reduced service intervals. Geometry tends to be tall and short to make extended periods of pedalling as comfy as possible.

Key Features: Full fittings for racks and mudguards. Often made of steel. High and short for all-day comfort. Reliable and straightforward gearing. Wide and shallow bars for stability.

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