Buying a first road bike can be a bewildering experience. Here are some simple guidelines to ensure you leave the shop, complete your on-line purchase, or buy a used machine suited to your needs.
Frame and forks
We’d recommend a budget of £600 for an entry-level road bike. At this price point, a brand new machine should feature an aluminium frameset, which typically will be lighter than a chromoly steel equivalent and stiffer (steel is now more commonly found on machines at a higher price point, where comparable weights to aluminium equivalents require the use of higher grade material).
Three of the five machines we have chosen as a snapshot of the market (see below) at this price point have alloy forks. Carbon forks tend to be lighter and more absorbent of feedback from the road.
The drive train components include the chainset, cassette, shifters, derailleurs, chain and cassette. More typically, the phrase is used to describe the combination of shifters, derailleurs, and chainset.
On a machine priced around £600, the drivetrain components are likely to be generic (made in large quantities for one or more manufacturers), or to come from Shimano’s 2300 groupset, an eight-speed set up with dual SIS (indexed shifting front and rear) and a choice of double or triple chainsets. The triple will include a very small inner chainwheel offering very low gears.
The Giant Defy 5, one of five machines listed below as examples of the machinery available at this price, is an interesting ‘drivetrain’ case study for the uninitiated. One configuration includes a chainset known to the industry as a ‘compact’. Its 50-34 combination offers lower ratios than the standard described above, making it easier on the legs. Compact chainsets are an option at all price points, although not a common choice on top-level equipment designed for professional riders.
Braking and shifting is combined in a single lever, universally known as an STI: strictly speaking an acronym appropriate only to Shimano components (‘Shimano Total Integration’) but commonly used to describe combined braking and shifting levers from Campagnolo and SRAM.
While we’re on the topic, three component manufacturers dominate the market: Shimano (Japan), Campagnolo (Italy), and the American firm, SRAM. Each functions in a slightly different fashion, and different riders have different preferences; think of it as cycling’s very own Mac vs. PC debate. At this price, you’re likely only to encounter the Shimano 2300 described above. Campagnolo and SRAM’s entry-level components are more expensive.
Brake calipers on a bike of around £600 will be aluminium and likely to be dual pivot, a design intended to produce an even ‘pull’ from both sides. Calipers from Tektro or unbranded units are common choices among manufacturers at this price point.
Wheels and tyres
Expect alloy rims and hubs, perhaps from established third-party wheel manufacturers (Specialized include Alex rims on their Allez; Trek use Bontrager across their range, now a subsidiary, but formerly a stand-alone company). Tyres will almost certainly be clinchers (a traditional, hook-on-the-rim design, used with inner tubes), likely to have a breadth of 23mm or 25mm, and a light, all-purpose tread pattern.
Finishing kit is a phrase used to describe the package of handlebars, stem, seat post and saddle. Equipment on entry-level machines will be alloy, which is lighter than steel and corrosion-resistant. Saddles are very much a matter of personal preference. Make this your first upgrade if the one supplied with the bike is uncomfortable.
A word on secondhand machinery. If your budget doesn’t stretch to £600, we’d recommend exploring the secondhand market, specifically asking your local indepenent bike shop and local road club. Both may have customers/members on an upgrade path, seeking to move on their existing machine. The benefits are two-fold: firstly, you get more bike for your buck; secondly, if the previous owner is sufficiently interested in cycling to want to upgrade, they’re likely to have treated their previous steed with respect.
Further paths into the secondhand market exist online in the shape of Ebay and Gumtree. The first will offer a wide choice, while the latter pursues a local approach that should make it easy to try before you buy. Stories of stolen bicycles appearing on Gumtree are not uncommon. We’d ask to see an original purchase receipt before buying.
Not everyone is happy to ride a secondhand machine. The final decision is, of course, yours. To gain any use from a bike, you must want to ride it. For many people, that means wheeling something shiny from the garage. Our recommendation, however, is to place quality and function above newness and to seek a used machine with the features described above, perhaps from one of the manufacturers listed below.
End of year bargains
The bicycle model year changes around the end of summer (late August, early September). While new models might not become widely available until November, the traditional late summer unveiling of new stock tends to trigger reductions on previous models i.e. the existing year.
Five entry-level road bikes under £600
Here are five entry-level bikes, each priced at under £600. The list is by no means exhaustive, and intended only to give you an idea of what’s currently on offer from some of the biggest manufacturers. The RCUK Forum is a great source of advice from knowledgeable and experienced cyclists. The New To Road Biking Thread is a good first stop. Good luck!