For the dedicated cyclist, nothing beats that sense of absolute freedom you feel when you’re speeding through the countryside on the back of a first rate road bike, a bike that’s so responsive that it might almost be part of your own body. But how do you choose your two-wheeler? There are literally dozens of models available in stores and through catalogs. What do you look for?
A good road bike is one that’s built to go fast. Of course, much of your speed on the road depends upon the power and efficiency of your pedal strokes, but even Lance Armstrong would have a hard time riding a 42-pound Schwinn Varsity in the Tour de France. The perfect road bike has a light frame, a short wheel base that allows it to respond to your slightest movement and enough gears to get you to maximum speed quickly – and to keep you there for as long as you want.
No matter what the quality of the components you add, your bike will only be as good as its frame.
The four most common materials used in building frames are steel, aluminum, carbon fiber and titanium. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Pick the one that’s best for both your wallet and the type of racing you like to do.
• Steel: Steel is the traditional material used for bike frames. It absorbs road vibrations well and redistributes them, making for a comfortable ride. Steel is durable and strong: with proper maintenance, a steel road bike can last a lifetime. It rusts easily, however.
In general steel frames cost less than aluminum frames (unless you’re considering an alloy like high tensile or chromaly steel) but they’re also significantly heavier.
• Aluminum: In the 1990s aluminum became the most popular frame material. It still is today. Aluminum is lightweight and stiff; it doesn’t rust. Frames buckle less under weight load. On the other hand, aluminum makes for a far bumpier ride, and frames can crack if they’re crashed.
• Carbon Fiber: Carbon fiber is the hottest thing in bike stores today. Combining the best features of steel and aluminum, carbon fiber extremely lightweight but it still gives a smooth ride. Frames can be manufactured all of one piece, or frame components can be manufactured separately and then sautered together or joined with lugs. Like aluminum, carbon fiber ages significantly with every flex – so eventually your frame will need to be replaced. Though it’s still more expensive than aluminum, it’s coming down in price.
• Titanium: Titanium is both the lightest and strongest of frame materials. It’s resistant to corrosion, incredibly durable and gives a smooth ride. Pricewise, unfortunately, it is well beyond the reach of the average wallet, and it’s not going to get cheaper any time soon.
Different bike designers have different preferences for the dimensions of the frame and forks. The three fundamental measurements are:
• Wheelbase: Wheelbase is the distance between the centers of your wheels. A longer wheelbase tends to make your bike more stable when it’s going straight, but it may make turns precarious.
• Seat and Head Angles: Seat angle determines a rider’s position and balance on the bike, while head angle is important for steering and handling. A steeper seat angle (measured from the horizontal plane) positions a rider more aerodynamically, but can be very uncomfortable, placing weight on the coccyx, wrists, arms and neck.
• Fork Offset: Fork offset – sometimes called fork rake – is the perpendicular distance from the center of the front wheel to the steering axis. Because wheels are standardly sized, practically all road bikes have an offset between 43-45mm.
In general, a good road bike has a shorter wheelbase, less fork offset and steeper seat angles than a comparable touring bike.
Components are the wheels, tires, brakes, derailleurs, cranksets, brackets, chains, cables and other bicycle parts that can make such a huge impact on the speed and smoothness of your ride. The three most popular parts manufacturers for road bikes are the Japanese company Shimano, the Italian firm Campagnolo and the US based SRAM.