Road Bike Knowledge
Road bikes used to be simple. They used to have a skinny steel frame, hard gears, and a seating position that only a chiropractor could love. That has all changed now, you can still get skinny steel bikes, but there are now a lot of different styles of road bikes.
Do you have a sportive bike? Do you have a gravel bike? Do you have a cross bike, an adventure bike, a touring bike, a crit bike? People use a lot of different genres and names, some of this is marketing, and some of it is a real divide.
We will make two main distinctions whether a road bike is for on-road riding or if it is for offroad riding. We will then break down the jargon in those two terms for you.
The On-Road Road Bikes
Road bikes as you may have imagined were designed to be ridden on the road. They are designed to be as fast as possible and will in many cases sacrifice your comfort to get this speed. They are also the bike most people will think about when they think of road bikes.
These bikes could be designated as road race bikes. You tend to get them in either an aero or lightweight styling. Aero bikes tend to look flat and are designed to cheat the wind and help make you fast.
Lightweight bikes tend to look more like traditional road bikes but are designed to help you scale the highest of heights. Mountain passes can be eaten up these bikes. Both aero and lightweight road bikes will generally be constructed from carbon fiber at the high end, and entry level of bikes will be built from aluminum.
Race bikes though tend to have a geometry that is suited to racing, naturally. The position you have to sit on is not conducive to those of us that have to work all week and can only get out at the weekend. For those people, we saw the creation of sportive or endurance bikes.
These bikes were the turning point in the bike industry, the point where they started to make bikes focused on consumers and not on professional cyclists. One significant change that you might notice as soon as you ride a sportive bike is the gearing.
A sportive bike will have lower gearing than a race bike. The lower gearing will make it easier to ride up hills and for long periods. Sportive bikes will be more suited to those new to cycling or who may have found themselves with weekend warrior status.
The other differences are also going to help when you sit on the bike. You will find a sportive bike has a longer headtube and a shorter top tube. Putting these features together will mean that you will sit up slightly higher on your bike. You will also not be stretching as much for your handlebars.
Your lower back will thank you for this position. It will make longer rides more enjoyable and comfortable. That is why sportive bikes are also sometimes called endurance bikes. You can go out and nail a century ride without too much discomfort.
You will also find a bigger clearance for wider tires. Wider tires will bring you more comfort and a little more suspension, especially if you ride them tubeless. Tubeless ready rims and tires are taking over the bike world.
Tubeless is precisely what it says. You are riding without tubes. You would then put some form of sealant in your tires to help fix any small punctures. You can then lower your tire pressure as you will have less risk of punctures or pinch flats and this will bring you more comfort.
Your tires will also be further apart. Sportive bikes will have a longer wheelbase than road bikes. The longer wheelbase may make them feel less responsive, or twitchy, it will though make them feel more stable on downhills and when flying around corners.
The final style of the on-road road bike is the touring bikes. Touring bikes will still generally be constructed from steel. Steel will generally be heavier than aluminum or carbon but when you are carrying a month’s worth of supplies that weight will be less noticeable.
Steel is also considered to be a more comfortable material to construct bike frames, great if you decided to cross South America on a whim. It is also easier to mend if something catastrophic happens and can be more durable than aluminum or carbon fiber.
Touring bikes will also have lower gearing than sportive bikes. You will find that they generally run a triple, a triple means that they have three front chainrings. A triple will give you a great spread of gears and means you shouldn’t run out of gears on that mountain pass in Chile.
The gear set will sometimes be stolen from a mountain rather than a road bike. The lower gearing found on mountain bikes means you should never be putting too much strain on your legs even when fully loaded.
Offroad Road Bikes
Offroad style road bikes used to be limited to only cyclocross bikes. Now, we are starting to see a plethora of gravel, adventure, allroad, and bikepacking bikes. We will begin with cyclocross bikes and then explore the gravel sector.
Cyclocross is a style of bike races that take part in winter in a field and involve various obstacles and short, sharp climbs. You will have to pedal, carry, run, and bunnyhop your way around a cross course. You should then finish with a nice Belgian blonde beer.
Early cyclocross bikes were just an old road bike with knobby tires to deal with mud, snow, ice, or sand that could be found on the course. Over time companies started to specialize in cross bikes.
They started to design bikes with higher bottom brackets to help clear obstacles. They gained top tubes that sloped upwards to make it easier to put them on your shoulder and carry when running. They went for lower gearing, and they jumped on the disc brake trend quickly.
People started to use cyclocross bikes to go on adventures or to commute to work using. To survive the rigors of cross, they tended to be stronger and more reliable than race bikes. More and more people started to ride them on less than ideal roads.
The gravel bike and market started to appear, and the bike trade began to take notice. Original gravel bikes owed more cross bikes than they do now, now we are getting more into mountain bike territory.
The first thing to happen to gravel bikes was that their bottom bracket started to lower again. A lower bracket will help you to feel stable at speed. We also began to see wheelbases lengthen as they had on sportive bikes, for the same reasons again and another important one.
Gravel bikes are also called adventure bikes, amongst the other names we listed above. They take the idea of touring and slim it down compared to tourers.
Rather than using panniers and pannier bags, gravel bikes tend to be run with bags that fit with straps to your bike. We call this form of lightweight touring, bikepacking. Having a longer wheelbase makes a gravel bike more stable when loaded. You don’t want to be falling at the first corner when loaded.
They then took the wider tire clearance of sportive and cross and went mountain bike with it. Gravel bikes can fit tires of up to 2″ wide and some are exceeding that. The mountain bike love doesn’t end there.
You will find gravel bikes with dropper posts and suspension forks now. Admittedly they won’t have the same travel as mountain bike droppers and forks. As well as this you’ll find many people mixing and matching road and mountain bike groupsets to get extra low gears.
As you can see road bikes are a varied group now. You will find one that does exactly what you want off a shelf now rather than searching through your spares drawers or on eBay for the bits to get a bike that you need. So there are no excuses for not getting out there now.
I’ve spent way more time in the bike trade than anyone should reasonably want to. In that time I’ve wanted to make cycling jargon and marketing easier to cut through to help people get the bike of their dreams.
When I’m not writing about bikes, I can be seen out bikepacking on single speed bikes or teaching kids how to ride.