Disc BrakesWhat began with a trickle about four years ago is now a full-on flood: disc brakes. More and more we’re seeing race-oriented road bikes launching as disc brake only platforms (the new Cervelo S5 is one example). And just try to find a new endurance style road bike that doesn’t have disc brakes.
We’re now far enough into the trend that the woes that saddled first-generation disc-brake road bikes—additional weight, a harsher ride, aerodynamic penalties, noise—have been evolved out of existence.
That means that, for the most part, all you get are the benefits of disc brakes–better control, more consistent performance, better performance in adverse conditions, fewer brake-heat induced rim, tube, and tire problems–and with no drawbacks. And that's before we cover another huge benefit of disc brakes…
Tire ClearanceRim brakes were a significant pinch point and limited most modern road bikes to tires of about 28mm wide or less. That’s because most modern road bikes did not use medium or long reach brakes, but used a lighter and stiffer short-reach brake. By using disc brakes, that pinch point is removed, and we’re seeing tire clearance of more than 32mm on even the most race oriented road bikes like the Specialized Venge, with many disc brake road bikes able to fit tires of more than 35mm. Wide tires offer more comfort, better traction, and roll faster than narrower tires in some situations. They’re even safer in some cases: Imagine not darting around every little pothole and patch of gravel, but simply rolling over them. That’s what big tires can do.
AerodynamicsIt’s rare that a piece of modern road equipment doesn’t at least have some aerodynamic tuning. The rider –and their riding position–will always be the biggest source of aerodynamic drag, but modern materials and computer-aided design have allowed designers to add free speed in the form of improved aerodynamics with few drawbacks.
But there are some road bikes designed to be as aerodynamic as possible. Bikes like the Specialized Venge, Trek Madone, Felt AR, and Cannondale SystemSix are the product of thousands of hours of computer modeling and aerodynamic tuning both in a virtual environment and in a wind tunnel. The object is to squeeze every bit of free speed possible out of the bike while still maintaining the properties a good racing bike requires: high stiffness, low weight, and some thought given to rider comfort.
Opposite the aero road bike is the stiffness-to-weight bike (AKA climbing bike). These bikes forgo heavy aerodynamic optimization in the search for a frame that is as light and stiff as possible. That doesn’t mean they’re designed with no regard for aerodynamics: the Specialized Tarmac, Canyon Ultimate CF SLX, and Cervelo R5 are all bikes optimized for killer stiffness to weight ratio, but all manage to sneak in small aerodynamic tweaks. Climbing bikes are usually the lightest, liveliest, and smoothest riding bikes, and they usually feel faster than an aero-road bike even though, in most situations, they're actually slower.
IntegrationWhether it’s aerodynamics, stiffness to weight, comfort, or just plain style, the integration of what were standardized, off-the-shelf, parts is noteworthy trend. Noteworthy because it can elevate the performance or aesthetics of the bike, but also can make swapping a stem, seatpost, or handlebar—or finding some other small part for repair or replacement—a giant pain in the butt. That bleeding-edge bike you're lusting after might be the pinnacle of performance now, but if you’re the sort that keeps a bike for 10 years, you might want to consider a bike with less integration and fewer proprietary parts.
MaterialsThe most common materials used to make modern road bikes are carbon fiber composite and aluminum alloy (sometimes just called “alloy,” which is confusing because the titaniums and steels used for bike frames are also alloys). If you prefer something less common, you will also find bikes made of steel, titanium, hardwood, bamboo, and magnesium. While all the materials have intrinsic qualities, any material can ride very well or very poorly, be very strong or very fragile, depending on how it is used. Don’t buy into myths like “all carbon frames are weak” or “all aluminum frames ride harshly.”
You will find that almost all bikes over $2,000 will be made of carbon fiber composite. This material is exceptionally strong, stiff, light, and tunable. More than any other material, carbon allows frame engineers to micro tune areas of a frame with specific attributes. Carbon is also more shapeable–with fewer drawbacks when dramatically shaped–than any other material.
Know Your FitWhile a good fitter should be able to make almost any bike fit you, it’s helpful to get a good professional fit before you invest in a new road bike. Knowing your fit details can help you and the salesperson narrow down the list of bikes to those that will fit you best. If you’re lucky enough to be comfortable in a long and low position, race-oriented bikes will fit you well, and are typically designed to steer properly with more weight on the front wheel. If your fit is more upright, an endurance style bike with a longer headtube will allow the handlebars to be properly positioned without a skyscraper of spacers (which can be unsafe), and this style of bike is usually designed to handle properly with less weight (compared to a race bike) on the front wheel.
DrivetrainsMost road bikes we review have a crank with two chainrings (also called 2x), and 11 rear cogs (11-speeds). But there are other drivetrain configurations.
Under $1,300 is when you start to see drivetrains begin to subtract rear cogs. The first step would be 2x10, and as you travel further down the price scale, you'll see 2x9, then 2x8. With fewer speeds, the jump between each is larger, which makes shifting more clunky, and creates more dramatic cadence changes.
Up at the higher end of the spectrum, you may find bikes with Campagnolo's latest two by 12-speed drivetrains. Besides the exotic nature of the parts offered by this legendary company, the 12-speed cassette tighten up the jumps between gears.
SRAM has also jumped into the 12-speed game with its new Red eTap AXS group which is available on a limited number of high end bikes now. SRAM will unveil a lower priced Forced 12-speed electronic group spring 2019.
Another drivetrain you might find is called one by (written 1x). Popularized by SRAM, this drivetrain is more often found on gravel or cyclocross bikes, but there are a few road bikes that use a 1x drivetrain. This system does not use a front shifter or derailleur, and does have larger jumps between gears, but can offer the same total range as a 2x system. 1x's advantages are simplicity, chain security, and aerodynamics.
We love Kona's Rove bike line for the way they combine ruggedness, versatility and value. The $849 model that opens the line offers all those benefits at a sub-1000-dollar price. Highlights include powerful Hayes mechanical disc brakes, tough Schwalbe tires, and an attractive finish with nice graphic details.
Giant's entry-level road bikes have consistently amazed us with their performance and smooth ride. The newest generation Contend is a little sharper handling without losing its less aggressive riding position. And it still offers superb performance that far exceeds expectations.
We're big fans of higher-end aluminum road bikes. Despite their reputation as harsh and buzzy, today's aluminum road bikes can roll smoothly and take up bigger hits, which is bolstered by crisp acceleration. And you get all this for less than similarly equipped carbon-framed bikes. Cannondale's CAAD12 series is one of the best aluminum race bikes you can find, and one of the only aluminum framed bikes from a big brand equipped with Shimano's peerless Dura Ace group.
The Xenith Comp is a full featured carbon road bike for just a touch over two grand. The frame has all the most updated touches like the flat-mount standard for disc brakes, thru-axles, internal routing. The parts are solid with Shimano's 105 drivetrain and hydraulic disc brakes, tubeless ready wheels, and 3T bar and stem. A damped ride and neutral handling round out this excellent value.
The Allied Alfa Disc offers a USA made carbon frame and fork, and customizable build and paint for less than you might expect. It's a stock-sized bike, but offered with a short or tall head tube to help you get the right fit. It's a subtle looking bike with rounded tubes and minimal graphics, and the ride is extremely balanced and neutral.
Argonaut's Ben Farver started building with steel, but he switched to carbon to take advantage of the material's unmatched ability to control and tune a frame's performance. But Farver still has a soft spot for steel, and builds his bikes to mimic the best qualities of a steel bike's ride. The result is one of the best-tuned, best feeling, road bike's we've ever evaluated. It is frighteningly expensive, but if you're lucky enough to have the funds, it's a purchase you'll never regret.
The aero-road wars recently heated up with Giant, Specialized, Trek, BMC, and Cannondale all rolling out updated versions of their aero race bikes. Now Cervélo—the brand that helped popularize the category—has refreshed the S5, its premier race bike. Now a disc-brake-only bike, the front end is the highlight, and one that provides a claimed 5.5 watt savings. The external steerer helps sharpen the handling, and a V-shaped stem not only improves aerodynamics, but also provides easier cable routing, and improved shifting with mechanical drivetrains. The S5’s bar and stem are offered in multiple lengths, and the system offers up to 32.5mm of height adjustment, and three bar-tilt options. And if all that fails, an adapter allows a (slower) standard bar and stem to be fitted. The frame wasn’t ignored either: it’s 100 grams lighter (claimed weight 975 grams), stiffer, fits wider tires, and has improved vertical compliance. Geometry was altered slightly to improve handling, particularly at higher speeds.
The Liv EnviLiv takes the ideas Giant (Liv’s owner) debuted in the Propel aero-road racing bike and packages them a women’s specific bike. This bike is a rocket, and not just because it’s slippery and extremely responsive, but also because the disc brakes and its excellent handling provide riders confidence to carry extra speed around corners and down hills. It’s a tough bike to beat for the money too, with tons of technology, Shimano’s phenomenal Ultegra Di2 group, a power meter, and a tubeless ready carbon wheelset.
Inside the Bicycling office we’ve debated whether the Specialized Roubaix should be classified as an endurance bike or as a race bike. In the “It’s a race bike” column: Peter Sagan won the 2018 Paris-Roubaix this year on a Specialized Roubaix (a rim brake version, which is available to buy in very limited numbers) with stock geometry. In the “It’s an endurance bike” column, a more-upright position—our reviewer couldn’t get the bars low enough on our sample bike to mimic his preferred riding position—and longer chainstays and wheelbase (compared to a traditional race bike), for more stability. We haven’t settled this debate because the Robuaix is actually both bikes at once. It is a stiff, responsive, and sharp-steering bike, and it’s also extremely smooth and well mannered (but not TOO well mannered). If you’re looking for an endurance bike with the soul of a race bike, few blend both so seamlessly as the Roubaix.
While other brands' aero road bikes seem to get more radical looking and more integrated with every generation, the Venge has gone the opposite direction. In the evolution from it's second to third generation, the new Venge has become more staid looking, and some of the more challenging aspects of the bike's design have been eliminated. For example, you can change stem length on the new Venge without pulling the brake hoses and derailleur wires (swapping a stem on a second-gen Venge was a day's work )The new Venge is also compatible with any standard bar and stem (the old one wasn't). Remarkably, this aero road racing bike has clearance for up to 32mm tires.
Let your cycling partner get anything their heart desires. (You may even want to use it toward some of these essentials.)
You put in the miles. You deserve some good eating. (Plus, here are the best options at Whole Foods.)
Not all of your cycling friend’s moments are spent outdoors. Let them escape (inside) with a good movie.
Economic Membrane Disc Air Diffuser
The Canyon Ultimate CF SLX is the company's lightest, stiffest, most road race oriented frame. It's the frame (in rim brake form) that Nairo Quintana rode to victory in stage 17 of this year's Tour de France. It features a short wheelbase, quick steering, explosive efficiency, and hidden aerodynamic tweaks, and is one of the benchmark road racing bikes on the market. It's also a better value than most high end road racing bikes, offering the same parts for less–often a lot less–than its competition, and it arrives at your house ready to build (the build is very easy). All that, and it easlily fits 32mm wide tires.
The C64 is the only Colnago carbon frame made in Italy. The tube and lug construction–with Colnago's signature Star shaping, claimed to provide more robust junctions–recalls the brand's steel bikes of the past, but this race frame's performance is modern. The frame is light, very stiff, and offers excellent feedback, and a delicious, velvety, ride. The C64's steering is neutral, not hyperactive, and more tuned to long rides over varied terrain than point and shoot sprints. Two geometries are offered: one is a fairly standard race bike fit, the other is a high-stack option for riders needing a more upright position.
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