Jan 29

Buyer’s guide to road racing bikes

The three things you need to become a good racer is the right training, nutrition and equipment. The first of these guides focuses on the equipment side of things in particular the bike.

Many people, particularly youngsters, have come to believe that they will only succeed if they have the most expensive equipment or in some cases the best brands. In doing so they forget to look at the ins and outs of a product and will often come away buying something that is overpriced and not fit for purpose.

Let’s look at the key piece of equipment, the bike. For those who have the luxury of not having to consider working on a budget then buying a bike that costs thousands, has the best gears, wheels etc will be the perfect choice. After all why settle for second best when you can have the best bike on offer. However for the majority, money is a factor to consider when buying a bike. The best time to buy a bike in my opinion is at the end of the season when that fantastic but expensive bike comes into your price range. Most manufacturers are bringing out their models for the following season and their dealers need to sell their previous stock, so this time of year produces the biggest bargains.


So it’s come to October and you have a budget in mind but you’re not sure what bike to buy. For the racer you are looking primarily at weight, stiffness and, most importantly, comfort.


Nowadays carbon frames are affordable and, for a road bike, in my opinion the best option. They are light, stiff and absorb vibrations well making them comfy to ride on. However don’t be put off by aluminium and titanium frames as both are light and strong. However titanium is often expensive whilst aluminium doesn’t absorb vibrations too well.


Nevertheless if you are working on a tight budget, an aluminium framed bike can be improved rapidly by spending the savings made by the frame on good quality components like the gears and wheels. The key is also to make sure you have the right size so that you are both comfortable and aerodynamic. No point in having the best frame if your feet can’t touch the pedals or your body is more upright than a wall. A proper bike fit will ensure you get the most optimum of riding positions.


The wheels are the key component of the bike and if looked at properly can save you the most weight and provide the most power. Some bikes come with a great frame but poor wheelsets to save on the overall price tag. Not to worry though, as upgrading wheels couldn’t be easier with such a vast choice currently available. The common theme is that you need to look for a wheel with the deepest rims. However while deep section rims are very aerodynamic in a straight line they can become troublesome in cross winds and they are not the cheapest to buy. Low profile rims are without exception lighter, easier to source and more economical to buy and tend to descend better. They also remain unaffected by strong cross winds.


It is also a good idea to see what tyres you are using with your wheels. You may have come to the conclusion that your wheels are no good and are hard to work with. In reality your problem may lie with your tyres. So rather than spending a fortune on new wheels, change your tyres first for something with less rolling resistance and better grip and then make a decision on whether to buy a new set of wheels.


The drivetrain is essentially what makes the bike go, so it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out it’s an important bit of kit. Nowadays mid-range groupsets are more than adequate. In my opinion you can save money on a chain and cassette, as some of the standard kit for these items isn’t much worse than the top of the range kit, you’re only looking at a bit of extra weight as the main drawback.


You should be looking more at the gear ratios. For instance some cassettes come with a gear ratio of 11×23, which is great for flat racing but if you’re tackling steep hills you may need to reconsider and look at getting something with a ratio of 12 x 28 or adjusting the rings on the chainset from a standard 53×39 to a 52×36. If buying from a local bike store this can be changed easily, you may have trouble though if you are buying online. But don’t worry if the bike you have seen comes with a basic cassette on, you can easily upgrade after all.


The most important part of the drivetrain to me is the shifters, derailleurs and the chainset. Get this right and you can have effortless shifting and a powerful drivetrain. To do so you I think you really need to be looking at the 105 range and above for Shimano or the equivalent in other brands like Campagnolo or SRAM.


There is nothing, however, to stop you mixing things up as long as it’s preferably using the same brand. For example, you can have Shimano 105 shifters and a Shimano Tiagra rear derailleur and more than likely you will still have top-quality shifting, and save a few quid while you’re at it.


Perhaps the most important bit of kit on a bike as without these you’ll be heading to hospital rather than the podium. Regardless of price, all brakes, as with all components on a bike, are legally certified as safe to use, so don’t think that by buying the cheapest set of brakes you are going to risk your safety. That been said, there are varying strengths of brakes and having the best brakes can aid handling significantly.


Most road bikes use the dual pivot brake system however there are more and more road bikes using disc brakes. When thinking about the quality of brakes you need to assess what part of the brake actually touches the wheel, which is of course the pad. It’s no use having the best brakes but having worn out cheap pads on. Try it in the rain and you’ll soon find out if I’m right. It’s much better to save money on the brake itself and buy top quality pads in my opinion.


The main steering of a bike consists of the handlebar and stem. Much has been made of having a carbon steering set but in truth the gains made here are minimal and will set you back a lot of cash. If you want to save weight and not spend too much have a look at some of the aluminium bars on offer and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how light they are. If you are concerned about absorbing shock then the best way forward is not necessarily buying the most expensive bars but rather have the right bar tape on. If it’s well padded then that can make all the difference and save you some money too.


The sizing of the bar is also a major factor that determines whether you have a comfortable ride or not. The narrow the bar the more aero you are obviously, but if this comes at a significant cost to comfort then look at getting something a bit wider. The width of the handlebars is usually made in accordance with the width of the rider’s shoulders, and can be anything from 38cm to 48cm, or wider in the case of some specialist cyclo cross riders. With the rider sitting astride the bike, the shoulders should be the same width as the handlebars, and the wrists should be approximately in line with the upper arms. When choosing a drop handlebar, check to see that the drops extend far enough back to give some relief to tired shoulder muscles on long rides.


The stem can be used as a form of adjustment. You can buy stems with varying degrees of angle to determine how upright or low you are. If you are looking for something extremely racy then look for a stem that stretches you out which will mean buying an extra-long stem. However don’t go overboard with this to the point where you are struggling to reach the bars. You’ll simply lose power by doing this.


My ultimate advice for this is get a saddle fit. Get it right and you don’t notice a good saddle, get it slightly wrong however and an uncomfortable perch will detract from the ride experience and leave you very sore. There’s no other component that comes down to personal preference more than saddle choice, which is why testing a number of shapes and sizes of saddles with your local dealer will help you come to a conclusion as to which is the best saddle for you. No need to sacrifice comfort for weight with this one.


With any bike make your buying choice primarily on the frame. This is the heart of the bike and the most important place to spend your money. Cheaper finishing kit such as bar and stems can be replaced or exchanged early on, possibly even at point of purchase as can personal choice items such as saddle or tyres.


Wheels are a popular area for upgrades so don’t be distracted by decent wheels on a cheaper frame set. Equally, components can be upgraded as they wear out or you become more serious. A few items of more expensive kit, particularly a rear mech, can influence a buyer into thinking a bike is of a higher quality than it really is. Look at the level of kit throughout the bike to see where savings may have been made. But remember this, you are the engine for the bike. I’d recommend working on yourself first and foremost before you start getting carried away with electronic gears and other fancy gadgets.


We’ve all heard the saying ‘all show, no go’ have we not?


Mark Walker
Road Race Secretary