How to Buy a Road Bike if You're a Mountain Biker

Cycling Expert Thomas Olmsted details the different components to look for in a road bike when making the transition from mountain biking!

Several road bikers all ride together on a road.

Beginning of the 104 mile Fulton Gran Fondo in Minneapolis, MN. Photo by Thomas Olmsted

You know how to bomb down the mountain, sending it on your hardtail or full-suspension beast while dominating that technical section and catching some air. But you’re suddenly struck with the urge to see how that smooth road tarmac feels. So you decide you want to ride some serious miles, increase your fitness, and race your way through the local fondo and criteriums. But as a mountain biker, venturing into the world of road biking can seem foreign. This guide will help you navigate the nuance of road bikes and set you on your way to riding on the road.

Frame Style

Unlike mountain bikes, where there are multiple frame types and styles, there are two primary types of road bikes frame styles: endurance and race.

Endurance

The Cannondale Synapse Carbon 4 Bike.

Cannondale Synapse Carbon 4, an endurance bike

Endurance bikes come with a frame geometry that keeps you a bit more upright, allowing you to have a more comfortable ride and keeping you from having to hunch forward too far. Typically, they also have a longer wheelbase (how far the wheels are from each other) which adds to comfort, feeling more upright, and better handling. All of this combines for a bike suited for fitness and long rides. In addition, endurance frames typically allow for wider tires, which improves comfort and versatility.

Race

The BMC Teammachine SLR 2 Bike.

BMC Teammachine SLR 2, a race bike

Race bikes are meant to put you in aggressive positions to help you gain those extra MPHs. Race bike frames are made to be as stiff as possible, meaning you get the most power transfer from you to the bike, thus increasing your speed and ability to accelerate. Race frames are typically lighter than their endurance counterparts and provide optimal efficiency and responsiveness. However, this frame will require the rider to have good flexibility throughout their body. Race frames need a thinner tire, which contributes to its aerodynamic qualities, but detracts from the ride's comfort.

Frame Material

Aluminum/Alloy

The most common and more budget-friendly option is an aluminum, or alloy, frame. You can find aluminum frames on most entry-level and mid-range bikes. Aluminum frames are light but are known for superb durability. A minor crash or frame issue can be fixed without too much work because aluminum isn’t brittle. At the mid-range of aluminum frames, bikes will typically be equipped with a carbon fork. You get the benefits of weight savings and a smoother ride without spending a premium on a full carbon frame. Aluminum can be the perfect choice for the person who is getting introduced to road cycling or looking for a bike that will last them many years.

Carbon Fiber

Carbon fiber is the holy grail of frame material, whether you’re riding mountain or road bikes. Carbon frames are ultra-lightweight and will be your most comfortable ride, regardless of the frame style. This is because carbon is compliant and absorbs vibrations easily. However, carbon frames can’t handle the same beating an aluminum frame can, with damage being much harder to fix if a repair is possible at all. Carbon will also be significantly more expensive upfront. If you’re looking to go as fast as possible and race, carbon could be a good option.

Steel

While uncommon, steel frames do exist. They make some rugged and tough bikes. Steel frames can be great for bikepacking or places with poor road conditions. However, steel-frame bikes are much heavier than all other options and aren’t great for someone looking to improve their fitness or race.

Titanium

While uncommon, titanium frames are the best of all three combined materials. They are durable, super lightweight, resistant to erosion, and very compliant. However, these frames are pretty rare in today’s market. Manufacturers must spend significantly more to produce these frames, making a more expensive bike. It’s also much more difficult to mass-produce titanium frames, unlike aluminum or carbon. If you can snag a titanium frame at a reasonable price, go for it!

Groupsets

Similar to mountain bikes, Shimano and SRAM dominate the groupset market in road bikes. Campagnolo also designs higher-end groupsets, but the Campy brand can be a bit harder to find. Below is a graph that depicts the target audience for each and the comparative pricing you can expect. The mid-range is more than enough for the vast majority of riders. Shimano 105, SRAM Rival, and Campy Potenza can be considered upper mid-range or your entry into the high-end market. These will provide 11 speeds, lightweight parts, and smooth shifting without the extra price markups from your other high-end options.

PriceShimanoSRAMCampagnolo
Entry$Claris--
Entry$Sora--
Mid-Range$$TiagraApexCentaur
Mid-Range$$$105RivalPotenza
High-End$$$$Ultegra/Ultegra Di2Force/Force eTap AXSChorus/Chorus EPS & Record/Record EPS
High-End

$

Dura Ace/Dura Ace Di2Red/Red Force eTap AXSSuper Record/Super Record EPS

Brake Types

Rim Brake

A rim brake on a bike.

Rim Brake. Photo by Mustache Cactus

Rim brakes are extremely common to see on road bikes. They typically consist of a clamp outside the wheel that clamps down on the tire when pulling the brake. Rim brakes are lightweight and easily maintained. In addition, rim brake bikes tend to be more budget-friendly due to fewer components.

Disc Brake

A disc break on a bike.

Disc Brake. Photo by Harvey Tan Villarino

Common on mountain bikes for quite a while, disc brakes are now becoming more common on road bikes. They are the best option for providing quick and effective braking with more stopping power than rim brakes. There are two varieties of disc brakes: mechanical and hydraulic. Think of mechanical discs like rim brakes, except the brake clamps down on a rotor instead of the wheel itself. Hydraulic disc brakes use hydraulic fluid to trigger compression within the brake caliper. The use of fluid increases the force you can apply while braking. Disc brakes provide quick stopping force but can be a bit heavier, making maintenance much more difficult.

Common Upgrades That Could Influence Your Bike Choice

If you’re always thinking about how you can upgrade your mountain bike, chances are you’ll feel the same way about your new road bike. Here are a few common upgrades and considerations that go with them that could help you decide which bike to get in the first place.

Groupset

Upgrading your groupset is a great way to get lighter components and more versatility out of your bike. But it is important to understand the complexities of groupset upgrades. It is relatively easy to upgrade from one to the next IF they have the same speeds. If they don’t, then it may not be worth it. For example, upgrading from Shimano 105 to Shimano Ultegra is not too difficult because both are 2x11 speed bikes. However, upgrading from Shimano Tiagra (2x10) to Shimano 105 (2x11) requires significantly more work and cost. If you want a bike you can upgrade in the future, consider starting with groupsets that can upgrade easily by having the same speeds.

Wheelset

This is one of the most recommended upgrades in road cycling, depending on your riding style. A good wheelset can make you go faster, make you more efficient, and allow you to reserve a bit of power. However, this can be the costliest upgrade, with some carbon wheelsets potentially costing as much or more than your bike. Therefore, when looking for a road bike, consider the wheelset that comes on it. If you don’t plan to upgrade your wheelset, it could be worth choosing a bike with a good pair of wheels.

Final Thoughts

A bike parked next to a tree looking out on the Mississippi Trail.

Looking out over the Mississippi River. Photo by Thomas Olmsted

While there might be less variety in the road bike world compared to mountain bikes, there is still quite a bit of nuance to understand to ensure you’ll get what you’re looking for. So head over to Curated and chat with a Cycling Expert to get an even better idea of what’s on the market.

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Written By
Hi Friends! I'm excited to help you find whatever gear you need to pursue your passion of hitting the road or trail. I've been on bikes ever since I was little, and have been lucky enough to find ways to continue finding new places to ride as I have gotten older. I originally was into Mountain Bikin...

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