If it’s a first serious road bike you’re looking for or upgrading from a department store clunker, buying an entry-level road bike can potentially change your life. Do it wrong and you might walk away from the most uplifting sport in the world without a chance to experience how enjoyable it can be. This is because bike—for obvious reasons—is the most important tool in cycling. It makes sense then to get the right bike if you want to enjoy road cycling in full.
Entry-level road bikes, unlike high-end race machines, are a little tricky to pick. In part, this is because true entry-level road bikes are lumped up with all kinds of road bikes that fall below a certain price point. It works well for sales people but makes picking an entry-level road bike confusing. You can spend $400 on one or triple of that amount—what’s the difference, they all look about the same, right? With so many choices, it’s easy to get lost and end up with a bike that will be a pain in the neck to ride, sometimes literally.
A Common Mistake Made Choosing an Entry-Level Road Bike
As a beginner cyclist, the most common mistake you can do is base your buying decision mostly on price and go for a cheap road bike. Some of the reasons you may come up with to justify your thinking will be something like:
- I’m not sure if I’ll like road cycling or not, so I’ll spend the least possible amount of money before I make up my mind;
- I’ll upgrade later if I like road cycling;
- I’ll only ride couple of hours a week, any road bike will do;
- I need something simple and cheap;
- Good road bikes are designed for racing and since I’m not going to race, I don’t need a decent road bike.
Sounds pragmatic and thoughtful, and it is, except not every pragmatic and thoughtful approach works with road bikes. Here’s why:
- Part of the joy of riding a road bike is having a well functioning machine under you. Cheap road bikes begin to misfire soon after you purchase them. Before you have had a chance to get into the groove of things, you’re off to your local bike shop to fix a broken spoke, true the wheel, tune your gear shifting because it’s out of synch with the indexing mechanism, do something about a squeak that drives you crazy on your rides, or look at the brakes that don’t return or rub on your wheels. Not only the amount of money you saved on a cheap road bike is now gone to the bike shop, the ongoing problems will drive you away from the sport;
- The “spend little now and upgrade later if I like cycling” path may sound reasonable at first glance but is more expensive than it should be if you do the math: you drop $400-600 on a cheap bike and then another $1,000-1,300 on a good one later, making the total outlay close to $2,000 (or more with all the repairs). Why would you do that? What are you going to do with the cheap bike after you upgrade? Sell it? Good luck with that. With the good bike though, you should be able to sell it second hand for at least half the retail price you paid if you decide not to ride anymore;
- If you plan to ride only couple of hours a week, the consequences of riding an unreliable road bike will be delayed, but they’ll come sooner or later and you’ll be faced either with unnecessary expenses or having to buy a better bike;
- If you want something simple and cheap, a cheap road bike is cheap alright, but not simple. Just like any road bike today, it’s made with index shifting, free-wheel cassette, integrated headset and bottom bracket. Unless these components are well made, properly installed and tuned, they’ll spoil your riding once they start to misbehave. If you really want something simple, you’ll have to look for a single-speed bike;
- Good road bikes are not designed for racing alone. You can race them, for sure, but they’re designed to be ridden on all kinds of roads and conditions for long periods of time with minimum maintenance. Which is what you want should you fall in love with road cycling. And you will if you get yourself a decent road bike.
What Is an Entry-Level Road Bike?
With these thoughts in mind, what is a good entry-level road bike for beginners?
I believe the 3 most important requirements a road bike must meet to be an entry-level bike are:
- Components: Shimano 105 or similar level components group (e.g. SRAM Rival or Campagnolo Veloce). Watch out for models designated “105” (referring to Shimano 105) with only the shifters from the Shimano 105 components group;
- Robust wheels;
- Frame built by an established, respected manufacturer.
To help you decide what entry-level road bike to buy, I researched what’s available from online retailers and made a list of 5 bikes for you to consider. Contrary to what some people believe about buying a bike online, it’s not necessary to test-ride an entry-level road bike to make an informed buying decision as long as you get the frame size right when you buy online (more on this later).
Let’s start with an interesting package from Chain Reaction Cycles:
If Shimano 105 or similar components group is a minimum requirement for an entry-level road bike, this bike goes one step beyond and offers the entire drivetrain from the Shimano Ultegra group, a group one level above 105. This Vitus Zenium VRS was upgraded to Ultegra because it’s a 2014 model. One of those bargains.
Vitus Zenium VRS Highlights
- Shimano Ultegra 11-speed shifters
- Shimano Ultegra rear and front derailleurs
- Shimano Ultegra 11-speed cassette
- Easton EA70 wheels
- Hydroformed triple butted alloy frame
- Carbon forks
When I found this bike, I was somewhat surprised—a carbon Pinarello for under 2 grand? This Pinarello FP Due is a 2013 model and with that more than US$1,000 is gone. For some, an older model can be an off point but don’t be hung up on model years. Bikes are not cars and unless a major frame design change was introduced with a new model, bikes, especially entry-level road bikes, do not change much from year to year.
If this bike fits your budget, grab it while it’s still available.
Pinarello FP Due Highlights
- High-modulus, Pinarello-quality carbon frame and forks
- SRAM Rival 10-speed shifters
- SRAM Rival rear and front derailleurs
- SRAM Rival crankset
- Shimano R500 wheels (solid and durable)
The rest of the components are supplied by Pinarello’s own brand—MOst. They’re of good quality and should serve you well on your journeys.
If you prefer a Shimano 105 equipped Pinarello FP Due and your height is between 5’7” and 5’10” (170-178cm), Competitive Cyclist has a few 2012 medium size models you can buy for US$1,699.
The carbon bonanza does not end with the FP Due (and you thought an entry-level road bike can only have an alloy frame?). Next on the list is a carbon fiber frame manufacturing pioneer—Kestrel.
Back in 1986 when everybody was still welding steel frames, Kestrel was the first in the bike industry to start building bicycle frames using bladder-molded monocoque carbon structures. If anybody knows how to design and build a carbon fiber bike frame, these guys are it.
Kestrel Legend Shimano 105 Highlights
- High-modulus carbon fiber frame and forks
- Shimano 105 11-speed shifters
- Shimano 105 rear and front derailleurs
- Oval Concepts 327 wheels
- US$1,080 (XX-Large Size)
- US$1,505 (57cm Size)
- US$1,730 (55cm Size)
- US$1,780 (53cm and X-Large Sizes)
Two top-tier professional cycling teams rock the peloton on Scott bikes: Orica Greenedge and IAM Cycling. From this and other projects come knowledge and experience in building outstanding, quality road bikes. This Scott Speedster 20 may not be a top professional’s weapon of choice, but it’s a solid entry-level road bike worth to have a good look at.
Scott Speedster 20 Highlights
- Shimano 105 11-speed shifters
- Shimano 105 rear and front derailleurs
- Shimano 105 11-speed cassette
- Hydroformed, double-butted 6061 aluminum frame with carbon forks
REI members will get back an estimated $129 as part of their annual member refund. This will bring the price down to US$1,170.
I thought I would throw something different in the mix—a cyclocross bike. Cross bikes are close cousins of road bikes but with a few engineering tweaks they can double as off-road machines. Because of this versatility, cyclocross bikes make excellent commuters with their wide tires and brake calipers that will never get clogged by mud (should you choose to take muddy shortcuts to work). They’re usually sold with knobby tires which will slow you down somewhat on the road. If you’re going to do bunch rides, you might want to swap for a pair of this excellent 28c Continental Gatorskin tires for a smoother ride and to keep up with everybody.
Diamondback Steilacoom RCX Highlights
- Shimano 105 10-speed shifters
- Shimano 105 rear and front derailleurs
- Fully butted alloy frame
- Carbon monocoque forks
This Diamondback Steilacoom RCX is a 2013 model and is sold at a discount.
Looking at the pictures, you probably noticed none of the bikes come with pedals. This is normal practice because there are different, incompatible pedal/cleats systems. If, for example, you already own shoes with cleats from one system and the bike is sold with a different system, there will be a problem. This is why pedals (which come with cleats) are sold separately.
In my opinion, the best pedals to go on a beginner’s bike are Shimano R550 SPD-SL.
They’re well made, durable, inexpensive and will serve you for a long time.
Looking at the bikes I picked, it’s easy to see that the 2 alloy road bikes are similarly priced just like the 2 carbon bikes are. To help you better understand what each bike has to offer, I created these side-by-side tables with every major detail listed.
First, compare the alloy Vitus Zenium VRS and Scott Speedster 20:
|Vitus Zenium VRS||Scott Speedster 20|
|Hydroformed triple butted alloy frame and carbon forks||Hydroformed double-butted alloy frame and carbon forks|
|Shimano Ultegra 11-speed shifters||Shimano 105 11-speed shifters|
|Shimano Ultegra derailleurs||Shimano 105 derailleurs|
|Shimano Ultegra 11-speed cassette||Shimano 105 11-speed cassette|
|Easton EA70 wheels||Syncros (rims) / Formula Team (hubs) wheels|
The Vitus Zenium VRS wins at every point, including the price, although it must be said that if you buy your Scott Speedster 20 from REI, you could be eligible for member’s 10% refund and free US shipping. One caveat with the Vitus though—at this price and with Shimano Ultegra gear, Chain Reaction Cycles have only 3 frame sizes: 50cm, 52cm and 54cm.
Now the carbon guys:
|Pinarello FP Due||Kestrel Legend|
|US$1,680||US$1,505 – $1,780 (for most sizes)|
|High-modulus carbon frame and forks||High-modulus carbon frame and forks|
|SRAM Rival 10-speed shifters||Shimano 105 11-speed shifters|
|SRAM Rival derailleurs||Shimano 105 derailleurs|
|SRAM Rival crankset||Oval Concepts 520 crankset|
|Shimano R500 wheels||Oval Concepts 327 wheels|
Closely priced, similar components—a tough pick, although Kestrel Legend is an 11-speed rig. I’m afraid it will come down to a color choice with this pair.
Frame Size Guide
Getting your bike’s frame size wrong is as bad as getting wrong size shoes. Unlike choosing the right shoe size, you don’t have to nail your bike’s size 100%. As long as you get it close enough, you’ll be fine. If the size is slightly off, you can adjust your position on the bike by:
- changing the saddle height
- changing the saddle’s fore-aft position
- changing the stem height, or
- changing the stem length
Road frames used to be measured in centimeters by the length of the seat tube. With the advent of compact (slopping top tube) frame design in the ’90s, frames are now measured by the length of the top tube. To keep with the cycling’s tradition of not having any standards, some manufacturers continue to use metric measurements while others adapted a naming convention of “small”, “medium” and so on.
Here is a guide to help you pick the right frame size:
|Height||Traditional Size||Compact Size|
| 5’2” – 5’4”
(157cm – 163cm)
|48cm – 50cm||XS|
| 5’4” – 5’7”
(163cm – 170cm)
|50cm – 54cm||S|
| 5’7” – 5’10”
(170cm – 178cm)
|54cm – 56cm||M|
| 5’10” – 6’0”
(178cm – 183cm)
| 6’0” – 6’3”
(183cm – 191cm)
|58cm – 60cm||L|
| 6’3” – 6’6”
(191cm – 198cm)
|60cm – 64cm||XL|
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