10 Minute Read

Road Bike Buyer's Guide: Frames

A beginner's guide to understanding how to buy the main component of your road bike. Image contains: Factor O2 VAM, Specialized Roubaix, trees, filtered light, road, bicycle riders, bicycle helmet.

Just like riding a bike

There really is something freeing about riding a bike. That feeling as a kid, waking up the morning of your birthday, or perhaps getting up before your parents on Christmas morning, finding that new bike waiting for you. As a child, this represented freedom. Your ability to take off and go somewhere, to do whatever you wanted.

Comic from www.yehudamoon.com of a man riding a bicycle, channeling his inner child

I know I felt this way, except that unfortunately for me, I grew up on a steep hill. So my feeling of freedom was more found during my teenage years when I got my first car. But I did have a few bikes as child, regardless, so that feeling is still there for me. It just lay dormant for some time until I discovered it again in my later twenties.

So you want a bike. But what kind?

When I first got into riding as an adult, I found myself originally wanting a mountain bike. I liked the Trek Mamba that I found at my local Trek dealer, and loved the feeling I had when I went up and over a curb or on to some dirt patches in the parking lot. I had discovered some of this when I was living in Ohio for a few years. But when I went seriously looking for a bike, it was ultimately a decision I made based on social and convenience factors.

This is basically how I’ve found people to get started with when it comes to bikes. They’re typically presented with three main choices at the bike shop:

  • Mountain Bikes: the badass ones you see on the Red Bull ads, the ones that you feel will take you anywhere, the big tires, the suspension, the seat posts that drop on their own, usually wide bars and an upright riding position.
  • Road Bikes: the ones that will make your neighbors think you’re trying to be Lance Armstrong, drop bars, marketed to you as a way to achieve fitness goals, the ones that all your friends with a remote interest in bikes will want to pick up and remark at how light it feels.
  • Hybrid Bikes: a combination of the two, usually with flat bars but resembling one of the two other options, sold to you as the “best of both worlds” when in reality it does neither very well.

This whole website is very much road bike centric, as that has been my speciality over the past few years, so my first-hand knowledge on mountain bikes is a bit limiting. So let’s just assume that you’re here looking at getting your first road bike.

Maybe it’s a way to get out of the house during pandemic times. Maybe it’s a way to lose some weight. Or perhaps it’s just a way to rekindle that joy you felt as a child. Either way, let’s chat about it around the water cooler.

First up, the Frame

This is, believe it or not, a bit of a hotly debated topic these days. Traditionally, road bikes were just…road bikes. They were pretty boxy, dimension wise, and were typically classified by the number of gears it had. Or perhaps by the brand.

Specialized Centurion Bicycle

These days, there are actually several “types” of road bike frames, each of which will do some things better than others and some things not as well as the others.

It’s a bit more nuanced than that, of course.

“Race” Frames

These are the thoroughbreds of the sport. When compared to other road bike frames, you’ll notice differences like so:

  • Small / short headtube (the tube where the handlebars sit on top)
  • They’re all about counting grams (how much the frame weighs)
  • Carbon is the name of the game here, and the more of it, the “better it is”, as us cyclists tend to say
  • They can get into distinguishing “blends” of carbon, even, believe it or not, talking about “layup” and “weave”
  • Marketed as “stiff” because you don’t want any loss in power transfer
  • Skinnier tires (although that is changing), less clearance, more focus on aerodynamics in some cases
  • Typically the most expensive in the line up
Wilier Zero7 Race Bicycle Frames

I’m a sucker for this stuff, to be open and honest about it. I love the feeling of speed, the wind whooshing through my deep profile, carbon wheels, the literal lurch forward of my entire body when really pressing down hard on the pedals and letting those bars pull against me. These bikes even get subdivided further, believe it or not, into frames that are marketed more towards more climbing or aerodynamics focused.

But technology is as technology is, and a lot of the tech that you find in these kinds of frames often find themselves rather quickly into lower lines of frames within the “race” genre as well as into other frame types.

A side point about these frames

Years ago, it was significantly more common for race bikes to look the way we have traditionally looked at bikes that the professionals rode. That meant a straight and nearly level top tube, which is the tube that people will often pick a bike up by. However, in the mid-1990’s, Giant came out with a bike called the TCR, meaning “Total Compact Road”, and it changed the name of the game.

Mid 1990’s Giant Total Compact Road or TCR frame bike

The intention behind this radical departure of the frame was its “slack” top tube, meaning that it sloped down at a high angle, more like a mountain bike frame does. What this allowed for was the focus for customization of parts to be on the parts like the handlebars, the stem, the seatpost instead of the frames themselves, which are significantly more complicated and expensive to make in multiple sizes. It’s why Giant still sells these frames today and why many manufacturers will sell frames by “small”, “medium”, or “large” sizes.

There’s a very complete history of this frame over at CyclingWeekly’s website. Give it a read if you’re curious, it’s fascinating.

“Endurance” Frames

Honestly, I’m not sure exactly what one would really notice between this and a race frame if you’re new to the sport, so this may be a great spot to get started. Especially if you’re more cost conscious and maybe aren’t as obsessed with speed as I am.

  • More slack in its fit, so a more upright riding position
  • Built more for longer distance and comfortability as opposed to raw speed
  • Typically room for larger tires, as that’s the source of a lot of comfort on the road and where the market is going
  • Less focus on weight, less carbon typically
  • Better price point

A few good examples of “endurance” type frames are the Specialized Roubaix and the Canyon Endurace.

Cyclecross Frames

I have very little experience here as to this type, but the people that ride cyclecross are not to be trifled with. It’s an interesting racing style, where you’re basically riding 90% of what normal people would want to take a mountain bike on, but while doing it with skinner tires and usually some level of knobs on those tires. You can find fun videos of races online for the sport, too, as a lot of it requires insane bike handling skills and times where you need to hop off the bike to get over obstacles. It’s crazy fun doing that kind of riding, and most people who are active in the cross scene are also racers “in the off season”.

Chances are, if you’re reading this post, and you’re not familiar with a cross bike, you may be better off sticking to one of the other types of frames for now, as this kind of frame is a bit more specialized than most beginners are going to want to consider. See the Canyon InFlite for an example of one of these bikes.

“Adventure” Frames

This one is kind of difficult to categorize, as it’s kind of subdivision of the endurance style above while retaining other interesting things on its own that are more akin to cyclecross. From what I’ve seen, this means:

  • Sometimes huge focus on weight savings, like on the race frames
  • Some are basically full on cyclecross style bikes, with a lot of carbon, while others are more traditional aluminum or steel
  • Room for large tires, but still rated in millimeters as opposed to inches (like MTB tires typically are)
  • Not necessarily made for light weight
  • Some are made to tow trailers and have space for pannier bags with multiple tie-down spots on the frame (for bikepacking)

I currently have a Niner RLT9, while made of steel, is very much an “adventure” bike.

Time Trial Bikes

These bikes are basically so different here that it’s kind of hard to truly classify them even as a “road bike”. They’re the one you’ll typically see triathletes buying (and subsequently selling), as they are extremely purpose driven. You can tell one of these frames by an extremely aggressive seating position (really far reach to those bars, seating on the very front of the saddle, etc), very chunky frames when viewed from the side while retaining a small front cross section, and typically a set of “tri” bars that allow a rider to grip two parallel-with-the-road bars to get into the most aerodynamic position possible.

Trek Speed Concept 9.9 Time Trial bike

Much like the cyclecross frames above, if you’re reading this and are not already familiar with this kind of bike, I would also suggest sticking to those other frames instead. These kinds of bikes are typically for those very interested in short, fast, and typically uncomfortable riding at (often) the expense of handling for a very specific kind of event. I would actually go as far as saying that if you’re a newbie here and really want to get into triathlons, I’d still recommend a more traditional kind of road bike frame over one of these.

Put emphasis on the frame purchasing decision

I wanted to stress this separately. Often times, you can go in to the bike shop and get stuck between a “better frame” with “lesser quality components” and another bike that has a “lesser quality frame” with “better components”. If you find yourself in this position and don’t have a very specific reason for purchasing the lesser quality frame, go for the one with the better frame.

You can always upgrade the components. You can’t easily just upgrade the frame.

Saving some money

Just like buying a car, bikes have model years. A lot of the bikes for major brands are released during the earlier summer months, in preparation for various trade shows and major bike racing events like the Tour de France, where the new tech are all announced and showcased. Going in to a shop and buying last year’s model can save you a ton of money if you’re flexible with what specific components and frame you want.

Kestrel Bicycle on Sale

If you look at the above photo, the price for the bike above was originally about $6500, but because it was last year’s model at the time, it was on sale for $5000.

Disc vs Rim Brakes

Let’s not go into the debate there just yet (trust me, it’s a hotly debated topic online), but for the same reason you can purchase last year’s models for cheaper compared to this year’s, so can you also get a good deal (typically) on rim brake road bike models as opposed to disc brake ones.

This is important for a few reasons

First, whether you opt for disc brakes or rim brakes will affect the bike frame you get. You are NOT able to simply “upgrade” to disc brakes later, as this requires a complete change in geometry of the frame itself.

Next, the market has been moving towards disc as the preferred braking type, so rim brakes are typically going to be sold for a little cheaper in price, as there is often less of a demand for them. Sorry if you’re reading this and are a die-hard rim brake fan, it’s just how things are moving.

Finally, if you’re a heavier rider, you’ll find that braking with disc brakes is definitely preferred to rim braking, as the clamping force on the brakes is a bit more natural for most. It also allows for greater modulation and, if going with a hydraulic brake line / lever, less fatigue in the hands on long descents.

Next up…

Next up, let’s talk about components, shall we? I know, I know, let’s just buy a bike already! We’ll get there, I promise. I just think these are important topics to discuss!

The Latest