OK, it’s time. You’ve seen groups of brightly clad cyclists on the road and in your mind they no longer look like aliens. They look like they’re having fun and darned if you don’t feel like joining in. Maybe for the fitness. Maybe for the social interaction. Maybe for the goal of riding 100 miles in a day. Or maybe you want to dip a competitive toe into racing. In any event, you’ve made the decision: You’re going to get a serious road bike.
Congratulations! That’s the easy part.
The answer to your first inevitable question – “What kind of road bike should I get?” – is a tad more complex. A lot depends on you, your goals, your level of fitness and, of course, your wallet. The permutations that include all the road bike variables like material, components and geometry are equally dizzying. Which leads to the second inevitable question: “Where do I start?” For that answer, it’s best to begin with the thing that holds everything together and gives the bike its character: the frame.
From road racing’s beginning days until about 40 years ago, steel was the frame material of choice for its abundance, ease of manipulation and compliance. Then pros began riding aluminum (cheaper, stiffer, lighter), and then carbon fiber (lighter still, also stiffer) – and the technological explosion that followed ensured that those materials became readily available to every cyclist. (Pros also briefly raced titanium frames, which have the qualities of steel but are lighter and considerably more expensive to make.)
Where does that leave you, the prospective racing bike buyer? With choices, obviously, and there are no bad ones. Bikes are better than they’ve ever been in part because of the huge advances in components and wheels, whose price points range from economical to astronomical. But before you wade into that morass it’s likely best to focus on your prospective bike’s backbone and the three main materials that can go into making it.
The first “carbon” bicycle you could buy was a hybrid of sorts, with tubes of aluminum wrapped in carbon, joined together by steel lugs and offered by a New Jersey company, Graftek, beginning in 1975. Plagued by quality problems, the company soon folded.
Skip forward a decade, in 1986, and Greg LeMond rode a lugged, all-carbon Look to his first Tour de France victory. That same year, Kestrel pioneered the first monocoque (one-piece) carbon bike, the swoopy, aerodynamic 4000 – and the floodgates opened. Now you’ll be hard-pressed to find any pros, let alone serious recreational cyclists, who aren’t riding carbon.
If you want the lightest, stiffest and most responsive bike imaginable, carbon is a perfect material. Its tensile strength is greater than aluminum or steel, and it weighs less. (The lightest complete road bike ever built, a German custom, came in at – and we are not making this up – 5.9 pounds.) Carbon fiber also has a damping quality that minimizes road “buzz” or vibration.
Each frame is hand-made, using sheets of heat-treated carbon fibers bonded with resin. The more heat treating, the lighter and stiffer the material becomes, often called “high-modulus” or “ultra-high-modulus.” The lightest of the light, like Kestrel’s Legend SL and its 625-gram frame, can mean a bike that is illegal for the pros – too light to pass the 15.1-pound minimum of cycling’s governing body. (But that won’t matter when you’re flying uphill on your 13-pound climber.)
Carbon fiber sheets can be popped into a mold and heated again into virtually any shape imaginable. The original round-tubed frames of the early carbon era have given way to modern, aerodynamic wind-cutters like the women’s Fuji Supreme. And because carbon has a directional weave, its sheets can be combined to make it stiffer in certain areas (for power transfer) and compliant in others (for comfort).
You also can combine carbon fiber with other materials to alter its properties. Fuji’s Gran Fondo frame is made with Vibration Reduction Technology, which adds polyurethane to the carbon fiber to cut the high-frequency vibrations you feel as road buzz by nearly 25 percent compared to a non-VRTech frame.
Because carbon fiber takes more time and costs more to manufacture, you’d expect frames made from it to cost more. And they do. As two-wheeled investments go, though, it’s one that pays off.
If you were lucky (?) enough to ride some of the original mass-produced aluminum frames in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, you’d never forget how stiff they were, compared to the steel bikes of that era. Perhaps “stiff” doesn’t accurately convey how they felt. Think “jackhammer,” or “bone rattling,” or “has anyone seen my teeth?” Those early aluminum tubes were larger and lighter than steel and had infinitely more power transfer. They gained not only a fast following among big-legged professional sprinters, but also a reputation for beating you up as the miles clicked by.
Now, fast-forward to today. Aluminum frames remain comparatively lighter and stiffer than steel but, thankfully, technology has laid the jackhammers to rest. Modern aluminum can be shaped and reinforced into frames like the 1,090-gram Fuji Roubaix that rival carbon for their weight and feel and yet maintain the maximum power transfer.
That same technology has given us what was once unthinkable: aluminum endurance bikes for comfort over long rides. Incorporating ideas from carbon frames, bikes like the Fuji Finest, with its Wave seat stays, provide dampening relief by allowing the back end to absorb bumps and road chatter. Combined with carbon-fiber forks to minimize road buzz, modern aluminum bikes are an economical yet comfortable alternative to high-zoot carbon.
Steel frames have disappeared from beneath professional riders and in many cases are only found on many manufacturers’ most inexpensive bikes. Yet steel still has a place in the go-fast crowd for one basic reason: the ride. You’ll hear its fans say, “steel is real” and they’re not wrong. The benchmark quality of ferrous metal is its compliance, a sublime feel over nearly every kind of road surface that all other materials try to – and never quite – replicate.
And yes, steel is generally still heavier than aluminum or carbon – generally, but not exclusively. At the North American Handmade Bicycle Show in 2016, Oregon bike builder Rob English showed off his one-off, stainless-steel road bike that weighed 9.9 pounds, fully loaded. For the most part, though, you’ll only find steel-framed, high-end road bikes from small, boutique or custom builders whose wait times are long and costs are carbon-like.
There are exceptions, though.
Although marketed as an adventure rig, the Breezer Inversion is a seriously lightweight steel bike that is as equally at home in a paceline, or on long stretches of road, as it is off-piste. Built of specially-sourced, high-grade and hydroformed chromoly steel from Japan that rivals custom tubing from boutique builders, the Inversion is surprisingly light and does what any good road bike does: make the road disappear beneath you.
What, then, is your bottom line?
If you want the latest, lightest, highest-tech material frame and cost is not as much of an object, then go with carbon fiber. You’ll have your choice of bikes that are full-on aero or have more traditional tube shapes. You can pick from frames that are pro-rider stiff, with instant power transfer, or those that are more compliant over long miles. And with the right amount of outlay, you can even ride a bike that is too light for the pros.
If you want most of that but your finances are such that you’re a few dollars shy, go with aluminum. The use of the soda-can metal has made enormous strides in the last few years, with bikes whose stiffness, ride and weight now rival that of carbon. You will still have your choice of full-on racer or all-day endurance bikes and, depending on your choice of components and if you opt for a model with a carbon fork, you can still find yourself on a sub-20-pound bike that can do it all with lots of smile miles.
And if you value ride feel above everything, steel is definitely the real deal. You will pay a weight penalty over carbon and aluminum, although not as much as tradition would have you believe. What you’ll get is a bike that is the most road-compliant, that for the most part ignores the bumps, and one that you can ride for endless miles in comfort that the other materials can’t match.
Again, there are no bad choices, and there is no one-material-fits-all answer. You’ll learn a lot by taking test rides and experimenting. It may sound overly esoteric, but listen to the bike when it speaks to you. Your Goldilocks choice is out there.
Enjoy the ride.