I’m not implying that a road bike isn’t a normal bike or that any normal bike can’t be ridden on the road because, to a certain extent all bikes are road bikes aren’t they (!?) But, what I’m trying to get at is the differences that make a bike specifically designed for road cycling eg fitness training, sportives and maybe road racing different from hybrids, tourers and mountain bikes.
So, with that confusing area of complication nominally cleared up (really?!) what is the difference between a road bike and a normal bike?
A road bike is designed for cycling well, er, on the road. This means exclusively that it is not suitable for going down bumpy tracks (believe me you will only try this once as your backside gets hammered by the puny little saddle as you bump over every tiny undulation), it’s not in the least bit suitable for carrying home the shopping on and, to be honest it’s a pain to commute on and be stopping and starting in traffic especially if you have clipless pedals and road shoes on.
A road bike is designed for one thing and one thing only – speed. And in order to go as fast as possible it needs to be as light as possible and as aerodynamic as possible as well.
Road bike frames usually dispense with heavier steel frames and are often made of aluminium or carbon. The frame is shaped so that the rider is naturally seated in a streamlined position and this is helped by the low curved handle bars. Some frames have a more aggressive (ie painful!) lower position designed for racing and others a more relaxed and upright position which offers a few minor concessions to long term comfort for sportives and social rides.
It’s worth pointing out that most people will opt for a “sportive” road bike as the aggressive racing position requires a strength and flexibility that only comes from a lot of training and commitment to having your head down and bum in the air for a long time. It’s tempting to think that the excitement of the “racing position” will carry you through but believe me a “sportive” bike can be uncomfortable enough after a while and the minute gains of the slightly more aerodynamic racing position will pale into insignificance once the back pain kicks in after a few minutes! This is all to do with the dark and mystic art of what’s referred to in cycling circles as “geometry” (instant turn off as I hated Maths at school!) and the relationships between the lengths of tubes, top and bottom etc etc Snore………………!
An aluminium framed bike is noticeably lighter than a steel framed one and you do feel, on a road bike, that you are not wasting your energy hauling around a load of heavy steel tubes under your butt! Every effort you put into your legs seems to instantly translate into power going through the wheels and this is a great feeling! Some road bike frames go a step further and have carbon front forks which again saves more weight and apparently is a little more flexible than metal and soaks up a bit of the road and some have carbon seat tubes for similar reasons. A full carbon framed road bike is assumed to be the ultimate in lightness and speed.
The weight saving theme continues throughout the whole bike in terms of using as light weight components as possible and generally road bikes won’t have mudguards or any carriers or other extras. Even the wheels and tyres are lightweight and are usually very thin with little tread as opposed to other bikes that might have chunky grippy tires for biking along tracks and lanes.
This all adds up to a streamlined bike that is perfect for bombing along smooth roads but little else.
It’s worth mentioning that all of this streamlining and weight saving does come at a cost and, to a certain extent that is the comfort of the rider. A road bike doesn’t have any suspension to speak of and road bike frames are very taught and stiff and saddles and handlebars are equally as unforgiving as well. Many commuter bikes and hybrid bikes will have some sort of suspension on the seat and possibly even hydraulic suspension as well and this makes a huge difference to the overall feel of the bike in terms of it’s handling and rider comfort.
In terms of handling as well a commuter, hybrid or mountain bike will have wider and more responsive handle bars perfect for precision balancing and steering. The road bike’s narrow and low handlebars are great for going fast in a straight line but less responsive when trying to maneuver through narrow spaces or weave through traffic. A majority of road bike riders will use a clipless pedal system as well for maximum power transfer and therefore speed and these are a pain in slow moving traffic and stop start riding in town.
So which type of bike is right for you? Well it’s really hard to say as everyone’s needs and desires are different. It is, of course perfectly possible to do a sportive or even a road race on a hybrid bike and to commute on a road bike but there will be compromises. Riding a pure road bike up a mountain track would probably be a recipe for disaster and riding a fully fledged mountain bike for a 100 mile sportive a bit of a struggle! It all depends on what type of cycling you are mainly going to be doing, whether you want to get a specialist bike for the purpose or would be better off with a bit of the best of both worlds!
For me a road bike is perfect. I train on it, tour on it and love riding it but it’s useless for just jumping on in my normal clothing and popping off to the train station for example or into town to do a bit of shopping. For this I still keep my vintage “gentlemen’s bike”, it goes at half the speed for twice the effort but the soft sprung leather saddle and luxuriant sit up and beg seating position do have a certain appeal. But, it’s the stripped down speed of the road bike on the open road I love so that’s the bike I spend a majority of my time riding.