Road Bikes for Beginners Explained [2019 Update]

Finding the right beginner road bike can be a pain in the neck. Too many options to choose from. It’s a little tricky to pick a beginner road bike in a sea of what looks like the same products.

This is because the beginner road bike category is defined by price and not by the bike’s intended purpose. The result — many bike stores throw almost any bike under $1000 in the beginner road bike basket together with commuters and recreational bikes. Quite a mixed bag.

In this post, you’ll learn how to narrow down your search to find your perfect beginner road bike.

Choosing a Beginner Road Bike the Right Way

As a beginner cyclist, the most common mistake you can make is to base your buying decision on price alone and go for a cheap road bike. Some of the reasons you might come up with to justify your thinking could be something like:

  • At this stage, I don’t know if cycling is for me so I’ll spend the least amount of money before I make up my mind.
  • If I like cycling, I’ll upgrade later.
  • I ride only a couple of hours a week so any road bike will do.
  • I need something simple and cheap.
  • You need a good road bike only if you race. I don’t race so whatever is cheap will do.

Sounds pragmatic except pragmatism doesn’t work for us in every situation.

Here’s why:

You Get What You Pay For

Part of the joy of riding a road bike is riding a bike that works. Cheap road bikes misfire soon after you purchase them. Before you get into the groove of things, you’re off to your local bike shop to fix a broken spoke, true a wheel, tune your gear shifting because it’s out of sync 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” thinking may sound pragmatic at first but is more expensive than it should be if you do the math: you spend $400-$600 on a cheap bike and then another $1,000-$1,300 on a good one later, making the total spend close to $2,000 (or more with all the repairs).

Why would you do this? 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 to get rid of it.

If you plan to ride only a couple of hours a week, the consequences of riding an unreliable road bike will be delayed, but you’ll have to face them sooner or later. You’ll have to spend on repairs or buy a better bike anyway.

Simple And Cheap? No They’re Not

If you want something simple and cheap, a cheap road bike is cheap alright, but not simple. Just like any modern road bike, it’s made with index shifting, freewheel 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 want something simple, buy a single-speed bike.

Entry-Level Road Bike or Not — Quality Rules

Good road bikes are not designed for racing alone. You can race them if you want 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 cycling. And you will if you get yourself a decent road bike. 

What Is a Beginner 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 a good beginner bike are:

1. Components

Depending on how much you want to spend, pick a bike equipped with Shimano 105, Shimano Tiagra, Shimano Sora or Shimano Claris components.

Components manufacturers such as Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo release bike components (brakes, derailleurs, cranks) in what they call groupsets. Each groupset has a name and they sit in a hierarchy from professional level at the top to an entry level at the bottom.

Shimano’s hierarchy includes 6 groupsets (top to bottom):

  • Dura-Ace
  • Ultegra
  • 105
  • Tiagra
  • Sora
  • Claris

I used to recommend Shimano 105 as a minimum for an entry-level road bike but the quality of components has improved so much in the last few years that I look at 105 now as a premium entry-level groupset.

In fact, it seems Shimano created an entry-level hierarchy subset inside the general hierarchy:

  • Shimano 105: 11-speed dual control shifting system with hydraulic disc brake lever as an option including a small hands version.
  • Shimano Tiagra: 10-speed dual control shifting system with hydraulic disc brake lever as an option including a small hands version.
  • Shimano Sora: 9-speed dual control shifting system with a triple crankset option.
  • Shimano Claris: 8-speed dual control shifting system with a triple crankset option.

In the past, Shimano made Sora as an 8-speed system with a lever to shift to a bigger cog and a button to shift to a smaller one, the kind of engineering you don’t want to muck around with on your bike. Today, Shimano Sora is a 9-speed dual control shifting system built into the brake levers the same way Dura-Ace is (in principle, not in tweaks and particulars).

Claris replaced the nameless 2300 range of components the moment Shimano saw growth in the entry-level road bike market as more people switched from cars to bikes. Like Sora, Shimano redesigned Claris to a visually pleasing level and gave it a dual control shifting mechanism.

Both Sora and Claris are solid performers made to last. As you’d expect, compared to Ultegra or even the 105, the two bottom groupsets look and feel a little clunky. You won’t shift gears with 105’s certainty or Dura-Ace’s precision.

Cautions to bear in mind:

  1. When you find a bike you like that ticks all the boxes for you, do yourself a favor and make sure you do not buy a bike with a triple crankset. Compared to a standard double crankset, a triple gives you 8, 9 or 10 extra gears (depending on how many gears your groupset has) but a lot of these gears overlap and no matter how hard they try, they can’t make the front derailleur move the chain between 3 chainrings as good as it moves it between 2. Triple crankset is a dog. Stay away.
  2. If you plan to ride on unsealed roads, gravel for example, or even want to beef up riding comfort, you’d have to use wider tires. Make sure the frame you buy has enough clearance to fit at least a 27 mm or wider tire.
  3. Avoid buying a bike with incomplete groupset. As you search for your beginner road bike, you’ll find a lot of them with cranks or brakes from brands that have no foot in the market or low quality parts supplied by Shimano and other better known suppliers. Don’t fall for it. Keep looking and you’ll find a better equipped bike for the same or slightly higher price but with a full groupset (better resale value too).

2. Disc Brakes

By now, the caliper vs disc brakes debate is over. Common sense won.

It’s essential to your safety and braking quality (modulation) that you buy an entry-level road bike with disc brakes.

It’s true that caliper brakes do the job fine except they don’t work well in the rain. Disc brakes will stop you dead dry or wet and because they offer better modulation, that is, you can control with more precision the amount of force you apply to the braking surface, you will cut your braking distance without locking the wheels.

3. Brand

Yes, brand. You might hear some say that brands don’t matter anymore, that production moved to Asia and some brands share the same supplier and it doesn’t matter what brand you buy.

It does.

Asian suppliers do what you tell them to do based on what you pay them. If you pay them to make good products, they’ll make good products. Best evidence is in the bike stores filled with good quality bikes and professional racers pushing these same bikes to the limits.

So much for ‘Asian is bad’ argument.

You want a brand that’s been around for decades. You want a brand that saw boom times and gloom times and when the gloom times came, they stuck around. They didn’t low their standards and customers rewarded with buying their products.

This is why you want an established brand — they know what they’re doing, they want your business and they want to please you.

Here is a list of brands and their country of origin I recommend you should buy your entry-level road bike from:

USA

Canada

Europe

I’ve left out some brands that should be on this list, like Cyfac or Parlee, because they don’t make entry-level road bikes.

What Entry-Level Road Bike Can You Get For Your Money?

I have cupped the budget for a beginner road bike at $2,000. There are some outliers that fall slightly outside of this price bracket. Past that, you’re in an entry-level racing bikes category, that is bikes designed with road racing in mind.

Like this Cube Agree C:62 Pro for example:

German-made Cube Agree C:62 Pro is an entry-level racing bike

Cube built the Agree C:62 Pro with full Shimano Ultegra groupset and upgraded the wheels to Mavic Cosmic Elite. You can rock up to any road race on this bike without needing to upgrade anything. Okay, you might want to upgrade those Continental Grand Sport tires.

You can buy Agree C:62 Pro online for $2,299.

Back to the under $2,000 entry-level road bikes. I’ve sub-divided them into 3 groups:

  • entry-level road bikes in $1,500-$2,000 price range
  • entry-level road bikes in $1,000-$1,500 price range
  • entry-level road bikes in under $1,000 price range

Beginner Road Bikes Between $1,500-$2,000

In this group, you’ll find a mix of entry-level road bikes with frames made from aluminum and carbon fiber. If steel appeals to you and you like off-road adventures, then this Shimano 105 equipped Salsa Vaya is an excellent buy for $1,999.

Let’s start with what I think is the best entry-level road bike you can buy for $2,000:

Trek Emonda ALR 5 Disc

Trek Emonda ALR 5 ticks all the boxes of a great entry-level road bike

Trek describes its $1,999 Emonda ALR 5 Disc as “a light and responsive road bike with an advanced alloy frame that gives it the sleek looks and handling of a far more expensive carbon bike.”

A lot of people these days won’t even look at aluminum bikes. They want carbon because carbon is king. So they think.

Except it’s not.

Question is — king of what?

Carbon is king if you want to build a frame that weighs less than your smartphone. If that’s the goal, then yes, carbon is king.

But, if all you want is a solid bike, especially an entry-level road bike, and you don’t want to blow a fortune on it, then an aluminum frame wins.

It wins because:

  1. Aluminum frames cost less to manufacture compared to carbon frames.
  2. Because aluminum frames cost less to manufacture, producers can offer better components on aluminum bikes at a given price point and still make a profit.
  3. Advances in modern metallurgy allow manufacturers today to build aluminum frames that rival low- to mid-range carbon frames in weight.

Case in point — Trek Emonda ALR 5 Disc.

Not long ago, you couldn’t shape an aluminum frame the way Emonda ALR 5 is shaped. To create this kind of tubing, Trek injects pressurized fluid into a tube to shape and tune it to the ride characteristics they want to achieve. Trek claims this method allows them create a larger frame surface to increase strength and drop some weight.

What I’ve mentioned above about saving cost on frame manufacturing shows clearly in what Trek equipped its Emonda ALR 5 with: full Shimano 105 11-speed groupset — no cutting corners here.

With Emonda ALR 5 Disc, you get 11-speed Shimano 105:

  • Shifters
  • Front and rear derailleurs
  • Cranks (50/34 chainset)
  • 11-28 cassette (11-15, 17, 19, 21, 23, 25, 28)
  • Flat mount hydraulic disc brakes

Plus:

  • Emonda carbon fork with tapered steerer
  • Bontrager sealed bearing, 12 mm thru-axle front and rear hubs
  • Bontrager Affinity tubeless rims (will fit up to 28 mm tires)
  • Bontrager R1 Hard-Case Lite 700 x 25 tires
  • Bontrager Montrose Comp saddle
  • Bontrager Comp handlebar

Solid package.

What Reviewers Said About Trek Emonda ALR 5 Disc

road.cc:

The Emonda ALR 5 Disc is one of those bikes that manages to be greater than the sum of its parts … the spec sheet and everything says that it should be solid, but the ride quality is comfortably above that. 

Cycling Weekly:

Trek has raised the game … when it comes to aluminium and offers something truly amazing for £1,750. Aluminium has never looked so good and a disc-brake bike weighing in under 8kg is just what you need.

Bicycling:

Emonda ALR has all the ingredients of a good bike — sleek looks, solid performance, and an easier to swallow price.

And here’s Trek’s promotional video:

Let’s move on to the next sub-$2,000 entry-level road bike.

Cannondale CAAD12 Disc

Cannondale CAAD12 with Shimano 105
Cannondale’s CAAD series earned respect from cyclists around the world for its no nonsense ride quality

An American story of innovation and success, CAAD (Cannondale Advanced Aluminium Design) frames have been around for 30 years. Known for its refined, well-balanced frame geometry, the CAAD line of Cannondales proves once again aluminum is not dead.

This $2,050 2019 Cannondale CAAD12 hits every target in its upper-end beginner road bike category:

  • Shimano 105 front and rear derailleur
  • Shimano 105 hydraulic disc brakes
  • Shimano 105 shifters
  • Shimano 105 11-speed cassette (11-30T) and chain

Cannondale supplies its own cranks, handlebar, stem and seat post with the bike. Unlike many other brands who source so-called miscellaneous parts from cheap suppliers to cut the cost down, Cannondale develop and make their supplementary parts in-house. They’re high-quality parts.

The crankset, for example, coupled with Cannondale’s BB30 bottom bracket is a purpose-built system engineered to improve performance, not to cut the cost of production.

Says Cannondale:

Ever since we created the first HollowGram crank along with the original BB30 bottom bracket, our cranksets have been a crucial element in our System Integration philosophy. Not only do they set the benchmark for weight and stiffness in each class, but the fact that we make our own cranks and chainrings really frees our engineers up to develop innovative performance solutions without worrying about the constraints of common standards.

Medium size Cannondale CAAD12 weighs an impressive 19 lbs (8.6 kg).

What Reviewers Said About Cannondale CAAD12

Cycling Weekly:

As a pioneer of aluminium you’d expect Cannondale to produce a class-leading frameset – and that is exactly what it has done with the Cannondale CAAD12. [It’s] the showpiece of what the American brand can do with aluminium.

Bike Radar:

The CAAD12 on the other hand is the most refined, highly tuned aluminium frame ever, from a company that’s made its name with cutting-edge aluminium-tubed wizardry.

Buy Cannondale CAAD12 if you’re looking for a race-tuned frame with sharp handling and quality components but not the price tag associated with similar machines made from carbon fiber.

Beginner Road Bikes Between $1,000-$1,500

You’d expect a drop in the level of components in this price bracket and yet, if you dig around the Internet you might find an incredible value for your dollar like this Vitus Zenium CR Disc road bike for $1,280:

Vitus Zenium CR Disc

Vitus Zenium CR Disc road bike
Hard to believe but here you have it: a carbon entry-level road bike shod in Shimano 105 with hydraulic flat-mount disc brakes, all for $1,280

If someone told me before I saw this Vitus that you can buy a carbon bike with Shimano 105 and hydraulic disc brakes from a reputable brand for under $1,500, I’d be like, yeah sure. And even if there was one, for this kind of price, surely they’d cut corners somewhere.

Nope, not with the Zenium CR. Look at the gear Vitus bolted on its carbon frame:

  • Shimano 105 hydraulic flat mount brakes
  • Shimano 105 front and rear derailleurs
  • Shimano 105 shifters
  • Shimano 105 crankset (52/36)
  • Shimano 105 11-speed cassette (11-30)
  • Vitus 32 mm aero centre-lock wheels with 12 mm thru-axles

Nothing is missed here. This should really be a $2,000 bike. Even at its regular price ($1,600) Vitus Zenium CR Disc is a fantastic value.

For $1,280 — it’s a gift.

If you’re on the market right now for an entry-level road bike, Zenium CR Disc is a no brainer.

Buy it while the deal lasts.

Kona Wheelhouse

Kona Wheelhouse road bike
For steel buffs, Kona offers its gorgeous, versatile Wheelhouse equipped with Shimano Tiagra

Steel is for riders who don’t mind to carry an extra pound of weight on the frame in exchange for a lively, singing feeling a good steel frame gives you.

For $1,300 Kona Wheelhouse offers you a no nonsense machine built from Reynolds 853 butted cromoly tubes dressed in 10-speed Shimano Tiagra gear: shifters, derailleurs, cranks, and cassette (11-32).

Disc brakes come from brake specialists TRP.

TPR Spyre mechanical disc brake
Spyre is a mechanical, cable actuated disc brake from TRP

At this price point, you won’t find many bikes equipped with hydraulic disc brakes. Unlike Avid BB7 and Shimano CX75 mechanical disc brakes, Spyre is a dual piston brake — a neat and useful design tweak.

Most mechanical disc brakes push a single pad against the rotor to bend it slightly against a fixed pad on the other side. That’s how you stop the wheel.

TPR Spyre with its dual piston design has 2 moving pads grabbing the rotor. This tweak doesn’t improve the braking but it makes brake pads adjustment a breeze with barrel or inline adjuster on the handlebar.

To round off the package, Kona Wheelhouse offers you a pair of good wheels — Alex Boondocks 5 shod in Schwalbe Spicer K-Guard 700 x 30 tires. The Boondocks can take tubeless tires if you want to try this kind of setup in the future.

Alex Boondocks 5 Wheelset
Alex Boondocks 5 wheelset adds tubeless option for Kona Wheelhouse

Beginner Road Bikes Under $1,000

Under $1,000 price range is where aluminum frames, Shimano Tiagra and Sora groupsets dominate the entry-level road bike category.

Once again, Vitus manages to disrupt the status quo with its carbon Zenium Disc for an amazing $960.

Let me say it again — this carbon bike with disc brakes is just $960.

Vitus Zenium Carbon Disc

Vitus Zenium Carbon Disc road bike
Vitus Zenium Carbon Disc with Shimano Tiagra — a lot of bike for a modest amount of money

This Zenium and the CR version above share the same frame and brakes but come with different groupsets — Shimano Tiagra in this case.

The bike is sold with a pair strong, well-built Shimano WH-RS170 CL wheels. The rims’ depth is 24 mm and you can fit tires between 25-38 mm giving you options for road and dirt.

Someone who bought this bike said:

I was sceptical about the quality of this bike before buying it as the spec and full carbon fibre frame/fork for sub £1000 seemed too good to be true.

After my first ride out any doubt went straight out the window, the balance of the bike is spot on and with this comes a super comfortable ride and responsive control. The Tiagra drivetrain provides reliable shifting as you would expect from Shimano and the bike is just an all round great package.

Cube Attain Race Disc

Cube Attain Race Dis road bike
Thin, sleek and mean — the Cube Attain Race Disc

Yes, this Cube Attain is $50 over the $1,000 threshold but paint job alone and the matching wheels worth the extra money.

For $1,049 you get a stylish frame, Shimano Tiagra everywhere including a groupset-native crankset and TRP Spyre mechanical disc brakes.

If the $90 less expensive but carbon Vitus Zenium doesn’t appeal to your taste, look no further than the Cube Attain Race Disc — an “eminently capable mile-muncher” as Cube put it.

17 thoughts on “Road Bikes for Beginners Explained [2019 Update]”

  1. Great read! I purchased my first proper bike two weeks ago or so. It’s a Garneau Gennix E1, which is an endurance bike. Garneau is a Canadian brand, and I wanted to go local. True what you said about brand equity: there were a couple of Felt/Cannondale/Specialized bikes in the same price range but they were neither full carbon, nor did they have a 105 groupset on them. Garneau is not as well-known as the aforementioned brands when it comes to bikes (apparel is how they became known).

    My bike is full carbon with full 105. The weather has been nasty so I’ve only ridden it once (15km) and it was pure bliss! The enduro geometry fits me perfectly, I don’t know if I could handle a race frame for extended periods/long rides. I wanted an enduro frame to begin with knowing why I was in the market for a bike (long rides), so no regrets whatsoever.

    I picked it up for CAD$1700/US$1330, plus 13% tax, which saved me $700 off the original sticker price. I also got a full year of tweaks/tune-ups for free.

    Could I have spent more time researching and trying to find a better deal? Maybe, but I fell in love with the bike as soon as I saw it.

    Cheers!

    • Glad you did the right thing and ignored the marketing (as much as possible). I know the Garneau brand — used to race for a team in Montreal sponsored by Garneau (he wasn’t well-known then)

    • Nothing wrong with Giant Defy + Shimano 105. Ultegra even better. Giants are usually sold at competitive prices so you might find a good deal if you dig around. They don’t sell them online though so you’ll have to visit a bunch of bike shops and negotiate.

    • why don’t you simply mention WEIGHT of the bike as one most important factor. certainly more than brakes, saddle etc.

  2. Nice — I appreciate the insights. Recently, A friend gave me a quality bike that is just a bit off my size and optimal functioning. But it was enough to seriously wet my appetite. So now I’m willing to spend a couple thousand dollars on a good bike that I can grow into. I think you make a great point about the importance of a quality bike as a beginner. I’m 6 foot 3 in and now I understand that about a 60 cm frame is what I should be looking at — as well as the importance of Shimano-level quality. I have that beginners excitement of something new, thank you.

  3. Hello
    I am based in Netherlands.
    I am looking for a beginner racing bicycle.
    I love cycling and want to make right choice. I see on road here bikes from brands Giant, Trek, Gazelle etc.
    Please guide me.

  4. I only have one niggle with this article, mainly the groupset bottom recommedation. I think anything Shimano puts out that actually is intended to be put on a decent bike frame is worth considering. This means Sora level up to DuraAce. Back in 2006 I bought a KHS with a full Sora groupset (rear derailleur was Tiagra). In 2017 I replaced my bike, not because of groupset performance but because of some pitting on the frame that caused me to feel cracking may occurr. My new(ish) bike is nice but not appreciably different enough, bike ride experience wise, that I feel as though I was missing out on my “low end” KHS. More to the point, both bikes just disappear under me when riding them, as a good bike should imo.
    I will agree that getting a decent wheelset is important but not inherently necessary in the beginning. Unless you’re a heavier rider, they should stay true for at least six months.
    Otherwise, great article.

    • Thank you. Nothing wrong with Sora. It’s less refined, a bit rough but it works fine. It’s resale value I have in view more than reliability about Sora. A Shimano 105 equipped bike is easier to sell second-hand.

  5. I have a Colnago CR-S and got it for$1300 and truthfully the difference between it and my $700 Giant defy is not that much. The Sora gearing worked well and the weight difference between the two it’s not that much. The Colnago is truly the first frame I’ve had with almost no flex because I’ve always had to half the largest frames available due to my height. Other than that most of what people say they notice I think is to justify their purchase to others. I bought the Colnago because it was a good price and beautiful to look at.

    • Totally agree, Dave. Not much difference in ride quality. You notice it though when you gain more experience and appreciation of good, refined gear. Visual aspect is important too as you have pointed out.

  6. Good article. Suggest ok to go with frame size, dora or better derailleur, 11-28 or 11-32 bearing in back ton get up hills.
    Good riding clothes.

  7. Can’t go wrong with Shimano 105! My 2004 Lemond came through with 105 and they’re still shifting away without any problems. The Lemond is still my go to! Very good article people!

    • Thank you, Mike. Shimano 105 — yes, can’t go wrong. Good value and just works. And lately, Shimano redesigned it and it looks good too.

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