by John Marsh
Road bicycles are just that, bikes made for efficiently riding on roads. You’ll know a road bike when you see one. It’s characterized by its sleek look, with dropped, curving handlebars, narrow wheels and “skinny” tires, a small seat and lots of cogs, or gears, on the back wheel. Typically, road bikes are lightweight, and oftentimes they look “fast.” That’s why they’re sometimes referred to as racing bikes.
But within the classification of road bike, there is an ever-expanding range of sub-types of bike – each of which has a slightly different, more defined purpose than the standard road machine. Depending on the specific purpose, or the type(s) of riding, each road bike is designed for, it can feature different materials, different “geometry” (frame shape and length of certain frame elements) and setup (height or offset of different pieces of the bike, such as the seat and handlebars), different types of gearing, wider tires, etc.
Many types of road bike can be equipped and used for more than one of these sub-types of riding. And many of these sub-types of road bike share numerous attributes with their fellow road bikes and sometimes overlap greatly. For instance, as you’ll read below, a cyclocross bike is a lot like a gravel/adventure bike – but a bit more purpose-built.
Let’s take a more detailed look at the various types of road bikes (followed by a brief guide to materials used for most road bikes, and wheel sizes):
Aero Road Bike
Aero road bikes are optimized to cut down on wind resistance by using more aerodynamically shaped tubing for the frame, along with wheels, handlebars and other elements that are likewise designed specifically to knife through the wind, and brakes that are sometimes placed behind other elements of the bike, out of direct air flow, etc. Aero bikes look very much like a typical “racing” type road bike, but they have been wind tunnel tested to reduce drag – and thus increase potential speed with no additional effort. They are, in fact, somewhat faster than a normal racing bike, and are sometimes preferred by racers for their aero properties. Even though most aero bikes’ frames and wheels are made of carbon fiber – a lightweight, strong material – because of the additional material needed for the aerodynamic shapes, aero bikes can actually weigh a bit more than normal racing bikes, so they’re not always the best choice for rides heavy on climbing, etc.
Similar to a touring bike, a bikepacking (think, backpacking) bike is set up and accessorized to enable the carrying of gear – in this case, for camping in areas that can be reached via bike. Frame materials, wheels and tires, gearing – pretty much all facets of the bike – will be focused on robustness and stability carrying a load, not on weight and speed. Steel, sturdy and long-lasting, is a likely frame material, wheels with more spokes (called “higher spoke count”) to handle additional weight, wider tires with some off-road grip, and gearing aimed at making it easier to move the load are all hallmarks of a bikepacking bike. So, too, are racks and frame mounts to carry various panniers (bags that attach to the bike and are used to carry camping and other gear), and often fenders, as well.
Commuter Road Bike
For those who commute to work or school and still want the efficiency and speed of a road bike, some choose an older and/or more robustly set up road bike to handle the daily grind. Especially if weather and the elements are factors, something less than a “high end” bike is usually preferred, since it’s likely to collect a bit more dirt, be punished a bit more, etc. Often, commuters will set up their bike to carry a pannier or two, or perhaps a handlebar pack, to carry their work or school materials, and possibly a change of clothes, so they don’t have to wear a backpack while riding. They might also choose wider, more puncture-resistant tires, slightly different gearing, and a more upright setup than a normal road bike for increased comfort, along with other tweaks.
Cyclocross is an “off-season” (usually fall) sport where racers navigate mostly off-road short courses that feature an array of riding surfaces, terrain and obstacles. The surfaces may include mud, sand, dirt and pavement. The terrain can, and usually does, include some testy steep hills, possibly water that must be traversed, and the obstacles can include logs or jumps that must be crossed, among others. All of this calls for a purpose-built bike that typically includes: frames to accommodate wider than normal tires with specific “knobby” grip based on the course; a smaller, more defined gear range than a normal road bike, and disc vs. rim brakes to provide slowing and stopping power despite muddy, wet wheels. True ’cross bikes feature a fairly aggressive geometry and setup, because they’re built for racing. And because they often need to be carried across obstacles and up some grades, they tend toward lighter frame and wheel materials. Because these bikes can handle just about anything, they’re often a good fit for other types of riding, too, including commuting, bikepacking and touring (with added mounts for racks), gravel or adventure riding.
Dual-Sport bikes are, effectively, hybrid bikes for riders wanting to do more with the bike than with a typical hybrid. In short, they may want to ride a little faster or more aggressively. These bikes feature the same basic components of a hybrid bike, but set up in a way to allow dual-purpose riding. They still have a flat, fairly upright handlebar, just not as upright as regular hybrid bikes. And instead of a larger “comfort” seat, they have a smaller, more typical road bike set. Many, if not most, also feature a front suspension to absorb off-road bumps and gnarly terrain. Their versatility makes dual-sport bikes good for faster road riding than a normal hybrid, commuter riding, gravel riding, and even touring or bikepacking, if they have mounts for racks.
Endurance (Sportive) Road Bike
An endurance road bike (also known as a sportive road bike), is designed to allow for more comfortable days in the saddle for longer one-day “endurance” events, known in some parts of the world as sportives. These bikes look very much like a racing bike, but their geometry and more upright setup allow for enhanced rider comfort over the long haul. They often have mounts for fenders, they have forks and seatstays that allow for wider tires, and some have vibration-dampening inserts to boost comfort on less-than-pristine road surfaces. Disc brakes for all-weather stopping power may also be in the offing, and a wide gearing range is typical.
E-bikes, which feature an electric motor to power the bike as an assist to pedaling, have taken off over the last few years. Now, there are numerous e-road bike models available. Most feature a motor capable of producing at least 200 watts of power per hour and are really intended to provide a boost to riders during tough spots in a ride – such as climbing a mountain. These bikes are especially beneficial to older or physically challenged riders who still want to ride along with their friends and family but otherwise might not be able to keep up.
Hybrid (Flat Bar) Road Bike
A hybrid road bike is a cross between a road bike and a mountain bike, sharing features of both while more resembling a road bike. It has a lightweight, often aluminum, frame like a road bike but has a more upright geometry and setup, featuring a flat, higher handlebar like a mountain bike, with a larger “comfort” seat and oftentimes easier gearing. It also has ample clearance for tires wider than a normal road bike, and most often has mounts for racks and fenders, and cantilever or disc brakes. If you picture the types of bikes many Europeans ride daily as transportation, you’ve got a good idea of what a hybrid looks like.
Gravel / Adventure / All-Road Bike
This relatively new category of bike combines elements of a cyclocross bike and a touring bike in a setup and geometry more akin to an endurance road bike. These bikes are designed to accept wider tires, with disc brakes, a wide gearing range, light weight and an easy handling setup to allow them to chew up pretty much any road surface. And that’s the point. Start on the road, veer off onto dirt or gravel, and comfortably and ably handle it all. In short, you can have whatever adventure awaits on a gravel bike. They typically feature mounts for racks and fenders, so they can be used for light touring, and you could also make do quite nicely with a gravel bike if you were sticking your toe in the water of ’cross racing.
This is the quintessential road bike type. It is purpose built for speed, agility and miles and miles of riding on paved roads. With lightweight frames and wheels, skinny tires designed to lessen rolling resistance, a narrow, barely there seat, fairly aggressive geometry and setup, and a normally wide gearing range, racing bikes are the go-to bikes for riders who like to ride the pavement in a sporty – serious recreational to racing – style. The bikes you see in the Tour de France and the other big professional races are the top-of-the-line racing bikes, featuring all the latest technology and advancements. The price range for these dream machines can range to nearly $20,000, but a very decent racing bike can be had for as little as a couple thousand.
Time Trialing (TT)/Triathlon Bike
A time trial is a discipline of road bike racing (also a part of triathlons) where riders leave the starting line one by one and ride alone along the course. It’s the famous race against the clock. Whoever completes the course in the shortest time wins. In part because drafting (or riding in another rider’s slipstream) is forbidden, TT bikes are purpose-built to offer the absolute least wind resistance possible. Every aspect for their design and makeup (from the wheels to the specific shapes of the handlebars, frames, seatpost, brakes – every element of the bike that cuts through the wind) is designed and tested to be as aerodynamic as possible. The geometry and setup of TT bikes are likewise focused on helping the rider attain and keep the most aerodynamic riding position possible throughout the ride. Because the extreme aero shapes of TT bikes often require more material, these bikes are not as light as normal racing road bikes. But they are the absolute Lamborghinis and Ferraris of the road bike world – build for speed, not for comfort or handling. If a high-end racing road bike looks fast, a high-end TT bike looks like a rocket ship. You’ll know it when you see it.
Track (Fixie) Bike
A track bike features a single, fixed gear (thus the nickname, fixie), usually with no freehub (meaning, you can’t coast or pedal backward). These bikes are made for riding or racing on a track, also known in cycling as a velodrome. Because they’re made for these racing ovals, and based on the types of racing done on tracks, these bikes are, effectively, the stripped-down cousins of racing bikes. Stripped-down the point of not having brakes, even, on many models. Fixies, though, are often used as messenger bikes, can be ridden for specific types of training by dedicated road riders, and have become popular “hipster” bikes; so some fixies are, in fact, equipped with one or two brakes. Those made specifically for the track often feature a handlebar that is more rounded as it drops. Fixies with a flat handlebar are intended for street riding. At a glance, though, you’d be hard-pressed to see much difference between a track bike and a typical road bike.
Touring bikes were the original “carry it with you bikes,” specifically designed for bicycle touring. Because they’re designed to carry a load, they’re typically stouter than a standard road bike, with higher-spoke-count wheels for additional strength and durability, often with a frame material not focused on being ultra-lightweight, aka, steel. They usually have a more comfortable, larger seat, comfort-focused geometry and setup for a more upright riding position – and with racks, fenders and mounts for carrying panniers and all forms of bags for your gear. Adding to the comfort and load-carrying ability are wider wheels and tires, which in days of yore meant cantilever brakes to reach around the tires; nowadays, disc brakes are common. Touring bikes, because they’re already a bit heavier, and with the extra weight of the load on board, feature the widest possible range of gearing with enough easy gears to climb mountains and pedal long days to your next destination.
A Guide to Road Bike Materials
Aluminum is the original lightweight material for bike frames, and wheels. Frames have long since become dominated by other materials when it comes to higher end bikes (including many types of road bikes), including both carbon fiber and titanium. One of the main reasons is that aluminum frames tend to transmit road vibration and bumps to the rider to a degree that other materials do not. On entry level road bikes, however, and some specific sub-types of road bike where remaining lightweight to hold down the cost is an aim, aluminum can still be found. Wheels, however, are still largely made of aluminum. Carbon fiber has exploded in the past decade as a high-end wheel (rim) material, but aluminum is hard to beat when it comes to a great all-around wheelset. In fact, the same depth wheel in aluminum is often lighter (and just as strong) as a carbon fiber wheel.
Carbon fiber has become the gold standard as a road bike frameset material over the past 2-3 decades. It is lightweight, strong, can be formed into an almost limitless array of shapes, and does an excellent job of dampening or not transmitting road vibration to the rider. Even on frames of different materials (steel, aluminum, and titanium), it is typical to use a carbon fiber fork and, often, seat tube to add some dampening properties to the bike. And over the past decade, carbon fiber wheels have become wildly popular among avid road riders, as they can be formed into super deep dish (80+mm) aerodynamic wheels that make already fast road racing bikes into rockets. Carbon wheels started as these speed-demon deep-dish wheelsets but have since worked their way down to great everyday wheelsets at more typical all-arounder depths from 50mm into the 20s. Just like frames, carbon wheels are light and strong. But they typically exact a pocketbook premium, too, when compared to aluminum counterparts.
Steel was, for decades, the pre-eminent frame material. Nearly all bikes were made from this strong, durable workhorse material for a good hundred years. And though it’s been surpassed by the other materials over the past few decades, it is still prized by custom bike builders and enthusiast road riders for its supple, comfortable road feel. Its main shortcoming is weight (compared to the other three main frame materials), and the fact that it can rust doesn’t help. However, it can also be reshaped or otherwise repaired in many cases if dented or bent. It’s gone out of style, to be sure, but it is certainly not forgotten.
Ti, before carbon fiber, was the ultimate lightweight frame material. It offers the strength (even more so) and durability of steel – but is significantly lighter, and cannot rust. There remain quite a few bike companies that build titanium road bikes, and a couple that specialize in Ti – and it, too, is a darling of custom bike builders – but the market share of Ti is a fraction of carbon fiber. While it’s been more common to see some other-than-round tube shapes in recent years, titanium bikes still largely look much the same as old-style steel frame bikes – and they look like each other – with their round tubing and traditional double-triangle design. Still, despite their sameness, there’s just something about that silvery glint of raw titanium. And if you had to place a bet on a road bike that would last forever, you would not want to bet against Ti.
A Quick Word About Road Bike Wheel Sizes: 700c vs. 650b
The standard road bike wheel has long been the 700c size. Mountain bikes have typically used the somewhat smaller 650b size wheel. But there’s a growing trend toward using the 650b size on some road bikes, as well (mostly touring, gravel, bikepacking or other “multi-surface” bikes).
The reason for using the smaller 650b wheel size is that it allows a much wider tire to be used. Wider tires allow more air volume, and thus more cushion and increased riding comfort, especially over rougher terrain, and a somewhat larger “contact patch” – the piece of the tire that touches the ground – which allows for better traction and handling.
Many of the newer “multi-surface” bikes, and even traditional touring bikes, allow riders to switch between wheel sizes, offering more versatility. For instance, a 700c wheel on some road bikes can accommodate up to a 32mm wide tire (or wider, depending on the fork and seat stay clearances, and the types of brakes used on the bike). A 650b wheel, however, can accommodate up to a 50mm wide tire (again, depending on the geometry and brake type).
John Marsh is the former editor and publisher of RBR Newsletter and RoadBikeRider.com. A rider of "less than podium" talent, he brought our readers consistently useful, informative, entertaining info that helps make them better road cyclists. That's what we're all about here—always have been, always will be. Click to read John's full bio.