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Guide To Racing Road Bikes

Words by Harry Archer

on 13/02/2018 12:15:44

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In a world where aero road bikes and endurance-focused road bikes are ever more popular, there's a stalwart that can still hold its own as an all-rounder - the ever-reliable race bike! But what separates a dedicated race bike from the rest of the road bike family? Simply follow this guide to find out the what's, whys and how's of race bikes and use your new-found expertise to become the fastest rider you can be, smashing your Strava records without even trying. Bikes designed for all-round road racing will have an aggressive geometry similar to that of an aero bike but often engineered to offer greater compliance and weight saving features. The best racing bikes are reactive and fast handling, allowing you to carve your way through the peloton, take corners like Valentino Rossi and bomb your way down long, winding descents. Expect a low front end for an aerodynamic position and a design that places emphasis on speed over comfort. Stiffer frames and higher gearing ratios are pretty much guaranteed as this increases your efficiency and top speed on the bike. In addition, finishing kit will be focused on being as minimalist as possible to avoid unnecessary weight and aerodynamic losses whilst the wheels are either skinny lightweight alloys or carbon aero depending on your budget. Essentially race bikes are for those who want to go fast all the time on the lightest, stiffest most efficient bike possible and can roll with the punches, without worrying about boring things like comfort and climbing without your calves exploding. If that doesn't describe you then fear not, we have lots of other guides for you - check some of them out below!

Guide To Endurance Road Bikes >What bike should I buy? >Road Bike Guide >

Geometry & Frame Material

When it comes to the frame material of your race bike then quality carbon is by far the lightest, and most compliant (comfortable) material. These qualities immediately put carbon at the top of the wish list for any aspiring racer as even the smallest of weight saving, efficiency-improving features can make all the difference to performance on the road. Carbon can also be moulded into any shape – so it’s the most popular when it comes to aero and race bikes as often tubes will be tapered or adjusted in gradient and design in order to make the bike as quick and aerodynamic as possible. That being said, with the technological improvements in the manipulation and utilisation of bike frame materials over the last ten years or so, very high-quality aluminium can actually be lighter than bad carbon whilst also offering increased strength and durability. This has made niche aluminium race bikes a popular option amongst racers who want to rely upon their bike after a crash or not have to worry about replacing an expensive, cracked carbon frame. Most alloy/aluminium race bikes will come fitted with a carbon fork and seat-post, which will drop the overall weight of the bike and offer greater compliance and vibration dampening. It will also improve the stiffness of the frame, something that is vital in a successful racing bike as, although a stiff frame is less comfortable and forgiving than a frame with more ‘give’ in it, a stiffer frame does provide increased performance due to the fact that power is directly transferred to your wheels from your pedal stroke without any energy being needlessly lost on ‘frame flex’. It's all about being savvy with your budget; if you're spending under £1000 then an alloy/aluminium frame could be the bike for you, countering the additional weight by providing a vastly superior rider experience. However, for the time being if you've got the means the carbon is still king and will be found on 99% of the higher end of brand's racing bike ranges.

Geometrically a race bike is refined in order to offer the rider the optimum riding position for speed, pedalling efficiency and aerodynamics. The dimensions and design of a frame affects how a bike will 'feel' especially in terms of handling which is why racing frames will sport steeper angles for the fork and seat tube along with shortened seat-stays and chain-stays, creating a short-wheelbase and generally more compacted complete bike when compared to endurance-focused designs. A short head tube keeps the bars low whilst elongated top tubes help to support a flat-backed (flattening the back and reducing frontal area to minimise drag), stretched-out riding position.

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Approximately 80% of wind resistance encountered by a rider is due to their body, so by using an aggressive geometry you'll have a much smaller head-on shape, making you more aerodynamic and allowing you to reach your top speeds with less effort. The geometry of a racing bike will force the rider to push their weight low and forward leading to less air resistance and more front wheel traction as the increased front-end mass puts more weight through the front tyre and directly increases cornering grip. Traditionally, race bikes will feature steeper steering angles and longer stems to enhance the aggressive feel to the ride whilst shorter, stiffer rear ends and deeper, rigid tube shapes all contribute to bikes that are brilliantly fast and efficient, but potentially unforgiving and uncomfortable on longer days in the saddle. For true comfort and maximum performance output there's really no substitute for a quality bike fit that will meticulously measure out your bike to your unique dimensions. It's critical to the point that even a budget aluminium racer that fits you perfectly is likely to give you far better comfort,performance and handling than a top of the range model that isn't fitted to you correctly.

Find out more about Bike Fit >

Groupset

A road bike’s groupset is the collection of components that make you stop and go including the drivetrain, shifters and brakes. Whenever you're shopping for a new bike it's generally the case that throughout a certain range, the frame remains largely the same (exceptions include such things like the use of different construction materials, or brake set-ups), with the differences between the models as you move up the price points relating to improvements in the groupset and other components. This is great for the upgraders - buying the best frames and improving components along the way - but what about if you want a race ready bike from the off? Not a problem, you just need to do your research and make sure that you get the right level of groupset for what you want to achieve. Shimano groupsets remain the most common with the hierarchy starting at Shimano Claris and topping out at Dura-Ace with Di2 electronic shifting. Other brands such as Sram and Campagnolo will feature on higher spec'd models and will offer similar hierarchal upgrades as you move up through the range. The more you spend initially on a groupset, the less likely it will clatter around like an orchestra of wolves and you won’t have to upgrade your components as time goes on. With new technology being developed all the time it's all about finding that sweet spot between expense and performance.

At the front, a racing bike will normally feature a gearing set-up focused on maintaining the highest speed possible at the expense of climbing ability - essentially giving you an increased number of 'higher' and reduced number of 'lower' gears. The gears at the rear (the cassette) will have very small ratios allowing for quick and seamless shifting for greater acceleration qualities. In the current market, most road bikes have two chain rings and 10, 11 or even 12 cogs in the rear with race orientated bikes having the largest gears for that all-important higher top-end speed. The bigger the chain-rings the more outright speed but the massive amounts of effort needed to maintain cadence has led to the development of smaller chain-rings, known as 'compact' (the great forgiver of less abled climbers). Basically, a compact crank-set means the uphill's will be kinder on the calves, but you will lack that ultimate top end speed. You'll need to consider whether you're the type of rider who will really need that top end (unless you're a very experienced racer it's unlikely). Pay attention to what gears you use when riding and whether you feel like you’re lacking more on the top or low end and whether a higher potential top speed or better climbing ability is likely to improve your overall times and race success - if its the former then go for standard, if you need the boost on the hills then compact is the way to go.

As you move up the hierarchy of groupsets there are some common features to look out for, with each improving with the more you pay:

  • Weight - generally, higher end group sets will be lighter (sometimes made from carbon fibre or titanium).
  • Shifting - shifting will typically be smoother and more efficient on more expensive groupsets.
  • Braking power – brakes are often more powerful and responsive.
  • Ease of use - higher-end group sets tend to have more ergonomic hood designs and intuitive brake and gear lever integration.

Wheels & Tyres

Most 'complete' road bikes come with entry level wheelsets when purchased. Wheels are one of the first and most common early upgrades that can make a big difference to your ride by reducing those all important weight and aero figures. The tyres you go for will depend on the weather and terrain in the location of your ride, with the traditional 23mm tyre rarely seen these days due to the market shift to wider 25mm tyres that enhance the cornering ability and comfort of the bike. All road bikes come with slick or very lightly treaded tyres to reduce resistance with the road and increase rolling efficiency to maintain speed. Tyres are a personal choice and are easy to change ride-to-ride but it's worth noting that wider tyres (25mm and above) can be run at lower pressures to provide a smoother ride.

Brakes

Caliper (rim) brakes have, until recently, been top-dog when it comes to brake systems in the road bike category. This was especially true in race bikes as they are more lightweight than theit disc braking counterparts. However, the last few years have seen disc brakes becoming the go-to option for manufacturers with them becoming increasingly common on high-end race bikes, assisted in part by the lifting of a UCI restriction on their use in professional competition. Disc brakes offer more effective braking, especially in the wet when compared to rim brakes. As with all new developments there has been hesitation over the universal adoption of disc brakes and it's still very much a ‘marmite situation’ with some people really behind the idea and others vociferously refusing to abandon ship on the old-school feel of caliper breaks. Though it may cause the latter a small nervous breakdown, ultimately disc brakes on road bikes are here to stay and their benefits to rider safety via their power, reliability and modulation cannot be ignored. As innovation continues, disc brake wheels can now be designed to be very light and aerodynamic as they don’t require a braking surface and have central rotating mass that doesn't negatively affect the balance of the bike.

Our most popular road race bikes

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