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 you want to join for the fitness, or the social interaction, or maybe for the goal of riding 100 miles in a day, or you're dreaming of 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 question – 'What kind of road bike should I get?' – is a bit more complex. A lot depends on you, your goals, your level of fitness, and your budget. The road bike variables like material, components, and geometry are dizzying.
From road racing’s early 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 cheaper, stiffer, and lighter aluminum frames, and then carbon fiber, which was lighter still and stiffer.
Where does that leave you, the prospective road bike buyer? With choices, 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, it’s likely best to focus on your prospective bike’s backbone and the three main materials that can go into making it.
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 dampening 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 Fuji’s SL 1.1 and its 695-gram frame, can mean a bike that is too light for professional competition, but not for your recreational rides and events.
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 road buzz by nearly 25-percent compared to a non-VRTech frame.
Because carbon fiber costs more, so do the bikes made from it. As investments go, it’s one that pays off.
Aluminum frames remain comparatively lighter and stiffer than steel. Modern aluminum can be shaped and reinforced into frames, like the 1,090-gram Fuji SL-A, 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, like the Fuji Sportif. Its Wave seat stays provide dampening relief by allowing the back end to absorb bumps and road chatter. Combined with a carbon fiber fork 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.
Steel is still the material of choice for bike touring, both for the ride and the ability to carry a more-than-just-a-rider load. The Fuji Touring is a classic design that can handle a cross-country adventure or your daily commute 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.
If you want most of that but your finances are such that you’re a few dollars shy, go with aluminum. You will still have your choice of full-on racer or slower-going 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. 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.