The Best Road Bike
Great Bicycles for Budget-Conscious Riders Seeking Two-Wheeled Fun
We hand-generated a list of contenders, consulted with local industry experts (bike shop owners, bike mechanics, custom-bike builders, and even a few retired professional cyclists), compared frame technologies, component systems, and design considerations, and test-rode 30 finalists to bring you the best road bikes.
I know the scenario: I have over 10 years in the cycling industry, but I still find walking into a bike shop is a bit like walking into an electronics store and having all of the televisions stare at you. Bikes stare the same way, each calling your name, and it’s hard tuning any of them out. With different practical purposes, design technologies, and price points, the market is vast, varied, and sometimes intimidating.
I’ve found that the bike you’ll love to ride will fit you both fiscally and physically, and to find the best road bike to fit your budget, you have to whittle down your options. The best bike isn’t universal — it’s personal.
When I made my choice, I limited my research to road-specific bikes that fit a budget of $3,000 or less, a price range that covers the lower end of road-bike pricing, but includes machines that are attractive to first-time buyers. Moreover, I determined that I was looking for the most comfortable, durable bike I could buy at that price point, then spent countless hours scrutinizing and test-riding each bike that fit my parameters.
In the end, my choice was clear: The Specialized Tarmac Comp is the best option for someone looking for a road bike on a budget.
The Winning Features of the Best Road Bike Are:
- Fast, responsive handling, and smooth ride experience on varied road surfaces.
- Frame geometry that's designed to be suitable for both speed and long endurance rides, offering riders maximum flexibility of use.
- Full Shimano Ultegra 11-speed component group that offers riders the confidence and flexibility to climb and sprint.
- Lightweight FACT 9n carbon frameset.
- Fulcrum S4 wheelset for dampened vibration on even the bumpiest of roads.
The 5 Best Road Bikes If You're on a Budget
How We Chose the Best Road Bike
I have nine years of racing as a professional triathlete and cyclist, five years as a cycling guide and bike mechanic, and a short lifetime of experience organizing cyclists and leading rides in the dirt, in the city, and on the road. In short, I love riding bicycles. However, not all bicycles are lovely to ride. The most memorable bikes I’ve ridden are those that instilled a sense of trust. They perfectly fit my body and allowed me to feel that I was communicating directly with the road. These bicycles were simply comfortable, regardless of how expensive or innovative they actually were.
Of course, in theory, the more you’re willing and able to spend on a bicycle, the more comfortable it should be. A cyclist’s dream bicycle would be custom designed to specifically fit their body and crafted of materials that telepathically communicate one’s thoughts and movements to the road. But such a bike doesn’t exist, and even if it did, it’d be cost prohibitive. Cost shouldn’t keep you from enjoying a great bike ride.
By setting my budget at $3,000 and under, I deliberately focused my attention on bicycles designed for riders looking to simply enjoy the love of the ride. Bicycles at this price range only offer a glimpse of the remarkable technology used to create road bikes at a professional racing level. They do, however, still offer the frame-design technology suited to both speed and endurance, are made of lightweight materials, and provide a smooth, stable, responsive ride. The drivetrain and components on bikes in this range are durable, yet relatively lightweight and smooth as they shift gears.
With my price parameter set, I hand-generated a list of over 70 bicycles that fit the budget (and even a few beyond my price range for the sake of comparison). Then, I consulted with local industry experts in Boulder, Colorado: bike shop owners, bike mechanics, custom-bike builders, and even a few retired professional cyclists. Together, we compared frame technologies, component systems, and design considerations to whittle the list down to 30 bicycles.
The most important part of my research was test-riding each of the bicycles. As my friend and retired professional cyclist Timmy Duggan says, “A poorly fit, $8,000 bike will be worse for you then a perfectly fit $1,000 bike.” The machine I chose as best road bike on a budget was the one that was the most comfortable for me to ride, and offered the best technology value package for the price.
A poorly fit, $8,000 bike will be worse for you then a perfectly fit $1,000 bike.
Other Road Bikes to Consider
The Best Road Bike Under $1,000
Giant Defy 5 For being an entry-level bike, the Giant Defy 5 handles remarkably well. Tight steering and a simple drivetrain package centered around Shimano Claris components make this bike durable, straightforward and perfect for riders looking for a first bike to get them out on the road and into the swing of cycling.
The Best Road Bike Under $4,000
Scott Addict Scott bicycles have a tradition of offering some of the lightest carbon bicycles on the market, adding value for riders that find their geometry offers superior comfort. Justin Hoese, lead sales representative at Boulder Cycle Sport, says that the Addict is “the best of both worlds. Fast and aero ... and stiff and light," making it ideal for riders that want a bicycle well-suited to weekend racing, or long endurance rides with their cycling club. The bike has tight steering and a rigid, sturdy feel on the road. Unlike other bikes in this price range, the Scott offers a straight Shimano Ultegra component package, which will be attractive to riders looking for durability.
The Best Women-Specific Road Bike
Focus Izalco Donna 1.0 Focus is doing all the right things for women's bikes, specifically women who are serious about riding. The Izalco offers a straight Shimano Ultegra component build and geometry dialed to female riders who prefer a more forward, aggressive position suited to racing, making it a clear winner in terms of value.
The Best Women-Specific Road Bike Under $1,000
Specialized Dolce Sport A great package for those looking to just get out there and ride. The Dolce features an aluminum frame, which is a compromise in responsiveness on the road, but the bike comes with features like bottle cages and a seat pack.
The Best Versatile Road Bike
Giant Anyroad The Anyroad is the best option for cyclists that want to own just one bike. A more upright position, mechanical disc brakes, and comfort-designed geometry make this bike a great fit for recreational rides on the road while still being suitable for gravel commutes, or dipping a toe into local racing.
A Full Review of the Best Road Bike
The Specialized Tarmac Comp is “a light, stiff, agile, and refined workhorse,” says Lester Binegar, general manager at University Bicycles in Boulder. My test-ride experience aligned with these sentiments exactly. When Specialized says that the Tarmac Comp “climbs effortlessly, descends confidently, and sprints ferociously,” it’s nutshelling the story. For 2015, Specialized revamped its podium-winning Tarmac line using Rider-First Engineering to better suit racers of all levels. This thinking, as it applies to fit and rider experience, was centered on Specialized’s highest-end machines. But it has since trickled down to less expensive machines. There’s evidence in the blend of lightness, stiffness, and handling of the Tarmac Comp SL4, which was selected as the best road bike due to it being faster and more stable than on any other bicycle I test rode, not to mention the high value package that Specialized has designed for this price point.
After I rolled the Tarmac Comp out of the bike shop, I couldn’t help but notice how easy it was to steer with my finger in the center of the saddle and how eagerly the bike seemed to take to the sun-kissed foothills on an atypically lovely winter day in Boulder. Climbing up the notorious Sunshine Canyon, the Tarmac really started to impress. Ascending is my strong point as a rider, but it isn’t often that I feel a bike literally leaping forward from beneath me on a 15 percent climb. The Tarmac did just that, then proceeded to nimbly weave its way back down the lightly graveled roads on the other side of the canyon, immediately instilling a trust in me that has taken years to develop on other bicycles.
To build on an already exceptional ride experience, the Tarmac Comp features a Fulcrum S4 Wheelset specially designed for Specialized (where other manufacturers are offering heavier, proprietary wheels). To boot, a Shimano Ultegra 11-speed drivetrain is included with a Praxis Works Turn Zayante chainset for flawless shifting and on-the-fly climbing in a rather straight package (where other manufacturers offer a true mixed bag of components). Lastly, for riders interested in a component group upgrade down the line, the frame is Di2 compatible.
While the Tarmac wasn’t specifically designed for a man, Specialized does make a women-specific version of this bicycle in the Amira. Being a woman, I’ve ridden the Amira quite a bit and found that I was equally comfortable on both. The Tarmac offers a genuine race-proven frameset with a lot of value, particularly for riders interested in investing in a great frame and the possibility of upgrading parts as they wear out.
Who is this bike best for?
The Specialized Tarmac Comp is best for riders looking to buy a high-speed machine for a low-speed price. Whether you’re an entry-level rider looking to invest in a new piece of kit or an experienced rider upgrading your ride experience, the Specialized Tarmac Comp is your best road-bike option.
Who should skip it?
Cyclists whose budgets are restricted below this price point should find a bike that suits their price range and determine the technology that suits their needs. Not having a small fortune to spend on a bike should not deter you from buying one; it should merely encourage you to shop more wisely.
On the other end of the spectrum, cyclists with a greater budget will realize that lighter weight, equally durable, more tightly dialed machines that offer superior ride experiences exist at higher price points. For marginally more money, riders will find higher-end drivetrains, upgraded wheelsets, innovative vibration-dampening technology, and lighter carbon frame material on offer — all details that translate to a near-luxurious ride.
Additionally, riders looking to race specifically, or to use their new bike on long rides or tours, would be wise to explore purpose-driven geometry; a bicycle built for aerodynamics or endurance exclusively would be a better choice for these cyclists.
How to Best Use It
Before you make a final decision on which bike to choose, make sure that you’ve considered all the extra details that affect your budget. A helmet, cycling shoes, spare kit, and professional bike are all important “extras” that make your bike rides safe and comfortable.
Once you’ve selected a new bike, make sure you take great care of your ride. Store it indoors, or at least out of the elements. Schedule annual tune-ups, and take the initiative to learn how to manage basic maintenance on your own: changing your own tires, cleaning and lubricating the drivetrain, and checking for wear on your components are all basic skills that you can master with a little bit of practice and patience.
Lastly, just get out and ride. Your new bicycle can take you to roads you might never have known existed and will allow you to experience your world in a completely different way.
Keep it fun and incorporate riding and cycling into your lifestyle — it's not just something you can just do once in a while; its a sport you can truly ‘LIVE’ in any fashion and at any level you want.
The Runners-Up for Best Road Bike
The variable impacting my decision most was comfort and ride experience. However, ride experience, ride preference, and rider comfort on the bike are specific to each rider. You’ll find notes below on why these bikes didn’t trump the Specialized Tarmac Comp, but you may find these options at the top of your personal shopping list.
Scott Solace 20 Though Scott employs wise carbon-sourcing practices that keep its bikes among the lightest on the market, and some of the least expensive in their class, I found it difficult to justify spending marginally less for the Solace. I still preferred the smooth, responsive ride offered by the Tarmac. Riders who prefer a more tightly wound machine will find this bike to be stable, fast, and light.
Felt Z4 While I felt that the Tarmac offered a superior ride experience, the Felt Z4 package should be intriguing to any rider looking for a smooth, responsive, innovative ride at a price point far smaller than the Tarmac ($2,100). Felt offers a full carbon frame, SRAM Rival components, a compact crankset, super-innovative hydraulic disc brakes, and a durable pair of Mavic Aksium wheels. It's a very nice ride for (comparatively) little money.
Giant Defy Advanced 2 With the Defy Advanced 2, Giant has built a great buy for riders on a small budget that are willing to sacrifice upgraded components to ride a carbon frame. The bike climbs nimbly, descends with stability, and stops confidently and quietly thanks to mechanical disc brakes — a recent innovation for road-bike design. I was disappointed by the road feel of the proprietary Giant wheelset; the vibration seemed to cancel out the benefit of a carbon frame and fork. The ride quality and drivetrain package couldn’t compare to the Tarmac, but this is a steal of a deal for road-bike shoppers looking at lower price points closer to $2,000.
Giant Defy 1 The Giant Defy 1 is stable and responsive, and even light and quick on the climbs, particularly given its aluminum frame. Its entry-level price point is in the $1,000 range. The build of this bike provides for easy maintenance and features an oversized bottom bracket for more efficient power transfer while pedaling. The Shimano 105 drivetrain offers rougher shifting than the Shimano Ultegra, but the system is uncomplicated and the most innovative you’ll find on a bike at this price point. Riders may choose to upgrade the wheelset; the Giant proprietary wheels will reveal every pebble in the road.
Trek 1.5 The Trek 1.5 will offer those looking for entry-level options the opportunity to build confidence and learn the road in comfort thanks to its more upright rider position and relaxed handling. This aluminum frame bike is heavier than other bikes at similar price points in the $1,000 range, though it does feature a straight Shimano Tiagra component package that's durable enough to instill trust in new riders.
Choosing the Right Type of Road Bike for You
Decide what you want to use the bike for — commuting and carrying your things, long-distance rides, light trail riding and roads, or for fitness. Get expert advice on what type of bike that suits your needs will also suit your budget. Then, get out onto the road and test ride them.
Set your budget: Long before entering a bike shop, riders have several questions to ask themselves, the first of which deals with budget. Setting the budget for your new bike will help determine quite a few factors because the larger the budget, the more comfortable and durable your new machine will be. Manufacturers compete closely when it comes to frame material, components, and price, especially in an entry-level road bike.
Choose your frame material: At price points lower than $3,000, riders will sacrifice some degree of durability and responsiveness in their ride experience. Aluminum frames with entry-level components will be standard on bikes at these price points. Riders able to pay $1,500 for their new bikes will have the option to buy a full carbon frameset instead of aluminum. Carbon is touted as the industry gold standard, offering a lighter, smoother ride than aluminum. Carbon is also a moldable material where aluminum is not, making crash-related frame-crack repairs easier and cheaper than on an aluminum frame.
Drivetrains are important to shift quality, especially as riders begin to build endurance and push their bikes harder. Also, higher-quality drivetrains require less frequent adjusting and are more durable (generally speaking).
Consider component systems: While the quality of the drivetrain plays a role in rider comfort, the selection of components should be a secondary factor for bike shoppers to consider. At the $2,500 price point, riders have a host of component options as well. Shimano Ultegra — Shimano’s most reasonably priced performance component group — will be standard at this price point. Ultegra will shift smoother and is more durable than the entry-level 105, Claris, or Tiagra systems.
Between the $2,500 and $3,500 range, and particularly above these price points, riders will find that the geometry, components, and innovative technology change a great deal, inviting riders to narrow their intended use for the machine. At price points closer to $4,000 (and beyond), road bicycles start to have specific frame craft considerations, advanced technology design and drivetrain technology best appreciated by more experienced riders. These bikes are very comfortable to ride, if you’re comfortable with the price point.
Test ride, test ride, test ride! Once you’ve set your budget, comfort should be your primary consideration. Test ride all of the bicycles you’re considering multiple times. This will help you to not only differentiate the true difference between frame materials, drivetrain, wheel quality, and general sizing preference, but also determine if the bike fits you well. As Duggan said, an expensive bike that doesn’t fit its rider is worse than an inexpensive bike that fits its rider like a glove. This goes for initial ride experience and geometry, but also the rider-specific fit.
Get your bike from a shop that does professional fitting, or take it to a fitter after your purchase. It’s critical to devote the time, money, and energy to this to ensure you are getting the best out of your bike and yourself.
Karli Gronholm, the owner of Full Cycle Bikes in Boulder, agrees. Bike fit and residual comfort are the most important consideration in making a new bicycle purchase. “There are two ways to think about [bicycle] geometry,” says Gronholm. “The first is how does the bike fit you; this is the most important thing — you need to start with the right size bicycle. Then have [the stem, saddle and pedals] adjusted to fit to your body. Often you can have two different geometry bikes that are the same size, but only one fits you well.”
The geometry of the bicycle dictates how it handles on the road, and how comfortable it is for you to ride in your cycling purposes.
Finding a Road Bike for Under $1,000
While being basic, these bikes can be an incredible bargain, especially for the most entry-level riders.
What's Good About Road Bikes Less Than $1,000:
- Geometry is equally well-suited to learning how to ride fast and far.
- Frame materials are typically tougher.
- There's no hefty investment or value lost for entry level riders.
- Entry-level drivetrain is typically inexpensive to repair in the short.
What's Bad About Road Bikes Less Than $1,000:
- Indestructible frame materials are heavy, less responsive, and more expensive to fix than higher technology materials.
- Riders may find these bikes less comfortable to ride on hills, and for very long distances.
Road Bikes for Women
Women’s cycling is spreading like wildfire, thanks to a new category of bikes that cater specifically to women’s smaller proportions and physical attributes. Women-specific geometry offers a shorter top tube, longer seat tube, and a longer head tube. This positioning puts women in a more upright, rather than aggressive, riding position. This is helpful because “most (but not all) women have longer legs than torsos,” says Gronholm. “Not all women fit women-specific geometry,” which is another great reason to get out and test ride all of the bikes in your budget range.
What's Good About Women-Specific Road Bikes:
- Women’s geometry typically fits women’s shorter torsos and height better than men’s models.
- Ergonomic considerations are given to saddle comfort and shape.
- Specifications are dialed in for female riders; these bikes are typically smaller, lighter, and offer wheel and frame sizes to fit women’s bodies.
- Women’s colorways and styling are more attractive to female riders.
What's Bad About Women-Specific Road Bikes:
- Not all women fit best on women-specific bikes.
- For very avid female cyclists, these bikes are occasionally too basic, or the geometry is not amply aggressive.
Versatile, All-Purpose Road Bikes
Owning multiple bikes isn’t optimal or attractive to all riders, nor is being confined strictly to the paved tarmac; versatile road bikes are a one-bike-fits-most-purposes proposition. Conducive to commuting on mixed surfaces, recreational road riding, and the occasional dirt path or cyclocross race, these bikes are happy workhorses.
What's Good About Versatile Road Bikes:
- Well-suited to a variety of road surfaces.
- Suited to commutes, these bikes feature comfortable geometry and are fender-ready and sturdy without losing the possibility of speed.
- These are great for riders looking to use their bikes for multiple purposes or who aren’t sure what they’ll use the bike for most, but want options.
What's Bad About Versatile Road Bikes:
- These types of bikes are often heavier than many road bikes and frequently not as speedy.
What Makes a Great Road Bike?
The 10 Most Important Features
A great bike will get you where you want and need to go safely, comfortably, and reliably. Here are a few things to look for as you’re shopping for the best machine to suit you.
The best road bike is the bike you can’t wait to ride.
- Comfort: How your body (and your soul) feel on the bike is most important.
- Price: The sky is the limit when it comes to road bikes. Pick a budget and stick to it; you don’t have to spend a lot to get a lot.
- Value for the Price: A great road bike will strike a good balance between price and value, meaning you won’t just be paying for flash, but also for the manufacturer’s design consideration. This bike should be difficult to outgrow until you want something faster, snazzier, or want to invest more in the sport.
- Ride Quality: The way the bike responds to bumps in the road will impact your enjoyment of the bike in the long run; you’ll feel more fatigued riding on a bumpy road. Invest in a bike where the vibration dampening gives you the most responsive handling without amplifying inconsistencies in the road surface.
- Reliable components: All cycling components will do their jobs; they’ll shift the gears on the bike. But some components are designed to ride longer without repair. Aim to buy the highest-quality components you can, in your price range.
- Weight: A heavy bike is a slow bike that takes a lot more energy to ride. For many riders, this is enough to suck the life out of a bike adventure. Choose a frame material that’s designed to be light without breaking your bank.
- Responsiveness: Responsive bikes are fun to ride in the same way that responsive cars are fun to drive; you don’t want to have a delay between where you want to go and going there. Choose a bike that responds easily to your body, and your steering.
- Ease of Repair: Many mainstream manufacturers build their bikes with proprietary elements, meaning you have to take the bike to a brand-specific dealer. Is there a dealer in your area? How expensive is its repair labor? How hard it is to get parts to fix your machine?
- Wheelset Versatility: High-quality wheels lend themselves to improved ride quality, without doubt. Choose wheels that are as light and durable as your price point will allow. If you’re looking to ride your road bike on unpaved paths, you might also look to have a versatile wheelset that will allow for different tire sizes as well.
- Availability: Buying a bicycle without test riding is a known no-no amongst experienced cyclists. Just because the package looks stellar doesn’t mean the bike will feel good when you ride it. Visit your local bike shops and find out what suits your purpose, price range, and is available for you to ride.
6 Bonus Features to Look For
- Disc Brakes: Cable brakes are making way for new, more responsive disc-braking systems on road bikes for their stopping power and versatility on different surfaces. Check them out when considering what you like on your ride.
- Comfortable Saddle: You can always change out your saddle once you own a bike (and know more about what you do and don’t like), but having a nice, comfortable saddle from the start is a nice plus.
- Carbon Fiber: In the past, carbon has been the universal material of bike love because it’s light and reduces road vibrations. Entry-level bikes typically offer carbon frames or at least forks.
- Gear Ratio: The gear ratio on your new bike is what makes it easier to go up those big mountains you see in the distance. Opt for a larger gear ratio when possible for greatest versatility.
- Bike Shop Support: Buy your bike from a reputable shop where the employees are friendly, welcoming, and willing to help you maximize the ownership of your new ride.
- Straight Component Systems: Manufacturers cut corners (and costs) by offering mixed bags of components. Component systems were meant to work in concert, so when manufacturers split up the groups or offer these mixed bags, they’re cutting corners. Buy straight component sets whenever possible.
You will be visiting the shop many times in the future for your maintenance needs, and many of the clothing and accessories needed to enjoy cycling. The shop should be held to a very high standard. You should feel comfortable with the mechanics, treated with friendliness and respect by the staff, and have trust in their recommendations.
There is a lot to consider when buying a road bike, but don’t allow the process of shopping overwhelm the joy that should come from selecting a new bike. This experience should be the start of a beautiful new friendship for you, your local bike shop, and of course, your new bike. Small details, from the subtleties of the technology to the color of the bike frame, make a big difference in this process.
Your new bike should be comfortable to ride and should offer a nice suite of components, accessories, technology considerations, and pure, unbridled joy for years to come. After all, it’s one thing to move from place to place on two wheels, but it’s another thing to enjoy the journey.