The Best New Road Bikes

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Cycling Special, March 1997

The Best New Road Bikes
By John Lehrer

Could it be that road-bike manufacturers are finally catching on? After spending years bemoaning their ever-worsening sales figures, they're now touting two bits of news that seem far from coincidental. The more-for-less marketing strategy that helped to fuel the mountain-bike boom has made its way to road bikes, and sales of the latter have increased for the first time in six years. For instance, many new models on the market now have at least 21 speeds. And you'll also find dual-control shifting, yesteryear's costly extra, on bikes priced less than $700. In fact, even at the low end of the price spectrum, components are lighter and work better than ever before. Following are five worthy models that help prove the point, whether your skinny-tire passions run toward racing, touring, or merely keeping in shape.

Trek 420, $424

Admittedly the 420 lacks the latest whiz-bang innovations. But that's how Trek is able to deliver such a worthy steed for so meager a sum. With a frame that features chrome-moly tubing in the main triangle for added strength, a tight wheelbase, and upright geometry, the 420 feels lively. And while it features entry-level Shimano components, our test rides proved that inexpensive doesn't mean inefficient: The light-action side-pull brakes haul you to a stop quickly, and the indexed shifting is flawless. The 420 even has a triple crank that provides gearing low enough to conquer virtually any grade.

Bianchi Volpe, $729

Think of the Volpe as a road-bike hybrid: It's rigid enough for medium-weight touring, yet agile enough for recreational road riding. The secret lies in the Volpe's SuperSet 2 chrome-moly frame, which doesn't squirm when you're out of the saddle and doesn't jar you when riding rough roads. The Volpe's amalgam of Shimano components (mostly RSX) also enhances its versatility: The dual-control levers, which allow you to keep hands firmly affixed to bars, are ideal for touring; the triple crank provides 21 gears; and the Alivio cantilever brakes supply adequate stopping power.

Scott AFD-307, $879

The AFD-307 was designed with one thing in mind: speed. Its hulking, butted-aluminum frame, aggressive geometry, and skinny Tioga Proline 5 tires impart a lightning-quick ride, making it a natural for all-out training sessions. As for componentry, the Scott is outfitted with the same RSX ensemble as the Bianchi, which is really the bike's only shortcoming: While such midlevel parts are OK for touring, they seem a bit clunky when mated to such a high-quality frame. But then, this is precisely what allows Scott to bring so sprightly a bike to market for less than a grand.

Bruce Gordon BLT, $1,165

BLT stands for basic loaded touring--a description that's as apt as any we could provide. Indeed, thanks to the stability provided by its beefy mountain-bike fork, heavy-gauge tubing, and extra-wide tires, the BLT is the consummate touring bike, handling a heavy load as smoothly as anything we've tested. And the touring-friendly features don't end there: The BLT comes with racks; Shimano Ultegra bar-end shifters, which can be switched from index to friction so that you can change gears if you tweak a derailleur; and an unusually low 20-inch gear, which practically tows you up the steepest hills. Since the bike is designed to be barge-steady when loaded, it's not exactly quick. But if you're primarily interested in hauling your room and board, the BLT delivers.

Torelli Corsa Strada, $1,440

Like many things Italian, Torelli frames are built with the connoisseur in mind. They're hand-made by old-world craftsmen and then shipped to America, where they're carefully aligned, prepped, and given a first-class paint job. Featuring a traditional lugged frame and chrome-moly tubing, the Corsa Strada is Torelli's least-expensive model--which says something about the premium attached to Italian frames. The payoff, of course, is in the ride: On fast descents the bike tracks straight and true, and when you dive into a corner it follows a smooth arc without the need for even minute corrections. Campagnolo's handsome Veloce gruppo complements the frame perfectly--braking is strong and shifting is crisp. All told, the Corsa Strada is like a rich Chianti or a purring Ferrari: a work of art, but one in which form clearly follows function.

Myth: It's easier to tour Kansas than Colorado.

Reality: Like the stationary bikes at your gym? Good, because that's how fast you'll feel like you're going when fighting a 15-mph Plains headwind. In fact, you'd have to grind up an 8 percent mountain grade to be working as hard. Plus, on a mountain tour there'll be a descent waiting at the end of each climb, while in the nation's breadbasket, 100 miles through the wheat fields might take you to the start of sorghum country.

Myth: The skinnier the road tire, the better.

Reality: Indeed--if you're not all that fond of having feeling in your extremities. Sure, thin tires are faster, because less rubber on the road means less resistance. But they also provide virtually no shock absorption. For a barely noticeable difference in speed you can get considerable road-shock damping by running a 25C tire. Your hands, as well as a few other parts of your anatomy, will surely thank you.

Photographs by Clay Ellis; Illustration by Mick Aarestrup

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