Yes, some road bikes cost as much as a used car, and some equipment will set you back more than a month’s rent. But if you look around carefully, you can get into the sport—and get really good gear—for less than two G's. Here are my top picks for affordable road kit that will not only get you on the bike, but keep you riding for a long time without thoughts of upgrading. Are there even less expensive options out there, at your local Wal-Mart, for example? Yes, of course. But I've found the following items to offer the most value: think of it as high-performance gear for athletes on a budget.
Cannondale CAAD12 105 ($1,680)
Since carbon fiber is all the rage for frame manufacturing these days, it’s a great time to buy an affordable aluminum frame like the CAAD12. And the good news is that many of the big brands, including Cannondale, are investing money in tube-shaping and –tuning technologies that are making this metal nearly as light and comfortable as composites. The frame on this bike is identical to the one on the top-end model (which retails for nearly six grand), so you’re getting a seriously high-performance tool, with the lower-spec parts making up the difference. That’s not to say this bike is lacking, either, with a Shimano 105 drivetrain that works as well as the high-end parts but just weighs a bit more, Cannondale’s excellent Hollowgram SI crank, and high-value Mavic Aksium wheels. If you can spare $270 more, we’d recommend springing for the disc-brake version, which makes for more control on descents and in corners.
Specialized Propero ($110)
There are less expensive helmets out there, but we like the Propero because it’s so similar to Specialized’s top road offering, the Prevail. It weighs a bit more and the webbing harness is slightly different, but the crash protection is equal and the styling and comfort is on a par, meaning you’ll be happy for years without pining away for something nicer.
Shimano RP2 ($100)
Good shoes are comfortable and durable, and Shimano nails both counts with its RP2. Borrowing technologies from its high-end race models, this entry-level shoe has an anatomical curve in the sole and deep, grippy heel cup for all-day comfort. The glass fiber-reinforced nylon sole is plenty stiff for efficient pedaling but not so rigid that it will make your feet ache. We like the simplicity of the three Velcro straps—no ratchets or dials to fail over time—and Shimano’s offset strap design ensures you don’t get any hotspots or pressure points.
Shimano R550 SPD-SL Resin Pedal ($100)
These pedals use the same excellent clipping mechanism as their more expensive counterparts and a resin frame material keeps things light. The SPD design is time-tested and has less play and slop than many other brands out there. There are less expensive Shimano models (R540), but we prefer the broad platform of this pedal for its all-day comfort. Best of all, you can find these for around half the cost online if you look carefully, which means you’re getting superior performance at bargain rates.
Knog Pop Duo lights ($33)
Riding with lights during daylight hours still isn’t the norm, but given the added safety for riders, it should be. I never venture out on a road bike without lights these days, as the visibility (and possible legal protection) is worth the small investment. Knog’s Pop lights are powered by one AA battery each and are weather-sealed and simple to use. Knog makes a whole slew of lights that are more powerful and USB-rechargeable, which are great. But if you don’t want to throw down the money, the design and the durability of the Pop lights is the minimum investment you should make.
Gore Bike Wear Element Tights Short+ ($80)
Because of the static repetition of road riding (versus mountain biking, where you move around on the saddle a lot more), a high-quality pair of shorts—with a good pad—is an absolute must. Gore gets overlooked a lot for the chichi boutique brands, but the company produces incredibly high-end product that costs less than half of what you’d pay for something similar from a competitor. And though we generally prefer bib shorts, with built-in suspenders and no waistband (there’s a bib version of the Element), we think the comfort and ease of these shorts is the way to go for those just getting into the sport. The pad is well thought out and comfortable for long days, and the paneling and fit is the equivalent to that of much more expensive shorts from other brands.
Rapha Core Jersey ($115)
The truth is, you don’t need to buy a jersey if you’re tight on cash and just starting out—any breathable, wicking sport top will do. However, if you want to kit up, you could do no better than Rapha’s new entry-level Core line, which offers much of the company’s premium fit and feel in a less expensive package. The jersey is constructed of a soft, cooling stretch fabric, has a wide gripper elastic waist in the rear plus heavy duty pockets, and is cut more generously than the company’s race line for a bit more comfort. It keeps the characteristic understated style, too, with contrast fabric swatches at the neck and sleeves, and stitching for the famous armband look. Go with a bright color, such as red, white, light blue, or (if you can pull it off) pink, for visibility.
Specialized Body Geometry Gel Gloves ($35)
Gloves are another optional item, though I generally favor them, partly for their vibration damping, but also because they have saved my hands from some nasty cuts and scrapes. My favorite is this BG model, as the thick gel inserts in the palm really take the edge off rough roads and chip-sealed pavement without impeding range of motion.