Road riding is appealing because it’s so accessible—most people have pavement right out their front door. Also, road bikes aren’t usually as complicated as their dirt brethren. On the dirt side, you’ll notice a big difference in ride quality when you spend more money. With road, the differences between a high-end road bike and an entry-level model are much more negligible. That’s good news because it means you can get a high-quality but affordable starter setup that will last for years.
Here are my suggestions for what to buy if you want to get out pedaling.
There’s no shortage of affordable road bikes, including the excellent Specialized Allez Elite or Pure Cycles Drop Bar Roadie. And buying used will knock down the price. You can likely find a good used roadie on Craigslist or eBay for half of what you’d pay new.
But with all the changes afoot in road technology, including disc brakes and road tubeless, I’d argue in favor of buying the Cannondale Synapse Disc 105 SE ($1,600). With a slacker front end, lower bottom bracket, and more upright position than a race bike, this aluminum endurance machine is built for comfort as much as speed, which is important when you’re starting out.
Some of the road riding old guard may tell you not to bother with disc brakes. Don’t listen to them. Disc brakes are superior to rim brakes—we resolved that debate a decade ago in mountain bikes—and anyone who thinks that every road bike won’t come with discs in five years has their head in the sand. As such, I believe that every new rider should buy a disc-equipped bike.
The Shimano 105 parts this bike comes with are the best performance bang for the money. And thanks to clearance for 30c tires, plus the supple WTB Exposure tires that come spec, the Synapse will be at ease on dirt roads as well as pavement. Cannondale has even included a Fabric Scoop saddle, one of the comfiest out there.
Of course $1,600 is still not cheap, so Cannondale makes two more affordable versions of this bike: the non-SE with 105 for $1,500, and one with Tiagra for $1,300, both of which are also great options. But a heads up: these less expensive bikes lose the additional tire clearance and plush saddle, and come with rims that aren’t tubeless ready, which means you’ll likely be tempted to upgrade your parts down the road.
When I wrote about entry-level gear for mountain biking, one reader said it was a waste of money to spend a lot on a helmet as he got his for a few dollars at a thrift store. That’s great if you don’t value your brain: there’s no telling what a second-hand helmet has been through and whether it will protect you. Save money elsewhere and buy a Bell Formula ($65), which has the most current safety technologies, including a MIPS fitment that protects against rotational impacts. It’s pretty inexpensive (especially measured against the cost of treatment for a brain injury), weighs little more (255 grams) than the costliest helmets out there, vents well, and comes in a rainbow of sweet colors.
If you’re riding on the road, a good light setup, like the Lezyne Strip Drive Front/Rear Pair ($68), is non-negotiable. That’s because studies have shown that daytime running lights, both front and back, can help ensure motorists see and avoid you. With up to 300 lumens in daytime flashing mode, these strip lights (white for front, red for rear) are visible from over a mile away in full daylight. They are USB-rechargeable via built-in ports beneath the weather-sealed caps, and the trim profile and rubber strap attachment mean they’ll fit well on any post and bars, even aero models, and transfer quickly between bikes.
Shoes and Pedals
You might get away with flat pedals and street shoes for a little while, but for any appreciable saddle time, you’re going to want clipless pedals and shoes. The good news is you don’t have to spend a fortune. The Shimano PD-R540 pedal ($60) uses the same tried-and-true clipping mechanism of the company’s $280 model, and adjustable tension makes it possible to lighten up the pressure while you learn. With only two Velcro closures, the Shimano RP1 ($80) cleat is a fairly basic design, but the glass fiber-reinforced nylon sole interfaces perfectly with the pedals and provides enough stiffness for efficient pedaling without the torture-board feel of a full racing model.
The Specialized Rib Cage with Tool ($50) is a little pricey but it makes up for the cost by pulling double duty. In addition to carrying your water, it houses a built-in multi-tool (included) so you’re never broken down and stranded. Fill the cage with a CamelBak Podium Chill water bottle ($13), which keeps your beverage cold for hours.
Rather than a bulky, swinging, tacky-looking bag for tools, I prefer the Backcountry Research Camrat Strap Road Saddle Mount ($14). The tacked-in elastic loops hold one or two tubes, inflator and CO2 cartridge such as the Genuine Innovations Air Chuck ($16), and tire levers from Pedro’s ($5), and the whole thing straps onto your saddle or seat post with the burly, rubberized, Velcro-slathered webbing strap. I’ve run these on all of my bikes, including mountain models, and they’ve never failed or lost my gear.
Here are some additional pieces of gear to consider once you’ve spent some time on your new bike and want to start riding longer distances.
Unlike mountain biking, where you move around in the saddle a lot, road riding can feel static and repetitive, so a quality pair of padded shorts like the Gore Bikewear Element bibs ($90) will make things more comfortable. The flat seams on these shorts prevent hot spots and chafing, and the pad liner is both supportive and cushy. I personally prefer bibs on the road bike to relieve any pressure on my waist, but Gore also makes these in a strapless design if you prefer.
Half the time I ride barehanded, but on rough terrain or on hot days when sweaty palms might hinder grip, a pair of gloves like the Lizard Skins Aramus Classic ($40) is invaluable. The sheep skin leather is buttery soft on the hands, there are gel inserts in the palms to dampen road chatter, and the pull loops between the fingers help you peel them off post ride.
Smartphones can record metrics and trace a route via GPS, but they look awful strapped to your bars and become a huge liability if you crash. I prefer a trim, dedicated computer unit like the Garmin Edge 20 ($130), which captures all the pertinent metrics (time, speed, distance, etc.) and provides bread-crumb tracking so you can load routes onto the device and then follow them in the field. It’s also compatible with cadence and heart rate monitors (sold separately) should you someday decide to begin training on the bike.
No single upgrade will improve a bike’s feel and handling more than a high-quality set of wheels, and the Bontrager Aeolus Pro 3 TLRs ($1,200) are as good as carbon wheels get for the money. At 1,746 grams for the set (including tubeless strips and valve stems), these are reasonably light and admirably stiff, and I’ve yet to find a tire that doesn’t set up tubeless in a snap. The fairly wide inner rim dimension (19.5mm) spreads tires for a broader contact patch and better traction, and the 35mm depth is a great balance between lightweight and aerodynamics.
I realize that it might seem ludicrous to spend nearly as much on a set of wheels as an entire bike, so this is not an upgrade you’re likely to make right away. However, down the line, if you want a nicer bike but don’t care to spend what it takes, these hoops will make the Synapse feel as light and explosive as bikes four times as expensive.