The Best Starter Bikes of 2016
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The biggest beneficiaries of the great evolution in bike tech? Lower-cost rides.
Cannondale CAAD8 105 5
Best For: Aspiring Racers
Anyone who thinks aluminum is stiff and heavy hasn’t ridden the CAAD8. Cannondale used lightweight tubing to build a bike that’s nearly identical to its older brother, the CAAD12, but for $270 less and at a mere two-pound weight penalty. In a blind test, most people wouldn’t notice a performance difference between the Shimano 105 drivetrain included here and top-shelf Dura Ace, and though the wheels are mediocre, they’re easy to upgrade. On the road, the CAAD8 feels snappy and quick—it’s surprisingly peppy in sprints and on climbs—but still quite smooth, carving through turns like a criterium bike.
Raleigh Roker Sport
Best For: Adventurers
The Roker Sport is the Subaru Crosstrek of the road-bike world. With a design borrowed from Raleigh’s successful cyclocross rigs, this is a full-carbon roadie that’s stable, comfortable, and built with plenty of tire clearance. The 40-millimeter Clement X’Plor rubber isn’t as fast as a skinny tire, but the ability to roll from pavement to dirt without missing a pedal stroke makes up for the speed dip. Testers raved about how well the versatile steed powered along on flats and rollers, and while the TRP discs don’t have as much stopping power as their hydraulic counterparts, they’re a big improvement over rim brakes.
Niner EMD 9
Best For: Dirt Converts
This hardtail 29er costs as little as a department-store clunker but offers the performance and trail cred of one of the most sophisticated boutique brands around. What you get for less than two grand: a well-made aluminum frame, a tapered headtube, clean cable routing, hydraulic disc brakes, and a tubeless-ready Niner wheelset. Living up to its name (as in Eat My Dust), the EMD was happiest on flats and climbs, and the 100-millimeter RockShox Recon Silver fork made even rocky descents easier than expected. Pro tip: scrap the skinny WTB Nine Line tires for something in the 2.4-inch range to boost comfort dramatically.
Diamondback Release 1
Best For: Bigger-Hit Riding
Diamondback designed the Release from the ground up, with modern geometry, 130 millimeters of travel in back, and 27.5-inch wheels. The suspension system is modeled on Santa Cruz’s respected VPP platform (the patent expired late last year), meaning it offers similar pedaling efficiency and a buttery-smooth feel for a fraction of the cost. It was perky on seriously techy terrain, stable at speed, and really fun to ride. The parts are a reasonable mix of SRAM gear, a nice 150-millimeter RockShox fork, and house-brand wheels hung with brawny Schwalbe tires. It all works great together, although it’s on the heavy side.