Cycling is a great sport for so many reasons. It gets you outside, keeps you fit, can be enjoyed alone or with mates and has so many subcategories — like road cycling or mountain biking — that make it accessible to almost anyone. For me, it’s become the best way to replace running since constant shin splints sucked the joy out of it completely.
In fact, I’m enjoying cycling so much that it’s become a full-blown obsession. I rode plenty of bikes as a kid, but my journey back to cycling as an adult started with a flat bar hybrid bike, which I bought after a good mate of mine also started getting into riding a bike for exercise, which served as great motivation for both him and me.
After a few months, I decided full-blown road cycling was what I wanted to do, which meant I’d need to upgrade to a proper road bike. This was where I was hit with an intimidating wave of questions. Which bike is right for me? How do I figure out what size to get? What the hell is a groupset and which one do I want?
With some research and a bit of help from the experts at Decathlon, I’ve started my road cycling journey and would love to take you all along for the ride — pun absolutely intended.
Hopefully, this will answer all the questions you might have about getting into the sport yourself.
What is road cycling?
First thing’s first — what makes road cycling different to other kinds of cycling? Well, the simple answer is that it’s cycling on paved roadways. Pretty self-explanatory, right?
It’s considered the most widespread form of the sport and can be done purely for recreation, competitive racing, commuting and more. The majority of the world’s biggest cycling races — like the Tour de France — are road cycling races.
While there’s certainly no limit to the kinds of bikes that can be ridden on the road, road-specific bikes are designed to be the most efficient for such riding. The defining features of road bikes are generally thinner tires, lighter frames and drop handlebars that allow for more aerodynamic rider positions. In other words, they’re designed to go as fast as they can on paved roads.
What should I look for in a road bike?
There are a few main things to keep an eye on when choosing your first road bike. The bike you ultimately choose will really depend on the kind of riding you’re looking to do and how much you’re willing to spend.
Within the road bike category, there are a few different subcategories to note. I won’t go into too much detail on every one of them, but this should give you a general idea of where to look based on what you’re into. The most important question you can ask yourself when choosing a bike is what you’ll be using it for.
“If you’re looking for a commute the bike you’ll choose could be vastly different to something you would pick up to get into racing,” Tamara O’Donnell, Decathlon Australia’s Commercial Director and Buyer, Wheel Sports, told Lifehacker Australia
“Knowing your why is the most important thing to figure out before stepping into a bike shop and falling in love with your next bike.”
Flat-bar road bikes will have most of the characteristics of a standard road bike but with flat handlebars rather than drops. These are a good option for beginners looking to ease into road riding on something a little less intimidating. Flat bars generally allow for greater manoeuvrability at the expense of aerodynamics, the latter of which you really don’t need to worry about at this point in your journey.
These are sometimes called hybrid bikes, which may include thicker tires that allow riders to tackle more diverse terrain, as well as road riding.
Racing bikes will generally have all the hallmarks of a quintessential road bike. The tires will be thin to minimise rolling resistance, the fit will be set up so the rider will be in an aggressively aerodynamic position on the bike and the frame and components will be as light as possible.
Entry-level racing bikes will generally be made from aluminium, while the more expensive bikes will likely be made of carbon fibre, which is lighter and stiffer than the former.
Endurance road bikes are similar to racing bikes but will have a geometry that supports a more upright riding position. Basically, they aim to be more comfortable, which is great for those looking to do longer rides.
As the name suggests, Aero road bikes are designed specifically to reduce aerodynamic drag. They’re somewhat ‘flatter’ than other road bikes, which allows them to cut through the air easier. For the most part, this makes them faster, but they aren’t always the lightest.
There are also road bikes that are built for rougher terrain that we won’t go into here, but they include cyclocross bikes, gravel bikes, all-road bikes and more.
Choosing the right frame size is incredibly important, especially for road cycling.
“Having the right size bike is just like getting the right size pair of shoes,” Tamara said.
“Too small and you can feel cramped, too big and you can end up making unusual adjustments to really try and make it work (like putting on extra thick socks in summer). Both ways force you to move in a way to accommodate the size of the shoe, are uncomfortable, and can cause injuries. To ensure you’re comfortable and stay injury free, picking the size that’s just right for you is key.”
Frame sizes will differ depending on the manufacturer and the type of bike. The most common way of determining which size is best for you is to take your height and inseam measurements and check the manufacturer’s size chart.
Ideally, you’ll want to try out a bike before you decide on a size. Most bike shops will allow you to take demo bikes for a spin for this reason.
This is less of a concern for beginners but worth mentioning regardless. The weight of your road bike can make things like climbing hills easier, but for someone just starting out, it’s not going to make a huge difference.
Pros and serious amateur cyclists will obsess over the weight of their bikes down to the gram, which is why lighter materials like carbon fibre are used to make more expensive models and components.
Road bikes will generally be fitted with skinnier tires compared to, say, a mountain bike. But within the broader road category, tyres can range from 23mm through to 35mm and beyond if the bike in question has the clearance to fit them.
For beginners, somewhere in between works well. My bike has 28mm tyres, which allow for a little extra comfort when riding without adding extra rolling resistance.
A groupset refers to the components which control a bike’s braking, gear changing or running of the drivetrain. A bike with a “full” groupset means all the components are from the same brand and series. For example, a full Shimano Sora groupset means that each part of it is from the Sora series.
Many bikes will mix and match componentry to save costs or offer a feature that isn’t available in the series. Using Shimano Sora as the example again, the series doesn’t come in a disk brake version, but you can certainly find bikes with Sora shifting and drivetrain components that include disk brakes from another brand or series.
When looking at bikes, chances are the majority will include Shimano components, which is the largest and most well-known manufacturer of groupsets, but you may also come across other brands like SRAM and Campagnolo.
In terms of Shimano, entry-level bikes will usually have Claris, Sora or sometimes Tiagra groupsets, mid-level bikes will range from Tiagra to 105, and high-end models will generally run Ultegra or Dura-Ace. The latter may even come in electronic shifting versions (Di2).
As a beginner, any of the lower-tier groupsets should work just fine for you both functionally and budget-wise. My bike has Shimano Sora, which has enough gear variety to tackle just about anything I’ve encountered so far.
There are two main types of braking systems to choose from – rim or disk.
Rim brakes work by pressing two callipers against the rim of the bike’s wheels to slow you down.
Disk brakes work by pressing two callipers against a metal disk attached to both wheels of the bike. Disk brakes are becoming more common and are considered to be the safer option, as they tend to perform better in wet weather. However, they can be more expensive and heavier compared to rim brakes.
Disk brakes also come in two variants, mechanical and hydraulic, with the latter allowing for greater modulation.
Which road bike should I start with?
The answer to this question really comes down to what you want out of a road bike, where you’ll be riding it, etc. If you’re like me, an all-round road bike is a solid place to start.
While an increasing number of retailers are offering online orders and deliveries, it’s a good idea to head into a store to get sized up and try out a few different makes, models and types of road bikes.
I have the Triban RC 500, which is sold through Decathlon stores. They helped me find the right size and made the necessary adjustments to get me started, which really made the whole experience of getting my first road bike a lot easier.
“If you’re wanting a workhorse, that’s reliable and has the versatility of getting you to and from work, out on the road on the weekend with your mates or entering into that first road race our RC500 can do it all,” Tamara said.
“Backed with a Shimano Sora groupset and a lifetime warranty on the frame, stem and handlebars, you’ll be set for life.”
In terms of the bike itself, it’s perfect for beginners. Its aluminium frame has a comfortable, endurance-like geometry, the carbon fork blades and 28″ wheels help to provide a smoother ride, and the mechanical disk brakes offer safe and reliable stopping power.
It has a Shimano Sora groupset (minus the brakes, which are Promax DSK-300R), so you also get reliable shifting from the biggest name in the industry. All up, it’s a fantastic road bike for those looking to start out, with a reasonable price tag to match ($1,299). While I don’t really have anything to compare it to, I’m really happy with how it feels and performs.
While I’d recommend going with the RC 500, if you’re on a tight budget, something like the RC 100 can get you started for just $549. There are plenty of other entry-level options around, so don’t be afraid to get out there and take a few for a test ride.
How does road cycling feel compared to other types?
The biggest difference you’ll feel immediately when riding a road bike compared to other types of bikes is your position. Most road bikes will put you in a more aggressive, aerodynamic position, which can take a little bit of getting used to. Drawing from my own experiences again, here’s how the transition felt for me.
The first thing I noticed was how ‘forward’ I felt on the bike. Combined with a completely new handlebar system to navigate, it was a little scary, but I was surprised at how quickly I got used to it. The next thing I noticed was how much more power I was able to put through the pedals, purely from a change in positioning.
This was also the first time I started using clip-in shoes and pedals (usually referred to as clipless shoes and pedals, ironically enough) which were, frankly, terrifying the first couple of times I used them because you need to ‘twist’ your foot to unclip, which doesn’t end well if you’re coming to a stop and forget. Overall, the efficiency I was able to gain with them was well worth the effort.
As well as the standard downward pedal strokes, they also allow me to pull up through my strokes, which actually made a noticeable difference in how I ride. For example, if I’m fatigued by the end of a climb, I’ll consciously change my pedalling to put the majority of my power into pulling up, which gives the muscles responsible for pushing down a chance to recover while still maintaining decent forward momentum.
Having three different possible hand positions also helps with comfortability on the bike overall, as each one will put you in a slightly different body position. I spend most of my time on the hoods, which is generally the most comfortable position and gives the best access to brakes and gears. When I want to be more aerodynamic, I’ll move into the drops (the lowest point on the handlebars), and if I need a comfortable, more upright position, I’ll use the tops (the flat, horizontal part) — usually while climbing.
So, did switching to a road bike from a flat-bar hybrid improve my performance? Yes, but not immediately. Looking at my rides on Strava, you can see a noticeable dip in my circuit time when I started riding the road bike, and I was expecting it to pan out that way. Confidence on a bike is a big factor in performance, particularly when it comes to speed.
Here’s the last (and fastest) ride I did on my regular lunchtime route on my flat-bar hybrid bike.
And here’s how it compares to the first few rides on my new road bike.
You can see my moving time and average speed improve on each ride as I continued to get used to the new bike. By the third ride, I was back to my best time on the hybrid, and from there, I started exceeding that time by quite a bit.
This isn’t an exact science, so there are a few things worth mentioning here. Firstly, I’m still early on in my cycling journey overall, so my fitness and muscle strength will continue to improve on any bike, resulting in faster runs. I will say that I definitely feel faster on a road bike, though. I was also still recovering from a cold (not COVID, although it did eventually get me) which would have affected my performance on that first ride.
The other thing is that any given ride can be affected by things like traffic, which slowed me down in some areas.
The most important aspect of performance tracking with an app like Strava is the constant motivation it offers. I love getting out and breaking personal records, as well as seeing constant improvement in myself. It’s an incredible confidence boost and definitely motivates me to get out for a ride when I otherwise might have put it off.
Best road cycling clothing for beginners
There are really no rules when it comes to what to wear on a bike. If you prefer loose-fitting clothes for comfort, no one’s going to stop you. However, if you’re looking to increase aerodynamics or just look the part in general, getting some bib shorts and cycling jerseys can really level up your ride.
Not only will padded bib shorts give you a more comfortable ride, but coupled with a jersey, you’ll also be getting the right cooling and moisture-wicking properties from your clothing. Put simply, it’s the right clothing for the job.
Cycling kit can get expensive, so don’t feel like you need to fork out a heap of cash if you’re just starting out. Decathlon has a great range of options for both men and women, further making it a one-stop shop for everything a beginner needs to get started with road cycling.
So what do you need? Tamara says there are three essential items to consider.
“The padding in the shorts ensures I’m comfortable for longer, the breathable jersey helps me keep cool, and the padding in the gloves helps ride out the bumps along the way.”
You can check out some more options below.
Padded cycling shorts
If you only decide to go all-in on one piece of proper cycling kit, make it this. While bike saddles are designed to be as comfortable as possible — even if they don’t look that way — padded shorts will add another layer of comfort to your ride.
There are a few different types you can get, but if you want my recommendation, go with the bib and brace style (men’s and women’s here), as they’re certain not to fall down mid-ride, which isn’t an ideal scenario.
Australian brand NeoPro also has a huge range of great quality bib shorts for reasonable prices.
A good jersey will allow for breathability and comfort while you sweat it out on the bike. They also have pockets on the back, which are great for things like your phone, keys, wallet and snacks for longer rides.
During the colder months, you’re going to want to keep warm. Of course, you can opt for long-sleeve jerseys and full-length padded tights, but leg and arm warmers will get the job done with the added bonus of being removable mid-ride if things get too hot.
NeoPro can sort you out with these here.
The shoes you wear will depend on the pedal system you have in place. For flat pedals, pretty much any comfortable shoe will be fine. If you’ve gone clipless, you’ll need a pair of shoes fitted with the cleat that corresponds with your pedal.
We can pretty well boil the latter down to two options: road shoes and mountain bike shoes. Both have different clips, with the road option being a larger clip with more surface area, while mountain bike clips (you’ll see these listed as SPD) are smaller but generally easier to clip in and out of.
I went with road shoes and mountain bike clips to get the best of both worlds. My pedals are also double-sided, with flats on one side and clips on the other. This was a lifesaver when learning how to clip in and out because it gave me the option of flat pedals for rides with a lot of stopping and starting.
It’s amazing how quickly it becomes second nature though. I now use my clipless shoes on every ride.
You can check out Decathlon’s range of shoes and pedals here. Keep in mind that shoes probably won’t come with cleats, so you’ll need to make sure they’re included with the pedals you buy or remember to add them to your cart.
While not necessarily essential, gloves can add to the comfort of your ride, and in winter, they’ll keep your hands warm, which is important for ensuring your braking and gear changing is sharp.
You can check out options for all of the above right here.
Best road cycling helmets
You’ll also need a helmet, both for your own safety and because it’s a legal requirement for cycling. There are plenty of cheap helmets out there that’ll get you by, but I’d recommend spending a decent amount on something that’s going to keep your noggin safe.
There are a variety of shapes, colours and sizes out there, so finding something that suits your style and comfort should be fairly easy.
Here are a few suggestions to get you started.
Essential cycling tools and accessories
As the name suggests, these sit underneath the back of your saddle and provide space for repair essentials like spare tire tubes, tire levers and a multitool. Basically, things you might need to fix a mechanical issue while you’re out on the road.
At the very least, you should have a small hand pump that can fit in your saddlebag or clip to the frame of your bike. Trust me, you don’t wanna be stuck without one if you get a flat out on the road. Make sure the pump you choose is compatible with the valve on your tires — most pumps will fit both Presta and Schrader valves anyway, but always good to check before you buy.
If you want something compact that should easily fit in your saddlebag, I use this bad boy in mine.
Spare tire tubes
Essential. I recommend bringing two spare tubes with you on every ride in case of punctures. Just make sure you get the right size and valves to fit the tires on your bike.
These will help you get tires off your wheel. You won’t be able to change a tire without them.
This will have a number of alan keys and screwdrivers on it. Perfect for making adjustments or fixing little issues on the go.
A dirty, unlubed chain will start to sound like a cement mixer when cycling. It’ll also wear out components faster. You should be cleaning and lubing your drivetrain often to avoid this.
I recommend the lube below, as it both cleans and lubes at the same time.
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