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The Ultimate Guide to Buying a Road Bike

May 29, 2018
The Ultimate Guide to Buying a Road Bike

Riding a road bike is a great activity that keeps you active as well as providing a unique way of meeting new people and experiencing your surroundings. It's also a great way to stay fit at any age due to the lack of impact on your body. Additionally, road bikes have the ability to satisfy the competitive types, thrill seekers and/or adventure searchers, if you're that way inclined.

When it comes time purchase a new bike, there are a plethora of options that can be daunting. To help you make an informed decision we've created the ultimate guide to buying a road bike to help you sort through all the information and find the perfect bike for you.

To start with consider some of these questions;

  • What type of riding are you doing now?

  • What type of riding do you intend to do in the future?

  • What is your budget?

  • What is your cycling ability?

Some of these questions are easier to answer than others, and some will impact the final decision more so than others.

For example, if you live in a flat area with not a hill in sight, a bike with aerodynamic features or additional comfort is most likely going to be a better investment than a super lightweight climbing bike. If you just need a solid [commuter bike] for work and perhaps some recreational riding on the weekends then you can afford to be thrifty and forgo the bells and whistles. And if you're not a high-level cyclist but very enthusiastic about your riding and have the money to spend, why not go all out and get the bike of your dreams?


What is a Road Bike?

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A road bike is distinguishable by a few key details;

  • Athletic position: Designed to reduce your frontal profile from the wind, road bikes typically place the rider in a more athletic, and lower, position compared to more recreational bike types. This also helps to recruit additional muscle groups, such as the hamstrings and glutes.

  • Drop bars: While flat handlebar road bikes are available, most road bikes feature the curled-shape drop handlebars. These provide multiple hand positions and allow the rider to adjust their frontal profile to suit the terrain.

  • Skinny tyres: Tyres on a road bike are typically 23mm, 25mm or 28mm in width, with some endurance orientated tyres at 30mm+. While it was previously rare to see tyres wider than this, new trends in endurance bikes and “All Road” bikes are seeing road bike tyres go as a wide as 33mm.

  • No suspension: Unlike mountain bikes, road bikes typically do not feature suspension. Most surfaces covered on a road bike are flat and smooth, not requiring the extra comfort that suspension provides. If road bike users do require additional comfort, it's normally in the form of wider tyres or inbuilt compliance to the frame and fork.

  • Multiple gears: Road bikes will normally have two cogs on the front crank and up to 12 gears on the rear cassette providing up to 24 gears. The large span of gears allows riders to efficiently pedal at both high speeds (descending or fast flats) and lower speeds (climbing).

These features make travelling large distances on a road bike easier than on other bikes, faster too!


Which type of road bike?

There are many types of road bikes available to specifically cater for the terrain or type of riding you do. There are 'aero' bikes for flat roads, 'lightweight' bikes for hills, 'endurance' bikes for long rides, all-road or gravel bikes for adventure riding and recreational bikes that are just for fun.

Below is a description of each to help you decide which type of bike suits you.

Aero bike

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Aero road bikes are built for one thing... speed! They are not overly concerned with weight or comfort. It's all about cheating the wind and saving watts. Aero road bikes are distinguishable from other roads bike by their large tube profiles, deep section wheels, and component integration.

Tube profiles on aero bikes are generally larger than other road bikes to create a more aerodynamic profile and are shaped to reduce drag. This causes the overall weight of the bike to be greater than other road bikes. Deep rim wheels are another feature of aero road bikes.

Integration on aero road bikes is key. Components such as cables and brakes will often be hidden out of the wind. The tube profiles are often even moulded to conform to the shape of the wheels.

Thanks to the larger tube profiles, aero road bikes are typically also incredibly stiff, making them the bike of choice for people that race and like to sprint. They come with a long and low riding position and are fast handling. Popular examples of aero road bikes include the Trek Madone, Specialized Venge, Giant Propel, Merida Reacto and Cervelo S series.

Endurance bike

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Endurance road bikes are fast becoming the most popular form of road bike with their relaxed geometry, stable ride and focus on comfort. Endurance road bikes are distinguishable from other road bikes by having stable handling and an upright, comfortable riding position.In just the past couple of years, a near majority of endurance bikes now feature disc brakes, too. Additionally, endurance road bikes will typically have a compact drivetrain set-up (scroll down for more details on 'compact' set-ups), greater clearance allowing for bigger tyres, and additional vibration damping mechanisms to further smooth out the road.

Endurance road bikes are sometimes called 'Sportive bikes', as they are perfectly suited to endurance road riding and Gran Fondo events.

When you think endurance, don't think slow. Very often a company’s endurance bike is made from the same material as the top of the line lightweight or aero bike and shares similar groupsets and wheelsets. The additional compliance (bike lingo for comfort) and more upright riding position is what sets endurance bikes apart from others.

If you’re on a strict budget, most entry-level road bikes will be of an endurance bike design. At the same time, endurance bikes can be bought at top-tier price points, too. Popular examples of endurance bikes include the Trek Domane, Specialized Roubaix, Cannondale Synapse and Giant Defy.

Lightweight bike

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Lightweight bikes are the bike of choice for general classification contenders in the pro peloton and riders who enjoy seeking out some elevation. As far as race bikes go, these are the all-rounders.

Lightweight bikes are agile, high-performing machines that focus on keeping weight down and power transfer up, above all else. They typically don't have the aero tube profiles of an aerodynamic bike or the elongated headtube and wheelbase of an endurance bike. Instead, they have featherlight frames and are designed to perform at their best when climbing mountains and attacking on the way back down.

Many top-tier lightweight bikes are under the UCI's (international cycle racing federation) minimum bike weight of 6.8kg as the public aren't required to conform to these regulations. As a result, a mini arms race is taking place to achieve the lowest weight possible, some even falling below 5kg.

Popular examples of lightweight bikes include the Merida Scultura, Trek Emonda, Specialized Tarmac, Cannondale SuperSix Evo, Focus Izalco Max and Giant TCR.

Gravel bikes

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Gravel or All-road bikes fall into a very broad category that allows the rider to access all types of terrain on one bike. In order to do this, the bike needs to be durable, comfortable and have sufficient performance features. Adventure or gravel bikes will typically be similar to endurance road bikes, but with greater clearance for wider tyres, disc brakes for optimal performance in all weather conditions, and lower gear ratios to cater for easier riding or extreme profiles.

Touring Bikes

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Touring bikes are a slightly different category to gravel bikes and not so focused on the performance aspect of riding. Touring bikes are heavier than other road bikes with the emphasis on comfort,longevity and the ability to carry gear on the bike. Fenders and rack mount are commonplace, as are easy pedaling gear ratios. Steel is often used for the frame thanks to its durability, ease of repair and plush ride. A touring bike will often feature a more upright and stable riding position to help with loaded carrying.

For these type of bikes, the tyres are likely to be 30mm or above, disc brakes are preferable, handlebars and can be drop or flat, and they will weigh more than a performance orientated road bike.

Recreational or Fitness bike

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Recreational bikes forgo the bells and whistles of performance road bikes (actually, they do come with bells) and focus on comfort and practicality. They are best suited to new riders who are looking to be active and easily get from A to B. These bikes will typically have flat bars, wider tyres, flat pedals and easy-pedaling gear ratios.

They are a great introduction to cycling or the perfect all-purpose machine for those who don't take their cycling too seriously.

Flat bar road bike

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Any bike that features a “flat bar” can be considered a flat bar road bike but the quality and purpose can vary greatly. As mentioned above, most recreational bikes will feature a flat bar but it's not uncommon to see a more performance orientated frame with a flat bar instead of drop handlebars.

In a true flat bar road bike, the shifting mechanics differ to a drop bar, but the general performance and equipment aren't compromised.


Frame material

Road bikes are commonly made from either carbon fibre, aluminium, titanium, steel or a combination of these materials. Each material has different characteristics and will affect the cost, comfort, weight and general “feel” of the bike. It's worth noting that it's often how the chosen material is used by the engineers and manufacturers that matters most, and this is something that each brand will typically play with.

Check out our Frame Material Explained Guide for an in-depth description of each material.

Carbon Fibre

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Directional in its nature, carbon fibre can easily be moulded into any shape enabling manufacturers to experiment with tube profiles and frame shape to create a bike that is stiff, light, aerodynamic and/or comfortable. The stiffness to weight ratio of carbon fibre is the best of any material used for bikes which is why it is the universally chosen material for bikes in the professional ranks.

Aluminium

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Aluminium is a strong metal that can be used to make a light and stiff bike. It's also less labour intensive to work with, which makes it a cheaper option than carbon fibre. Choosing an aluminium frame can provide a cost effective solution for those seeking performance on a budget.

Titanium

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With the prevalence of carbon fibre it is rarer to see titanium frames, but the material is making a comeback via bespoke creations. Titanium is relatively lightweight, highly durable and won't corrode like steel. Unlike carbon fibre and aluminium that can easily be molded, titanium is hard to work with which makes it an expensive material choice.

Steel

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Like titanium, steel is most commonly found on bespoke creations. Before aluminium and carbon fibre, steel was the material of choice for road bikes, both recreational and professional. Modern, premium steels can be quite expensive and laborious to use and so lost favour with many brands choosing other materials that offered greater stiffness to weight ratios. The hand-crafted and “classic” nature of the material has seen it make a resurgence in recent time.


Brake Types

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When choosing a new road bike, buyers will typically be presented with two options when it comes to stopping power, rim brakes or disc brakes. The main difference between a traditional rim brake bike and a disc brake bike is how and where the braking forces are applied.

Rim Brakes

A rim brakes applied braking force directly to the rim, or sides of the wheel. Having been the standard for many decades, this is traditionally the most popular option on road bikes thanks to its simplicity and reduced weight.

A machined, textured of reinforced braking surfaceat the edge of the rim, just below the tyre, handles the stopping duties. Pulling on the brake lever pulls a braided stainless steel cable (housed in some form of outer cable housing) connected to a brake caliper, which is then used to apply braking force to the braking surface of the rim.

Disc Brakes

A far newer technology compared to rim brakes, disc brakes were originally borrowed from cars and motorbikes and used on mountain bikes. Proven to provide more finite braking control and consistent power regardless of the conditions, disc brakes are fast becoming a key reason for new bike purchases.

Disc brakes earn their name from putting a steel disc rotor at the hub of the wheel. From here, a brake caliper mounted to the frame or fork (always on the left) clamps onto the rotor. There are two different types of disc brake systems to be found on a disc-equipped road bike, hydraulic disc brakes and mechanical disc brakes.

Hydraulic disc brakes work with the aid of hydraulic brake fluid, similar to the system found on motorbikes and automobiles. A plunger is activated at the master cylinder located in the lever itself, this pushes fluid through a hose, and onto the caliper at the wheel. The pressure of this fluid operates pistons in the caliper that clamp the brake pads onto the rotor.

Mechanical systems on the other hand work in a similar fashion to rim brake systems and are cable actuated. Meaning that you pull on a lever, which then pulls a braided stainless steel cable (housed in some form of outer cable housing) which is then used to apply braking force to the rotor. Mechanical disc brake systems are simpler and are typically found on entry-level bikes.

For more information on disc brake stopping power, check out our guide on buying a disc brake road bike for everything to know.

Groupset / Drivetrain

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A groupset comprises of brakes and the drivetrain which is thought of as the bike's engine room.

The drivetrain consists of the cranks, chainrings, chain, cassette, derailleurs and shifters. The drivetrain is a closed circuit which propels the bike and as you spend more money the efficiency, durability and shifting performance increases while the weight decreases.

As you work up the groupset hierarchy, the materials change. Entry-level groupsets are made up of mostly low-grade aluminium and steel, which move to the higher-grade alloys, and then the highest-grade alloys, carbon fibre and titanium for the top-of-the-line options.

If you want to know more, including the full hierarchies of Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo, read through our ultimate guide to road bike groupsets for all you need to know.


Gearing

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Gear ratios on road bikes vary depending on the purpose of the bike. Gear ratios and range are a combination of the number of chainrings on the front of the bike and the number of teeth on those chainrings; and the number of cogs on the rear cassette and the number of teeth on those cogs.

The majority of road bikes will have either two or three front chainrings, although three front chainrings (known as a 'triple') are commonly reserved for recreational, entry-level or touring bikes. While two chainrings is the norm, in recent times, some road bikes have followed the mountain bike trend of having a single chainring. Having a single chainring minimises potential mechanical issues and simplifies the shifting to the rear cassette.

Bikes with two front chainrings are normally split into a 'regular', 'compact' or 'semi-compact', also called a 'mid-compact' set-up. A regular set-up sees the large chainring with 53-teeth and the small chainring with 39-teeth and is most commonly used by professional riders and those racing. A compact set-up sees the large chainring with 50-teeth and the small chainring with 34-teeth which provides easier pedaling ratios when compared to a regular set-up. A relatively new option, the semi-compact set-up is in between the two, the large chainring with 52-teeth and the small chainring with 36-teeth.

A 'triple' will normally have a 50-tooth large, a 39-tooth medium and 30 tooth small chainring.

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The front chainring set-up is the foundation for the gear ratios which the cassette on the back compliments. The cassette is made up of a number of cogs or sprockets which can be changed to make the gear ratio easier or harder. Modern-day cassettes feature 9, 10,11 or 12 cogs.

The most common ratios on a cassette is an 11-25T or 11-28T whereby the smallest cog has 11-teeth and the largest cog has either 25 or 28-teeth. The cogs in between these two have a spread of teeth aimed to make shifting between gears smooth. The larger the difference between the smallest and largest cog on the cassette, the greater the chain has to move and the less consistent a rider's cadence (pedalling speed) becomes between gear changes.

Choosing a bike with smaller chainrings on the front and a larger ratio cassette on the back will provide a greater spread of gears and easier pedaling ratios. A bike with larger front chainrings and a smaller ratio cassette on the back will be more targeted for speed and provide less range of gears. Unless you’re racing, the former is likely best.


Wheels and Tyres

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A road bike wheel consists of the hub which the wheel spins around, the spokes which connect the hub and the rim, the nipples which connect the spokes to the rim and the rim which is the round hoop of the wheel. A good set of wheels will be durable, have dependable hubs, provide confidence-inspiring braking, be stiff for power transfer, and also lightweight.

A wheel's rim width and depth will largely dictate how it rides and feels. The trend is for modern rims to be wider than previous generations to provide better aerodynamics and greater tyre air volume, resulting in improved comfort. This coincides with the shift to larger tyres that are said to improve rolling resistance as well as comfort by running at a lower pressure. The depth of the rim will affect the aerodynamics of the wheel and the handling of a bike. The deeper the rim, the more aerodynamic it will be, but also harder to handle given they will be more affected by side wind than a shallow rim.

For a more detailed guide on wheels and what to look out for, read our Road Bike wheels: What to Know article.

Tyres

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It's worth knowing the three different tyre types that fit onto a wheel as they require a specific wheel rim. Tyres will either be “clincher”, “tubular” or “tubeless” and the wheel will specify which tyre it is compatible with. The majority of road bikes available for sale will feature clincher tyres which need an inner tube to hold air. Tubulars are typically reserved for sponsored professional, while tubeless is an emerging technology on the road, and is effectively a clincher tyre without the inner tube.

For more information, including a more in-depth description of the different types available, check out our guide to road bike tyres.


Bike Size

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Getting the right size bike is crucial. If you are comfortable on the bike it will provide a more enjoyable experience and you will want to ride it more; plus comfort equals speed. Conversely, the incorrect sized bike will lead to discomfort, potential injury and a negative riding experience.

Bike frames are commonly measured in centimeters representing the length of the seattube. A description of the frame size based on this measurement is then occasionally allocated, for example, a 51cm frame is considered a small.

Each manufacturer will have different sizes and frame descriptions so a small for one brand may be a medium in another brand. Similarly, different bike models from the same manufacturer may be different effective sizes with shared descriptions. For example, a 54cm lightweight bike and a 56cm aero bike might both be a medium. It's always best to check with the specific manufacturer and bike model to confirm. If cross comparing between brands or models, the most consistent measurements to use are the “Stack” and “Reach”.

Bike sizing can be tricky, so be sure to consult an experienced shop for help if you’re unsure. We’re not understating it, choosing the right size is the most critical element of any bike purchase.

For more on geometry and how it affects a bike, check out our guide to geometry charts and what they mean.


Budget

Budget is the biggest question and the biggest limiting factor when purchasing a road bike. The price range for a road bike is enormous, entry-level recreational road bikes start at €300 and extend to over €10,000 for elite performance road bikes.

Regardless of your price range, you can pick up a great bike that will serve your purpose. Spending more money on a bike will typically (but not always) result in a reduction of weight, increased stiffness, improved shift quality, increased durability and greater comfort.

The materials of the bike's frame and fork will change as the price increases, typically moving from steel to aluminium to carbon fibre. Groupsets will have a similar progression starting with low grade steels, then progressing to higher grade alloys, then a mix of the highest grade alloys, carbon fibre and titanium. Wheelsets follow a similar path from aluminium to carbon fibre, with better and more durable bearings at higher price points.

Below is a summary of what you can expect within a set budget.

Price range under €1,000

Bikes of this price range are targeted towards the recreational cyclist. They feature some performance elements but are mostly based on durability and versatility. As a result, bikes in this price range will normally have an 8 or 9-speed cassette on the back with a double or triple crankset on the front providing either 16, 18, 24 or 27 gears for easy pedaling ratios. Rim brakes remain the common choice at this price, with discs being reserved for more expensive bikes.

The frame is most likely to be made from aluminium or steel and the fork from a mix of aluminium and carbon. The wheelset and tyres will be heavy and robust but can easily be upgraded to provide a more lively ride.

Price range €1,000 - €2,000

At this price point the biggest question becomes whether to choose an aluminium or carbon fibre frame. Both materials are capable of being lightweight, stiff and providing a comfortable ride. While the answer will vary based on specific brand, our advice is to typically pick a high-end alloy frame over a basic carbon one. As a side perk, the alloy-framed bikes will typically feature better components for the same money.

Price range €2,000 - €4,000

The focus of bikes in this price range shifts from recreational to performance. Total weight of the bike decreases, shifting becomes crisper and general speed typically increases. Performance features like aerodynamic tube profiles, deep profile wheels and race geometry can be found at this price point, as can advanced comfort features in endurance bikes.

Bikes within this price range will likely have an 11-speed cassette on the back with a double crankset on the front. SRAM Rival or Shimano 105 and Ultegra are the groupsets you will typically find. The frame will be made from high-quality aluminium or carbon fibre, with the fork almost exclusively carbon fibre. The wheelset will be lighter and possibly even made from carbon fibre if you really search for a bargain. Tyres will become more supple and provide less rolling resistance making it easier to go faster.

Most frames within this price range will be made using carbon fibre and it's just a question of the groupset and wheels that accompany it.

Price range €4,000 - €7,000

Now we are starting to get to the pointy end of road bikes. Bikes within this price range share similar high-performance features to what the professionals ride and you're unlikely to find a lemon when spending this kind of money. The biggest decision to be made in this price range is which type of bike to buy as bikes become distinctly split into groups between aerodynamic, lightweight or endurance.

Regardless of which type you choose, once again weight of the bike goes down, shifting is further enhanced and wheelsets are light and aerodynamic. Bikes within this price range will all have an 11-speed cassette with a double crankset on the front. The following groupsets will feature on bikes within this range; SRAM Force and Red, Shimano Ultegra and Dura-Ace and Campagnolo Potenza and Chorus. Both electronic and mechanical shifting groupsets can be found at this price point.

Hydraulic disc brakes are easily within grasp at this price point, as are carbon fibre or high-end alloy wheels. Unless picking something bespoke, such as steel, the frame will almost certainly be made of a high-grade carbon fibre.

Price range over €7,000

Differentiating the performance of bikes at this point becomes harder because the amount of improvement isn't relative to the amount of money spent. As a result, deciding on a bike in this price range will be largely based on personal preferences rather than one bike performing better than another.

At this price range, you can expect a high-grade carbon fibre frame and fork that is light, stiff and compliant. Additionally, you'll experience precise shifting and carbon fibre wheelsets that are light and aerodynamic. Electronic groupsets begin to be common at this point as does top-of-the-line SRAM Red, Shimano Dura Ace and Campagnolo Record and Super Record.

It's not uncommon for people to spend over €10,000 on a road bike and in most cases, those bikes will be some form of professional race bike replica, bespoke ' creation and/or have customised features.


Bike Accessories

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It's important to know that once you've purchased a bike, the job isn't over. Additional purchases in the form of shoes, pedals, bottle cages and spares will still be required. It's worth including these additional items your budget. Also, many shops are willing to negotiate the prices on these items when bought with a bike.

Our complete guide to the road cycling accessories you need to get started is the perfect read if you're looking to get your first road bike.


Do some research

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To help you make an informed decision, with your budget and riding goals in mind, create a list of your top five bikes and do some research.

As well as trawling through cat videos, YouTube can also be used as a quick source of easily consumable information. Look for videos from the manufacturers for specifications and technical information but also look for impartial people or companies providing their opinions.

Look for relevant information that is going to be important to you in the years to come, not just which colour is in vogue at the moment. Weight, comfort and safety are all key considerations. What kind of rider is the bike suited to? As mentioned previously, although you may have your eyes set on a 4.6kg lightweight climber if there are no hills around and 95% of your riding is done on flat roads, then perhaps an aero or endurance oriented bike is more suited to you.

If you are looking for a performance bike, ask if it is raced professionally. If it's not, why not? That's not to say for a bike to be good it needs to feature in the WorldTour, but if it's good enough for the professionals, it's highly likely to be good enough for the rest of us.

Look for reviews from other sources too. Magazines, websites, blogs all provide valuable information, normally in much more detail than an online video. And while you're online, look at forums or reviews for information, and be sure to check the comments section at the bottom.


Test ride

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Only by taking a bike for a ride will you get a feel for its characteristics, size, geometry and intricacies.

When taking a bike for a test ride, try to simulate the type of riding you plan to do. I.e. If you favour the hills, take it for a ride up and down the nearest climb. If flat, fast tracks are more your thing, try to get it up to speed and see how it handles sprinting. If it's a commuter, make sure it feels robust and can accommodate your storage needs.

And don't be dazzled by a new shiny bike. Look at it constructively and make an informed decision as to whether or not it meets your needs. If you have doubts at the time of purchase, they will only compound over time.

It's worth noting that not all bikes will be available for test. Especially those at both the extreme high or low end will typically not be available to try. Unless shops have dedicated test fleets, they're often only able to offer test rides with their floor stock – and not every shop is keen to have this new stock used. Unfortunately as is often the case, you’ll need to make your purchase based on external information.


Get a bargain

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BikeExchange is the perfect place to find yourself a great deal year-round and here are some tips to help you narrow in on that bargain:

  • EOFY: End of financial year is a great time to buy a bike. Retailers are looking to clear old stock to make way for new, creating the perfect opportunity to get a great price on the current or last years model. Road bikes typically work on a three-year life cycle, meaning the bike is wholly updated every three years. If you time it right, you can get yourself a great deal at the transfer of product seasons.

  • Christmas: Christmas is another good time of year to get a bargain. Christmas is the busiest time of year for retailers and the bike industry is no exception. Many retailers will try to clear old stock that didn't sell at the end of financial year period or add sweeteners such as a pair of shoes or a computer in the spirit of Saint Nic.

  • Demo's or floor stock: Most bikes shops will order stock in bulk to keep costs down and have display models that people can view and test ride. Once these bikes have served their purpose they are sold at a greatly reduced price to account for the usage. These bikes are normally well maintained and aside from having a few kilometres on the odometer, they are virtually brand new.

  • Buying online: Buying online from a manufacturer cuts out the middleman, reducing the overall cost which is then passed on to the consumer. This can be a great way to save money but should be approached with caution. Buying online has its pitfalls; you generally can't inspect the bike, take it for a test ride, check if it fits, assess unique features, make alterations or ask questions. It's a risky game unless you know your exact size and specifications.

  • Local Bike Shop: More often than not, bike shops will come to the table with a deal or price that makes both parties happy. Shopping locally allows you to talk to someone with expertise, check out the bike and take it for a ride. You may pay a small premium but you will most likely end up saving money compared to an online purchase as most shops will include a bike fit and ongoing servicing with a sale. Good bike shops know the bike and the brand and will work hard to make you happy and keep you as a customer.


Sorry that was such a long guide, we hope it was valuable! If you’re after a more interactive (fun) way to decide which bike is best for you. Check out our What Road Bike Am I Quiz.


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