Everything you ever wanted to know about road bikes but were afraid to ask

Road bikes are made for speed and efficiency on tarmac or gravel roads. You might be thinking, 'But you can ride any bike on the road, so isn’t every bike a road bike?' Well, yeah. Kind of. You can indeed ride any bike on the road, but true road bikes have specific design features that help them perform best on road surfaces and separate them from bikes in other categories.

Drop bars

One such feature is the handlebars, which are called drop bars. This downward-swooping design gives you a lot of flexibility in where you put your hands and how you position your body, which is great for longer rides because you can switch positions to get more comfort or leverage for extra speed.

Skinny(ish) tyres

Historically, road bikes have had skinny tyres, but more modern road bikes range from skinny 25 mm tyres up to 45 mm knobby tyres for venturing on surfaces that can only charitably be described as roads.

Trek makes four main categories of road bikes, with several model options in each family. So, how do you know which kind of road bike is best for you?

First, consider your riding goals: How do you want to ride and where do you want to ride?

Do you see yourself riding for speed and even racing? Do you imagine climbing paved mountain switchbacks on epic all-day adventures? Or is your vision more like rustic gravel roads with no one else in sight for miles?

Now, keep that picture of your ideal ride in your mind as you read through each of the road bike categories below. Each category is tailored for a specific kind of road riding, so choosing your perfect road bike is about matching the vision of your ideal ride to the design purpose of each type of road bike below.

Aero road bikes

Aero road bikes like Madone are designed to slice through the wind and give you every possible advantage in speed. They’re often the bike of choice for racers because they’re so fast. While a bike’s weight is the easiest characteristic to feel, if you’re averaging over 12 mph, aerodynamics is the largest force working to slow you down.

If speed and performance are your main considerations, an aero road bike is best for you.

Shop Aero road bikes

Lightweight road bikes

Climbing road bikes like Émonda, which are also sometimes known as 'all-around' road bikes, have historically been made to be ultra-light so there’s less to carry up a climb. As we’ve come to understand even more about tube shapes, we’ve been able to make these bikes both lightweight and aerodynamic.

If you want to maximise your performance on hilly courses or want a more traditional all-around road bike, check out the models in this category.

Shop Lightweight road bikes

Endurance road bikes

Endurance road bikes like Domane are designed to let you ride further and over a wider variety of road surfaces. They’re great for new road riders and seasoned riders alike, and built with a stable and comfortable geometry that keeps you smooth and confident.

If you want to ride fast and stay comfortable for anywhere between 10 miles or 10 hours, an Endurance road bike is a great choice.

Shop Endurance road bikes

Gravel bikes

Roads don’t have to be paved to be fun! Gravel bikes are built for venturing off-road to dirt and gravel roads. These bikes can often accommodate wider, more stable tyres and a wide range of accessories like bags, racks and mudguards for any kind of adventure. This makes them ideal for riders who want a jack-of-all-trades bike.

If you’re looking for adventure on more challenging terrain like gravel and dirt roads, you should explore these models.

Shop Gravel bikes

Electric road bikes

Electric road bikes are just like road bikes, but use a hidden electric motor and battery to give you a little help keeping up with faster riding companions, harder climbs or longer rides. They respond to your pedalling power and amplify it.

They're perfect for riders who just want to do more.

Shop electric road bikes

Once you know which kind of bike you want, you’re closer to finding your perfect bike. Trek offers different platforms within a given family that all share a common frame set, and then subdivides further to certain models.

Carbon vs aluminium

Most road bike frames fall into two camps: carbon fibre and aluminium alloy.

Carbon fibre is a composite material that allows bike designers the flexibility to make super-light and efficient structures that can be made into any imaginable shape, allowing for aerodynamics or ride quality to be further emphasised. This means that carbon fibre bikes are generally lighter and make fewer compromises on performance qualities. However, carbon bikes take a lot of precision craftsmanship to make and tend to be more expensive than their aluminium counterparts.

Aluminium alloys are another great choice for a frame material. Still packed with performance, alloy bikes allow a little more value into the equation. Aluminium bikes previously had a bad reputation for riding harshly, but modern aluminium bikes are significantly more advanced and have a good portion of the performance characteristics of carbon at a fraction of the price.

Platforms

What do those letters after the model mean?

SLR

The Pinnacle. Ne plus ultra. The best. SLR is the ultimate. These models are made from our highest-tech carbon, feature all the technology we can pack into them and are generally the choice of top-level racers.

SL

Trek’s SL platforms are made with advanced carbon fibre materials and technology that’s usually far above competitors’ top-end bikes. They generally feature most of the performance characteristics of their SLR siblings, with slightly higher weight for a lot more value.

ALR

Our highest-performing alloy frames wear the ALR badge. They’re lightweight, race-worthy and don’t break the bank. ALR frames feature hydroforming to optimise a tube’s efficiency through its length and smooth welds for weight reduction and sleek looks.

AL

Our entry-level AL frames are made at the intersection of performance and value. They have smart features and great looks, but the key attribute is the value. With AL models, you’re getting a great bike at a great price.

Once you’ve found the right family and platform for your riding style, goals and budget, it’s time for the last step! Choosing a model is mostly about smaller preferences you may have regarding componentry, but for many, it’s about price.

One last choice you may have here is choosing between SRAM and Shimano, the biggest players in the road drivetrain space. They make the brakes, gears and shifters on all of our road bikes.

Both have dedicated followings, and you can’t go wrong with either (despite what some all-caps forum posts may say). If you’re trying to decide between SRAM and Shimano drivetrains, take a bike with each drivetrain for a test ride to reveal your preference.

9-level models

Shimano

The Dura-Ace has set the standard for pinnacle road drivetrains for decades. The Dura-Ace Di2 is an 11-speed wired electronic drivetrain that is super-fast, precise and has lasting battery life. A power meter rounds out the package.

SRAM

RED AXS eTap is SRAM’s pinnacle drivetrain. 12 -speed, wireless, fully customisable and super-lightweight. All 9-level bikes get a power meter.

7-level models

Shimano

The Ultegra Di2 is an 11-speed wired electronic drivetrain that takes most of the features of Dura-Ace Di2 but at a slightly higher weight.

SRAM

The Force AXS eTap is a 12-speed wireless electronic drivetrain that features a lot of trickle-down tech from RED. All Force-equipped bikes come with a power meter as well.

6-level models

Shimano

The Ultegra is an 11-speed mechanical drivetrain that has historically provided the best value without making any performance compromises.
The 800-level GRX is an 11-speed mechanical groupset designed for the rigours of off-road riding, but borrowing many of the technologies of Ultegra.

SRAM

Rival AXS eTap is the most affordable electronic drivetrain. It packs a ton of tech for its mid-level price. 12-speed, wireless and fully customisable. Trek road bikes with this drivetrain also feature a power meter.

5-level models

Shimano

Rival AXS eTap is the most affordable electronic drivetrain. It packs a ton of tech for its mid-level price. 12-speed, wireless and fully customisable. Trek road bikes with this drivetrain also feature a power meter.

4-level models

Shimano

The 400-level GRX is a 10-speed mechanical groupset designed for the rigours of off-road riding, but borrowing many of the technologies of Tiagra.

3-level models

Shimano

The Sora is a 9-speed mechanical drivetrain that comes with mechanical disc brakes.

2-level models

Shimano

The Claris is an entry-level 8-speed mechanical drivetrain. This drivetrain comes with mechanical disc brakes or rim brakes.

Electronic vs mechanical shifting

Electronic shifting relies on powerful motors to do the work usually done by cables and linkages. It’s much faster and more precise than mechanical shifting. The debate between these two styles of shifting has mostly been resolved, with the higher-end of the market gravitating to electronic shifting, and more entry-level bikes sticking with mechanical shifting for its proven value.

Disc brakes vs rim brakes

In the past, this section would be longer. Disc brakes work better than other types of brakes and are now the standard for road bikes. Rim brakes can still be found on the most affordable road bikes, but riders universally agree: discs are best.

Bike fit

You wouldn’t walk around in a low squat with a 90-degree bend in your knees, would you? A bike’s adjustment is key to keep you from doing the equivalent while on a ride. Getting your bike fit is essentially getting the handlebars and saddle in the right positions in space relative to your pedals to allow you to be your strongest, most resilient, most powerful self.

Getting a fit from a professional is probably the most important thing you can do to make riding faster and more fun. But if you aren't ready to spring for a professional fit yet, your shop will be able to help you find the right size and a comfortable riding position.

Do I need a women's road bike?

While some brands designate a smaller subset of their road bikes as women’s models, we consciously design all Trek road bikes to work equally well for any gender. This gives riders of any gender or body type access to every bike model we offer, and ensures that every rider can get the fit, comfort and performance they should expect.

Accessories to enhance your ride

These four things are what we consider 'must-have' accessories to make the most of your riding. As you shop for a road bike, you should be planning to get these too.

Helmets

This one is a no-brainer. You should wear a helmet every time you ride. You only get one brain.

Bike shorts

Saddles on road bikes are designed specifically to interface with the chamois (padding) on bike shorts to ensure that you (and your soft-tissue areas) are as comfortable as possible. Bibs are preferable for most, as the straps help keep your chamois locked in place. But some people opt for the convenience of nature breaks in standard shorts.

Shoes and pedals

Most road riders prefer what’s called 'clipless' pedals (it’s a bad name, and a long story), where your shoe clips into a special pedal. This maximises power transfer and comfort.

Flat kit

It’s best to be prepared for anything that can happen on the road. To a well-prepared cyclist, a flat tyre is but a few minutes delay on a ride. Having a spare tube, tyre lever, pump and multi-tool stowed away in a jersey pocket or saddle bag can turn you into that well-prepared cyclist. Just don’t forget to learn how to change a flat tyre!

Beyond those key things, there’s a whole world of road bike accessories, including cycling computers to help you nerd out on your ride data, stylish clothing that’ll grab attention on the road and at the post-ride café, and a whole lot more. As you ride more and more, you’ll learn which accessories will best improve your riding experience and make it even more fun.

Shop all accessories

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