Choosing A Road Bike Frame to Suit YOU
Updated: Jan 18, 2021
The clue here is in the title: it’s all about you. Making a good choice for a new road bike means knowing something about yourself. What sort of position can my body realistically get into on the bike without causing an injury, what sort of riding am I going to use the bike for, what are my strengths and weaknesses as a rider and how do I select a frame that will complement all of this?
Initially road bikes were made to race over tarmac… and were all made from steel tubing. A lot has changed in just two decades, and since the introduction of the first commercially available endurance frame in 2004 (the Specialised Roubaix), road bikes are being offered in an increasingly segmented market with respect to frame styles.
Many manufacturers now offer at least three different types of road frame (and that’s not including those types designed to do some light off-road riding):
3. Race or lightweight
Each style of frame has its own set of pro’s and cons. So how do you know which one is best for you? I’d liken the choice to choosing a new pair of running shoes: if you are an over-pronator with flexible flat feet, it’s not going to be a good idea to buy a pair of shoes geared towards the over-supinator with high-arched stiff feet. Similarly choosing a frame based on aesthetics alone or your own sense of “needing aero” for appearances sake doesn’t make much sense either, and can lead to a costly frame choice that causes pain or discomfort when riding.
Of all the factors to consider, the number one thing, the very first thing you must get right, is POSITION: will the frame afford me a position that will achieve the best harmony of comfort, power, performance, postural stability and aerodynamics for the sort of riding I plan on using the bike for?
Your position is ALWAYS the primary consideration and is determined by your own unique musculoskeletal characteristics such as flexibility and strength, along with anthropometric proportions such as leg and arm length. These characteristics will dictate what positions you can and cannot achieve on a bike. For example, if you have tight hips and hamstrings then achieving a really low aerodynamic position without developing pain is unlikely, so choosing a low aero frame may not be a realistic option (unless you really want to be in pain all the time…. A bike fitter can’t help you there, but I know a few good psychologists who can).
As a bike fitter, I cannot make you look as awesome as you might wish on a frame that doesn’t suit your musculoskeletal abilities or anthropometric characteristics, but as a Sports Physiotherapist I can work with you to develop that ability over time.
BEFORE you even purchase the dream bike, measuring the critical musculoskeletal and anthropometric variables is what a Sports Physiotherapist skilled in bike fitting will offer during a pre-purchase bike fit to help determine what frames and other components might suit your body. This will avoid the mistake of buying an unsuitable frame, which unfortunately is something I see every single week.
Below is a table summarising some potential benefits and disadvantages of each frame selection.
As you might gather from the table, there are two extremes: aero vs endurance road bikes.
Aero road bikes are made, well… to be aerodynamic. They do one thing well, which is to reduce drag so they tend to go faster in straight lines. They do this by shaping the frame tubes into something resembling an aerofoil shape, and companies often sell the bike with deep dish carbon wheels and aero-shaped handlebars. The key to summing up this bike is this: they do ONE thing well which is ride fast in a straight line. They are poor in terms of ride comfort, as the aero shaped tubes create a lot of stiffness in the fore-aft direction resulting in a frame that offers little shock absorption and poor ride comfort. This tube shape also tends to result in inferior cornering and handling, as the aero-shaped front fork does not resist lateral or torsional forces well which are essential for cornering. Watch out in crosswinds, esp. if you are small in stature: the wide frame shape and deep wheelset along with steeper head tube angles make it easier to get blown off the road. So unless you are a racer, it would seem unlikely that you would even consider an aero frame as its one advantage is offset by all of the more important characteristics required for a recreational rider. You’re also unlikely to favour this type of bike if your terrain includes a lot of descending.
An endurance frame is the number one selling frame at the moment as more and more adults take up cycling. Why? Because it allows you to get into cycling in a big way DESPITE tight hamstrings or a bad back. Endurance frames are usually designed to absorb more road shock so they are inherently more comfortable to ride. The riders body position is more upright, which if you are new to cycling is easier to get used to. Depending on your goals, after a season or two that includes some focussed stretching, core strength work and plenty of time in the saddle you may develop the ability to get onto a race or aero bike. Most of what I would call “true” endurance bikes are significantly higher at the front end than a racing frame, about 4cm longer in the head tube for a 56cm frame size. There are quite a lot of “half-way houses”, where the front is only around 2cm higher than a race geometry bike, which for some riders isn’t enough. Again it is worth checking this out with a pre-purchase bike fit before spending up big on what might be an uncomfortable frame. Most endurance bikes are made to accommodate wider tyres which improves comfort and handling over all types of terrain, and most come equipped with disc brakes. If you are concerned about position remember that the pro’s ride endurance bikes, usually in the cobbled classics, so you can certainly create a low position. But if your body needs a higher handlebar position then the higher frame stack height afforded by an endurance geometry bike is what you’ll require.
Which leaves our all-rounder, the race or lightweight road frame. This is the bike to have if you are flexible enough and are able to afford only one bike in your garage, as this bike does everything well. The only thing an aero bike does better is race solo in a break-away without cross winds. When comparing race frames to endurance frames, endurance bikes tend to suit riders whose arms are proportionately shorter, or whose hips / gluts / hamstrings are tight, who have hip pain or a bad back or neck. Endurance bikes typically absorb road shock better to improve comfort particularly on rough surfaces and are a particularly good choice for those with disc pain in the low back.
Before you choose a frame, ensure you know what type of frame is going to afford you a great position. It’s about matching a frame that’s best suited to your body, the type of rider you are, and the type of terrain you anticipate travelling over. A good bike shop will have options for you to test ride, not just the “on sale” floor stock. Don’t be afraid to ask for an alternative.
And seek out a pre-purchase bike fit to help select the right style and size of frame for YOU.
Want to understand more about your body, bike fitting for performance and injury management? Start with this article by David Wadsworth: