Buying a new race bike can be complicated. It seems like there’s never been more choice, with brands releasing new models every year and even new categories springing into existence left, right and centre. Whether you’re a seasoned racer or just getting into the sport, it can be a minefield when working out what race bike will work best for you.
While everyone wants a bike that will make them faster, it’s not as simple as buying the most expensive, lightest or most aero model available. It’s important to consider the type of racing you’ll be doing – are you more of a long-distance Larry or a fast-crit Sally? Just because a bike’s position is more aggressive doesn’t necessarily make it the right race bike for you.
Money is also a huge factor. Do you need to spend an extra £1,000 for that top-spec groupset? Will it make that much difference? More and more top-end bikes have limited levels of adaptability – read how easily you can change components – which can hinder your ability to get the fit just right without forking out lots of extra cash.
We’ve broken down the key things to consider, as well as some of the main pitfalls to avoid, to help you get the race bike that’s best for you.
1. Bike fit
Hear me out. I know bike fits are expensive but a new bike will cost you considerably more, doubly so if you end up buying one that doesn’t fit. There are generic sizes for bikes, either in centimetres or labels, but, as with clothes, those terms don’t always translate from one brand to another.
For example, say you’re 170cm with a really long torso. A 54cm frame might work perfectly for you, whereas another rider of the same height but who is all leg might need a 52cm or maybe even a 50cm.
It’s not just about sizes either. Each bike model has a different geometry and, even if it is the bike that whoever won on at whatever race, it might not work for your unique shape.
It is possible to work these things out through trial and error but if it’s a bike that you’re going to be riding regularly, to the extremes of your effort and comfort levels, it is worth getting a fit before buying. That way you can either ask the fitter if the bike you have in mind will work for you or make an informed decision with the data from the session.
2. Type of racing
There are so many categories of bikes nowadays that you’d be forgiven for getting a bit overwhelmed – aero gravel bikes, we’re looking at you. Take it back to basics and work out what type of racing you want to do on your new bike.
Are you a ride-or-die weekday crit racer who wants to be as fast as possible for just 45 minutes? Have you fallen into the world of ultra-cycling and need a reliable but efficient machine for those multi-day races? There’s a high possibility that you’re also going to train on this bike as well as race on it, so bear in mind that a degree of versatility is always useful, even in a race bike.
If it’s all about speed, the main things to consider are aerodynamics and weight. In more recent years, the benefits of aerodynamics have become more widely understood, while weight-weenie bikes have fallen slightly out of fashion. For most riders, finding a balance of the two is ideal, though typically these creep towards the pricier end of the market for obvious reasons.
Some elements of a bike’s geometry can be adapted with component changes but a lot of a bike’s shape is pretty set in stone. Factoring in an understanding of what you want your race bike to do, there are some key elements to consider when finding the bike with the right geometry for you.
Typical road races lastt anywhere from three to five hours and, while you don’t want to waste energy with an un-aerodynamic position, a really aggressive bike is going to take its toll on your body over that period of time.
This applies even more so to gravel bikes. Race-oriented gravel bikes tend to toe the line between the two disciplines anyway, but it’s worth considering how an aggressive geometry and tight wheelbase will affect your off-road handling and overall comfort.
Crit races tend to have lots of corners that you want to take at high speeds, so a bike with a slightly higher bottom bracket can help reduce the risk of pedal strike. A steeper head tube angle should give a more reactive front end, with any comfort penalties generally outweighed over such a short time period.
Even if you swear your race bike will only ever come out to clock PBs and whizz around in the bunch, as mentioned there’s a high chance you’ll still ride it for training. After all, it’s likely your best (and most expensive) bike. Stay realistic with your geometry choices. You’ll be faster on a bike that you actually ride rather than one whose pain-inducing qualities you loathe and fear.
4. Spec price vs. performance
Contrary to popular belief, having the best-specced bike on a start line isn’t going to win you a race. There’s a lot of looking sideways in cycling and it can feel like you’ve got to have the best of the best to compete with others. In reality, there is no direct correlation between price and performance.
The weight penalty between a top-tier groupset and the one below is generally a few hundred grams, the weight of half a bottle of water. The price difference, however, can be around £1,000. If you’re buying on weight alone, it’s simply not worth it to get the highest model.
The same can be said for bikes. The most expensive tier will have the ‘best’ saddle, wheels, tyres etc but those components might not actually be the best for you. We all know how personal saddle preference is, and tyre need varies wildly depending on what you’re planning to do with your bike.
Often the option representing the best value for money is found somewhere mid-range. You can typically get a very similar frame to the higher models, alongside a decent groupset, and you can make changes to the finishing kit over time and specifically to your needs.
As a general rule of thumb, the more aero bikes become, the more difficult they are to adapt. Manufacturers will usually have components such as cockpits or seatposts available to buy separately, but these often come with a hefty pricetag.
When selecting a bike, consider how many changes you be needed to get it set up to your preferences. Do you like riding with narrow handlebars? Most manufacturers scale bars to the size of the bike so you will probably want to swap them for a narrower set.
If the cockpit is fully integrated with a proprietary setup, it could cost you a few hundred to replace it and it’ll be an involved job. It’s also worth taking into account that one-piece cockpits often have a limited number of stem length/bar width combinations. If you’re used to riding your 130mm stem with your 36cm bars, it’s unlikely they will cater for you.
Brazo de Hierro Photography for Cannondale
Hand in hand with adaptability is serviceability. The more integrated a system is, the more expensive it will be to service at a shop, as it will take much longer to do. Aero cockpits often route the hydraulic hoses through the headset, which can mean a double brake bleed just to replace worn-out headset bearings.
Just because you’ve spent a lot on getting the best bike doesn’t mean it will be right for you straight out of the box, and spending even more on pricy proprietary components or complicated services is going to put even more of a dent in your wallet in the long run.
6. Value for money
Shock horror, last season’s bike probably isn’t much slower than this season’s, despite what the marketing department might have you believe. It will, however, usually be a good deal cheaper. It can be trickier finding the right size but an ‘end of season’ discount can often get you the next spec up for the same price.
Buying second hand can also be good for the environment and lighter on your wallet. It can take a decent amount of bike knowledge to know what to look out for, especially when it comes to carbon, but it can be an excellent way of saving money and still getting a lovely bike.
Once you’ve acquired your next race machine, new or not, the most important next step is to insure it. Even if the monthly cost feels like an extra punch in the gut, it’ll hurt more if/when you crash and your bike gets damaged or written off entirely and you don’t have insurance to replace it. Some insurers won’t cover bikes in a racing scenario, so make sure to check that race cover is included before taking out a policy.
It’s also worth remembering that race bikes can take a beating, from crashes to intense use to travel damage. Keep that in mind when you’re lusting over that £10,000 mass of shiny paint and carbon. Sometimes the less scintillating, more practical option will pay off better in the long run.
At the end of the day, you want to buy a fast, fun bike that will help you achieve your goals. Picking your priorities is the simplest way to achieve this.
Which is a deal-breaker: hydraulic brakes or an electronic groupset? Do you already have some semi-decent wheels at home that you could stick on the lower-spec bike and save some money to spend on insurance? Are you committed to one groupset manufacturer or are you happy to switch to one you’ve not tried before? Once you work out what elements are most important to you, and crucially which you are willing to be flexible on, it becomes much easier to narrow down your options.
Take a step back and look at what you’ll be doing with the bike more objectively. Racing by definition pushes you and your bike to its limits which, while it may sometimes end in success, will probably result in some failure as well.
Ultimately, it’s best to buy with both your head and your heart. Practical issues will help you in the long run but you’ll also be more competitive on a bike that gets your blood pumping and motivates you to ride it.
Feeling ready? Head to our guides to the best road bikes and the best gravel bikes.