So, you’re ready to get some exercise, or explore your area, or simply get around town.
And you see lots of folks in your area on road bikes, so they seem like the default choice.
But with distinctive features like drop handlebars, skinny tires, and forward-leaning posture, road bikes do pose some unique challenges.
And as popular as they are, they’re certainly not the right choice for everyone—even if you do plan to stick to pavement.
We’ll take a closer look below, drawing heavily on my own experience of thousands of miles on road bikes and other styles, and of helping several new cyclists get started.
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Here are the main challenges with road bikes
Road bikes are easy to ride (for their intended purpose) once you’re accustomed to them. However, they’re more difficult and unforgiving to learn on. New riders may struggle to get comfortable with narrow tires, forward-leaning posture, drop handlebars, and/or toe overlap with the front wheel.
Shifting with integrated brake-shifter (“brifter”) levers can also require adjustment.
With practice, these things become not only second nature, but welcome features that help you ride faster and farther. But they do require time to get familiar with, and they create unnecessary difficulties for anyone still learning to ride a bike.
Keep in mind that road bikes are made for reasonably smooth pavement and (to some extent) dirt/gravel roads. They become very difficult to ride on rough terrain, since they’re simply not made for it. Everything that provides quick, efficient riding on pavement also means slow, rough rides elsewhere.
1. Narrow tires are less confidence-inspiring
Road bike tires have gotten wider over the past decade, but they’re still far narrower than on other types of bikes.
This demands extra care around potholes, gravel, or any number of other obstacles and imperfections.
That’s because the air inside a tire acts as a sort of suspension, and narrow tires have less air volume. That means less of a suspension effect, so you can’t plough through rough patches that, say, a hybrid bike could comfortably conquer.
You’ll get used to this, of course, but new cyclists would benefit from a more forgiving ride.
Gravel and touring bikes have become so popular with commuters partly because they buck this trend. Even though they resemble racing-style bikes, their tires are often a full 1-2 cm wider. That fact, combined with more upright posture, makes them surprisingly approachable and versatile.
2. Getting comfortable may take a while
If you’re new to road bikes, or to cycling in general, then the forward lean of most ride bikes will feel strange.
This approach to bicycle geometry aims for maximum power and aerodynamic, with only enough comfort to be bearable, so don’t expect to feel right at home on your first ride.
What’s more, the aggressive riding position means things like saddle position, crank length, and stem length play a huge role in comfort. Proper, in-person bike fitting will help you get these things right, thus avoiding joint issues or other unnecessary discomfort.
Quite frankly—and I say this having owned multiple road bikes—most cyclists don’t benefit from the deep forward lean that racing-style bikes require.
If you want to race, or train intensely, then it makes sense.
But for the rest of us?
A touring bike (if you’re set on drop bars), hybrid, or city bike will add much more in comfort and utility than it’ll take away in speed.
3. Drop handlebars create a totally different feel
If you’ve ridden a bike with flat or swept-back bars, then your first time on drop bars will be an odd sensation. For instance, I’d cycled for my entire life before buying my first road bike, yet still felt a bit wobbly and unconfident when I first took it for a spin.
Part of the reason is because your weight is quite far forward over the front wheel. That’s not challenging in and of itself, but it’s a different sensation that takes a bit to adjust to.
The bigger factor is that drop bars—unlike any others—put your hands in front of the stem rather than behind it. To some extent, it’s like pulling or guiding the handlebars, rather than pushing/twisting them like you might be used to.
But at the same time, the steep head tube angle and forward weight distribution makes the bike quite responsive to leaning with your body.
As a result, road bikes feel less responsive to handlebar input but more responsive to body input.
I suppose that makes sense for racing. When you’re riding 20+ mph in a tight pack, you don’t want the bike to swerve at the slightest touch of the bars.
But if you’re used to the opposite—i.e., the wide, high-leverage handlebars and more relaxed geometry on most bikes—then a road bike may feel like it doesn’t handle exactly how and when you expect.
Now, I should emphasize that the uniqueness of drop-bar handling starts to feel totally normal before long. There’s just an initial learning curve that may even take experienced (non-road) cyclists by surprise.
4. Toe overlap is common, and annoying
Toe overlap (also called “toe-clip overlap”) is when your foot strikes the front wheel while turning. The shorter the wheelbase, the likelier it is.
Road bikes tend to have shorter wheelbases than other bicycle types, so toe overlap is especially common—even on larger sizes where you wouldn’t otherwise expect it.
Keep in mind you have to turn the wheel fairly sharply before it happens. Perhaps 30 degrees or more, depending on the frame design, tire size, and/or presence of fender.
You simply can’t turn that sharply at high speeds, so the likelihood of a major crash is about nil.
But at lower speeds, like when you’re weaving through traffic or between pedestrian in town, it can happen frequently. Even then, there’s almost no real risk, but it’s a nuisance that some cyclists find highly disconcerting.
With practice, you’ll figure out how to minimize toe contact by timing your pedal strokes around the sharpest part of a turn.
But the only way to prevent this nuisance outright is with a much longer wheelbase. And road bikes, for the most part, just aren’t that long.
5. Brifters are a different approach to shifting
You’re probably used to a twist-, trigger-, or even friction-style shifter.
Whatever the case, it’s separate from the brake lever, and uses different directions (twist, friction) or different levers (trigger) to shorten and lengthen the shifter cable.
(Remember, that’s all that shifting really does: feed or retract cable to move the derailleur into a different position.)
Anyway, road bikes of the last three decades have gone in a different direction. The vast majority now use integrated brake-shifter levers, more commonly called “brifters.”
That means the brake lever doubles as a shifter when pushed inward (toward the center line of the bike).
To shift in the opposite direction, it depends on the manufacturer. On most Shimano drivetrains, you push a tiny lever tucked in alongside the brake lever. On most SRAM drivetrains, you push the brake lever itself farther inward.
This is where a visual will help, so have a look at this demo if you’re not familiar with these systems:
It’s not rocket science, but it takes a little while to wrap your head around the fact that a) you shift by pushing the brake lever or something immediately next to it, and b) you push it in the same direction to shift both up and down.
The muscle memory comes with time, and you might even become fond of the convenience of shifting without moving your hands from the brakes.
But just like all the other road bike-specific challenges and differences we’ve discussed, brifters might be unintuitive at first and require some patient practice.
So, is a road bike the right choice for me?
Road bikes aren’t necessarily hard to ride, at least not on the generally smooth pavement they’re intended for. But they do have some unique features and components, which feel unnatural if you’re coming from another type of bike.
A road bike makes sense if your goal is to race, or to train with race-like intensity.
You’ll adapt quickly, assuming you’re already comfortable on a bike in general. Just take the time to adjust to the new posture, handling, and shifting before you venture into traffic.
But other styles make more sense for all-around fitness, recreation, or transportation/commuting.
For instance, hybrid or city bikes are more comfortable and practical, if not as fast.
And if you strongly the aerodynamic and hand positions of drop bars, then consider a touring-style road bike instead of a racing-style one. They’re more comfortable, less twitchy-feeling, and better suited to carrying luggage/cargo and facing the knocks and bumps of everyday use.
Finally, if you’re looking to learn to ride a bike, then I strongly recommend not getting a road bike.
They may make sense later on, but their performance-oriented features are unforgiving (and unnecessary) for brand-new cyclists.
A hybrid or city bike is a better choice for learning, and will also be more comfortable and versatile if you want to make cycling a regular part of life.