What Is A Road Bike? 7 Key Types Of Road Bikes Explained

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reviewed by Jack Gazeley
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It used to be so easy. A road bike went on the road and a mountain bike was for anything that wasn’t a road.

In the modern cycling world, though, it can be difficult to answer the simple question: What is a road bike?

Put simply, a road bike is just what it says on the tin: a bike designed specifically for riding on paved roads. There are a wide variety of styles, but they are characterized by an emphasis on speed over smooth surfaces, with skinny tires, drop handlebars, and lightweight frames.

Whilst there have always been distinct categories of road bikes, the last decade or so has seen an explosion in road bikes built for various niche riding styles and terrain.

So, whilst all road bikes in this article share lots in common, there are some subtle and some not-so-subtle differences between them.

The world of road bikes seems to get more diverse every year but in this article, we will focus on the seven main types of road bikes. We’ll be covering:

  • What Is A Road Bike?
  • Performance Road Bikes
  • Touring Bikes
  • Time Trial Bikes
  • Endurance Road Bikes
  • Electric Road Bikes
  • Not Quite Road Bikes: Gravel and Cyclocross Bikes

Let’s get started!

What Is A Road Bike?: Title Image

What Is A Road Bike?

Given all of the different shapes and sizes they come in, it’s reasonable to ask the question: what is a road bike?

The clue is very much in the name.

Road bikes are optimized to go fast as long as you are cycling on relatively smooth, paved surfaces.

Despite the myriad of technical changes over the years, its basic design has remained reassuringly constant.

Across the spectrum of road bikes in this article, they all tend to share some defining characteristics – skinny tires, drop handlebars, and lightweight frames.

Performance Road Bikes

A cyclist in full lycra takes on a sub-tropical climb on a turquoise and white road bike.

This is perhaps the type of bike that is closest to what you might think of as a pure road racing bike. At the heart of their design is the quest for speed and efficiency.

They are typically constructed from lightweight materials such as carbon fiber and are designed to put the rider in a more aggressive, aerodynamic position.

The drop handlebars give riders a few different options for hand positioning whilst riding. This helps to reduce fatigue in the wrists on long rides but also offers a more efficient riding position depending on the topography.

For eating up the miles on flat roads, most riders place their hands in the drops or on the hoods to get low and reduce the area open to the wind, decreasing drag.

The tops of the handlebars provide a more upright position, opening the lungs to get every last drop of oxygen on those long, punishing climbs.

If you are racing or just want to go fast then this type of road bike is essential.

The aggressive riding position and stiff frames can be uncomfortable, especially across long distances if you are not used to this position. That is why modern pro riders often mix yoga into their training.

Touring Bikes

A heavily-laden touring bike leans against a tree in a forest.

Unlike more traditional touring bikes of the past, to the untrained eye, it can be difficult to tell the difference between a modern touring bike and a pure road bike. The frames look the same, they have the same drop handlebars.

Scratch the surface, however, and there are some big differences.

The design of touring bikes leans more toward comfort and endurance than pure unadulterated speed. They are sturdier and more reliable and can carry riders and luggage for long distances with minimal fuss.

In general, they are intended for long-distance, self-sufficient bikepacking trips.

Other subtle differences include a longer wheelbase (distance between the front and rear wheels) for improved stability and comfort, a bigger distance between the pedals and the rear axle for more clearance when riding with panniers and perhaps even a triple chain set with a smaller “granny” gear to take the sting out of long climbs.

They have a relaxed geometry to help with fatigue on long rides and the frames, typically steel or aluminum, are strong enough to carry all the gear you would possibly need for a multi-day cycling trip.

There are plenty of eyelets and mounts across the frame for racks, panniers, and mudguards.

Their durability, simplicity, and stability make them an excellent choice for riders who want to explore and get away from it all without having to worry about delicate components.

The same features that make them great for exploring also make them great bikes for the everyday commuter, especially if you have to haul clothes and laptops every day to the office.

Endurance road Bikes

A cyclist rides an endurance road bike on a tarmac road in winter.

Endurance bikes offer much more comfort for long-distance rides without sacrificing too much speed and efficiency compared to a racing road bike.  

Frames are usually made with compliance in mind. This means constructing them from “softer” bike materials that are great at absorbing road vibrations and taking the strain off the riders’ hands and wrists, such as carbon fiber and steel.

Some endurance bikes even feature variations on the shock absorbers usually seen on mountain bikes. Another example of technology trickling down from the peloton (thanks largely to the demands of the “Hell of the North“: Paris-Roubaix).

The relaxed geometry and shorter wheelbase allow riders to stay relatively comfortable in the saddle for long periods of time, reducing the stress on the lower back and neck.

This makes them a great option for longer rides where the emphasis is on enjoyment rather than speed and for less experienced riders dipping their toes into road cycling.

Since you can never have enough bikes in your garage, more and more cyclists are using Endurance bikes as dedicated winter bikes, the more relaxed geometry reduces back pain over time on those daily commutes and the practical eyelets allow proper mudguards to be attached.

This has the additional benefit of protecting your main road bike from the corrosive winter grime on the roads and it can then be rolled out in Spring in pristine condition for those faster rides in the sun.

E-Road Bikes

A cyclist out of the saddle on an orange endurance road bike with 28 mm tires.

In the same way that the popularity of electric cars has soared, so too has that of the electric road bike. Thanks largely due to improvements in battery technology, they both look and feel like their mechanical cousins.

They are for any cyclist who loves getting outside on two wheels but perhaps wants to take the sting out of climbs.

They do, however, come with a few costs to the rider.

First of all, the literal cost to the rider. Electric bikes are far more expensive than mechanical equivalents, because batteries capable of such range are so expensive, involving extensive mining and involved manufacturing.

Secondly, the weight of an electric bike is generally a lot higher, due to the battery. Although this isn’t really a problem if you’re using the power assist, if it runs out of battery mid-ride, it’s a bit catastrophic.

Also, maneuvering the bike when you’re not riding it is a bit more cumbersome.

Road painting of signalling an e-bike charging station.

Lastly, you have to charge it. This may seem an obvious one, and not so much of a burden most of the time, but it’s an additional thing to consider. If you’re going on a remote bikepacking trip, for example, you need to be able to charge it on the route.

There are, however, more and more publically available e-bike charging stations popping up, especially in cities.

They do come with a number of advantages, on the other hand.

Perhaps you are coming back from an injury, then the additional power assist can allow less load on the rider.

The biggest advantage, though, is that it makes cycling far more accessible. For those who perhaps aren’t in the shape they used to be or those who have health conditions that would prevent them from riding a mechanical bike, electric bikes provide a viable solution.

Even if your Strava KOM-chasing days are firmly behind you, it doesn’t matter. There is no stigma with these modern electric bikes.

Time Trial bikes

Welsh time-trialist in a red jersey during a race on a black time-trial bike with a disc wheel.

For pure speed and efficiency, nothing can touch a proper time trial machine.

Every nut and bolt of a time trial bike is designed towards reducing aerodynamic drag converting every watt into speed.

Though they’re often categorized separately from “road bikes” by manufacturers, we’ve included them here anyway because there’s only one arena a time-trial bike is effective in: the road.

These bikes are not for everyday riding, but for competitive cyclists testing themselves against the clock in the “race of truth”.

The bikes themselves can look alien, even more so for triathlon-specific variants freed from the shackles of the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) rules.

They share a design philosophy that puts the rider in an extremely aggressive and low-profile position in the saddle.

Even at relatively low speeds, most of a rider’s energy is spent just pushing through the air.

By keeping the profile as low and narrow as possible, less of that energy is wasted. That is why a lot of pros spend the off-season in wind tunnels, nailing their position on the bike to balance power and aerodynamics perfectly.

Additionally, the bike itself is shaped and tailored to be as aerodynamically efficient as possible. This is usually accomplished by creating an “aerofoil-like” shape to the frame, and employing drag-reducing technologies such as disc wheels.

A time trial bike is not for everyday, recreational riding but if you want to experience the sheer thrill of racing the clock then these bikes can take you to the next level and help smash your PB on your local time trial loop.

Not Quite Road Bikes: Gravel and Cyclocross Bikes

Gravel Bikes

A cyclist skids on a maroon gravel bike on a shingle trail.

As more road cyclists discover (or rediscover) the joy of going off the beaten path, bike manufacturers can barely keep up with the demand for gravel bikes.

While some would argue they’re not technically road bikes, per se, as they’re specifically designed with off-road capabilities, they are sufficiently similar in design and perform well enough on the road that we’ve included them here to cover all the bases.

A gravel bike can be thought of as the love child of a pure road bike and a ’90s mountain bike.

The adoption of disc brakes on road bikes meant that wider tires could be added, providing better traction on rough terrain. The more relaxed geometry and the upright riding position are not only more comfortable but help ride out some of the more demanding off-road sections.

They are a great option for riders who like to unearth new trails but don’t want to sacrifice too much speed on the road.

Cyclocross Bikes

Two cyclocross rider round a muddy bend in a race.

Cyclocross is a type of bike racing that tends to take place during the traditional autumn and winter off-season for road racing.

It is a muddy mix of criterium racing, mountain biking, and cross-country cycling and is a huge part of the sporting calendar in its heartlands of cycling, mainly Belgium and the Netherlands.

It originated as a way for Grand Tour riders to help maintain form on the bike through the long winter months with some exciting races.

To deal with the unique challenges of cyclocross, the bikes are built with wider tire clearance, helped by the popularity of disc brakes. Modern competitive cyclocross bikes may even be constructed of advanced carbon fiber.

Having a light bike is a big advantage in races that often see riders turn into cross-country runners with their bikes over their shoulders.

There are in fact many similarities between modern cyclocross bikes and gravel bikes in terms of being able to handle more off-road adventures. A cyclocross bike will put the rider in a more aggressive riding position to be able to conquer these short, intense bike races.

Think we missed something? Let us know in the comments below!

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David rediscovered his love of two wheels and Lycra on an epic yet rainy multi-day cycle across Scotland's Western Isles. The experience led him to write a book about the adventure, "The Pull of the Bike", and David hasn't looked back since. Something of an expert in balancing cycling and running with family life, David can usually be found battling the North Sea winds and rolling hills of Aberdeenshire, but sometimes gets to experience cycling without leg warmers in the mountains of Europe. David mistakenly thought that his background in aero-mechanical engineering would give him access to marginal gains. Instead it gave him an inflated and dangerous sense of being able to fix things on the bike.

1 thought on “What Is A Road Bike? 7 Key Types Of Road Bikes Explained”

  1. My bike of choice is a flat bar road bike . As an older cyclist I have no need for drop bars but enjoy the lightweight wheels and frame and crisp handling of an endurance bike . You see them all over Europe.


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