We love seeing people get into cycling – whether it is purely recreational, or to build up to longer rides, or to ultimately compete in a bike race or triathlon. Our attitude is that the more cyclists there are, the more trails and bike amenities we will see. It creates a productive cycle – not to mention, it can make the population healthier which is good for all of us.
Buying an entry-level bike, though, can be mind-boggling. Not only do you have dozens of brands to choose from, but each model seems to have an unlimited combination of components. No doubt, when you start looking for a bike, you will either fall in love with the first one you see, or be numbed by all the choices and decisions you can make.
What’s more, for many manufacturers nowadays, “entry level” can mean anything up to about $2,000. That is a bit more than the typical newbie might consider to be entry level. Luckily, there are still some pretty good options in the sub-$1,000 range too.
A Note About Road Bike Buying
Before we get into the entry-level road bikes that we really like, we wanted to make a couple comments on the process of buying a bike. We might be a triathlon blog, but at any tri club or on race morning of a triathlon, you will see lots and lots of road bikes. They are part of our sport so we know a thing or two about buying them.
First, there is a reason that Independent Bike Dealers have been a mainstay of the cycling community for so many years. If you aren’t quite sure what you are looking for, and even if you are, they can be incredibly helpful in finding a bike that works for you. Sure, we can make a buck or two if you buy through one of our partners (linked below), but in the bigger picture we want people to ride the right bike for them. If that means a trip to your local bike shop, we are all for it. Our website has never been intended to take business away from local bike shops. Just the opposite — we want to get more people into the sport so that independent bike dealers have a larger universe of customers!
Fred Clements of the National Bike Dealers Association says it best, “a good bike mechanic is an artisan, not a laborer or engineer.” Find a good mechanic at a local shop, and he or she will get you on the right bike for you.
Second, the decision that you really need to make is threefold when it comes to buying a road bike. Which bike frame/make do you want (and this should largely be based on fit), which “moving component” set to do want, and then which bells and whistles are you looking for. This is why you might see one bike model that comes in 20 different variations – there could be an almost endless number of component combinations you can outfit a single bike with.
Third, we list some bikes here that eclipse the $2,000 mark – which might seem like it is way above entry level. We do this for a couple reasons – first, for the right cyclist, $2,000 is a bargain for a good road bike. If you are someone who ultimately gets hooked and puts 5,000 miles a year on your bike, you will want something with some quality and features. Finally, bikes are often discounted by various retailers – so a $2,000 bike might be found for way less if you can catch it at the right time.
5 Great Entry Level Road Bikes
Let’s just get to the point. Here are 5 “entry-level’ road bikes that we really like right now (if you were looking for triathlon bikes, don’t worry, we researched that as well, here).
The Cannondale company has been building bikes since 1971. While many bike companies tend to be based in the Northwoods of Wisconsin or Minnesota and Western USA, Cannondale is an East Coast company, based in Connecticut. We like the lineup that Cannondale makes, although they crank out enough bike models so it can take some time to get your head around it all.
The Synapse is actually a pretty massive lineup of bikes — some Synapse models can be found at the entry-level price point, and depending on componentry will typically be found for $1,500 to $2,000. Others can cost double that price or more. We are obviously focused on the entry-level price point for this article. The one that we recommend is the Synapse 105, coming with (as you could guess) Shimano 105 componentry. There are some great Synapse models well above the $2,000 price point, but we can’t in good faith say they are entry-level bikes. The Synapse 105 fits the entry-level bill, though.
We like that all of the Synapse models now come with disc brakes, regardless of if you buy the high-end or the low-end model.
Because of the number of variations on the Synapse, it should also be pretty easy for riders to modify or upgrade certain components while staying within the Cannondale brand and with a Cannondale dealer.
What we like:
- Cannondale carbon frameset, with a full redesign in 2018. This is a bike that you couldn’t have gotten for the price 4 years ago. Note that the Synapse also comes in an aluminum frame for a few hundred less. We think both are worth considering.
- Micro-suspension built-in to rear stays. Allows for some shock absorption through the frame.
- We love of Carbondale is putting disc brakes on virtually everything they build, regardless of price.
- 105 componentry with disc brakes, which has benefits such as more tire clearance
- The Selle Royal saddle is a nice, high-end seat. Selles are some of our favorite road bike saddles.
- Slightly more upright frame geometry, which is the better choice for people who are not time-trialing
- Generally speaking, Cannondale seems to try harder than some of the other brands when it comes to creating an approachable and affordable first bike for new cyclists
Orbea Orca M30
Orbea is a name that you will find with many high-end cycling groups and triathletes. The European bike brand has been made in Spain since the 1930s, and is known for cranking out great bikes from the entry-level all the way up to high-end, $8,000 (or more) cycles.
When it comes to entry-level road bikes, the Orbea that we keep coming back to is the Orca M30. We know the Orca brand from all of our triathlon training, and the Orca’s Ordu lineup – built for tris – offers an M30 that we like as well. That made us take a serious look at the M30 in the Orca line.
It has been called “one of the best bargains in cycling” by VeloNews. We like it too, although for the price we think it Orbea should consider using a disc brake as standard.
Of the bikes we looked at for this piece, the M30 was the one that edged up above $2,000 (unless you count the others with disc brakes added)…. But it gets you into the Orbea lineup which is a really high quality road bike and one that you can definitely ride as your abilities and interest increases over time.
What we like:
- Quality Carbon Orbea Frameset
- Shimano 105 drivetrain, including 11-speed rear gearing
- Internal cable routing throughout the carbon frame – this is something normally found on higher-end bikes.
- Responsive and fast feel overall – an excellent bike with some giddyup (assuming your legs can provide the horsepower)
Fuji Gran Fondo
Coming from the triathlon world, Fuji bikes are not a brand that we tend to see routinely. Fuji has historically been more of a touring and road bike company, one that has actually been around longer than any of the others on this list if you connect the dots through all of the various phases of the company.
The Gran Fondo is a bike we kept seeing in the circles of beginner and intermediate road cyclists, so we felt we had to take a closer look. What we found was a bike that offers a great ride, managed vibration levels, and a nice, clean look on par with some of the more attractive new bikes coming out today.
For purposes of this review, we are zeroing in on the 2.0 and 2.1 Gran Fondo builds, both of which can be found in the sub-$2,000 range at most retailers.
What we like:
- Combination of 105 and Ultegra components in the drivetrain. While most others at this price point use the 105s, we like that Fuji is more generous with the Ultegras. The different is slight, but it is a step up.
- Effort put in to reducing vibration throughout the frame and ride
- Nice price point (under $1,500) on the 2.0 model. 1 is harder to find under $2,000.
- Fuji’s extensive experience making road and touring bikes means that you get lots of practicality in your cycle, if your bike is going to be used for utility or commuting
The Felt road bike lineup has been modified in the last year or two, with some of our old favorites (especially the Z series) no longer an option for current-model buyers. The simplified line of bikes makes it a little easier to navigate the options, and the FR30 series from Felt is a legitimate option for someone wanting to get into the sport.
While the previous three bikes had a carbon frame, this one has aluminum (with the exception of a carbon fork). That does not make it inherently worse or inferior, as today’s aluminum can be made with some incredible quality. Plus, it allows you to shave off some cost while still maintaining nice componentry with the Shimano 105.
We have been fans of Felt tri bikes since we began in the sport. In fact, many of our personal bikes here at Complete Tri are Felts. The road bikes come with the same quality, and same attention to detail in the component blending. At $1,500 or so, this bike will likely save you at least a couple hundred dollars compared to the ones listed above.
What we like:
- Price point that is in the mid-$1,000s instead of near or above $2,000
- Felt welded aluminum frame is about as light and responsive as aluminum frames can be, coming in under 20 lbs. To give you some perspective, the Orca M30 above is about 2 lbs less.
- Our experience with Felt is excellent. We have found their overall build quality and component package to be good for riders of many levels
It is hard to have a “Best of” list without including something from Trek. After all, Trek was one of the companies that really brought entry-level road bikes to the masses as the sport grew in the early 2000s. While Trek is known for its broad array of bikes – mountain, triathlon, comfort – they have a solid road bike lineup, and the Emonda is the dominant model right now. You might think we are crazy for recommending this, because some decked-out Emondas can hover around the $10,000 mark. The Emonda lineup is very extensive, though, and the entry-level Emonda choice is the one that we would recommend from Trek.
Trek, the Wisconsin-based maker of bikes and other cycling gear – was founded in the 70s. It came of age at the same time as Cannondale, as the American bike scene was growing. Trek has been effective at getting the price point on their entry level bikes quite low – but we recommend spending just a little more than the base level at Trek. Getting on to an Emonda will give you payoffs as you grow into the sport.
The Emonda ALR5 is the bike we are focusing on here. It is a comparable price point to the Felt FR, just above, and like the Felt is an aluminum frame. The quality of the frame, based on our test rides, is excellent, and the 105 componentry throughout the drivetrain puts it on par with many of the bikes listed in this article. Behind Trek, you get thousands of riders who swear by the brand, and a broad network of bike shops who will be familiar with working on the bike.
What we like:
- Excellent balance and handling overall. Provided you get the right fit, a very responsive aluminum bike.
- Uses the same frame geometry as some of Trek’s higher-end, faster bikes…. So a great choice for those who want speed.
- Allows you to get into the Shimano 105 componentry while staying safely under $2,000 overall
What to Look for in a Road Bike
As you could probably tell from our reviews, there are a few things to think about when buying a road bike. It really comes down to personal preference, but you will be faced with decisions on several key things. The big ones, in our opinion include:
- Carbon vs. Alloy (Aluminum) — see the next section
- Components. Cyclist can debate until they are blue in the face about the importance of components, but the fact is that there is a pecking order, and you pay more the higher up you go.
Most products at the entry-level price point include components from Shimano. We did an entire piece on their various levels here. For the examples above, Ultegra is considered a step above 105. Two notes: you can always change components later, and when in doubt, spend your money on the moving components (e.g. chainring instead of brakes). Things like a bike saddle or new pedals are easy to swap out and upgrade at any time.
- Brakes. Speaking of brakes, you will see entry-level road bikes with both disc and caliper brakes. Disc brakes are considered better, and the trend is toward more bikes moving to disc brakes. They offer more clearance from the wheel, work better when wet or on hills, stop faster, and don’t heat up or wear on your rim. With that said, we rode caliper brakes for years and they did their job just fine…. and they are easier to fix and maintain. Just know that a bike with disc brakes will always cost more than the same bike with caliper brakes. 5 years ago, we would estimate that 75% of entry-level road bikes had caliper brakes as standard equipment. Today, we would say that has nearly flipped, 75% have disc.
- Frame Angle. In addition to frame material, consider the frame angle. Do you want something aggressive, that puts you in a low, aero position? Or something a bit more relaxed (ie. “sportive” or “endurance”) that allows you to be more upright and comfortable?
- Brand. We are not brand snobs here, but it can be good to buy a brand that has a good track record and warranty. The last thing you want is a crack in your carbon frame, and nobody who you can call. This is probably most true when it comes to buying at major online retailers who carry imported, startup brands. The tried-and-true brands (like those listed above) will take good care of you.
- Fit. Don’t ever skimp on fit for your bike. Most people will pretty neatly fall into a bike size, so it is relatively easy. Others are constantly on the borderline between one size and another, making it more difficult. For years, I have been a 58. When I walk into a bike shop, the owner typically looks at me for 3 seconds and says “Your probably a 58, right?” That makes it easy. But the silliest thing I could ever do is buy a 56 just because it was on sale or I liked the model. Buy the size that fits!
- Add-Ons. You likely will buy a bike that is pretty basic — it will be a brand-new, high-functioning bike but the add-ons will be yours to install. Whether you ask a bike shop to do it, or install add-ons yourself, think about things like your hydration setup, a bike computer, and other add-ons that that suit your riding style.
A Word About Carbon vs. Aluminum
Our lineup of 5 great bikes includes 3 carbon frames and 2 aluminum frames. Aluminum frames have enjoyed a bit of a resurgence lately, as makers like Trek and Felt have really cranked down the overall weight and built beautiful, nearly seamless frames. When you are looking at the $2,000 price point, keep in mind that you might be getting a top-of-the-line aluminum frame or a relatively entry-level carbon frame at that price. Still, carbon is carbon, which we love, and the bikes listed above are made by manufacturers who would not skimp on the build. They just can’t put the same time and maerial into a $2,000 bike that they would a $5,000 bike.
That is our long way of saying don’t shy away from aluminum. Carbon is awesome, but there are some great bikes being welded in aluminum too. As Cycling Weekly says, there is really no right or wrong frame, it is all dependent on what kind of riding you plan to do and what you need from your bike.
Alternatives to Buying a New Bike
Maybe a brand new road bike isn’t in your budget, or isn’t really your speed. Should you buy a used road bike instead? Don’t rule it out.
You can, of course, find some pretty solid road bike deals on Craigslist, Ebay, and Facebook marketplace. Each has its own considerations.
Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace both provide buyers with the ability to find bikes in their own backyard. This can be extremely useful if you are someone who wants to buy a bike, say, 5 miles away from you. That allows you to test drive the bike, see it before you buy, and talk to the owner first-hand to get a sense of if they are someone whose bike you want to buy. The downside? Selection will probably be quite limited. Expect to have lots of “perfect bike, wrong size” situations, and expect also to have a few folks thinking their bike is worth 2x what it really is worth.
Ebay will definitely give you more selection, but the obvious issue is that you cannot physically see the bike before you buy it. This poses a problem in two regards: 1) Issues like hairline fractures in the carbon fiber would be very hard to spot on a photo, and 2) returning the bike if something is off is not going to be a simple task.
Either way, if you consider the Craigslist or Ebay routes, insist on a bike that is the right sizing for you, and make sure that the frame is in very good condition. Everything else can be fixed or replaced.
Our Recommendation: Entry Level Road Bike
So you want us to choose one of these bikes? Well, we had to winnow down a list of about 30 good options to get to this list of 5, so consider all of these our choices! If we could only choose one of the carbon bikes, we would probably go with the Orca M30, but it is a virtual tie with the Cannondale. If we had to put one of the aluminum bikes ahead of the other, we would give the slight nod to the Trek.
Get out there and ride, be safe, and enjoy the sport!