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 demand for trails, dedicated bike lanes, and bike amenities which we all benefit from. 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 $2,500. That is a bit more than the typical newbie might consider to be entry level, but if you plan to ride a lot, you don’t want t skimp either. Luckily, there are still some pretty good options in the $1,000 to $2,000 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 offers, although they crank out enough bike models so it can take some time to get your head around it all.
The Topstone is actually a pretty massive lineup of bikes — positioned just under the Synapse lineup which has become a little too pricey to be “entry level” in our book. Some Topstone models can be found at the entry-level price point, and depending on componentry will typically be found for $1,000 to $2,000. That is a good price for a very high-quality bike. Other models can cost double that price or more. We are obviously focused on the entry-level price point for this article, so are talking about the alloy frame. The one that we recommend is the Topstone 1, a great alloy bike that gives you an excellent ride on both fast pavement and hardpack gravel (it is actually also on our list of best gravel bikes for this reason), and is even a good commuter bike — an excellent all-around model. If you want to spend just a little more, there 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 sometimes fits the entry-level bill, though, depending on where you find it.
One thing to know about the Topstone is that its gearing is a little lower and slower, which is great if you plan to ride places with lots of twists, turns, and climbs. But if you really want to crank fast on a long straightaway, you might find the top-end of your speed range a little wanting. The big and small chainrings have 46 and 30 teeth respectively, compared to 50/34 for many on this list or 53/39 which is a classic, common combination for old-school road bikes.
We like that all of the Topstone models now come with disc brakes, regardless of if you buy the high-end or the low-end model. They all have a carbon fork as well, which corners better than alloy and is a little more forgiving overall.
Because of the number of variations on the Topstone, 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 sleek alloy frameset. With the combination of frame and components, 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 if you can find it. We think both are worth considering.
- Micro-suspension built-in to rear stays. Allows for some shock absorption through the frame.
- We love that Carbondale is putting disc brakes on virtually everything they build, regardless of price.
- Carbon fork will give you better cornering
- Fabric scoop radius saddle, a comfortable saddle for riders of all skill levels. Scoops 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. Overall, this is a balanced frame that allows you to do fast road rides without being in an uncomfortable drop position — something that might not be second nature for beginners.
- 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. The Topstone lineup is a perfect example of that.
Orbea Avant H40 and 40-series
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 like this year is the Avant. Truth be told, we are fans of both the Orca and the Avant lineups (both have the “M” and “H” model numbers) from all of our 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 H-series in the Avant line.
This bike is different from the others in that it is design is conducive to longer rides. If you idea of a Saturday morning ride is 3 to 4 hours instead of 1 to 2, you might want to take a serious look at the Avant. Of the bikes on this list, the Orbea is probably the top choice for people who intend to mainly use the road bike for longer 50 – 100 mile rides. A few slight degrees of frame geo can make a huge difference in long-ride comfort.
Of the bikes we looked at for this piece, the Avant 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. And did we mention it is a great looking bike?
What we like:
- Quality Aluminum frameset. Saving money on (really good) aluminum allows Orbea to put more money into components.
- Shimano Tiagra drivetrain, with 105 available as an option
- Ability to mount up to 35mm tires (great if you are interested in some gravel riding)
- Expansive gearing — great on hilly terrain or on flats
- 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 and great for climbing (assuming your legs can provide the horsepower)
- Like the Topstone, you will get disc brakes and a carbon fork
Co-op Cycles ADV
When Co-Op cycles first hit the scene in 2017, we watched to see what kind of uptake and user feedback they would generate. We are usually very hesitant to get behind a brand that has not been around for more than a decade, as there are just too many unknowns regarding how the bike holds up and what kind of dealer support you may get. However, we are confidently breaking that rule for the Co-Op ADV.
Why? The Co-Op brand is backed by the large retailer REI, and we are certain that REI has the resources, reach, and attention-to-reputation that will motivate them to make the Co-op lineup enduring. Plus, we really like the value that the bike provides for a newer rider. At the same time, some of the other bikes that used to be on our list (like the Cervelo) just got too darn expensive. They are still great bikes, but we can’t in good conscience tell you that a $4,000 bike is really an entry-level option. The Co-Op ADV still sits in the $1,000 to $2,000 zone.
With the ADV, you are going to get the Aluminum frame / Carbon fork that has proven to be the right combo at this price point. Components are the Shimano Claris lineup, so for bike snobs who really want to know they have upgraded componentry, they may prefer knowing they are riding Tiagra or 105 with the Orbea or Topstone, but for most cyclists a new Claris component set will feel just fine. The bike has a frame posture that is comfortable but will still allow you to have good acceleration when needed.
While we think of the ADV lineup as a road bike, it also can make for a very good gravel bike too. In that way, it bears a lot of resemblance to the Topstone, our top choice on this list.
Overall, we just like the accessibility of this bike price-wise, and we like that it is a brand that REI is committed to, meaning you should have ample shipping and support options, as well as good local service if you happen to be near a major metro area.
What we like:
- Price point is right — a true entry-level road bike that gives you excellent features
- Backed by REI
- Combination of alloy frame with carbon fork, which makes for good handling
- Great crossover bike for those who want to be able to ride gravel regularly
Salsa Journeyman Apex
Salsa’s road bikes only caught our attention in the past couple years. They have been around since the early 1980s, after being founded in Minnesota. We have always known Salsa as an excellent maker of cross and fat tire bikes, but in recent years we have grown to appreciate all that they are putting into their road bike lineup. We actually did a piece on it, here.
The model that fits our bill as a great entry-level road bike is the Journeyman Apex. Priced at around $1,500, the Journeyman gives you a quality aluminum frame and SRAM components (a nice change from the Shimano parts that you usually see at this price point). You might ask “why do I want an aluminum frame — shouldn’t I buy a carbon fiber instead?” The answer is not always what you think.
At $1,500, most bike makers are going to give you a high-quality aluminum frame, but their carbon fiber frame at that price would probably need to cut a few corners. As a result, aluminum can be a great choice. Aluminum frames are also more durable, and vibrate less if you need to take the bike on rough pavement or even some gravel.
The Apex gives you a durable all-road bike, and we find the drivetrain to be excellent. We don’t expect to see you drop many chains — the shifting is smooth.
What We Like:
- SRAM Apex drive and shifters provide better-than-expected performance
- Disc brakes and internal cabling make this a bike that you can gradually upgrade without over-improving it
- We love Salsa’s Cowbell handlebars. They provide a pronounced, comfortable bullhorn for upright riding positions, and a slight spread on the drops. This variety results in many different hand positions to choose from when riding in different postures.
- Unlike some others on this list, we would not have an issue wandering on to the occasional gravel with this bike, assuming you had the right rims and tires for it
Overall, a great bike for the money, and a bike worthy of customizing to suit your riding style. If you are willing to spend just a little more, the Warbird and Warroad are good options too — but we think Salsa should do something about those names. They are too similar and we find it a bit confusing.
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 at last count Trek was offering 13 different versions of the Emonda! But the entry-level Emonda choice is the one that we would recommend from Trek, at this price point.
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.
- Disc brakes, which we always prefer if we can get them
- 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, but you may also see Bontrager or Campagnolo (Campy) parts. We did an entire piece on their various levels here. For the Shimano 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, and we find that the “contact points” on the bike — things you will physically be in contact with during your ride like the saddle and bars — are the ideal bike upgrades later because they tend to involve so much personal preference.
It is important to note that bike components are constantly changing and up-leveling, to the benefit of the typical entry-level bike buyer. What was only found on higher-end bikes a few years ago may be commonplace on a lower-priced road bike today.
- Brakes. Speaking of components, 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. 5 years ago, disc brakes were something only found on higher-end bikes. Today, lots of entry-level bikes have them. 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 for the DIYer to adjust, fine-tune, 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 (alloy) 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. The Salsa Journeyman is a great example of what you can do with aluminum that you would never be able to do at the same price with carbon.
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.
One source we really like is the Pro’s Closet, a bunch of cycling enthusiasts who carry quality, second-hand bikes. You just need to check often, as their bikes tend to pass through quickly. If you find one you have been looking for, it can be a good way to get a decent bike at a discounted price.
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 and wheels are in very good condition. Everything else can be fixed or replaced.
Our Conclusion and Recommendation for an 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! Seriously, we would be happy to see you riding on any of them, that is why they made the cut.
If we could only choose one, it would probably be the Trek Emonda. With that said, it’s price point is at the high-end of what we consider to be entry-level, so understand if it is a bit out of reach.
For the bikes that are a little more affordable, we really like the value in both the Topstone and the ADV right now. We’d go ADV if you want faster, straightaway gearing, and the Topstone if you plan to be riding more gravel with lots of twists and turns.
Get out there and ride, be safe, and enjoy the sport!