What are the hottest road bike trends of 2020/2021? What type of road bike should I buy and is the categorisation of road bikes even relevant anymore? After our big group test of thirteen road bikes, we take a closer look at the future of cycling.
Planning to head to the shop and buy a new bike? Unfortunately it’s not that easy anymore, at least not if you put stock by the marketing claims made by brands. In that case, not only will you have to be fitted for size, but you’ll first have to decide whether you prefer an aero, endurance, racing or all-road bike. And do you really know what type would suit you best? We cut through the marketing slogans and reveal why they don’t usually mean much and what you should actually pay attention to when you make your purchasing decision! Here you can find the current best-in-test road bike.
Road bike categories are no longer relevant
“THE perfect road bike doesn’t exist but there’s definitely A perfect road bike for everyone!” That’s been the perceived wisdom on the road scene thus far and we have subscribed to this notion for a long time too. Now, at least partly, we have to question it. Times are changing and that’s a good thing! The most modern road bikes in our group test prove that we’re moving in leaps and bounds towards the ONE perfect road bike. Developing aerodynamically optimised bikes has dominated the industry for years but now that development is beginning to outstrip itself. There’s evidence for this in almost every bike in our test. Regardless of which category bikes are assigned to, there’s hardly a bike that doesn’t feature some kind of aerodynamic optimisation. With modern road bikes becoming more aerodynamic, dedicated aero machines, which are in part more uncomfortable, heavier and more complex, have to fight to justify their existence. Simultaneously, the newest and best aero bikes only show marginal differences in terms of comfort, weight and handling to climbing or even endurance bikes. As a result the question becomes inevitable: is dividing bikes into different categories actually relevant anymore?
In 2020, a new guard of road bikes has entered the stage and is seemingly only a few steps of evolution away from the ultimate incarnation of a road bike. A good example is the Specialized Roubaix 2020: it is claimed to be more aerodynamic than the race-focussed Tarmac SL6, and the Tarmac itself is claimed to be more aerodynamic than the first Specialized Venge aero bike. The most versatile road bike from the American brand’s stable has clearly benefited from aero influences, which it combines with good all-round performance. Our Best in Test, the Argon 18 Krypton also shines with high efficiency on the flats, a high level of comfort along with tire clearances for up to 700 x 32 C tires. As a result, it doesn’t clearly fit into any one category – too sporty for an endurance bike, too versatile to be an aero bike and too comfortable and willing to go off road to be a purebred racer. The FOCUS IZALCO MAX is billed as an aero bike but at first glance you might not immediately think that’s the case due to its slim silhouette. Given the numerous aerodynamic features on the race all-rounders like the Pinarello Dogma F12 or the Cannondale SuperSix Evo, it’s becoming increasingly obvious which way the wind is blowing. We’ll spare you further examples. All we want to say is that in the future, we see a new approach that no longer makes it necessary to choose a certain ‘style’ of cycling when you buy a new bike. Why? Because modern bikes are so versatile that they have a significantly wider range of use and are so good across the board that they almost make specialists superfluous.
The complete package road bike
The times in which bike brands focussed solely on optimising their framesets are over. If you want to produce a truly excellent bike, you now have to look at the road bike as a complete system and make improvements holistically. That’s why our tests are all about examining whether the whole bike as a package is convincing or not. The best example is comfort. It’s no longer sufficient to maximise the compliance of a single part. Instead the whole system has to contribute to a balanced and consistent level of comfort throughout the bike. There are some exemplary solutions, for example from Trek and Specialized: both brands develop everything from their own tires, wheels, cockpits and seatposts all the way to saddles and bar tape, allowing them to match the characteristics of components against each other. That’s just as important for comfort and performance as it is for coherent design and economies of scale.
However, these specialist solutions also have their drawbacks. The number of so-called standards, if that’s even the right word any more, seems to be expanding rapidly. But the more standards there are, the more opportunity there is to break them in the pursuit of solving particular problems. That includes everything from specific cockpit solutions, proprietary seatposts, unique dimensions for bottom brackets and headsets to unique fork designs. As well as making spare parts availability more difficult, this also means servicing quickly becomes a specialist job, creating new challenges for distributors and bike shops alike. However, this approach also offers advantage. It means that end users can rely on manufacturers to optimise the complete system, allowing performance to be tweaked to be consistent across the range of sizes available. It makes it possible to tune the characteristics of the platform as a whole, rather than having to look at individual components in isolation.
What should a road bike weigh in 2020?
There can hardly have been a more dominant topic than weight on the road bike scene. The drillium era, where parts were drilled with as many holes as possible to keep the weight of steel racers low, has been replaced by insanely lightweight carbon construction with strict rider weight restrictions. But on less rarified builds, the disparities in weight are flattening out and we see lots of bikes in the same range. Our test field has an average weight of 7.59 kg, making it just a bidon’s worth of water heavier than the UCI weight limit. But how important is that for the everyday rider?
The simple answer: not very. The fewest of us could claim to be at our ideal weight, whatever that might be, when we get on the bike, meaning that other factors become much more important. One of these is the permissible total weight which should be a key consideration for your purchase. For example, if you want to go on holiday with your road bike loaded up with luggage, a weight limit of 110 kg could quickly be exceeded. However, a more important consideration for us in one of weight distribution. That’s not just how the mass of the bike is distributed but also where the centre of gravity of the rider-bike system is located. This has a significant influence on the bike’s handling and the traction available from the tires. One recent trend is shifting weight towards the front wheel for more assertive handling. Steeper seat angles or less seatpost offset are just two of many options to tweak the weight distribution. If you want to find out more about the importance of geometry and bike fit, then read our interview with bike fitter and physiotherapist Bastian Marks.
The longer answer to the question of what role weight plays is that in our test there were neither bikes that were too heavy nor too light. You’ll have to decide for yourself how important the weight of your dream bike is to you and to what extent you want to spend time, effort and money tuning it. In any case, many modern framesets are already so light that they provide a good platform for weight fetishists to build on. And if weight isn’t your prime concern, then at the very least, a lightweight frameset doesn’t hurt. If you’re chasing KOMs up the hills and have already optimised your own body weight, then a lightweight bike will definitely offer advantages. If you want to give it your all on the flats, then a slightly heavier bike will be at an advantage. The higher weight doesn’t make it easier to accelerate, but the increased inertia is at an advantage for maintaining momentum and speed. Attention: heavier bikes are only at an advantage on downhills if the descent is completely straight. When you need to brake hard, carve through tight corners and accelerate out of the hairpin, as is so often the case, a compromise is best. In our group test we were looking for the best all-rounder, and as chance would have it, the Argon 18 Krypton Pro tipped the scales at just 0.04 kg under the average weight. That’s not to say that this is an ideal weight but that if you’re looking for all-round characteristics, a compromise works best.
All about comfort
Comfort or lack of it has been a topic for many road cyclists for a long time. Tired bones will be pleased by its increasing levels on numerous bikes. Even in the pro peloton, comfort is being given more priority with the realisation that it’s not just about wellbeing – being comfortable also lets you ride faster. While ambitious riders can maintain a more aggressive position for longer with higher levels of comfort, other riders can also benefit if they feel the bumps less and stay fresher for longer. Read this in isolation and you could easily think that more is more. But while that may be true for coffee or your post-ride beer, it’s a different story for comfort.
Instead, it’s important to look at how comfort is balanced across the bike and how many sources it stems from. Therefore, it’s not particularly helpful if you have a lot of comfort at the front and little at the rear, or vice versa, or compliance stems from one part alone. You’ll get little benefit if there is mismatch between a single compliant component and an otherwise stiff bike, as this results in an imbalanced system. While numerous manufacturers are tuning the stiffness of their frames by tailoring the carbon layup and designing unique tube profiles, others are relying on integrated comfort or suspension systems which can be adjusted by the rider to their own personal preference. Trek’s IsoSpeed technology offers the option to tune the compliance in the seat mast and Specialized’s Future Shock 2.0 system lets you change the degree of damping on offer at the front. Both concepts have seen significant developments over the years. The decisive advantage over earlier incarnations is the introduction of damping to these systems. Regardless of how a manufacturer achieves compliance, it’s undamped suspension that makes a bike difficult to control. Consider the comfort of a bike and it’s not so much the ‘travel’ on offer, but how the compliance is distributed, damped and where it comes from in the system. This is also something to pay attention to. If all of these aspects are successfully solved, then comfort can truly result in both increased speed and an improved feeling of wellbeing aboard the bike.
These developments all help prevent the rider being shaken around resulting in a less tiring ride where less energy is lost. However, bike manufacturers are aiming to do even more to improve riding performance. They want to let customers float on cloud nine, with the bike skipping across any terrain and tires jumping between cobbles and potholes, without the rider noticing anything going on at all. Couldn’t that be achieved with suspension elements just like on a mountain bike? Unfortunately, this wouldn’t make sense for three reasons. First of all, suspension would swallow up the rider’s energy rather than it being converted into propulsion. Secondly, the centre of gravity and handling of the bike would change noticeably when, say, a suspension fork compresses. Thirdly. Well then it would just be a mountain bike with drop bars. Gravel bikes are currently toeing this line and we don’t really want to open this particular can of worms for the road bike sector as well.
However, we can identify one clear trend. The tuned comfort and compliance of bikes in our test like the Argon 18, Trek or Cicli Bonanno doesn’t just result in increased wellbeing and speed. The increased traction and stability that results also creates a more consistent, predictable and stable ride. The search for comfort is also becoming the driving force for increasing traction, dependability and safety – that’s an evolution of the comfort concept and a trend that we are sure will establish itself more firmly in the future. Bring it on!
Gravel bike sales continue to increase rapidly, with numerous possible reasons as the cause. Is it because of inspiring videos released from the core of the scene? Is it due to breathtaking accounts of events in distant lands? Or is it due to the increase in traffic on the roads? Undoubtedly, all these factors are contributing to the gravel boom but it’s particularly the versatility of these bikes that makes them the best option for many riders. In the times of ‘friends with benefits’ where it’s increasingly difficult to commit, investing in a bike that can fulfill as many dreams as possible seems like the most obvious and sensible choice, doesn’t it? It’s exactly this mindset which is rubbing off on the road bike segment and making the modern road bikes in our test into true all-rounders.
Alongside the level of comfort and handling, it’s also tire clearances that let us enjoy our road bikes off road as well. While not so long ago clearances for up 700 x 28C tires would have caused uproar, several bikes in our group test sport enough space to fit up to 700 x 35C rubber. Clearances for 700 x 30C tires are found almost across the board. Wide tires that offer limitless fun and let you roll anywhere have in turn quite literally rolled over the old attitude of narrow tires, high pressures and uncompromisingly harsh road bike performance. We can’t yet tell how this trend will continue and develop. However, it should be obvious that it’s here to stay, with the expectation that where the tarmac ends should no longer be a barrier to where you can ride. However, we need to acknowledge that the detour bikes have made through sub-categorisations into endurance, aero or climbing bikes has been important in order to get exactly to the place we are now. Because this path was the only way that manufacturers could learn what was most important for individual specialisations, in order to be able to apply this knowledge and experience to the bigger context. Cycling is no longer solely about all-out performance, with more stock put by the experience of the ride. With this mindset, we arrive at a new generation of bikes that can do (almost) everything and has (almost) all options open. The rebirth of the road bike. Hip, hip, hooray!
Words: Benjamin Topf Photos: Valentin Rühl