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What is Road Cycling: Everything You Need To Know

Cycling is one of the healthiest forms of exercise out there. While it helps you burn a lot of calories and stay in shape, it also has a low impact on your joints, which makes it better than running for a lot of people.

One of the best forms of cycling is road cycling where you get to enjoy your ride in open doors as well as the beautiful scenery. But what is road cycling? And how do you get into it?

In today’s article, we’ll walk you through a comprehensive guide that covers all the points that you need to keep in mind as a beginner, so you can enjoy your new hobby. So without further ado, let’s dive in!

What is Road Cycling?

cycling picture

Outdoor cycling is primarily split into two major disciplines, which are road cycling and off-road cycling.

Although some might think that road cycling is exclusive to some types of races or cycling events, it’s actually a much broader term that includes all forms of cycling on a paved surface.

In other words, if you’re riding a bike on any street or road, you’re a road cyclist. On the other hand, if you mainly use your bike on unpaved areas, such as dirt, mountain trails, creeks, backcountry, etc, you’re an off-road cyclist.

Another thing you should know about road cycling is that it’s not bound by a specific purpose, as you can do it for recreational purposes, racing, commuting, running errands, or even as a form of workout. As long as you’re doing it on a paved road, it’s road cycling.

Since road racing is mainly concerned with the terrain you’re riding your bike on, it’s also not bound by age. This means that children enjoying their bikes on a paved park are also technically road cycling!

This makes road cycling the most widespread form of cycling, as upwards of hundreds of millions of people participate in various forms of road cycling every day.

With that said, among cycling communities, road cycling is commonly used to describe the activity of riding bikes for extended distances on open roads, whether alone or among a group, whether it’s for racing, pleasure, or even health benefits.

A Brief History of Road Cycling

Since the first bicycle was designed for paved roads, the history of road cycling dates back to 1817 when Karl von Drais invented the first bike.

However, the first bike ever created was too heavy to be used for long-distance cycling or racing, as it was made of steel and wood, weighing as much as 80 lbs. This is over 4 to 5 times heavier than the average lightweight bike today, which weighs less than 15 to 20 lbs.

As bikes got lighter and more efficient, road cycling as a sport became a possibility. This was during the late 1860s and the early 1870s.

Thanks to the competitive nature of road cycling races, the demand for a sturdy yet lightweight bicycle increased, and many inventors tried to create new bike designs that can sustain high performance on long roads.

As a result, the modern form of bikes that we know today was first produced in the 1880s when the first bike with a gear system was created. This allowed riders to adjust their gears depending on the sloping of the surface, allowing them to shift between power and speed.

Since then, it was only all the way up for road cycling! The sport’s popularity continued to rise, new sturdy and lightweight materials were used in making bikes, and bike companies poured billions of dollars to improve all aspects of bike manufacturing over the years.

How Popular Is Road Cycling Nowadays?

group cycling

As of 2021, the estimated market of bicycles all over the world is estimated at $59.33 billion. Not only that, the market is still expected to grow over the next few years with an annual growth rate of about 8.2%, according to reports by Grand View Research.

Road cycling is easily the most popular form of cycling. A report in 2016 found that 12.4% of all Americans cycle on a daily basis, that’s about 40 million Americans. The numbers in Europe are even higher!

Another report by Statista showed that the number of road cyclists from 2011 to 2021 was consistent between 39 million to 42 million Americans!

The biggest and most prestigious road cycling event today is the Tour de France, which is also one of the oldest, as it started back in 1903. It’s also one of the most widely attended sporting events that are organized on a yearly basis all over the world!

Do You Need a License for Road Cycling?

One of the best things about road cycling is that you don’t really need a driver’s license for it and you don’t have to go through a tedious registration process in order to hop on your bike.

With that said, you should know that all road rules that apply to other vehicles will still apply to bikes. For example, while road cycling, you shouldn’t ride the opposite way and you still need to stop at red lights, stop signs, and road crossings.

Not stopping at these stop points is one of the reasons many motorists dislike cyclists. Many cyclists ride in the street because they’re allowed to but then they only follow some of the rules that cars have to follow.

With all that said, you should know that the type of bike you’re riding may have an impact on whether you need a license or not.

For example, electric bikes may require a license in some countries and are regulated by the 3-class system in most states in America.

What Are the Characteristics of a Good Road Bike?

There are tons of bike features and types out there. However, some features are more critical for road cycling than others, especially if you’re planning to enjoy long-distance rides on the bike.

In this section, we’ll take a closer look at those features and what you should look for in them:

1. Frame

black road bike with drop bars

The frame is the largest part of the bike and connects it all together. It needs to be durable and robust yet lightweight so it doesn’t slow you down much. This is mainly controlled by the frame’s material.

Ideally, a triangular frame with a short seat and a flat-top tube is the best design for road bikes because it’s sturdy and relatively comfortable for long distances. The most common materials used in road bike frames are:

  • Carbon: A relatively new addition to bike frame materials in the industry. Carbon fiber is incredibly durable, lightweight, and provides excellent shock absorption without corrosion, but it’s quite pricey and found only in high-end models. Carbon is expensive because it’s one of the lightest materials that can be used on a bike.
  • Aluminum: A highly balanced material that is used in most bikes because it’s lightweight, durable, rust-resistant, and highly affordable. However, the quality will vary depending on the thickness of the frame. (thicker is more durable but also heavier)
  • Steel: Remarkably durable and very easy to repair and maintain. It’s also the cheapest among all materials. Steel is going to be your heaviest type of frame and is typically found on road bikes under the $1,000 to $1,500 mark. Fixed gear and single-speed bikes are also commonly made out of steel. Steel bikes need a paint coat or special alloys to protect them from rust.
  • Titanium: A relatively pricey material but provides an excellent level of durability and longevity while being much lighter than steel.

2. Wheels

black road bike with drop bars

The design of road tires has changed over the years. Back in the day, road bicycle rims were characteristically narrow. However, recent trends in the industry shifted to wider rims and increased tire volume while keeping the number of spokes to a minimum.

This provides much better aerodynamics while providing shock absorption for a smoother and comfier ride, especially while cycling for long distances. The improvement in aerodynamics comes from the depth of the rims, according to recent studies.

When it comes to tire choices, the most common ones are the 700c tires. These tires are usually 700 mm in diameter but vary in width, which may range from 18 to 32 mm. However, 700 x 25 is ideal for those who focus on speed.

Tires are also inflated under high tire pressure. This design aimed to reduce the rolling resistance by minimizing the points of contact with the ground. Ideally, a tire pressure of 80 to 135 PSI is great for road cycling.

Since road cyclists use high PSI on their tires, you’ll want to check your tire pressure on every ride or at least every couple of rides. It’s very easy to have a slow leak at high PSI.

3. Handlebars

black road bike with drop bars

When it comes to road cycling, drop handlebars are always the better option to opt for (compared to flat bars that are often used in off-road bikes for sharp turns).

They extend both up and down, allowing you to control the bike from various positions. These include the tops, which are a deal for cruising and climbing steep roads.

Also, they include the hoods that allow you to rest your hands while cruising as well as good control of the brake lever.

Lastly, you can use the drop in order to crouch your body to improve your aerodynamics and increase your speed while maintaining good control of your bike.

4. Crankset and Pedals

The crankset is the unit that includes both the chainrings and the pedals. In most cases, road bikes will use a standard double chainring design.

A typical road bicycle will use either a compact crank with 50/34 teeth cranks or a semi-compact crank with 52/36 teeth. Other options like 46/33t, 48/35t, and 50/37t are also commonly used in road cycling.

As for pedals, consider using clipless pedals, which are the ones that clip into your cycling cleats for maximum pedaling efficiency.

5. Saddle

black road bike with drop bars

The seat assembly of your bike, also called the “saddle”, is your main point of connection with the bike. For that reason, making sure your saddle is supportive is critical for your comfort.

One of the most common mistakes that new riders often make while choosing a saddle is going for the plushiest and softest saddle there is. While they can be comfortable at first, the soft foam will eventually compress, causing more discomfort over a larger surface area.

Instead, you should consider going for a narrow saddle with little padding. These don’t cause as much discomfort while riding because they don’t compress your nervous tissue or cause chafing like wide seats.

It may take some time to get used to them, and you’ll need to adjust the height and angle of the seat until you reach your sweet spot.

6. Brakes

disc brakes

When it comes to road bikes, there are two types of brakes that you can use. Each one of them is called after the part that the brakes pinch in order to stop the bike. These two types are rim brakes and disc brakes.

The two brake systems are controlled by steel cables that connect them to brake levers via actuating calipers.

Rim brakes are quite common and more affordable than disc brakes, all the while providing similar performance, especially in dry conditions. Yet, disc brakes don’t overheat the tires like rim brakes, so they preserve the tire’s performance and prevent them from blowing on the road.

However, if you don’t mind spending a little more for a long-term investment and better tire health, you can go for a road bike with disc brakes.

What Should You Wear While Road Cycling?

kitted cyclist

Now that you know more about the essential aspects of a good road bike, it’s time to figure out what you should be wearing while riding.

Of course, these items vary in importance depending on your trip distance, so you should keep that in mind:

1. Cycling Shorts or Bib

cycling bib

Cycling shorts or a Cycling Bib are critical if you want to stay comfortable and spare your buttocks the agony of riding for a long distance on a painful seat. As previously mentioned, seats on road bikes should be thin and unpadded, so you have to make up for it by getting padded cycling shorts.

Typically more serious riders opt for a cycling bib rather than cycling shorts. Cycling bibs are more comfortable, especially for long rides. They are similar to singlets or overalls. They are similar to shorts but then they have straps that go over your shoulders to hold them up. This is more comfortable because you don’t have a tight elastic waistband digging into your side while you ride.

Whether you choose a cycling bib or cycling shorts they spare you the need for underwear while cycling. They also prevent chafing due to friction and the spandex provides support that can help in reducing the delayed onset muscle soreness after a long ride.

2. Jersey

Castelli Cycling Jersey

You should pair your cycling bib with a short-sleeved cycling jersey. These are ideal for moisture-wicking and are made from spandex for added comfort and proper fitting. A good one will also have reflective strips and pockets for storage.

They’re also wind and weather-resistant, so they’re ideal for most weather conditions. If you live in an area where it gets too cold, you can opt for a long-sleeved jersey instead and combine them with a cycling jacket or wind vest.

A cycling jacket is different than a normal jacket. A good cycling jacket combines breathability with wind-resistant material. The front of the jacket will have a wind-blocking material while the back of the jacket has a breathable material. This allows you to let off your body heat from working out but still keep warm from the cold wind when riding.

3. Helmet

white helmet

Wearing a helmet while riding a bike is a legal requirement in many countries around the world as well as many local state laws in the US.

However, even if it’s not mandatory that you wear a bike helmet where you live, we highly recommend that you buy one.

For starters, the cycling helmet can save your life in the case of an accident. Not only that, but a good road cycling helmet will be also designed to reduce aerodynamic resistance, and therefore, will help you improve your speed while racing.

4. Gloves

On long-distance rides, the vibrations from the road can be slightly annoying and uncomfortable. To reduce their impact while enjoying the maximum level of control of your levers and bike computer screen, you should go for padded fingerless gloves.

If you’re wearing gloves to keep your hands warm, you’ll want to go for gloves that have fingers. These gloves will keep your hands warm while giving you maximum grip and safety on your bike.

5. Shoes

black and white road shoes with laces

While many types of grippy shoes will work while cycling, some of them can cause muscle fatigue in the long run due to excessive flexing and relaxing.

If you want specialized shoes, you should consider road cycling shoes. These ones will have removable bottom cleats that clip right into the clipless pedals for improved pedaling. However, these shoes won’t be used for any other purpose, so they’re not ideal for cyclists on a budget.

6. Optional Accessories

Besides the main items to consider while getting ready for your bike ride. There are some additional items to consider, such as:

  • Glasses: Polarized cycling sunglasses protect your eyes from UV light and reduce glaring when riding on open roads, especially on extra-sunny days.
  • Elbow and Knee Pads: Provide additional protection to your joints in the case of an accident. These are more commonly used with BMX bikers and mountain bikers but some road cyclists wear pads.
  • Rain Jackets and Wind Vests: a packable rain jacket is easy to store but can be extremely handy if the weather turns suddenly. You can get ones that tie on your handlebars or attach to your frame.

What Bike Accessories to Add to Your Road Bike?

Bike accessories are optional additions that can greatly improve your ride experience or make your trip a lot smoother and more comfortable. Here are the top 5 suggestions to consider:

  • Water Bottle: Helps you maintain hydration on the go. You can also add electrolyte powders to the water to replenish your electrolyte balance if you sweat heavily while cycling.
  • Bike Computer: These gadgets use technologies like GPS to estimate your cycling metrics, show you a map of your area, and track many aspects of your ride, such as your cadence, current speed, and gear, distance covered, and much more!
  • Lights and Reflectors: Additional safety items to give you better visibility in low-light settings. Lights are a necessity if you plan on riding your bike at night!
  • Mirrors: Spares you the risk of looking behind you while riding and helps you ride among groups easily.
  • Tire Replacement Tools: These include patching kits, spare tubes, small air pumps, and other tools necessary to fix your bike in case of a problem. You don’t want to get stranded while out on a ride. Walking miles home isn’t as easy as riding your bike.

What Should You Eat Before and During Road Cycling?

First, you should avoid hopping on a bike straight after eating because it can cause some gastrointestinal issues to riders.

Instead, make sure that you get a snack that is rich in carbs to refill your glycogen reserves before you go. The best foods to consider before road cycling are:

  • Quinoa, oatmeal, and other whole grains food items
  • Bananas
  • Nut butter
  • Pasta and bread (whole or white)

During the ride, you can try energy bars, gels, and gummies that are designed to be consumed directly while cycling.

These foods can give you a good boost of energy, especially on a long racecourse where you can’t afford to stop or slow down.

Important Road Bike Tips for Better Performance

With all the previously mentioned aspects in mind, here are some additional tips to help you extend your bike’s years of service and maintain its performance on every ride:

Always Lubricate the Chains

Keeping your chains lubricated helps in keeping the chain’s engagement with the sprockets and the chainrings smooth.

This guarantees optimal shifting performance and reduces drivetrain wear and corrosion that results from friction between all the moving parts.

Clean Your Bike After Long Trips

While road cycling, your bike tires may end up splashing dirty water and grime on the frame and moving parts.

When the grime and mud start to build up and dry on the bike, parts will break down much faster.

Luckily, cleaning the bike is relatively easy and you only need some warm soapy water to wipe off all the dirt.

You can also use bike degreasers for internal parts but make sure that you lubricate them properly when you’re done.

Learn Basic Bike Repairs

Learning a few basic repairs can help you avoid a lot of problems while riding your bike. In fact, many of the common problems that you can stumble across are surprisingly easy to fix as long as you have the knowledge and the tools.

There are plenty of online guides that can teach you how to fix common road bike issues, and you can also enroll in a bike repairs class if you want to take things to the next level!

Plan Your Route Ahead

Lastly, to avoid unpleasant surprises and issues along the road. Always make sure that you plan your route ahead.

Luckily, there are plenty of tools and websites that can help you optimize your route. Among the best options out there are:

Wrap Up

There you have it! A complete guide with everything you need to know about road cycling to help you get started.

Road cycling is quite versatile and comes with tons of mental and health benefits. It’s also a great way to enjoy the great outdoors, meet new friends, and get in shape!

With all the information presented in this beginner’s guide, you should be able to take your first steps into the world of road cycling while avoiding most of the common mistakes that many riders wish they knew before they started.

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