As winter rolls towards us, there’s a good chance that many of us will be starting to think about road bikes. Whether your trails are unrideable in winter, you want to get in better shape for next year or you just like the idea of trying something different, a road bike can be a good addition to your stable. Among us mountain bikers, road riding tends to get stigmatised as joyless, which is unfair. Yes, it’s not the same intense experience as tearing down an alpine fall-line or carving perfect, fresh loam, but that doesn’t mean it can't be fun. And, I believe, if you think about what bike you choose and how you spec it you can make it a little bit more fun.
When I bought my first road bike I had little money and even less idea about what I was doing. Logging onto Chain Reaction I scrolled down their range until I found the Vitus in my budget and ordered what the site recommended for my size. It arrived without pedals so I bolted on a set of flats and amused myself by bombing up and down the valley road in board shorts, Birkenstocks and no helmet. The brakes came in Euro setup, the wrong way round for me, but I could never be bothered to re-learn how to setup a cabled brake or re-tape the bars, so I ran them that way for my entire time with the bike. My favourite pastime was to find a middle-aged guy in replica team kit and buzz him as I steamed past up or down the mountain. I have fond memories of summer evenings letting the tiny 21mm tyres skate around on the rough roads of Northern Italy on the descents, then dropping by the local bar for a beer after.
I was having fun which meant I was riding the bike quite a lot and the more I rode it the deeper down the rabbithole I went. Realising I was hitting 70km/h on the descents, I started wearing a helmet. A friend gave me some lightly used road SPD pedals and shoes. I hated how heavy the bike was, so the cheapest way to save weight was to remove the small chainring and front derailleur, leaving me with a 50t single ring. The position on the descent was wrong so I bolted on a Renthal 90mm stem I had left over from a press launch. It’s a pattern we should all recognise and very soon I started eyeing up carbon fibre bikes… and then came the day when I tried lycra.
It’s a slippery slope, but one I have thoroughly enjoyed going down. Of course as a professional bike nerd (I may have that printed on my business cards) I have tweaked my road bike into something I think is a bit more fun than an off the shelf bike. It’s nothing too wild, I think in the last hundred years road cyclists have crafted a pretty good machine and it would be arrogance to think it’s completely off the mark, but I do think it’s just that little bit more fun this way.
One of the biggest mistakes I made early on was assuming that a road bike is, well, a road bike. Once you start digging you quickly realise that there are a galaxy of ever so slightly different takes on a bike with different frame properties, geometry and intent, but it’s much more subtle than with a mountain bike. Do you need a race bike, a climbing bike, an aero bike? If you go and find a popular spot for roadies what you will most likely see is lots of people riding race bikes, which is, quite frankly, ridiculous, in my opinion. Race bikes are built for young, flexible ultra-athletes who are happy to suffer in the name of glory. They tend to have twitchy geometry and are stiff enough to shake your teeth out, as road cyclists seem to worship on the altar of stiffer equals better. While I’m happy for you if you’ve done well enough in life to head out and buy a Pinarello Dogma, rest assured that I’m probably having a far better time on my trusty Genesis.
My Datum is, strictly, a quietly progressive gravel frame. Current gravel bikes tend to head more into MTB territory as brands wrestle to try and square the growing popularity of gravel riding with the uncomfortable truth that gravel was always about suffering to reach wild places, and the mass market is not prepared to endure such pain. Although there seems to be some debate on optimal reach numbers, with many brands' reducing the reach on their gravel and endurance bikes compared to their racing machines. You are faced with a choice between low and long or short and high, while here I have managed to put together a bike that is both long and high. The geometry of the Datum meant I could jump up from a 54 to a 56cm on a frame that was already on the longer side of things. In practice what this means is that my Datum has a slightly longer reach than either a race bike or a gravel bike, much taller stack than a race bike, longer chainstays, slacker headangle, greater tyre clearance, a similar BB drop and a more compliant ride than a race bike. I have seen a few riders opt for CX bikes for the winter, which used to be a decent option for getting better geometry than a road race bike. The problem there is that for CX they raise the BB to increase mud clearance and the frames are even stiffer than road race bikes as they are intended for use in a one hour race where you are on the limit the entire time - comfort is not even a consideration.
Generally, road riders tend to size down their bikes and add longer stems - there are a lot of ideas floating around as to why this is
(stack height, weight, aesthetics), but I worry more about overall bike handling, which doesn’t seem to get a look in. I wanted the larger frame to give myself more space in between the axles paired with a shorter (110mm vs 80mm) stem to bring the bar back behind the front axle so I felt more comfortable descending. It’s the same basic logic Mondraker pushed with Forwards geometry, and aside from the occasional moment when I’d like the toptube to be a shade lower, I see no reason to ride a smaller bike, and as I approach the end of my 30s I have made my peace with not wanting the same riding position a 21-year-old racing snake with a spine made of rubber.
Then there are the chainstays - an area that the mountain bike industry is finally starting to embrace in a more nuanced way than claiming that shorter = "playful." Race bikes all have ultra-short chainstays as the most important consideration is how close the person behind can get to draft more effectively and in the worlds of marginal gains, a 400mm vs a 420mm chainstay is a no-brainer for them. For me, who usually rides on his own, the longer stay means a little more space between the axles to move my weight around and more predictable handling. I really enjoy playing on the descents, pushing my weight back for the braking phase of a corner, then forwards as I enter the curve to weight the front - something you can't do without that bit more space.
One of the first questions I usually get about my bike is “why the single ring?” My love of single-ringed road bike started with my hacked Vitus, but since then I have had some time to consider it and I think there are a few other advantages. Firstly there is weight - if you’re building a bike on a budget, needing fewer things to mount to it is both lighter and cheaper (although with these fancy Easton EC90SL cranks, the cheap ship clearly sailed for me a while ago). The important question to ask yourself when you are choosing gearing is “what am I trying to do on this bike?” For me, the answer was to try and become a stronger mountain biker. That means I don’t need the close gear ratios to spin along in a pack and I don’t need to worry about speed work (high cadence pedalling), as that’s not something I ever do on my mountain bikes. What I need is to get stronger, so I stuck on a fairly big ring and persevered until it felt comfortable as it’s a good way to build strength in your legs.
The Easton cranks must be at least five years old now - while on the mountain bike side carbon cranks can be a questionable investment as you plough into rocks, the fact that these still look good after this long means it's easier to justify pushing the boat out a little more. And yes, I run a power meter. It's been an interesting lesson in teaching me how pointless numbers are in many ways. I can put down pretty respectable power numbers, but it doesn't translate to me being fast. As for the Renthal chainstay protector? I just thought it looked cool.
At the back, I pair it with a wide-ish range (for road) 11-32t cassette. It is becoming more common to see previous generation MTB cassettes on gravel bikes (up to 42-46t), but for pure road riding, I think they are heavy and defeat the whole plan of running hard gears to build strength. Plus, if you are on the flat, I find the jumps in between gears a bit jarring. Until recently I was running an 11-speed XT derailleur with a Wolf Tooth Tanpan adapter to match it to the slightly different ratios of road shifters. The only downside for road riding is the clutch mechanism weighs a shade more, but the benefits of security and quieter running on rough roads seem undeniable to me. Also, if you’re building your bike on a budget, pulling an old MTB derailleur out of a box and adding a €5 adapter saves a fair chunk of cash. When you pair a clutch with electronic shifting, like I have here with my shiny, new Shimano GRX Di2 transmission (one of the benefits of being married to a Shimano ambassador), I really don’t see a downside to running a clutch and if you’re worried about the weight you could always shave your head to make the same kind of weight saving.
Do I even need to discuss brakes with mountain bikers? We’ve known since the 1990s that disc brakes are just better, so why would you go back to 1970s-style caliper brakes? The current trend is to pair a 160mm disc to a 140mm rear disc. Maybe there is an aero reasoning behind this I don’t understand, but I have never bought into the weight-saving arguments for running smaller rear rotors, I always prefer increased heat dissipation and precision of a larger disc on all my bikes. I did wonder if I could find a 20mm adapter to mount a 180mm disc on the front, but it felt too much like being different for the sake of being different. My STIs (the combined gear shifter and brake lever assembly) are the new Shimano GRX Di2 which are designed to give you a little more control than standard road STIs - they have improved ergonomics to help you move the bike around and the brake feel is crisp and confidence-inspiring. Apparently ditching the mechanical shifting mechanism allowed them to rework the STI for maximum brake performance - which is one of the better arguments I have found to justify electronic shifting.
To keep the bike in line with my road riding intentions (and not wander off into gravel territory) I run a set of Acros all-round road wheels. If you’re riding or racing road bikes on the flat, the tendency would be to run deep section wheels as the aero advantage outweighs the weight penalty, whereas for mountain climbing the rim gets paired back to a minimum as weight is at a premium. These sit somewhere in the middle, although more modern rims do tend to go a little wider as having a consistent profile with the tyre offers an aero advantage. Oh, and the freehub on these wheels puts a grin on my face every time. Riding in groups it’s considered bad form to have a loud freehub as I’m sure it would get annoying with time, but I don’t care about that and the machine gun sound of the ratchet is so loud and obnoxious that I love it.
Shimano GRX Di2 STIs are the heart of my cockpit, paired to 160mm discs front and rear. Schwalbe G-One Speeds are my tyre of choice with Effeto Mariposa strips and fluid inside.
My wheels are shod with a set of Schwalbe G-One Speed tyres mounted tubeless. Tubeless is one of the current debates in road cycling, and having done years on tubeless mountain bike tyres I really struggle to understand the resistance to the technology. There is a valid argument that for elite racers being able to continue riding on flat tubular tyres is important, but I don't think there are many amateurs ready to drop four figures on carbon wheels only to grind them into the asphalt to get back to the parking lot. I think the MTB equivalent of the G-Ones would be running heavy casing enduro tyres all year round, which is what I tend to do on my longer-travel bike. Sure, lighter tyres would roll faster, but I cannot be bothered to change tyres regularly and I prefer the security, extra grip and lower pressures of a burlier tyre, especially on the rough mountain roads around my house. Much like MTB tyres, I think there is a limit on size and that the 35-40mm tyres that are now common on gravel bikes are a lot like plus MTB tyres - they don’t roll fast and when it gets ugly you are forced to choose between a lead weight of a tyre or constant punctures.
To put the change in context - when I got my first road bike I was running 21mm tyres that needed to be inflated to 100psi (6.9 bar) to avoid punctures and they had zero tread, so even a mildly moist day was terrifying. Today, having gone up to a 30mm casing, the stippled tread pattern seems to roll fast enough, but still offers grip in the wet and I have done several thousand kilometres this year on them and the only problems were down to human error. When I went to wider tyres I dropped down to 70psi (4.8 bar), but then I forgot to check the pressures regularly and realised I was safely running around 50psi (3.4 bar) in the front and 55 psi (3.8 bar) in the rear, and they were much smoother and more comfortable at the lower pressure. These pressures offer just enough give in the tyre that if you push hard against the rear you get a little deformation to help you pump the bike, but the handling still feels precise descending. It is definitely worth going through the same kind of process you would on your mountain bike to try and get the pressures right - searching for the magic point where they don’t quite wobble around under load and impacts don’t blow straight through to hit the rim.
To finish the build I have a 460mm wide Thompson carbon bar. The orthodoxy on the road is to run narrower bars as it reduces your front profile for an aero advantage, so many of the pros go down to around the 400mm mark. At my level as a cyclist, I really don’t waste time thinking about aero gains - riding more and losing weight are far more useful ways to try and go faster - so I applied the mountain bike logic that a wider bar gives you better control. I also find it keeps my lungs more open, so I can breathe a little more easily. The saddle is an indulgence. It is a Selle San Marco Mantra Super Leggera that is utterly pointless (they retail for something like €400), but it is so nice. It even has the weight (113g) hand-written underneath. I have been asked a few times about the comfort as it has zero padding. The thing to keep in mind with saddles is that padding is for short rides, while it’s the form of the saddle you need for longer days on the bike. Think of airport chairs that feel great when you first sit down, but after 15 minutes you’re hunting for a chiropractor’s help. This saddle is the opposite of that - it feels unforgiving at first, then you forget about it and it’s only some hours later that you realise it’s been keeping you comfortable all ride. Finally, I use Time cleats as they have a good amount of float in them.
Carbon may be nice, but it's nowhere near as classy as a Thompson Masterpiece post and clamp, although I prefer their bars in carbon and as wide as possible. It's winter, so mudguards are essential - and did nobody tell you that Pinkbike Marshguards will fit a road bike with enough tyre clearance? Time Atac pedals are simple, light and reliable. In France bells are mandatory in cities, so I found this Knog number that is pretty discrete - I also run one of their lights on the rear to make myself as easy to spot as possible at all times. I run an old Garmin Fenix 3 for my GPS as it's done five years and just works every time - I want the most simple, toughest GPS possible as generally I only have my heartrate showing and I can't be trusted with anything delicate. Saddles are priced very much like Porsches - the less there is, the more they cost.
I think this all adds up to a slightly more fun take on the modern road bike, one that is perfect for those winter miles to make you faster on your mountain bike. I really enjoy riding it all day, I can descend with more confidence, it's comfortable and simple - and I think simplicty is one of the most important things on a road bike (I have mountain bikes if I want complication). I imagine many roadies would turn their noses up at it as it's not the lightest bike, the frame errs on the side of durability rather than lightweight, and a bit of me would quite like a newer frame as 12mm axles front and rear so I could replace the wheels more easily when the time comes. But, every time I come to think about replacing it I simply can't justify finding the money to replace my sturdy workhorse as it rides so well. Reading the review of the new Specialized Aethos
on our sister site, I get the impression that there are pure road riders out there looking for something not so dissimilar from this - simple bikes with a focus on handling and comfort.