Cycling is an iconic sport with a long and storied history dating all the way back to the late 1800s. The first edition of Paris-Roubaix—The Hell of the North—ran in 1896 and the first edition of the Tour de France—without a doubt the most iconic of all bike races—made its first trek across the French countryside en route to the Champs-Élysées in Paris in 1903. And every decade since has seen new and exciting developments in the sport of cycling.
Cycling has evolved from a niche hobby practiced by a select few passionate (read: crazy) athletes to a professional, Olympic-level sport, replete with culture, fandom, history, and tradition and enjoyed by millions of athletes around the world. And with cycling’s evolution has come new and exciting ways to ride and race bikes!
The Union Cycliste Internationale, known colloquially as the UCI, which is the global governing body of professional cycling, now sanctions hundreds of events around the world in three main disciplines: road racing, cyclocross, and mountain biking (and within mountain biking are the sub-disciplines of cross- country, enduro, and downhill). Yet, although numerous disciplines have developed since the days when cocaine and cigarettes powered riders through Le Tour, none have yet surpassed cycling’s flagship discipline: road.
Road riding is where cycling began and road riding is still where the best cyclists in the world compete. The three Grand Tours—the Giro d’Italia, the Vuelta de España, and the Tour de France—account for the majority of cycling’s airtime on major television networks and accordingly for the majority of media revenue generated by the sport. Because of this high level of media exposure, road riding is often what gets people into cycling in the first place. After all, it’s quite easy to get inspired to go out for a ride after watching the top pros in the world summit Alpe d’Huez!
Luckily for those of you currently experiencing similar inspiration, road riding is also the most accessible discipline, given that roads are everywhere and all you need are two wheels and a helmet (always wear a helmet) to start pedaling!
In this article, we’re going to take a look at a few of the best carbon fiber road bikes currently on the market. Although each bike we’re going to look it is a road bike at its core, road bikes have branched out in terms of their abilities, strengths, and potential applications. Road bikes are no longer designed solely for professional racers nor are they intended to remain confined in the peloton. Instead, many modern road bikes are designed with both comfort and speed in mind, and some are even designed to venture off the pavement from time to time. Accordingly, we’ll set out for you some of our favorite bikes in each of three categories: race bikes; endurance bikes; and all-road bikes.
before diving in, it’s important to remember that because there is such a big market for road bikes, manufacturers offer builds to suit nearly any price point imaginable and it would become redundant to try to cover each one. So, keep in mind that the price of the specific build of each bike that we highlight below is often somewhere in the middle of the range of buildouts offered for each bike.
Specialized Tarmac Disc Comp Ultegra Di2
The Specialized Tarmac is one of the most iconic road bikes ever built. With multiple Tour de France wins to its name, the Tarmac is a purebred race machine. Designed to strike a nice balance between aerodynamics and light weight, the Tarmac features rounded tubes that help save weight over its more aerodynamic counterpart, the Venge (which is itself an outstanding race bike). The Tarmac is disc brake-only, meaning Specialized no longer makes a rim brake version of its flagship race bike.
What sets the Tarmac apart from its competition is its size-specific geometry. Dubbed Rider-First Engineering, this design process tunes the Tarmac’s geometry to each specific frame size, recognizing that smaller bikes are not just downsized version of larger bikes. This allows the Tarmac to deliver perfectly precise handling in sizes ranging from 44 to 61.
The Tarmac Disc Comp Ultegra Di2 features a full Shimano Ultegra electronic 2×11 drivetrain. It comes standard with a mid-compact 52-36 crankset and 11-30 cassette, providing plenty of range without sacrificing that top gear for the town line sprint. It rolls on durable DT Swiss R470 wheels wrapped in
Specialized’s own quick Turbo Pro 700×26 tires. The Tarmac Disc Comp Ultegra Di2 currently lists for $4,200.
Trek Madone SL6
The Trek Madone is another iconic racing bike that has had its share of success in the pro peloton. The current Madone, however, is quite different from earlier versions. While earlier versions of the Madone featured rounded tubes similar to those of the Tarmac, the new Madone is a full-on aero road bike, designed for a singular purpose: to go fast.
But despite its singular purpose, Trek has built in a pretty trick little feature to make the ride quality of this machine a bit more forgiving than other race bikes. Known as the IsoSpeed decoupler, the Madone uses an elastomer connector between the top tube and seat stays to provide impressive vibration dampening for an otherwise ultra-stiff aero road bike.
The Madone SL6 also features a full Ultegra Di2 groupset, complete with hydraulic disc brakes and compact 50-34 crankset. In this respect, the Madone SL6 is quite similar to the Tarmac Comp Disc. But for just a few hundred dollars more than the Tarmac, the Madone SL6 rolls on very fast Bontrager Aeolus Comp 5 wheels. These wheels pair a reliable, tubeless-compatible alloy rim with a carbon fairing to create an affordable deep- section aero wheel that is sure to draw eyes whether you’re rolling up to your local group ride or the state championship road race. The Madone SL6 currently lists for $4,699.
Giant TCR Advanced Pro
The Giant TCR has been racking up wins in professional racing for more than 20 years. First introduced in 1998, the TCR is consistently found under some of the best riders in the world season after season. Giant’s size and resources furthermore allow it to invest heavily into research and development, with the end goal of creating the ultimate race bike.
The TCR Advanced is somewhat unique among premium carbon fiber race bikes in that it is still offered in both rim brake and disc brake configurations. Indeed, the version we’ve selected—the TCR Advanced Pro—uses traditional rim brakes to remind riders that rim brakes aren’t dead!
The 2021 TCR Advanced features an entirely new fork, redesigned for maximum stiffness and aerodynamics without adding weight compared to previous versions. The TCR Advanced Pro runs a mechanical Shimano Ultegra 2×11 drivetrain, which provides consistent performance at a fraction of the cost of its premium sibling, Dura-Ace. The TCR Advanced Pro rolls on Giant’s own carbon wheels wrapped in its own tubeless- ready Gavia 700x28mm tires for a smooth and fast ride. The stem, handlebar, and seat post are also Giant’s own, ensuring owners that all parts are guaranteed to integrate seamlessly into the bike. The Giant TCR
Advanced Pro lists for $3,500 and comes in sizes XS to XL.
Specialized Roubaix Pro
The Specialized Roubaix is perhaps the most aptly-named endurance road bike on the market today. Named after the race for which it was specifically built, Paris-Roubaix, the Specialized Roubaix is at home on the cobbles.
In this regard, the Roubaix Pro boasts a pair of features designed to smooth out even the roughest roads. The first is the Future Shock 2.0. This unique component is built into the bike’s headset and essentially suspends the handlebar over the top of the bike. The Future Shock 2.0 provides 20mm of oil-dampened suspension, making even the brutal cobbles of northern France ridable. But the comfort-oriented features of the Roubaix don’t stop there. The Roubaix also features a flexible seat post designed to provide superior compliance in the back of the bike. These two features combined with less-aggressive geometry make the Roubaix the ultimate endurance road machine.
The Roubaix Pro features a Sram Force eTap AXS disc brake groupset, which provides all the wireless- shifting performance of Sram’s top-end Red eTap groupset at a fraction of the cost. The drivetrain consists of a double-ring crankset mounted with 46-33 chainrings and a 12-speed rear derailleur that shifts across a 10-33 cassette. While we’d like to see Specialized offer this bike with a larger 50-34 crankset, the 10T small cog helps make up the difference on the top end while the smaller chainrings provide for a better chain line at the speeds most cyclists typically ride. Rounding out the package are a pair of Roval CL 32 carbon wheels mounted with 700×28 Specialized Turbo Pro tires. The Roubaix Pro retails for $7,000.
Canyon Endurance CF SL Disc 7.0
Canyon makes a full range of exceptional bikes at exceptional value. And their endurance road bike, the Endurance CF SL Disc 7.0, is no different. This bike strikes the perfect balance between value and performance. This bike is designed with all-day rides in mind that are more about the destination than how long it takes to get there. But don’t be fooled, this bike can still turn on the afterburners if things get lively en route to the first snack stop.
Like other endurance bikes, the Endurance CF SL Disc 7.0 uses a relaxed geometry to place the rider in a slightly more upright position. This bike is built up with venerable Shimano 105 mechanical 11-speed components, which offer exceptional performance at an even better price. Indeed, it’s quite clear that the technology from Shimano’s premium Dura Ace group has trickled down to the 105 level, as these components punch far beyond their weight class. Mid-compact 52-36 chainrings turn an 11-34 cassette, providing plenty of gears to both get up the climbs and bomb down them. A pair of durable DT Swiss E
1850 Spline wheels rounds out the package, and it’s only fitting that this exceptional bike is wrapped in some of the best road tires ever made: 700×28 Continental Grand Prix SLs. Far and away the best value of any endurance road bike we’ve seen, the Canyon Endurance CF SL Disc 7.0 costs just $2,199 shipped straight to your door.
Cannondale Synapse Hi-MOD Disc Ultegra Di2
Cannondale is another brand with a storied history in professional racing. Their endurance bike, the Synapse, like other endurance road bikes, often flies under the radar. But that hasn’t stopped Cannondale from packing it with some premium features.
The Synapse Hi-MOD begins with a carbon layup specifically designed for endurance riding. It then combines long-distance geometry with micro-suspension built into the frame to provide not only superior compliance but also stable handling even when the road gets rough. The Synapse Hi-MOD also comes with built-in fender mounts—an extremely useful feature given the intended use of this bike—without adding weight or affecting aesthetics. A hydraulic Shimano Ultegra Di2 groupset handles shifting and braking duties. While the Synapse Hi-MOD foregoes a Shimano crankset, the Cannondale Hollowgram crankset mounted with compact 50-34 chainrings is a worthy substitute. This bike rolls on Cannondale’s 45mm Hollowgram carbon rims laced to Cannondale-branded hubs with DT Swiss internals. The Synapse Hi-MOD comes standard with 700×28 Vittoria Corsa tires, but it can clear up to 32mm tires with ease. The Synapse Hi-MOD Disc Ultegra Di2 currently retails for $7,000.
The U.P. is one of four offerings from O.P.E.N. Cycles. Founded just a few years ago, O.P.E.N. arguably pioneered the “all-road” bike with this model. The U.P. combines aggressive road bike geometry with the ability to run up to a 2.1” mountain bike tire on 650b rims to truly throw all convention out the window. Given that massive tire clearance, it’s tempting to place the O.P.E.N. U.P. squarely into the gravel bike category. The U.P., however, is a true all-road machine.
The secret is the U.P.’s short, dropped chainstays. Combined with traditional road bike features like a steeper headtube and seat tube, the U.P.’s geometry somehow manages to combine the speed of a road bike with the versatility of a gravel bike. So, instead of swapping bikes based on the type of ride they’re doing, U.P. riders simply select which wheelset they need that day. The U.P. can handle anything from a 700×28 aero road setup to a 650×2.1 trail setup, and everything in between.
The U.P. (and it’s lighter sibling, the U.P.P.E.R.) are currently offered as framesets only. Both frames feature identical geometry and capabilities. They use 12mm thru-axles, disc brakes, and BB386 EVO pressfit
bottom brackets. O.P.E.N. offers the frames in blue or green colorways, as well as an unpainted option in case a rider wants to slap a custom paint job on his or her already-unique all-purpose bike. The O.P.E.N. U.P. frameset retails for $2,900 while the O.P.E.N. U.P.P.E.R. retails for $4,500.
3T Exploro Team
The 3T Exploro is another gravel-ish bike that blurs the lines between paved and dirt road riding, which is why we’re comfortable placing it in the all-road category. While the Exploro is capable of clearing 40mm tires, it features fully aero tubes that set it apart from dedicated gravel bikes, indicating this bike truly is built for speed regardless of road surface.
Unique among the bikes that we’ve looked at today is the fact that the Exploro is single-ring specific, meaning that riders cannot run a front derailleur. Thankfully, 3T offers a variety of builds taking full advantage of Sram’s eTap AXS 12-speed groupset to ensure riders are never short on gears despite having only one chainring in the front.
In this regard, the build that catches our eye is the Exploro Team. This bike features a Sram Force eTap groupset paired to an XX1 Eagle derailleur that shifts across a massive 10-50 cassette. The Explore Team also uses Sram Force hydraulic disc brakes paired to 160mm rotors for maximum stopping power from high speeds. Although this build comes stock with 650b wheels mounted with 2.0” tires, it’s a simple wheel swap away from being an unstoppable all-road crusher. The 3T Exploro Team is available now for $5,899.
The Buying Guide
As still one of the largest and most popular disciplines in all of cycling, there are myriad options to consider before buying a road bike. Indeed, we’d be hopelessly naïve to think we could cover them all in an efficient manner that doesn’t leave our readers bored to tears. Still, there are several key considerations that go into any bike purchase. So, instead of trying to cover every type of component that goes into a complete bike, we’re going to focus on only the most important—those that account for the largest differences in terms of riding style, performance, and functionality.
Road bikes, as a general matter, are designed to go fast. Often prioritizing stiffness and low weight over all other considerations, road bikes are typically not the most comfortable bikes out there. This is not to say, of course, that road bikes are not comfortable to ride. Indeed, some offer incredibly smooth rides, especially over nice pavement. Still, as with any piece of equipment, there are no unicorns. Instead, riders must make trade-offs in order to end up with the bike that most effectively serves their purposes.
Additionally, although road riding is typically thought of to take place on paved surfaces (as opposed to gravel or dirt roads), it wouldn’t be right to put road riding in such a small box. Rather, road riding offers a variety of challenges and experiences, and there are an accompanying variety of ways to enjoy the discipline.
In this sense, there are three main styles of road riding: racing; endurance; and all-road. Before going shopping for your next (or your first) road bike, it’s important to figure out what you want out of the bike. If you’re looking to compete in road races and criteriums at a high level, you’ll of course want to gravitate toward purebred race bikes. If you’re not as interested in racing and instead prefer long grand fondo-style rides over rolling hills, an endurance road bike may be the way to go. And if you live in an area with a mixture of pavement and light gravel or dirt roads, and all-road bike could very well be the best fit. We’ll cover each in turn.
There’s no question that racing gets to the very heart of road riding. Indeed, racing is what puts cycling on the map in the first place, and racing is what generates the sponsorship dollars necessary promote the sport and expand interest in it.
Race bikes prioritize speed and low weight over everything else. Often willing to sacrifice comfort and ride quality for stiffness (which facilitates power transfer and, by extension, pedaling efficiency), race bikes have been known to offer a rough ride if too much time is spent in the saddle. What is more, race bikes feature the most aggressive geometry, designed to stretch the rider out in order to flatten the back and to place the rider low over the front of the bike to reduce frontal area. Race bikes are some of the lightest bicycles you can find. So, if your goal is to go as fast as possible at local or national races or simply to beat up on your buddies on your local group ride, a race bike is likely the way to go.
Cyclists often overlook endurance road bikes when shopping for their next bike. Endurance bikes share many features with their racing counterparts. Indeed, this class of road bikes started out as purpose-built race machines specifically designed for the grueling, ultra-distance Spring Classics like Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders, and Milan-San Remo. These races, while technically classified as road races, pit riders against some of the most brutal conditions of any bike race, on-road or off-road.
The Spring Classics are notorious for sending riders over brutally rough cobblestoned roads, rain, snow, wind, grey skies, and cold temperatures. For this reason, many of the major manufactures developed endurance road bikes, which are designed to essentially be a slightly beefier version of a racing bike.
Endurance road bikes sport features like vibration-dampening frames, different carbon fiber layups (again designed to dampen road vibrations), and more tire clearance to allow riders to run 30 to 32mm tires in order to provide as much traction as possible over nasty roads.
All this is to say that endurance road bikes offer much the same speed as purebred race bikes, but without the harsh ride. Endurance bikes also typically feature more relaxed frame geometry, placing the rider in a slightly more upright position to facilitate better control over the bike and increased comfort over long distances. So, if you care less about racing as you do about going out for 100+ mile road rides, or if you’re simply looking for a road bike that offers better ride quality without sacrificing too much speed, it would be worth your time to take a hard look at the endurance road bikes that your local shop has to offer.
The last category of road bikes that deserves a mention is the all-road bike. All-road bikes are somewhat
difficult to classify because they tend to combine elements of endurance bikes and gravel bikes, while retaining their essential character as a road bike meant to be ridden primarily on pavement.
On one hand, all-road bikes are quite similar to endurance road bikes in the sense that they are designed to prioritize comfort and functionality over speed. But on the other hand, they go perhaps a step further away from racing and a step toward adventuring. While many endurance road bikes can clear 30 to 32mm tires without fenders, all-road bikes can typically clear at least a 32mm tire with ease, while also providing room to run a fender when conditions get dicey. If tire clearance is much beyond 32mm, we start to get into gravel bike territory, with the accompanying fundamental differences in frame geometry and handling. But modern all-road bikes do a good job of retaining the lightweight and snappy handling of road bikes, while allowing riders to run wider tires for added comfort, traction, and versatility.
We mentioned in an earlier post that the advent of gravel riding and the technologies that it facilitated carried over into the world of road cycling. Well, nowhere is this more apparent than when it comes to brakes.
Even just a few years ago, all road bikes used caliper brakes, also known as rim brakes, to slow down and stop the bike. Now, however, many modern road bikes are at least offered in a disc brake version and some are disc-only. In the interest of complete transparency, I was quite skeptical about disc brakes on road bikes when they first began to emerge. I did not have any safety concerns, as some riders and critics expressed at the time. Rather, I simply felt they were overkill and just another part to configure and maintain. I thought the added weight was not worth the extra stopping power, and I felt the extra stopping power itself was unnecessary in the first place. Then I tried it and loved it.
All of my preconceptions were wrong. Modern disc brake technology provides the ability to run disc brakes with little to no weight penalty (and some setups are even lighter than rim brakes). What is more, the extra stopping power is not only welcome, especially when the weather turns bad, but disc brakes also provide excellent modulation—that is, the ability to control exactly how much force is applied to the brake at each stage of the brake lever’s throw. As an added bonus, many disc brake road bikes offer more tire clearance than their rim brake counterparts, allowing riders to run wider tires for increased traction and comfort, especially in places where the pavement gets rough.
To be sure, there is still a place for rim brakes. Wheel manufacturers still make premium rim brake wheels, and they are still seeking to improve rim braking performance. Rim brakes are also easier to install and maintain, as a general matter, given that they are cable-actuated instead of relying on a hydraulic system. This is all to say the next decision you should make is whether you want a road bike with rim brakes or disc brakes. Ultimately, it comes down to rider preference, your local weather, and where you typically ride.
The next decision to make is what kind of drivetrain you want to use. Most road bikes still use traditional 2×11 drivetrains, meaning the crankset has two chainrings—a big ring and a small ring—and the cassette on the rear wheel has 11 sprockets. Although some road bikes are offered with single-ring drivetrains and wide- range cassettes, it’s our opinion that double-ring drivetrains are the better choice for road riding because they provide the widest range of gearing with the smallest jumps in between each gear.
But there are a variety of drivetrain options to choose from, and each one has its strengths and weaknesses.
There are three main manufacturers of drivetrains and drivetrain components, and only two are widely stocked as original equipment on complete bikes purchased from bike shop floors. The two industry giants are Sram and Shimano. Sram is an American company based in Chicago, Illinois that has been manufacturing drivetrain components since 1987. Shimano, on the other hand, is a Japanese company that has been in the cycling business since the 1970s.
Both Sram and Shimano offer 2×11 drivetrains for road bikes. Sram also recently released a 12-speed option. The difference is not so much in the performance of either brand versus the other, but in the feel of the components when in use. For example, the actuation of a Sram shifter tends to be very dramatic. By this we mean there is substantial haptic feedback when making a shift either up or down the cassette. Some riders like the feel of the dramatic engagement of Sram shifters, while others prefer the smoother actuation offered by Shimano shifters.
Additionally, although both Sram and Shimano rear derailleurs offer precise shifting and easy installation, some mechanics will argue Sram front derailleurs and chainrings lack the precision of their Shimano counterparts. Sram and Shimano brakes also offer different feels, especially when comparing the two brands’ disc brakes. Again, Sram brakes tend to feature more dramatic engagement and haptic feedback, while Shimano again goes for a more subtle feel when pulling the brake lever.
The second sub-category to consider within the drivetrain arena is electronic versus mechanical shifting (not to be confused with electric bikes). Mechanical drivetrains use cables and shift levers to actuate the derailleurs and change gears. Essentially, the shift lever pulls the cable, which is connected to the derailleur, which in turns moves the derailleur, causing it to transfer the chain from one sprocket to the next. Electronic drivetrains, on the other hand, feature derailleurs with tiny motors that move the derailleurs.
Electronic drivetrains are typically (although not always) more expensive than mechanical drivetrains, but they offer incredibly precise and consistent shifting without needing to worry about cables wearing out.
Both Sram and Shimano offer electronic drivetrains. Shimano’s electronic groupset, called Di2, requires the use of physical wires to connect the derailleurs to the battery and the shift levers. Sram’s electronic groupset, on the other hand, is completely wireless. Instead of connecting the derailleurs to the battery via wires, each derailleur uses its own battery. The derailleurs then move in response to encrypted signals received from the shift levers.
Ultimately, once again it comes down to rider preference, budget, and what happens to be offered on the bikes you have to choose from at your local shops. We’d encourage you to test ride a variety of bikes with both Sram and Shimano components in both mechanical and electronic versions to decide for yourself which brand you like the best.
Road riding is the foundation of the sport of cycling. While road riding may be out of the limelight for a brief moment, it isn’t going anywhere. That said, one of the best investments you can make into your collection of cycling equipment is a carbon bike.
Carbon bikes are light, efficient, fast, and can help elevate your riding experience to a new level. While selecting the perfect carbon bike takes some time and significant thought, it’s definitely worth it in the end.