Best Ways To Stretch Your Road Bike Budget

Carbon vs. aluminum frames. Electronic vs. mechanical shifting. Disc vs. rim brakes. What upgrades are worth the money? Here's how to get the most bang for your buck for your road bike.

How to stretch your road bike budget

Written by
Bruce Lin

Published on

Posted in
Bikes

Scroll through Instagram, browse New Bike Day posts on Reddit, or just sort TPC's inventory by price and you’ll see plenty of super nice, absurdly expensive bikes. It’s fun to dream about riding a $10,000+ halo bike. But most riders (myself included) run up against budget limitations when shopping for a new road bike, picking upgrades, or -sob- replacing something that broke. 

Buying and upgrading road bikes is a lot like building a character in a video game. You can’t just max out every stat. You need to spend your XP (a.k.a. money) judiciously to build the character attributes that really matter. This is where it gets interesting. Here’s how you can stretch your road bike budget and get the most for your money. 

[button]Shop road bikes[/button]

Carbon: Nice but not necessary

Carbon is the undisputed king of frame materials. It has a high strength-to-weight ratio, and it can be engineered to flex in specific ways to fine-tune stiffness and compliance. Nearly every major manufacturer chooses carbon for high-end bikes. Many bike snobs won’t consider riding anything else. Does that mean you need to drop the extra coin on a carbon superbike to ride fast or have fun? Absolutely not!  

First off, there are many different grades of carbon. Higher grade carbon uses fewer fillers, reducing weight. Manufacturers save their highest-grade carbon for top-of-the-line bikes while lower-end bikes get lower-grade carbon. There’s nothing wrong with saving money on a bike built with lower grade carbon. The weight difference will only be around 100-300 grams (which you will never notice while riding) while the price difference can be thousands of dollars. 

Aluminum Specialized Allez Sprint road bikeSave with an alloy frame, splurge on wheels.

Modern aluminum bikes are also a great alternative to carbon. Some riders even prefer it. Advances in aluminum construction techniques mean aluminum road bikes made in the last 10 years are actually comparable to carbon bikes in terms of weight, stiffness, and ride quality. Because aluminum is more affordable, more money can be put toward higher-quality components. Aluminum is also more likely to survive crashes and abuse. Should the worst happen, it’s cheaper to replace.  

The same is true for cockpit components like handlebars, stems, seatposts, and saddles. Carbon versions are often 2-3x more expensive than their aluminum counterparts but offer minimal gains in terms of weight and performance. There is one component where spending more on carbon can be worth it, but more on that in a bit.

[newsletter]

Mid-level mechanical groups work great

Electronic drivetrains are amazing, and more affordable versions are hitting the market, but mechanical drivetrains still work great. Modern 11-speed mechanical drivetrains offer ample gear range and crisp and precise shifting. When comparing different groups within a brand’s hierarchy (e.g., Shimano 105 vs. Ultegra vs. Dura-Ace), the main difference is weight. Higher-end drivetrains will save around 200-400 grams (which, again, you will never notice while riding), but they are significantly more expensive. 

Shimano Ultegra 6800

To get the best bang for your buck, I suggest shopping bikes equipped with mid-range, mechanical drivetrains like Shimano 105 and Ultegra or SRAM Rival and Force. If you’re shopping for a bike made in the last few years, even basic drivetrain options like Shimano Tiagra are worth considering since enough technology has trickled down to make newer entry-level drivetrains perform like older high-end drivetrains.  

Wheels and tires are the best upgrades

Carbon wheels are the best road bike upgradeIf you’re looking for the highest-performing upgrade for your money, forget about everything else and buy the best wheels you can afford. Wheels are the one component where weight matters most. Heavier wheels have more inertia which requires more energy to overcome when accelerating. Upgrading to lighter wheels will make your bike feel snappier and easier to accelerate. They are also the one component where it makes sense to spend a bit more on carbon. Because of carbon’s strength-to-weight advantage, carbon wheels can be made stiffer, wider, deeper, and more aerodynamic without incurring a massive weight penalty. 

Complete bikes often come with budget wheels, so once I buy a nice set of carbon wheels, I’ll often keep them for a long time, swapping them onto each new bike. A good set of wheels can last through several bikes, saving some money in the long run. 

Carbon wheels get pricey though, so if you want a big performance boost without breaking the bank, start with your tires. High-end rubber offers lower rolling resistance and more grip. Just swapping from a cheap tire to a fast tire can make you feel like a superhero on your next ride. 

[button]Shop wheels[/button] 

Rim brakes can still stop

Rim brake road bikes save money

Hydraulic disc brakes are the standard for new road bikes because they provide more stopping power, especially in inclement weather. But here's the thing, rim brakes have worked for over a century, and they still work now. Sure, rim brakes are not the latest and greatest, but they won’t be the thing holding you back on a ride. If you’re trying to save money, used rim brake bikes are becoming much more affordable than their disc brake counterparts. Plus, they’re simpler, lighter, easier to work on, and cheaper to service. 

[button]Shop rim brake road bikes[/button]

Buy used (but not too used)

Speaking of used bikes, we sell used road bikes — Certified Pre-Owned, to be precise. Of course, we’re a bit biased on this subject. But no matter if you buy a used bike from us or some Facebook stranger with a weird profile photo, you’ll spend less, because the bike will have already depreciated to some extent. Naturally, if you don’t buy from someone who offers a guarantee (and we do!), be extra careful and savvy to make sure this “new” bike of yours isn’t significantly worn.

How do you stretch your road bike budget? Let me know in the comments

[button]Shop road bikes[/button]

More from Bikes

  • Race to Summer: Kick-Start Your Dream MTB Build
    Race to Summer: Kick-Start Your Dream MTB Build
    Bikes

    Race to Summer: Kick-Start Your Dream MTB Build

  • Santa Cruz Showdown: 2020 Hightower vs. 2017 Hightower
    Santa Cruz Showdown: 2020 Hightower vs. 2017 Hightower
    Bikes

    Santa Cruz Showdown: 2020 Hightower vs. 2017 Hightower

  • Race to Summer: Kick-Start Your Dream Road Build
    Race to Summer: Kick Start Your Dream Road Build
    Bikes

    Race to Summer: Kick-Start Your Dream Road Build

  • Why I Bought A Specialized Aethos
    Why I Bought A Specialized Aethos
    Bikes

    Why I Bought A Specialized Aethos

  • Dream Bike Quiver: Limited Editions Only
    Dream Quiver of limited edition bikes
    Bikes

    Dream Bike Quiver: Limited Editions Only

  • Q: What Bike Is Criminally Underrated?
    Q: What Bike Is Criminally Underrated?
    Bikes

    Q: What Bike Is Criminally Underrated?

  • Dueling Diverges: The 2021 vs. 2015 Specialized Diverge
    Dueling Diverges: The 2021 vs. 2015 Specialized Diverge
    Bikes

    Dueling Diverges: The 2021 vs. 2015 Specialized Diverge

  • Q: What's Your Dream One-Bike Quiver?
    Q: What's Your Dream One-Bike Quiver?
    Bikes

    Q: What's Your Dream One-Bike Quiver?

  • The Rare and Stunning Colnago C59 Ottanta
    The Rare and Stunning Colnago C59 Ottanta
    Bikes

    The Rare and Stunning Colnago C59 Ottanta

  • Dream Bike Quiver: Spring-y Bikes
    Dream Bike Quiver: Springy Bikes
    Bikes

    Dream Bike Quiver: Spring-y Bikes

  • Best-Selling Bikes of 2022 (So Far)
    Best selling used bikes of winter 2022
    Bikes

    Best-Selling Bikes of 2022 (So Far)

  • 2022 Specialized Allez Sprint: What I Love & What I Hate
    What I love and hate about the 2022 Specialized Allez Sprint
    Bikes

    2022 Specialized Allez Sprint: What I Love & What I Hate

New Arrivals

SHOP BIKES

Newsletter Sign Up