The term “race bike” usually elicits images of sleek, lightweight, high-performance machines used by pro riders or aspiring professionals. That’s pretty accurate—the best race bikes are designed to give you every advantage against the competition. But the term race bike is also incredibly diverse. Some are pro-level bikes straight out of the box, while others are meant to help you get in the game without forking over a ton of cash.
There also are purpose-built bikes for almost any race you can dream of, from traditional events like triathlons, road races, and cross-country mountain biking to more niche categories like crits, gravel races, and enduro mountain biking.
How much does a race bike cost?
Just like any bike, the prices of race bikes vary widely. Typically the more you pay, the lighter a bike will be—weight is generally more important to racers that recreational riders. Though you can find some models for less, most race bikes start at around $2,000 and increase in price from there. The Cannondale CAAD 12 Ultegra is a great deal at $2,200. Race-ready hardtail mountain bikes, like the Trek Pro Caliber 6, start around $2,000, and full-suspension cross country bikes, like the Specialized Epic Comp costs about $2,900. Race-ready tri bikes start in the$2,500 range, like the Canyon Speedmax CF 7.0.
What to Look For
Every type of racing places unique demands on riders and their equipment. Weight, strength, components, and geometry all play important roles in how a bike will perform in a race. Compared to standard bikes, race bikes typically weigh less, have stiffer and more efficient frames, and faster handling geometry. On road, cyclocross and cross-country mountain bikes, experienced riders typically prefer lower handlebars because it puts them in a more powerful position, as well as giving them better control over the bike, says Tom Kellogg, owner of custom brand Spectrum Cycles.
Here are some key factors to look for no matter what type of races you plan to enter.
Road bikes Typically have shorter stack heights and longer reaches than recreational road bikes. That puts you in a more aggressive position for better handling and aerodynamics, though you’ll sacrifice some long-ride comfort. For example, Cannondale’s SuperSix EVO (size 58) has 584mm of stack and a reach of 399mm, but the Synapse is 26mm taller and 6mm shorter. Most road race bikes also now have aero frames and parts. If aero really matters to you, look for equipment that was tested in the wind tunnel, not just given aero features.
Mountain bikes For cross-country bikes, look for models with 80 to 100mm forks and about the same in the rear if you go full-suspension. Races are often won the climbs, so you want an efficient system more than a plush one. You want a bike with a steeper head tube angle and shorter wheelbase to “maintain agility at low- and mid-speed maneuvers,” says Zack Vestal, Niner’s marketing manager.
You’ll need a different bike for enduro or downhill racing. Enduro bikes typically have 160 or 170mm of travel and 27.5 or 29er wheels. DH bikes will have 180mm or more of travel and extra long wheel bases to keep the bike calm at super high speeds.
Triathlon bikes In a triathlon, aerodynamics and and efficiency are of paramount importance. But don’t forget about fuel storage, since most tri jerseys don’t have pockets for food. “Things like fuel and fit are critical to take into account,” says Dr. Chris Yu, director of Integrated Technologies at Specialized.
Gravel Bikes Your main choices will be frame material, tire clearance, and drivetrain type. For racing, carbon bikes save weight, but titanium ones offer extra durability. A 2x drivetrain is popular with longer-distance racers for the added gears, and tire clearance in the low-40s is popular—more than that and the extra space starts to mess with the bike’s geometry and handling.
Don’t be Afraid to Change Some Parts
Pick your bike based on the frame that suits your needs, with the best wheels and components in your price range. Then, swap out or upgrade things like cassettes, chain rings, and handlebars to meet your specific race needs. Most shops and online bike retailers can help you navigate those decisions.
How We Chose the Bikes
Every product here has been thoroughly evaluated and vetted by our team of test editors. We research the market, survey user reviews, speak with product managers and engineers, and use our own experience racing and riding these products to determine the best options. Most models have been tested by our staff and those that haven’t have been carefully chosen based on their value, quality of parts (most of which we’ve tested separately), our experience riding similar models, and how the overall package meets the needs of the intended buyer.
Best Road Race Bike
Specialized S-Works Tarmac Disc
Light and aero, we loved it so much we gave it Gear of the Year honors
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This latest version of Specialized’s all-around road-race bike received a few key updates to make the already great bike even better. Notably, the S-Works version (and a few other models) get disc brakes with through axles. It also gets more aerodynamic tubes and an integrated powermeter. But despite those additions, the Tarmac is still incredibly light, falling right at the UCI’s minimum for pro racing. It’s simply one of the fastest, most exciting, pleasing bikes to ride we’ve ever tested, qualities that earned it a spot on our short list of Gear of Year.
Best Value Road Race Bike
Cannondale CAAD12 Ultegra
Razor-sharp handling, light aluminum frame, and reliable components
The CAAD12 Ultegra has the same light and stiff aluminum frame as the pro-level CAAD12 Dura-Ace, a bike we tested and loved, but costs a fraction of the price. But you still get superb shifting performance from Shimano’s mechanical Ultegra group, which feels nearly as good as the top-of-the-line Dura-Ace (though it does weight more). There are a lot of great race bikes at this price, and Specialized’s Allez Sprint Comp Disc is a popular choice, but the CAAD 12 comes with a better drivetrain. We really like aluminum frames at this price. You can pound on them for years, there’s a minimal weight penalty and they save you a lot of cash.
Best Gravel Race Bike
Open U.P.P.E.R. Force 1
A great bike you can race anywhere
This one was an easy choice. Gravel riding, even gravel racing, is about adventure and setting out on the road less traveled and few bikes give as many options at the U.P.P.E.R. With 700c wheels and narrower tires you have all the speed and tight handling you need to crush a 210-mile-long gravel race (which we did). Or slap 650b wheels and fat tires and tackle something more adventurous (which we also did). You can even go explore some singletrack or use it for your everyday road bike (yup, tried those too). Few models do so much, so well.
Best Downhill Bike
Santa Cruz V10 CC X01
Choose 29 or 27.5-inch wheels
The V10 is it one of the most successful bikes in the history of downhill racing, and you can get it with either 27.5 or 29-inch wheels. Even though the Santa Cruz Syndicate had been racing (and winning) on a bigger-wheeled version of the V10, Santa Cruz only made it available to buy in December. Santa Cruz produces separate frames for each wheel size with unique geometry. Both versions come with a dropout chip that changes chainstay length by 10mm so you can tune the ride to match your style and the course. The latest versions also come with a longer (250mm x 75mm) metric shock and internal derailleur cable routing. And if you want to add some serious bling to your ride, Santa Cruz’s Reserve Carbon wheels now come in a 29er downhill version.
Best Enduro Bike
Mondraker Foxy Carbon 29
With a super-long reach, it crushes trails like a DH bike
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Mondraker’s Forward Geometry philosophy gives the Foxy Carbon 29 one of the longest reaches on any enduro bike. It takes a few rides to get used to, but paired with long chainstays, you get a super-long wheelbase that delivers a smooth and stable ride—exactly what you want tearing down enduro tracks. The Zero Suspension platform limits pedal kickback and power loss and it manages hard pedaling efforts, whether you’re accelerating out of fast turn or climbing back to the top of the mountain. The Foxy Carbon is a bike you can ride all day on trails, but it really excels on the steep, gnarly terrain where it will push your riding and help you challenge your fastest Strava times.
Best Tri Bike
Diamondback Andean 3
High-end components, wheels, and insane aerodynamics for less
The Andean 3 is Diamondback’s top tri bike and features a SRAM Red eTap 11-speed drivetrain and fully integrated aero compartments for food and water. It makes our list for its aerodynamics, top-flight components, and great integration for liquid and nutrition storage. It even has a storage compartment for a tool kit and tubes, a place to stash your wallet, and a spot for your trash. You can easily spend twice as much on a tri bike if you’d like, but this bike offers great components, wind-cheating aerodynamics, and an insane amount of integrated storage for less. Plus, this frame just looks hot.
Best Hardtail Cross Country Mountain Bike
Cannondale F-Si Carbon 2
Light, nimble XC bike with the all-new Lefty Ocho fork
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Cannondale’s new F-Si Carbon 2 hardtail has everything you need to blow past the competition on your way to the podium. Its full-carbon frame, all-new Lefty Ocho fork, powerful Shimano XT brakes, SRAM Eagle drivetrain, and carbon wheels and cranks make it ideal for cross-country and endurance racing. At $5,250, this bike has a hefty price, but you get a level of components that typically come on even higher-priced bikes. That makes this a solid deal for racers who want the best.
Best Full-Suspension Cross-Country Bike
Specialized Epic Expert
A fast-race bike that shreds
We’ve given multiple Editor’s Choice Awards to Specialized’s Epic for the way it combines a brutally efficient with a capable ride that lets you carry more speed through sketchy terrain. The BRAIN suspension gets better every year—stiff when you’re on the gas and active when you’re chugging over rocks. The svelte carbon frame and carbon hoops wrapped in race-ready tires give you everything you need to win. The SRAM GX Eagle 12-speed continues to impress us, and we love the storm grey paint scheme.
Best (replica) L’Eroica Bike
Masi Gran Criterium Classico
All the cycling nostalgia you could ask for in a ready-to-ride bike
The Gran Criterium was one of the best race bikes you could get 35 years ago, and this classic re-issue brings all the speed in vintage remake that’s perfect for races like L’Eroica. This steel beauty elicits all of the gear racers loved three decades ago—Campagnolo Veloce derailleurs, Dia-Compe downtube shifters and brakes, and Cinelli bars and stem, not to mention high flange hubs. All you need is toe-clip pedals, wooden-sole shoes, and wool kit to complete the outfit. Just remember some vintage goggles, because this retro-ride is eye-watering fast.
Best Gran Fondo Bike
Allied Alpha All Road
Clearance for 38c tires, and handles like a road racing bike
Price: $11,809 (as pictured)
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The Allied Alpha All Road is a light, maneuverable bike that’s fast enough to enter any road race but has a little extra stability and less aggressive position to keep you more comfortable on longer rides and fondos. Unlike the stability-forward feel of a gravel bike, the All Road is very lively. With narrower tires, it feels fast and agile but max out its 38c tire clearance and the bike becomes a gravel-crushing machine. And because Allied lets you configure your own bike from a variety of color, component, and wheel options, you’ll very likely be able to outfit the bike in a way that suits your needs, wants, and budget.