Sportive road bikes are designed for enjoying rather than enduring long, hilly road rides. They're still lightweight and efficient like racing bikes, but there's an emphasis on comfort that race bikes lack. Subtle differences make them more suitable for general purpose cycling on roads, including commuting.
The main difference is in the geometry of the bike. A sportive bike typically has a taller head tube and a slightly shorter reach than a race bike. This puts the handlebar closer so that you don't have to strain your lower back to reach it, particularly when riding on the drops. For the same reason, the handlebar itself is always a compact drop.
The riding position is not quite as aerodynamically efficient as a race bike's but it's pretty good, and it can reduce aches and pains in your hands, shoulders and neck as well as your back. Sitting a bit more upright is better for looking around in traffic too.
To help get you up hills at the end of a long day's cycling, sportive bikes tend to have lower gears. While even racers may come with a compact double (50-34) chainset these days, sportive bikes supplement that with a wider-range cassette, with bigger steps between gears and an easier bottom gear. Instead of an 11-25 cassette, you can expect an 11-30 or something similar. Some sportive bikes even come with a triple chainset (50-39-30), which makes bottom gear easier still. Lower gears are a real benefit for anyone who doesn't like to attack hills.
Unlike most racers, some sportive bikes are designed to take full-length mudguards and a rear rack – both useful for year-round commuting. It's worth looking not just for threaded eyelets on the frame and fork but for brakes described as 'long drop' or '57mm reach'. These have more room underneath the calliper, so you can run 25mm or 28mm tyres as well as mudguards. With short-reach brakes, you'll need to stick to 23mm tyres if you want conventional mudguards to fit over them with (only just!) adequate clearance.
Most sportive bikes from £600-£1000 feature an aluminium frame and a carbon-fibre bladed fork. A few have a steel or carbon fibre frame, either of which can offer a marginally more comfortable ride-feel than aluminium, at the cost of increased weight (steel) or increased cost (carbon fibre). Other comfort enhancements you might find include an anatomic saddle or handlebar, gel padded bar tape, or thinner seat-stays.
Better quality, supple tyres also improve the ride. There's a trade-off between rolling performance, toughness and inexpensiveness; you can't have all three. Tyres worth upgrading to for a sportive bike include: Schwalbe Durano, Continental Grand Prix 4-Season, and Vredestein Fortezza Quattro TriComp.
The wheels also need to blend efficiency with durability. You can get very light 'factory' wheelsets with small numbers of bladed spokes and aerodynamic(ish) rims. However, conventional non-aero rims can be less 'harsh' to ride on, and a sensible number of spokes per wheel for your bodyweight – 28 or more for leaner riders, 32-plus for heavier riders – will make breakages less likely.
When choosing a sportive bike, note that many are described as 'endurance' road bikes or something similar. Here's a few, to show what you can expect.
Specialized Secteur Triple
This is the entry-level bike in Specialized's Secteur range; the women's equivalent is the Dolce. The riding position is relaxed, and the bike has unusually-profiled seat-stays and rubbery 'Zertz' inserts in the carbon fork blades, both claimed to reduce road vibration. Contact-point comfort is good, thanks to the anatomic saddle and gel-padded bar tape. Gearing is only 8-speed Shimano Claris, but with a triple chainset and an 11-32 cassette the overall range is excellent. Short-reach brakes mean that conventional mudguards would be a tight fit, so SKS Raceblade Long guards would be a better option. The 25mm Specialized Espoir Sport tyres have some puncture protection.
Pinnacle Dolomite Four
What the Pinnacle might lack in brand name appeal, it more than makes up for in terms of specification and design. The fork is full carbon and has a tapered steerer, for firmer-feeling handling. Frame and fork have long-reach brakes, so full mudguards will easily fit, and a rack will go on too. Gearing is 10-speed Shimano Tiagra rather than the 9-speed Sora you might expect at this price, with a compact double driving an 11-28 cassette. The wheels have a sensible 32 spokes apiece lacing Alex DA22 rims to Joytech hubs. Tyres are 25mm Kenda Kriteriums, which aren't bad for an off-the-peg bike. A women's version of the Dolomite is available.
Trek Domane 2.0 Triple
Trek's carbon-forked, aluminium-framed endurance bike has a very unusual frame feature: the top of the seat-tube isn't welded to the top-tube or seat-stays. It's joined instead by an 'IsoSpeed Decoupler', which enables it to flex back and forth and provide a degree of suspension at the saddle. That should improve comfort on rougher roads. The frame has inconspicuous mudguard and rack mounts too, although short-reach brakes limit your tyre-mudguard combinations. Gearing is 10-speed Tiagra again, except the Domane uses a triple chainset and a 12-30 cassette, yielding a usefully lower bottom gear. Decent quality wheels are shod with Bontrager R1 Hard-case Lite tyres, which are puncture resistant and roll well.
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