Para 101: How to find your first road bike

by Joanne C. Gerstner

Josie Fouts competes at the U.S. Paralympics Cycling Open in Huntsville, Alabama. (Photo: Casey Gibson)

A few years back, rising Team USA Para-Cycling star Josie Fouts decided to invest in her own road bike for training and competition. It was a big step, putting down her credit card for a $9,000 customized Fuji racing bike.


She admits she was a little under-informed for the purchase, not realizing her skill level would soon outgrow the sleek black and blue-hued ride. But she loved that bike, logged a ton of time on it, including winning two gold and two silver medals in the 2018 and 2019 national championships.


She also competed in the 2019 Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru. A few months later, the bike was stolen from the driveway of her San Diego home. Through the kindness of a donor, Fouts ended up with a new, upgraded racing bike.


But her road bike story comes with some important advice for newbies: put thought into your purchase.


“I was so excited that I probably didn’t do enough homework on everything,” said Fouts, who competes in road, time trial and individual pursuit. “I was just looking for something I could go to the next level on, and I did, but I ended up needing more. The crazy thing is, I am still paying off that bike today.”


U.S. Paracycling national team coach Jim Lehman understands that new cyclists may need some advice in selecting or upgrading equipment. It is a serious step, and a sizable investment. Having a bike customized to a paracyclist’s body and needs, like Fouts’ bike having adaptations to compensate for missing her left hand, is critical to maximize training and performance.


A competition road bike has a lightweight frame using materials such as titanium, carbon fiber aluminum or steel. The bike has no suspension and rides on narrow (23-to-25-millimeter) tires. The handlebars are drop-style. And the gearing includes 11-to-12 gears on the rear and two chain rings on the crankset.


Lehman offers some tips for new paracyclists who want to find that perfect competition bike.


“Just like when buying a car, you’ll discover that there is a wide price range when shopping for bikes,” Lehman said. “Generally, as the price of the bike goes up, the frame becomes lighter and stiffer, and the components are also lighter. A good entry-level road bike will start around $1,400 and you could use this bike to start training and racing.”


Essential items, such as a helmet, lightweight and stiff-soled biking shoes, a repair kit to make roadside repairs to the bike and flat tires, and clip-less pedals, also need to be included in the budget.


Lehman recommends going to a local bike shop for a frame sizing, to get the best fit. Bike frames come in many sizes, and having a bike expert assess needs and riding style can lead to a more comfortable ride. Most bike shops also allow test drives of bikes, a big help in dialing in the fit process.


Lehman’s final pro tip is to ensure that the bike is set up correctly. The best frame can end up being problematic if the bike is not fine-tuned or adapted to the paracyclist’s riding style or body.


“This means that the bike is adjusted to ensure that you can ride comfortably, avoid overuse injuries and accommodate any adaptations you might need,” Lehman said. “If your bike shop doesn’t have someone on staff who has been trained to provide this service, you (can) usually find a trained professional in your community.”


Fouts said her experience buying her first competition bike was just another chapter in her journey to hopefully becoming a Paralympian.


“You learn all of the time, and I now know what I need in my equipment,” Fouts, 29, said. “I really loved that first bike, and it got me to where I am today. So, no regrets.”


Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes about sports regularly for the New York Times and other outlets. She has written for since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.