Okay, I’ll do my best here to outline things to consider, the pros and cons of each, and so on and so forth. I’m going to assume that you’re looking at everything from a commuter to a pretty fair race bike, so I’ll try to cover the spectrum. I’m also going to write this with more detail than you may need for the benefit of all my followers, so bear with me.
Where will you ride? Are you looking to stick almost entirely to pavement? Are you interested in riding on bike paths? Are you looking for a bike you could take off-road if you really had to? Each of these bikes is going to be very different from the others. I’d call the three road bikes, touring bikes, and sport bikes respectively, though the important distinction is between road bikes and the others, which I will hopefully outline below.
Frame material: The choice is carbon, aluminum, or steel. Unless you’re looking to spend $4000+, stay away from carbon. If you’re looking to cruise around town, steel will be fine but bear in mind it’s heavy. Aluminum is the industry standard, and is used in everything from commuters to high-end race bikes. I’d recommend aluminum for almost everyone. It’s light and durable, and technology has gotten it to the point where it’s head and shoulders above steel for most situations (Hipster fixies are steel for the street cred, but on aluminum you’ll smoke them any day)
Handlebars/Rider Position: The choice is straight bar or drops. Drops are the standard road bike handlebars with the curves on the sides. It comes down to what riding style you’re looking for. If you’re looking to be upright, in a touring position for sightseeing, go with a mountain-bike-style straight bar. If you’re looking be in a more horizontal position, or to do any kind of speed, I highly recommend drops. They’re comfortable in many different positions, and allow you to move your hands around and reposition your body with ease. However, they are narrower, and thus offer less control on rough surfaces.
Drivetrain: There are two main companies that make the derailleurs, the components that move the chain from ring to ring. These companies are SRAM and Shimano. Most cyclists swear by one or the other, and there’s nitpicky differences between the two, but for the purposes of most riders it doesn’t really matter what you get. However, each company has tiers of products, with different weights, performance, etc. I’ll use Shimano to illustrate the tiers:
Claris (entry-level, 8-speed cassette)
Sora (entry-level, 9-speed cassette, cheap and usable but not race-level)
Tiagra (mid-level, beginner race-level, usually found in the ~$1000-1500 range)
105 (Standard mid-level race set, most ~$1500-2000 bikes)
Ultegra (upper mid-tier, higher-end race bikes, ~$2000-3000)
Dura-Ace (top of the line, $3000+ bikes)
As the components go up in price they get lighter, more compact, faster at shifting, more reliable, and a whole bunch of other perks. My personal bike has an Ultegra front derailleur and a Dura-Ace rear derailleur. However, the differences get smaller as you go up the chain, and between Ultegra and Dura-Ace it’s mostly a weight concern. Everything from Tiagra/105 up will be more than adequate for most riding and suitable for racing. One thing to note is that everything from Tiagra and up will only work with drop bars; if you want a straight bar, look into thumb shifters.
Wheels and Tires: If you’re looking to do almost all your riding on roads, I recommend either 23mm or 25mm tires with a smooth tread pattern. These are called slicks, and the narrow tire allows for faster speeds. If you’re looking to ride gravel or dirt/limestone trails, I’d recommend a bike with wider tires for better control. The general rule here is it’s a pure road bike up to 25 or 28mm tires; bigger than that usually falls into the realm of sport/touring bikes. You’ll more likely find straight bars and upright rider positions here. It’s all in what you’re looking for.
Those are the basic points I’d start on to narrow down your search to bikes.
Now we get to the question of price. Bikes range from $100 at Walmart *shudder* (If you buy a Walmart bike I won’t speak to you again) to upwards of $10,000 for elite riders or the guy who wants a bike made by Ferrari (Yes, they exist!). Most road bikes fall into several tiers, which I will outline:
Under $1000: These bikes are very good bikes, but aren’t really race-worthy. This is the realm of most sport and touring bikes, but you can find road bikes in this category. Those that you do find are good bikes, but are on the heavier end of the spectrum and have components that may wear out.
$1000-1500: This is where most entry-level road bikes can be found. You could race on these, but most of them would be outclassed. That being said, they’re still very good bikes and would serve you well for exercise or getting your speed fix.
$1500-2000: This is the domain of aluminum entry- to mid-level race bikes. These bikes will serve you well. If you stay serious about riding or racing, you will probably want to upgrade eventually, but they’re a great place to start if you have a little extra money.
$2000-3000: This is the realm of mid-level race bikes. Aluminum is king. You may find some carbon components here, but the manufacturer may have skimped in another area to get the price down. These bikes will last a long time, and the components are good enough that you won’t feel the need to upgrade.
$3000-4000: More carbon starts appearing, and this is where you start to pay more to get the weight down. A bike in this range will be plenty for all but the most serious riders, and will last you for years with proper care.
$4000+: These are your full-carbon, high-end road bikes that are best for serious racers or those looking to burn some cash. You definitely get your bang for your buck, but there’s cheaper bikes that do almost as good a job. As bikes get “better and better”, the differences between the bikes gets smaller, and you start paying a lot more for the difference. Think of a logarithmic curve and you’ll get the idea.
I highly recommend buying as much bike as you can afford. If you can wait a few months and save a bit more, buying the more expensive bike with better components always works in your favor. Think of it like this: The bike manufacturers buy thousands of bike parts at a time, and they get bulk discounts and don’t have to worry about price markups. So if you buy a bike as a complete package from a manufacturer like Trek or Giant, you will get a much better deal than if you bought the components yourself and built the bike yourself. You can often find a bike dealer near you that is also trying to unload last year’s models to make room for the new models coming in, and they’ll often have last year’s model marked to sell at a lower price. Unless there was a major change between the models or there’s something particular you want, I’d recommend asking the dealer about their older stock.
As for manufacturers to look at, the big four are Trek, Giant, Specialized and Cannondale. They all have a wide range of bikes from the hundreds to the thousands, and exploring their websites is a great way to feel out bikes, especially if you’ve made some of the decisions I outlined above.
Now, I mentioned above that my personal road bike is a Ultegra/Dura-Ace drivetrain. That might make you think “Whoa, this guy is super-serious and is totally out of my league!” Slow down, friend. Let me tell you a little more.
My bike is a 2003 Cannondale CAAD7 R2000 Black Lightning with aluminum frame and carbon fork, Ultegra/Dura_Ace drivetrain, Mavic Ksyrium SL wheels and Full Speed Ahead carbon bars.
I paid $700 for it.
I bought it used! One of my teammates on the team I raced for (Guy’s Bicycles Racing in Feasterville, PA) was facing a bit of a dilemma. This teammate owned NINE bikes, and wanted a new one. His wife refused to let him get bike #10, so he had to sell one of his others to make room for it. He and I were the same size, so I bought it off of him. It was 6 years old at the time, and had over 5,000 miles on it, but for me, it was a dream come true. It’s a much nicer bike than I should have as a student. I’ll replace it in a few years, when I have an engineer’s salary to work with, but it’s more than adequate for right now.
So there’s deals out there, hiding in the rough. That’s another thing to ask your bike shop about, if they sponsor a team or know any local racing teams in the area. Talk to the team and see if anyone’s looking to get rid of an old bike, and you can get a great deal. Most cyclists are happy to support a new young rider just getting into the sport.
Hopefully what I’ve just written an essay/tutorial about is helpful! Let me know if there’s anything else I can do to help. Good luck, fellow cyclists!