GIANT OCR 2 ($750; 23 lb.; 800-874-4268, www.giantbicycle.com)
I'll fess up: I'm a bike snob. I hadn't ridden a sub-$1,000 road bike in years, but the OCR 2 surprised me with its quick, nimble ride. A stiff, compact aluminum frame is largely responsible: The oversize pipes don't yield under the thrashing, out-of-the-saddle sprints that my riding partner goads me into. Yet like modern Republicans, the bike has a gentle sidethe triple chainring up front lets me spin easily up steep climbs. The Shimano Tiagra components all performed without a hitch, and my off-road shoes clicked right into the Shimano SPD pedals. To customize fit, the handlebar stem has an adjustable pivotthe bar can be lowered or raised with the turn of a wrench. Caveat: Tall, short, or oddly proportioned riders should make sure the bike fits before buying, since the frame comes in only three sizes.
JAMIS NOVA ($940; 23 lb.; 800-222-0570, www.jamisbikes.com)
Can't decide between pavement and gravel? Try the Nova. It's built for the rigors of cyclocross, an oddball sport that includes tarmac and trail alike. 'Cross bikes need to have the lightweight, lithe traits of road-racing machines yet still be rugged and stable enough for the dirt. The steel-framed Nova delivers on both counts. The drop-style handlebars let me tuck down low and slice through a headwind on the road. Venturing onto my local network of hilly dirt roads, resplendent with washboard and spring runoff, I climbed and descended with aplomb. Credit part of the surefootedness to wider, 700x30 tires, which have shallow knobs that bite into dirt but don't buzz noticeably on asphalt. A slightly longer wheelbase (about an inch) than a pure road bike's also contributes to its assured handling, and it makes the Nova less twitchy on pavement.
MARIN VERONA ($1,200; 22.5 lb.; 800-222-7557, www.marinbikes.com)
A modern version of the classic road bike, the Verona has a frame made from venerated Italian Columbus Thron steel tubing, which offers just the right blend of compliance and stoutness for years of performance ridingas long as you're not trying to pad your savings account with prize money. To keep the bike affordable, that fancy steel is welded together in Taiwan, not Milan. Aluminum or carbon fiber might have a bit less heft, but a steel frame like the Verona's remains the benchmark of ride quality. Which is not to say it's a retro rig; the Shimano 105 components work crisply and offer a wide-ranging 27 speeds. Ritchey clipless pedals, with a single-sided design that saves weight and reduces the chances of striking pedal to pavement on sharp corners, are a nice touch in this price range. Indeed, the Verona was so smooth and felt so natural, I forgot about it and just rodeit was a familiarity that usually takes a few hundred miles on equal or lesser frames.