When it comes to road bikes, more money buys a lighter bike, refinement in the ride quality and fit, and more durable parts. The latter is less of a big deal on the road front than the mountain because riding pavement doesn’t take the toll on parts that riding rough trails does. And while you won’t get a new carbon fiber bike under $1,500, that’s actually not a bad thing, as many of the most inexpensive carbon frames are just cheap knockoffs that are heavier and ride more poorly than their aluminum counterparts. The truth is, we were impressed by just how good of a ride this much money buys. You won’t be getting the latest, greatest component technology or the same bikes that are ridden by the pros, but if you’re just getting into the sport you won’t miss or need those niceties anyway.
Much of the same advice we doled out for mountain bikes applies to road bikes, too. Head for a reputable bike shop, not a department store, because not only are you more likely to get good quality parts and brands, but the shop will be more apt to help you with initial fit, accessories like pumps and multitools to keep your new ride rolling, and tune-ups when inevitable break-in issues like cable stretch appear. When purchasing, don’t be afraid to ask about switching parts (a stem or saddle, for instance) if something about the bike you’re considering is uncomfortable or not working. And take a few bikes out for test rides for comparison; most good shops will let you spin around the parking lot or nearby blocks in exchange for a driver’s license or credit card.
There’s an unfortunate tendency among new road riders to want to get a bike that looks like the ones the pros ride. Resist this urge and opt for bikes with a more comfortable fit. Whereas pro riders are conditioned for extreme positions, which they need to reap the aerodynamic benefits, the rest of us will benefit from an easier, more upright fit that makes us comfortable when we ride. You can compare geometry numbers for an accurate sense of this (look for shorter top tubes, taller head tubes, and shorter stems with more rise), or simply sit on a few bikes and judge which one is the most comfortable.
As far as parts go, the more bits and pieces on a bike from the big cycling industry manufacturers, like Shimano and SRAM, the better. Since these companies build parts for the very best bikes on the market as well as budget bikes, their entry-level equipment has serious trickle-down performance benefits. As far as gearing, look for a triple chain ring up front, which yields more. If the bike comes with a double chain ring, make sure it is a compact (50 x 34). More expensive bikes and the ones pros ride often come with bigger rings (53 x 39), but those gears can be too difficult for recreational riders to push, especially given the extra weight of less expensive bikes.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, consider buying a used bike or a previous year’s model. While it’s great to buy new, the consignment racks at your local bike shop or online vendors like Craigslist can yield great bikes at half the cost you’d pay for them new. And since road bikes generally take a lot less abuse than mountain bikes, used bicycles often look and ride just like new ones. For the best deals, shop at the end of the season (fall and winter), when bike shops frequently drop prices to clear out last year’s inventory.