Probably the biggest decision will be frame material, and in the sub-$1,500 market you'll have two choices: Steel or aluminum, with aluminum appearing on most bikes in this range. It's a choice that may matter—while steel will weigh more than aluminum, it's also apt to ride a little better if you're on roads that aren't very smooth. Any metallurgists in the crowd will protest that there's nothing in aluminum that makes its ride "stiffer," but that's the nature of the metal and the way it's assembled in mid-priced frames. Where I ride we're plagued with chip-sealed roads—gravel is dumped on the road, sprayed with oil, then tamped down. It's gawd-awful stuff to ride on. But my steel bike, an old Merckx, clearly rides better than my aluminum Cannondale, a "cross" bike I use as a rain bike.
Anyway, here's my shortlist for you:
So there you go. I'd be very hard-pressed to make a choice among these bikes. The Marin is a classic, the Giant a best buy, the Bianchi the most versatile.
For a guide to more spectacular road rigs, read "The Road to Lanceville" from the March 2004 issue of Outside.
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