Ask yourself “What is best suited for what is right outside my door?”
I worked for years in a guitar shop, and I recall many parents who came in and asked where the cheapest guitars were. I am a little ashamed to say that we sold a lot of junkie guitars, and the kids probably struggled to push down on those strings that were half an inch off the guitar’s neck. I hated to know what happened months later when their kids quit because of the crappy instrument they started on.
For your first road bike, I would highly recommend that you consider a traditional drop bar road or cyclocross bike. The benefit of a traditionally styled drop bar bike is that it offers the rider more hand positions than a flat bar road bike. It allows the rider to get into a more athletic and aerodynamically efficient position. If you have ever tried a mountain bike or hybrid bike for long stints on the road and up hills, you know it kind of sucks. The drop bar bike gives you comfort, efficiency, aerodynamics, and power. This is not to say that some people aren’t total beasts on flat bar road bikes, but I think drop bars are the more serious and effective tool.
The difference between road and cyclocross bikes boils down to the geometry and tire clearance. While I would recommend a traditional road bike with tire clearance for 28mm tires, some people are looking to use cyclocross or gravel bikes for a “one bike to rule them all” sort of set up. If you have access to gravel, fire roads, and mixed tarmac, then a cyclocross or gravel bike might be a great option. Ask yourself “What is best suited for what is right outside my door?” For most people that is a standard road bike. BUT, a cyclocross or gravel bike is not too drastic of a difference to matter to a beginner if you have that type of road available, and it could be lots of fun.
My advice: Look for a drop bar road bike (or cyclocross bike) with clearance for at least 25mm tires, but 28mm or larger a bonus.
Material matters a little
There are four materials that road bikes are made of (in order of likely cost): aluminum, steel, carbon, and titanium. A quality aluminum bike will likely be cheapest and a quality titanium bike likely the costliest. Aluminum and carbon will be the most common materials available. So, which one is best for you? I think it really depends on your budget. I have owned amazing bikes in aluminum, steel, and carbon. If you get a bike from a reputable maker or brand, each will maximize the ride quality of the material. Don’t fret too much about the material or buy into the stereotypes that say aluminum is harsh or steel is slow or carbon is shock absorbing. A good aluminum bike can ride like a dream and a poor carbon bike can ride like garbage.
My advice: Material will be based on your budget. Don’t worry about it too much.
There have never been so many reputable bike brands as there are today. There are also many custom makers. For a first bike, there is no reason to look beyond the major players in the industry like Giant, Trek, Specialized, Cannondale, and Liv. These brands have lines ranging from sub $1K bikes to some approaching $10K. They have the manufacturing and buying power to make quality products available to the consumer with a pretty good level of customer satisfaction. They also supply bikes that world tour teams use in races like the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France. If you see a world tour team riding the same brand as you find in your local store, it probably is a safe bet to say they have been in the business successfully for a while.
My advice: Good shops carry good brands. Find out where the reputable shop in your neighborhood is, and see what brands they offer.