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.
Most people wear sneakers slightly bigger than their actual foot size. In cycling, a bike that doesn’t fit perfectly is a problem. It can lead to discomfort, imbalance, and even injury. When you shop, make sure that the salesperson takes time to do a rudimentary bike fit to determine what size bike you will likely be looking at. I think it is important that you are comfortable with the stand over height of the frame. Your inseam will not be the same as everyone else your height, so I think it is important that you feel comfortable over the frame. You also need to feel comfortable reaching from seat to pedal and from seat to handlebar. This is where getting the right size bike is a must. If your salesperson doesn’t spend a little time measuring you and seeing what you look like on the bike, you should walk away and shop elsewhere.
Most bike sizes are either designated as small, medium, large, or in centimeters based on the top tube length usually ranging from 49-62 cm with 54 and 56 being average bike sizes for men. Now, be aware that the way a company measures can be different. For example, my Cannondale road bike is marked a 52cm and my Trek is marked a 54cm, but they are about as close to identical in size as you can get.
The contact points on the bike like seat, stem/handlebars and cranks/pedals can all be adjusted somewhat, but the frame size should be as close to perfect as you can get. Adding a long stem to a smaller frame does not make it the right size any more than lowering the seat drastically on a large frame does.
Buy the right size frame. If you see a model you like and you need a different size, wait for the right size. Do not try to make the wrong bike size work. Each bike purchase should come with a bike fit. During the fit, the bike fitter will adjust the bike to make it more comfortable and maximize your power and performance on the bike. This might include adjusting the seat height, seat fore and aft position, also changing the stem length or angle, or the swapping out the handlebars for a narrower or wider fit. But, again, you must start with the right size frame.
My advice: Get the right size and demand a full bike fit. Although the style of bike fitting may be different (ranging from high tech to traditional eyeballing), a good size and fit are the most critical elements of a bike purchase. A full fitting should be free with every bike purchase, and any hardware swaps should not result in an upselling of more expensive parts to you.
When you buy your first road bike, look for good quality components. Having a bike that brakes and shifts smoothly makes your ride safer and more enjoyable. There is a little to learn about braking and a lot to learn about shifting that can be made easier by having components that work reliably time after time.
Many bikes will come with parts from the major companies’ lines. For Shimano the range from Claris, Sora, Tiagra, 105, Ultegra, and DuraAce (low to high), and in SRAM Apex, Rival, Force, and Red (low to high). I would recommend that you look at ten speed or higher components on a modern bike. Nearly all new quality road bikes are now on 11 speed gearing, but older ten-speed gears can be found on many great bikes that still sit on the shelf at the local bike shop. This means that you probably want to look at Tiagra and up for the Shimano brand components. For cranks and front derailleurs, it might not matter as much.
My advice: Shimano Tiagra and up and SRAM Apex and up are awesome. Now worries.
The battle is currently raging over whether we should be using rim or disc brakes. I think disc brakes are amazing, but I think my rim brake equipped road bike stops just fine. The decision is a tough one to make. Discs stop great in the rain. Rim brakes allow for wheelsets to be easily swapped between bikes. Discs don’t heat up on carbon wheels. And so on and so on.
My advice: Go disc if you can afford it, but if you find a great deal on a rim brake equipped bike, go for it. Both do the job.
The only additional thing I would mention about parts is that I would tend to stay away from bikes that have overly proprietary parts. For example, my Trek Madone is an amazing bike, but it has an aero brake directly mounted under the rear wheel. It is a pain to adjust and keep dirt out of it. I wish I had a regular rear brake. Many Giant and Felt bikes come with odd seat post clamps or integrated seat posts. In case of an accident or resale, these could be a sticking point.
My advice: Ask the salesmen, “What couldn’t I find at any bike shop that is on this bike?” If most of parts aren’t universal, I would look elsewhere.
Lastly, when you are looking at new bikes, it is important to know that even if you love your bike now, you may have reason to sell later. Maybe you lose interest or more likely you want something better. Look on eBay, Craigslist, Facebook, etc… and note the brands and bikes people are selling and the prices they're fetching. If you stick to the brands I mentioned above, and you buy the bike at a good component level, you will have no problem selling it in the future. No way will you ever get your money back, but if you buy good stuff that isn’t too proprietary, you should be able to recoup 50-60% of your investment later. If you buy an off brand with weird parts, you may be stuck with it.
Women’s specific bikes
While I have no personal experience with riding a women’s specific bike, I have been interested in the rise of brands like Liv and lines from other manufacturers aimed at women. I think there is something to the trend other than just putting smaller components on the bike. Slapping narrow 38cm bars on a 52cm frame doesn’t make it a women’s bike. Brands like Liv have designed these bikes from the ground up, not just scaling down tube sizes and such. If you are a lady looking for a bike, I don’t think you could go wrong with a Liv as a first bike.
Good luck in your search for a new bike. If you have any specific questions, please do not hesitate to email me directly.