I am shopping around for road bikes now, and I wanted to know what components to look for. I am not talking about the frame, carbon or otherwise, I mean types of shifters, brakes, cranks, rims, etc.
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As with any other equipment, it depends on how much you would like to spend...
The main difference between a cheap and a better bike is the quality of the materials and the comfort/performance they provide!
I have several cheap bikes and two "better" bikes, the differences between these are:
I may have forgotten something but this gives you an idea.
There is a big difference in component quality, for example I have a bike equipped with Ultegra and another bike that has mixed Sora and Tiagra groupset. As mentioned above Shimano Ultegra is fairly expensive while Shimano Tiagra and Sora are near the bottom of the range.
The cheaper Sora/Tiagra groupset requires constant attention, the shifters and the brakes feel spongy to the extent that I replaced the brakes with Ultegra after a few months as the Sora brakes felt unsafe. This did not entirely cure the problem as the main culprit are the shifters/brake levers. Replacing them is very expensive.
The Ultegra components are stiffer as they use better materials. They last for years and do not corrode as much as their cheaper cousins.
It does depend on usage, racing cyclists buy top of the range components because they are light and perform well even under maximum load and stress. If you are a weekend warrior that likes to potter around and do not need ultra-efficient brakes to get yourself out of trouble then go for the lower end components.
New road bikes are generally available from two sources: your local bike store (LBS) and online. Not all brands are available from both types of distribution channel. That makes it harder to compare apples to apples.
Too, your LBS/brick & mortar retailer probably has a clearance sale starting sometime around August where they attempt to clear out inventory, so they can make space for next year's models. If you want to compare apples to apples, keep that in mind. You can get some very good deals in this way, which can be hard to beat online. The online-only sellers almost never have any kind of substantial sale.
In light of that, let's look at a couple of examples.
Lynskey Helix with full Ultegra drivetrain ($4950 assembled)
BikesDirect Motobecane Le Champion with full Ultegra drivetrain ($2100 assembled).
These bikes are very comparable in many respects. Both have a titanium frame, but the Lynskey frame is made in the USA, whereas the Motobecane frame is made in Taiwan. The Lynskey frame has a certain cachet among cyclists which the Motobecane frame does not have. If you were to compare the two frames side-by-side, you may find that the welds on the Lynskey are slightly prettier than the welds on the Motobecane. (The frame builders at Lynskey might be using multiple layers of weldment to help achieve that.) The other components are pretty comparable; I own and have ridden many miles on both the Aksium and Equipe wheels, for example, and there isn't much difference. The fork on the Lynskey is nicer and more expensive, but apart from that, all the components are entirely comparable in terms of price and quality. You can read online reviews of both bikes, and they both review favorably. The price for the Lynskey, however, is $2850 more.
This is sort of an apples-to-apples comparison, in that both bikes are available online and you can get them through certain dealers.
Take another trio of road bikes and compare:
Trek Madone 4.7 with a mostly-Ultegra drivetrain ($3150 MSRP)
Specialzed Tarmac SL3 Expert with a mostly-Ultegra drivetrain ($3900 MSRP)
Motobecane Immortal Force with a mostly-Ultegra drivetrain ($1600 MSRP).
Look at the specs for each of these; you have nicer wheels on the Specialized, and there are other differences. But all the frames are made in Taiwan, so far as I know. A big part in the price difference comes from paying for the distribution channel. The dealer has to make a profit to stay in business. Trek & Specialized are mainly distributed through brick & mortar retailers; BikesDirect has some brick & mortar retailer distribution, but mainly they sell online.
Full disclosure: I ride a Motobecane Le Champion with the titanium frame; I have about 4100 miles on the bike, and I'm totally happy with it. I also have a Trek Fuel EX 8 that I scored on clearance from a brick & mortar retailer. So I have no problem to buy either way.
Bottom line, you have to decide how much you are willing to pay for brand name cachet and LBS support. But I think it is fair to conclude that the dealer-centric brands cost more.
Just go for the cheapest derailleur you can buy. They all have a big spring, two jockey wheels and a cantilever system. Both expensive and cheap ones wear out at about the same rate. They both get gummed up with crud. When new, they shift identically... why wouldn't they?. When really worn out, the jockey wheels wobble and shifting isn't so precise. Maybe the few, very expensive derailleurs with jockey wheels that use bearings may last a little longer (perhaps they don't, perhaps they're pointless) ... but why pay 4x for this benefit?
Forget all this nonsense about "better quality material, better made" - and no-one being able to tell you what specifically is better. It's all marketing rubbish for gullible consumers.
manufacturers of bike components (there aren't that many) universally put up their line in "groups". These go from the cheapest, which often have no name at all, to the most expensive. Shimano's top-of-the-line for road bikes is "Dura-Ace", for instance. With "Ultegra" below that, and then "105", and so on. Better components are lighter, often rebuildable, and usually operate in a very "slick" manner. Often the difference is hardly perceptible... And in some cases the "better" components are also more complicated and more likely to be in need of constant adjustment.
A good derailleur will change smoothly while under heavy load, i.e. while you are still peddling. They will also be capable of upgrading or changing the cassette, (the bundle of cogs at the rear) for different gear ratios and will have more options to do so. The same applies to the crank-set i.e the 2 or three big cogs at the pedal end/
After the frame, wheels are the second most important element of a bicycle. Wheels are also the second most expensive and at times even more expensive than the actual frame. In terms of advice on buying a bike, start with your budget and back into the best frame, wheels then components money can buy. Another strategy some guys use is to buy the bike with the best frame/gruppo combo possible, then know they will upgrade wheels when $$ begin to flow again in a few months. I have used both of these strategies successfully, but now prefer the first as most components are very good...but that is not true of all wheel sets.
Off the cuff, without an overly detailed answer, cheap versus expensive can be summed up in 4 words: comfort, efficiency, weight and durability.
If you give me an idea of what type of riding you are looking to do and how much you are looking to spend, I will gladly provide some decent steeds to take a look at. Or if you look at a couple of models and want some feedback, I am sure you will get lots of responses if you post again here!