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I am a runner and have been getting into biking just to add some additional flavor to my workout schedule and racing. I am wondering what I should look for when purchasing a new road bike.

  1. Is the bike manufacturer the largest determiner?

  2. Are the components what I should worry about? If so should I only buy SRAM or is Shimano just as good? Are there other brands to consider?

  3. Is there anything about the wheels that could set one road bike apart from another?

  4. Other than a carbon frame is there anything else I should look for in the frame? (Yes, I understand that it should fit my body.)

  5. What else should I consider when looking at buying a race worthy road bike?

Budget: I plan on spending about US$3k or less.

Edit- Just as additional information I bought a Specialized Tri-Cross that I use for commuting, rougher roads, pulling kids and joy rides. I am looking at doing some 50/100 milers and a 550 mile relay so although unexperienced I want a good racing bike. Also due to the spouse factor it is easier to buy one $2500 dollar bike then get a starter and upgrade latter especially since I already have an all around bike.

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this is a bit too broad, and too much of a shopping recommendation, to be valid. Can you scope this down to something a bit more specific? bicycles.stackexchange.com/faq#dontask and blog.stackoverflow.com/2010/11/qa-is-hard-lets-go-shopping –  Jeff Atwood Aug 2 '11 at 22:39
    
I think it's a good question: it's not asking which bike to buy, it's asking which features to look for. –  ChrisW Aug 3 '11 at 2:00
    
While the wording could be better, it's essentially asking how to evaluate and decide on important features with budget X. A quick edit could probably take off that layer of product-recommendation dust. –  Neil Fein Aug 3 '11 at 2:32
    
I took a shot at the edit. Your website indicates you're in the US, so I clarified that your budget is 3k in USD. With that budget, you should be able to find a very nice bike. –  Neil Fein Aug 3 '11 at 2:37
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Mentioning your commuter bike and the types of racing you're interested in really helps make this question more specifically answerable. Much better. –  freiheit Aug 3 '11 at 22:56
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5 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Given that you know what you want and what your budget is (new, road, race, $3k), there are a few decisions and tradeoffs you have to work with:

  1. Do you want a "comfortable long distance" race bike or a "razor sharp handling" race bike? The differences may not be huge between the two types, so you'll really need to test ride both variants to see which you prefer. Make sure you test ride for 30-50 miles if that's your minimum "long ride". You want to figure out if you prefer the slightly more relaxed or slightly more twitchy geometry. The good news is most manufacturers make both types of bike, so this is more for you to figure out what fits you best.

  2. Do you want a carbon frame, aluminum frame, or something more traditional or esoteric like steel or titanium? Each has their plusses and minuses (you can search for related questions); the different material tends to impact price most, and comfort to a lesser degree.

  3. Decide what level of components you want (shifters, brakes, derailleurs, gears, crankset). For your stated purpose, you'll probably want at minimum Shimano 105 or Sram Apex (I don't think you'll find too many Campagnolo-equipped bikes in the typical US bike shop). I say "at minimum" but these are already capable enough that they will each give you many years of great service even for racing. You will find many bikes come with a mix, especially lesser brakes (e.g. Tektro) and cranksets (e.g. FSA); so decide if that matters to you. You can go also one level up to Shimano Ultregra or Sram Rival if you want better components (and higher levels exist too). Note, in my mind I equate 105 = Apex, Ultegra = Rival, but some people might argue that they are not comparable; some might say Apex <= 105 <= Rival <= Ultegra. Also note that Shimano and Sram shift differently (shift with shift and brake lever vs. two shifting modes on one shift lever), so test ride each to see if you prefer one.

  4. Find a bike shop you like, not for the brands they carry but for the level of service and attention they give you. Choosing a good LBS is more important than choosing the bike manufacturer.

  5. Lastly, are there any miscellaneous specs you want, or care about? Triple, double, or compact double crank gears? 25t, 28t, or 32t largest rear gear? (I.e. what gear ranges do you need for the flats or hills or mountains you'll be riding?) Mounts for fenders or panniers? Ability to mount wider tires (25 or 28 mm, or bigger)? These are all small things, but they will steer you toward and away from certain models.

Things that matter less:

  • Manufacturer. Most manufacturers have models that fit most of the different categories above, so unless you have a real yearning (or hatred) for particular brands, picking a bike by its paint job is more important than picking by manufacturer. Of course, if your favorite LBS only stocks a couple brands, that may play a larger part in narrowing the manufacturer.

  • Wheels. The common wisdom is that most bikes come with basic wheels that are appropriate to the bike's price point, but are otherwise unremarkable. You probably won't find excellent wheels on any bike in your price range. You can ride them for while, or you can budget for replacement wheels and buy a cheaper bike.

Then comes the hard part: Making the tradeoffs between features and price, to fit within your budget. Do you want a carbon frame and more basic components, or an aluminum frame with higher end components? Budget for great wheels in the initial $3k, or in a year or two? Buy last year's leftover model vs. the new year's model?

Then you just have to test ride the bikes on your short list! But remember, the FIT of a particular bike can make or break how it feels, so make sure you're testing the right frame size and it is well set up for your dimensions. I.e. the LBS should set up each bike "perfectly" to you, so you can evaluate the pure ride and handling differences.

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Well, probably the first thing to ask yourself is whether this is a "utilitarian" purchase, or this is your "muscle car" -- intended as much for show as for use. There's nothing wrong with either, if you have the money and are clear on your motives, but the difference will definitely affect your choices.

Eg, for "utilitarian" purposes (ie, you actually intend to ride the bike frequently for long rides at high speeds) the Craig's List bike (if you can find a suitable one) is ideal, but for a "muscle car" you want a bike that is, if not new, at least spotless and "showy". For "utilitarian" you don't need carbon frame or fancy wheels, but for "muscle car" those are "show points".

Added

From your update it would appear that you're not (necessarily) interested in a "showy" bike but more the utilitarian one. If you're going to be doing 100 mile rides you need some comfort and durability. You probably don't want a bike that you must treat with kid gloves. Fit, comfort, and durability should be your priorities. (Any quality road bike will be light enough that the weight doesn't matter.)

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Is there anything about the wheels that could set one road bike apart from another?

Someone on a road bike once looked at my wheels and said, "those wheels are solid, they aren't wheels that would break like mine would if they hit pot-hole." Indeed they haven't.

My wheels are for a commuting bike, with disc brakes, and a 700x32 tire.

So ask your LBS if the bike you buy can break? My bike was sold to me as 'a reliable commuter' and it has been.

I ride mine every weekday.

One of the people I work with has an expensive racer which he doesn't use to commute in to work, leave parked outside, etc. Occasionally he shows up with bits of his bike in various states of repair (just a wheel; just the frame; ...) to take to the shop.

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My recommendation is to buy a used bike on Craigslist or eBay first. Many people will vehemently disagree on the best manufacturer, component group, frame material, etc., but the best advice I can give is to buy a cheaper bike that you can use until you decide upon what you actually want. This is doubly important because the things you think are important to you in a bike right now will likely change within a month or two of actually riding.

With that said, my advice is to ignore the manufacturer. Go with a Shimano 105-level or equivalent groupset. SRAM Rival/Apex or Campagnolo Veloce are similar. Campagnolo parts are harder to find (in the U.S. at least), so I'd lean slightly more towards SRAM or Shimano. Try both systems out, and decide which you prefer. Regardless, go with an entry-level groupset. There's little advantage to an expensive one for a novice rider.

Ignore the wheels. Whatever wheels come on the bike will be good enough to get you started and they can always be upgraded later. And don't get caught up on carbon versus aluminum versus steel. Whichever happens to be on the bike you like best that's in your price range will suit you fine. You're just starting out; buy expensive things only after you've been on the bike awhile. Chasing performance with expensive parts is a fool's game. The engine matters much more than the bike does.

Last, get fitted and make sure you're buying a bike that's well suited towards your body. A bike that doesn't fit will make you uncomfortable and hurt your performance.

And don't feel like you need to spend the full $3,000 right out of the gate. $1,500 now leaves $1,500 left over when you decide cycling isn't for you. Or $1,500 for upgrades when you decide you'd rather do nothing but ride and know exactly what you want. The difference between a $1,500 bike and a $3,000 one is probably less than you think. Again, the engine is what matters.

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Yep, a decent used bike is a good way to start, if one wants an "expensive" bike but doesn't know exactly what features yet. The only difficulty with that approach is that it's harder to find the right size. But an advantage is that you get to try a wider variety of bikes (and also talk with the bike owners). And you're right about not worrying too much about carbon vs AL vs whatever -- you're talking 5-10 pounds difference and that much weight difference is only significant if you're a professional racer. –  Daniel R Hicks Aug 2 '11 at 23:32
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Cheaper and easier to lose the 5lb–10lb yourself ;) I suspect the difference between equivalently-priced bikes is probably on the bottom end of that range. –  Stephen Touset Aug 2 '11 at 23:36
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Yep. When I ride on supported tours people ask me why I carry so much junk in my panniers (or have panniers at all). Heck, the dead weight is sitting on the saddle! –  Daniel R Hicks Aug 3 '11 at 0:03
    
with a budget of $3k, and a fairly good idea of his intended usage, I don't think there's a lot of value-add buying essentially a disposable bike. He'd be better off spending time in a LBS getting the bike that's right for him rather than spending time shopping for a bike intended to be wrong for him –  STW Aug 3 '11 at 18:46
    
To the contrary, I think it foolish to spend $3,000 on a machine where the difference from a $1,500 bike will be completely lost on you. Doubly so when you don't even know what to look for. The $1,500 left over will go much, much farther if it's saved for upgrades once you know what you actually want, and when the extra expense might actually make a difference. –  Stephen Touset Aug 3 '11 at 18:56
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The very first thing you need to get absolutely correct is size. Since you're purchasing a new bike you should expect to spend at least an hour or two being fitted--essentially determining what size frame you need. Once you know your size, don't expect it to be constant between manufacturers.

Beyond size, focus on your intended uses. Since you're looking at a road-bike you might consider different features:

  • Will it allow larger tires? A strict road-bike typically has 23mm tires, which are fast and efficient. However, some bikes can accept a larger tire and/or rim--bigger tires are slower, but more comfortable and better able to carry loads.

  • Will you want fenders or a rack? Even if you just plan to occasionally have them installed, picking a bike with the requisite mounts will save you time and trouble later.

  • How often do you plan on riding, and how far? Higher end components typically work better longer (they require less frequent fine-tuning). Don't be concerned too much with the specific manufacturer or component-level; your bike shop can help educate you on what is right for your needs.

  • Wheels can always be upgraded, higher end bikes may come with nicer stock wheels, but it's quite common to use the stock wheels for training and higher end wheels for race-day.

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Look at the question now, was edited a few hours ago and makes it clearer that larger tires, fenders, etc aren't relevant for the questioner. –  freiheit Aug 3 '11 at 22:52
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