I bought my first bike without seeing it. It was a 2013 Trek Lexa C that was my favorite color, purple, with Claris components. I knew nothing about bikes, and I was so excited to have a real road bike and not a Walmart bike. Where I was in my life, this bike was perfect and the most exciting thing in my life. Now, if you are paying this price, you do want to put some time and effort into thinking about the decision more than I did.
Know the categories of bikes. There are multiple categories including road, mountain, hybrid. In road bikes, I also include cyclocross, gravel, triathlon, and touring bikes. Mountain bikes can further be separated into cross country, enduro, and downhill. Hybrid bikes can be separated into fitness, comfort, and dual sport. There are other categories, but these are the most easily defined.
Determine what your goals are to know what category you fall into. I wanted to do triathlons, and nothing else, but I wasn’t good enough with handling to go with a triathlon bike. Your goals could be riding mountain bike trails and going out west to ride, which would need a full suspension mountain bike. You could want a bike to commute to work or the grocery store with a rack and panniers, which could be a road or a hybrid bike. Once you know wha you want to do, you can narrow down what category you fit in.
Know what causes the variation in price of bikes. When looking at two bikes in the same category the things that set them apart are material, components, and suspension.
Frames come in a multitude of materials at a multitude of price points. Majority of bikes sold in bike shops are aluminum or carbon fiber, but you will also find steel and titanium bikes as well. Typically, carbon fiber is one of your lightest and can be your most expensive bike. You can still find very lightweight aluminum bikes as well, and they tend to be more budget friendly. Your frame material may be dictated by your budget.
Drivetrains are one of the most complicated parts of the bike to explain, so I am going to make it as simple as possible. More rear speeds is smoother shifting on all bikes, while whether you choose to use a front derailleur can be dictated by the type of bike you choose.
Most categories of road bikes have two front gears and anywhere between 8 and 11 in the rear. Cyclocross bikes and mountain bikes are where the single front chainring has become popular as we can run larger gear ranges in the back and it saves weight.
The other major part of drivetrain to consider on a first bike is the brakes. The most common options are rim brakes and disc brakes. Mountain, cyclocross, and gravel bikes are almost all coming with disc brakes currently. Disc brakes don’t wear down rims and they have more braking power than rim brakes. Road bikes and hybrid bikes still come with both options, so it comes down to if you will find value in the extra stopping power and ability to brake in more conditions. Disc brakes also come in hydraulic and cable operated models. The stopping power is the same, but as the pads wear down, the hydraulic brakes will move the pads in so you don’t lose and stopping power. They may need to be bled in a few years, but they do not require the same cable adjustments of a mechanical (cable) disc brake.
When combined with frame material, drivetrain will help to narrow down the options. You may also find a carbon bike with 11 speed components is out of your price range, but an aluminum with it is within your range.
Find your size and test ride. I highly recommend talking to a professional in a bike shop for size. I am 5’5” and I ride a 52 cm Trek Domane, where my boss is 5’5 1/2” and rides a 50 cm, so size charts can only help so much. I also ride a 50 cm in a Trek Madone and a 49 in another brand, so the size on the bike only dictates an estimate.
I also recommend test riding any comparable bike to what you are intending to buy. A shop may not have the exact model, but they may have the same size in another model or another model with the same components. This will give you a feel for the position and a feel for the components, although it may not be the exact bike.
Buy a bike and go ride. I also recommend certain accessories, which will be found in my next post.
This bike buying process should help you whether you are buying a hybrid to ride with thbike kids or a super aero triathlon bike to race at Kona.