Friends often ask me what to look for in a bike. Here is some advice I recently sent to one such friend:
So the main thing that matters is fit. You should ride lots of different bikes and feel the differences and just trust your gut about what feels good. That is numero uno above EVERYTHING ELSE. How tall are you? 6’1″ or so? You’re probably a size 60cm frame, so keep a look out for stuff in the 58cm-62cm range.
Think about what kind of riding do you want to do. Do you only want it for tooling around town transportation? Might you ever be interested in taking it for longer weekend recreational rides or maybe to go camping? Might ever want a rack to carry shit for you? Not all bikes have eyelets for mounting a rack, so keep that in mind. What kind of style suits you? I generally prefer a road style, with drop handlebars and shifting integrated into the brake levers (STI shifting). Elias prefers a less aggressive, more upright position with flat handlebars, which is a bit slower and tougher on climbs, but may be a bit more comfortable & casual. Road bikes have steep angles for quicker turning and more aerodynamic positioning, hybrid/city bikes are more relaxed geometry for less speed, but more comfort (although I’m pretty comfortable on road geometry by now). Cyclocross frames are somewhere in between and they are very versatile bikes that can do pretty much anything well.
Bikes come in all kids of materials, but you’ll probably be looking at steel or aluminum (or aluminum/carbon mix), as those are the common (i.e. not super expensive) frames. People will tell you different things about those two materials, but for your purposes, I wouldn’t worry too much about which of those materials your bike is made of.
There are several major bike components manufacturers, the main ones these days being Shimano, Campagnolo, and Sram. Shimano is by far the most common company for bikes sold in America, so you’ll mostly be looking at their stuff. You might find bikes with Suntour or other components, but those are likely old and I would avoid them. Most bikes come with two or three chainrings (the sprockets up front, attached to the cranks) and anywhere from five to eleven sprockets in the back. Get something with at least 8-speeds in the back, as that means it is relatively modern and still well supported, as 7-speeds and less are not very well supported anymore. You’ll likely be looking at 8 or 9 speed cassettes (with two or three chainrings up front, meaning a total of 16-27 gears). The total number of gears doesn’t really matter, it’s the difference between the smallest gearing and biggest gearing that really matters. Two chainrings are a little bit less finicky than three, but if you’re buying used, take what you can get and either will be fine.
So the line of Shimano parts, in order of best to worst:
And they have stuff below 2200 that they don’t even list on their website. I don’t think it’s worth buying anything below Sora and, in fact, would recommend you look for something with at least Tiagra level components. You will probably come across drivetrains with mixes of component levels, and this is normal. The front derailer is a simple device and you can get away with a lower level one than your rear derailer or your shifters. So for instance, I’d want at least Tiagra for a rear derailer and shifters, front derailer and brakes could be Sora. If you’re somewhat patient and persistnt on Craigslist, you can find something pretty nice for about $500. If you’re really patient and persistent, you can get a super nice bike for $500 or a pretty nice bike for like $300. If you’re buying new, expect to pay about $700-$800 for something decent, and maybe up to $1100 for something that’s pretty nice and suits your needs (these same bikes, perhaps two years old, are the ones that you’ll find for $500 on Craigslist).