At BikeRadar, we are routinely asked, what's the best bike? This is similar to defining "the best beer," as personal preference plays a huge role. But really, picking the best bike for you comes down to three things: fit, feel and finish. Let me explain.
A company can pack all the space-age technology it wants into a machine, but if the shoe doesn't fit, it just doesn't matter. Sure, you can do some fine-tuning here and there with stems and seatposts, but first you have to get in the right neighborhood with the type of bike geometry. If you like a long and low position, you're not going to be happy on high-head-tube endurance bike, no matter how refined the carbon lay-up. Conversely, if you like to sit up in a more relaxed fashion, Fabian Cancellara's $11,000 machine is not the best for you.
In this job and others, I've talked to plenty of pro riders about their gear. But you get the best information from retired pros, who no longer have to toe the line of whatever sponsors they have this season. For this reason — plus the fact that they've ridden tens of thousands of miles on various machines — I love to ask these folks about their favorite bikes over the years. Invariably, a word that figures into their explanation of a favorite bike is "fit", as in, 'that Eddy Merckx kinda handled like a boat but it fit me perfectly'.
If you have a good idea of your fit and you're shopping for a bike, start with your measurements. If you don't, most top quality shops these days can provide not only a professional fit but a presentation of bikes that will work for you based on those metrics.
Touch points are huge: the shape, width and angle of the bars, the position of the levers, the type of saddle and its position. As a team, BikeRadar editors have certainly ridden hundreds if not thousands of road bikes, and ill-fitting touchpoints can kill a great bike faster than black ice can crash you in a corner. The good news is that these touch points are the easiest and cheapest (maybe free!) to dial in. (If you have never tried, I highly recommend experimenting with different saddles and your bar and lever angles. For the latter, take off the handlebar tape and do a few rides with Allen keys in your pocket to tweak things on the road. Then rewrap your bars like a pro with this video tutorial.)
But aren't a lot of bike frames really pretty much the same? Well, yes. Once you get down into the individual category, be it race bike or endurance bike, many bikes are quite similar in terms of tube lengths and angles. Which leads to how a bike feels...
Stiff, twitchy, plush, cushy, nervous. We and other reviews use a lot of touchy-feely language when describing how a road bike feels. But what of this is good, and what is lousy? Well, again, it's similar to beer. Is super-hoppy a good thing? What about chocolately, yeasty or sour?
If you're in the market for a new bike, by all means get out there and test ride a few of them, ideally back to back if you can. Take out a racy Tarmac and then a more stable Roubaix, ideally with a similar level of wheels and components so you can focus on the frames. Or if you already have your type of bike dialed in, test ride a hyper stiff rig and then something a bit more compliant. See what feels better to you. Once you get a feel for what a stubbornly inflexible frame feels like, or what a quick-handling front end feels like, then you'll have an easier time of navigating through reviews to determine better options.
At the risk of stating the obvious here, wheels and rubber play a massive role in how a bike feels. You may already be on a great frameset now, but it may feel a little lifeless because of heavy wheels and cheap tires. If you have a friend with a nice set of wheels, ask to borrow them and go climb. Be forewarned, though, nicer stuff is nicer...
To reference the retired pros again and their favorite bikes, 'feel' is a common reason for their preference. The answer about why they loved a bike is never something like, "this bike was 2 percet stiffer than the competitors' bike" or other marketing gibberish. Learn which particular attributes of a bike you like (fast or slow handling; responsive or forgiving) and then you can task bike brands or bike shops to present you with something well suited.
Wheels and components define the ride to a large degree, but that's not what I'm talking about by finish. With finish, I mean how the thing looks, and what the brand on the down tube means to you. Sure, I can hear you laughing dismissively, it doesn't matter how a bike looks. But how many mustard-yellow bikes do you think are sold each year compared to matte black options? There may be a handful of dyed-in-the-wool engineers among us who really do value function over form, but most of us want a bike that looks sweet.
Fit and feel are certainly more important, but once you have those boxes checked, there is the look you are aligning yourself with. No, you don't have to care about how the bike looks, and you can ride around for weeks on any old thing without washing it. Similarly, you can go into work every day without showering or washing your clothes. But really, you should make a basic effort here.
Beyond the simple color palette, there is the matter of what the brand means to you. There is a legal aspect — will this company stand behind the product? But there is the emotional side; is this thing exciting for you? No matter how abstract the positive associations, if you simply like one bike more than the rest — and the thing fits you and feels great — then congratulations, you've found the perfect bike.