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Whether you're an experienced roadie looking for that dream stealthy carbon machine, or an occasional rider after a winter training bike to keep fit on, purchasing online can be tricky. For the most part you can save money when compared to buying at smaller independent bike shops, but there are several trade-offs. Firstly you aren't supporting a local business, which can be a deal breaker for many. Secondly, you won't be able to research as much about the bike's sizing, handling and whether it is actually any good, than if you were stood in your local shop with the bike physically in front of you. Thirdly, many local bike shops offer discounts for regular customers, so whilst they may initially seem a lot more expensive, the reality may be different. In short, online is not the route for everyone, but if you have chosen to tread this path, then below are a few quick tips.
If you're an experienced rider, then chances are you'll know what sizing and geometry works for you. However for newbies this can be daunting, so if possible try and borrow a road bike from a friend. Please note that your mountain bike sizing will be smaller than your road cycling equivalent, as you won't need as much standover height when cycling on the road. If you ride comfortably off road on a 17 inch MTB, then chances are you'll need a larger road frame, as you won't need to negotiate drop offs, jumps and berms whilst tackling the tarmac. If borrowing a bike is impossible, then some local shops will offer a paid professional measuring service (although please be honest from the start that you will not be subsequently purchasing a new bike to avoid upsetting any shop owners). Failing this, there are guides online to establish your approximate sizing, such as this one at Evans Cycles. Sizing can differ slightly between manufacturers, so it's worth researching this area further before buying.
Regarding frame material, this is down to personal preference. 95% of the bikes on the market will be either alloy or carbon, with a few steel and titanium models thrown in. Niche brands even produce bikes out of magnesium and bamboo, although I won't cover those here simply as they are fairly scarce. Each of these core materials have different properties and subsequent advantages:
Carbon is lightweight, stiff and fast, but also expensive and not too crash resistant. Metal frames will dent from heavy blows, whereas carbon is more brittle and may well break. Essentially carbon frames excel at their chosen purpose (being stiff, fast, lightweight and strong) but struggle to deal with unnatural forces, such as those generated by crashes.
Alloy (aluminium) is slightly heavier, but cheaper than carbon; it isn't as strong as steel, but offers a better strength to weight ratio thus resulting in a lighter frame. It's far easier to repair than carbon, and the vast majority of manufacturers will produce a range of alloy framed bikes, making it more popular than steel. To summarise, alloy framed bikes are stiff, cost effective and pretty lightweight, yet not as fast as carbon.
Steel is real, as old time riders will tell you; a traditional material, which although slightly heavier still, is incredibly strong even in the event of a crash. Furthermore it is relatively easy to repair, resulting in a lengthy lifespan. Often used for training and winter bikes, steel is still a popular choice amongst British riders, although not as prevalent as carbon or alloy. As mentioned, there will be a weight penalty when choosing steel, however the increased durability may swing it for you.
In short, in terms of weight and racing performance the order goes Carbon > Aluminium > Steel, with this order reversed in terms of both crash resistance and ease of repairs. There's an excellent in-depth article at Road Cycling UK on frame material choice, so I'd encourage you to read that to learn more on the subject.
Whatever material you decide is best for you, please ensure than it is suitable for your riding. If you need to fit panniers and mudguards, then establish that this is possible.
I will cover more details on aspects such as drivetrain, wheels and components at a later date, but these are inevitably defined by your budget. You won't find Di2 and carbon wheels on a low end bike. My advice would be to choose the bike with the best frame which is most suitable for your riding, as you can always upgrade components at a later date. Bear in mind that the majority of new road bikes will not come with pedals, and if you're planning on riding clipped in then you'll also need new shoes, so please budget for these.
Your employer may offer a Cycle-to-work scheme which can help save you money on a new bike purchase. Also, depending on the retailer, you may be able to get cashback on a new bike purchase, so it's worth looking at Quidco, TopCashBack and the like to potentially save more money - a few percent can mount up given the cost of the bike. Members of British Cycling may get discounts at certain retailers, so in some cases it's worth paying for an annual membership just to get this discount.
Finally, it's worth searching for Reviews on Google and YouTube as whilst most modern road bikes are built to a high standard, occasionally issues arise with new manufacturing processes. The chances are many riders will have already purchased the same model as you intend to, so it's worth learning from their experiences before splashing the cash. Similarly research the retailer to find out real world experiences of their after sales support. You don't want to leave yourself stuck with a broken bike with a retailer refusing to answer your calls.
Enjoy your new bike!