At this point I should be enlisting the marketing departments of a hundred different cycle manufacturers to guide me through the phantasmagoria of choice that is the modern bike industry; they are after all the experts. Willing souls that they are they do their best with talk of their 'nano-silica filled powerlux resins', high modulus carbon fibre lay-ups, oversize this, tapered that and aerofoil the other. The kings of hyperbole are perhaps Specialized, for whom 'all roads lead to awesome' and who design bikes that are a 'pure science mind wrapped in a lay-down-the-law body'. For the life of me I have no idea what that is meant to mean. No, bike manufacturers are of no use whatsoever when choosing a bike, their websites exist solely to validate the 'awesomeness' of your purchase, not as the basis for any decision making.
Cycling journalists are no better at guiding you through the miasma of choice. Their reviews consist of copy and paste technicalese interspersed with hackneyed clichés. Pick any review at random and you will read something along these lines:
Those thin walls combine with the tapering curve of the leaf spring-style top tube and super-skinny seatstays and genuinely seem to catapult you forwards. (Bikeradar).
However, nobody could say this bike wasn't smokin': a cigar is due for the level of comfort that all this achieves without compromising raciness. (Cycling Weekly).
Most reviewers seem completely hung-up on the holy grail of bicycle design; the creation of a frame that is both stiff and vertically compliant, ie rigid and bendy at the same time. This is much like the ancient alchemists quest to convert base metals into gold. Stiffness is good - a stiff frame helps you to accelerate more quickly. Bendy can be good; a bendy frame is more comfortable and (like many steel frames) has a nice springy feel to it. Unfortunately this quest is utterly futile; no frame can be both stiff and bendy at the same time as this would defy the laws of physics; anyone who tells you otherwise is deluded. That said making your bicycle more vertically compliant is easy - all you need to do is remove 20psi from each tyre. This has the added benefit of being a much cheaper solution than buying a new carbon fibre frame.
Rather than worry about all of this, I shall instead use just two criteria when selecting my new bike; it must be as light as possible and exquisitely good looking.
Having a light bike will make almost no difference in reality. On the flat a light bike is no quicker than a heavy one (unless you're trying to accelerate). Going downhill the lighter bike will be slightly slower (all other things such as aerodynamics and rider weight being equal). It is only going up hills that a light bike is an advantage, and even here the significant difference is in your imagination rather than bedded in reality. If you suspect that the bike you are riding is a little corpulent this will form the basis of the mantra that you mutter rhythmically under your breath as you climb 'stupidheavypieceofjunk, stupidheavypiece of junk' (repeat ad (possibly literal) nauseam). Only if you know that your bike is the lightest that money can buy will you finally accept that there is no inanimate object for you to blame. You will still be muttering 'stupidheavypieceofjunk' as you ascend, but this time you will be referring only to yourself.
It is a sad fact that in cycling it is the engine that is the important limiting factor; the quality of the bike is almost irrelevant. A race up Mont Ventoux between myself on a Pinarello and Nairo Quintana on a Raleigh Shopper with a rusty chain and two flat tyres would still not be any kind of a contest. Does this mean that I should buy a Raleigh Shopper and be done with it? Not at all because of category two:
The most important criterion for buying a particular bike has to be looks. There needs to be an element of coup de foudre to the buying process. Your eye must be captured by the elegant lines, the colouring and a certain radiant gleam emanating from the object of your attention. If you find a bike that you can't help gazing at from across a crowded beer garden during post ride recovery drinks, or one that attracts jealous glares from your comrades then you have found 'the one'. Any faults; a slight lack of vertical compliance perhaps, or a twitchy nervousness on technical descents will be forgiven in the face of such shimmering radiance.
I must confess to not being overly enamoured with the current crop of bikes which are all fussy curves and unsightly bulges; I much prefer tubes that are straight and tubular. Because of this, and because of a touch of impecuniousness my next bike will be a second hand one; I currently have my eye on a Cannondale caad3. In search of validation I have managed to track down a Cannondale brochure from 1999 which assures me that the frame is 'lighter than titanium' and has a 'flex-resistant, large diameter power pyramid to combat flex'. Plus ça change...