Road bikes costing less than $1,000 usually have aluminum frames that tend to be heavier and transmit more road vibration. However, some budget-friendly bikes include a few carbon composite accents in the fork and rear triangle to lighten the load and help dampen vibration. You'll also find lower-quality components, which may impact performance, but many riders with a good base bike find they can switch these out later.
You can find cheap road bikes with smaller price tags, but experts say they aren't worth the much heavier frames and low-quality components that will require frequent repairs or adjusting.
Balancing performance, quality and value, the Diamondback 2012 Podium 1 Road Bike (*Est. $560) is our favorite entry-level model. Reviewers say that after being calibrated correctly, it rides very smooth and light. The Podium 1 has a quality 7005 aluminum frame coupled to a carbon fork. The included Shimano Sora rear derailleurs and dual-control shifters may not compare to Ultegra performance, but beginning riders won't need any better. After naming it one of the best road bikes under $1,000, CheapRoadBikes.org adds, "You can easily upgrade [components] individually."
This road bike does require assembly, and while users say it's not difficult, a final tune-up at a professional bike shop is highly recommended. Once the Podium 1 is calibrated, owners are surprised at how fast and smooth it rides; its slightly elevated headtube means a more comfortable, less crouched position. Users' only complaint is the seat, which they say is too uncomfortable for long treks.
The Giant Defy 2 (*Est. $800) is another front-runner in the cheap bike category. Triathlon Plus magazine editors say the "Defy's frameset is based around Giant's signature compact design and has a low-slung top tube that leaves plenty of exposed seat tube, its slim arched seat stays offering masses of compliance over rough surfaces." While handling is best described as encouraging, "its stability left us brimming with confidence but without ever being sluggish."
It also gets Bicycling Magazine's 2012 Editors' Choice award as best entry-level bike for the third year in a row. Editors say, "at speed, hints of the Giant Defy 2's race-inspired pedigree show through admirably, but the bike's handling remains neutral and stable, due in part to an upright position."
If you're an aspiring racer willing, the Cannondale CAAD8 Tiagra (*Est. $1,050) is worth considering. Road.cc says the bike feels "light and nimble" with precise steering; quick descents remain stable thanks to the carbon-bladed Cannondale Ultra fork. The frame is a "really high quality piece of work" featuring Cannondale's Synapse Active Vibration Elimination (SAVE) seat stays to provide bump and buzz absorption at the back, editors say.