Congratulations, you are now wading through the media hype, a bunch of suggestions from friends, the desire to make the best choice, and entering in to the world of your next / first bicycle purchase.
How do you choose the best bike for YOU ?
Generally speaking the bikes at any Independent Bicycle Shop (IBD) will be of good quality. The Industry on the whole has made sure of that.
IBD's are required to assemble the bike before it is sold to the consumer. There are variables as to how professionally the bike goes together but it will be assembled for you at no extra fee.
There are no set rules or guidelines as to the amount of post sale service that is offered. Some shops offer a time-line for free adjustments and some organizations sell a "service package" with your purchase.
So if all things seem sort of equal, how do you choose?
The best approach is to go into your local shop and test ride bikes in your price range. Don't worry about reviews as much as how a particular bikes feels when you ride it. Ever seen a review written by a Mom or Dad with 2-3 kids and limited amounts of spare time ? Or a college student looking for a commuter ? How about someone training for their first Tri ?
A good bike shop will be able to listen to you and find a few bikes that best match your needs. A great bike shop will be able to share the additional knowledge of cycling/ training/ competing/ touring over for the last 30-40 years in the Bay Area and beyond. After test riding those few bikes I guarantee you will be able to say one felt better than the other. You just figured it out. Congratulations! You found the bike that is best suited for you !
( BTW studies have proven that it takes longer to figure out which bicycle to purchase than which car to buy. ) Happy cycling !