Why is this the most important? Because you, the consumer, ARE the market. With some exceptions that are still up for discussion (650b/27.5 wheels), brands and manufacturers aren't going to do much unless they believe you, the market, will buy it. You vote with your dollars, and they need your vote. If this is true, and it is my aim to prove it to you, we're gonna need to get a little philosophical, and you're gonna need to come with me.
First, and most importantly, you need to know what kind of riding you're into. For some, this is going to seem laughably easy, but if you're new to the sport, this can be a really difficult thing to nail down. Some of the best sales training I've received taught me to help the customer write the script to his/her movie, starring them and their bike. In that movie, what's going on? Where are you? Where are you going? How far from home are you? Are you riding at a comfortable pace, or are you pushing yourself? Anybody there with you? Are they your friend or competitor? Are you riding to be social or to get/stay fit? Figuring this out is THE MOST IMPORTANT thing you can do as a consumer.
Second, be realistic. Did you picture yourself elbow to elbow with the pros, in the sprint to the finish in one of the classics? That's not going to happen. Think you're going to get fit, get competitive, and wind up a Cat 1/2? If you need to get fit, that's probably not going to happen either. My point is, most of us are not competitive, and of those who are competitive, we are nowhere near the front of the pack. For the vast majority of cyclists, life is a lot better when we don't compete and just enjoy riding for riding.
This is why this is important: if you're with me so far, you don't need a carbon fiber bike at all. You may think you want one, you may actually want one, and the sales associate with whom you're working may want to talk you into thinking you want one, but you definitely do NOT need one. You may ask, "but so what, what's the harm in wanting a carbon fiber bike?"
Because carbon fiber is expensive, and every bike model from every brand at every price point is a study in economics. It's no coincidence that every one of the big brands has a bike with similar parts within a couple hundred dollars of each other. Those brands need a bike at a given price point to be competitive, so every bike is a give and take, a compromise. Want a better rear derailleur than your competitor? That costs more, so maybe you specify a less expensive, lower quality front derailleur, which is not as noticeable. Want nicer wheels? Then you need to cover the expense of those nicer wheels by specifying a less expensive part somewhere else. This is ABW's Fourteenth Law of The Bicycle Industry: There are no free lunches when it comes to the parts on a bike.
Know what the most expensive part of a carbon fiber bike is? Yup. With very few exceptions that don't pertain to this conversation (wheels), the frame is the most expensive part of the bike. You want a carbon fiber frame, the other parts are going to be less expensive and lower performance.
Again you may ask, "so what, what's the harm in that?" Here's another place where I need you to come with me: the bicycle frame has relatively little to do with the overall quality of the riding experience. It's true. When you take into account the wheels, shifters, brakes, saddle, bar tape, gloves, shoes, shorts, etc, whether or not you're riding a carbon fiber bike isn't going to have much to do with whether or not you're enjoying your ride. Put another way, switching out the quality of the shorts you're wearing will have a far greater impact on your enjoyment than will switching out to a different frame.
What's that you say? You want data? Sure. Below are MSRPs from The Big 3 for their least expensive carbon bikes, along with the general level of components found on them.
Trek: Madone 3, $1979.99
Spec: Roubaix SL4, $1800.00
Giant: TCR Composite 2, $1850.00
Trek: Mix of 105 components, in-house parts
Spec: Sora, in-house parts
Giant: 105/Tiagra, in-house parts
Compare the Madone 2.1 (aluminum frame) to the Madone 3, and you will see they have nearly identical components and parts, but the Madone 2.1 costs $550 less. With that money saved, you have a lot of choices in gloves, shorts, shoes, and possibly even upgrades that will have a far greater effect on the actual quality of the ride experience. Or, you can put it in your espresso and beer fund, either of which make a great excuse to stop on a ride, and either of which will boost the enjoyment quotient.
The bottom line is the number. Unless you get paid to ride your bike, you don't need carbon fiber, and your hard-earned money is better spend elsewhere.
If the first thing you thought upon reading this is, "yeah, but isn't aluminum really stiff and unforgiving and uncomfortable," we'll cover this in the next post. That's a horribly outdated, even ancient misconception.