A lot of people come into the shop and say they want a bike, but when asked, they don't really know what kind of bike they want to ride. This is a $400+ decision so it should really require a little bit of thought. Here are 4 easy steps that will help you finalize the decision:
1. IMAGINE YOURSELF RIDING. Are you slinging up mud while barreling through a forest trail? Are you contesting the sprint on the morning ride? Cruising on the bike path, pulling the kids in a trailer, riding to work, or are you trying to drop a few pounds? The thing with bikes is they are designed for specific riding conditions. There are only a couple of bikes that can handle multiple terrains. Once you can verbalize the way you see yourself on a bike you can narrow down the many different bike choices.
2. POLL YOUR FRIENDS. Getting out by yourself can be a little intimidating so find out what kind of bikes your friends are riding. This can be a good way to find a riding buddy; getting a bike similar to theirs will allow you to ride at a similar pace, where one person won't be working too hard.
3. BE PREPARED TO TEST RIDE. Would you buy a car without test driving it first? Why are you gonna buy a bike without taking it for a spin and seeing how it feels? Wear something that will allow movement but don't wear anything super baggy that could get caught in a chain. In addition to making sure the bike works properly you can make sure you feel good on the bike.
4. ASK EVERY QUESTION YOU CAN. The employees are full of knowledge so pick their brains. Is the seat at the proper height? How do you take off the front wheel? What if something breaks? What can the bike shop do for you? There are lots of questions that might get left out of the conversation. The employees don't know how much you already know about bikes so help them out by asking lots of questions. It's kind of like an interview where you are the employer and the bike shop is the employee: they want to work for you in exchange for your money!
Now that you've found a bike that rides great and feels great, you are ready to purchase. You've also formed a relationship with your Local Bike Shop. Keep in touch with them, friend them on facebook, etc... Shops have weekly group rides and will often host events like demos (where you can test ride the best bikes out there) and Ladies Night (where just women can gather and learn maintenance and riding tips).