I've been absent from riding for a month saving a few bucks (and adding a few pounds back )
So I went to a bike shop, told the guy my story, mentioned nothing about budget and he points me over to the Raleigh Mojave 3.0 & 2.0. Says until I come back with a good year of dedication & dropped a little more weight, he didn't want to put me on any of his more expensive models.
He was very informative, had me ride a couple different sizes of both bikes and I settled on the 3.0 (Aluminum frame & I now know why people would rather cut off a finger than give up their thumb shifters!!!)
Ended up paying $315 and includes a couple tune ups.
I know it's not a top end bike but I had such a good experience and have been on 3 awesome rides (damn northeast weather or else it'd been 4) that I wanted to share.
Good Times All