Impressions on bikes I have tested, a dummy's point of view
I have been searching for a good cross bike in Kansas City. I have tested a bunch of bikes and have a couple more planned. However I am having a feeling that I will be buying a lesser bike, or a more expensive bike just to be at a bike shop that I enjoy working with. My budget is $1400 and these are the bikes I have available. My LBS of choice is the one that offers the specialized and ridley. My next choice offers Cannondale and Surly.
I am using the bike for a mix of fitness, touring (50 - 60 mi day rides with light load), and gravel roads.
2009 Jake the Snake - comfortable bike, needs faster tires
2009 Felt f35x - uncomfortable geometry, may be reason for only 1 year productions
2011 Tricross Sport - somewhat disappointed, didn't shift as smooth as I would have hoped probably because of the triple. I felt spread out on their frame.
2011 Ridley X-bow - I enjoyed this bike a lot. Same shop as the Specialized Tricross. However the price is 1400 for Tiagra components.
2011 Cannondale CaadX 105 - for $1400 this seems to be the best equipped bike in the group. Shimano launched new 105 components this year so this should be better than the Jake the Snake from 2009. I enjoyed the ride, it was pretty stiff and I wonder if it will be comfy for touring.
2010 Nova Race - This bike is under $1000. The dealer is about 45 minutes away so my main concern is should I buy from a place not near my house?
2011 Surly Cross Check - I plan to ride this bike in a couple of days. The dealer is not near, but I hear that these bikes are worth checking out.
I have considered looking at touring steel bikes as well, but am not sure that cyclocross bike won't do what I want it to do.
Re the JTS: It will probably have had dirt tyres on as opposed to, say, the Tricross's semi-slicks. Just allow for this when you test. For the riding you described you probably want 35 or 40mm Duremes - do a forum search for Will Dehene's test of these.
You should also get the store to fit - or do the job yourself - a fork mounted canti hanger; it will increase braking power and reduce squeal with almost all of these bikes. Kona make an excellent hanger for $20. I can't emphasize this enough: a cantilever brake bike without the damn hanger is crippled.
Change the stock brake pads for Kool Stops.
I wouldn't write off a triple if you're planning on loaded touring in country with hills. How lightly loaded will you be? Have you toured before?
Does the Caad really have decent eyelets for racks? I'm surprised.
How broad are your shoulders? If you're on the wide side it might be an idea to get the store to build up the bike you buy with extra wide bars - Salsa Bell Laps and Nitto Noodles come in wide sizes. While you're doing that, get them to put some extra cushioning on the bar for gravel - pipe foam, an extra layer of tape, hight tech bike specific gel, whatever.
If you don't like the saddle that comes with a bike, ruthlessly make the store audition different saddles with the bike before you hand over your cash.
I made a decision and ordered a bike. I ordered the Ridley X-bow. It only has 9speed Tiagra components and was expensive, but there were a lot of unquantifiable things that I really liked about how it fit me. I was testing a size larger than what they ordered for me though.
In the end, I liked riding all the bikes except for the Surly with bar end shifters, the Felt's ridged ride and the Specialized just really under-wowed me even though I loved the idea of the internal cables and the mountain bike-like rear gearing.
The Ridley has a compact 48/34 in the front so I tested it up a bunch of hills and it seemed like enough, but who knows what it will feel like with a load. We'll see how it goes, but it really is a nice bike.
As for the saddle, I have my own that I am going to use on the new bike anyhow.
2013 Kona Jake, 2008 Kona Major Jake, 2013 Kona Jake the Snake, 1999 Kona Muni Mula, 2012 Ridley Excalibur, 2008 Surly Long Haul Trucker
Nice choice. I think you'll be happy with that.
I've got 46-36 chainrings with a 12-27 cassette on the Kona Jake that I use for commuting. For the most part, I really like this gearing. The only time I don't like it is when I get to the 1/4 mile of 20% grade that leads to my house, and even that isn't quite bad enough to convince me to go to a triple, though I might swap in a 34-tooth ring. I think that unless you have a long steep climb that you do regularly, your 48-34 setup should be good.
The x-bow is a great versatile bike, raceable, but still makes a great fendered commuter or winter training bike. I'll admit tiagras not the best but I have a season of cyclocross and about 5000 miles on Tigara components. (minus the cassette and things that wear obviously) but unless your an idiot and don't know how to set up derailleurs it shifts fine, just not the lightest.