bike ownership is like boat ownership. i bought my first boat 11 years ago and immediately came down with a case of "2 foot-itis." traded it in for a bigger boat the next season, and so on. well, i find myself shopping for a new bike. i've been spending time visiting bike shops. i'm pretty overwhelmed with all the options. here are some very basic questions; i ride for fun/exercise. however, i'm itching to get into charity rides (and who knows what will happen from there). mostly, i ride out on country roads away from the crowds and cars. however, i do enjoy the occasional dirt and gravel path (i took my first mtb-type ride this w/e - it was tough but exhilirating). for these reasons, i'm still pretty sold on a hybrid or comfort bike. later, i plan on getting into the road bike market. long-winded post already...sorry for that. so, i'm lost. i've looked at some $250 schwinns that seem comfortable. i've seen a few gt's and giants that feel good, and the price starts to double. thing is, from short little rides around the shops, i can't tell much of a difference in these bikes. i guess its just due to inexperience. so, what i'm wondering is, besides weight and "fit," what should i be looking at "component-wise?" what components are higher quality and which one's do the lower end bike makers "skimp on?" what do i look for in rims? i've noticed most bikes under $500 have some version of shimano deraillers/shifting systems. does shimano make higher-end parts or should i look to other mfr's? i want to put a new bike on my xmas list but i don't know what to even ask for. help please!