A Common Sense Guide to Bicycles

What Type of Bicycle Should I Buy?

Published: 06/08/2009 by eBicycles

You'll make the most of your bicycling experience if you choose the right kind of equipment. Your bike should fit your needs, interests and fitness. Before you make a purchase consider a few factors such as the type of riding you will do and the kind of bike that will suit that riding. You can navigate this article using the links below:

What types of riding will you do?

There are many different types of riding, and you may find the cycling you do blends more than one style. You may also discover a style here youíd like to try that you have never considered. Ultimately the type of riding you do, will dictate the type of bicycle to purchase.

Recreational bicycle riders.
© istockphoto.com / Enjoylife2

Two bicycle riders on a designated bicycle path.

Recreation / Leisure

Leisure riding refers to the occasional jaunt for fitness when you head out to enjoy a park, the seaside or new town. For example it could be a Sunday afternoon ride with the kids, grand kids or friends in the city, park or bike track. These rides are usually short, infrequent, on flat or easy terrain and speed is not a factor. They require little in the way of equipment, clothing or fitness and any kind of bicycle could be including older styles with no gearing.

Touring cyclists traveling along a paved country road.
© istockphoto.com/ Zaharov

Touring cyclists, equipped with camping gear and other equipment, head out on a long distance ride.

Touring

Touring refers to long distance riding. It may incorporate cyclists on their way to work who have to pedal more than the usual 20-30 minute commute, or those on day trips, over night trips or even week or month long journeys who need to be self sufficient and carry gear with them. This may be a type of riding you have never considered and it can really be quite easy. If youíre camping you might need a bit of gear and side panniers, otherwise all you really need is a credit card to get food and accommodation along the way. You could consider exploring wine regions, visiting remote wilderness areas, joining a charity/endurance ride or even jetting off to far flung realms with a bike. For these longer journeys a touring or expedition bicycle is usually required.

See our guide to bicycle touring to learn more about this type of cycling.

Bicycle riders in the city.
© istockphoto.com / canbalci

City riders commute to work alongside traffic.

Road Riding

This cycling is usually done on superior surfaces such as pavement or bitumen. It may include commuting to work, getting to and from the shops, taking the kids to school or getting regular exercise. Or you may even want to step it up a notch and enter a triathlon, join a charity ride or a bike club. The great thing about road riding is any kind of bicycle can be used because the road surface is generally in a reasonable condition.

Mountain bikers wearing helmets on a hillside.
© istockphoto.com / dstephens

A pair of mountain bikers riding down a grassy hill.

Off Road Riding

Off road basically incorporates all inferior surfaces. It can simply be the shortcut along a track or through a garden that takes you off the tarmac to avoid traffic. Or it can be a little more challenging riding on railway trails, towpaths and farmland through to serious adventure on rough, rocky trails. The latter is defined more precisely as mountain biking. You may need to do off road riding to get to work, the shop or the local school depending on where you live or what route you plan to take. However most off road cyclists are usually out there to enjoy the wild and backwoods areas or the cycling challenges it offers. Usually a specific off road, mountain bike or hybrid bicycle needs to be used on these surfaces.

Racing bicycle and rider.
© istockphoto.com / w-ings

A cyclist racing at high speed.

Racing

If youíre considering entering races or even charity rides you may need a different kind of bicycle thatís built for speed and performance. The type of bike will depend largely on the surfaces you are covering. Generally triathlons require road bikes however multi sport athletes and extreme triathlons may be done on terrain that requires a mountain bike. Bikes that are used on velodromes are different again. They have a fixed rear gear enabling maximum speed and the rider slows by pushing back against their pedals.

Where will you be riding?

The terrain you cover will influence your purchase of a bicycle too and should be factored in. This is because you might be cycling on the road to work but the route there is largely hilly or partly off road, and therefore could mean a mountain bike or hybrid may suit better than a road bike.

A bicycle path.
© istockphoto.com / gioadventures

Designated bicycle path with plenty of elevation change.

Hills and Mountains

Generally if your riding area covers really mountainous terrain you need a lower range of gears to climb them comfortably. Mountain bikes or touring bikes, even recumbents, are best for climbing hills. Road bikes are generally built for speed on the flat but can handle hills of a reasonable gradient.

Bicycle path marker.
© istockphoto.com / tein79

Bicycle paths may have signs and/or pavement markings to help riders find them and stay on route.

Streets and Bike Paths

These are usually well paved so a road bike or hybrid will be the fastest possibility. Alternatively you may wish to get an old cruiser style to leave at the bus/train station for your commute to/from work that will be less temptation for thieves, or a fold up bike you can take on that bus/train.

A tree-lined country road.
© istockphoto.com / gioadventures

A country road, ideal for riding with a mountain bike or hybrid.

Country and Dirt Roads

The surface of country roads is far inferior to city streets. If they are particularly gravely or uneven, a hybrid, mountain or touring bike with wider tires will suit better as they do damage finer tires and rims of road style racing bikes. You can put slick tires on a mountain bike to give you more speed if the roads arenít overly rough. If you plan to do touring or rides of length outside cities you will most likely encounter rough roads.

A rocky, single-path mountain biking trail.
© istockphoto / andykazie

Dirt trails like this are bumpy, rocky and suitable for mountain bikes.

Off Road Trails

Rutted, rooty, rough tracks require bikes that can absorb the shock of the bumps and tires that wonít puncture easily. Hybrids can take a bit of this but for the more serious off road work you will need a mountain bike with front or possibly dual suspension. If you would like to ride to work on good suburban streets plus do a bit of off road recreationally you could consider a hybrid, or simply use a mountain bike and change to slicks for superior roads.

What's the right bicycle for me?

There are a number of types of bicycles, and each has its own uses, advantages and characteristics. You may even find a model in the list below you had not considered.

Woman's Road Bike: 2009 Specialized Vita
© Specialized Bicycle Components

The 2009 Specialized Vita is a woman's road bike with flat handle bars. MSRP $500 USD

Road Bikes

These bikes have a fine frame, thin tires, a short wheelbase and drop or flat handlebars. They are light and designed for speed but not as strong structurally as a mountain bike. They wonít stand up to any off road work and are only meant for use on superior surfaces like paved streets. If you have plans to enter triathlons, charity rides or commute to work over tarmac these are ideal.

Road bikes come in various sizes for all sizes of riders. Chatting with your local bike shop and using a frame sizing chart or bike size calculator will help you figure out what size road bike to get.

Touring Bicycle: 2009 Cannondale Touring 1
© Cannondale Bicycle Corp.

The 2009 Cannondale Touring I is designed for comfort and function, especially over long distances. MSRP $1,999 USD

Touring Bikes

Touring bikes are good for long distances and for carrying cargo. They have a bigger frame triangle and are structurally stronger than road bikes. They still have the drop handlebars and more gears than a simple road bike. The lower gears are particularly useful when youíre trying to move a load up hills.

Touring bikes use the same frame sizing as road bikes.

Mountain Bike: Trek 4300 WSD
© Trek Bicycle Corp.

The 2009 Trek 4300 WSD is a front-suspension mountain bike, designed for women. MSRP $479 USD

Mountain Bikes and BMX Bikes

Mountain bikes are generally top sellers for most bike shops because they are comfortable for cyclists to sit on, cheaper than road bikes and have a certain amount of status appeal of the extreme variety Ė attractive even if thatís not what youíre planning to use them for. In fact most mountain bikes are rarely used for what they are designed for. The wide tires and suspension absorb shock, making for a more stable ride and a bike that can handle rugged terrain without falling apart. While they are not as fast as road bikes they do have a wider range of gears suitable for climbing. If you plan to do more on road riding than off, or a combination, you can put on slick tires that are better suited to asphalt or bitumen. Mountain bikes are also very good as touring bikes although you canít pack gear around the suspension so it can limit what or how you carry gear. Do be aware also that if you are not using the mountain bike intentionally for what it was designed you are really paying for unnecessary features.

Mountain bikes use different sizing than road bikes, since they require more clearance over the top bar.  Using a mountain bike frame size chart or mountain bike size calculator will help you figure out what size mountain bike to get.

Bicycle motocross (BMX) bikes are not suited for commuting as the low seat position is uncomfortable over any distance, although children may find them okay. The lack of gears also makes climbing hills on a BMX a challenge. These bikes are designed for dirt racing, street riding and ramps.

The BMX frame size chart and BMX bike size calculator will help you figure out what size BMX bike will fit you.

Hybrid Bicycle: 2009 Schwinn Searcher GSD
© SCHWINN

The 2009 Schwinn Searcher GSD combines low-tread tires with a comfortable seating position, for on-road and off-road riding. MSRP $649 USD

Hybrids and Comfort Bicycles

Think of a cross between a road and a mountain bike and you basically have your hybrid. Hybrids also combine the best features of both bikes. They make for very good riding on shorter paved rides. They have slimmer frames than mountain bikes and narrower tires but slightly raised handlebars for a comfortable upright position. They do perform better on road and are generally used for leisure or commuting. They are generally a little more comfortable and stable than road bikes but not as fast and donít have as high a gear range as a mountain bike.

Hybrids and comfort bikes use either road bike sizing or mountain bike sizing, depending on the manufacturer and style of bike.

Cruiser: 2009 Nirve Sunflower Cruiser
© Nirve Sports Limited

The 2009 Nirve Sunflower Cruiser, laid back and ready for the beach. MSRP $359 USD

Cruisers

These old style bikes are the easy ride of the bike world. They are commonly used for shopping, going to the beach or a general amble. They have wide tires and seats and usually just one gear, which means they are best used on flat terrain. They also have upright handlebars that enable a good viewing position of the world around you.

Recumbent: 2009 Challenge Seiran 24
© Challenge BV

The Challenge Seiran 24 recumbent bicycle is designed for touring and long-distance riding. Base MSRP $2,500 USD

Recumbents

The recumbent bike places the rider in a reclined position which enables them to be more aerodynamic and generally more comfortable as their weight is distributed across the back and buttocks rather than just the latter. In fact they are so comfortable they have been successfully used for biking across countries and continents. Recumbents give you a better view of the world and handle headwinds very well. But they are difficult to manage at low speed particularly when traveling uphill, may not be as visible to other motorists and are generally more expensive than the average bike.

Electric Bicycle: 2009 Giant Hybrid Twist Freedom DWX
© Giant Bicycle Inc.

The 2009 Giant Twist Freedom DWX is a power-assisted bicycle that combines pedal power with battery power. MSRP $2,250 USD

Electric Bicycles / Power-assisted Bikes

These bikes have become more popular of late with people commuting to work who donít want to arrive sweaty or out of breath. They are powered by petrol engines or electric motors and the amount of assistance can be controlled. They have a more hybrid appearance and are heavier than the standard bicycle so if the engine is turned off they are harder to ride.

Folding Bicycle: 2009 Dahon Curve D3
© Dahon Inc.

The 2009 Dahon Curve D3 is an urban utility bicycle that folds up for easy carrying and storage. MSRP $599 USD

Folding Bicycles

These bikes are fantastic for storing away if you are traveling. The wheels, handlebars and frame hinge together and fit in a standard box that airlines accept and you can easily maneuver on to trains, buses and cars. People that use these bikes love the idea of having a bike they know at their destination. Some people are skeptical about how effective they are over long distances, but they have been used successfully for touring.

Tandem Bicycle: 2009 Co-motion Periscope Scout 700
© Co-motion Cycles Inc.

The 2009 Co-motion Periscope Scout 700 offers seating for two adults. MSRP $2,999 USD

Tandem Bikes or other Multi-rider Styles

These can be a fun way of getting around and allow families and couples to travel together. They are particularly good if one rider is weaker than the other. Tandems are generally fast to ride and good for touring although you are limited with what gear you can take as generally you can still carry just four saddlebags (some people tow a trailer for their extra gear). The tag along bike is another option particularly popular for children of in-between ages (roughly 4-7 years). These attach to the seat post of an adult bike like a kind of tandem and can be easily transferred from one bike to another.

Yuba Mundo Cargo Bike
© Yuba

The Yuba Mundo utility bike can be used to haul up to 400lbs (including driver) and is available in 6 speeds or 18 speeds. MSRP $999 - $1,099 USD

Utility / Cargo Bicycles

Utility and cargo bikes are the semi trucks of bicycles. They have an upright seating position with sturdy, elongated frames. The rims have more spokes for added strength, with wide tires for stability. Heavy duty racks over the rear tires provide space for all sorts of cargo. These bicycles are perfect for transporting kids, groceries, boxes, containers, surf boards or anything else you can safely fit onto the bike. A variety of accessories can be hooked onto the rear racks, such as child seats, baskets and panniers to secure cargo.

Other Bicycles

There are a number of other unconventional bike styles including unicycles, scooters, penny farthing, trikes or even cycle rickshaws. These types of bikes can really increase your enjoyment of the sport, open up new challenges and also create plenty of interest for other people.

How often will ride?

The amount of use you get from your bicycle may help you determine what to spend on it. Consider if you will be biking every day, once a week with a group or simply the occasional Sunday with friends or family. If you plan to cycle regularly or the bike is for daily use you may justify spending more money on it both during the initial purchase and any subsequent maintenance. If you plan only the occasional ride you may discover you donít even need to purchase your own bicycle or could share the costs with someone else. In holiday areas bikes are often available for rent and well maintained, and the cost of the occasional rental may be cheaper than the purchase and upkeep yourself. If you intend to use the bike for social riding only perhaps you would be better to split the costs with another person such as a family member. You should also consider if cycling is just a passing phase or something you are really serious about. If youíre unsure, consider borrowing a bike first and see if you enjoy riding and really want to cycle to work every day. You could also get a cheaper bike until youíre sure itís an activity you will continue.

Do you have any health considerations?

Bike riding can be as easy as coasting along flat, paved roads and as challenging as the calf burns of intense ascents or the hazards of rocky, technical descents. Whatever kind of riding you seek, you should consider if your health is up to par with what you intend to do. Cycling is certainly an excellent, low-impact means of getting fit and building up endurance slowly so you will be able to tackle more extreme rides eventually. Cycling is particularly good for older people, pregnant women or those with or recovering from an injury. It can easily be fitted into your week whenever you have spare time, and getting to work can be part of your exercise regime and not cost you any more time than it would sitting in traffic.

If you do have a level of fitness and cycling experience, you should still consider your health when attempting back country routes, uneven or hilly terrain and long distances. Cycling the pavements at home is not the same as trying to negotiate twists and turns off road or pedaling for hours and hours. Sore muscles, blisters, nausea, dizziness and black outs are just some of the physical reactions you might experience if you are not prepared. Extremes of weather can also be a health consideration, particularly heat if you are not able to carry enough water or get more along the way.

Back: Beginner's Guide to Choosing a Bicycle

Next: What Size Bicycle Do I Need?

Photo Gallery

There are many different types of bicycles to choose from.
© istockphoto.com / princigalli
  • Road Bicycle
  • Touring Bicycle
  • Mountain Bike
  • Hybrid Bike

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Reviews

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Thank You

from Raghuveer Pai - Bangalore - 11/08/2013 09:18:39

website really helped narrow down on bike i needed to buy. Very informative

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Just what I was looking for

from Ness - Slovenia - 08/05/2013 07:29:09

The above information is exactly what I needed to know, in order to get me the bike I want. Sufficiently detailed and to the point. Thank you!

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very helpful

from fatima - uk - 05/15/2013 08:39:07

Quite a good spread of info about the various types of bikes and their uses. very helpful basic info for a beginner like me. thanks