So, you are thinking about buying a bike. Great decision! Biking is a fantastic way to travel, exercise, see the world and do some good for the environment. The following guide is geared toward casual riders or those who haven’t ridden in a while, and it provides an overview of the types of bikes to consider pricing, sizing and other helpful information that will get you on two wheels! The goal of this guide is not to recommend specific brands but to help you determine how to buy a bike that will bring you the most comfort, performance and versatility for your needs.
Riding Style, Types of Bikes and Cost
The first thing to consider when selecting a bike is where you will be riding. Will it be paved roads, dirt trails, gravel paths or some combination of the three? Most bicycles are designed for specific purposes so considering where you will be doing most of your riding should be a primary factor in selecting which type of bike to purchase. Prices for bicycles can range from $400 to $3,000, but can be found for $8,000 or more! Cost for a bike is largely determined by the material the bike is made of, the manufacturing method and the quality of the components. Most manufactured bike frames are typically made out of steel, aluminum, titanium or carbon fiber and have a great influence on the bicycle cost. For more information on bike materials, read our article on the pros and cons of various bike frames and component materials.
1. Road Bikes
Typically ridden on pavement, road bikes are the lightest bicycle (compared to mountain and comfort-style bikes). Road bikes are often used for racing, bike commuting, long-distance rides and bike touring. When compared to mountain bikes or hybrids they will feel more responsive, faster, and more nimble. When sizing any bike, fit is crucial. It ensures proper alignment and comfort when riding, but this is especially true when fitting for a road bike. Consulting your local bike shop on fit is always a wise investment of your time. Road bike handlebars typically come in two configurations: drop bars and flat bars.
Drop bars are curved and allow for multiple hand positions, enabling the rider to pedal efficiently while also obtaining the most aerodynamic body position. The typical and most efficient body position is where one is bent over at the waist.
Backroads Pro Tip
Riding while bent at the waist is the most efficient position, but this can be difficult for those with limited flexibility or back issues. If either case applies to you, drop bars might not be the optimal fit for you.
Drop bars are often set up with integrated shifters. This is where the brake and shifter mechanisms are combined to form one component.
Flat bars are a positive alternative for a rider who would like the benefits of a lightweight road bike but would be more comfortable in an upright riding position. This upright position is less aerodynamically efficient than a drop-bar style but can reduce strain on the body and offer a slightly better vantage for riding. Most flat bars will have either grip shifters – where shifters are integrated into grips, or trigger shifters – where the shifting takes place using the thumbs via mounts below the grips.
2. Mountain Bikes
Typically ridden on dirt trails or gravel roads, mountain bikes are designed to handle the tough elements that come with off-road terrain. Many mountain bikes come with low gear ratios, suspension and design to help control the bike on rocks, roots and steep terrain. Mountain bikes can also be suitable for road riding or commuting, but the heavier build will be less efficient on the road.
Backroads Pro Tip
When considering how to buy a bike that’s right for you, the daily commuter should keep in mind that hardtail mountain bikes are a good choice if you want a bike that can handle both rough streets and dirt trails.
Mountain bikes come in a few varieties, with the main differences being frame type, wheel size and gearing. An important thing to remember if you are purchasing a mountain bike is that not all components or wheel sizes fit all frames and forks, so take note of frame and fork types, as well as wheel sizes, when making a purchase or replacing components.
Mountain Bike Frames and Wheel Sizes:
Hardtail bikes are designed with a front suspension fork but without rear suspension. This type bike is a good choice if you want the versatility of riding on streets as well as trails. Hardtail bikes are typically less expensive than full-suspension models, but they also provide less control on steep, technical terrain.
Full-suspension bikes are built with a suspension fork in the front and a shock in the rear of the bike allowing for maximum control on steep, rocky, technical terrain. The term “travel” is used to describe the amount of shock absorption a suspension system is capable of handling, and it can typically range anywhere from three to eight inches of travel. Short-travel shocks (three to four inches of travel) are normally found on “cross country” bikes, which are made for riding on technical single-track and off-road terrain. Long-travel shocks (four inches of travel or more) are usually found on trail and downhill bikes, which are designed to be ridden in the most technical, mountainous terrain.
Wheel size on mountain bikes has changed in recent years. You will likely choose between either 27.5” (650B) or 29” wheel (26” used to be the standard for many years). If you are new to the sport, either choice will be great; a good way to decide is to think about your riding goals. If you are thinking about riding cross country with smooth, less technical features, a 29” bike would likely be the best choice. For more technical or aggressive riding a 27.5” wheel offers more control. Keep in mind that your choice in wheel size can also be influenced by your height with taller riders fitting better on a 29” bike and shorter riders being better suited to 27.5”
3. Comfort and Hybrid Bikes
Comfort bikes are best suited for the recreational rider and are designed to be versatile and able to perform well on paved roads or gravel paths. They are typically designed to emphasize comfort and easy handling. Some bikes in this category will even include front suspension to make the ride even smoother. Many comfort bikes offer wider wheels, enabling a smooth ride and ease of travel on unpaved surfaces. Hybrids offer the best of both comfort bikes and road bikes. They often have the large wheels and tires found on road bikes combined with the upright configuration found on comfort bikes.
Other Bikes Categories and Terms
This type of bike can often be found in any of the above categories—mountain, road or comfort/hybrid. Women’s bikes are typically designed with a frame geometry that best fits a woman’s body. Women-specific bikes also regularly include narrower handlebars and wider seats than you might find on unisex bikes.
Urban and Commuter Bikes
Built for daily travel in comfort (most often in cities), these bikes are designed to have strong frames and wheels that can stand up to the rigors of city streets. They regularly have features such as fenders, racks and lights.
This type of bike is a great choice for commuters or individuals who want a bike to travel with. Many folding bikes can be stored in a bag or carry case, and they transport easily on a train or bus. These bikes are less durable than traditional bikes and often less comfortable.
Backroads Pro Tip
Folding bikes are great for city dwellers who are short on living space because these bikes store easily and efficiently.
Electric Bikes (eBikes)
Electric-assist bikes are a great option for those who want some additional assistance when pedaling. Many eBikes offer extra power while riding and can be adjusted on the fly in order to provide the energy needed while doing everything from climbing hills to pedaling on flat roads. E-Bikes come with rechargeable batteries, and while these batteries add extra weight, they can significantly add to the joy of riding for individuals who are not as comfortable powering constantly under their own steam.
Children’s bikes are measured by wheel size (not frame size as with adult bikes), so it is important to buy a bike that enables the child to get on the bike and stand with both feet on the ground.
Backroads Pro Tip
While it’s tempting to buy a bike that is slightly too large for your child, hoping he or she will grow into it, avoid this approach! For safety reasons, your child’s bike should always be the proper size.
In addition to riding style and sizing, bike fit is another crucial factor that helps ensure a pleasurable bike riding experience. It’s best to get in-person expert advice from a bike shop to be sure your bike is properly fit to you, as today’s bikes come in so many different styles that there is no general rule that is universally applicable. However, for many traditional bikes styles, there’s a general way to assess fit in a few simple steps. First, stand over the bike’s top tube in a straddle position. On road bikes there should be at least one inch of clearance, and on mountain bikes there should be two inches of clearance. Next, consider the seat height. Your knee should have a slight bend in it when your foot is properly placed on the pedal and extended to its lowest point. The seat can be adjusted up or down accordingly. Lastly, note the distance between the seat and handlebars. This is another factor to consider when fitting a bike to your comfort level. Sizing will vary slightly depending on gender, leg length and torso length, so be sure to ask your professional bike shop for assistance if you are not sure.
If you are unsure what bike to try or if you just want to try out some different options to see what you like best, take a test ride! Most bike shops will let you try out a bike, or you can rent a certain style for a day to get a real feel over a longer period of time. Many bike companies will also do “demo days” at local parks, and this is a great way to try out different models or styles of bikes. Knowing how to buy a bike can be confusing, but there’s one simple rule that can’t lead you astray: if it feels good while you are riding it, chances are you will have a great time owning it!
Last but not least, always make sure you are safe out there! Helmets are always a good idea, regardless of your bike or riding style. Some additional gear to consider purchasing, depending on where you will be riding, can include lights; gloves; knee, shin and elbow pads; and bright, reflective clothing.
The most important tip of all, though, is to have fun!