No bike does everything perfectly. In fact, no bike does anything until someone gets on it and pedals! Choosing the right bike for your “riding style” can be a difficult task, especially since many people have a pretty fluid definition of what that really is, and because there are simply a dizzying array of bikes out there to confuse the newbie thoroughly.
To get you started, here is a general breakdown of the different kinds of bikes that are generally available. There are other specialty bike types that won’t be covered here. Some bicycles are made specifically for a particular kind of riding surface, while others are versatile enough that, perhaps with some minor changes they can be ridden in more than one category.
Best for: Pavement
Description: Generally lighter in weight than the typical mountain or comfort bike, road bikes are good for multiple pavement uses including fitness riding, long-distance, event rides, touring and racing. They are suitable for riders ranging from novices to seasoned enthusiasts. Proper fit for most road bikes is particularly important, as a poor fit can be uncomfortable or even painful. In addition, a poorly fitting road bike can also reduce the efficiency of your pedaling. Some models are built for speed with a more aerodynamic riding position, while others provide a more upright experience. Prices typically range from $600 and up.
Road bikes are often distinguished by two basic handlebar styles:
Drop-bar handlebars are lightweight and aerodynamic and are a better choice if you want to go faster or if you are more concerned with efficiently transferring your energy into making the bike move forward. They also allow for a greater number of riding and hand positions than flat-bars. Their more aerodynamic riding position (bent over at the waist) may put more strain on your back and shoulders if you are less flexible, but you’ll at least be going fast!
Flat-bar handlebars combine the efficiency of drop-bar road bikes with a slightly more upright riding position. This allows you to sit up in a higher and more relaxed position so you can better see the road and potential hazards. An upright position also reduces strain on your hands, wrists and shoulders. This increased versatility comes with the tradeoff of being slightly less efficient (from an aerodynamic standpoint) than the typical drop-bar road bike.
Best for: Dirt or rocky trails and gravel roads; OK for pavement too (just not very efficient).
Description: Designed with shock-absorbers and better brakes, mountain bikes can handle dirt trails and the rocks, roots, bumps and ruts that come with them. They feature lower (easier) gears than most road bikes to better handle steeper terrain. Mountain bikes can be a good choice for commuting because they can withstand potholes yet still providing comfort. However, the smaller diameter wheel of traditional mountain bikes (26 inch) is less efficient on pavement than the larger diameter wheel of a road bike (700c), and the typically knobby tires only make matters worse.
To address this, many mountain bikes are now designed with 29-inch wheels. These larger diameter wheels and tires provide decreased rolling resistance and more easily roll over obstacles, at the cost of some agility. Prices range from around $400 and up.
The two main types of mountain bikes are full-suspension and hardtail. Full-suspension mountain bikes offer both front and rear suspension, while hardtails only come with front shocks. Full-suspension mountain bikes are used most often for downhill riding and rougher cross-country terrain.
Best for: Pavement or gravel/dirt roads. (not good for mountain bike trails)
Description: These bikes emphasize comfort and ease of handling. They are ideal for riding around flat neighborhoods, parks and of course, bike paths. Some styles offer bigger wheels for an extra-smooth and efficient ride and many feature front suspension forks as well. These bikes are good for general riding, casual family outings or those who haven't ridden in a while. Many have wider tires so you can ride them on gravel or dirt as well as pavement. Some models include rear racks and/or fenders. Prices range from $350 to $800.
There are two main types of recreational bikes:
Comfort bikes are just that--comfortable. They feature slightly wider tires than other pavement bikes, a comfortable seat and a very relaxed sitting position. Many styles also offer a suspension seat post that compresses when you sit on it, providing extra comfort and shock absorption.
Hybrid bikes aim to offer the best of the road- and comfort-bike worlds. While they have a comfortable seat, upright sitting position and sometimes suspension forks and/or seat posts, they also offer the more efficient pedaling of larger diameter wheels versus the comfort bikes with 26-inch wheels. These are a good choice if you want to commute to work and enjoy leisurely rides on the bike trail.
So which type of bike is right for you? If you’re still not sure then take a trip to your local shop. Get some friendly advice and maybe take a test ride. It’s the only way to make sure you get the right size bike that is comfortable for you. Don’t forget there are also some other bike styles out there that we couldn’t cover here, like BMX and urban/commuting bikes. Be sure to check them out, and more importantly get out and ride!
Matt Van Gelder has worked in bike shops every summer since middle school. After completing his bachelor’s degree in Financial Services from Bryant University, he decided it was time to open his own shop, Dennis Cycle Center on the Cape Cod Rail Trail in Dennis, and comnbining his finance skills with his bike shop experience.