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How to Choose the Right Bicycle – 4 Different Types of Bikes

By Laura Williams

bikingChoosing the bicycle that’s right for you is a little like choosing the right college: It’s a big investment, and while every option gets you from point A to point B, they won’t all get you there the same way or at the same speed. Making the right decision hinges on knowing your own needs and goals, and matching them to the right bike.

A high quality bike can range in price from $500 to more than $20,000, but there’s absolutely no reason for the average cycling commuter to spend anywhere near the top of that range.

Determine Your Needs

To determine what kind of bike you want, assess your needs by answering the following questions:

  1. How Do You Want to Use the Bike? Do you want to commute to work? Participate in road races? Attempt a triathlon? Hit the trails for a rocky ride? Or, do you simply want to take a spin around the block with the kids? Knowing how you plan to use your bike is the fastest way to narrow your choices.
  2. How Are You Going to Use the Bike? What you want to do and what you actually end up doing may be two different things. If you want to ride in a triathlon, but think you’re actually likely to spend more time going on family bike rides, you may not want to lay out the cash for a triathlon-specific bike. Instead, you’d be better off choosing a multipurpose road or hybrid bike that can get you through your first tri, but that also works well as a family-friendly fitness bike.
  3. Who Are You Going to Ride With? If a bunch of your friends go mountain biking on the weekends and you’re dying to join them, a road bike won’t do the trick.
  4. What’s Your Budget? If you don’t set your budget before you head to the store, you could end up looking at some killer bikes that are entirely out of your price range. Set a firm budget, leaving some wiggle room for bike accessories, such as a helmet, lock, and water bottle cage.

With your answers to these four questions in hand, you can confidently narrow down your search for the right bike.

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Primary Types of Bikes

Depending on the source, you may hear that there are three, four, five, or even six different kinds of bikes out there. Most people, however, only need to focus on four: road, mountain, hybrid, and recreational.

1. Road Bikes

Best For: Traveling on pavement over long distance at fast speeds; great for those who want to participate in races or who have a long commute to work.

Road bikes are the type most commonly used by professionals during road races, such as the Tour de France. They feature narrow wheels, a light frame, and typically have drop-bar handles that curve downward and toward the rider. Generally speaking, road bikes are more expensive than other types of bikes because of the materials and components used to make them light, agile, and aerodynamic.

The drop handles require riders to lean farther forward at the waist, a position some find uncomfortable when held for a long period of time. If comfort is a primary concern, traditional road bikes might not be a good fit. There are road bikes that feature straight bar handles – handles that are straight across and parallel to the ground. This style is commonly referred to as a “fitness” road bike, although the only real difference between the fitness version and the traditional version is the handlebars.

While fitness road bikes are not quite as common as the drop-bar model, this version does allow you to sit straighter on the bike, reducing lower back strain, a benefit to those who are new to road cycling and may need to improve overall skill before engaging in the more aerodynamic positioning required with the drop-bar handlebars.

Typical Pricing: $500 and up – many models are priced well over $2,000. Beginner road cyclists can pick up a quality bike for between $800 and $1,200. More expensive bikes feature more expensive components, such as lightweight carbon frames – features that are nice, but mostly unnecessary for non-competing cyclists.

2. Mountain Bikes

Best For: Off-road adventures covering rough terrain, such as rocks, tree roots, and single-track trails.

Mountain bikes are built rugged to handle anything Mother Nature throws at them. They typically feature wider tires with knobby tread to easily roll over rocks and roots. They also offer front- and rear-wheel suspension to reduce impact as you roll over rough terrain.

Mountain bikes tend to be heavier and slower than other bikes on the market due to their durable frame and components. While they can be ridden on pavement and streets, they’re less efficient than other models. Unless you actually plan to take advantage of the features of a mountain bike, there’s no point in paying for them when you could opt for a hybrid bike instead.

If you do plan on riding your bike on city streets rife with potholes, gravel pits, and curbs, a mountain bike might actually be a reasonable solution. Just make sure the terrain actually warrants the purchase.

Typical Pricing: $400 to well over $2,000. That said, a high-quality mountain bike can be purchased for between $800 and $1,500. Like road bikes, mountain bike pricing varies greatly by the components and features included. Mountain bikes with lightweight carbon frames, 29-inch wheels, and high-end suspension systems are going to cost more than those without. Before shelling out a lot of money on a higher-end bike, consider the type of mountain biking you’re likely to do. If you’re going to ride well-groomed trails with few drop-offs, rocks, or other barriers, you can probably get away with purchasing a less technical bike.

3. Hybrid Bikes

Best For: Riders who want a durable and fast bike that handles city terrain with ease, but can also be used on well-maintained trails; good for the novice road racer or triathlete.

Hybrid bikes combine features to create a reasonably fast option that is more agile than a mountain bike, but sturdier than a road bike. The result is a high-quality solution perfect for the potholes, curbs, and gravel frequently encountered on city streets. Hybrid bikes are also effective for novice road racers or triathletes who want to start competing, but aren’t ready to commit to a pricey race bike. Hybrid bikes feature midsized tires, as well as straight handlebars, which are preferred by most riders.

Typical Pricing: $400 to $1,500. As with all bikes, you get what you pay for. Most commuters can get away with a $500 to $700 bike with a heavier, less expensive frame, and mid-level gear, handlebar, and seat components. Those purchasing a bike for racing purposes might want to spend more for a lighter weight frame, smoother gears, a better seat, and other higher-end features.

4. Recreational or Cruiser Bikes

Best For: Recreation – easy, comfortable rides on flat terrain.

Recreational bikes are perfect for the casual rider who wants to cruise around town without a need for speed, agility, or a high level of durability. Many recreational bikes only have a single gear (referred to as “fixies” because the gear is fixed), making them ineffective at climbing hills or competing in races. These are perfect for riding to the park with your kids or to the market for a few bags of groceries. That said, if you live in an area with lots of hills, or if you want a bike that’s sturdy enough to pull a heavy load, a hybrid is probably your best bet.

Typical Pricing: $200 to $850. While bike components play a part in the price of a recreational bike, the major difference here is brand and style. Some brands, such as Big Shot, allow you to customize the color and style of your fixie recreational bike, but you end up paying a premium for the service.

Women’s Bikes

While women’s bikes aren’t a specific type, they are made specifically for a woman’s anatomy. Women tend to have longer legs in proportion to their torsos, and bike frames may be built to accommodate those proportions.

If you’re a woman, ask your bike shop about dedicated frames and whether they’re a better choice based on your specific anatomy. With the growth seen in women’s cycling, you shouldn’t have a problem finding high-quality women’s models within each bike category, and you can expect them to be priced similarly to bikes that aren’t gender-specific.

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Making the Purchase

If you haven’t owned a bike in a long time, ask family members and friends if you can borrow one for a weekend ride. Do this on several occasions with different bikes to start getting a feel for the components and types of bicycles you like. This can pay off significantly when it comes time to make your own purchase.

Once you’ve narrowed down the type of bike you want to purchase, do plenty of research. Start visiting local bike shops and ask whether they have demo days when you can test out the models you’re interested in.

While you’re likely to get lots of advice from family and friends about bike brands and components, test all options with an open mind. You’re buying a bike, not a brand, and the one that works well for your best friend might not be the best fit for you. This is largely due to personal preference, but some bike brands, such as Raleigh, are known to be heavier or less agile – your competitive cyclist friend may see this as a detraction, but if you’re just starting out, you may appreciate the sturdy feel of a heavier frame.

Get Fitted

Even the perfect bike needs to be fitted to suit its rider. Everyone’s height, weight, torso length, leg length, and joint angles are slightly different. A proper bike fitting takes your specific anatomy into account as its components are adjusted to maximize power and minimize inefficiencies.

Most shops offer complimentary fittings when you’ve purchased the bike there, but if you bought yours online or from a friend, expect to pay a couple hundred dollars for the service. If you have any desire to enhance your cycling performance, a proper bike fitting is a necessary step.

Buying Used

A used bike isn’t necessarily a bad bike. In fact, some shops sell refurbished models that are almost as good as new. If you’ve done your research and have test-driven a particular bicycle you love, look for the same model on eBay or Craigslist to see if you can score a deal. Bikes are much like cars, in that a new one depreciates about 50% as soon as you ride it out of the store. This means that in some cases you can find a reasonably high-end bike for a fraction of the original sales price – especially if it needs some TLC.

As long as its frame isn’t completely rusted out or damaged, a bike shop can get a used bike to run like new for a reasonable fee, enabling you to save a fair amount of money on the exchange. Typical repairs for used bikes include replacing brake pads, cables, and tires, installing a new chain, and adjusting the derailleur for gear shifting. You can expect to pay about $100 for parts and service for these repairs, as long as you’re not purchasing high-end components – but check with your local bike shop to see what it charges. If you’re handy, you could even do the repairs yourself with the assistance of quality YouTube videos or friends from a bike club.

Final Word

While it’s easy to get sticker shock when looking at bikes, you do need to understand that you get what you pay for. Don’t buy the least expensive bike simply because it costs less. Chances are, the components, frame, and tires are lower quality,  and the bike is going to undergo more wear and tear than a better built one.

This doesn’t mean you need to buy the most expensive option out there either. Search out reviews and look for good deals. Early to late fall is a great time to buy because bike shops start receiving the next year’s model and are more likely to discount what’s currently in stock. And remember, while the purchase price of most high-quality bikes certainly isn’t cheap, it’s well worth the investment if you put yours to use on a daily or weekly basis.

What additional tips can you suggest for those looking to purchase a bicycle?

Laura Williams
Laura Williams holds a master's degree in exercise and sport science and enjoys breaking up her day by running her dogs, hitting the gym, and watching TV. Having been in charge of her own finances since the early age of 12, she knows how to save and when to spend, and she loves sharing these tips with others. Laura ditched her career as a fitness center manager for the relative freedom of home-based writing and editing work. She stays busy by working on her own website, GirlsGoneSporty, a website designed to help the sporty woman live the sporty life.

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