Buying a new bicycle is a big decision. For one thing, it’s a major investment. High-quality bikes can cost anywhere from $400 to upward of $15,000, rivaling the price of a new car. When you’re spending that kind of money, you want to be sure you won’t regret your choice.
Aside from the money, a bicycle can be something you spend a lot of time using, especially if you’re planning to ride it to work every day. If you’re going to spend a lot of time on your bike, choose one that makes that time as enjoyable as possible. A lot’s riding on your decision — both literally and figuratively.
Pretty much any bicycle can get you from point A to point B. However, they don’t all get you there the same way — or at the same speed. There are many different types of bicycles, all designed for different purposes: racing, off-road riding, commuting, fitness, even stunt riding. Choosing the one that’s best for you hinges on knowing your own needs and goals, then matching them to the right bike.
Types of Bicycles
There’s no clear answer to the question, “What types of bicycles are there?” Pretty much all sources agree that the major types include road bikes for paved surfaces, mountain bikes for dirt roads, and hybrid bikes, which are a cross between the two. However, they disagree over which other kinds of bicycles — such as gravel bikes, commuter bikes, and cruisers — are subclasses of these main categories and which are categories of their own. Attempting to sort out the choices can leave you more confused than you were when you began.
For someone whose goal is simply to choose the right type of bike for a particular use, the most useful classification is probably the one in this YouTube video from The Bicycle Planet. It sorts bicycles into five primary types: road bikes, mountain bikes, fitness hybrids, sports hybrids, and comfort hybrids.
Road bikes are just what they sound like: bicycles designed for riding on roads and paved surfaces. They’re lightweight and fast-moving with narrow tires that can roll fast on pavement. They also have multiple gears you can switch among, allowing yourself to move more quickly on level surfaces and give yourself an easier time when climbing hills. You may have referred to this type of bike as a 10-speed when you were a kid, although modern ones often have 18 or more speeds.
Most road bikes have a drop-bar handlebar, which curves downward and toward the rear of the bike. Using this type of handlebar requires you to ride in a bent-forward position, which reduces air resistance so you can go faster. This riding position can be uncomfortable if you aren’t used to it, but it’s the most efficient way to travel long distances.
Road bikes are a must-have for professional cyclists in racing events, such as the Tour de France. They’re also a good choice for any type of on-road cycling, such as fitness riding, commuting, and long-distance touring. Many road bikes can accommodate accessories such as fenders and storage racks.
Subcategories of road bike include:
- Racing bikes, which are designed for ultimate speed
- Endurance bikes, which have slightly wider tires and a more relaxed riding position for comfort on long rides
- Gravel or adventure bikes, which have wider and knobbier tires that give them traction on unpaved roads
- Touring bikes, which have a sturdy frame that makes them much heavier and slower, but can handle long-distance trips with lots of equipment
Road bikes are one of the most expensive types of bicycles because of the materials and components used to make them light, agile, and aerodynamic. A basic, well-made road bike with an aluminum frame, 18 speeds, and traditional rim brakes costs around $800. The highest-priced models cost well over $15,000 and feature ultra-light materials, hydraulic disc brakes, and 22-speed electronic drivetrains.
A mountain bike is built for off-road riding on narrow, bumpy dirt trails. These rugged bikes are heavier than road bikes and not as fast for riding on pavement. They feature flat handlebars and wide tires with lots of tread to roll over roots and rocks. Mountain bikes also offer additional low gears for getting you up steep slopes and hydraulic disc brakes for managing sharp descents.
Another critical feature of mountain bikes is suspension, which protects you from the jolts of the trail. Some models, known as “hardtail” bikes, have suspension on the front tire only, using a device called a suspension fork. Others, called full-suspension models, provide suspension on both the front and rear wheels.
Varieties of mountain bikes include:
- Trail bikes, a style of full-suspension bike that balances climbing efficiency and downhill speed, suitable for social riding on dirt roads and beginner trails
- Cross-country bikes, which are lighter and speedier than the average mountain bike and suitable for easy to moderate trail use
- All-mountain bikes, which can stand up to the most challenging technical trails with lots of steep hills
- Fat-tire bikes, or “fat bikes” for short, which are hardtail bikes with huge tires that can handle any kind of rough terrain, like sand or snow
Overall, mountain bikes are cheaper than road bikes. Hardtail bikes are the least expensive type of mountain bike, starting at around $400. By contrast, top-quality full-suspension bikes, built to stand up to the most challenging trails, can cost as much as $10,000. These pricey bikes feature lightweight carbon fiber frames and elaborate, powerful suspension systems.
Hybrid bikes are a cross between road and mountain bikes, taking different features from each type. A fitness hybrid is a hybrid that most closely resembles its road bike “parent.” It’s relatively lightweight and doesn’t offer the suspension of a mountain bike.
However, several features distinguish fitness hybrids from road bikes. They typically have flat handlebars rather than the dropped, curved handlebars of a road bike. They provide a more upright riding position than a typical road bike, which can make them more comfortable to ride over long distances. They also have wider tires to provide more traction for off-road riding.
As their name implies, fitness hybrids are an excellent choice for people who see a bike mainly as a way to work out without a gym membership. However, they’re also a good all-around choice for anyone from commuters to casual weekend riders. The Bicycle Planet calls them the “Honda Accord of bikes.”
At REI, hybrid bikes without suspension sell for anywhere from $550 to $4,200. The most expensive models are typically electric bikes, discussed in more detail below.
A sport hybrid is a hybrid bike that’s closer to a mountain bike in style and function. In addition to rugged tires and flat handlebars, they offer disc brakes and front suspension to help them stand up to the rigors of trail riding. They also provide the wide range of gears found on a mountain bike. They’re heavier than fitness hybrids and generally not as fast.
A sport hybrid is a good compromise for someone who wants a bike mainly for trail riding but wants to be able to take it out on the road as well. It won’t go as fast on paved roads as a road bike or fitness hybrid, but it will provide a smoother, more cushioned ride.
Hybrid bikes with front suspension start at around $700 at REI. For high-end electric models, you can pay as much as $4,750.
It’s slightly confusing to call a comfort bike a hybrid, as it doesn’t really look much like either a road bike or a mountain bike. Rather than the dropped handlebar of a road bike or the flat handlebar of a mountain bike, comfort hybrids have high, raised handlebars that are easy to control. This handlebar position gives comfort bikes the most upright riding position of all bike styles, allowing you to spin around your neighborhood in comfort.
These bicycles are built for comfort in other ways as well. They feature large, heavily cushioned seats, and some models have front suspension to protect you from bumps. Their tires are wider than a road bike’s, giving you extra cushioning and traction, though they lack the heavy tread of a mountain bike. Many comfort hybrids have a step-through frame that makes them easier to mount than a bike you have to swing your leg over.
One common variety of comfort hybrid is the cruiser. It has wide handlebars and fat tires suitable for riding on a beach or other sandy surface. Cruisers typically have no more than seven gears, and some have only one. These single-speed bikes are sometimes called “fixies,” short for “fixed gear.”
Comfort hybrids aren’t built for speed, and they can’t handle the rigors of serious off-road riding. They’re best for the casual cyclist who just needs something to take on short trips around the neighborhood — for instance, to the park with your kids or to the market for a few bags of groceries. However, they’re not ideal if you live in an area with lots of hills or if you often need to pull a heavy load. Cruiser and “townie” bikes (comfort bikes for in-town use) for adults sell for $550 to $3,300 at REI, with electric models costing the most.
There are several other styles of bikes that don’t fit neatly into any of these categories. These specialty bikes have unique features that make them suitable for very specific purposes. Examples include:
- Recumbent Bikes. With most bikes, you ride either in an upright position or leaning forward. On a recumbent bike, by contrast, you pedal while leaning back in a seat that resembles an easy chair. This design makes recumbent bikes popular with older cyclists, who find this position puts less pressure on their knees. Some recumbent bicycles are actually tricycles with two wheels in the front and one in the back for added stability. Although recumbent bikes have different gears to get up and down small hills, they’re not ideal for areas with a lot of ups and downs.
- Folding Bikes. A folding bicycle is a full-size bike you can fold up to one-third its size or less to tuck into a carrying bag. These light, collapsible bikes are ideal for people who don’t have a good place to store a bicycle at home or the office. They’re also useful for people who want to carry their bikes on public transit as part of a long commute or take them along while traveling. However, to fit in a bag, folding bikes generally need to have small wheels, which makes them hard to handle on slopes or rough surfaces.
- Cargo Bikes. Cargo bikes are designed for hauling heavy loads. They’re long and heavy with a low center of gravity. The most common style is the longtail bike, which has an extended rear wheelbase that houses a large carrying rack. However, front-load bikes with a large cargo bin in front of the handlebars are also available. Cargo bikes are great for running errands and toting small children around, but they’re slow and cumbersome, best for use on flat roads.
- Tandem Bikes. A tandem bike is the “bicycle built for two” featured in the song “Daisy Bell.” Like a longtail cargo bike, it has an extended frame, but instead of cargo space behind the seat, it has another seat and a second set of pedals. Two people can ride at once, both contributing their pedal power to the bike’s movement. Tandem bikes are used mainly for casual riding, but some of them have a wide enough range of gears to go up and down steep hills.
- Park Bike. The “park” in “park bike” is short for “bike park” or “skate park.” This type of bike is designed for stunt riding in these designated spaces, which involves lots of jumping. It’s built tough, with a reinforced frame that can handle hard landings. Probably the best-known type is the BMX bike (short for “bicycle motocross”), built for riding on special racecourses with lots of jumps.
Other Factors to Consider
Aside from the basic bike type, several other factors can affect a bicycle’s performance on different types of roads. However, features that improve performance typically increase the price as well, so it’s only worth paying for them if you really need them.
Features to look at include:
- Suspension. Mountain bikes can include suspension on the front wheel only or on both the front and rear wheels. Some hybrid bikes also come with front suspension. This feature gives you a smoother ride, especially on bumpy roads and trails, but it also adds to the bike’s cost. It’s probably not worth the price if you plan to ride only on paved roads.
- Frame Material. Low-end bikes typically have frames made of steel, which is strong but somewhat heavy. Bikes with lighter, rust-resistant aluminum frames are also common, and you can find them all along the price spectrum. Carbon fiber is very lightweight and delivers top-notch speed, but it’s generally more expensive. The priciest material of all is titanium, which is both light and strong. It’s usually reserved for top-tier road bikes or cross-country mountain bikes.
- Component Quality. The components of a bike are all its major parts apart from the frame and wheels. Higher-priced bikes typically come with higher-end components, which feature more advanced technology to reduce weight and improve responsiveness.
- Wheel Size. Most road bikes and hybrid bikes come with standard-size wheels. However, if you’re buying a mountain bike, you can choose between 29-inch wheels and 27.5-inch wheels. The smaller wheels weigh less and offer better acceleration and maneuverability, while the larger ones provide more traction and roll more easily over obstructions like logs, roots, and rocks. Both sizes cost about the same, so it’s mainly a question of what features matter more to you.
- Brake Type. There are two main types of bike brakes. Old-fashioned rim brakes work by squeezing the wheel between two brake pads, while disc brakes grip onto a rotor attached to the wheel hub. Rim brakes are cheap and easy to maintain, but not as effective as disc brakes. Many new bikes today come with mechanical disc brakes, which use cables to move the pads. Hydraulic disc brakes are the most powerful and responsive type, and they adjust automatically as the pads wear down. However, they’re also the most expensive.
- Electric Motor Assist. Electric bikes, or e-bikes, have a small electric motor to supplement the pedals. That makes them a popular choice with commuters, who can get to work faster and with less effort on an e-bike than they can solely under their own power. Many e-bikes can also run in electric-only mode when the rider wants to take a break from pedaling. Electric versions of road bikes, mountain bikes, and hybrids are available. E-bikes are significantly more expensive than pedal-only bikes, starting at around $1,000 and going as high as $10,000. Toward the lower end of this range but widely regarded as one of the best e-bikes on the market, the critically acclaimed Priority Embark E-Bike is a fantastic value.
Choosing a Bike
As you can see, each type of bike has different strengths and weaknesses. To figure out which kind is best for you, you first need to figure out what your specific needs are. Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, you can test out different models to see what feels most comfortable for you — just like taking a test drive when shopping for a car. Then you can make your final decision by balancing your needs and comfort against the limits of your budget.
Determine Your Needs
To decide what kind of bike you want, start by assessing your needs. Questions to consider include:
Who’s Riding It?
A bicycle needs to match the size of its rider. In addition to being tall enough and long enough for your height, it has to accommodate your weight. If you weigh more than 170 pounds, REI recommends choosing a bike made from steel or titanium. These materials are strong and can flex without breaking better than aluminum or carbon fiber.
If you’re a woman, that doesn’t necessarily mean you need a “woman’s” bicycle. Bikes designed specifically for women are proportioned differently to men’s bikes, with a shorter stack (the overall height of the frame) and reach (the distance from the seat to handlebars). It reflects the fact that women are shorter than men on average, with longer legs in proportion to their torsos. They may also have shorter, wider seats to accommodate a woman’s wider hips and narrower handlebars to fit narrower shoulders.
However, if you’re a tall woman or one with an athletic build, you may find a “men’s” or unisex bike is a better fit for you. In fact, some bikes these days don’t even have gender-specific models, coming in a range of different sizes instead. As for the step-through frames once common on women’s bikes, those date back to the days when women used to ride while wearing long skirts, and they’re certainly not necessary these days.
If you’re choosing a bike for a child, you’re no longer limited to the cheap, heavy models they once sold as kids bikes. Today, you can find child-size bikes in all styles. Look for a bike that’s light enough for a child to push with short-reach brake levers that don’t require a lot of force to squeeze. A good kids bike costs less than an adult-size bike of equal quality, but you can still expect to pay around $300 minimum unless you’re buying a pedal-free balance bike for a toddler.
How Do You Plan to Use It?
To narrow down your bicycle choices, think about how you plan to use the bike. For instance, if you’re planning to attempt your first triathlon, it could be worth investing in a high-end racing bike built specifically for this purpose. If you’re not ready for triathlons yet but want a bike to help you get in shape, a fitness hybrid is an excellent choice. If you want to hit the trails for a rocky ride, a mountain bike is your best bet.
For commuting, you can choose a road bike or fitness hybrid, possibly one with room to carry a briefcase on the frame. For some, it’s worth paying extra for an electric bike to make your daily trip to and from work faster. For running errands, you choose a cargo bike with plenty of room to haul stuff. And if you just want to spin around the block with the kids, a simple comfort hybrid could fit the bill.
As you’re evaluating your needs, try to be realistic about how you’ll actually use your bike. You might aspire to ride in a triathlon one day, but if you think you’ll spend more time going on family bike rides, it’s probably not worth laying out the cash for a triathlon-specific bike. Instead, look for a multipurpose road or hybrid bike that can work for training and everyday use.
What’s Your Budget?
Lastly, there’s the all-important question of money. If you go into a bike shop without coming up with a budget first, you could be swept off your feet by a high-end bicycle and end up paying more than you can really afford. A killer bike doesn’t do you much good if you never get to ride it because you’re too busy working to pay off credit card debt.
To avoid this problem, set a firm budget before you enter the store. Remember, your total budget also has to cover any accessories you need to go with your new bike, such as:
- A Helmet. On- or off-road, cycling can be dangerous. A good helmet is your best protection against a potentially fatal head injury. Look for one that’s certified by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, fits well, and provides proper ventilation to keep you cool. For frequent riders, POC Sports’ Ventral Air SPIN is a fantastic choice on all counts and pairs perfectly with Aspire Clarity sunglasses, a must for bright morning rides. Whichever make and model you choose, don’t skimp: According to Wirecutter, a decent helmet is well worth the investment.
- Lock. A few months after my husband spent hundreds of dollars on a new bike, a thief snipped right through the old-fashioned lock he’d never thought to upgrade and stole it. Don’t make the same mistake. Protect your investment with a sturdy high-end lock, which Wirecutter says costs around $60.
- Lights. If you’re planning to ride after dark (say, on your way home from work), you need headlights and tail lights so passing cars can see you. You can pick up one of each for $25 to $100.
- Pump. Unless you want to feed quarters into a gas station’s pump every time your bike tires run low, you need a bicycle pump to keep them properly inflated. A basic floor pump costs between $40 and $120. Handheld pumps, which are more portable but harder to use, are a bit cheaper.
- Repair Kit. With a basic repair kit, you can handle problems like a flat tire or a thrown chain at home or on the road. Consider including a tire patch kit, a tire lever, a combination wrench, and a multitool for quick adjustments. You can buy a complete set of these for around $30 total.
- Storage Rack. Rear storage racks are handy for commuters who want to tote a briefcase or shoppers hauling home groceries and other purchases. They cost around $50.
- Phone Mount. With a phone mount, you can use the GPS maps on your smartphone while riding. You can pick up a basic mount for as little as $15.
- Water Bottle Cage. Staying hydrated on a long ride is much easier if you keep a water bottle within easy reach. A simple cage that mounts to your bike frame can hold your bottle in place for $5 to $20.
As you can see, if you need a new lock, lights, and storage rack, these items will add around $150 to the total cost of your new bicycle. Be sure to factor those costs in when figuring out how much you can afford to spend on the bike itself.
Test Different Models
Once you have a general idea of what type of bike you need, you can begin checking out specific models. If you haven’t owned a bicycle in a long time, you might want to narrow down your options before you hit the bike shop by asking family members and friends if you can borrow their bikes for a weekend ride. Do this several times with different bikes to start getting a feel for the types of bicycles you like and the features that matter to you.
The next step is to go to the store and check out what’s available. If possible, visit several stores in your area to see what each one has in your price range.
If you see a bicycle you like that fits your budget, ask to take it for a test ride to see if it feels comfortable. The store will most likely ask you to leave your ID and a credit card behind while you do this to make sure you don’t just ride off with the bike. Spend around 15 minutes on the bike testing out all the gears and seeing how it handles hills, corners, and sudden stops. If you want to test out a mountain bike, find out if the shop has a demo day scheduled when you can take its bikes out on a real trail.
As you ride, consider how well the bike fits you and how comfortable it feels. Don’t worry if the fit isn’t perfect since even the best bicycle needs to be adjusted to suit its rider. Most local shops offer a complimentary fitting for buyers that adjusts the bike to fit your unique height, weight, leg length, torso length, and joint angles. If you buy your bike online or from an individual seller, you can pay a local shop to perform this service or do it yourself using guidelines from REI.
Stay Within Your Budget
It’s easy to get sticker shock looking at the prices on new bicycles, particularly at small local stores. However, with this kind of purchase, you really do get what you pay for. All the parts of your bicycle — frame, tires, and components — get better the higher you go up the price scale. By paying for quality upfront, you’re more likely to get a bike that serves you for many years, reducing your true cost to own it over the long term.
Rather than going for a cheap bicycle, look for ways to lower the cost of a good one. These include:
- Shopping During Sale Season. According to Bicycle Universe, bicycles tend to go on sale in the fall. New models come out at this time, and bike shops are willing to sell their older stock at a discount to make room for them. You can also find good sales on Black Friday, throughout the Christmas season, and sometimes around Easter.
- Shopping Online. Buying a bike from an online retailer or directly from the manufacturer is often cheaper than going to a store. You can also find a wider selection this way. However, you don’t have the opportunity to test the bike ahead of time or get it professionally fitted. Plus, if you add the Wikibuy browser extension, you could save money on the purchase if a coupon code is available.
- Haggling. Even if you’re not buying your bicycle online, you can use prices you found online to help you negotiate on price in a store. Bicycle Universe says stores are especially willing to work with you on price if you’re a loyal customer or if the bike has suffered some sort of minor damage, such as scratches. Also, sellers who won’t budge on the price of the bike itself are often more willing to give you a discount on accessories.
- Buying Used. You can get the lowest prices of all on a bicycle by buying it secondhand. Just like cars, bicycles depreciate quickly in value, so you can often find a reasonably high-end used bike for a fraction of its original sales price. If you’ve done your research and found a particular bicycle you love, try searching for the same model on eBay or Craigslist. Then take it to your local bike shop for any necessary repairs, such as adjusting the derailleur for gear shifting and replacing the brake pads, cables, tires, and chain. Even after the cost of these repairs, your used bike will probably cost much less than a comparable new one.
Once you’ve found the bicycle of your dreams, maintain it properly to keep it in great shape. Keep the chain properly adjusted and lubricated, and watch out for wear on the brake pads and tires. Paying to have these parts repaired or replaced as necessary can keep your bike running longer so you don’t have to shell out for a new one. If you’re relatively handy, you can do the repairs yourself with the assistance of YouTube videos or friends from a bike club.
The other way to get the maximum value from your new bike is to ride it as much as possible. If something’s holding you back from putting your bicycle to a particular use, consider whether investing in a new bike accessory would make a difference. For instance, if you can’t commute by bicycle because it’s dark by the time you leave work, a set of bike lights could make it possible. If you don’t currently take your bike shopping because you can’t haul your purchases home, maybe you could by adding a storage rack or trailer.
Do you have any other tips for people planning to purchase a bicycle?
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