Bike buying these days can seem overwhelming. Not so long ago bike shops would carry four types of bikes—tricycles, kid’s bikes (Sting Ray), adult bikes and maybe a couple of road bikes (European-style 10-speed bikes). On top of this, bike prices can vary dramatically between the basic version of each type of bike and the “pro” versions. Now the choices are much more complex, but stick with us and we’ll make it all clear!
Understanding your needs is crucial to picking the right bike. Each bike type is better suited for some riding needs than others. Mountain bikes, for example, are great on dirt trails or rough roads, but less efficient on well-maintained city streets (on the other hand you can have a lot of fun riding over curbs with them). Here’s a basic introduction to each major bike type (please note that many of these statements are generalities that apply to most, but not all, circumstances or components):
For traveling longer distances (10+ miles) over a smooth road surface, nothing beats a road bike. The Porsches of the bike world, they’re generally built for speed over comfort. These bikes will get you there as efficiently as possible.
Wheels: True to form, road bike wheels are made for efficiency. They’re generally light, with skinny high-pressure tires designed to reduce the rolling resistance of the bike to a minimum (with a resulting decrease in comfort). The weight of the wheels can have a great impact on the efficiency of the bike. Great wheels can be expensive (easily $600/pair on up).
Frame: This is the tubular, central portion of the bike, upon which all the components hang. The frame is the most important single component of the bike, as it will have the greatest impact on the bike’s “feel.” In ascending order of price, road bike frames are made of steel (“Cr-Mo”), aluminum (“alloy”), or carbon fiber.
Steel bikes are the cheapest. They’re heavier than the others, but more flexible, making for a more comfortable ride. That comfort is not without a cost, however, as extra flex in the frame translates into less efficiency in propelling the bike forward, and heavier bikes also require more energy to ride.
Many entry-level road bikes are made of aluminum. Aluminum bikes tend to be stiffer than steel, due to the compromises required to make a durable aluminum bike frame.
Ride a couple of bikes at your local shop (preferably at The Bike Palace); you’ll have to decide for yourself which ride you prefer. Above the $2000 range you’ll be running into carbon frames. These frames are stiff and ultra-light (the more expensive ones get even lighter), but with carbon fiber you’ll get a natural dampening effect, so they’ll ride smoother.
Handlebars: Road bike handlebars are dramatically curved downward, giving riders the ability to hunch down over the bars, significantly reducing aerodynamic drag, an important advantage in cycling. Riders can also move their hands to the top of the bars, giving them an alternate position, albeit with more drag. Component manufacturers have done an incredible job of combining the ability to shift gears with the bike’s brake levers, making shifts faster and safer.
Riding position: Yet another area in which the road bike is noted for efficiency, but not always comfort! Riding “down on the bars” reduces your riding effort, but it puts a fair strain on your back, stomach and neck. Fitter riders will find this position more comfortable than the less fit (ride more and you’ll get used to it). You don’t have to stay in this position all the time. Also, making sure that the bike is properly fitted for you will reduce these strains.
Gears: Gears provide mechanical advantage, exactly like a transmission on an automobile. Road bikes give you a wide range of alternative gearings, hence the “10-speed” name, although many road bikes now offer 16 to 30 speeds! It’s a little complicated to describe, but road bikes usually have two chainrings on the crank (where the pedals are), with up to 11 more gears at the rear of the bike (a “cassette” mounted on the rear wheel). By using levers to change gearing, the combination of gears allows the rider to ride up steep hills more easily, or ride downhill quite rapidly. As usual, lighter is more expensive (and in this case, smoother shifting).
Pedals: Towards the low-end, road bikes will come with platform pedals, including toe clips. While functional, toe clips lack the efficiency afforded by clipless pedals, which allow the rider to lock his/her riding shoes onto the pedals. Downside: the pedals can be expensive and the shoes can be, too. Upside: the bike gets lighter and you pedal more efficiently, which is a big deal!
Accessories: Cycling computer (Garmin, etc.), tire pump (either hand pump or CO2 cartridge), tool bag, water bottle and cage.
Buying advice: Get the best frame you can afford.
Mountain bikes (MTBs) are the Jeeps of the bike world, and like its automotive cousin, a lot of folks that buy mountain bikes never take them on dirt roads (which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t get one). MTBs have wide tires, with knobby treads (notice the Jeep similarity?), which makes it much more controllable on the hilly dirt roads that would render a road bike’s skinny tires near useless.
If you plan to travel on dirt roads, or off-road, then you probably want a mountain bike.
Wheels: Those wide knobby mountain bike tires are great for badly maintained surface streets or off the road. The tires have lower pressure and more surface area, making them less efficient on smooth roads, but great in the rough! The rims are wider and made of alloy, heavier than their road bike counterparts (sometimes much heavier), but built to take the abuse inherent in tough-use roads and trails.
Over the last few years the original 26″ MTB wheels have been supplanted by 27.5″ (650b) and 29″ wheels. These larger wheels allow the bike to handle larger obstacles more readily. We think our friends at Niner Bikes said it best: “The basic concept of the larger diameter is simple: it will keep your wheels on top of oncoming obstacles. Rather than riding IN the terrain, you’ll be riding ABOVE it, gaining more control and stability on even the roughest trails. Think of the difference between a skateboard wheel and monster truck tire. The skateboard wheel can come to a grinding halt on a pebble while the monster truck wheel can crush granny’s Oldsmobile. Yes, this example is a little extreme, but you get the idea.”
Frame: Steel MTB frames are getting harder to come by at the low-end, having been replaced by aluminum. Aluminum has many advantages over steel. It’s light, affordable, and doesn’t rust (which is very good for a bike that you plan to take onto sometimes wet and muddy trails). Remember that mountain trails can be a lot steeper than the streets you’re used to climbing in a car (or road bike)! Higher-end ($2000+) MTB frames are made of carbon. Carbon is even lighter than aluminum.
Many MTBs come with either front shock absorbers (“hardtail”), or both front and rear shock absorbers (“full suspension”). If you’re riding your MTB off-road these shock absorbers can be invaluable. Beware of cut-rate bikes, however, that sport flimsy shock absorbers that look like they ought to work, but are apt to fail miserably when put to hard use (which is the only reason you’d actually buy a bike with them). Higher-end bikes will come with shock absorbers designed to handle large obstructions (potholes, rocks, etc.).
Handlebars: MTB handlebars are wider than road bike bars and essentially straight. This gives the rider more control over the bike on rough uphill and downhill runs, with a more comfortable, upright riding position.
MTBs have a very different riding position than road bikes—much more upright, which is a comfortable position for many riders, and provides more control of the bike by allowing the rider to easily shift the bike’s balance left/right or forward/back.
Gears: Mountain bikes are geared to allow riders to climb walls (OK, not literally), facing trails MUCH steeper than they’d be likely to face on a road bike. This means that the chainring (the gear directly connected to the pedals) will be quite small and the largest gear on the cassette (connected to the rear hub), would be quite large.
Pedals: MTBs on the low-end and mid-range come equipped with platform pedals, while bikes at the upper end will come without pedals, designed to use clipless pedals.
Accessories: GPS device (more important here than on a road bike), CO2 tire pump, multi-tool w/chainbreaker, tool bag, water bottle and cage. Remember the motto of the Boy Scouts: “Be prepared.” Mountain bike riders may find themselves in more remote areas than their road bike counterparts, so you might carry more spare parts than usual.
Buying Advice: Do everything you can to try different bikes BEFORE you purchase your mountain bike. The differences between various versions can be dramatic. Avoid cut-rate bikes at the discount stores—they won’t hold up to the abuse.
Created as a compromise between road bikes and mountain bikes, hybrid bikes are the “Jack of All Trades” of the bicycle world. Hybrid bikes excel in terrain that’s either a little too rough for some road bikes or a little too smooth for a mountain bike to make sense. If you can wear flip-flops or tennis shoes over this terrain, then your hybrid bike might be just fine.
Hybrids are generally lighter than mountain bikes, but heavier than road bikes. They also have the more upright seating position that’s found on the MTBs. These bikes are great if you plan on doing a little bit of everything, but nothing too extreme. They’re NOT mountain bikes, and they’re NOT road bikes, but you can use them as either in a pinch, as long as you don’t expect too much of them. Hybrid bikes are a good general-purpose solution, particularly for riding around town.
Wheels: Hybrid wheels are just what you’d expect: heavier than road wheels, but lighter than MTB wheels—designed for heavier use than the road wheels, so that you can take on potholes and minor trail debris. Hybrid tires will take much higher pressure than typical MTB tires, so the rolling resistance is much lower. The downside is that these higher-pressure tires won’t have the traction you’d find in the 4×4 type tires you’d find on an MTB.
Frame: Low and mid-range priced hybrids are made of aluminum.
Handlebars: Like a mountain bike, hybrid handlebars are straight bars.
Riding position: Hybrid bikes are designed to be ridden in an upright position, giving the rider better road visibility, with less strain on the back and neck. Many riders prefer this position.
Gears: Hybrids will often come with a fairly wide range of gears, making hill climbing easier.
Pedals: Entry-level hybrid bikes will come with basic platform pedals. More advanced riders will welcome the addition of toe clips, or even clipless pedals.
Accessories: Cycling computer (Garmin, etc.), tire pump (either hand pump or CO2 cartridge), tool bag, water bottle and cage.
Buying Advice: Stick with the name brands and you should do fine.
[Author’s note: I own a Cannondale hybrid. It’s been a very reliable general-purpose bike for the last 15 years. My 17-year-old son recently rode it on a 50-mile ride from Redondo Beach to Santa Monica and back. We stayed on the bike path, which is very flat, but he had no problems completing the ride, and he’s not a very experienced rider, nor incredibly fit. I was lucky; I borrowed a Specialized Roubaix tester bike from the shop!]
These bikes are all the rage on college campuses (along with the next category: cruisers). They started getting hot a couple of years ago, originally used by urban bicycle messengers (NY & SF). They’re a fixed-gear bike that may come with a brake. Fixed-gear bikes are like track racing bikes, there’s no freewheel, so when the bike rolls forward the pedals rotate forward and when the bike rolls backwards, then the pedals rotate backwards.
You can occasionally see fixie riders on the street doing a “track stand,” wherein they get up off the saddle and then by using their feet they gently rock the bike forward and backward slightly, allowing the rider to keep the bike balanced upright without moving forward appreciably (usually you’ll see this when a rider is stopped at a traffic light). Despite the fixed-gear heritage, many fixie bikes come with a flippable rear hub that turns the bike into a single-speed freewheel bike (in this configuration, brakes are required!)
These bikes are about as simple as it gets. At their most minimal, there’s no brakes and no gears to change. Relatively light, and not much to go wrong. The downside is that you have only one gear to use when facing hills or descents. Also, fixed gear bikes take awhile to get used to—you slow down by applying backward pressure on the pedals. There is no “coasting”—if the bike is moving, so are the pedals (some fixies, however, come with a flip-flop hub allowing you to choose either fixed gear or singlespeed riding). Riding these bikes on the street without brakes is definitely not recommended.
Cruiser bikes (or beach cruisers) are just as much about style as they are about function. They’re a throwback to the simple bikes of the 1950’s, before 10-speed bikes gained acceptance in the United States. While cruisers can have multiple gears, the classic cruiser is a single-speed bike, with coaster brakes, well suited for rides under 10 miles. The tires, which are wide, and the seating position, which is relaxed, makes this bike a fine choice for short trips along the bike path, or to the market. It’s also a very popular bike for the college campus. Cruiser frames are made of aluminum or steel. No exotic carbon frames here!
Various model upgrades include multiple speeds (usually up to 3 or 7 speeds), and hand brakes.
Fitness bikes are a relatively recent addition to the bike world. Designed to appeal to enthusiasts looking for a good workout on their bikes, but also looking for a tad more comfort (and perhaps less cost) than with a road bike. Fitness bikes are close cousins to hybrid bikes (think of them as higher-performance versions of hybrid bikes). Fitness bikes have lighter components than their hybrid counterparts, but retain the upright riding position usually found on the hybrids. Fitness bikes are generally designed for rides longer than you’d try on a hybrid, but shorter than those really long rides you take on with a road bike. They’d be fine in the 15-70 mile range.
Triathlon bikes are specialized bikes (note the lowercase “s”) designed for use in either time trials or triathlons. Tri bikes (also called “aero” bikes) are designed to be ridden “against the lock,” meaning that the rider will not be riding in a pack (that would be violating race rules). Riders are typically riding at a fairly constant speed.
These bikes are designed to offer as little wind resistance as possible, and also allowing the rider to assume a riding position that is down low on the bars. Riders on tri bikes can often be spotted wearing aerodynamic helmets to further reduce drag.
We carry electric bikes from Emojo and IZIP. These bikes are a hoot to ride and can be a godsend to those who don’t have the stamina to ride a conventional bicycle. Some seniors, for example, can now ride with their friends and families, when they could not previously handle the exertion required to operate a standard bicycle.
The Emojo Lynx ($1369), shown on the left, is foldable will travel up to 20MPH for approximately 30 miles per charge (depending on rider weight and terrain). Recharging an electric bicycle is like recharging your laptop – it takes a couple of hours and costs you pennies and the environment less. That’s not something you can say about your SUV!
The Choice is Yours
The decision of what bike to buy is a very personal one. The bike should meet your needs and feel “right” to you when you ride it. Our expert consultants at The Bike Palace will be glad to answer any questions you have, and advise you regarding choosing a bike. Remember, if you find yourself with conflicting requirements, you can always buy more than one!