Choosing a Bicycle – A Guide to Bicycle Types
Cycling can be a vital element in your fight to stay healthy and fit; but it can also come with some daunting, if not utterly confusing choices.
Do you want to ride indoors or outside? Are you going to ride on streets, paths, trails, or a little of everything? Do you want simplicity or do you enjoy tinkering? The list goes on and on…
For the uninitiated these questions sometimes only create more questions and before long; frustration. Consider this a primer to help you make better sense of what you are faced with when entering a bicycle shop and you inevitably start looking at the myriad styles and choices presented.
Before you start looking at what sort of bike you may want you should first ask yourself a few simple questions and think about your answers. There are no right or wrong answers – just choices. Based on how you answer the following questions you’ll have a much better idea of where you should start.
|Where do I want to ride my bicycle? Indoors, outside, or both?|
|Do you want to ride on streets/paved paths, dirt/gravel roads, or off-road (the beach, snow, wooded trails), or a little of all of the above?|
|Will you be riding on mostly flat courses or hilly or mountainous?|
|What sort of budget do you have?|
PART 1 – TRAINERS
DEDICATED INDOOR SYSTEMS
If you never care to be outdoors and you want to cycle purely for the physical/health benefit of it – you may want to consider a good gym membership that offers cycling machines. “Spin Classes” are aerobic classes which use indoor cycling trainers.
If a gym membership isn’t appealing you can always invest in one of these machines for your home. In most cases an indoor dedicated cycling machine is less expensive than a mid-line road bike. Most are under $3,000.
Trainer tech has been around for decades and other than some refinements (such as integration with online services) these systems use similar configurations. You have two main types of indoor stationary trainers – recumbent (pictured above) and traditional upright (pictured below).
Recumbent trainers allow you to lay back and sit more like you would in a chair. Traditional upright trainers are like traditional bicycles.
Both use resistance (either manually controlled or computer controlled) to simulate road cycling. New innovations include cool graphical displays or the ability to use your tablet or computer to track bio-metric data while riding. These systems are typically heavy, expensive, and large.
PART 2 – TRAINERS
BICYCLE RESISTANCE TRAINERS
Designed to allow you to use your regular road bicycle indoors, these trainers come in a variety of configurations most notably the type of resistance (friction, fluid, magnetic), and contact type (roller or direct mount). Newer, high-end versions are called “smart trainers” and they provide power information (wattage), cadence (RPM), and biometric information (heart rate).
Roller Trainers – A resistance trainer that requires you to balance your bicycle as if you were riding on the road. A benefit of these trainers is that you will engage more muscle groups when riding one because you will have to balance and keep your core tight, the same as if you were riding on the road. The negatives are they can be tricky to master and there is a whole category of “epic fail” videos on YouTube you should probably watch before buying one.
PRO – Helps you improve pedaling form (i.e., smooth stroke and holding a straight line).
PRO – Engaging both physically and mentally.
PRO – Set-up is very simple.
CON – Requires a higher level of skill and practice.
CON – Less stable for hard, out of saddle efforts.
CON – Easy to store, a little harder to transport
Stationary Resistance Trainers (Turbo Trainer) – These trainers are stationary stands that you mount your bicycle on. The back tire rests on a roller that provides resistance through a number of different methods. The most affordable runs around $50 and uses resistance created by the bearings in the roller housing. Fluid resistance trainers are a step-up for they are slightly less noisy. Magnetic trainers are the top-end of the spectrum and are much less noisy than friction or fluid resistance models.
PRO – Stable for efforts both in and out of the saddle.
PRO – Very easy to store and transport.
PRO – Realistic road feel.
CON – Some trainers may be louder than a set of rollers.
CON – Does not correct poor pedaling form.
CON – Not compatible with some frames and wheel options.
Smart Trainers – These trainers require you to remove the back wheel off your bicycle to mount your bike to them. They are typically magnetic resistance systems with an internal power meter. They offer Bluetooth connectivity to transmit biometic, cadence, power, and any other data they collect to your cycling computer. They offer the best training experience indoors among stationary resistance trainers (that you use your outdoor bicycle with) and can be a powerful tool in helping you reach training, performance, and fitness goals.
PRO – Stable for efforts both in and out of the saddle.
PRO – More compatibility options for virtual training and other training apps.
PRO – Provides ample performance data.
CON – Expensive – some models cost upwards of $1,000.
CON – Heavy and bulky, may be difficult to store and travel with.
CON – Not compatible with some frames and wheel options.
BICYCLES FOR PAVEMENT
You’ve decided you want to ride on the road or paved bicycle paths and you’re not really interested in taking your bicycle onto gravel or dirt. The majority of bicycle styles/makes are designed for asphalt/pavement riding. The question is now – what type of bicycle is going to be best for you?
ROAD BICYCLES – The term road bicycle describes a class of bicycle with drop handlebars, thin/skinny tires, and a complex gearing system consisting of multiple gear options (derived from a front chain ring and rear sprocket/cog setup). Road bicycles are designed for traveling at moderate speed on pavement.
There are many subsets (types) of road bikes. These include road bikes designed for speed, for climbing, for aerodynamic advantage, and for casual riding.
ABOVE – a classic road bike design with a frame made from round steel tubes.
BELOW – a high-end performance road racing bike with a carbon-fiber frame shaped for aerodynamic advantage.
The main differences between types of road bikes has to do with their purpose and the materials used to construct them. Weight is a major factor in cost and performance. Lighter bicycles with aerodynamic frames and components use less energy to move through the air. The materials used to give strength and rigidity to a bicycle frame while allowing for the tube shape to be aerodynamic and light weight are expensive to produce. Carbon fiber is the most common material. Many high-end performance road racing bicycles have frames which are made using the same materials and techniques used to make the frames of Formula 1 racing cars. As a result these bicycles are very expensive.
Above: An Eagle Z3 Aero Road Bicycle – for more about Eagle road bicycles – follow this link: https://eaglebicycles.com/zseries/
TIME TRAIL (TT)/TRIATHLON BICYCLES – These bicycles, often classified in a category of their own, are the penultimate road racing machines specifically designed for all-out speed. They are the most aerodynamic pedaling machines ever designed and created. They are so narrowly focused in their design and function that they are rarely ridden outside of professional (and amateur) cycling competitions. They are easily recognized for their handle bar design – a system created to make the rider take a very low stance on the bicycle – reducing their aerodynamic footprint.
Above: An Eagle T3 TT/Triathlon Bicycle – for more about Eagle TT/Triathlon bicycles follow this link: https://eaglebicycles.com/eagle-t3/
TOURING BICYCLES – These bicycles are designed to be ridden over long distances, usually with baggage/luggage. These bicycles are essentially road bikes with special mounts that allow you to attach “saddlebags” to the frame. They will typically have bigger tires (meaning wider with more tread) and have more gearing options. They will have heavier frames and they are typically more robust that standard road bikes. These are a great choice if you have to carry books or items with you when you ride.
Note that in the photo of the touring bike above – the seat is level with the handlebars. This makes for a more upright and comfortable stance while pedaling. Look at the road bikes above. The seats are always higher than the bars, meaning you have to bend over further to peddle – which forces you into a more aerodynamic stance. This is great for racing and going fast, not so great for riding long distances.
HYBRID/CITY/URBAN/FITNESS BICYCLES – Over the past decade a this style of bicycle has been marketed under several names. They all share a set of similar features. Originally the Hybrid bicycle was a hard-tail mountain bike that had road bike components while retaining the flat-bar handle bars of a mountain bike. Manufacturers started developing new frames which were not quite road bike and not quite mountain bike. The result is an agile, stable, durable, and extremely comfortable bicycle. These make excellent commuter bicycles for they can be ridden longer distances without the discomfort that a more traditional road bike frame and drop bars may create.
Like with the Touring bike design, the seat and handlebars of hybrid bicycles are level. This greatly assists in making this style of bicycle much more comfortable for exercise or everyday commuting.
FIXED GEAR BICYCLE – or “Fixie” is a road bike frame with a single “fixed” gear. These are bicycles at their most pure. No cables, no levers, no complications. There are no brakes – you have to apply reverse pressure to the pedals to slow down. Popular among college students – they are very affordable and they are relatively maintenance free. The cons are they can be a serious work out if there are hills in your commute and they are typically very limited in the speed you can attain. Build a Fixie for speed and it’s a bear to pedal up to speed (takes a lot of effort). Build it to be easy to pedal and get used to going nowhere fast. They can also be dangerous if you need to stop quickly. I’ve seen many Fixie riders “Fred Flintstone” their stops – they put their shoes on the ground and drag themselves to a stop.
CRUISER BICYCLES – These bicycles are designed for suburbia. They typically have a super relaxed architecture with the bars being much higher than the seat and very low frame tubes so it is easy to swing your leg over them to mount and ride. They also typically feature limited gearing (3 to 7 gears). They may also be equipped with baskets, carry racks, and fenders (to keep road debris, water, and mud) off the rider. They are designed for relaxed commuting.
RECUMBENT BICYCLES – These are bicycles for those who love to be different. They are designed to be ridden in a laid-back body position (like the recumbent indoor bicycle trainer). These bicycles are a little more tricky to master for their center of gravity is much higher (meaning that the gravity center of the wheels is far below the total weight of your body making them top heavy, even though your body is much lower to the ground than a traditional upright bicycle) and their wheelbase is typically longer than a standard bicycle. These bicycles are great for people with back issues. One note – they are not for those who want to go fast. They typically do better with cyclists who like to take their time and cruise from place to place.
ELECTRIC BICYCLES (E-BIKE) – For the sake of being thorough I am including the e-bike in this list; they exist and they are growing in popularity. I do not personally approve of them for people who want to cycle for fitness. Riding a bicycle with an electric motor isn’t going to help you meet your fitness/health goals. These bicycles are very useful for commuters – but before you consider buying one BE VERY WARY! There are many cities that have passed local ordinances (laws) stating that e-bikes are effectively mopeds and therefore they are not allowed in bike lanes, paths, or sidewalks. They also don’t allow you to ride them on the streets because you can’t get a license plate for one. New York City has outlawed e-bikes using laws like the ones I just mentioned. You can buy an e-bike in NYC. But you cannot ride it there. I expect States to get in on this action soon – they’ll start taxing e-bikes as mopeds or motorcycles, meaning you’ll have to register them, get tags, and only be able to ride them in certain places. Or if you are in NYC – you can’t ride them anywhere.
BICYCLES FOR DIRT, GRAVEL, AND TRAILS
Originally this was the realm that the Hybrid Bicycle was supposed to bridge. Not quite off-road like a mountain bike, and not quite a pavement bike, but workable in both environments.
At the same time people were getting the crazy idea to build out mountain bike frames with road bike components, a different group of people were having an equally crazy idea to take a road bike frame and build it out with mountain bike components.
The true heirs to the world of dirt/gravel roads and bumpy rough paved trails are the Hybrid and the Cyclocross bikes. I’ve talked about Hybrid/Urban/City/Fitness bikes above. Know that for light trail duty these bikes when equipped with larger tires do an excellent job on these surfaces.
Here are a few other options that also excel at the land between the asphalt jungle and the untouched nature of the wilderness.
CYCLOCROSS BICYCLES – Sometimes called “Gravel Grinders” – these bicycles are the answer to the question, “why can’t I ride a road bike off road?” Now you can. Road bike frames, bars, stems, seats, seat posts, and rims married to wider knobby tires (which are still much thinner than a traditional mountain bike’s tires), mountain bike disc brakes, mountain bike cranks/chain rings to form a surprisingly stable yet extremely fast bicycle you can ride through the mud and up gravel roads.
RIGID MOUNTAIN BICYCLES – These bicycles are the original form that the first mountain bikes took back in the 1970’s in California. They are called RIGID mountain bikes because they lack any form of suspension. Modern “true” mountain bikes have either front fork suspension (Hard-Tail) or full body suspension for absorbing bumps when riding on rough terrain. The rigid mountain bike is a more heavy, robust version of the hybrid bicycle. Featuring full-size mountain bike tires these bikes are more off-road than the other two selections in this section. But they are not really suited for true off-road cycling. They are best when ridden on the level surfaces of dirt/gravel roads and bumpy paved trails.
OFF ROAD BICYCLES
These bicycles are specifically designed for a singular purpose – to travel in places where there are no paths or roads. Truly designed to make their own path through the wilderness, off road bicycles are the opposite end of the spectrum in the bicycle world from road bikes.
HARD-TAIL MOUNTAIN BICYCLES – Are a class of mountain bike featuring a solid frame (not unlike the frames of rigid mountain bikes) and some form of air or hydraulic front fork suspension. These bicycles are one of my favorites for they can be adapted for cycling almost anywhere. You can “lock” the suspension features of most modern front suspension forks if you want – making the fork rigid. This turns your hard-tail into a rigid mountain bike. Put thinner tires on it and now it can be ridden like a hybrid (the first hybrid bikes had rigid/hard-tail mountain bike frames). Hard-tail bikes can be easily (and cheaply) adapted for many different riding styles and therefore they are a great choice for those who are undecided regarding where they want to focus their cycling efforts.
Above: An Eagle Patriot Hard-Tail Mountain Bicycle – for more about Eagle mountain bikes follow this link: https://eaglebicycles.com/eagle-patriot/
FULL-SUSPENSION MOUNTAIN BICYCLES – Are designed for climbing up rocky areas, jumping, and riding across extremely inconsistent surfaces. They are not meant to be ridden fast for a lot of the energy you’d need to move your bicycle fast is lost through the flexibility of the frame. What is notable is that these bicycles can go places no other bicycle could dream of because they are designed to give the rider the leverage needed to climb, traverse, and cross areas that would break other bicycles. These bicycles should only be considered if you are willing to make a serious/dedicated effort into the world of off-road cycling.
THE FAT BICYCLE – This machine is a hard-tail mountain bike with ultra wide forks and a special frame designed to handle tires twice as wide as most mountain bikes will ever see. These bikes often have tires as wide as off-road motorcycles. The result is a bicycle that can ride on sand, across snow, and over any number of surfaces that would cause a non-fat tire bike to stall or bog down. These bicycles are incredibly fun to ride but outside of the purpose for which they were built – they are a lot of work to ride. Riding a fat bike on asphalt or pavement creates a massive amount of rolling resistance; meaning that you have to put more effort into pedaling to compensate for the additional friction that super wide tires create on pavement. Unless you plan on riding on the beach every day or you live in a place that has snow year-round; this is a very specialized bicycle with a single purpose and not practical for a variety of riding surfaces.
DECIDE WHERE YOU ARE GOING TO RIDE THE MOST
You need to be realistic about where you are planning on riding and the types of surfaces most available to you. There are more styles of road/pavement bicycles than any other because the majority of cyclists are surrounded by countless miles of roads to ride on.
If you live on a farm or in a rural place where paved roads are the exception and not the norm, then a hard-tail mountain bike might make the most sense. If you live in the middle of a large urban area and you plan on incorporating cycling into your visits to the grocery store – a hybrid bike with racks, or a cruiser bike with racks, or a touring bike might make the most sense. With this knowledge it’s up to you to visit your local bike shop and test a few out to see what you like the best.
A QUICK NOTE ABOUT YOUR LOCAL BIKE SHOP
Please do not go to your local mega-ultra-gonzo big chain store that sells everything from laptops to diapers and everything between and purchase a bicycle in a box. Sure you might like the price. But I promise you that the money you THINK you are saving is not really worth it.
First, you have to build the bike yourself. Then you have to fit it. Wait. What does that mean? Any bicycle you purchase has to be specifically fitted to your body or else you are going to have an uncomfortable ride. Then there’s the question of who is going to help you if there’s something wrong with your new bicycle in a box? Wait… you have to spend how much to ship it off and get it fixed?
Trust me. A bicycle shop is the only place to purchase a bicycle. They’ll build your bike and fit it to you. They’ll maintain the bike for you and they’ll be able to help you with any questions you have. Cyclists are passionate about cycling. And I’ve yet to meet any employee of a local bicycle shop that isn’t a die-hard cyclist.
Big name super-stores don’t care about you. YOU are a number to them. They sell thousands of items a day. And a bicycle is no ordinary item. Your local bicycle shop can help you make a wise, educated decision and get you started off on the optimal path towards meeting your health and fitness goals.
For me, personally, I take my bicycles to FASTRACK BICYCLES in Santa Barbara (where I live). Owned and operated by former Olympic cyclist Dave Lattieri – who also was a mechanic for this little bicycle race in France called “Le Tour de France” – don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it… he’s an amazing resource for any and all things cycling.
If you are in the Santa Barbara area and want to see a great local bicycle shop – please look them up and pay them a visit.
My East Coast – Favorite Local Bike Shop:
My Hawaii Bike Shop Connection: