Like all outdoor gear, the best way to choose a bike starts with figuring out what you'll be using it for. Today, there are quite a few types of bikes to consider, each designed with a different use in mind (and some with multiple uses).
Also called comfort bikes or “townie” bikes, cruisers are styled to look like traditional bicycles from the early to mid-20th century, albeit with more modern components. Most cruiser bikes are single speed; however, some higher-end models may include a multi-speed drivetrain. Cruisers are best for shorter, recreational rides and light commuting.
Road bikes are lightweight and nimble, with narrow, smooth tires for low rolling resistance and grip on paved surfaces. Most road bikes feature drop-bar handlebars, and are ideal for riding longer distance on paved surfaces. All-purpose road bikes have a frame geometry that supports a more upright riding position. Race bikes are designed to support more forward lean for increased aerodynamics, and are built with the lightest components, which can greatly increase cost. Touring road bikes are built to accommodate bike luggage, called panniers, for long-distance, multi-day treks.
Commuters are generally lighter than cruisers but heavier than most road bikes. Urban commuter bikes typically support a comfortable, upright riding position and feature flat handlebars, as well as front and rear fenders to keep clothing protected from rain and mud. Commuters are great for casual riding, urban commuting and riding in inclement weather.
Equipped with wide, aggressively treaded tires for off-road terrain, mountain bikes are much more robust than road bikes. The two most common styles of mountain bikes are “hardtails” (front shock only) and full-suspension bikes (front and rear shocks). Variations of each exist for specific riding styles. For example, downhill bikes have the highest amount of shock absorption, called “travel.” Cross country bikes offer less travel, but also weigh less. Most mountain bikes come with 26” diameter wheels, although bikes with 29” wheels, called 29ers, are also popular. Mountain bikes with full rigid frames (no shocks) are also available for riders who want the absolute lightest bike possible.
Sometimes called "crossover bikes," hybrid bikes are geared toward people who enjoy riding a combination of roadways, bike paths and easygoing, non-technical singletrack. Essentially a compromise between a commuter and a mountain bike, hybrid bikes feature a comfortable, upright riding position, minimal front suspension and tires with a versatile tread pattern.
Single-speed bikes are road bikes or mountain bikes that are built with only one gear. These bikes have a stripped-down look that some more experienced riders prefer. Single-speed bikes are great for light commuting, fitness and casual riding.
Fixed Gear Bikes
Bikes with a single, fixed gear (or “fixies” as they are sometimes called) are a special type of single-speed bike that lack a freewheel and cannot coast; therefore, the rider must always be pedaling when the bike is moving. Some bike companies now manufacture single-speed commuter bikes with a “flip-flop hub,” allowing the bike to be ridden as either a single speed (with a freewheel) or a fixie (no freewheel).
Bikes designed for cyclocross events are specially engineered for cyclocross racing, which involves a combination of road and off-road riding with a variety of obstacles that may or may not require the rider to dismount. They closely resemble road bikes, but feature more robust components and knobby tires for all-terrain capability.
Bikes for BMX racing and freestyle BMX riding have a compact, robust frame and smaller wheels, usually 16”, 18” or 20” in diameter. This type of bike is well-designed for big jumps, half pipes and other skate park obstacles.
A recumbent bike is engineered to allow a rider to sit in a reclined position, which some cyclists consider to be more comfortable and ergonomic. However, riding a recumbent bike (particularly coming to a stop and starting) requires a higher level of balance and skill compared to riding an upright bike. There are a wide variety of recumbent bikes with different wheel base lengths and frame configurations, including recumbent tricycles and handcycles.
Bikes for children feature a smaller frame and wheels, but are otherwise very similar to adult bikes. Many bike manufacturers make children’s bikes, including kids' mountain bikes, BMX bikes and cruisers. Some smaller kids’ bikes come with pre-mounted training wheels, although not all models do. Training wheels can also be purchased and mounted separately, if needed.
How much a bike costs has a lot to do with the frame. Some cyclists prefer certain materials that have more “frame flex,” which can equate to a more forgiving ride. Others are more concerned with getting the lightest frame possible. The four most common frame materials are aluminum, steel, titanium and carbon fiber. The chart below will explain some of the pros and cons of each, as well as a general price comparison.*
Material Pros Cons Cost* Steel Very strong and durable. Typically the least expensive. Heaviest of the four materials. $ Aluminum Lighter than steel. Moderate flex. Less frame flex than steel. $$ Carbon Fiber The lightest of the four materials. Least amount of frame flex. $$$ Titanium Extremely light and as strong as steel. Good frame flex. Typically the most expensive option. $$$$
*Price ranges can vary greatly between bike manufacturers. For example, although steel bikes are typically less expensive than aluminum bikes, a very high-end steel frame bike could still cost more than a lower-end aluminum frame bike. This price comparison is based on bikes with similar components from the same manufacturer.
The frame is the skeleton of a bike. Most bike frames consist of one large “triangle” made up of three tubes (the top tube, down tube and seat tube), plus two smaller pairs of bars (the seat stays and chain stays ) that link the back wheel to the seat tube. A smaller tube, called the head tube, houses the headset. The “geometry” of a bike is a set of specs taken from the lengths of these various tubes, therefore different types of bikes have different geometry.
Most bike frames from well-known manufacturers are available in different sizes to accommodate riders of different heights. A bike’s “stand-over height,” or the distance between the ground and the top tube, is one of the more important considerations when choosing frame size. For a more detailed explanation, check out our Bike Fit Guide.
The drivetrain is a set of components responsible for powering a bike. These components work together in unison to transfer power from your feet and legs to the rear wheel, allowing you to propel the bike forward. There are several different components that make up a bike’s drivetrain:
- Bike pedals are connected to the crank arms and allow the rider to turn the crank.
- The crank or "crankset" connects the bottom bracket to the pedals and is responsible for transferring the power of a rider's legs into the rotational motion of the rear wheel, via the chain.
- Chain rings are the front sprockets of the drivetrain and are connected to the crank. A bike crank may have one, two or three chain rings.
- The bottom bracket is a housing that contains bearings and a spindle, which connects the crank to the frame. It is located where the down tube, seat tube and chain stay meet.
- The chain forms a link between the crank and the rear hub.
- The rear hub is the center portion of the rear wheel that holds the cassette (on a multi-speed bike) or the rear sprocket (on a single speed bike).
- A cassette is the term used to describe the entire set of sprockets on the rear hub that drives the different gears. Most modern bike cassettes have between seven and ten sprockets.
- Derailleurs serve as the transmission of a bike. Basically, they’re the mechanisms that move the chain from sprocket to sprocket when you shift gears. The derailleur got its name because the chain guide “derails” the chain to another sprocket whenever the shift levers are adjusted.
- Shifters, which are usually located on the handlebars, allow a rider to change the position of the derailleurs and subsequently change gears. Shifters connect to the derailleurs via cables.
Aside from the frame, the wheelset is another key element that determines how much a bike will weigh. A lightweight wheelset from brands like Shimano or Easton, for example, could reduce the overall weight of your bike by a significant amount.
- Rims are usually aluminum, but may be carbon (top end) or steel (low end). They often have a smooth, parallel surface on each side for rim brakes. Rims may have double-wall construction for added strength, but always have some kind of spokes or other material to act as a framework and maintain shape.
- Spokes maintain the tension and shape of a bike wheel. With use, bike wheels can begin to lose their perfectly symmetrical shape and get a “wobble.” This wobble occurs because the wheel is no longer “true.” To return a wheel to its ideal shape, or “true the wheel,” the tension of the spokes must be adjusted by an experienced bike technician.
- Tires vary widely depending on their intended usage. Road tires are narrow and nearly smooth. Mountain bike tires are much wider and have a more aggressive tread pattern. Most bike tires require an inner tube, such as traditional “clincher” rims, although some are tubeless. For example, “tubular” road tires have lower rolling resistance and get fewer flats than clinchers, but require special rims that are usually more expensive. Some higher-end mountain bike wheelsets also feature tubeless rims and tires.
- Tube valves come in two styles. Schrader valves are the same style used on automobile tires, and allow you to fill your tires anywhere you can fill a car tire. Presta valves are narrower, threaded metal valves designed to handle higher air pressures. Most modern bike pumps are universal and will work with either valve style, but it’s still a good idea to check valve compatibility before you buy pump.
Handlebars come in several styles, notably drop handlebars on road bikes and flat or “riser” handlebars on mountain bikes and commuter bikes. Handlebars also provide a mounting point for the grips, brake levers and shifters.
Brake levers allow a rider to operate the front and rear brakes independently. Bicycle braking is done via either “Bowden cables” (taut but flexible cables housed within hollow tubes) or hydraulic lines to transfer mechanical force to friction pads on the wheels.
The headset contains circular bearings and serves as the interface between the bike’s fork, head tube and stem. The headset allows the handlebars, and subsequently the fork, to rotate and turn the bike. The stem is what connects the handlebars to the fork via the steer tube.
Brakes provide the stopping power of the bike. There are three main types of bike brakes:
- Rim brakes are the most common, consisting of friction pads that grip the outside of the wheel’s rim when the brake levers are squeezed. They are inexpensive and relatively easy to repair or adjust.
- Disc brakes utilize a metal disc attached at the wheel hub, with calipers on the frame or fork that squeeze pads against the disc. These brakes are popular on mountain bikes and some commuter bikes. Although they weigh more than rim brakes, disc brakes supply more stopping power and reliability in wet, icy or muddy conditions. Disc brakes may be either hydraulic or mechanical.
- Internal hub brakes, also called drum brakes, involve internal pads that press outwardly into the hub's shell. Since they are internal, they require little maintenance and are largely unaffected by poor conditions. However, this style of brake does not provide as much stopping power as rim or disc brakes. Coaster brakes are another style of hub brake that utilize a clutch system, which is engaged by back pedaling rather than a hand-operated lever and cable.
The bike fork is the component that links the front wheel to the frame at the head tube. A crown links the two fork blades to the steering tube. Many mountain bikes have a suspension fork. On full-suspension mountain bikes, the frame also includes a shock integrated into the rear of the bike. The amount of shock-absorbing compression on suspension bikes is called “travel,” and works to cushion the rider on rough terrain. Rear suspension also enhances your ability to maintain contact with the trail, but also increases the overall weight of the bike.
The type of bike saddle or bike seat will vary depending on the style of riding. Saddles range from generously padded models to minimalist racing saddles to gender-specific models. Saddle comfort is key to an enjoyable ride, so many bikers choose to upgrade their saddle.
A seatpost is the tube that connects the frame to the saddle, and can be adjusted to the rider's height and riding preferences.
Bike pedals include basic flat platform pedals and clipless pedals. Clipless pedals from brands like Time Sport keep your feet securely attached to the pedal and increase pedaling efficiency, allowing you to pull up on the pedal as well as push down. However, you’ll also need special cycling shoes. For more info, check out our Cycling Shoe Guide.
Many bike manufacturers create a chart that provides specifications for each model’s various components. The information in a bike’s size chart is usually referred to as its “geometry.”
Example of Bike Size/Geometry Chart
XS S M L XL Head Angle 68.5 69 69 69.5 69.5 Head Tube Length 3.9 in. 4.3 in. 4.7 in. 5.3 in. 5.9 in. Top Tub Horizontal 21.3 in. 21.7 in. 22 in. 22.4 in. 23 in. Seat Angle 74 73.5 73 73 73 Bottom Bracket to Top of Seat Tube 13 in. 14.6 in. 16.1 in. 18.1 in. 20.1 in. Bottom Bracket Top Tube 11 in. 12.6 in. 14.2 in. 16.1 in. 16.1 in. Chain Stay 16.9 in. 16.9 in. 16.9 in. 16.9 in. 16.9 in. Bottom Bracket Offset -32 -32 -32 -32 -32 Stem Length 60 60 60 60 60
Bike size charts represent the manufacturer's own specs. As a result, different bikes have different types of geometry, and specifications may be provided in multiple units of measure (mm, inches, etc.). Also, manufacturers may measure geometry in different ways, such as from the center of one component to the center of another (C-C), or from the center to another component's top end or edge (C-T). Be aware of this when comparing bikes from different brands.
Note: Always check with each bike brand for specific information on how their bikes are measured, which will help determine your best fit.
Some road bikes have “compact” or “sloping” geometry, in which the top tube slants upward from the seat tube to the head tube. This results in an increased range of stand-over heights, possible weight savings and a lower center of gravity. What do these geometry specifications mean? Here are some of the major categories you might find on a bike’s size chart, and the ways they are typically measured:
Bottom Bracket: Many of the important measurements for a bike start at the bottom bracket. Distances are measured from the bottom bracket to another part of the bike (i.e., to the top tube). These measurements are taken from the center of the bracket axle.
BB Drop: The height difference between the rear wheel axle and center of the bottom bracket. This is the difference in vertical distance (not the actual distance between the axle and bracket).
BB Height or Clearance: This is the vertical distance from the center of the bottom bracket to the ground.
Chain Stay: This is the length, usually given in inches, from the center of the bottom bracket to the center of the rear wheel axle (or dropout).
Fork Length: Total fork length is measured from the bottom of the head tube to the front axle.
Head Angle: The angle between the head tube/ headset and an imaginary wheel-to-wheel axle centerline. A steeper head tube angle approaching 90 degrees will offer more responsive steering, but less stability at high speeds.
Head Tube Length: The length of the entire head tube, from top edge to bottom edge.
Seat Angle: The angle formed between the seat tube and level ground, or between the seat tube and top tube. Always less than 90 degrees; usually around 72-76 degrees. A steeper seat tube angle (closer to 90 degrees) will put the rider in a more aerodynamic - but less comfortable - riding position.
Seat Tube Length: A measure from the center of the bottom bracket to either the center or top of the top tube. This measure is sometimes listed as the "size" of a bike - especially regarding road bikes.
Stand-Over Height: A measure taken from the center of the top tube to the floor, in vertical distance. For mountain bikes, this is the best measure to determine your ideal size -- it should simply be 2-5 inches less than your inseam, based on your preference.
Stem Length: Just what it sounds like. This size is especially important when sizing the right road bike; stems are relatively easy to swap out, and having the right stem length can help you fine-tune your custom fit on a bike. Stems generally range in length from 90 to 120 mm for MTBs and 90 to 130 mm for road bikes. Women's specific models may have even shorter stems.
Top Tube: This measurement is taken from the center of the seat tube to the center of the head tube. If the specification instead lists “top tube horizontal” or “effective top tube” (for bicycles with compact or sloping geometry that lack a perfectly horizontal top tube), this refers to the horizontal distance from the center of the head tube/ top tube intersection to the center of the seat post.
Wheel Base: This is the total length from the front wheel axle to the rear wheel axle.
You'll find a pretty wide range of bike prices out there, and this is due largely to the materials used and the quality of the components. Generally speaking, the lighter a bike is, the more expensive it will be. Better components almost always equate to less overall weight and increased cost.
If you’re a competitive rider or plan to give racing a try, a lighter bike can certainly increase your performance. However, if you're a casual rider, you likely won’t notice a dramatic difference, and you may not benefit from the added cost. Of course, you don’t want to buy a cheaply made bike that won’t last, either. Below are some general guidelines based on several reputable bike brands’ original retail prices. Be aware, prices can vary greatly from brand to brand and within a single brand’s production range. The following is meant to serve as a baseline.
- Less than $500: Heavier frame and lower-end components. As long as you buy from a reputable brand, you should get a decent bike.
- $500 to $1,200: Mid-range frame and components. These bikes are good for intermediate riders who will appreciate the lighter weight.
- $1,200-$2,500: A lightweight frame with mid to high-end components. Serious cyclists and racers will prefer bikes in this category.
- $2,500 or more: Very lightweight frame and top-end components. Ideal for competitive cyclists and racers.
Quick Tip: Consider buying as much bike as you can comfortably afford. If you underestimate your potential for growing as a rider, you could end up having to upgrade too quickly, which would cost more in the long run. Then again, if you only plan to ride occasionally and casually, a less expensive bike will most likely work just fine for your needs.
A Note for First-Time Bike Buyers
Whether you choose to buy from a local bike shop, a larger retail store or an online retailer is mostly personal preference. Each has different pros and cons. For example, some of the best deals to be had on a new bike can be found online, and many companies can provide assistance over the phone. However, purchasing a bike at a local shop or brick-and-mortar retailer will allow you to get a feel for the bike’s size in person and possibly even take it for a test ride around the parking lot. For the best of both worlds, first-time buyers can always test out a few different bikes in person. Then, if you find a bike that you really like at a local store, it’s possible you could find the same bike online for a better deal. Be aware, however, that when you buy a bike online, it will almost always be shipped partially disassembled. Unless you’re very confident with bike building procedures, you should have a qualified bike tech assemble and tune your bike for you. This will ensure your bike is functioning properly before you ride.