Which bike should I buy?
Bike types are almost as diverse as dog breeds and their characteristics are as easily intermixed. Different kinds merge into each other. Hybrids (sic) are common. Broad definitions nevertheless tell you what a given bike is best at.
The ancestor of modern bikes is the Victorian ‘safety bicycle’, epitomised by Starley’s Rover of 1885. The arrangement of frame, fork, wheels, handlebar, saddle and chain drive is visible in all of the types listed below. Cycling’s family tree goes back further, however.
The bike was invented in 1817 in the shape of Baron Karl von Drais’s ‘running machine’, which was like a toddler’s balance bike for adults. Pedal cranks were added to the front wheel in the 1860s. The front wheel then grew larger so that riders could travel further and faster for each pedal revolution, resulting in the high-wheeler (penny-farthing) of the 1870s.
Chain drive to the rear wheel arrived the following decade, enabling the rider to sit in a less precipitous riding position – hence ‘safety bicycle’ – and turn the drive wheel at a different rate from the cranks.
In the beginning one bike did everything. The more that bikes filled different roles, though, the more diverse they became. Specialisation makes a bike better at one sort of cycling and invariably worse at another. There’s no such thing as a bike that’s objectively best, only one that’s better or worse for kind of riding you’ll be doing on it.
So called because it’s a blend of road and mountain bike, the hybrid is the general-purpose bike. If you just want ‘a bicycle’ and aren’t sure what, this is it. The flat handlebar provides a head-up riding position and puts the controls in easy reach at all times, while the middling-width 700C tyres will cope with firm tracks as well as tarmac.
Gears tend to be mountain bike ones with bigger chainrings, giving a wide enough range for ordinary mortals to manage hills or loads. Brakes are V-brakes, mechanical discs or hydraulic discs depending on how much you spend.
Almost all hybrids can be equipped with mudguards and a rear rack, though only cheaper ones usually have them fitted – unless you choose from German or Dutch brands, where the fully equipped trekking bike is the default hybrid. Some hybrids have suspension forks or seatposts, which seldom add much except weight.
Close relations: city bike, touring bike, gravel bike, mountain bike.
History: Hybrids emerged in the early 1990s on the back of the mountain bike boom.
Heyday: 21st century.
Strengths: Versatile. Relatively inexpensive. User friendly.
The traditional roadster is a transport bike with a sit-up-and-beg riding position and a full complement of accessories: mudguards, rack, chainguard, kickstand, and sometimes dynamo lighting and an integral lock. With its backswept handlebar and wide supportive saddle, a city bike is built for short-distance comfort and convenience not speed.
Even when aluminium is used instead of steel tubing, city bikes are heavy. In flatter locations, that’s fine. Many city bikes use internal hub gears, which lack the range of derailleurs but require less maintenance and allow gear shifting while stationary. Cheaper city bikes use rim brakes; better ones have internal drum or roller brakes, though discs are increasingly common.
Close relations: hybrid, folding bike.
History: Early 20th century onwards.
Heyday: Common up to the 1950s in the UK, they remain ubiquitous where transport cycling is normal (such as the Netherlands).
Strengths: Short-distance riding in normal clothes. Durable and weather resistant.
A folding bike has pivots and hinges so it can be collapsed into a smaller package for ease of transportation or storage. Any bike type can made to fold: there are folding road bikes, mountain bikes, tandems and more. The most common are folding city bikes or hybrids: bikes for shorter trips at the beginning or end of journeys by train or car.
Wheels are usually smaller in diameter to make the fold more compact, even though the rolling performance isn’t as good. On UK trains, a folder with wheels 20 inches or smaller is considered luggage; you don’t need to reserve a bike space.
Hub gears are common on utility folders because protruding derailleurs are vulnerable to knocks when folded or stowed. Useful features for a folder include mudguards, luggage capacity and lighting. Weight is important since you will have to lift it.
Close relations: hybrid, city bike.
History: Folders have existed since Victorian times. The iconic Brompton dates from 1988.
Strengths: The last leg of train commutes. Indoor storage at home or work. Shorter journeys.
‘Road bike’ is cycling speak for the drop-handlebar racer you see in events like the Tour de France. Not all road bikes are so racy; some, such as ‘endurance road bikes’ are intended for sporty recreational riding.
All road bikes are designed for speed, so they have a lower, stretched-out riding position to make the rider aerodynamic. Not everyone finds this comfortable. To make them lighter and easier to accelerate, road bikes tend to be made from aluminium or carbon fibre rather than steel.
Wheels may have deeper rims to reduce aerodynamic drag and they will be fitted with narrow, high-pressure tyres that roll very well on tarmac but offer little cushioning or grip on poor surfaces. Gear ratios are high, so hills will be hard work unless you’re fit.
Brakes are either compact callipers on the rim or, increasingly, disc brakes. Since road bikes are built for performance rather than practicality, compatibility with accessories is limited.
Close relations: gravel bike, fixed/singlespeed.
History: Lightweight racers have existed since the 1890s.
Heyday: Perennially popular but especially during the 1970s and early 1980s.
Strengths: Fitness cycling. Club riding. Racing.
A touring bike is designed to carry a load and rider comfortably and efficiently as far as desired. All tourers will accommodate one or two pannier racks, and most come with them. The frame – often steel – needs to be sturdy and will have a wheelbase long enough that the rider’s heels don’t hit the panniers. This also improves stability.
The drop handlebar that is the signature feature of tourers in English-speaking countries makes them look like road bikes but the riding position is more relaxed. They’re actually more like hybrids; indeed, the Northern European tourer equivalent is the trekking bike. Tyres, brakes and wide-range gearing are all similar to a hybrid’s, and a tourer has the same road-and-track capability.
The drop bar provides more hand holds, which is helpful for long journeys, but complicates gearing choices; drop-bar shifters aren’t meant for mountain bike-style gears. Workarounds abound.
Close relations: hybrid, gravel bike.
History: The Cyclists’ Touring Club was founded in 1878 but touring bikes owe much to Paul de Vivie (‘Velocio’) who developed derailleur gearing in the 1900s.
Heyday: Before cars became ubiquitous.
Strengths: Carrying panniers. Comfort over distances. Hills, due to the wide gear range. Holidays and day trips.
Sometimes called an adventure road bike or all-roads bike, the gravel bike is the direct descendant of the cyclocross bike, which was designed for racing around muddy fields in winter but became more popular as an all-purpose bike – a sort of sporty, drop-bar hybrid.
The gravel bike too is a blend of road and mountain bike, featuring a wider drop bar, lightly knobbled tyres optimised for unsurfaced roads, and often a ‘1x’ gearing setup with a single chainring and a wide-ratio cassette. Brakes are almost always discs.
Frame materials and design are similar to a road bike but with clearance for bigger tyres and fittings for lightweight bags and mudguards. Like the hybrid, its less fashionable cousin, the gravel bike is a jack-of-all-trades bike that does most things well enough.
Close relations: road bike, touring bike, hybrid.
History: Developed from cyclocross bikes over the last decade.
Strengths: Versatile. Comfortable and capable on bad roads and good tracks.
Mountain bikes are designed for riding off road on rough tracks. They’ve always had wide, knobbly, low-pressure tyres for traction and comfort, and most have telescopic suspension as well: a coil- or air-sprung fork (hardtails) and sometimes a rear shock too (full suspension).
Good-quality suspension transforms off-road riding, as does the now popular dropper seatpost. Mountain bikes have lower gears than other bikes so they climb well. They descend well too, thanks to a combination of stable steering geometry, a wide flat handlebar with lots of leverage, and dependably powerful brakes – often hydraulic discs which, along with 1x drivetrains, mountain bikes pioneered.
Like road bikes, mountain bikes are often aluminium or carbon fibre to keep the weight down, and they’re similarly performance orientated rather than utilitarian. Different sub-types excel in different areas: cross-country racers, trail bikes and downhill bikes all do best what their label says. None is great on road due to draggy tyres.
Close relations: hybrid, gravel bike.
History: Born in California in the 1970s.
Heyday: Late 1980s to the early 2000s.
Strengths: All kinds of off-road terrain. Sturdiness – they’re built to take abuse. Hills, up or down.
Until the uptake of the freewheel in 1900, most bikes were fixed wheel. You couldn’t coast: if the rear wheel was turning, so were the cranks. Nowadays the fixed-wheel bike lives on in the velodrome.
Track bikes don’t have hand brakes; riders slow down by resisting the pedals. Similar bikes are used on roads by cycle couriers and minimalists but with a crucial addition: a front brake, which is a legal requirement. Many ‘fixies’ have a rear hand brake too, as they’re sold for either singlespeed for fixed-wheel use.
Freewheel or fixed, a one-geared bike is inexpensive, simple and lightweight. It demands a level of athleticism but there’s not much to go wrong with the bike and it’s cheap to fix when it does. Urban fixies/singlespeeds tend to be steel. They’re otherwise like road bikes but without the derailleurs.
Close relations: road bike.
History: Starley’s 1885 Rover was a fixie!
Heyday: Late 19th century. Then a fad from about 2005-09.
Strengths: Cheap, simple and durable. Teaches/demands a fluid pedalling style.
Any type of bike can be power assisted so ‘electric bike’ (or e-bike) is more a qualification than a distinct category. Electric-assist hybrids are the most common, probably due to the demographic overlap between the e-bike buyer and the hybrid buyer.
In England, Scotland and Wales, an e-bike can be ridden by anyone aged 14 or over as long as the power assistance cuts out at 15.5mph and the motor is limited to 250 Watts.
You still have to pedal an e-bike: it amplifies your efforts according to the assistance level that you select. This means you get aerobic exercise but don’t have to strain on the pedals – even uphill or in headwinds.
E-bikes use a motor at the cranks or in one of the wheels, plus a substantial battery that’s sometimes hidden in the bike frame. This makes them several kilos (or more) heavier than an unpowered bike of their type. Most will do 40-50 miles per charge.
Close relations: hybrid – or any other type.
History: Electric bikes were first designed in the 1890s but pedal-assist models properly arrived 100 years later.
Strengths: Flattening hills and shrinking distances. Making light of heavy loads. Assisting less fit cyclists.
While the above list covers the more popular kinds of adult bike, there are many others, including (but not limited to):
- Tricycle: With two wheels at the back or (less often) front, a trike doesn’t have to be balanced so is ideal for those who struggle to do so for any reason
- Tandem: A two-seater bike enables cyclists of different abilities to ride together easily – for example, parent and child or sighted and blind cyclists
- Recumbent: The rider sits semi- or fully reclined, feet out front. Recumbent bikes and trikes are expensive but can be more comfortable and/or more aerodynamic
- Cargo cycle: A bike or trike with an integral load bed, cargo box, or basket. Great for cycling with small children as well as freight