How to Choose a Bike: Types of Bicycles

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Learn the ins and outs of cycling culture in “The Urban Biking Handbook.”
Learn the ins and outs of cycling culture in “The Urban Biking Handbook.”
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The first question to answer when choosing a bicycle is, what are you going to be doing with your bicycle?
The first question to answer when choosing a bicycle is, what are you going to be doing with your bicycle?

Across the United States people are leaving their cars behind and immersing themselves in the bicycle culture. The Urban Biking Handbook (Quarry Books, 2011) by Charles Haine offers an illustrated guide to cycling culture with repair and maintenance techniques as well as information on the health benefits of cycling. In this excerpt from part one, “The Ride,” find out how to choose a bike from all of the types of bicycles there are to pick from.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Urban Biking Handbook.

The first question to answer when choosing a bicycle is, what are you going to be doing with your bicycle?

Are you hoping to commute to work on your bicycle every day? Or do you plan to use it on weekends for recreation? Are you anticipating any off-road riding at all, or will you stay on city streets?

How to Choose a Bike

Types of bicycles fall into three main categories: road, mountain, and hybrid.

Road bikes are what many of us still picture when we close our eyes and say “bicycle.” They feature larger wheels (27″ or 700C); skinny, smooth tires; curvy “drop” handlebars; and large, thin frames. While many find the narrow tire intimidating, with a little practice they are easy to control, and make great platforms for a city bike. Within road cycling there are several broad categories of bikes: the racing bike, the touring bike, and the cyclocross bike. Road bikes typically have the skinniest tires; since these have the smallest area of contact with the road, they have the least “rolling resistance” caused by friction between the tires and the pavement.

Pros: Lightweight, low rolling resistance, fast
Cons: Expensive, can be uncomfortable over long distances

Road bikes can be broken down into several subcategories.

Racing bikes cater every aspect of their design to competitive racing. Frames and components are as light as possible, which generally means there are sacrifices in durability. Racing frames also use an aggressive seating position, with a very steep seat tube that puts the rider’s body weight farther forward, and low handlebars so the rider leans over farther, which lowers wind resistance. While beneficial in a race, racing bikes don’t tend to be as comfortable for day-to-day cycling. If you have a racing bike you intend to use as a daily commuter, you might consider raising the handlebars and pushing your seat back for more comfort, and be prepared for higher maintenance costs as you put a delicate frame through daily rigor.

Pros: Fast
Cons: Pricey, not very durable 

Mountain bikes are traditionally heavier than road bikes, with their tubing and components designed to stand up to off-road abuse. They generally feature wide, flat handlebars; a low-slung top tube; and 26″ (600 mm) wheels with knobby tires, though 29″ (622 mm) wheels are increasing in popularity. Mountain bikes are also notable for their frequent use of suspension to smooth out off-road bumps and drops. In general, suspension should be avoided for city riding. A little skill can help tremendously with avoiding impact. Most of what you’ll run across in the city doesn’t require suspension, which simply adds weight and decreases the pedaling efficiency of your bicycle. Mountain bikes were invented in Marin County, California, in the 1970s, and exploded onto the bicycle market in the 1980s and 1990s, achieving nearly total domination of the low-priced bicycle market.

Pros: Inexpensive, durable
Cons: Heavy, not well suited to daily or long-distance riding

Hybrids bikes are a strange and wonderful animal. They are designed to combine some of the best attributes of road and mountain bikes: more durable and less expensive than a road bike, but more road friendly than a mountain bike. They take advantage of the economies of scale of mountain bike production to make a very cost-effective bicycle. The design is slightly modified to be better for riding on paved surfaces. Although they are very durable, their main drawback is heaviness. Because they are built on what is closer to a mountain bike platform, they tend to be too heavy for regular city riding over any distance.

Pros: Versatile, durable, inexpensive
Cons: Heavy, jack-of-all trades but master of none

Touring bikes are designed primarily for long bicycle tours. They have a more relaxed seating position and higher handlebars for comfort over long hours on the bike, slightly heavier but more durable frames and components, and mounting points for racks and other gear. Touring bikes make great platforms for city bikes; the riding position is comfortable enough for daily riding, accessories can be conveniently mounted, and they stand up to the rigors of city life. In between racing and touring are club racers, designed for recreational racers, with a less aggressive riding position than a true racer but less weight than a touring bike.

Pros: Comfortable, durable
Cons: Slightly heavier than racing bikes, slower

Cyclocross is an off-road event in which road-style bikes are ridden in off-road courses. They feature lightweight racing frames mounted with mountain bike–style brakes for extreme stopping power, and a short wheelbase for off-road maneuverability. Slightly heavier than road racing bikes, they make excellent city bike platforms because they are durable and nimble with strong brakes. (The short wheelbase makes the overall bike shorter, making weaving through traffic easier.) Their main drawback is a high center of gravity (CoG) or where your weight is centered on the bike. To clear off-road obstacles, they have a high bottom bracket, which moves the rider up off the ground. The high CoG makes the bike harder to lean into a turn — not impossible, but more difficult during high-speed cornering. However, the high bottom bracket also means it’s less likely the pedals will hit the ground when cornering steeply or when going over a curb. The cyclocross bike is a very popular frame platform for the city cyclist.

Pros: Very durable, generally light
Cons: High center of gravity, tends to lack rack mounts

Cruisers are one of the few kinds of bike in which form triumphs over function. With giant balloon tires and curved tubes, cruisers are instantly recognizable and are a staple of beach communities and college campuses. Though it is possible to make a nice cruiser, most are poorly made and not designed for longevity. Their upright riding position, though comfortable on short rides, can be very uncomfortable during longer rides and doesn’t promote good pedaling efficiency.

Pros: Simple, stylish
Cons: Tend to be very heavy and inefficient

Fixies are single-speed, noncoasting bicycles styled after track-racing bikes, typically with brakes added for city riding. They are lightweight and mechanically very simple, which makes them durable, but they lack the variety of gearing that is useful for climbing and descending hills. If you aren’t prepared for the way it feels when your pedals keep moving and you can’t coast, you might get thrown over the handlebars.

Pros: Lightweight, stylish, simple, durable
Cons: Not great on hills, might throw you

Folding bikes date at least to the Boer War at the turn of the twentieth century, when the British army used folding bikes with rifle mounts. They are fantastic for commuters, especially those who use public transit for part of their commute, or don’t have much room to store a bike at home or work. However, all sorts of people find them useful because they are so easy to bring along. They tend to be more expensive because of the added cost of the folding technology; cheaper folding bikes tend to be very fragile and include too many plastic parts.

Pros: Small, easily stored, lightweight
Cons: Expensive or fragile, odd looking

There are also a variety of other specialty bicycles in existence, including tandems, unicycles, tricycles, pedicabs, etc.

While unicycles are primarily recreational devices (and unavoidably associated with circus performers), they are increasing in popularity with off-road cyclists for their extreme versatility. Occasionally you do see unicycle commuters, though generally near a college campus with a large art student contingent.

Tandems, where two or more cyclists are arranged in a line on the bike, are remarkably efficient machines and are able to achieve great speed by taking advantage of putting two cyclists in the same aerodynamic pocket. However, they are unwieldy to operate in cities because of their length, and you rarely see them except in recreational rides in the countryside.

Read more: Learn more about bikes in Tips for Buying a Used Bike and How to Paint a Bike.

Reprinted with permission from The Urban Biking Handbook by Charles Haine and published by Quarry Books, 2011. Buy this book from our store: The Urban Biking Handbook.

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