- Created on 23 May 2013
- Written by Jose George
Bicycles: How to Choose
Bicycling lets you have fun and get exercise while being kind to the environment at the same time. It can also be a great way to run errands, commute to work or experience a backcountry trail, not to mention more serious pursuits such as touring or racing.
Whatever your goals, you have a number of bicycle options to take you there.
The aim of this article is to help beginners, casual riders or those who haven't ridden in a while to select the right type of bike for them.
What's Your Primary Riding Style?
Your first consideration is to know where you'll be riding: on pavement, dirt trails or both. Some bicycles are made specifically for a particular kind of riding surface, while others are versatile enough that, perhaps with a quick tire change, they can be ridden in more than one category.
To get you started, here is a general breakdown of the different kinds of bikes that REI carries. Within each of these categories are individual models that emphasize performance, versatility or comfort.
Best for: Pavement.
Description: Generally lighter in weight than the typical mountain or comfort bike, road bikes are good for multiple pavement uses including fitness riding, commuting, long-distance/event rides, touring and racing. They are suitable for riders ranging from novices to seasoned enthusiasts. Proper fit for most road bikes is particularly important, as a poor fit can be uncomfortable or even painful. In addition, a poorly fitting road bike can also reduce the efficiency of your pedaling. Some models are built for speed with a more aerodynamic riding positioning, while others provide a more upright riding position. Road bikes may include racks, lighting systems or fenders for commuting or touring use. Prices range from $500 to $2,000+.
Road bikes are distinguished by 2 basic handlebar styles:
Drop-bar handlebars are lightweight and aerodynamic and are a better choice if you want to go faster or are more concerned with efficiently transferring your energy into making the bike move forward. They also allow for a greater number of riding and hand positions than flat-bars. Their more aerodynamic riding position (bent over at the waist) may put more strain on your back if you are less flexible.
Flat-bar handlebars combine the efficiency of drop-bar road bikes with a slightly more upright riding position. This allows you to sit up in a higher and more relaxed position so you can better see the road and potential hazards. An upright position also reduces strain on your hands, wrists and shoulders. This increased versatility comes with the tradeoff of being slightly less efficient (from an aerodynamic standpoint) than the typical drop-bar road bike.
Shop our selection of road bikes.
Best for: Dirt or rocky trails and gravel roads; OK for pavement too (with tire change).
Description: Designed with shock-absorbing features and better braking systems, mountain bikes can handle dirt trails and the rocks, roots, bumps and ruts that come with them. They feature lower gears than most road bikes to better handle steeper terrain. Higher-priced models tend to be lighter weight as well. Mountain bikes can be a good choice for commuting because they can withstand potholes while still providing comfort. However, the smaller diameter wheel (26 inch) of traditional mountain bikes is less efficient on pavement than the larger diameter wheel (700 millimeter/27 inch) of a road bike. To address this, many mountain bikes are now designed for 29-inch wheels (see the REI Expert Advice article, The Basics of 29er Mountain Bikes). These larger diameter wheels and tires provide decreased rolling resistance and more easily roll over obstacles, at the cost of some agility. Prices range from $400 to $2,000+.
Mountain bikes come in 2 basic varieties:
Hardtail bikes feature a front suspension fork and a rigid back with no rear suspension shocks. This type of mountain bike is much less expensive and lighter in weight than a typical full-suspension mountain bike. A hardtail is the more versatile choice if you plan to use it for both paved and unpaved surfaces. The tradeoffs from a full-suspension mountain bike? A hardtail is less able to safely handle more technical singletrack trails, provides less overall shock absorption and, in some situations, delivers less rear wheel traction.
Full-suspension bikes have both front and rear suspension shocks making them ideal for backcountry trails or technical (steep, bumpy, twisty) singletrack. They also stand up to more aggressive riding including jumps or drops of up to 5 feet. As mentioned above, full-suspension bikes are more expensive and generally heavier than hardtail bikes.
Shop our selection of mountain bikes.
Recreational Bikes or Hybrids
Best for: Pavement or gravel/dirt roads.
Description: These bikes emphasize comfort and ease of handling. They are ideal for riding around flat neighborhoods, parks and bike paths. Some styles offer bigger wheels for an extra-smooth and efficient ride and many feature front suspension forks as well. These bikes are good for general riding, casual family outings or those who haven't ridden in a while. Most have large tires so you can ride them on gravel or dirt as well as pavement. Some models include rear racks and/or fenders. Prices range from $350 to $800.
There are 2 common varieties of recreational bikes:
Comfort bikes are aptly named. They feature slightly wider 26-inch tires than other pavement bikes, a comfortable seat and a very relaxed sitting position. Many styles also offer a suspension seatpost that compresses when you sit on it, providing extra comfort and shock absorption. Some comfort bikes even have internally geared rear hubs for easy maintenance.
Hybrid bikes aim to offer the best of the road- and comfort-bike worlds. While they have a comfortable seat, upright sitting position and (often) suspension forks and/or seatposts, they also offer the more efficient pedaling of 700-millimeter (700c) wheels versus the comfort bikes with 26-inch wheels. These are a good choice if you want to commute to work and enjoy leisurely rides through the park.
Shop our selection of recreational bikes.
Urban and Commuting Bikes
Best for: Pavement or some gravel roads.
Description: Designed with city streets in mind, urban bikes are rugged and sturdy with tough frames and strong wheels. They feature an upright riding position that allows you to better see, and be seen by, motorists. Many commuter-friendly models include racks, lighting systems or fenders. Prices range from $450 to $1,200.
Shop our selection of urban/commuting bikes.
Best for: Those who have the more typical woman's body proportions of longer leg length relative to torso length.
Description: These bikes—which can be road, mountain, comfort or hybrid bikes—feature frame geometries, handlebars and wider saddles that are tailored to better fit the typical female body proportion. For instance, the top tube frame lengths on women's bikes are generally about 1 to 3 centimeters shorter than men's bikes, so the reach (saddle to handlebar) is shorter and fits most women better. These bikes also feature shorter-reach shifters that better fit women's hands.
Other Bike Categories
Cyclocross bikes: Cyclocross is a form of bike racing. It involves taking laps around courses that feature a variety of terrain including pavement, dirt trails and grass. The courses also have obstacles that require riders to dismount and carry their bikes around them. Similar to road racing bikes in some ways, cyclocross bikes are lightweight yet tough enough to deal with extreme conditions. Most have knobby tires in order to handle all types of terrain.
Tri-specific bikes: Built for triathlons, these bikes put you farther forward over the front wheel than other types of bikes. They are more aerodynamic and work your hamstrings more efficiently, which helps your legs in the run phase. The downsides? These bikes are more difficult to maneuver for general cycling, they don't have drop handlebars, they can be uncomfortable for long rides and their braking is not as convenient.
Folding bikes: These bikes can be folded up and placed in a carrying bag, which makes them handy for commuters with limited storage space at home or the office. They are lightweight yet strong and can be folded up quickly and easily. Folding bikes are also a good choice for those who want to travel with their bike.
Electric-assist bikes: These ingenious bikes feature a battery-powered motor that can help you climb hills easily or make your commute less strenuous. Built-in sensors monitor how much pressure you're putting on the pedals and then apply battery power accordingly.
Fixed-gear bikes: Often called fixies, these are bikes without a freewheel mechanism and (usually) only one gear. Long associated with track cycling, fixed-gear bikes have become popular with urban riding enthusiasts for their simplicity, low maintenance and low weight.
Get the Right Bike Fit for You
No matter what type of bike you choose, make sure it fits you. Bikes are sold in a variety of frame sizes, so this is a good starting point. To find the frame that best fits your leg length, try this simple stand-over exercise: throw your leg over the bike's top tube and straddle it. Generally you want about 1" of clearance for a road bike and about 2" or more for a mountain bike. Recreation and comfort bikes generally offer plenty of stand-over room already. Wear shoes to get an accurate reading.
Now consider the seat height. You want to make sure your leg has a slight bend when your pedal is at its lowest point in its rotation. To achieve this may involve making simple up or down adjustments to the seat height.
You should also have the proper reach to the handlebars. Your arms should not be fully extended; rather, your elbows should be slightly bent so that you feel comfortable and not too far away or too close to the handlebars.
For specific fit instructions, refer to our Fitting Your Bike article and videos.
Take a Test Ride
A test ride is a great way to discover what the best bike is for you. Most REI stores provide an area for customers to do this, usually in a little-used area of the parking lot. The stores in Seattle, Denver and Bloomington (Minn.) even offer onsite mountain-bike test trails.
Bicycling comes with many useful accessories and safety gear. The only real "must have" is a helmet. As with your bike, it's important that a helmet fits you properly. Check out our How to Choose a Bicycle Helmet article and video for practical tips. Other bike-comfort features worth considering include padded bike gloves and padded shorts.
Choosing a Bike for a Child
From bikes with training wheels to teen-sized versions of adult bikes, there are many options available for kids. The most important consideration when buying your child a bike is size. When shopping, keep in mind that children's bikes are measured by their wheel size, not frame size. The most common wheel sizes are 16", 20" and 24". The right size is one where the child can comfortably get on the bike and stand with his or her feet on the ground.
It is not recommended that you buy a bike that is too large for a child and then have them "grow into it." Doing so can set the child back in terms of riding skills and confidence. A properly sized bike will be easier for kids to handle, less dangerous and a lot more fun. And don't forget the helmet!
For a broader overview, see our Cycling with Kids article.
Q: Can I use one style of bike for different activities or terrains?
A: Yes, some kinds bikes offer this versatility, but not all. One of the biggest factors is the kind of tires. The smooth, thin tires found on many road bikes won't last long off of the pavement, for instance. However, many recreational and mountain bikes have tires that can handle both paved and unpaved surfaces without trouble. It's also possible to switch out smooth tires for knobby tires on many mountain and recreation bikes.
Q: Can I replace my bike seat with a more comfortable one?
A: Yes, there are many different kinds of bicycle seats (also known as saddles). Some are wider and shorter and specifically designed for women. Generally, men's seats are thinner and longer. Occasional riders should look for seats with generous amounts of gel padding to reduce riding soreness. Still not comfortable? Keep in mind that the angle of a seat can be adjusted, too. Generally, a flat seat or a very slight forward tilt is best. If you're a daily or long-distance rider, you should make sure your seat fits your particular bone structure. See our How to Choose a Saddle article for more information.
Q: Does it matter what kind of handlebars I get?
A: Yes. When looking at a bike, compare the level of the seat and the handlebars. Generally speaking, the farther the seat is below the handlebars, the more comfortable the ride. This is why many recreational bikes are set up this way. Seats that are higher than the handlebars, on the other hand, will allow you to ride in a more aerodynamic position and apply more torque to the pedals. This lets you go faster, but it may not be as comfortable. This is particularly important to note if you have back problems.
There are 2 basic handlebar styles: drop-bar and flat-bar. Drop-bar handlebars are lightweight, aerodynamic and sport a classic look. They are a better choice if you're planning to race or just want to go fast. They also allow for a greater number of riding and hand positions than flat-bars. The downside is that they put you in lower, more hunched over position that may put more strain on your back.
Flat-bar handlebars, though heavier than drop-bars, let you to sit up in a higher and more relaxed position so you can better see the road and potential hazards. This upright position also reduces strain on your hands, wrists and shoulders.
Q: How many gears do I need?
A: If your last bike was a 10-speed, then you may be surprised to learn that today's bikes commonly come with 18, 21, 24 or even 27 gears. You'll definitely want a bike with multiple gear options if you plan to ride any hills. However, the number of gears is not as important as how low the gearing goes. Gearing is achieved by having front chainrings and rear cogs with varying numbers of teeth, a discussion of which quickly gets beyond the scope of this introductory article. Unless you're tackling big inclines, this is not a major concern.