Whether it’s due to American success at the Tour de France or just high gas prices, there seem to be more cyclists than ever enjoying the roads and trails. Cycling is an ideal way to improve your fitness. It’s good for the environment, but most of all, cycling is crazy fun.
This article is written for the beginner who wants to get into the sport, but is daunted by the vast assortment of bicycles available.
Find a Bike Expert You Trust
There’s quite a bit that goes into getting the right bike, and you want to find a bike mechanic/salesperson who you develop a rapport with, and who will take the time to understand your needs over as many visits as necessary
Find a shop that doesn’t work on commission—that way, you know you won’t be pressured. You should also initially bring a friend along who knows something about the sport. You’ll feel a little more confident, and your friend will be able to tell you if the bike tech knows their stuff or not.
Have Clear Goals
Before starting your search for a bike, have a clear understanding of how you intend to use it. Will you bike on paved surfaces, unpaved, or a combination of both? If paved, will the surface be smooth, or will it be an urban setting with plenty of manhole covers and potholes? If unpaved, will you stay mostly on dirt roads or hit the backcountry trail? Will the terrain be flat or mega-hilly? How hard will you be pushing? Will you be racing? Biking with an organized group? Or do you intend to bike for recreation? How often will you use your bike? For how long? Will you need to carry anything like camping gear?
Knowing the answers to these questions will help you and your bike tech get started.
Fit is Everything
Just as with footwear and backpacks, if the bike doesn’t fit you, then what’s the point? Not only should the frame be sized to your body, the seat has to be at the right height and angle. Also, the handlebars can be adjusted vertically and can also be extended forward with the right additional parts. Even the pedals and cleats can be adjusted depending on your pedal stroke.
There’s a lot that goes into a proper fit. So before you start researching all the fun stuff, remember that getting the right bike is as much about what fits as whether or not it has disc brakes or a cool drivetrain.
Okay, you’ve entered the store and you see road bikes, mountain bikes, hybrids, BMX, cyclocross, tandems, downhill bikes, touring bikes, folding bikes…geez! You never knew there were so many styles. And even more, you don’t know which is which. Not to worry. It’s all going to make sense.
Choosing the Right Road Bike
Do you intend to bike on paved roads exclusively? Do you want the ability to pedal 10, 30, 50 miles or more at a shot? Then you need a road bike.
Compared to mountain bikes, road bikes have skinny tires for reduced friction on the road. Typically the handlebars are curved down like the horns on a bighorn sheep. These are called drop-down bars and let you either remain in a semi-upright position or drop down to a forward-leaning, more aerodynamic position. Road bike frames are also lighter and not quite as sturdy. And unlike most mountain bikes, road bikes don’t have shock-absorbing suspensions (remember, you’re cycling on smooth pavement).
Racing Road Bikes
Ultralight, aerodynamic, and admittedly expensive, racing bikes feature handlebars that are positioned lower than the seat (saddle) to keep your body in an aerodynamic position. The frame is often made with ultralight carbon fiber, and the wheel rims are shaped to optimize aerodynamic performance and typically have fewer spokes. The tires are thin, smooth, and inflated to at least 120 psi.
Comfort vs. Speed
A racing bike or any model designed for speed sacrifices some comfort. Let’s face it, the human body was not meant to be crunched over and leaning forward for hours at a time. But if you want to cut through the wind, if you want to transfer as much power as possible to your pedals, if blazing past your friends during your lunch-break ride means that much to you, then maybe it’s worth a little discomfort.
Discuss with your bike mechanic how long your trips will last, and whether you’re biking for fitness, competition, or just recreation. A good bike mechanic will work with you to arrive at a happy compromise between going fast and suffering from a stiff back.
Touring Road Bikes
These specialty bikes can be loaded with camping gear for a long cross-country, multiday trip. The frames are sturdier and heavier, and are designed to accommodate panniers and bags both front and back.
If you’re leaving the security of paved roads to bike uphill, downhill, and wherever the trail takes you (or better yet, where it doesn’t take you), then you’ll need a mountain bike.
Compared to road bikes, mountain bikes have thick tires with knobby treads for greater traction, especially over loose gravel. Because speed is less of an issue than stability, the handlebars are straight across instead of drop-down. This allows a more upright posture that’s better suited to keeping control when bombing over rocks and roots. The frames are stronger and heavier, too. Most mountain bikes also feature powerful disc brakes as opposed to the rubber brake pads of road bikes.
How Mountain Bike Suspensions Work
Shock absorbers soften the impact of hitting rocks and landing jumps, so you’ll find them on most mountain bikes. Like those found in your car, these shocks compress upon impact, then quickly expand back, ready for the next tree stump or jump. The amount of compression these shocks are capable of is referred to as “travel.” When comparing suspensions, the greater the travel, the greater the shock absorption.
Full-suspension bikes have shocks over both the front and rear wheels. Bikes with shocks in front but none in the rear are called “hardtails.” Mountain bikes without any suspension are referred to as “fully rigid.”
Full Suspension Mountain Bikes
Compared to hardtails and bikes with no suspension, full-suspension bikes are more comfortable and less fatiguing over rough, bumpy terrain. Though heavier (2-5 lb. more, everything else being equal) and more expensive full-suspension bikes are great for rocky surfaces and also help stabilize your landings on jumps. Novices will especially find these bikes more forgiving.
Hardtail Mountain Bikes
Mountain bikes without rear suspension are generally less expensive and require less maintenance. If you’re biking predominantly smooth, only slightly rocky trails, a hardtail is definitely the way to go. If, however, you intend to ride aggressively through rock gardens and down the occasional cement steps, consider a full-suspension bike.
Besides suspension type, another way mountain bikes are segmented is by wheel diameter. The two most popular types are bikes with 26 in. wheels and ones with 29 in. wheels (called 29ers). These larger-diameter wheels tend to roll over obstacles more easily, creating a smoother ride; the 26 in. wheels are a little more nimble in tight spaces and are a bit lighter (smaller wheel). A third size of wheel, referred to as a 650B (about 27 in.) is gaining in popularity and is a good compromise for those looking for all-around performance.
Rider size is another consideration. People over 6 ft. often find 29ers to be a more natural fit, while riders under 5 ft. 5 in. often match up better to 26 in. (wheel) bikes.
Hybrid bikes are a cross between road and mountain, borrowing elements from each. Faster than mountain bikes on paved surfaces, hybrids are also able to withstand unpaved surfaces better than road bikes.
Hybrids can be broken down into two general classifications: utility/commuter bikes and comfort bikes.
Utility / Commuter Hybrid Bikes
These bikes are very similar to road bikes, except that the handlebars are upright and flat instead of drop-down. Ideal for getting to the store or work, utility bikes have no suspension and often feature a lower, easier gear ratio for steep city hills. The tires of these bikes are fairly skinny and smooth, resembling road tires more than mountain.
Featuring swept-back handlebars to keep you in a more upright cycling position, comfort hybrids are ideal for bike paths, outings with the kids, and casual trekking on back roads. The seats are bigger and provide greater cushioning, and the wider tires resemble those used by mountain bikes, except that they have a smoother tread. Finally, comfort hybrids usually feature a front suspension.