When you’re looking for a new bike, it’s easy to become overwhelmed,
and it can be hard to figure out which kind of bike to buy. Designers are forever offering new and different products, and marketers dream up bamboozling buzzwords to describe them. The modern capitalist society offers almost infinite choice, and the bike industry is no exception: do you need disc brakes or rim brakes? A step-thru or a step-over? How many gears do you need? It’s enough to make you hyperventilate.
In this post, I will attempt to simplify things; to cut through the marketing hype and give you the key information to help you to find the right type of bike for you.
The right tool for the job
Bikes are a bit like kitchen knives. All knives cut things, but the knife which would best cleave a lamb shoulder is different to the knife you should use to dice a kiwi fruit. Sure, you could get through a lamb shoulder with a small fruit knife, but it would be pretty tedious, and the results may not be very good. Similarly, all bikes move forward when you pedal, but the bike you would need to compete in a road race is a very different to the bike best suited to pick up the kids from childcare. All bikes have different characteristics and intended uses, and finding the right tool for the job will make your cycling life a lot more enjoyable.
What do you want to do?
Your first task on your journey to buying a bike is to think briefly about what type of riding you envisage doing, and what kind of rider you are. Here are the key questions you should consider:
- How confident am I on a bike?
- How fit, strong and flexible am I?
- How much, and what kind of luggage do I want to carry?
- How far and how frequently do I want to ride?
- How fast do I want to ride?
- What surface types do I want to ride on, eg: sealed, gravel, rough trails?
Armed with the answers to these questions, you should be able to narrow down your choice to one or two categories of bike. Here’s an overview of the different types of bikes out there. There are many bikes that could straddle two or more of these categories, but this is a start.
Mountain bikes are purpose built for rough terrain and off-road use, and are characterised by flat handlebars, wide, knobbly tyres and suspension. They are generally sturdy bikes that are fantastic for off-the-beaten-path riding, however they are slow and heavy on sealed roads compared to most other bikes.
Mountain bikes can be used as commuter bikes though, as changing to a slick tyre will drastically increase the speed of a mountain bike on sealed surfaces. Indeed, a decade ago when there weren’t many other options available, the ‘hard-tail-with-slicks’ was a very common commuter. Mountain bikes can also be a good bike to learn on, as their relaxed riding position and wide tyres can help beginner riders with their confidence. Finally, their sturdiness and compliance makes them good for heavier riders, who are less likely to have mechanical problems on a mountain bike than some other bikes.
Some mountain bikes have eyelets for carrying luggage or child seats.
Road bikes are all about speed. Characterised by narrow tyres, drop handlebars and low weight. They are sleek and efficient, allowing you to cover long distances in a short time. Road bikes need some skill and confidence to handle, as well as the strength and flexibility to maintain the aggressive (leaning far forward) riding position they encourage, and are therefore suited to experienced riders more than beginners. They are designed for long rides on open roads more than a short city commute, and are generally not good for very heavy riders or large amounts of luggage.
Road bikes should generally be ridden on sealed surfaces, though confident riders may be able to ride them on gravel. In recent years, however, many ‘road’ bikes have come onto the market fitted with wider tyres, plus other features that encourage mixed-surface riding. These developments have broadened the appeal of road bikes and stretched the capabilities of the category.
The most popular choice for people making a regular ride to work/uni/school, commuter bikes are a “jack of all trades” bike. They are reasonably fast, though sturdy enough to carry luggage or children, and usually come with mid-width tyres and a wide range of gears. They can handle a bit of gravel, and have a ‘moderate’ riding position that balances comfort and speed. Commuter bikes are our highest-selling bikes at Velo Cycles, and are suited to a wide range of uses, often fitted with mudguards, rear rack and lights.
A flat-bar road bike shares many of the characteristics of a road bike—low weight, narrow tyres—but with flat handlebars instead of the drop handlebars found on road bikes. This makes them better suited to city or casual riding than a road bike. You could also think of them as a speed-oriented commuter bike. They’re good for people who want to get around quickly, ride mainly on sealed surfaces and don’t want to carry much luggage.
Hybrid bikes are comfort-oriented commuter bikes, and are more suited to gravel or mixed surfaces. They have front suspension and wide-ish tyres, making them slower and heavier than a commuter bike, but they provide a smoother ride and greater control on uneven surfaces. This, combined with their relaxed, upright riding position, makes them good for beginner or casual riders. Some hybrid bikes feature a step-thru frame design (see below).
Gravel/adventure bikes have drop-handlebars like a road bike, but are much more versatile. Compared to a road bike they have wider tyres, sturdier components and a more relaxed riding position for comfort and endurance. Many also have luggage mounts. Gravel/adventure bikes are one of the most versatile bikes around, being suitable for commuting, road riding, all-surface riding, light touring or bikepacking. If you want to get an idea of what a gravel/adventure bike is capable of, check out this review of a Jamis Renegade.
Touring bikes are made for long-distance travel on two wheels. They are very sturdy and very reliable, can be ridden on varying surfaces and can carry heavy loads. They can fit wide tyres and have many attachment points for bags, water bottles, spare spokes etc. They have a wide range of gears and usually come with drop handlebars. These capabilities also make touring bikes a popular choice for a commuter or everyday-type bike, particularly if you need to carry heavy things, however they tend to be a a little heavier and slower than most commuter bikes.
Check out this inspiring journey by Velo customer and photographer Dan Marsh, who ride around Australia on a Surly Disc Trucker touring bike. Or for a rundown on the fine distinctions between gravel and touring bikes, check out this post.
Step-thru bikes are characterised by a low-slung frame that allows you to ‘step-thru’ the bike rather than over it, which makes them very easy to mount and dismount. This is great for people with physical limitations that make it hard to get a leg over a traditionally shaped bike, as well as being better if you need to ride in a long dress or skirt. Generally, step-thru’s have a relaxed, upright riding position, which reduces strain on the back and neck, and are often classically styled, which gives them an old-world charm. They usually have mid-width or wider tyres, allowing them to be ridden on gravel surfaces, as well as providing good traction and comfort. Step-thru’s can be great bikes for beginner riders. Most step thru’s are able to carry a moderate amount of luggage. The downside of many step-thru bikes is that they can be heavier than other bikes, and are difficult to ride into a headwind or up a big hill. Although this yellow Kona Coco pictured here bucks that trend, being one of the lightest step-thru bike on the market.
Single-speeds are typically ridden by uni-students and young people more generally. This is because they are cheap to buy and maintain, require greater fitness to ride, and can be neglected with fewer consequences than geared bikes (though no bike should really be neglected). They are light and fast, can be loaded with a small amount of luggage, and generally have narrow tyres. Single-speeds are fast, fun, and make great city run-arounds. The downside of a single speed is that you will constantly be accused of being a hipster.
Cargo bikes are peerless at carrying heavy and/or bulky luggage, or multiple children, or both. You could devote a whole article to these alone, because they come in radically different designs, each with their unique pros and cons—so it’s hard to make generalisations. Many families find them to be a fun, comparatively cheap and convenient alternative to the family car. Others with specialist requirements—such as trades or delivery people—are adopting them in greater numbers for the same reasons. And obviously, more and more manufacturers are bringing out electrified cargo bikes – watch this space.
An electric bike (or ‘e-bike’) is any bike that’s assisted by a battery and a motor, which allows the rider to cover distance and climb hills with much greater ease than with a regular bike. E-bikes make a brilliant commuter, as it’s entirely possible to ride to work sweat free. You can then choose the level(s) of assist to ride home again, should you still want your workout – pedal hard, or hardly pedal. It’s all up to you. They’re also great for older people, or anyone who may need assistance due to medical issues, as well as those who may need to carry heavy luggage, or have a long commute. E-bikes come in a wide range of styles—commuter, step-thru, folding, cargo or mountain. Although they can be ridden switched off, e-bikes are quite hefty due to the battery and motor, and will generally have a narrower range of gears. Check out Catherine Deveny’s ten reasons to get an electric bike.
Folding bikes can be folded into a small package for transport or storage. The appeal of a folding bike is its enormous convenience; they can be taken easily on public transport, put in the boot of a car or safely stored under a work desk. For these reasons they’re a fantastic companion to city life. They’re generally not as good as a full-size bike for riding long distances at speed (although there are speed-oriented folders, and tour-oriented folders, and cargo folders, and…)
All of them, however, give you the possibility of easy one-way transport, and so really change how a bike can aid you in getting from place to place. Have a look at our resident folding bike guru Cory’s reasons why he chose a folding bike.
I hope that’s made the expansive world of bicycles more readily understandable, and that you have been able to narrow down what type of bike to buy. Remember, if you’re unsure about anything, nothing beats talking to a friendly and experienced bike shop staff member. And a test ride or three. Feel free to pop into our shops in Carlton North, Melbourne, or call us on 03 9481 0088.