Fitness Articles

Tips for Buying the Right Bicycle

An Introduction to Styles, Frames and Sizes

Whether you want to help the environment, cut down on your gasoline expenses, or simply exercise in the great outdoors, cycling is a great way to get fit and have fun at the same time. And it’s one of the fastest growing leisure activities in the United States, where 1.3 million adult bicycles were sold in 2004 alone.

But buying the right bike isn’t as simple as visiting your local "big box" retail store. First, you must think about exactly where you will be riding and how often. Is comfort your biggest concern or do you care more about how the bike looks? Will you be taking leisurely rides around the countryside or are competitive races more your speed? Whatever you decide, there is a bike that fits. Here are the six most popular types of bicycles for adults, along with details that will help you pick the best one for your needs.

Mountain bikes ($400+) are rugged. They're built with stronger components and frames than other bikes because they're intended for off-road riding on hills and over rocks and logs. The knobby tires and suspension systems on these bikes give them better traction and shock absorption on this varied terrain, but you can ride a mountain bike on-road too. With most mountain bikes you can expect: 26-inch wheels, 21-27 gears, a forward-leaning position when seated (which can be uncomfortable, especially if you have lower back problems), and lower gears for easier hill climbing.

Trail bikes and light-duty mountain bikes ($200+) are similar to mountain bikes, but a little heavier, less rugged, and less expensive. Meant for trail and road riding, these bikes can't handle the rough terrain that true mountain bikes can. These bikes are ideal for a casual riders such as college students, commuters, and recreational riders. Most trail bikes will have: 26-inch wheels and 21-24 gears.

Comfort bikes ($200+) are similar to both mountain and trail bikes, but are designed to be more comfortable. With a shorter distance between the seat and the handlebars, you'll sit in a more upright position on a comfort bike (which is good for people who have lower back problems). Expect a smooth ride on a comfort bike, as most will have: 26-inch wheels, 7-24 gears, and other comfort-enhancing features like wide, soft saddles (seats), wide pedals, and shock-absorbing seat posts, handlebar stems, and front forks.

Touring bikes and road bikes ($400+) are aerodynamic, lightweight and fast—very different from the bikes described so far. They are built for pavement (on-road) riding, so they have smooth and narrow tires, skinny saddles, and "turned-down" handlebars. These bikes are ideal for long-distance riders who want more speed and intense workouts. Both touring and road bikes tend to have 27-inch (700C) wheels and 14-27 gears. You can expect most touring models to have a longer wheelbase, greater shock-absorbency, and a variety of ways to attach carrying racks and bags. In contrast, road bikes usually have a slightly shorter wheelbase (for faster response) and weigh less.

Hybrid bikes ($200+) mix features of mountain bikes (such as comfortable seating) with characteristics of comfort bikes (like wider tires), making them great for riding on both pavement and dirt trails. Hybrid bikes are ideal for both serious and casual riders who want more agility and speed than typical comfort bikes can offer, whether riding on-road or on trails. Most hybrid bikes will have approximately 27-inch (700C) wheels and 21-24 gears.

BMX bikes and dirt bikes ($150+) are general-purpose bikes that can be used for basic transportation or dirt riding. Smaller than other bikes, these typically feature: 20-inch wheels, one gear, hand brakes, short wheelbase frames, and knobby tires.

Bike Frames
Now that you have a good idea about the type of bike that will meet your needs, you'll also have to decide on a bike frame, which can be made from one of several different materials: aluminum, steel, carbon and titanium. While each has its own merits, what really matters is finding a bike that fits your budget and your needs.
  • Steel frames have classic style. They're durable, easily-repaired, affordable, and lightweight. But if left to the elements, these can rust easily.
  • Aluminum frames have modern style. They're durable, affordable, lightweight and rust-resistant.
  • Carbon frames have high-tech style. They're durable, lightweight, and more expensive than both steel and aluminum, but do not rust.
  • Titanium frames have a variety of finishes and styles. They're durable, lightweight, and the made of the most expensive materials, but will not rust.

Frame Size and Style
  • Finding a bike that fits the length of your legs and the size of your torso is very important. Women’s bike frames fit a woman’s longer leg and shorter torso, which makes riding more comfortable. However, men’s frame sizes are small enough to fit almost anyone comfortably. If you are tall, a bike shop can adjust a men’s frame for you. 
  • Bikes purchased from a true bike shop, not a department store, are sized to proportionally fit both your leg length and upper body.
  • Getting the right size of bike is an absolute must for safety. A bike that’s too large for you makes it difficult to start, stop and get on or off. A bike is a big investment, but you won’t ride it if it doesn’t fit your properly.
Before you go ahead a buy a particular bike, take it out for a lengthy test ride—a quick spin around the block won’t be enough. While you’re out, make sure the seat is comfortable and you can reach the handlebars easily. If you’re not satisfied, keep trying other bikes until you find the perfect fit. The better a bike fits you, the more you’ll ride. Now strap on your helmet and hit the open road!

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Member Comments

  • funny how this popped up today when I just bought a bike yesterday.. lol
  • I have a new philosophy.
    I'm only going to dread one day at a time.
    - Charles M. Schulz
  • I don't use a recumbent bike. I just use a regular 2 wheeler
  • I just started bike riding last week. My bike was giving to me, so I'm making it work. Great article. Thanks for sharing
  • A lot of these comments about recumbent bikes, which were not mentioned at all in this article, are off base.

    Yes 'bent bikes are a niche market, but not because they are usually ridden by people with health issues. They are a niche market because prior to 1931, recumbent bikes were being used to set records. The UCI decided that since mid level riders were setting records on these contraption, they must be providing an unfair advantage. So they were banned from competition. Imagine if the governing bodies of other sports did that. The curveball would have been banned form baseball. America Cup boat racing would be using wooden hulls and canvas sails. Only leather shoes with metal spikes would be used for track.

    And because they were forced to be a niche market by the cycling governing body, there are few manufacturers and they cannot benefit from the scale of large numbers.

    Some people do move to 'bent bikes because of back pain and neck pain and wrist pain. But ask yourself: where did they develop these problems?

    Simple: from the geometry of an upright bike. As a man, I often complained about having a numb groin after a ride. I literally could not feel my ... well you know (I know Spark-censors think we are children) ... when I needed to go to the bathroom. Some men complain of impotence for a period after riding. Women also have issues. New seat design claim to relive those problem. Even different seats for men and women.

    But guess what? I have never had an issue on a 'bent bike. I don't have any issues with shoulder, back, neck, wrist or groin pain on a 'bent bike.

    I switched over because I discovered that they were wicked fun to ride. I did not switch over because I was having physical issue. But I can definitely say that the physical issues never showed up on my 'bent and a;ways shoed up on my wedgie.

    So if you think there is a cause and effect involving pain on an wedgie causing one to move to a 'bent, think again. Riding the wedgie cause the pain in the first place. It simply does not exists on a 'bent.

  • Great helpful article. I just wish we could try the bike out for say a week or so to see if it feels as good after we're tired. Sometimes, while trying out a bike in a store (even the bike store) it may feel okay when you are stationary, but when you get it home and ride it for say 30 mins or more, you find that the seat hurts your bum and you are reaching too far to the handlebars. I am a former triathlete and now ride a commercial bike! Wow!!! What a difference the fit makes!!!
  • These bikes seem to be streamlined for the much younger crowd. I have a one speed with a standard brakes. I don't compete any more, so i felt I didn't need a real expensive bike. The article is informative, but a bit shy on the different types of bikes. I have friends that ride the recumbent bikes, however, they are not for me.
  • I wished I would have read this before I purchased my bike, the first thing I had to do was change my seat
  • I too found this article poorly written.Yes recumbents were not mentioned BUT neither were any traditional touring bikes. Not everyone wants (or NEEDS) a 27 speed monstrosity.. Not to mention I have never seen a STEEL framed bike rust. They have paint for a reason and if you don't want to use some common sense (like occasionally cleaning your bike and NOT leaving it out in the rain or all winter) then ,yes, of course its going to succumb to the elements just like anything else.
  • I've been looking to get back into biking. I have never been so confused by the tons of styles and the range of prices it makes my head spin. Gone are the days of going to Local Bike S hop and picking out a Schwinn in a color you like and riding it home (unfortunately).

    I think it is very important to go to a qualified bike shop and discuss what you want the bike for and how much do you want to spend. Most bike manufacturers make styles that only are for the BBS not independent bike shops. These bikes are less expensive, you have to assemble and there is really not much support once purchased.

    I've been to about four LBS and finally tried out a bike, it's been years and of course I fell when I tried to stop with the very sensitive hand brakes of today's bikes. I now have to wait until hand heals before I can continue my quest. Make sure that the LBS will go out with you when trying bikes if you haven't been on one in years to make sure you know how to use the brakes unless you are getting a Cruiser which have the good old fashion back pedal brakes. You should be fit to the bike you get - bikes are usually an investment so they should fit your body, get a lock and helmet.

    I can't wait to get back to the shop and complete my trial run on a bike.
  • I have several health problems, I can only bike and swim for exercise. I bought a wonderful bike that's Electric! It gets me out there people, on the trails and into the woods and on the beach and every where! I love it, and it's so nice to have this bike because my knee's or my ankle can give out on me at any time. With this bike I don't worry about how I am going to make it back to the car or home. I love riding so much my husband had made a carrier for our dog (Westie) and we take him with us and he loves it! Happy biking
  • A good bike is more than you think. If you really want to cycle, the old adage of 'buy cheap buy twice' holds very true. I have a Cyclocross bike for winter riding. It looks like a road bike but has wider wheels and knobbly tyres. It's great for trails, good for the road and it's a tough all rounder. I have a road bike, with skinny wheels for munching those miles in the nicer weather. I spent a lot of money on them but am a serious cyclist.
    When we come across new cyclists, here in the UK, we recommend that they spend not less than 300 on a bike. The cheap ones really are cheap and nasty and do not give a good ride experience, which is why so many people start and very quickly stop cycling.
    Cheap bikes are heavy and clunky. Really nasty and off putting. A slightly better quality bike will be fun to ride and last for ages.
  • There are more options than just these. Currently the comeback are the City bike and the cruiser. There are also ridiculous bikes as well. Look into local bike clubs and find the one that works for you. Also remember that for daily commutes a bike with fenders and a chainguard will allow you to ride in your work clothes, or modified work clothes. I love biking in heels and a skirt.

About The Author

Leanne Beattie Leanne Beattie
A freelance writer, marketing consultant and life coach, Leanne often writes about health and nutrition. See all of Leanne's articles.

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