Tips for Buying the Right Bicycle

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!