How to Choose a Bike
The first questions you should ask yourself before looking at bikes are: What are my goals? Where will I be riding? How far? Over what types of terrain? The other thing to consider would be how much you are willing to spend. The answers to all of these questions will determine what kind of bike you want. To answer the first question, your goal may be to get around town, complete a race, or simply stay healthy. Knowing what you are striving towards helps you decide what kind of investment you are looking for, from the top of the line, race-ready bike, to a cruiser to take down to the beach!
Where you’ll be riding and over what kind of terrain will help you get into the right kind of type of bike. Below are the kinds of bikes and the type of terrain they are best used for:
|Road Bikes (including racing, endurance, cyclocross, and touring bikes)||Pavement|
|Mountain Bikes (including trail, cross-country, and all-mountain bikes)||Rugged trails and gravel roads|
|Hybrid Bikes||Pavement or moderate gravel/dirt roads|
|Specialty Bikes (including cruiser, cargo, electric, and folding bikes)||Pavement|
Road bikes are good for multiple pavement uses including fitness riding, commuting, long-distance/event rides, touring and racing. They usually have lightweight drop-bar handlebars that curve downward, putting you in an aerodynamic position, making them a good choice if you want to go fast or are most 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 bikes with flat bars. Their more aerodynamic riding position (bent over at the waist) may put more strain on your back if you are less flexible.
Road bikes have some specialized categories:
Racing bikes: These light and aerodynamic bikes are built for going fast on the flats and charging up hills on race day or during a group ride with friends. Their frames are usually made from carbon fiber or aluminum and they have a slimmed-down design that’s intended to be as light as possible. Racing bikes generally have an aggressive geometry with steep angles that make them turn quickly.
Endurance bikes: Endurance bikes have many of the performance features of racing bikes, but with a frame geometry that puts you in a more comfortable riding position. They generally have taller head tubes, slacker (lower) angles and sloping top tubes intended to reduce stress on your back and neck. They also often feature clearance for larger width tires for versatility and a softer, more comfortable ride. Some endurance bikes have flat handlebars, for those who prefer a more heads-up riding style.
Cyclocross bikes: Cyclocross bikes are lightweight, yet tough enough to deal with the extreme conditions of cyclocross racing (which involves riders taking laps around courses that may feature pavement, dirt trails and grass). Most cyclocross bikes have semi-knobby tires to handle the terrain challenges.
Touring Bikes: Touring bikes have a few tweaks on the traditional road bike design that make them ideal for long-distance bike tours. They are designed with sturdy frames capable of carrying heavy loads on front and rear racks and feature multiple attachment points so you can attach racks, fenders, water bottles, pumps, lights and more. Many touring bikes have a longer wheelbase (the distance between the two wheel hubs) than other road bikes and they tend to have a lower center of gravity, which makes them easier to control. Many touring bikes also have disc brakes for improved stopping power while hauling heavy loads on non-paved surfaces.
Within touring bikes you’ll find road touring bikes and adventure touring bikes, which are made to handle gravel roads with wide or semi-knobby tires.
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 usually feature lower gears than most road bikes to better handle steeper terrain.
There are several categories of mountain bikes:
Trail Bikes: This is arguably the most common mountain biking style because the category isn’t grounded in any specific type of racing. If you’re interested in meeting up with friends at the local trailhead and riding a mixture of climbs and descents, then this is the style for you. Bikes in this category place equal emphasis on fun, efficiency and sensible overall weight.
Cross-Country Bikes: This style of riding typically implies riding fast, with an emphasis on climbing prowess. Distances vary from just a few miles to 25-plus, and bikes tend to focus on efficiency and low weight. These bikes can be great if you’re considering getting competitive or would like a racier ride for your local trails.
Fat Bikes: Oversize tires, from 3.7 in. to 5+ in. wide, give these bikes excellent traction, and are optimal for riding in sand or snow. The wide tires are reassuringly forgiving as you ride over rough terrain.
All-Mountain Bikes: Think of all-mountain riding as trail riding on steroids, with bigger leg-burning climbs, longer, scarier descents and more technical features—both man-made and natural. Bikes for all-mountain riding are designed to perform well on steep descents while also being light and nimble enough to pedal uphill.
Downhill/Park Mountain Bikes: Mostly ridden at lift-serviced bike parks, these bikes aren’t sold by REI. Downhill bikes are big and tough, and riders wear full-face helmets and body armor as they encounter jumps, berms, rock gardens and wooden ladders.
Specialty bikes have very specific features and end uses that set them apart from other bikes we sell. Specialty bikes include cruiser bikes, cargo bikes, electric bikes and folding bikes.
Cruiser bikes: Cruiser bikes are built for leisurely rides around town. Many of them feature slightly wider 26-inch tires than other pavement bikes, a comfortable seat and a relaxed sitting position. Some cruiser bikes even have internally geared rear hubs for easy maintenance.
Cargo bikes: With stout frame designs that are built for stowing gear and carrying lots of weight, cargo bikes make it easy to run errands and transport kids. While they tend to be heavier and slower than other types of bikes, their utility makes them popular for urban cycling.
Electric bikes: Electric bikes feature a battery-powered motor that can help you climb hills easily or make your commute less strenuous. Built-in sensors can monitor how much pressure you’re putting on the pedals and then apply battery power accordingly.
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.
These bikes—which can be road, mountain, or hybrid bikes—feature frame geometries, handlebars and 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.
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 in., 20 in. and 24 in. 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!
Once you’ve settled on a type of bike, you’ll want to consider the number of gears, wheel size, suspension, brakes, frame materials and handlebars.
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. When you factor in the many combinations of multiple chainrings and cogs and the numbers of teeth on them, things can get complex.
To keep it simple, the most important things to consider are your fitness level and the terrain you’ll be riding. If you’ll be riding lots of hills and you find climbing challenging, then you’ll want to opt for more gears.
If you’re a strong cyclist or you only ride flat terrain, you won’t need as many low gears to power up a hill so you can get away with fewer gears, which will keep your bike light. Some hybrid bikes have only one speed, and are aptly named single-speed bikes. These bikes have a freewheel mechanism in the rear hub that allows you to coast just like you would on a standard bike with multiple gears.
700c: This is the standard size wheel found on almost every road bike and hybrid bike. Don’t worry too much about wheel size on a road bike unless you’re smaller in stature and have had trouble finding the right fit on a bike, in which case you may want to look for a bike with smaller 650c wheels.
650c: A handful of road bikes are designed for smaller 650c wheels. If you’re shorter than about 5 ft. 4 in. and have had trouble finding the right fit on a road bike with 700c wheels, you may want to try a bike with 650c wheels.
26 in.: In the not-too-distant past, all adult mountain bikes were equipped with 26 in. wheels. It still is an available wheel size, but now when you walk into a bike shop and inquire about mountain bikes, you are likely to be asked, “27.5 in. or 29 in.?”
27.5 in. (also known as 650b): Offering a middle ground between standard 26 in. wheels and 29ers, this wheel size applies a “best of both worlds” solution, more easily rolling over terrain than the 26s, but more maneuverable than 29ers.
29ers: These bikes feature 29 in. wheels that are a little slower to accelerate, but once you start moving you can conquer considerably more terrain far easier than on a bike with 26 in. wheels. They are more efficient for longer rides as they keep their momentum up and they have a higher “attack angle,” meaning the wheel rolls over trail obstacles easier. These bikes have become extremely popular for the cross-country crowd. 29ers can be found in rigid, hardtail and full-suspension rigs.
24 in.: Many kids’ bikes have 24 in. wheels to accommodate the shorter legs of children. Most are less-expensive versions of adult bikes with simpler components. Generally speaking, these suit kids ages 10 to 13, but this depends more on the size of the child than the age. Younger/smaller children can get started on mountain bikes with 20 in. wheels.
20 in.: This wheels size is found on some BMX and folding bikes and is also common on kids’ bikes.
16 in. and 12 in.: These wheel sizes are found on bikes for young kids. 16 in. wheels are often accompanied by training wheels and 12 in. wheels are common on balance bikes for real young riders.
Full Suspension: Found exclusively on mountain bikes, full suspension incorporates a front suspension fork and rear shock to absorb the impacts of the trail. This drastically reduces the impact on the rider, increases traction, and makes for a more forgiving and enjoyable ride.
Front Suspension: Bikes with front suspension generally fall into either the mountain bike or hybrid bike categories. The front suspension fork helps absorb impacts on the front wheel to smooth out the ride, whether you’re on a rocky trail or a rough city street. Bikes with only front suspension are typically less expensive than full-suspension bikes and have fewer moving parts (which often translates into less maintenance).
No Suspension: Most road bikes and many hybrid bikes do not include any suspension at all. Suspension forks and rear shocks add weight and can make pedaling less efficient, so most people who ride on bike paths and paved streets will forego it. A handful of mountain bikes don’t include suspension either and are appropriately called “rigid bikes.” Rigid bikes are easier to maintain and usually less expensive, but most mountain bikers prefer bikes with suspension for greater comfort.
Rim Brakes: Many road bikes come equipped with rim brakes. Rim brakes feature pads that grip onto the wheel rims.
- Advantages compared to disc brakes: Economical; easy to observe brake pad wear; easy to replace worn pads.
- Disadvantages compared to disc brakes: Gradually wear out the wheel rim, requiring the wheel to be replaced; less stopping power; less effective in wet or muddy conditions; require more finger effort on the levers to brake aggressively.
Disc Brakes: These feature brake pads that grip onto a brake rotor mounted to the wheel hub. Disc brakes come in two versions:
- Hydraulic disc brakes offer more progressive and stronger braking with less finger effort, and they self-adjust for brake pad wear.
- Mechanical disc brakes need manual adjusting as the pads wear.
When you compare disc brakes to rim brakes there are several clear advantages and disadvantages:
- Advantages compared to rim brakes: More consistent braking in all conditions; much cheaper to replace a worn rotor than a whole wheel; superior performance in steep and wet terrain; less finger strain.
- Disadvantages compared to rim brakes: More difficult to inspect pad wear and replace pads. Hydraulic brakes are more expensive to service.
Coaster Brakes: These brakes are often found on kids’ bikes, BMX bikes and some cruiser bikes. The brake mechanism is located in the rear hub and is activated by turning the pedals backwards. “Coaster” indicates that you can coast without the pedals turning.
- Advantages: Work well in any weather; typically require less maintenance than other brake styles; good for people with limited hand strength, such as kids.
- Disadvantages: Not compatible with bikes with rear derailleurs; prone to causing skids; can be awkward to get started pedaling because you can’t rotate the pedals backward into a starting position.
Drum Brakes: Drum brakes are integrated into the wheel hubs and are activated by levers on the handlebar. They’re typically found on cruiser bikes.
- Advantages: Weather resistant; generally require very little maintenance.
- Disadvantages: If a drum wears out, the hub and often the wheel need to be replaced; tend to be heavier than other brake styles.
Bike Frame Materials
The majority of bikes are made from aluminum; however, steel and carbon fiber are also common. Each material has pros and cons, so you need to weigh your priorities when deciding.
Aluminum is light, strong, stiff and affordable. It can sometimes be described as feeling harsh on rough roads, but newer construction techniques have helped improve shock absorption.
Steel is heavier than aluminum, but its strength and amount of flex offer a comfortable, smooth ride.
Carbon fiber is lighter than aluminum and stronger than steel, but it’s more expensive than both, making it a popular choice for high-end bikes. Some bikes feature carbon fiber forks and/or seat posts rather than a frame made entirely of carbon in order to keep the price down but still provide some of the benefits of the light, strong material.
Learn more about frame materials in our Understanding Bike Frame Materials article.
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. Most hybrid 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 power to the pedals. This lets you go faster, but it may not be as comfortable.
There are 5 basic styles of handlebars on bikes:
Drop bar: Found on most road bikes, drop-bar handlebars are lightweight and aerodynamic, making them the preferred choice if you want to go fast. They also allow several riding and hand positions. They’re downside is that they put you in a lower, more hunched over position that may put more strain on your back.
Flat bar: These bars are typically found on hybrid bikes and on some road and mountain bikes. They are heavier than drop-bar handlebars, but they let you sit up in a more relaxed position so you can better see the road and potential hazards. This upright position reduces strain on your hands, wrists and shoulders.
Riser bar: Commonly found on mountain bikes, riser bars extend slightly upward and back toward the rider. They allow you to sit more upright and farther back for excellent vision of the trail ahead and good control while steering the bike.
Moustache bar: These bars look similar to drop bars, only with very little drop. They give you a variety of hand positions while allowing you to sit more upright than with drop bars. Moustache bars are found on some road bikes and hybrid bikes.
BMX bar: These handlebars are designed to be strong and durable to handle the abuse of bike tricks.
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. Many manufacturers have size charts that list a height range for each bike size.
A test ride is a great way to discover what the best bike is for you. Come into our store to take some of the types of bikes you’ve read about above for a test ride to see what fit and type of bike would be best for you!