How To Choose A Bike (Bicycle) in 2024: Types, Factors, Sizes, Places To Buy

How To Choose A Bike by surface type guide

To choose the right bike consider where you want to ride. For example, mountain bikes conquer rough terrain, road bikes excel on pavement, and hybrids offer a versatile mix.

Think about factors like suspension (for bumpy terrain), frame material (affects weight and ride quality), brakes (disc brakes are better for wet conditions), and gears. Research brands and find a bike that fits your budget and size.

To find the correct frame size, measure your inseam and look into bike size charts. Wheel size is also important. Consider bike shops for expert advice, online for wider selection, or used bikes for potential savings.

The best time to buy may be at the end of the season or when new models are released. Consider buying a used bike to stretch your budget further.

Here’s the breakdown of each step to help you choose the perfect bike.

1. Choose The Right Type

Mountain bikes are designed for off-road adventures with different styles catering to specific needs (cross-country, trail, downhill). E-mountain bikes offer pedal assist for easier climbing.

Road bikes prioritize speed and efficiency on paved surfaces, with categories like endurance bikes (comfort), race bikes (aerodynamics), and triathlon bikes (maximum aerodynamics for solo speed).

Other popular bike types include:

  • Hybrid bikes for versatile riding on roads and light trails.
  • Touring bikes for long-distance journeys with gear-carrying capability.
  • Electric bikes (e-bikes) for pedal-assisted riding.
  • BMX bikes are designed for stunts and tricks.

The best way to find your perfect bike is to try a few. Demo different models whenever possible to find the right fit and feel.

Below is the breakdown of the bike types.

Mountain Bikes

mountain biking in rough terrain

Mountain bikes (MTBs) are built to conquer challenging off-road terrain. 

Types of mountain bikes are:

  • Cross Country (XC): Prioritize efficiency and climbing. These bikes feature lightweight designs, less suspension travel of around 80-100 mm (3.1-4 inches), and steeper geometry for conquering endurance rides and smoother trails. This means the wheel moves up and down 80–100 mm (3.1-4 inches) over rough terrain.
  • Trail: The most versatile category, balancing climbing ability with downhill confidence. Expect moderate suspension travel of 120-160 mm (4.7-6.3 inches), making them fun on varied terrain. This is considered mid-travel and is a good compromise between climbing and downhill performance. Mid-travel bikes are also known as "quiver-killers" because they can handle most things.
  • All-Mountain/Enduro: Built for technical descents and aggressive riding. They boast longer suspension travel of 150-180mm (5.9-7 inches) and slacker geometry for stability at high speeds.
  • Downhill: Designed merely for gravity-fueled adventures at bike parks. These feature the most suspension travel 180-200 mm + (7-7.9 inches), sturdy components, and geometry intended for shredding downhill courses.
  • E-Mountain Bikes: Any of the above styles, but with pedal-assist electric motors to power up climbs and boost your overall range. The motor only provides power when you pedal, adding power to each stroke, and making it feel like pedaling a normal bike with more power. eMTBs are a good option for mountain bikers, hunters, overlanders, and outdoor enthusiasts who want to explore further, ride longer, and tackle mountains that a non-motorized cycle can't handle. eMTBs can also be a good option for people with physical limitations who want to ride again.

Road Bikes

road biking on a flat surface

Types of road bikes are:

  • Gravel/All-Road Bikes: These bikes are designed for mixed surfaces (pavement, dirt, light trails). Their geometry is similar to endurance bikes, with wider tire clearance, disc brakes, and lower gearing for off-road capability. Gravel bikes are best for exploring different terrain, and bikepacking.
  • Endurance Road Bikes: Focus on comfort and stability for long-distance rides. They have relaxed geometry (more upright position), wider tires for shock absorption, and sometimes disc brakes. These bikes are best for gran fondos, long recreational rides, and riders prioritizing comfort over pure speed.
  • Race Road Bikes: These bikes are all about speed and efficiency. They feature aggressive geometry (aerodynamic, tucked position), lightweight materials like carbon fiber, and stiff frames for maximum power transfer. Race bikes are ideal for road racing, criteriums, and fast group rides where aerodynamics is key.
  • Cyclocross Bikes: These bikes are built for off-road racing and short bursts of intensity. Similar to race bikes, they have aggressive geometry but feature wider knobby tires for grip and are made to be robust to handle rough terrain. These bikes are perfect for those who want to participate in cyclocross racing or do mixed-terrain riding with a focus on speed.
  • Aero Road Bikes: Designed to maximize aerodynamics for increased speed. They feature aerodynamically designed frame tubes, deep-section wheels, and integrated components to minimize drag. Aero bikes are best for time trials, triathlons, and solo rides focused on speed.
  • Climbing Road Bikes: These bikes prioritize lightweight builds for approaching hills. They have super-lightweight frames (mostly carbon fiber), large gearing ranges for easier climbing, and compact frames for efficient power transfer. Climbing bikes are made for mountainous routes and riders focused on elevation challenges.

Triathlon/Time Trial Bike

triathlon biking on the road

Triathlon and time trial (TT) bikes share a singular focus: maximizing aerodynamic efficiency to shave precious seconds off your time.

These specialized bikes are designed for solo efforts against the clock with features that may seem odd on standard bikes. These bikes are much less comfortable for casual riding or very hilly courses where aerodynamics is less of a key factor.

Professional bike fitting is essential for comfort and optimal power output in the aero position. Tri/TT bikes are expensive ($3,500 to $17,000) due to advanced aerodynamics and materials.

Touring Bikes

commute bike

Touring bikes are specifically designed for multi-day or extended journeys where you'll be carrying luggage and gear. These bikes are built to provide a comfortable, upright riding position to minimize fatigue over countless miles. Touring bikes can support front and rear pannier racks for hauling all your necessities on extended trips.

Electric Bikes

electric mountain bike

E-bikes combine traditional bike design with an electric motor and battery system. This provides pedal assistance, making your rides easier allowing you to cover longer distances with less fatigue.

E-bikes are categorized into three main classes in the US:

  • Class 1: Pedal-assist only, motor cuts off at 20 MPH (32 km/h)
  • Class 2: Like Class 1, but also includes a throttle for motor-only power, still limited to 20 MPH (32 km/h)
  • Class 3: Pedal-assist with a higher top speed of 28 mph (45 km/h)

When choosing an e-bike, first consider motor power. It is measured in watts (higher = more power), but consider your real riding needs. Secondly, look at the battery capacity which impacts range. It is measured in watt-hours (Wh), larger capacity means more range. Lastly, match the bike type to where and how you'll primarily ride.

Hybrid Bikes

hybrid bike

Hybrid bikes are incredibly popular due to their blend of comfort, utility, and solid performance across various terrains. They are efficient on paved roads and capable of handling light trails.

BMX

Bicycle Motocross

BMX bikes, short for Bicycle Motocross, are built for stunts, tricks, and racing. They're designed to be tough, agile, and easy to maneuver in the air and on the ground.

Types of BMX riding:

  • Freestyle Riding: BMX bikes are the stars of skateparks and dirt trails. They're perfect for jumps, spins, grinds, and other acrobatic moves.
  • BMX Racing: Racing on dedicated BMX tracks is a fast-paced, adrenaline-pumping sport. These bikes are optimized for speed and agility on the track.
  • Everyday Fun: Many people simply enjoy the zippy handling and sturdy feel of a BMX bike for everyday riding.

BMX bikes have strong frames, often made of steel or chromoly, to withstand the impact of jumps and tricks. The standard BMX wheel size is 20 inches, making these bikes maneuverable and easy to handle for all ages. Most BMX bikes have a single gear, which keeps the bike lightweight and maintenance simple.

2. Factors To Consider

Suspension

bike fork (suspension)

Suspension refers to the shock-absorbing components on a bike designed to cushion the rider from the impact of bumps and vibrations caused by rough terrain.

Suspension greatly impacts your ride's character, so consider where you primarily plan to bike. Road and smooth paths may be comfortable with a rigid bike.

Rigid and hardtail bikes generally offer more efficiency when pedaling, especially uphill and on smooth surfaces.

A full-suspension (front and rear) bike provides the ultimate bump-absorbing performance and maximum control on rugged terrain - perfect for aggressive riding.

Suspension, especially full suspension, requires more maintenance than a rigid bike to keep it functioning optimally.

Frame

bike frames

The bike frame is the core structure that houses all other components. It's the determining factor in geometry, strength, and weight of a bike.

Bike frame differences by frame material:

  • Weight: Aluminum and carbon fiber are significantly lighter than steel. Titanium falls in between. A lighter frame offers easier climbing and acceleration.
  • Stiffness: Aluminum and carbon fiber are generally stiffer for maximum power transfer. Steel and titanium offer more flex, prioritizing comfort over outright speed.
  • Ride Quality: Steel excels in smoothing out road vibrations. Titanium is very similar. Carbon fiber frames can be designed for either comfort or stiffness. Aluminum tends to have a harsher ride.

Steel is the most budget-friendly. Aluminum follows. Titanium and carbon reside in the high-performance (and high-cost) realm.

Cheaper frames usually use basic materials and construction techniques. Expect heavier builds and less refined ride quality. Expensive frames employ high-grade materials and advanced manufacturing for strength, low weight, and optimal performance.

Brakes

bike brakes

Brakes are the essential safety components of a bike that allow you to slow down or stop. They work by creating friction between a braking surface (like the wheel rim or a disc rotor) and brake pads.

  • Rim Brakes: Traditional and simple. Brake pads clamp onto the rim of the wheel. They come in various styles (caliper, cantilever, V-brakes).
  • Disc Brakes: More powerful, with dedicated rotors attached to the wheel hubs. Pads clamp onto the rotors. Disc brakes are either mechanical (cable-actuated) or hydraulic (fluid-actuated).

Disc brakes offer superior stopping power, work better in wet/muddy conditions, and have better modulation (control over braking force). Rim brakes are simpler and lighter-weight.

Rim brakes are generally cheaper. Disc brakes, especially hydraulic systems, cost more. While less powerful, rim brakes can be sufficient for casual riding. Disc brakes offer greater safety and performance if you ride frequently, in varied terrain, or in wet climates.

Gears

Gears are the toothed wheels on your bike that work in conjunction with the chain. A system of shifters allows you to change gears, altering the ratio between your pedal strokes and how many times the rear wheel rotates.

  • Single-speed: The most straightforward, with one gear ratio. Popular on fixie bikes or kids' bikes for simplicity.
  • Internal Gear Hubs: Sealed within the rear wheel hub, these offer several gears changed without an exposed derailleur. Excellent for low maintenance, urban riding.
  • Derailleur Systems: The most common system features exposed gears (cassette) on the rear wheel and chainrings at the pedals. A derailleur moves the chain between these to change gears. Derailleur systems offer a wide range of gear options.

Saddle

The saddle is the seat on your bike, and it's a key point of contact with your body. Comfort and proper saddle selection are crucial for an enjoyable cycling experience.

A bike saddle is crucial for comfort and performance. Choose the right type (road, mountain, touring, gravel.) based on your cycling style. Consider width (matching your sit bones), shape (influencing posture), padding, and cut-outs for pressure relief.

The price of a saddle impacts weight, durability, and sometimes advanced comfort features. Finding the perfect saddle may take some trial and error, so get professional advice from a bike shop.

Overall quality

Choosing a bike isn't just about the type; you need to ensure it's well-made and will last.

Research the bike manufacturer. Well-known brands often have solid warranties and better build quality. A higher price tag doesn't always equal better quality. Do your research and consider your needs and budget.

Cost

Before even looking at bikes, determine the maximum amount you can comfortably spend. This will immediately narrow your search and prevent disappointment.

Understand what drives cost. Key factors influencing price are:

  • Frame Material: Carbon fiber is the lightest but most expensive. Aluminum is versatile and cost-effective. Steel offers durability with a classic feel.
  • Components: Higher-quality shifters, derailleurs, brakes, etc. come with a cost premium.
  • Suspension: Full-suspension (front and rear) bikes generally cost more than hardtails (front only) or rigid bikes.

If you're performance-focused, put more budget towards a lighter frame and better components. If long-term durability is your primary concern, a steel frame with mid-level components can be an excellent value.

Consider used bikes. You'll often find high-quality used models for significantly less money than a new equivalent.

3. Choose Your Bike Size

Bike size is a combination of measurements that determine the fit and suitability of a bicycle for a rider. This includes knowing the frame size and wheel diameter, for proper reach, leg extension, and overall handling characteristics.

Bike frames are measured in centimeters (road bikes) or inches (mountain bikes, hybrids). This measurement typically refers to the length of the seat tube.

Measure your inseam - it's the most critical factor in finding the right bike frame size. This is the distance from your crotch to the floor (barefoot). 

Most brands provide bike size charts that help match your inseam to recommended frame sizes. Bike size charts are standardized tables that match the rider’s height or inseam to bike frame sizes and sometimes wheel diameters. Use this as your primary guide. If in between sizes, for a more aggressive riding style, size up, and for comfort and maneuverability, size down.

4. Choose Where To Buy

When buying a bike, consider where you'll buy it as carefully as the bike itself. Bike shops offer expertise and personalized service but can be pricier. Online stores provide greater choice and potential savings but require you to know what you want. General sporting goods stores are good for budget bikes, while second-hand options can be great for experienced cyclists seeking deals. Your ideal retailer depends on your budget, experience, and need for expert assistance.

What Is The Best Time To Buy A Bike?

The best time to buy a bike is when stores want to get rid of old stock. This happens at the end of the riding season (late summer/fall), during winter, or when new bike models are released. Also, keep an eye out for holiday sales and shop-specific promotions. Consider buying used for additional savings.

What Are The Most Popular Bike Brands?

The most popular brands of road bikes:

  • Trek: A giant in the industry, offering bikes for every level, from beginners to professionals. Known for durability, comfort, and innovation.
  • Specialized: Performance-driven bikes with cutting-edge technology for serious cyclists. Excellent for racing and endurance rides.
  • Cannondale: Focuses on lightweight frames and unique designs, ideal for riders looking for agility and responsiveness
  • Giant: One of the world's largest bike manufacturers, offering excellent value with reliable and comfortable road bikes at various price points.
  • Pinarello: Italian brand synonymous with high-end, race-winning bikes crafted with exquisite attention to detail.

The most popular brands of mountain bikes:

  • Specialized: Offers a massive range of trail-dominating mountain bikes and excels in downhill and full-suspension designs.
  • Santa Cruz: Known for premium full-suspension bikes, focused on high performance for technical trails.
  • Trek: Versatile mountain bikes suitable for various riding styles, known for their durability.
  • Giant: Excellent value-for-money with a wide range of mountain bikes from beginner to advanced levels.
  • Yeti: Designs bikes known for exceptional handling and innovative suspension technology

Other popular brands:

  • BMC: Swiss brand producing premium bikes across categories known for their precision and integration.
  • Bianchi: Historic Italian brand with iconic celeste-colored bikes prized for their timeless style and performance.
  • Orbea: Spanish company with a broad range of high-quality bikes, popular in both road and mountain biking.
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