Your first consideration is to know where you'll be riding: on pavement, dirt trails or both. Some bicycles are made specifically for a particular kind of riding surface, while others are versatile enough that, perhaps with a quick tire change, they can be ridden in more than one category.
To get you started, here is a general breakdown of the different kinds of bikes that Giantnerd carries. Within each of these categories are individual models that emphasize performance, versatility or comfort.
Best for: Pavement.
Description: Generally lighter in weight than the typical mountain or comfort bike, road bikes are good for multiple pavement uses including fitness riding, commuting, long-distance/event rides, touring and racing. They are suitable for riders ranging from novices to seasoned enthusiasts. Proper fit for most road bikes is particularly important, as a poor fit can be uncomfortable or even painful. In addition, a poorly fitting road bike can also reduce the efficiency of your pedaling. Some models are built for speed with a more aerodynamic riding positioning, while others provide a more upright riding position. Road bikes may include racks, lighting systems or fenders for commuting or touring use. Prices range from $500 to $2,000+.
Road bikes are distinguished by 2 basic handlebar styles:
Shop our selection of road bikes.
Best for: Dirt or rocky trails and gravel roads; OK for pavement too (with tire change).
Description: 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 feature lower gears than most road bikes to better handle steeper terrain. Higher-priced models tend to be lighter weight as well. Mountain bikes can be a good choice for commuting because they can withstand potholes while still providing comfort. However, the smaller diameter wheel (26 inch) of traditional mountain bikes is less efficient on pavement than the larger diameter wheel (700 millimeter/27 inch) of a road bike. To address this, many mountain bikes are now designed for 29-inch wheels. These larger diameter wheels and tires provide decreased rolling resistance and more easily roll over obstacles, at the cost of some agility. Prices range from $400 to $2,000+.
Mountain bikes come in 2 basic varieties:
Shop our selection of mountain bikes.
Best for: Pavement or some gravel roads.
Description: Designed with city streets in mind, urban bikes are rugged and sturdy with tough frames and strong wheels. They feature an upright riding position that allows you to better see, and be seen by, motorists. Many commuter-friendly models include racks, lighting systems or fenders. Prices range from about $500 to $1,500.
Shop our selection of urban/commuting bikes.
Best for: Those who have the more typical woman's body proportions of longer leg length relative to torso length.
Description: These bikes—which can be road, mountain, comfort or hybrid bikes—feature frame geometries, handlebars and wider 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.
Shop our selection of women's specific bikes.
Cyclocross bikes: Cyclocross is a form of bike racing. It involves taking laps around courses that feature a variety of terrain including pavement, dirt trails and grass. The courses also have obstacles that require riders to dismount and carry their bikes around them. Similar to road racing bikes in some ways, cyclocross bikes are lightweight yet tough enough to deal with extreme conditions. Most have knobby tires in order to handle all types of terrain.
Tri-specific bikes: Built for triathlons, these bikes put you farther forward over the front wheel than other types of bikes. They are more aerodynamic and work your hamstrings more efficiently, which helps your legs in the run phase. The downsides? These bikes are more difficult to maneuver for general cycling, they don't have drop handlebars, they can be uncomfortable for long rides and their braking is not as convenient.
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. To find the frame that best fits your leg length, try this simple stand-over exercise: throw your leg over the bike's top tube and straddle it. Generally you want about 1" of clearance for a road bike and about 2" or more for a mountain bike. Recreation and comfort bikes generally offer plenty of stand-over room already. Wear shoes to get an accurate reading.
Now consider the seat height. You want to make sure your leg has a slight bend when your pedal is at its lowest point in its rotation. To achieve this may involve making simple up or down adjustments to the seat height.
You should also have the proper reach to the handlebars. Your arms should not be fully extended; rather, your elbows should be slightly bent so that you feel comfortable and not too far away or too close to the handlebars.
For specifics, refer to the REI Expert Advice article, Fitting Your Bike.
A test ride is a great way to discover what the best bike is for you. Most REI stores provide an area for customers to do this, usually in a little-used area of the parking lot. The stores in Seattle, Denver and Bloomington (Minn.) even offer onsite mountain-bike test trails.
Q: Can I use one style of bike for different activities or terrains?
A: Yes, some types of bikes offer this versatility. The biggest factor is the tires. The smooth, thin tires found on many road bikes won't last long off of the pavement. However, many comfort/hybrid and mountain bikes have tires that can handle both paved and unpaved surfaces. It's also possible to switch out knobby tires for smooth ones on many of these bikes.
Q: Can I replace my bike seat with a more comfortable one?
A: Yes, there are many different kinds of bicycle seats (known as saddles). Some are wider and shorter and specifically designed for women. Generally, men's seats are thinner and longer. Some have slits in the middle to relieve pressure points. Occasional riders often prefer saddles with generous amounts of gel padding to reduce riding soreness. Still not comfortable? Keep in mind that the angle of a seat can be adjusted, too. Generally, a flat seat or a very slight forward tilt is best.
Q: Does it matter what kind of handlebars I get?
A: Yes. 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 comfort and 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 2 basic handlebar styles. Drop-bar handlebars are lightweight, aerodynamic and sport a classic look. They are a better choice if you want to go fast. They also allow several riding and hand positions. Their downside is that they put you in lower, more hunched over position that may put more strain on your back. Flat-bar handlebars, though heavier than drop-bars, let you to 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.
Q: How many gears do I need?
A: 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. You'll definitely want a bike with multiple gear options if you plan to ride any hills. However, the number of gears is not as important as how low the gearing goes. Gearing is achieved by having front chainrings and rear cogs with varying numbers of teeth, a discussion of which quickly gets beyond the scope of this introductory article. Unless you're tackling big inclines, this is not a major concern.