Cycling is a fantastic community sport. It’s so popular in fact that you have to make choices about what type of bike rider you want to be. There are not just one or two types of riding you can enjoy, but a somewhat mind-boggling amount of them. For each unique type of riding, there is a different type of bicycle. If you already have a bike, you may sort of fall into one group by default, or you may find you want to be a different kind of rider. If you are shopping for a bike, having an overview can help you decide which aspect of cycling you want to pursue, and which type of bike you need to get.
Many people scoff at the idea of owning more than one bicycle, but think about skiing for second. There are at least five different kinds most people try at some point: alpine, cross-country, skating, telemark, and backcountry, and for each of these, you need a different type of skiing gear. Bicycles are the same way, each specifically designed for one aspect of the sport. The good news is that many types of cycling clothing can be used across different disciplines.
Counting them up
How many different types of riding are there? And how many bikes does one rider need? There are road bikes, mountain bikes (mtb), cyclocross, track, randonneuring, commuting, touring, and tandem to name the basics. That’s eight types of bicycles! Many people who ride on the road begin with a road bike, then try track and cyclocross, and eventually mellow out to touring. Nearly all kinds of bikes are available in men’s and women’s models. I’ll provide a brief overview of each type of riding below.
Road bikes are built for a combination of bike fit, efficiency, comfort, and speed. They tend to be quite versatile at the low end, and less so as you get up towards the higher-priced bikes, where you’ll sacrifice versatility for lighter weight and maximum efficiency.
You can do nearly anything on a road bike, provided it’s a great fit for you. There are many different materials used in frames that change the ride quality of the bike.
Road bikes are characterized by light weight, 700c wheels, with drop handlebars, and narrow smooth tread tires. They promote a low, stretched riding position.
Since the long, low position of a road bike usually does not feel natural at first, it’s a good idea to get a professional bike fit. This will help ensure your bike is the right size for you, plus help you avoid injury and get the most enjoyment out of your riding.
One thing that is difficult to do on a road bike is mountain biking.
Mountain Biking (mtb)
Mountain bikes are made for off-road riding, usually on trails, railroad tracks, and, well, mountains. There are different types of mountain bikes, all built for different purposes. These include cross-country and downhill, among others.
Bigger, heavier bikes with fat nobby tires, downhill bikes are made for the speed demons and daredevils of the world, and you can do some pretty amazing things on them if you have the cajónes. Can you imagine clocking insane speeds over bumpy forest or paved trail terrain?
Cross-country bikes come in standard, hardtail (bikes with front suspension), and full suspension. Which type you choose is usually down to rider preference. You can handle more bumps at a faster speed with a full suspension bike, but they tend to weigh more than hardtails. Hardtails are lighter, but will bounce you around a bit more. A shrinking population of riders prefer no suspension at all. The more the ride is smoothed out by suspension, the less impact you feel, and as a direct result, you can last longer on rides.
Cross-country mountain bikes are characterized by flat bars, wide nobby tires, and cantilever or disc brakes.
Some people ride mountain bikes on the road because it is easier to find a more upright position on the bike. While this tends to be less efficient, the less aggressive position can be more comfortable for certain body types or for people who have injuries.
Cyclocross bikes look much like road bikes, but they feature 700c wheels, narrow nobby tires, cantilever or disc brakes, a higher bottom bracket for better frame clearance hopping over obstacles, and greater clearance between tires and frame tubes for keeping wheels spinning as they cake up with mud. They are really a cross between a road bike and a mountain bike, yet they definitely look more like a road bike.
Cyclocross bikes are primarily built for training and racing, though they can be excellent commuter bikes too because the extra clearance provides ample room for good rain-blocking fenders. If you feel good in a road position, but you want the versatility of off-road riding so that you can cut through a field or even ride a bit of single track, a cyclocross bike is a great way to go.
Unless you are into mud wrestling, cyclocross racing is perhaps the most fun you can have in the mud.
Fancy a bike without brakes that you will ride only in circles? (well, ovals to be correct). Track bikes are their own type of beast. They look like a road bike, but lack the brakes, and you cannot freewheel on them, which means that once you start pedaling, you have to keep pedaling until the bike comes to a stop. Those unique qualities aside, track cycling is one of the funnest ways to ride a bike. Both the bike and the velodrome surface and design promote maximum fully human-powered speed.
You ride a track bike on a velodrome, specifically for training and racing. Track cycling helps a rider develop a more efficient full-circle spin. It also helps you become a far better bike handler because you have to maneuver in a tight pack of riders without the use of brakes.
Much like a road bike, track bikes are characterized by light weight, 700c wheels, drop handlebars, narrow slick tires, only one gear, and no brakes. They promote a low, stretched riding position.
Some riders, specifically bike messengers and hipsters, ride track bikes on the road, but with no brakes, it’s not the recommended venue.
Randonneuring is at its root marathon cycling, but riders regard it as far more than that, generally ascribing the characteristics of camaraderie and cooperation over competition. It’s about sharing a great riding experience. You can read an excellent overview of randonneuring on Veloweb.
Randonneur bikes emphasize comfort, polished stainless steel, and tradition, appealing more to the sport tourer than the racer. If you’ve ever noticed the illustrations of bicycles in old European wine advertisements, you’ve likely seen a randonneur bike. They feature 700c wheels, front and back fenders, and racks over one or both wheels. Randonneur bikes tend to tip the heavy side of the scale.
Bike commuting is perhaps the most efficient form of in-city transportation. In Seattle, a reasonably fit rider can ride across town faster than most people can drive or bus it. A trip downtown from my house takes 35 minutes by bike, versus 2 hours by bus.
One of the great things about commuting by bike is that there are no special requirements. Just about any bike that fits will do. Hybrid and City Bikes work especially well for maximizing comfort, mounting fenders, and carrying important items.
Hybrid bikes are designed to bridge the gap between road bike efficiency and mountain bike comfort. They tend to not be ideally suited to any one task, but can be great for commuting, quick errands, getting groceries, or casual rides with the family.
Hybrids feature wider 700c wheels, smooth tread tires, and shifters on the handlebars. One particularly cool thing about hybrids is that like a cyclocross bike, they can usually handle gravel or dirt roads reasonably well.
Hybrids are built more for comfortable, slow riding than efficiency. You see families on these bikes, pedaling mostly to enjoy some good views and to be out doing something together. They are also used commonly in other countries as commuter bikes.
Touring bikes are characterized by 700c wheels, drop handlebars, a longer wheelbase, heavier weight, triple crankset for more gears, and eyelets for mounting a rack. Made for longer, multi-day trips, they are often equipped with panniers to hold all of your gear.
If you can imagine riding across states or through Europe on a bike, a touring bike can help you do it more comfortably. They are not made for speed. Instead, they are designed to help you get the most miles out of your body, while helping you stably carry everything you might need on a trip.
Tandem cycling is a purely joyful hoot. You get to ride with your partner on one bike that is designed to harmoniously harness the power of two people. Harmony being the key, it is essential that both riders pay attention and put in equal effort.
Tandem bicycles are characterized by two cockpits, 700c wheels, an extended wheelbase, two chainsets, and different types of tires based on the type of tandem (road tandem, mountain tandem, track tandem) you are riding.
The advantage to a tandem bike over a single bike is obviously in the power of two people versus one. It is also quite a thrill to ride as either the pilot (front rider) or the stoker (back rider), with each position offering a unique feel and perspective.
You can be any type of rider you like, and if you have the capability of owning several bikes, you can do all kinds of riding. Specific bikes help, but ultimately, you have to just get out, ride, and have some fun.