Biking For Beginners: Selecting The Right Bike

Biking For Beginners: Selecting The Right Bike

If you’re thinking about taking up cycling, one of the most important decisions that you’ll make is what type of bike you get.  Many cyclists will tell you getting the right bike is everything. As I mentioned in “How my bike changed my life,” I first got a folding bike, which was definitely not for me, and it put me off cycling for about 2 years until I was ready to try again.  The second time around I time I did my homework, rode a few different bikes, and ended up with the perfect bike for my lifestyle and the type of riding I do– I haven’t stopped riding since!

Selecting the right bike can be tricky.  You must do a little research and spend some time at your local bike shop.  The wrong bike may spell disaster and make for an unpleasant experience.  As David Fiedler puts it in “Buying the Right Bike For You,” trying to ride a road bike through a mountain path is like trying to walk a dirt road in high heels.

There are several types of bicycles, depending on who will ride and what type of riding will be done.  Important considerations to keep in mind when choosing what type of bike is right for you are: (1) how often you will ride, (2) whether you will ride mainly on a paved road or off-road, and (3) whether you will primarily use the bike to commute to work, fitness training, or leisure.   You may also want to consider your budget, and how much maintenance and repair the bike may need.

Mountain Bike:

Mountain bikes are top-selling bicycles.  This, however, does not mean that everyone who buys a mountain bike uses it for what it was built to do.  According to ebicycles, most mountain bikes are not used for what they are designed for, but are big sellers because they are relatively less expensive than other types of bicycle.

By richard_north, Flickr Commons

Main features:

  • Wide wheels with “knobby” tires and stout frame for durability and stability on rugged terrain
  • Suspension may be either hardtail or full.
  • Better balance and traction than road bikes
  • Less expensive than most other bikes
  • Wider range of gears than road bikes
  • Upright riding position for more comfort

Best used for:

  • Off-road, dirt roads, and rugged terrain
  • Climbing uphill
  • May be used for touring but does not have as much cargo capacity as a touring bicycle


  • Not as fast as road bikes
  • Heavier than road bikes
  • David Fiedler at warns that since mountain bikes are less expensive, people often buy them without considering whether a mountain bike really suits their needs.  Fiedler compares this to a city-dweller who buys an SUV and never actually drives off-road.

Road Bike:

Road bikes are ideal for riding on paved surfaces.  They are lightweight and built for speed.  However, a good road bike will often be expensive, over $800.  For this reason, road bikes tend to also be a favorite of bike thieves.

by DubLx, Flickr Commons

Main features:

  • Lightweight frame
  • Thinner, high pressure, smooth tires
  • Drop-bar handlebars for more aerodynamic speed riding OR Flat-bar handlebars for more upright comfortable riding position
  • Designed for riding on pavement

Best used for:

  • Riding on pavement
  • Long-distance riding
  • Higher speed riding
  • Fitness riding
  • Commuting
  • Touring
  • Racing


  • Not good for carrying heavy loads over a significant distance
  • Not good for dirt roads or mountain biking
  • Bent riding position may put strain on lower back, hands, wrists, and arms.

Hybrid Bike:

A hybrid is a cross between a road and a mountain bike, combining the best features of both.  I personally ride a hybrid, below is a picture of my baby.  I like it because it is good for commuting in the city, but it is also sturdy and stable enough so that I can carry a good amount of groceries or jump a sidewalk if I have to.  I can also take it on trails with my husband and (kind of) keep up.

Main features:

  • Tires are narrower and smoother than a mountain bike’s for riding on pavement
  • Gearing allows for faster speed than a mountain bike
  • Straight handlebars for a more comfortable upright riding position
  • Durable, stouter frame

Best used for:

  • City riding, commuting
  • Occasional riding
  • Leisure
  • Carrying some cargo
  • Fitness riding


  • Not good for racing
  • Heavier than a road bike
  • Not good for heavy-duty cargo

Touring Bike:

Touring bikes may look like road bikes, especially if they have drop-bar handlebars.  However, Touring bikes are designed for longer trips and to carry larger, heavier loads.  There are several other important distinguishing features of touring bikes.

A touring bicycle with flat bars and 26-inch wheels, Wikipedia Commons

Main features:

  • Larger frame triangle than road bikes
  • Structurally stronger than road bikes
  • More comfortable handlebars and saddles for longer rides
  • Generally more gears than a road bike
  • More stable steering geometry
  • Heavy-duty wheels
  • Multiple mounting points (for luggage, water, tools, etc.)
  • Longer wheelbase for more cargo area
  • Designed to be easily repaired in the field
  • Usually have linear-pull or cantilever brakes instead of caliper brakes to make it easier to stop with a heavy load.

Best used for:

  • Traveling long distances
  • Carrying cargo (lower gears are especially useful when moving cargo uphill)
  • Fitness riding


  • Not as light as road bikes

Cruiser Bike:

Also known as beach bikes or boulevardiers, cruisers are designed for comfort.  These bikes are great for short shopping trips, rides to the beach, park, etc.  They are also great for older and novice riders.

Woman’s Cruiser By USCPSC Flickr Commons

Main features:

  • Heavy frame
  • Designed for comfort
  • Curved-back handlebars for more comfortable riding position
  • Padded saddle
  • Balloon tires
  • Minimal gearing
  • Easy to maintain

Best used for:

  • Flat terrain
  • Leisure
  • Shopping


  • Not good for high speeds
  • Heavier than most road and hybrid bikes
  • Not good for long rides
  • Not good for going uphill or off-road

Recumbent Bike:

A Recumbent bike may be a good choice for those who suffer from back and neck problems but still want to ride a bicycle.  A recumbent may also be a good choice for a significantly overweight person, since the laid- back riding position will allow excess body mass to rest in a more comfortable position than an upright bike.

By celesteh, Flickr Commons

Main features:

  • Riding position is laid-back as back and buttocks support weight more evenly and comfortably
  • Long or short wheelbase
  • May have different front and back wheel sizes
  • Center of gravity is lower and closer to the ground, requiring less balance

Best used for:

  • Long rides, touring
  • Riders with back problems
  • Older riders
  • Overweight riders
  • Fitness riding


  • Not good for uphills
  • Not good for riding in traffic because the lower recumbent bike may not be as visible to motorists

Women’s Bike:

Almost any type of bike can be designed to be a “women’s bike.”  This just means that they are designed to better fit a “typical” woman’s body proportions of longer legs and shorter torso.   A traditional women’s bike is easy to spot by its dramatically sloping top tube.  In more recent years, however, women’s bikes have been more characterized by a smaller frame than a traditional bicycle, and also called a “unisex’ bike.

by dno1967b Flickr Commons

Main features:

  • Can be road, mountain, or hybrid
  • Frame geometry tailored to fit typical female body proportions
  • Wider saddle
  • Top tube frame length is shorter, providing less distance from saddle to handlebar, making for a more comfortable reach

Best used for:

  • People with longer legs relative to a shorter torso length


  • Not all women have a “typical” female body proportion, but may believe that a woman’s bike is right for them.

Power Assisted Bike:

If you don’t want to get to work out of breath or sweaty, this may be the bike for you.   A power-assisted bicycle is one that has an internal combustion, electric, or even steam motor.

A VéloSoleX motorized bicycle, Wikipedia Commons

Main features:

  • Allows for pedaling and/or powering the vehicle unassisted
  • Heavier than most bicycles

Best used for:

  • Commuting
  • City riding


  • Heavier than most other bicycles
  • More expensive than other bicycles
  • More and more expensive repair and maintenance
  • Not as eco-friendly as a traditional bike (in most cases)

Folding Bike:

A folding bike may be a great idea for those with little space to store their bicycle or for those who like to travel with their bike.  Folding bikes come with a box or bag that is allowed on airplanes, buses, trains, and fits into the trunk of most cars.

By Robert Couse-Baker (catching up) Flickr Commons

Main features:

  • Easy folding and storage
  • Small
  • Lightweight
  • Fits in box or bag

Best used for:

  • Apartment-dwellers with limited space
  • Travelers who like to ride the same bike
  • Shorter distances


  • Generally not good for long distances, even though some have been used for touring
  • The folding bikes that I have tried seem unstable and difficult to maneuver.  I also disliked the smaller wheels for some reason.

Fixed Gear

Fixed gear bikes were traditionally used in track cycling, but have gained popularity for road use.   The first thing a rider will notice about a fixed gear bike is that it has no freewheel mechanism, meaning that the pedals turn as the wheels turn.  You cannot coast on a fixed gear bike, and this may feel a little strange at first.  Riding a fixed gear bike is different than riding any other bike and takes a bit of practice and getting used to.

By Fixieshop Flickr Commons

Main features:

  • No freewheel mechanism meaning the rider cannot coast
  • Simple
  • Lightweight
  • Low maintenance

Best used for:

  • Flat terrain
  • Paved surfaces
  • City Riding


  • Not good for uphill
  • Not good for off-road riding
  • May be more difficult to learn to ride, may require a more experienced rider


Tandem bicycles are used mainly for recreation or sport and to allow couples and families to ride together, when one rider is stronger than the other(s).  A tandem bike may also be good for a person with a disability that still wants to ride.

By markheseltine Flickr Commons

Main features:

  • More than one rider
  • Fast
  • Usually heavier

Best used for:

  • When one rider is stronger than the other
  • Touring, but not a lot of space for cargo


  • Two riders does not equal double the cargo capacity

Utility/ Cargo Bike:

Cargo bikes are mainly used for transporting people, especially children, or materials.  They come in different shapes and forms, depending on their intended use.

By sam_churchill Flickr Commons

Main features:

  • Upright seating position
  • Sturdy, elongated frame
  • Stronger rims with more spokes
  • Wide tires for stability
  • Heavy duty racks over rear or front tire for cargo

Best used for:

  • Transporting cargo
  • Transporting children
  • Family commuting
  • Shopping


  • Heavier than most bicycles
  • Less maneuverability

Now that you know what types of bicycle are more suited to your lifestyle and purpose, it is important to spend some time riding a few different types of bicycle and asking questions.

A Note on Frame Material

There are four main frame materials used in bike today: carbon steel, chromoly steel, aluminum, and carbon fiber.   Each have their advantages and disadvantages, and there are trade-offs depending on preference and purpose.  For example, while aluminum tends to be lighter, but more rigid than steel.  REI has a page about bike frame materials.


When you have finally decided on a type of bike, make sure you get the right fit for your body.  Consider stand-over height, seat height, and reach to the handlebars.  Once all of this has been adjusted, make sure you take a test ride and that the fit feels comfortable.

There are several sizing charts like’s Determining Your Road Bike Frame Size, or ebicycle’s Bicycle Frame Size Charts.

Stand-over height

Stand-over height refers to the clearance between your body and the top tube when straddle a bike.  To test the stand over height:

  • Wear the shoes you will be wearing to cycle
  • Stand next to the bike and throw your leg over the top tube
  • Measure the distance between your body and the top tube


  • Lift the bike until it touches you body
  • Have someone measure the distance between the tires and the floor

Customary stand-over height:  (same for men and women)

  • For Road Bikes
    • With a straight top pole, ideally you want 1” clearance between you and the bike.
    • With a sloping top tube or more pronounced tube, you want a 2” or more clearance
  • For Mountain Bikes
    • For most mountain bikes, you want 2” of clearance when you lift the bike.
    • For full suspension bikes, ideally you want between 1 and 2”.
    • More aggressive mountain bikers may have 3 to 5” clearance
  • For Cruisers or other recreational bikes
    • Usually not an issue since the sloping tube will give you over 5” clearance

Seat height

To measure the seat height, ask a friend to hold the bike as you sit on the saddle.  Customary seat heights:

  • For Road Bikes
    • Ideal seat height is when you don’t extend your knee 100% at the bottom of a pedal stroke.  Your knee should extend 80-90% to full extension, but you should not have to fully extend your knee at any time
  • For Mountain Bikes
    • Generally, mountain bikes used for dirt jumping, downhill mountain biking and freeriding do not require adjustments to seat height
    • Similar to a road bike, you should not have to fully extend your knee at any time and your knees are only slightly bent at the bottom of a pedal stroke
    • If you can reach the ground with both feet at the same time while sitting on the saddle, your seat is too low.
  • For Cruisers or other recreational bikes
    • The seat should be in a position where your body is almost fully upright with a slight bend in the elbows when gripping the handlebars.

Seat position

For both Road Bikes and Mountain Bikes: For greatest pedaling efficiency, your knee should be aligned with your forefoot. The bottom of your kneecap should be directly above the ball of your foot, meaning your shins will be angled slightly forward.


Generally, you should never have to extend your arms completely to reach the handlebars, gears, or brakes.  Ideally, you should have a slight bend in your elbow when holding the handlebars.

Handlebar height

  • For Road Bikes, the handlebars should be about 1-2” lower than the top of the saddle.  This forces the rider to lean forward, creating a more aerodynamic posture.
  • For Mountain Bikes, the handlebars should be about 3-4” lower than the top of the saddle.  This creates a lower center of gravity and provides for more stability on uneven terrain
  • For Cruisers or other recreational bikes, the handlebars are usually 1-2” higher than the saddle, because the point is to ride in a more comfortable, upright position.

Where to Get a Good Deal on a Bike

There are fantastic deals out there on used bikes, depending on where you look, your location, and the time of year.  Craigslist is always a good place to start looking for a used bike.  Timing is everything on Craigslist, however.  For example, my husband is always on the lookout for a good used bike, and he always seems to get the best deals in the colder months, when not a lot of people are riding.  Good deals are more rare in the summer months.  When buying used, however, pay attention to the bike’s components.

For those who would rather buy a new bike, there are several good bike discounters to check out, some of which use the same factories and materials as the big name brands.  Some of the largest are and