Which Bike is Best?

By Steve Chambers

Forty years ago, buying a bike was easy. You went to the local sporting goods store to their bicycle section and walked down a couple of rows of gleaming boys’ and girls’ bicycles. Girls’ bikes lacked the horizontal bar so girls in dresses could slide their legs through. Otherwise they were pretty much identical. The biggest technological decision was hand brakes or foot brakes. The only other decisions were color: blue, black, white, red and maybe green.

Today, the choices are numerous. You can commute on a road bike, mountain bike, hybrid, or cruiser. All have pluses and minuses.
Road bikes are patterned after racing bikes. Handlebars curve down (called "drops") for aerodynamics. Frames and components are extremely light, tires are narrow and high pressure, and, with up to 27 gears, bikes are fast and quick. Within the road bike category, there are special types for racing, general riding and long distance touring. They pedal effortlessly, but can be stiff and uncomfortable. They are also fragile. If you plan to do a century ride (100 miles in a single day) or a charity ride, such as the MS 150 or the Tour de Cure, you will eventually want a road bike.

Mountain bikes, the ubiquitous symbol of the 1980s, have become more and more tricked out, with front and rear shock absorbers and disc brakes. They’re very tough and forgiving of mistakes. But they’re heavy and not efficient for daily use.

Hybrids, also called city bikes or comfort bikes, are a cross between road bikes and mountain bikes. The frames are sturdier than road bikes, but lack shocks and other bells and whistles of mountain bikes. The handle bars are straight so you sit more upright. Their gearing isn’t as extreme as mountain bikes or road bikes. The tires are smooth, not knobby, for easier rolling.

Cruisers are retro-bikes. Featuring wide, gull-wing handlebars that curve gracefully backward, wide seats cushioned by springs, fat tires and large frames, cruisers are meant for casual riding. Many lack gears, just like the bike you (or your dad) delivered newspapers on in the 60s.

Which bike is best depends on you. Decide what you plan to use your bike for the most before you look. Department store bikes won’t stand up to the pounding of a daily commute, so stay away from bargain basement sales. Talk to the salespeople. Most are avid bikers and knowledgeable. Be honest about what you want to do and what your expectations and limitations are. Some bike shops only sell specific brands, so visit several stores. Take test rides. Ask about extras you might want, such as rear racks, fenders or headlights.

This article was originally published on September 1, 2008.