Today’s bicycle marketplace is a veritable smorgasbord of options. With wheel sizes ranging from 12 to 29 inches in diameter and tire widths from less than an inch to almost 5 inches, there is literally a bike for every purpose! However, with the plethora of choices, it can be easy to get overwhelmed. Luckily for anyone interested in a new steed, what follows is a basic description of some of the general categories of bikes.
At the most basic level we can classify bikes into 4 main categories: road bikes, mountain bikes, hybrids, and leisure/other. They all differ in a few simple ways: wheel size (diameter), tire width, handlebar style, intended use, and frame geometry.
A road bike can be distinguished from the other styles by its narrow, downward curving bars, skinny slick tires (.75-1.5 inch wide), and they have a more forward leaning aggressive position. These bikes have been designed to move as quickly as possible across relatively smooth pavement, corner safely at high speeds, and they are (generally) the lightest type of bike. Modern road bikes have what are known as integrated levers to both shift the gears and apply the brakes, all from the same hand position. Road bikes can also have two wheel sizes: 650c or 700c, with the larger 700c size by far the most common.
“Mountain bike” is the umbrella term used to describe any bicycle designed for off-road use. These bicycles range from inexpensive, all-purpose bikes sold at big box stores to light-weight carbon creations used for cross country mountain biking to the incredibly impressive dual-suspension downhill rigs. These bikes feature a more upright posture, than a road bike, and most use a suspension fork (the more expensive and complex ones may have a rear shock as well). These suspension elements allow the wheels to travel up and down to compensate for rough terrain. The bikes will all have flat/low rise handlebars, tires around 2 to 3 inches wide (with an aggressive tread), and wheels ranging from 26” to 29” in diameter. All of these bikes are perfect for riding off-road, but major distinctions in their design exist depending on the difficulty of the trail they are intended to tackle.
Hybrids represent exactly what the name suggests, a hybrid between a road and mountain bike. They offer the more upright posture of a mountain bike, with the larger diameter wheels of a road bike, and have a relatively slick tire between 1 and 2 inches in width. The flat bars, coupled with the comfortable position, and faster rolling tires make these bikes perfect for most people as they can ride on light gravel as well on the road quickly and comfortably.
Leisure/other bikes would be most akin to a hybrid, but they offer a much more diverse component selection and less restrictive design parameters. These bikes include, but are not limited to: beach cruisers, tandems, choppers, fixies, grocery getters, BMX, and folding/city bikes. This group is by far the most diverse as they can have wheels anywhere between 12 and 36 inches in diameter, flat or curved handlebars, and even sit more than one passenger!