Moving from four wheels to two is a great way to get fit, reduce your environmental footprint, save money, and have a lot of fun! Bicycles are a convenient way to get around if you live in the city and want to avoid the hassle of parking and getting stuck in traffic. They’re also a fun adventure sport, whether you want to explore the bush or hit the jumps on the BMX track.
It can be difficult and confusing to navigate the staggering range of bicycles available on the market, especially when you’re not familiar with the technical lingo. Here, we’ll give you a basic overview of the different types of bicycles and their key components. Understanding the basics of bikes will make it much easier to decipher the specs list of individual bikes and find the right one for you.
What kind of bikes are there?
There’s an incredible range of bicycles on the market, for all kinds of riding purposes, skill levels, and budgets. To make things even more complicated, there’s crossover between different categories. Here’s a basic rundown on what the major options are:
|Bike Type||Description||Ideal terrain/
|Road bikes||● Larger wheels (700cc), with narrow high-pressure tyres
● Lightweight frame and rims
● Designed for speed but you’ll feel every bump
|Designed for fast, efficient riding on the road. Features vary depending on use, from racing to casual road riding|
|Commuter & hybrid bikes||● Wider than road tyres, with larger contact area for grip and comfort
● More upright frame
● Flat handlebars
|Relaxed city riding. Not meant for off-road use although it can do it|
|Mountain bikes||● Tougher frame with higher clearance to get over obstacles and through ruts
● Wide knobbly tires for more traction on a variety of surfaces
● Stronger rims to handle rougher riding
● Wide range of gears
|Off-road adventure riding over rough terrain such as gravel, dirt, rock, and sand|
|BMX bikes||● Smaller than mountain bikes, build to absorb heavy impacts
● Single-geared, with one brake
● 20 inch wheels
|BMX tracks, jumps and off-road riding|
|● Varies – can come in either wide multi-terrain tyre type or narrow road-type
● Vintage-style step-through design
● Designs varying to different terrains. Ranges from single-speed up to 7-speed or more
|Casual, short-distance riding|
|Fat bikes||● Oversized tires with heavy tread
● Lightweight alloy frame with wide forks to accommodate fat wheels
● Powerful disc brakes
|Exploring soft, unstable terrain such as sand, mud, gravel, and snow|
|● Simple design with no gears, thicker chain, and a lightweight frame||Ideal for urban road riding|
|● A mixture between mountain and road bikes, designed to be both fast and tough. Stronger frame, wide tyres, and high clearance to avoid obstacles||Long rides on a variety of terrains – from a commute in the wet to off-road exploring|
|Folding bikes||● Fold-up frame allows easier transport of your bike, whether on public transport or as luggage
● Long seat post, adjustable handlebars mean one size fits most – can adjust to a wide range of heights
|Generally designed for urban use, with similar function to road bikes|
|Electric bikes||● Electric motor powered by a rechargeable battery
● Can be found in either road bike or mountain bike types
|Good for people with long commutes, or who don’t want to get sweaty before work. Electric mountain bikes give more power and energy to get further on your trek|
Frame material and structure
The material used to make the frame of a bike can affect the comfort of your ride, the weight of your bike, and the durability of the frame.
- Steel – Until aluminum came around, steel was the go-to frame material. It’s durable, highly resistant to fatigue stress, and due to its malleability easy to repair. It’s very much a solid choice for touring and trekking bikes.
- Chromoly – A type of steel alloy of iron and chromium, used widely in better quality steel frames. It’s corrosion resistant, durable, and just a bit heavier than aluminum.
- Aluminum – Lighter than steel, but weaker and vulnerable to fatigue stress, aluminum frames are more affordable. Manufacturers create wider tubes with thinner walls to achieve the necessary strength and stiffness for a bike frame. The stiffer frame is a plus for speed but can make rougher rides a bit uncomfortable.
- Carbon fibre– This newer material is a composite of carbon strands pressed together with epoxy glue or resin. It’s the lightest material on the market and is widely adaptable for shape and stiffness. However, as it’s relatively new and high-tech, it’s generally the most expensive choice.
- Titanium – Not commonly used due to expense and difficulty to work with in the (unlikely) event that repairs are needed. Titanium frames are lighter and more durable, used for high-end racing and adventure bikes.
Tyres & wheels
Bicycles are sold with the correct type of wheelset for the terrain and riding style for which the entire bike is designed. This means that when you’re choosing a bicycle, you should consider whether the type of wheels and tyres it uses are best for your needs.
When replacing tyres, or if you want to customise your bike a bit more, you can’t just slap on any tyres that take your fancy. You need to make sure you purchase tyres which fit the rims, or if you want to completely replace the wheels, a set which is designed to fit and work with your bike’s frame.
You’re best off talking to your local bicycle shop about what your options are to suit your needs and interests if you want to play around with wheels. For beginners this is probably not worth it. There are two broad categories of bike tyre. Either will have the size written on the sidewall.
Road bike tyres
These are generally narrow with a smooth tread, to minimise friction and maximise speed on the hard, smooth surface of the road. They do generally have a light tread so that the tyre can maintain traction in wet conditions. Sizing on road bike tyres will look something like 700×23. The first number is a size roughly equal to the outer diameter in millimeters, and the second is the tire width in millimeters.
Mountain bike tyres
Off-road tyres are wider with knobbly tread to improve traction on soft or uneven surfaces such as dirt, mud and snow. Sizing on mountain bike tyres will look like 26×2.0. The first number is the approximate outer diameter in inches, and the second is tyre width in inches.
How to buy the right tyre to match you wheels
- The tyre size and type must match the wheel size and type. Diameter is the most important number, as most widths will fit. You should check the compatible tyre width of your wheel to make sure you buy a tyre that fits.
- Mountain bike wheels require mountain bike tyres, and road bike wheels require road bike tyres.
- Wheels and often tyres are specific to either front or rear use – make sure you buy the correct tyre for the correct wheel.
- Most tyres also require an inner tube, which is the part that holds the air. Your tube’s valve type must match the hole in your wheel’s rim, and the tube size must be compatible with your tyre.
What are bicycle gears and do I need them?
The basic function of a bicycle goes like this:
- You pedal to turn a cog
- This turning cog pulls a metal chain around, with teeth that match up with the cog
- The chain being driven along by your pedalling turns a cog fixed to the back wheel
- The back wheel turns with your pedalling
‘Gear’ refers to the relationship between the rate at which the rider pedals, and the rate at which the drive wheel turns. Changing between different gear settings can help make the most efficient use of your pedalling effort.
Some bicycles only have one gear – these are known as singlespeed or fixed speed bicycles. Depending on the complexity of the bike, there can be many different gear options available. Gear variation is provided by having different sized cogs on which the bike chain can travel. Switching gears means switching which size cog the chain goes around. There may be different sized cogs on the drive wheel or at the pedal point.
The bigger the drive wheel cog is compared to the pedal cog (i.e. the lower the gear), the more pedals you need to make to get the back wheel to make a complete revolution, but at less force. Likewise, the smaller the back cog, the fewer times you need to pedal to get it to turn but it requires less force to do so.
In other words, if you’re trying to resist a great force to go forwards (i.e. you’re fighting gravity to go uphill), you’re better off in a lower gear. If you have gravity doing the work for you (i.e. you’re going downhill), you’re better off in a higher gear.
- Low gear:for going uphill
- Middle gear: for more or less flat terrain
- High gear:for going downhill, when less pedalling effort is required
So why would you ever want a single-speed bicycle? Well, there are a few advantages to fixed-speeds. As it’s a simpler bike with fewer components, it’s cheaper, weighs less, and is easier to maintain. Fixed-speeds are most advantageous for riding when you don’t need extra help to get up steep hills and would prefer a lighter ride. For example, track racing bicycles never have gears.
It’s not simple to switch around brakes yourself, and your ability to do so is limited by whether or not the particular brake is compatible with your bike’s frame or wheel. Unless you’re looking to really get into bike customisation, you’ll only need to understand the basics to make sure you choose a bike with the right kind of brakes to match the kind of riding you like. There are broadly two types of brakes:
This category of brake works by applying force to the wheel’s rim. Wheels designed for use with rim brakes have a flat rim sidewall which aligns with the brake shoes. Sub-categories of rim brakes include caliper brakes, v-brakes, u-brakes, and cantilever brakes.
While rim brakes are inexpensive, simple, and light, they lose a lot of their braking power in the wet. They need regular maintenance, although this is fairly straightforward. Brake pads must be adjusted to keep wear even, then replaced when they wear down completely. Rims must also be checked for wear and damage.
These type of brakes apply at the hub, rather than at the rim. As they use a metal rotor attached to the hub, as opposed to a braking surface applied to the rim, these brakes don’t wear out as quickly.
They’re commonly used in off-road bikes such as mountain bikes, as being fixed at the hub rather than the rim means that their efficacy isn’t affected by the wet, they’re far less susceptible to clogging in mud and dirt, and if the rim sustains damage the brakes can still work.
Two major types of disc brakes are available:
- Mechanical disc brakes are cheaper, but less powerful and require adjusting to account for cable stretch and pad wear
- Hydraulic disc brakes are expensive but powerful. They accrue very little pad wear and, as the hose fluid takes away heat, sustain more power over longer descents
A woman and a man of the same height are likely to be quite differently-proportioned. More and more manufacturers have begun designing a wider range of bicycles that take into consideration ideal design for women. While of course women come in all shapes and sizes, women who fall at the smaller end of the spectrum can particularly benefit from the adjustments made in women’s-specific design.
- Shorter top tube on the frame makes it easier to reach the handlebars
- Sloping top tube makes it easier for women’s feet to reach the ground when stopped
- Lower, step-through frames (commonly found in vintage cruisers) mean you don’t have to step as high to get astride the frame, and can more easily wear a skirt or a dress while cycling
- Seats are wider to accommodate differences in pelvic shapes and better support the sit-bones
- Handlebars are narrower, for greater steering control and to match the shoulders which are generally narrower in women
What bike accessories do you need?
- Helmet – Absolutely essential to protect your head. Even if you think you’re the best rider in the world, accidents happen. One stray rock or one car that doesn’t see you in time can send you flying. It’s also illegal to ride a bicycle without a helmet in most jurisdictions.
- Lights & reflectors– If you expect to ever be riding in low light or the dark, lights and reflectors are incredibly important (and a legal requirement) to make sure everyone else on the road can see you. You’ll need a white light on the front and a red light on the back.
- Spare tube, patch kit, tire levers & pump– Unless you’re willing and able to walk your bike home, it’s a good idea to carry everything you need to fix a punctured tire. If you’re not prepared for a flat, you’ll probably get one.
- Lock – You don’t want your vehicle stolen, so you’ll need a lock if you’re ever going to park it in public for even a minute. D-locks are generally more secure than chain locks. It’s also a good idea to lock up your wheels as well as your frame, so no one can make off with your wheels.
- Baskets, bags & panniers– Unless you’re happy to carry your gear on your back in a backpack, having somewhere to store your bits and bobs can be very handy. Front baskets give you somewhere to pop your bag or groceries, while pannier racks on the back can take extra bags hung off the sides or strapped on top. An under-seat bag can make use of the space to store essentials like your spare tube and tools.
- Water bottle cage– Keeping hydrated is important during exercise, particularly on longer journeys. You can add a cage to your bike frame to hold your water bottle.
How much do bicycles cost?
Pioneering developer of the modern mountain bike, Keith Bontrager, famously said: “Strong. Light. Cheap. Pick two.”
Bikes come in as wide a range of prices as they do designs. Sticking to a budget will almost certainly mean dropping your standards for quality. Cheaper bicycles tend to have heavier frames, which can slow you down. But unless you’re looking to become highly competitive, you probably won’t need the top of the range professional quality frame. If you’re new to cycling, it may be worth working your way up as you get to know what you like in your riding experience. Also remember to factor in the cost of a helmet, bike lights, lock, repair kit, and other accessories according to your needs.
There’s a fair degree of crossover between different categories, so it’s worth having a good look around to see what options are available. Here is a rough guide to the prices you’re likely to find:
|Bicycle Type||Basic||High End|
|Commuter & hybrid bikes||$249||$2,499|
What kind of bicycle should you buy?
The most important thing to consider is what kind of riding you’ll be doing. The major difference between different bikes is the terrain and riding style they’re designed to match. For example, bicycles designed mostly for road and pavement use tend to have thinner, high-pressure tyres to minimise ground contact and speed. Bicycles designed to handle rougher terrain, such as dirt and gravel, have wider tyres with a more rugged tread.
Elements that vary depending on purpose and quality include:
- Frame structure
- Frame composition
- Tire tread
- Tire width
- Pedal type
- Gears – number, type
- Brake type
Where should you buy your bicycle from?
A specialised bicycle retailer or sporting goods store will generally be a much better bet than general merchandise stores. Bike shops often offer maintenance and service programs, with some providing free or discounted service for a certain period of time after buying a bicycle from them. They’re also far more likely to provide a better quality product and good advice.
Ready to roll?
Don’t rush out the door with your new bicycle too quickly. There are a few adjustments you’ll need to make before you’re ready to ride. Make sure the saddle is at the right height so that you can ride comfortably without expending excess effort or putting stress on your joints. Ask the shop staff to help you adjust this. You should also ask about what maintenance is required for your specific bicycle.
Remember that this is only a broad overview. There’s so much more to the world of bikes and cycling to discover. But whether you want to get into racing or just enjoy a casual Sunday cruise, with the right bike you’ll have a fantastic adventure.