Bike frames can be made of steel alloys, aluminum, and carbon.
- Steel. Steel offers a sturdy, smooth – even silky - ride. With steel you get what you pay for: cheap steel (such as that found in a department store bike) is very heavy; good steel (such as that found in a good road bike) is light and makes the bike more expensive.
- Aluminum. Aluminum is generally lighter than steel and offers a stiffer, more playful ride. Many aluminum bikes have a carbon fork to help with vibration control.
- Carbon. Carbon is very lightweight and offers a responsive ride with good vibration control. It is a more expensive material than aluminum or steel.
When testing bikes (especially road bikes), ride bikes in different materials to see which offers you the ride characteristic that suits you best. You may be surprised!
It can’t be repeated often enough: The most important characteristic of your bike is that you love riding it! And the most important thing about loving your bike is how well suits your riding needs and how comfortably it fits your body.
This guide to bike styles and materials will answer a few basic questions. However, there is no substitute for discussing your riding needs and goals with someone who really knows bikes and has lots of riding experience, testing different bike styles and setups, and getting fit properly. All of that takes time, is best done in person, and is totally worth it. A good bike is an investment. It can save you a lot of money on gas or transit fares. It can save your health! Please treat your bike like a pet. Exercise it. Take care of it. Try to keep it clean. Bring it inside with you, if possible.
road bikes are designed for higher speed riding on smooth roads. They have narrow, slick, high pressures tires, and “drop” (curved over) handle bars that allow a very aggressive (that is, powerful) head-forward riding position for the best aerodynamics and sprinting strength. High-end road bikes often have very “quick” handling, for maneuvering in races.
Road bikes usually have integrated brake/shift levers on the top ends of the bars – thus racers can shift and brake at the same time without lifting their hands, and with the hands on top of the brake hoods or in the sprinting drop position. Integrated brake-shift levers also make it easier to downshift when climbing standing on the pedals and to shift to a lower gear while braking for a stoplight.
You don’t have to be a racer to ride a road bike. The top ends of the bars, called “hoods, ” are a remarkably comfortable place to put your hands and keep you riding in a more upright, relaxed position. You may spend most of your time riding with hands on the hoods and very little time bent over in the drops.
Mountain bikes are designed for off-road riding. They have a flat handlebar suited for a more upright riding position. Thus, they are very comfortable to ride and highly maneuverable at low speeds. But they are not as aerodynamic as a road bike. Mountain bikes have very wide, knobby tires suitable for riding over dirt, mud, sand, and even snow. Some mountain bikes have large (29 inch) wheels or “suspension” (shock absorbers) to make riding over rocks and obstacles easy.
Mountain bikes have a wide range of gears suited for very slow riding on narrow trails and ascending very steep hills. Most mountain bikes have push button shifting or twist-grip shifting on the end of the handlebars. The wide, lower-pressure tires on mountain bikes are very comfortable over bumps and are highly puncture resistant. Virtually all modern mountain bikes have disk brakes – sometimes mechanical, sometimes hydraulic. Compared to a road bike, it’s a lot more work to go the same distance on a mountain bike. The big knobby tires have a lot of rolling resistance; the upright riding position is not aerodynamic; and the suspension and extra-sturdy frames add extra weight, which makes it harder to climb hills at high speed. Thus, mountain bikes are not usually used for long commutes or road rides.
Mountain bikes can be a good starting bike for people who haven’t ridden much before. The wide range of gears and extra traction makes riding up hills easier for people who are starting out. Plus mountain bikes look badass, even if you’re a little out of shape. There are great mountain bike trails in our area, at Rosaryville state park, Fairland regional park and elsewhere. We need your help opening up more areas for mountain biking, including Greenbelt National Park, Greenbelt’s north woods, and other areas. Mountain bike clubs do a great job keeping trails clear and preventing erosion. Join one, and lobby for more trail access!
CX is a form of racing on tracks with lots of different surfaces: grass, asphalt, cobblestones, dirt, gravel, mud, sand. The race courses often have straightaways on hard surfaces where you can go very fast, but also slower technical sections. They have obstacles or stairsteps where riders have to dismount and carry their bikes.
CX bikes are very fun to ride. They’re fast, and have drop handlebars and integrated brake hood shifters, and you can take a fairly aggressive riding position like a road bike. But they can also handle lots of road surfaces. They have medium-sized tires, with small knobs, so they can grip on bad surfaces, but there’s not nearly as much rolling resistance and weight as a mountain bike in the straightaways. Some CX bikes now have disc brakes like mountain bikes.
touring bikes are designed for long rides with heavy loads. Touring bikes usually come with disc brakes, which are good for stopping under heavy loads and perform very well in wet conditions. They also have and front and rear racks for panniers.
Touring bikes often have slick tires for riding on smooth roads, but often these tires are wider and more durable and flat-resistant than road racing tires. Some touring tires have rain channels for better handling in wet conditions, but few have knobs like mountain bikes, because the extra rolling resistance would be unbearable on long rides. Touring bikes usually have drop handlebars, so you can drop down into a more aero position when riding into the wind. But some off-road touring bikes (sometimes called trekking or expedition bikes) have flat handlebars and wider tires designed for rougher roads and trails.
Cargo bikes are like touring bikes with an extra long rear rack for heavy gear, and even wider tires and stronger frames for more durability and weight support. Commuting long distances on a cargo bike might be tough for all but the strongest riders, although lots of people do it! I’ve seen cargo bikes loaded with multiple kids and trailers, full sets of work tools and supplies etc. Some cargo bikes are rated for several hundred pounds of carrying capacity. As long as you’re not trying to go too fast, they are extremely useful.
City, Commuter Bikes, and Fixed Gear
Urban bikes and commuter bikes usually have a combination of features. Most have flat handlebars and an upright riding position, with push button or twist-grip shifting. Most have medium-sized tires with high durability – some have disc brakes, some use rim brakes. Some have racks for mounting panniers built in, or have baskets in the front. They are usually quite rugged, but not as heavy as mountain bikes. Sometimes urban bike have fewer gears for easy maintenance, or are single speed. Fixed-gear bikes are single-speed bikes that don’t coast – you backpedal to slow up (some have a front brake to assist). Fixed-gear bikes are fun to ride, but require a lot of concentration and strength, because you can’t just slam on the brakes.
Sometimes called “cruisers,” these bikes are designed for slower riding in an upright position. As their name implies, they are designed to be as comfortable to ride as possible. They may have a wide range of gears so that you can climb the steepest hills with ease, or they may be single speed for the flats. Cruisers usually range from single speed to 7 gears.
Kids bikes come in wheel sizes ranging from 12" to 24". Department store kids bikes tend to be heavy and essentially disposable due to low end components (once they break, they can't be fixed). Many quality bike brands (like Jamis, Kona, and Felt) make kids bikes that are miniature versions of adult bikes, so they're lighter, they'll perform well and can be repaired when there's a problem. These bikes can be passed down to younger kids in the family. A great kids bike can jumpstart a healthy lifestyle right through their teenage years.