Many cyclists will claim that the optimum number of bikes to own is n+1, where n is the number of bikes they already own. Whilst generally, I am all in favour of shiny new purchases, the vast majority of us are unable to afford (or justify to our partners) the n+1 equation. And if you’re in the position of buying your first bike, the choice of steed can be a minefield.
“I just want a bike that can do everything!” I hear you cry. Well, tough. Such a bike does not exist. (Except possibly in the world of Harry Potter – you can do anything with a good wand.) There are bikes that can do most things, although there will be compromises. If you can only choose one type of bike, the decision comes down to what you want to prioritise most. And that’s where this handy guide comes in. We’ve distilled down the essence of each type of bike to help you figure out which is the perfect bike for you.
If you want one bike to do a bit of everything, your perfect bike is a gravel bike
You can take a gravel bike almost anywhere. With the dropped handlebars of a road bike, the fat tyres of a mountain bike and the gear range of a touring bike, these are the mongrels of the bike world. You’re not going to be tackling black runs in them, but for a mixture of road, off-road, easy trail riding and a spot of touring, they’re tough to beat. They’re a jack of all trades and master of none, but if you want a bike that can do a bit of everything, a gravel bike is the one for you.
If you’re erring more towards road riding (e.g. for commuting), then cyclocross bikes have a more aggressive riding position and are usually a bit lighter and faster on the roads.
If you want a commuting bike, your perfect bike is a hybrid
Someone’s going to disagree with me here, I know. So I will preempt you by saying that there are really two choices here: either a hybrid or a road bike. If you do a lot of road riding as well as commuting then a road bike may be your best option. For pretty much everyone else, a hybrid will be your perfect commuting bike.
Why? Well to start with, if you’ve never ridden a road bike before, it can be a bit nerve-wracking to get used to, especially if riding in traffic. A hybrid has a more upright, stable cycling position and with those nice wide handlebars, you won’t be worried about wobbling all over the road when indicating. If you cycle on rough roads or have some off-road sections (e.g. along a canal) then a hybrid will be a much comfier ride. Sure, it’ll be a bit heavier, but for most people, you’ll be stopping and starting often enough that that won’t make a huge difference. Check out our beginner’s guide to cycle commuting for more tips on cycling to work.
Of course, you may be forced down a completely different route depending on your commute …
If your commute involves travel by train, your perfect bike is a folding bike
If part of your commute to work involves travelling on public transport, then a folding bike is really your only option. Or at least, the only option that won’t earn you killer stares from fellow commuters on the 8:15 to Waterloo. (Mind you, even a folding bike might earn you killer stares on the sardine-tin trains.) They’re not the easiest bikes to manoeuvre on the roads and you won’t set any speed records, but they do the job they’re designed to do. A folding bike may also be your perfect bike if you like to keep your steed close to you at all times. If you don’t have secure bike storage at work, you can tuck her away under your desk until home time.
If you want a bike solely for commuting and live in a city with a bike share programme, you may not need to invest in a bike at all. With many schemes, the first half hour of cycling is free and you’ll never have to worry about your bike getting stolen.
If you’re a speed demon, your perfect bike is a road bike
If you’re not fussed about off-road cycling (and I mean any off-road), then a specialist road bike is likely to be your perfect bike. If you’ve never ridden one before, the body position and thin tires take a bit of getting used to, but once you’ve mastered this, you can get some serious miles under your belt. If you’re interested in getting into sportives, then this is the bike for you.
If you’re riding on rough roads or in cities, strong tyres are a must, but don’t go thinking that means taking a shortcut along the bridleway is ok. The one thing road bikes don’t have is suspension.
If you enjoy long cross-country rides, your perfect bike is a hardtail mountain bike
For general mountain biking, including long undulating rides and hitting the trails, a hardtail is going to be your perfect bike. It won’t be quite as bouncy on technical downhill sections as a full suspension bike, but you’ll appreciate the weight savings when tackling uphill sections or on longer rides.
A hardtail is also a good option for beginner off-road bikers who want to tackle a variety of different terrains. If this is you, a XC trail bike will be your perfect bike. If you’re looking at a bike for racing over moderate terrain, a lighter XC race bike may suit you better.
If you love the downhills, your perfect bike is an all-mountain/enduro bike
Enduro bikes are designed for races with fast downhills, complex terrain and short uphill sections. They have full suspension with plenty of travel in the front and rear shocks to tackle technical drops and obstacles. They’re not the easiest or lightest bikes to pedal back uphill and you wouldn’t want to use it for your commute, but it’s more versatile than a downhill racing bike. If you love downhills, an enduro will be your perfect bike.
If triathlons are your thing, your perfect bike is a road bike
What, not a tri bike? Nope. At least not if you can only choose ONE bike, which is the whole purpose of this buyers guide. Triathlon bikes are designed to reduce some of the impact of the cycling stage on your quads (so they’re ready for the final run), at the sacrifice of comfort. As well as a stiffer feel, tri bikes are typically fitted with fixed aerobars, so you only have one riding position.
They’re specialist bikes designed for flat-out racing on short, flat courses – pretty specific! A road bike is much more versatile: it’ll serve you better on hilly courses, be more comfortable for general riding and you won’t feel out of place riding it to the pub.
If you want a bit of extra help on the hills, your perfect bike is an electric bike
Regarded by some cyclists as ‘cheating’, electric bikes are becoming a more popular option for people who want the freedom and flexibility of a bike, but with a bit of assistance. They come in all shapes and sizes, from hybrid and road models to serious all-terrain mountain bikes.
An electric bike isn’t a free ride though – you still have to pedal, and they’re heavier than the equivalent non-electric bike so you’ll still get a good workout. If you live in a hilly area or suffer from joint problems, an electric steed may be the perfect bike to get you out and about.
How to choose your perfect bike
Now you know what type of bike you want, it’s time to go shopping. And that opens a whole new can of worms. What size frame? Which brakes are best? What size wheels do I need? This article from Jen Reviews gives a good overview of what you need to consider when buying a new bike and your local friendly bike shop staff will be more than willing to help you debate the options available.