When you were a kid, picking a bike was so easy (if you even had a choice). It was all about color and cool factor. It was almost always a couple of sizes too big for you because “you’ll grow into it”. As an adult today, it is a completely different story. Even when it comes to a bike for the most basic use, there are hundreds of different options. Plus, any friend with a bike will tell you that not any two-wheels will do. You need to find the right style, the right size, and it feels like there are a million other features on top of that. All, of course, seem to add significant dollars to your purchase.
But if you are just starting out with bikes as an adult, don’t worry, we have you covered. Here you will find a complete guide for beginners looking for the right bike. We will go through the common models, and which might be right for you. We will look at how to choose the right size. Plus, we'll go through many additional features, letting you know which ones are worth paying attention to. Read on to find out everything you need to know.
1. Types of Bike
The first thing to do when starting your search for the perfect bike is to narrow it down to what type of bike you need. While there are hundreds of different types of bikes (find the National Bicycle Dealers Association’s list here), for beginners, there are really only four types that you need to consider. Each is designed for a different purpose. The one that is right for you depends on where and how you will be using your bike.
Mountain bikes are the ones with thick chunky tires. You will generally want a Mountain bike for off-road adventures, cruising down dirt tracks and jumping small obstacles. You can also use these bikes on the road, but they are hard work. Those thick tires give you great grip on slippery dirt tracks, allowing you to take tight corners without skidding out of control. But those same thick tires will cling to pavements. You will need to apply noticeable additional force on the road than you would need to with a road bike.
* Choose a Mountain bike if you are looking for a recreational bike to use off-road.
Road bikes, on the other hand, are designed specifically for use on smooth pavements. They feature thin tires that ensure minimal friction with the road, so you can glide along the streets at rapid speeds. The fastest of these bikes are designed to be aerodynamic and will see you hunched over the handlebars for minimal wind-resistance. So, commuters will need to carry their gear in saddle bags – backpacks destroy the airflow. While this is definitely the fastest way to commute on the roads, as soon as you get onto rough surfaces, you will likely find the grip and suspension insufficient for a comfortable ride.
* Choose a Road Bike if you are looking for a fast machine for your daily commute and you are unlikely to be encountering any rough surfaces on your travels.
If you are looking for something for your daily commute, but also want to take in the occasional off-road track. A hybrid bike works in both environments, though it excels in neither. This makes them a good choice if you are looking for a bike for both your daily commute and weekend adventures, or if you regularly commute takes in rough surfaces as well as smooth tarmac. But the sacrifice is that it will not be the fastest or most comfortable bike in either environment.
* Choose a Hybrid Bike if your commute includes rough surfaces, or if you are looking for something for both the daily commute and light, off-road weekend adventures.
This is a catch all category for a variety of different bikes that are all designed to meet specific purposes. While there are hundreds of bikes within this category, the most important are:
Also sometimes called Dutch bikes, these are those old-fashioned looking bikes with high handlebars, and usually a basket on the front. They are designed for cruising about on roads and pavements in comfort, and at no particular speed. They generally have thicker tires like a hybrid, which means that they grip well on both pavement and sand, but the seat design means that they can’t really be used for off-roading. These are often the bikes that you see for hire on boardwalks as a faster way to take in the sites.
Folding bikes are the bikes you see that fold down into small suitcase sized squares, allowing you to take them on public transport, or store them safely in your office if you don’t have access to a safe storage facility.
E-bikes have motors that you can use to give yourself a little bit of extra boost when it comes to tackling big hills. Or you can just use the motor for general propulsion if serious pedalling is not an option for you for whatever reason.
*Fixed Gear Bikes
Also called Fixies, Fixed gear bikes basically don’t have gears, so you can’t lessen the load when it comes to climbing hills; you may have had a bike like this as a kid. They may have a freewheel, which will allow you to coast down hills, but others do not, and so you have to keep your feet moving on the pedals the whole time. While there are many fans of this model, they are not a great choice for beginners.
Once you have settled on a style of bike based on where and how you will be using it, it is important to get the right size. Aside from the style of bike, this is probably the one factor that makes the biggest difference to how easy and comfortable it is to use your bike. Too small, and you will find your pedalling very difficult and energy consuming. Too big, and the bike becomes difficult to manoeuvre, mount and dismount.
You can generally determine the size of bike that you need based on your height.
4’11” - 5’3”
13" - 15”
5’3” - 5’7”
15" - 16”
5’7” - 5’11”
16" - 17”
6’0” - 6’2”
17" - 19”
6’2” - 6’4”
19" - 21”
While useful, this general size guide does not take into account the style of the bike frame. This can make a difference to the size of the bike that you need.
For a more accurate measurement, you will need your leg inseam measurement. This is the distance from your crotch to the ground. You can then use this measurement, in centimetres, to calculate the size of bike you need, depending on style, also in centimetres.
leg inseam x 0.66
leg inseam x 0.7
leg inseam x 0.685
When testing out your bike, also remember that seat height (which is generally adjustable) for comfortable peddling is not the only consideration when it comes to size. The distance and width of the handlebars is also incredibly important. Handlebars need to be at the right distance for you to rest your hand comfortably and manoeuvre easily.
Modern bikes seem to have hundreds of additional features to consider. Bike fanatics will tell you that these are all highly important. But the list can seem like gibberish to the uninitiated.
Once you have chosen your style of bike, it will probably come with all the features that you need as a beginner cycler and there isn’t much reason to make changes. But here is what you need to know about all the main features of a bike.
Frame Material and Weight
Basically, the lighter your bike is, the faster it will go, but also, the more easily it will break. Most of the weight of the bike is in the frame and the wheels. So, what your bike’s frame is made from matters.
Bikes frames are generally made from Aluminium, Steel or Carbon Fiber. Aluminium frames are light. However, they don’t do anything to help absorb any shocks that might run through the bike as you hit bumps on the road. Steel is stronger and more absorbing. But it is heavier, so it can eat your speed and be harder to manoeuvre. Carbon Fiber mixes the best of both Aluminium and Steel, but is more expensive.
In general, if you don’t want to pay for Carbon Fiber, go for Aluminium for road bikes and Steel for mountain bikes.
The design of your handlebars will make a big difference to how comfortable your ride is. Probably the best for beginner riders is a flat bar. This is pretty much a straight handlebar a bit higher up than the saddle. It is comfortable in terms of allowing you to sit upright while cycling with minimal strain on your hands and wrists.
However, if you are looking for speed with a road bike, you might prefer a drop bar Here the handlebars are located lower down than the saddle. This forces you to hunch over the front of the bike. This position is more aerodynamic, but can take some getting used to in terms of comfort. An alternative is a Mustache bar, which works to the same principle, but it isn’t as low, so it is more comfortable.
Other options include a rise bar, which is common on mountain bikes, and allows you to sit further back in the saddle so that you have better vision in front.
Twenty years ago, a ten-speed bike was considered versatile. Today, a 21-speed bike is considered pretty standard, and you can also get much higher variations. Unless you plan on conquering very big hills on a daily basis (which can be a thing depending on where you live), a standard 21-speed bike is probably all you need. Anything else is icing on the cake, and not really worth paying extra for.
Single speed bikes only have one gear. They aren’t recommended if you aren’t particularly fit, or you have a lot of hills to tackle.
You only really need to worry about suspension if you are investing in a Mountain Bike. As a general rule, Road Bikes don’t have suspension! Any little features designed to give more suspension on a Road bike, or even a Hybrid, will probably have very little genuine impact on your riding experience. Unless you are a serious Mountain biker, the standard suspension that comes with most Mountain bikes is probably all you need to absorb the bumps and jumps.
Most bikes will come with rim-style brakes. These are hand operated, and push pads against the wheels to kill your speed. These are reliable, and pretty convenient and affordable when it comes to replacement. However, over time they will wear out themselves, and also wear out the rim of the bike, which will eventually need to be replaced.
If you are looking at a higher end bike, it may feature disc brakes. These work in pretty much the same way but are more powerful and won’t damage your bike’s rims. While these are great brakes, they are more than most riders need and aren’t worth paying more for.
Some bikes, in particular Fixies, will also have back pedal brakes where you simply pedal backwards to kill your speed. But unless you are buying a Fixie, this probably isn’t what you need.
Other Things You Will Need
Don’t forget that when you get your bike, there are a variety of other things that you will need as well (and should budget for). These include a helmet, cycling gloves, lights, and mudguards. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that mudguards are an optional expense. If you don’t want to end up with a muddy wet line on your back even in the slightest rain, you need mudguards.
Also consider how you are going to carry your gear with you. Do you plan to carry everything in a backpack? This can be fine, but if you live somewhere that it is hot, that bag can quickly become a sweaty mess. Consider whether you need a basket, or a structure for hanging saddle bags.
Finally, don’t forget your lock! Aside from the expense of having to replace your bike, it can also be a real pain to find yourself stranded without your wheels.
Well now you should know everything you need to select the right bike for you basic riding needs. The most important thing to consider is how and where you are going to be using your bike. Choose a road bike, mountain bike, hybrid or specialist bike to meet that need. Then it is a matter of getting the right size for a comfortable and safe ride.
Once you have chosen the right type of bike, it will probably come with all the features that you need. Also, unless you are a serious cycler, don’t be convinced to pay for additional features, like an extra five speeds.
However, do save money in your budget for other essentials. Don’t forget to get your helmet, lights, lock and so forth.