Bike Types Explained: A Handy Reference Guide

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Ben Jones

Cycling Basics, Other

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We’ve seen that bikes are all based on a broadly similar design.

They’ve been around for nearly a hundred years and, hey, if they ain’t broke, why try and fix them?

But, whilst bikes typically have a similar set of parts, they can vary greatly in terms of the exact specification of those parts (bicycle tires, as one example, can vary between 19mm/less than an inch to 4.8″!)

And the reason for these differences is that bikes have evolved, based on what they’re being used of and where they’re ridden, and this has resulted in a diverse, exciting… and confusing range of modern bike types.

We’re going to take a look at the most common types of bike that you’ll see in stores. As we go through them, we’ll describe what these bikes look like, how they differ from other bikes, and what they’re typically used for.

Pros and Cons of each bike type (Summary)

Bike TypeProsCons
Road BikesLightweight, aerodynamic, fast on paved roadsNot suitable for rough terrains
Mountain BikesDurable, great traction, suspension for rough terrainsHeavier, not as fast on paved roads
Touring BikesDesigned for long distances, sturdy, can carry gearHeavier, not as fast as pure road bikes
Hybrid BikesVersatile, good for both commuting and light trailsJack of all trades, master of none
Commuter BikesDurable, equipped for daily use, low maintenanceMight be heavier due to accessories
Cruiser BikesComfortable, great for leisurely ridesNot designed for speed or rough terrains
BMX BikesStrong, designed for stunts and short racesNot suitable for long rides
Folding BikesPortable, easy storage, good for commuting and travelingMight compromise on ride quality
Electric BikesMotor assistance, versatile, reduces effortHeavier, needs recharging, more expensive
Gravel BikesVersatile for mixed terrains, good for adventuresNot as efficient as road bikes on paved roads
Tandem BikesCooperative cycling, fun for pairsRequires coordination, harder to store and maneuver
Recumbent BikesComfortable, reduced wind resistanceLess visible in traffic, bulkier
Cargo BikesCan carry heavy loads or passengers, great for urban deliveriesBulky, can be heavy and harder to maneuver
Adult TricyclesStable, great for those with balance issues, often has storage optionsNot as fast, bulkier, harder to maneuver in tight spaces
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Road Bikes

  • Designed for speed and efficiency on paved roads
  • Lightweight frames and thin tires
  • Drop handlebars for aerodynamic positioning
  • Varieties: Aero, Endurance, Touring, and Time-Trial

Let’s start off by taking a look at one of the most common bike types that you’ll typically see on the roads: the road bike.

A road bike is a bicycle that is designed to go fast on smooth paved surfaces.

Back in the day, these bikes were usually called “racers”. Both names feel appropriate as you tend to race on roads with these bikes. That said, if you refer to them as racers these days, you might reveal a little more about your age than you really want.

So, road bikes. What are they?

Road bikes all have lightweight, aerodynamic frames, with thin tires (generally with minimal tread), and drop handlebars.

These all combine into a package that moves fast as it’s both light and has minimal wind resistance.

It’s not only the bike that’s aerodynamic. The geometry of the frame puts the rider into a position that minimises their wind resistance too (i.e. forward-leaning).

It’s worth bearing in mind that this more “aggressive” frame shape is not necessarily to everyone’s taste.

It can put more stress on the hands and wrists – tricky for those suffering from arthritis – and also be uncomfortable if you’re carrying a little extra luggage on your waistline.

What are road bikes good for? Well, clearly, they’re great for going fast on roads.

They’re not a one-trick-pony though.

As well as going fast, the anatomy of a road bike also means that they’re handy for travelling longer distances, giving fast acceleration, and for climbing steep hills. All the result of the lighter bike weight.

Road bikes can vary considerably in price and it may not be immediately obvious why this is the case.

So, why are road bikes so expensive?

Well, it all boils down to the primary purpose of road bikes (i.e. speed).

The lighter the bike, the faster it can go.

How do you make a bike lighter?

With more specialist components such as carbon frames, 1x drivetrains, and ceramic wheel bearings.

These can cut bike weight (sometimes quite drastically) but will also add considerably to the price tag of a road bike.

I often find that passing on the second helpings at dinnertime can be much more cost effective than buying even more lightweight components for my bike!

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Mountain Bikes

  • Built for rugged trails and off-road terrain
  • Wide, knobby tires for grip
  • Suspension systems to absorb shocks
  • Varieties: Hardtail, Full-suspension, Cross-Country, Trail, Downhill

The polar opposite of road bikes, mountain bikes (or MTBs) are designed for off-road trail riding.

Broadly speaking, there are two distinct types of mountain bike:

  • Hardtail mountain bikes
  • Full-suspension mountain bikes

The difference between the two styles of MTB is with the suspension.

Much like a car, mountain bikes have suspension to soak up the lumps and bumps in the terrain, giving a smoother ride for the mountain biker.

Hardtail MTBs have suspension on the front forks – this can be a real bonus for reducing vibration to the hands, wrists and forearms when trail riding.

Full-suspension mountain bikes have front suspension forks too and they also have suspension on the back wheel.

Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

Full-suspension gives the option for a rider to stay in the saddle throughout a trail. Without having their butts shaken to pieces.

This allows a greater degree of control of the bike and also helps to keep the center of gravity lower than if a rider was standing on the pedals.

The gnarlier and steeper a trail, the more likely that the riders will be on full-suspension bikes.

But, good quality rear suspension can be expensive and add considerably to the bike weight – making it more tiring to cycle on.

So, for smoother trails it can be a better idea to opt for a lighter and cheaper hardtail MTB instead.

Road bike vs mountain bike: what’s the difference?

Stand a road bike next to a mountain bike and, whilst there are obvious similarities (a frame, two wheels and a saddle), there are some important differences too.

Overall, the frame and components of a mountain bike will be beefier than a road bike. This is to cope with the greater stresses that trail riding exerts on a bike.

That said, weight is still an important factor and so MTB frames are usually made from aluminum too.

The geometry of the bike will be much more upright than a road bike. This gives better control, better visibility, and stops riders from going over the handlebars on steep descents.

Tires used on mountain bikes are much thicker and with deeper, more rugged tread patterns for traction on slippery surfaces, such as loose stones and mud.

The final difference is the handlebars which are straight and wider than road bike bars. This keeps the rider more upright and gives better cornering on tight and twisty trails.

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Touring Bikes

  • Designed for long-distance travel and carrying gear
  • Sturdy frames with mounts for pannier racks and multiple water bottles
  • Wider tires for stability under load and comfort over varied terrains
  • Drop handlebars with multiple hand positions to reduce fatigue
  • Geared for climbing with heavy loads

Touring bikes are a based on a road bike design, albeit with a number of alterations that can be difficult to spot with a casual glance.

Slim frame tubing, large wheels with narrow(ish) tires, and normally drop handlebars are common to both bike types.

Look under the hood though and you’ll see some critical differences.

Touring bikes are usually used by riders to cover large distances whilst carrying plenty of gear.

Cycling day after day requires a bike that is more comfortable than a pure road bike. So, you’ll see modifications such as:

  • Steel frames rather than aluminum (still light but dampens road vibration better)
  • More relaxed geometry (speed is not key, it’s all about the journey after all!)
  • Handlebars with multiple hand positions so you can keep switching to reduce fatigue (these are sometimes known as ‘butterfly bars’)

There can be significant amounts of bulky and heavy gear to haul – think: sleeping bags, pads, and tents) – and this all needs to be stashed somewhere.

One of the usual spots is over the rear wheel with a pannier rack and bags. This requires fixing eyelets on the frame for the rack and a slightly longer wheelbase to avoid knocking your heels against the bags with every pedal turn.

As well as pannier fixing points there will also be braze-ons elsewhere for extra water bottles, front pannier racks and more.

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Hybrid Bikes

  • Combines features of road and mountain bikes
  • Versatile for both city commuting and light trail riding
  • Comfortable seating position

Hybrid bikes occupy the broad middle ground between speedy road bikes and rugged mountain bikes.

You’ll often see them referred to as regular bikes, comfort bikes, dual sport bikes, cross bikes.

They are primarily designed for short distance, comfortable rides.

Think park rides with the kids and trips to the grocery store for a couple of essentials.

Bike frames will be upright and relaxed.

Handlebars will be flat.

Tires will be fairly wide with a tread pattern that works for a range of surfaces.

Some have front suspension, some don’t (depending on the terrain).

There won’t be as much concern over having the lightest components or the biggest gear range. But, this will also be reflected in the price as hybrids are normally at the other end of the spectrum from the I’ll-have-to-re-mortgage-the-house-to-afford-that bikes.

Having said all that, you will also see high-end hybrid bikes.

These are closer to road bikes – with slim, light frames, narrow tires on large wheel rims and flat handlebars.

Known as fitness bikes, these can come with a higher price tag than a typical hybrid, but are a great alternative if you find road bikes uncomfortable to ride on.

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Commuter Bikes

  • Designed for daily commuting and city travel
  • Durable and equipped with racks, fenders, and lights
  • Often have internal hub gears for low maintenance

Commuter bikes, or city bikes, are really a sub-set of hybrid bikes with a number of modifications.

The bikes are usually light, with a geometry that is upright and relaxed, making it easy to see over traffic (and for drivers to see you).

Commuters tend to cycle to work in all weathers, so these bikes generally come with fenders (or fixings for them) and often lights for night-time riding.

They may have an integrated rear rack (or front basket) to allow easy carrying of work essentials (lunch, travel mug, oh and the laptop).

Many commuter bikes will also have an accessory not seen on most other bikes – the chainguard.

Common on most bikes back-in-the-day, this has fallen out of fashion. For commuters, however, this is an essential for keeping oily chains away from pant legs.

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Cruiser Bikes

  • Made for casual, comfortable rides
  • Wide tires and upright seating position
  • Often used for leisurely rides on flat terrains like beaches

Cruiser bikes are for those times when you want to go cycling in a bathing costume and flip flops, with a cooler of ice cold drinks, for a day at the beach.

It’s no surprise that they’re also known as ‘beach cruisers’.

If road bikes are at one end of the spectrum in terms of forward-leaning, aggressive riding position… cruisers are right at the other end.

Frame geometry is very, very relaxed.

Handlebars are often swept right back.

Balloon tires (very wide tires) are common.

And, who needs gears when you’re pedaling slowly down to the ocean?

Cruisers aren’t a great option for any long-distance cycling or rugged trails, and you won’t go fast on one either.

But cruisers are really about getting to the beach in style and, in that regard, they’re the perfect tool for the job.

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BMX Bikes

  • Compact frames for stunts, jumps, and short races
  • Strong frames and single gear
  • Varieties: Freestyle, Racing, and Dirt Jumping

Ever wondered what BMX stands for?

Bicycle Motocross.

Which explains what this bike is primarily used for – jumps, tricks, and other stunts.

BMX frames are typically much smaller and sturdier than regular bikes and with saddles that are far lower. That all helps the bike from getting in the way when you, or it, are spinning or flipping through the air.

Wheels tend to be much smaller in diameter (20″ is the normal) and tires that are wide with knobbly treads.

Simplification is the key and so you won’t find gears on BMX bikes.

Great for stunts and short-distance dirt track racing, BMXs are not a great option for longer cycles.

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Folding Bikes

  • Designed for portability and easy storage
  • Compact when folded, making them ideal for commuting and traveling
  • Varying gear options available

As well as commuter bikes discussed earlier, another great option for trips to the workplace are folding bikes.

These bikes fold, often with a hinge in the frame, and this allows them to be easily transported on trains and stashed under desks.

They’re designed for commuting that typically includes some form of motorized transport too – for example, getting the train into the city and cycling the last mile or so from the station to the office.

This versatility also means that they can be perfect for RV owners, sailors and pilots who need an easy way to get around that can be folded and stored in a camper/boat/plane when not needed.

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Electric Bikes (E-bikes)

  • Bicycles with an integrated electric motor for assistance
  • Can be used for commuting, mountain biking, or touring
  • Varieties: Pedal-Assist and Throttle-Based

One of the most exciting developments in cycling in the last couple decades, e-bikes are the new kids on the block and definitely here to stay.

Ebikes are essentially a regular bicycle with a battery, motor and the controls to operate them.

The bikes come in two broad categories: pedal-assist and throttle.

Pedal-assist bikes work by giving some extra oomph to help out whilst you’re pedaling. Stop pedaling and the motor stops too. Start pedaling and the motor kicks in again.

Throttle e-bikes work with a control on the handlebars – essentially a gas pedal – push or twist the control and the e-bike speeds up. Ease back and the bike motor gives less power.

Both e-bike types can be a fantastic option when you’re trying to bike longer distances or conquer steeper hills. They’re also seeing huge potential for food delivery riders.

You’ll actually see electric bikes appearing in most other categories of bike on this page these days.

Electric mountain bikes to make tough ascents easier.

Electric commuter bikes so you don’t get sweaty on the way to work.

Electric trikes for seniors to make keeping up with the grandkids a breeze.

E-bikes are really taking off right now as batteries and motors improve and retail prices tumble.

Electric bike maintenance costs can be surpisingly low.

If you haven’t considered an ebike before now, it might be time to take a closer look.

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Gravel Bikes

  • Versatile bikes designed for mixed terrains
  • Can handle both paved roads and dirt trails
  • Drop handlebars with wider tire clearance

Gravel bikes, also known as cyclocross bikes, are the lovechild of road bikes and mountain bikes.

Road bike geometry with a sturdier frame.

Drop handlebars (though often with a flare to the drops that gives better control on tight turns).

Large road bike wheel rims shod with tires that have wider more grippy treads.

The natural home of gravel bikes is on fire tracks and dirt roads with smooth, but loose, surfaces.

On trails like that, a road bike would fall to bits and suffer multiple punctures in the first hundred yards.

A heavy full-suspension mountain bike is a little overkill and would be very sluggish.

But, a gravel bike would be in its element.

Tandem Bikes

  • Designed for two riders
  • One rider steers while both can pedal
  • Great for cooperative cycling and sightseeing

Don’t tell my parents, but about the only thing I remember from my early years at school is singing the song “Daisy Bell” with my classmates.

Often known as “A Bicycle Built For Two”, the lyrics of the song go something like this:

"Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do
I'm half crazy all for the love of you
It won't be a stylish marriage
I can't afford a carriage
But you'll look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two"

At which point we would all shriek, “TANDEM!!”

Ah, those were the days.

A tandem then is a bike that’s built for two riders.

Both riders pedal, but only the rider at the front steers.

They can be a very sociable way to travel as it’s much easier to chat to your fellow tandem rider as you watch the world go by.

Tandems can also move at a surprisingly fast speed with two people pedaling.

Recumbent Bikes

  • Riders sit in a laid-back reclining position
  • Offers more comfort and reduces wind resistance
  • Varieties: Road and Touring

Recumbent bikes put the rider in a much different position to a regular bike.

Instead of an upright, or forward-leaning position, recumbent bike riders will travel feet first in reclined and sometimes nearly horizontal position.

There are a number of advantages to this.

Because of the flat position, recumbent bikes are incredibly aerodynamic allowing much higher speeds to be achieved.

The position also takes all the rider’s weight off their hands and wrists and this can be a real bonus if you suffer from wrist pain or arthritis.

Saddles on a recumbent are very different too. Unlike a regular bike saddle, which can be very narrow, a recumbent seat is more like a bucket seat, supporting the entire way from butt to shoulders.

I’m a big fan of recumbent bikes. But they’re not without their disadvantages.

Because of the shape of the bike frame, the rider is generally positioned much closer to the ground.

This helps with wind resistance on the open road, sure, but on crowded urban streets, it can be hard to see upcoming obstacles, or give much visibility to car drivers.

Cargo Bikes

  • Designed to carry heavy loads or multiple passengers
  • Extended frames or added platforms/racks
  • Ideal for urban deliveries or family rides

Cargo bikes have been a common sight in many European countries for some time and are now becoming popular in the US as more people look to reduce their car usage.

Of course, the problem with trying to limit our dependency on cars is that they’re still very, very useful for grocery shopping and school runs.

Cargo bikes are a great alternative, typically with huge storage racks front and/or back for kids or packets of cereal.

The trouble is that all this extra weight is kinda…weighty.

But, you remember a little earlier we mentioned electric bikes?

Well, it turns out that if you combine an electric battery and motor with a cargo bike, you get to haul all that weight without breaking a sweat.

Adult Tricycles

  • Three-wheeled bicycles designed for stability and comfort
  • Often used by seniors or those with balance issues
  • Can come with cargo baskets or platforms
  • Upright seating position for a relaxed ride

Tricycles, or trikes, used to be seen as something that you graduated from by the age of about three years old.

It turns out though that three-wheeled bikes can be really beneficial for anyone with balance issues that prevent them from riding a two-wheeler.

As these bikes generally have a very relaxed, upright seating position (that doesn’t put stress on the wrists) they can also be a great option for riders with arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome.

Adult trikes can be fantastic for many folk and prove that the best ‘bicycle’ might in fact be one with three wheels, not two.

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