Which Wheels to Buy?

Bike models come in a wide range of styles: mountain, road, city, touring, cruisers, electric assist—although manufacturers often mix and match characteristics of several types to create new models.

To narrow your choices, think about what you expect to do with your bike. Will you run errands, commute, work out, compete? How often will you ride? Every day, weekends only, hardly ever? What kind of surface will you roll on? Smooth roads, potholed city streets, off-road trails? How hilly will the terrain be? Do you have a need for speed?

In general, the more you plan to ride and compete, the more you’ll shell out for your bike.

The brief descriptions of bike types below might help, but you’ll need to acquire hands-on experience to appreciate the differences by visiting shops, trying friends’ wheels, or renting bikes.

Mountain Bikes

Mountain bikes boast wide high-traction tires; flat or riser handlebars; sturdy frames; and at least 18—and possibly 27 or more—gear ratios extending into very low ranges. This combo yields bikes that can be ridden off-road on rugged up-and-down terrain that also let you sit in a comfortable, upright position on smooth roadways.

Road Bikes

Road bikes have tires that are often less than an inch wide and pumped to a very high pressure, drop (“ram’s horn”) handlebars, ultra-lightweight construction, narrow seats, and a wide range of gear ratio combinations. Built for high speed and crisp handling, road bikes cover a lot of ground fast on commutes, on recreational day rides, or in competition.

A road bike requires careful tuning and maintenance; expensive versions are extremely high-tech precision machines. For some riders, the bent-over riding position, seat configuration, frame design, and narrow tires make for an extremely uncomfortable ride. Plus, the riding position and quick steering response discourage casual sightseeing, and the narrow tires and lightweight precision construction aren’t suitable for rough terrain.

City Bikes

Most city bikes are less rugged versions of mountain bikes, with smoother, narrower tires for easier pedaling on road surfaces. Like mountain bikes, city bikes offer an upright riding position and have shock-absorbent construction—making them preferable to commuters and daytrippers. But city bikes can’t
be pedaled as efficiently as road bikes.

Touring Bikes

Touring bikes look a lot like road bikes, but are designed for longer trips. Compared to road bikes, the tires are wider, the tubes to which handlebars and seat are attached are less upright, the distance between seat and handlebars is shorter, and the distance between front and back wheels is longer.

These differences produce a comfier, more stable ride than a road bike via a more upright riding position and easier steering. Touring bikes have different gear ratios than road bikes, with more gears at the low end for uphill rides. Within the touring category, you are likely to find a single “compromise” bike suitable for reasonably high-speed daytrips and commutes, but also serviceable for multiday treks with heavy packs—most touring bikes are equipped to add a range of racks for carrying duffel bags, camping equipment, coolers, etc. If you’re considering a touring bike, also consider city bike options.

Cruisers/Urban Bikes

At the opposite extreme from road bikes are cruisers or urban bikes. Direct descendants of 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s models, cruisers have fat tires, upright handlebars, large seats, and, often, coaster brakes (applied by pushing down on the back pedal). Cruisers are ideal for comfortable, leisurely riding and sightseeing on level terrain. They are simply constructed, easy to maintain, and durable, but aren’t very good for climbing hills or traveling quickly.

Hybrid Designs

“Hybrid” or “cross” bikes borrow some features from road bike designs (e.g., drop handlebars, narrower tires) and other features from mountain bikes (e.g., rugged frame, high pedal clearance).

Other Designs

You’ll find plenty of other kinds of bikes, too, including spendy electric-assist models (a motor helps you make it up hills or complete longer rides). Other options include three-speed bikes and “BMX” and freestyle/trick bikes popular with kids. And in the mountain bike world, some styles are designed for cross-country, downhill, and extreme riding. Fixed-gear bikes (aka track bikes) similar to road bikes but with only one gear combination are options if you want a simple design. Plus, the bike industry is always shifting gears and coming out with new options.

Materials and Features

After you zoom in on what kind of bike you want, you’ll be faced with various construction materials and features that can impact performance, comfort, and durability. The best way to get a feel for what’s available is to visit several bike shops, but here are a few major considerations:

Frame

The central—and usually most expensive—component of a bike is its frame. Frames should be lightweight, durable, and rigid, and should dampen vibration from road or trail. Depending on what they’re made of and how they’re made, there is tremendous variation in frame quality from bike to bike.

The least-expensive bicycles—generally sold in discount stores and other outlets that don’t specialize in bikes—are made of steel. They tend to be very heavy, around 35 to 45 pounds, but cheap, sometimes under $100.

Many lower-middle and mid-priced bikes are made with aluminum frames. Although not as strong as steel, aluminum is much lighter.

Titanium is also available in some high-end road and mountain bike models. Like aluminum, titanium frames are lighter than steel but just as strong. And titanium flexes so well while maintaining its shape that it can be incorporated into designs that allow the metal itself to act as a shock absorber. And while titanium frames are also generally more durable than aluminum frames, these benefits come with a high price tag.

The ultimate frame material is carbon fiber, which is made from strands of light, strong metal fibers bound together with resin. This creates very tough, very light, very expensive bike frames.

Which frame to choose? Among the different materials, there is no outright winner. Extremely high-quality frames can be made from carbon fiber, titanium, aluminum, and even high-quality steel. The keys to making the best choice are comparing the bike’s cost and quality against your riding preferences.

Rims and Tires

After the frame, wheels are a bike’s most important components. They can be made of many types of metals, with similar tradeoffs between weight, strength, performance, and price.

Tires should let you expend as little energy as possible as you pedal. The less tire surface meeting the road, the less friction. Hard tires with slick treads require less energy than soft tires with “nubby” treads. This means you’ll travel fastest with the least effort on narrow, hard, low-tread tires. However, these skinny models are the least comfortable, least durable, and least protective of rims, and provide the least traction on rough terrain.

The most expensive tires are very light and have high pressure ratings. This lets you accelerate relatively easily because the tire has low rotating mass and loses relatively little energy in flexing the sidewalls of the tire. Still, they’re more easily punctured and provide less traction and rougher rides over bumpy terrain than heavier tires.

Gears

To limit their fatigue and physical stress, cyclists try to maintain a constant pedaling rate. This is best accomplished with multi-geared models instead of one- or three-speed bikes. You’ll find it easier to pedal in lower gears and harder to pedal with higher gears, but it’s the range of gears that will help you adjust to terrain and achieve higher speeds. So as you shop, consider what you’ll be using your wheels for, and then make sure your new bike has the gears to match.

Other Features

There are many other features to look for on bikes: gel-padded seats for comfort; quick-release levers (good for quick adjustment with changing terrain on off-road bikes); pedals with toe-clips or clipless attachment mechanisms to increase pedaling efficiency; handlebar width and type. You can learn more about what to look for by visiting cycling websites, talking with other cyclists, and hitting the bike store for advice and in-person snooping.