Buying your first bike

Picking the best bike to suit you can be a tricky task. Whether you want to get to work, get fit or just explore the countryside, the bicycle is the perfect tool to do that, but there are a confusingly huge — and growing — number of different types to choose from.

So, if you are asking yourself “which bike should I buy?” then read on as we guide you through the styles of bike on offer today to help you find the best one for your needs.

It’s important to have a think about what you want to do with your bike and where you’ll be going because the best bike for you totally depends on this.

Whether you want to commute to work, get muddy thrills in the countryside or go on long road rides, there’s a bike that can do that.

Your choice of bike will depend on your own tastes too, and the kind of distance and terrain you want to ride. There are many different types of cycling and a multitude of bikes that will let you achieve them.

Whether you’re an urban commuter, a lightning-quick road racer, a trail centre hero, downhill nutter, fixed-wheel fanatic, gravel path explorer or something else, there’s a suitable bike out there for you.

Road bikes: best for riding fast on tarmac

As the name suggests, these bikes are all about riding on surfaced roads — often as fast as possible. They’ve got lightweight frames and skinny tyres designed to help you achieve maximum speed for minimum effort.

They have dropped handlebars (i.e. ones that loop down and backwards) that allow you to get into an efficient and aerodynamic riding position and gearing that’s all about maximum speed.

Under the guise of slightly more relaxed ‘endurance’ bikes, they’ll let you embark on big-mile rides with friends, but also lend themselves very well to commuting thanks to their ability to cover ground quickly.

However, the speed-focused riding position can be uncomfortable for some riders and the lightweight wheels and tyres are susceptible to damage from kerbs and potholes.

Many dedicated road bikes, especially ones at the racier end of the spectrum, will also lack the ability to carry luggage — so if you need to lug a hefty load, a pure-bred road bike might not be ideal.

Pros: Quick, efficient and fun

Cons: Easier to damage, less comfortable for casual riders, popular with bike thieves

Mountain bikes: best for rough terrain

Made to take on the most rugged off-road terrain nature can offer, mountain bikes are built tough with aggressive knobbly tyres designed to find grip on almost any surface.

They also have powerful brakes that use motorcycle-style discs, and more expensive machines will have suspension at both ends for better control over rough ground. The gearing is designed to get you up and down steep terrain, with a wide range to take on the varying gradients.

Even if you don’t plan to tackle mountain ranges, mountain bikes can be a good choice for general leisure riding thanks to their more relaxed riding position, though you’ll want to change the knobbly tyres for some slicks otherwise it’ll be very hard work on tarmac.

While suspension is great for pure off-road riding, it means extra weight, costs more and can be inefficient, so it’s best avoided if you plan to spend most of your time on-road.

If you fancy heading into the back of beyond, pushing your limits and exploring the path less travelled, then check out our buyer’s guide to the best mountain bikes.

Pros: Great brakes, upright position, tough, versatile

Cons: Heavy, slow on tarmac, eye-catching to thieves

Hybrid bike: best for casual riders and short commutes

Halfway between a road bike and a mountain bike, a hybrid takes the comfy riding position of a mountain bike and pairs it with a lighter frame and fast rolling wheels more like those of a road bike.

They’re great if you need to cover on-road distance but don’t want to contort yourself into an uncomfortable riding position. Sitting in a more upright position may be less aerodynamically efficient but it also allows you to look further ahead, a huge boon in heavy urban traffic.

If you want to go quickly on good roads but you prefer a more upright position, or don’t get on with drop handlebars, this is the way to go. The only major downside, as mentioned above, with a flat-bar bike is that you’re not as aerodynamic as you are on a race bike and therefore you’re not quite as quick.

Hybrid bikes often use more powerful disc brakes that give more consistent performance in wet weather, though at a slight weight penalty. They’re also equipped with plenty of mounts that allow you to carry more luggage, such as specialist pannier bags.

If you need to bridge the gap between urban performance and confident handling, then our guide to the best hybrid bikes will give you all the information you need to know.

Pros: Fairly quick, versatile, upright

Cons: Typically heavier than road bikes, and not as fast

Touring bike: best for carrying luggage and travelling far

While a hybrid bike is best suited to the city, a touring bike is designed to take on everything from a commute to a continent-crossing adventure. They tend to have the same fast rolling 700c wheels as road and hybrid bikes, but with fatter tyres that allow you to take on a mixture of terrain in comfort.

The more relaxed riding position and more stable shape means that you can take on almost anything, whether it be a mountain pass when fully loaded with supplies or a quick spin to your job.

If you need a highly versatile all-rounder then you should take a look at our guide to the best touring bikes, whether you’re going to familiar places or the route less travelled.

Pros: Tough, lots of load-carrying capacity, still fairly quick

Cons: Not quite race-bike quick

Cyclocross / gravel / adventure / all-road / bikepacking bikes: best if you’re in a hurry on bad roads

Overlapping with the touring category, this vague and ill-defined category of bike is quickly becoming very popular and fashionable, and it’s easy to see why — they combine road bike looks and speed with loads of frame clearance for fitting fat, knobbly tyres of 35mm or more that can get you across almost any terrain, including terrible tarmac, gloopy mud, bridleways, gravel paths and more.

You can find adventure bikes made from steel, aluminium, carbon and titanium, and at a range of prices from the affordable to the aspirational. Many will include eyelets for fitting mudguards and pannier racks, disc brakes (hydraulic if you’re lucky) for better braking, and more relaxed geometry than a road bike to deliver better handling on a range of surfaces.

They’re also a great bet for road riding in winter, just fit some puncture-resistant tyres and you’re good to go.

Adventure bikes that take luggage (typically frame bags, saddle bags and bar bags) are used for bikepacking, which is essentially touring, but with better fashion sense and hashtags.

Full on cyclocross bikes are similar in concept (fatter tyres, drop bars, discs in many cases), but they may not have fittings for mudguards or panniers and the geometry is typically more aggressive as they’re designed purely for racing.

Pros: Fast, comfortable, practical

Cons: Sometimes on the heavier side. Attractive to thieves

Fixed gear / singlespeed bike: best if you hate maintenance

Popular in the city, and the only option if you’re riding on a velodrome, the fixie (or “fixed wheel”, if you’re being traditional) is the ultimate in simplicity.

A true fixie has no freewheel, so you always have to pedal if you’re moving. That brings a particular degree of connection and control once you get used to it, but fixies aren’t the most beginner-friendly.

They’re lightning-fast in the hands of an accomplished rider and the lack of complexity means they require minimal maintenance. They’re great for confident commuters that don’t mind suffering if they live in a hilly location and want total control at all times, but it’s a high level of commitment for the casual cyclist.

Once you’ve got the hang of riding a fixie, they’re among the best bikes for commuting. This is what makes them popular with cycle couriers, who also like their reliability — a legal-minimum fixie with just a front brake has almost nothing on it to go wrong.

Pros: Light, simple, quick

Cons: Some skill required, hard when it’s hilly

Electric bike: best if you want a hand up the hills

With assistance from a powerful motor, electric or e-bikes are great if you’re a commuter who needs to arrive at work in a less sweaty state, or if you’re less confident about your fitness.

Laws vary from country to country and in the US can vary from state to state, but in the UK (apart from Northern Ireland) electric bikes limited to 25km/h / 15.5mph can be used on the road without a helmet or licence — they are bikes as far as the law is concerned, because you still need to pedal to activate the electric assistance (hence the term ‘pedelec’).

More powerful e-bikes (some with motorcycle-style throttles) are also available, but in some countries including the UK these are classed as mopeds or motorbikes and therefore need to conform to the same rules (insurance, helmets and so forth).

Our friends over at ebiketips published an excellent article on the steps involved in getting one of these so-called ‘speed pedelecs’ road legal in the UK. It’s fair to say the legislation has not kept up with the technology.

Most e-bikes are designed to be comfortable and easy to live with thanks to flat bars, mudguards and luggage capacity. There’s a significant price and weight premium over an equivalent regular bike for the battery, motor and control electronics. However, as the technology develops, both prices and weights are coming down.

The world of electric mountain bikes — also known as e-MTBs — is also a rapidly expanding one, allowing riders who might have needed to swear off their dirt riding activities to keep enjoying the countryside for longer than they might have imagined.

There are also a handful of drop-bar e-road bikes on the market, such as the Giant Road-E+, but this remains a fairly small niche.

Pros: Easy to ride, comfortable, fun

Cons: Regular recharging, heavier and significantly more expensive than an equivalent standard bike

Folding bikes: best if you’re short on space / best for public transport

If you need to combine a bit of riding with urban portability, then there’s nothing better than a folding bike. They’re best suited to short rides — especially where storage space at either end is scarce — and their portability means they’re ideal when you might have to hop onto a train or a bus to get where you’re going.

That means that folding bikes are phenomenally popular among big-city commuters. The most compact ones will fit under your desk and they’re easy to carry as well.

A folder won’t ride like a conventional bike because of the necessary compromises, but the best modern folders are surprisingly capable.

Pros: Massively convenient to store, can be snuck onto trains, small wheels are quick to accelerate

Cons: Heavier and slower than a big-wheeled bike and not as stable or pothole-proof

Kids’ bikes: best for… kids!

The first thing to keep in mind is that children’s needs vary wildly depending on their age and ability. Balance bikes are where it’s at for the pre-school crowd, then by the time they progress to 16-inch wheels they’ll (hopefully) be pedalling away without stabilisers before very long.

Move up a notch to 20-inch wheels and gears start to make an appearance, then by the time they’re nine and riding 24-inch wheels they’ll basically be riding smaller versions of adult bikes — disc brakes, suspension and all.