Given the investment required and wealth of options, choosing the right bike can be overwhelming. Having just made the jump from a nine year old, aluminum mountain bike to a carbon beauty with hydraulic disc brakes, I know firsthand how easy it is to get caught up in minutia of wheel size, suspension, componentry and even handlebar width. But in the interest of making the process of how to choose a bike less daunting, let’s start with the basics.
Where Do You Want to Ride?
The first step in how to choose a bike is to determine exactly where you want to ride. If you’re looking to go for a leisurely pedal on dirt paths or the rail trail, then a dual sport mountain bike is a good choice. Want to take it up a notch and conquer single-track? Consider either a cross country mountain bike or trail bike. And for the fearless freeriders out there who prefer to descend without climbing, a downhill mountain bike is the answer.
Or maybe you’ve been inspired by the Tour de France and want to take up road biking. Even within this category of bikes, there are still basic decisions that need to be made. Do you want to compete in road races or triathlons? Then a time trial bike (TT) will give you the aerodynamic advantage over your fellow racers. And if you just want to experience the fluidity of road biking, without aspirations of racing, then a standard road bike could be just the ticket. What about a commuter bike that doubles as a recreational bike for family rides on the weekend? A flatbar road bike is a great option.
Read on for specific bike recommendations from Todd Henneman, Jans Head Bike Buyer. It will take some of the mystery out of how to choose a bike.
Dual Sport Mountain Bikes – Nontechnical Riding
“Within both the road and mountain categories, there are bikes that teeter on the edge of cruiser bikes,” says Todd. The advantage of these machines is that unlike typical cruiser bikes, they offer more versatility thanks to improved gearing and suspension. For riders looking to ride on a dirt path, as well as running errands or hitting some mild single-track trails, the new dual sport mountain bikes are a good choice. Todd recommends the Trek DS which is a mountain bike with 29 inch wheels, commonly referred to as a 29er, that is not quite as rugged as a cross country mountain bike and has faster tires.
Flatbar Road Bikes – Commuting and Road Riding
Riders who like the lightweight frame, skinny tires and fast ride of a road bike, but prefer to sit a little more upright, should consider a flatbar road bike. As the name implies, this style of road bike uses a flat handlebar, like on a mountain bike, for a more comfortable, less aggressive riding position. “Flatbar road bikes make great commuter bikes,” recommends Todd, “They are also ideal for a recreational family ride on a bike path, but if you’re serious about doing a faster training ride and going out and riding hard, they’re great for that too.” Both the Trek FX series and Scott Metrix are Todd’s top picks in this category.
Hitting the Trails – Types of Mountain Bikes
Cross country bikes. Commonly referred to as XC bikes, cross country mountain bikes are great for riders looking for a big mix of climbing and descending on all different kinds of terrain. This type of bike is for mountain bikers looking for “the lightest bike possible for climbing, but with enough suspension for going downhill,” says Todd. He recommends either the Scott Spark or the Trek Superfly 100. Even hardcore mountain bike racers purchase XC bikes because they are lighter than trail bikes.
Trail bikes. Considered the “do it all machine,” trail bikes weigh a little more than XC bikes, but offer a more suspension travel and are better suited for more aggressive terrain. These bikes, such as the new Santa Cruz Solo and Trek Fuel EX, are generating a lot of buzz among younger riders who are on their bikes all day long because they’re more comfortable than XC bikes. Trail bikes are especially well suited to XC races, all day epic rides or Enduro races with more downhill sections and rugged terrain. That said, there is a fine line between trail bikes and XC bikes, so if you can’t decide between the two styles, be sure to demo both.
All mountain bikes. These longer travel bikes are designed for more aggressive riders who like to tackle jumps and drop offs when mountain biking. “With bigger shocks, beefier tires and hefty frames, the priority of an all mountain bike is how well it works descending,” says Todd. His favorite all mountain bikes are the Santa Cruz Bronson or the Scott Genius. These bikes are especially well suited to Enduro racing because of the timed element of the descents and the fact that they are also capable of climbing.
Freeride/downhill. The Trek Session and Scott Gambler are top choices for downhill (DH) bikers who prefer to use chairlift or shuttle access. These bikes are heavy and really can’t pedal uphill, but give DH riders the speed they want while careening down trails in full body armor. And DH mountain bikes excel on rugged terrain such as tree roots and rocks.
Road Bikes – Training, Triathlons & Time Trials
Standard road bike. If you’re not a road bike racer, or even if you are, you can’t go wrong in choosing a standard road bike. According to Todd, “From casual road racing, to training, to simply going for a road ride, these bikes can be used in a variety of situations.” He likes the Trek Madone for budding roadies and veterans alike.
TT bike. When you’re looking to ride in as aerodynamic a position as possible, either because you’re competing in a time trial portion of a road bike race or in a triathlon, time trial bikes (TT) are specifically designed to cheat the wind and be extremely fast. These bikes also work for training rides, as long as you’re riding by yourself or aren’t interested in drafting off fellow road bikers. Known for being lightweight, with less wind resistance, TT bikes are the bike of choice for serious triathletes. We like the Trek Speed Concept or Scott Plasma.
Whether you’re looking to purchase a mountain bike, road bike or something in between, it helps to do your research on how to choose a bike. Start with determining where you want to ride and narrow your choices down from there. And if you want some advice from bike experts, who have ridden every style of bike out there, the folks at Jans and White Pine Touring are happy to help. We’re more than a little obsessed with bikes. After all, it’s what we do.
Liz Yokubison, Senior Editor