Today’s bicycles come in a staggering variety of styles and configurations. As bikes have become more and more specialized for specific terrains and riding styles, it has become difficult for non-industry people to keep track of everything out there. Here’s a general overview to give you some understanding.

Road Bikes

When most people think of a road bike, they think of skinny tires and curved handlebars. That’s usually pretty accurate, but not all bikes that were built for pavement fit this description. Here are the main characteristics of a standard road bike:

  • • Lightweight frame tubing, usually aluminum or carbon

  • • Curved drop handlebar

  • • Integrated shifter and brake levers

  • • Steep, responsive frame geometry

  • • Narrow 700c wheels


Now here are some variations on the theme:

Time trial/triathlon bikes (TT or tri) are built purely for speed, with aerodynamic frame tubing and long aero handlebars with separate shift and brake levers that allow you to bend very far forward to reduce wind resistance.

Cyclocross bikes (CX or cross) are basically road bikes designed for off-road racing. Wider, knobbier tires and cantilever brakes or disc brakes make these bikes great for riding over grass, gravel and mud. Cross bikes often work well as commuter bikes, too.

Commuter bikes feature durable road tires and an abundance of utility. That means you have plenty of space and mounts for racks, lights, bags and baskets. Many commuter bikes also feature flat handlebars and disc brakes.

Fixed gear bikes, or “fixies,” have become popular with urbanites in recent years. They don’t have any gears, and you can’t coast. When the bike is moving the pedals are moving, and you stop or slow down with the pedals. The track bikes you see at the velodrome in the Olympics are also fixed gear bikes.

Cruiser bikes are for sitting back and relaxing, with super chill frame geometry and comfortable handlebars. The saddle on a cruiser is going to be nice and cushy, and they’ll usually offer just one or a few speeds to keep things nice and simple.

Touring bikes are similar to commuters in the fact that they give you plenty of possibilities for racks and accessories. They’re designed to be especially durable and comfortable over long rides, and a touring frame is usually made of strong steel to handle the additional cargo needed for a tour.

Mountain Bikes

Mountain bikes are designed for riding un-paved terrain. That covers a pretty wide spectrum, so there are lots of different mountain bikes available. Most people think of an all-mountain (AM) bike, which has these defining characteristics:

  • • Wide, knobby tires for better traction on trails

  • • Flat, wide handlebars, or bars with a slight rise

  • • Suspension -- always on the front, often on the rear, too – with medium to long travel (how far the shock compresses)

  • • Disc brakes for beefier stopping power

  • • Three common wheel sizes: 26 inches, 27.5 inches (or 650b), 29 inches

mountain bike

Here are the other types of mountain bikes with their major differences:

Cross-country/XC bikes are made for riding fast over mountain terrain that's not too brutal. These are basically racing mountain bikes with short to medium travel. XC bikes feature lightweight frames and are often hardtail, meaning there is no rear suspension.

Freeride bikes are designed for speed, catching air and landing hard. Have you seen those courses in the mountains with high, narrow boardwalks and big jumps? This bike lives for those kinds of things. On a freeride bike you’ll get full suspension with long travel. The frame and componentry will be heavy duty so the bike can take a beating. The gearing on a freeride bike is pretty limited, since it’s mostly for doing tricks or going downhill.

Downhill bikes, or DH bikes, are designed to go one-way. You ride up on a ski lift or truck, and then you bomb down the mountainside on this heavy-duty beast of a bike. It’s a full-suspension bike with tons of travel. Weight is not a concern on a downhill bike. The brakes and components will be pretty beefy, and the frame geometry and raked out fork keep the center of gravity more toward the rear wheel.

Dirt jumpers are mountain bikes designed for catching air and doing tricks. They’re different from freeride bikes in the fact that they’re often hardtail, and the travel on a dirt jumper is typically a lot shorter than a freeride bike. A dirt jumper’s frame geometry is specifically engineered for jumping.

Single-speed mountain bikes only have one speed (makes sense, huh). It's not a fixed gear, though. The rear hub has a freewheel, so you can pedal and coast. Single-speed riders like the simplicity. A single-speed mountain bike is usually hardtail or fully rigid (has no suspension). It’s good for relatively flat terrain.

Fat bike have really wide tires, hence the ‘fat’ moniker. The fat tires make these bikes great for hauling gear for your next camping (‘bikepacking’) trip. They’re also ideal for riding on snow. A fat bike frame is usually fully rigid.

Other Bikes

BMX bikes are small-frame bikes with 16-, 20- or 24-inch wheels. You won’t find any suspension or multiple speeds on a BMX. It’s a simple bike that’s designed for doing tricks at the local half-pipe or skate park.

bmx bike

Hybrid bikes give you a touch of both road and mountain bikes. You won’t take a hybrid up the trail, but you easily ride it down a country dirt road one day and ride it to work the next. Some hybrids have suspension forks on the front, and most feature tires that are crosses between road and mountain bike tires. Many commuter bikes are hybrid bikes.

Recumbent bikes are a totally different animal. Instead of sitting up on a saddle, the recumbent rider sits back in a seat with the pedals in front. With smaller wheels and a different steering mechanism, recumbents are good for some people who may have back problems or for people who just want something different.