Bikes are vehicles, not toys. You shouldn't be rushed into buying one. There are a lot of pre-purchase decisions to make before you find the bike that's just right for you.

Buying a Bike: the essentials

Comfort, practicality, lightness, price, durability, and other considerations have to be taken into account. Before you head for the bike shop use this guide to work out which features you

think you’ll need.

What do you intend to use the bike for? Will you be commuting to work on it

every day? Just nipping down to the shops now and then? Showing the kids

your knowledge of the local disused railway paths at the weekends?

Will you be using it on city streets or off-road? For long periods on

cycling holidays or short trips every day?

Probably it’s a mix of many of the above. Bikes are very flexible creatures

and can cope with whatever you throw at them, but it can’t be escaped that

many bikes have been designed for certain purposes and if most of your

riding fits that criteria you’ve got a bike that will do what you want it to


Here are the basic types.

Road bikes

Expensive ones are used by Tour de France riders; cheaper ones are ridden by

fast club cyclists. They come fitted with razor slim saddles (which you get

used to in time, honest) and thin tyres. Commonly, and mistakenly, known as

‘ten-speed racers’ by those who were around before mountain bikes were


Road bikes are designed to be ridden at high speeds on smooth road surfaces.

Because of this they are lightweight, with tyres pumped up to over 100psi to

minimise friction, and dropped handlebars to force your body into that

aerodynamically efficient Tour de France tuck. Road bikes can be easily

damaged and are prone to punctures.

When you’re not used to it, you will probably find the hunched forward

riding position uncomfortable. This is not to say road bikes are for fit

young people: plenty old-timers do hundreds of miles per week on their road

bikes. It’s just a matter of getting used to them.

If your primary aim is to get fit or do any kind of road racing then you

need a road bike, even mountain bike professionals use them as part of their

fitness training. If you’re going to be commuting more than ten miles each

way then a road bike – fitted with mudguards and a rack- can be a benefit

because of its speed and the low rolling resistance of the tyres.

Mountain bikes

These now make up 70 percent of all bikes sold in the UK but that doesn’t

mean they are the right kind of bike for you. Very few mountain bikes –

MTBs for short – get to see mountains but the chunky tyres, 26-inch wheels,

strong frames and flat handlebars are pretty good for city streets too.

Because they are designed for going up (and down) steep slopes, MTBs have

lots of low gears and highly effective brakes. For off-road comfort many

MTBs feature front suspension forks; some also have suspension for the bum,

too. These are called full suspension bikes and were originally designed

for crazy downhill mountain bikers although suspension adds to any riders


Even without suspension products, the fat tyres on MTBs soak up the shocks

and jarrs of off-road trails and city potholes. The knobbly tyres found on

MTBs don’t puncture easily but can rattle and hum on tarmac, slowing you

down. By adding ‘slick’ tyres (ie fat tyres without knobbles), mudguards

and lights you could convert your mountain bike into a good urban bike

during the week and change back to knobblies for weekend rough stuffing.


Hybrids are a mix between mountain bikes and road bikes and offer the

advantages – and disadvantages of both. They look like mountain bikes but

with thinner wheels and tyres, and offer a slightly more upright sitting

position, suited to urban riding. They are faster on tarmac but can handle

weekend off-roading. Not all come with mudguards, a rack and lights, but

these can be easily fitted by the shop.

Some hybrids come with internal hub gears. Component manufacturer Shimano

calls hybrids ‘Sports Touring Bikes’ or STBs for short. Germans call them

trekking bikes. Some people call them city bikes. Raleigh, and other

companies, call them ‘comfort bikes’ because they equip them with seat

posts with added bounce and suspension front forks.

Utility bikes

The so-called Dutch roadster is a perfect utility bike, a real workhorse.

They are virtually bombproof , very low maintenance and great in all

weathers, although only really suitable for short journeys in flat areas.

Touring bikes

A touring bike is a chunkier, more laid back and more comfortable version of

the road bike. It normally has drop handlebars and mudguards and pannier

racks for luggage. The wheelbase – the distance between the hubs – is

longer than in either a road bike or an MTB, giving a smooth ride, ironing

out all the bumps and potholes and making it easier to handle when loaded up

with panniers.

Folding bikes

Bicycle origami is thriving. Before we get to the dream of a fully

integrated transport system the best way to get a bike onto a train, bus or

underground service is to pack it down. There’s even a theory that come ten

years hence every new car will come with a folding bike in the boot because

city-centre gridlock means cars will be next to useless and the only way to

get about will be by bike!

Cheap folding bikes are heavy and don’t fold down too well. More expensive

ones fold down tiny in just 15 seconds. Because they are designed for the

first and last legs of a commuter journey they sacrifice speed, stability

and comfort for convenience. Typically they come with hub gears and may

also be fitted with mudgurads and lights. Optional extras include folding


What size do I need?

To get the most out of cycling it’s vital to have the right sized bike.

Before setting off to the bike shop you need a tape measure. Your inside

leg measurement determines what size frame you’re going to need.

To find your frame size for road bikes and hybrids, multiply your inside leg

measurement by 0.65, this will give you an approximate frame size in inches.

The frame is measured by the distance along the seat tube from the centre of

the bottom bracket to the centre of the top tube.

When you get to the shop, stand over and sit aboard a number of bikes.

When you stand over the bike there should be 2cm clearance between your

crotch and the top tube for a touring bike, 3cm for a road bike, 4-6cm for a

hybrid and 6cm+ for a mountain bike.

The reach of the handlebars should be comfortable and neither cramp you or

strain your back. To pedal comfortably, the length of the crank should be

about a fifth of your inside leg measurement. When you pedal, your leg

should have a slight bend in it and never be extended fully. The old rule

that you had to be able to touch the ground when sitting on the saddle is a

load of tosh: if you can, your saddle and seat post need to be raised.

(Note: this is not the case for children). Do this in small increments over

a number of days so you get used to the new, higher position. Once you’re

used to it, you’ll find you can cycle faster and for longer and with more

comfort with less effort.

Am I pedalling right?

Cadence is important. This is the number of time your pedals go round per

minute, your ‘revs’ if you will. Tour De France cyclists can pedal all day

long and at great speeds because they ‘spin’. Aim for something similar.

Your legs should whizz round rather than strain in a high gear.

And don’t pedal with your heels. Your toes should be just over the lip of

the front of the pedal.

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