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What sort of bike should I get?

Carlton Boyce / 05 February 2019 ( 31 August 2018 )

Cycling is such a great way to keep fit, explore the world, and do your bit to help save the planet that it’s a wonder that more of us don’t do it!

A bike left by the seaside at sunset

Before you start cycling, you need to actually buy your bike, and there’s a bewildering array of models out there…

What will you use your new bike for?

If you are just going to potter around your local town, perhaps to do a spot of shopping or to visit the library, then just about any bike will do. However, if you’re going to be using it for long-distance touring, or exploring your local bridleways and canal towpaths, then you’re going to need something a bit more specialised.

Of course, there are plenty of bicycles out there that are suitable for a multitude of roles, which saves you money and helps keep things simple. An adventure bike, for example, will easily work on both the road and towpath, while also doing a semi-passable impression of a mountain bike too.

Be aware though, that few hobbies are as addictive as cycling; not for nothing do cyclists joke that the ideal number of bikes in your life is N+1, where N = the number you currently own…

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Where will you use your new bike?

It goes without saying that using a bike off-road in muddy conditions will require a very different model to one that is used to potter around the city, but there’s a bit more to it than that.

Take, for example, the couple who want a couple of bikes to take away in their campervan or caravan. They could simply choose full-size bikes and stick them on a rack on the back but they are then vulnerable to theft every time they leave the rig alone. A great alternative in this case would be folding bikes, which can be kept inside the campervan or caravan, safely tucked away from prying eyes.

The same folding bike would work very well for commuting too, as it can be collapsed down and carried on board the train with little effort. Exploring cities on a weekend break is more fun on two wheels too, and if you let the train take the strain, then you can easily take your pedal bike with you.

Similarly, you might not think that the weight of a bike is too critical but you’ll be amazed at how a pound or two difference in weight can make a huge difference if you’re having to lift it on and off a roof-mounted cycle carrier. If it’s too heavy, the chances are you won’t bother taking it, and your expensive new bike will then sit in a corner of the garage gathering dust…

What sort of bikes are available?

I’ll now quickly run through the different sorts of bike that are available, giving my thoughts on each:

The mountain bike

Ubiquitous and widely available, the mountain bike has thick, knobbly tyres designed to give traction in gloopy, muddy conditions. Its heavy duty frame is tough enough to shrug off even the very worst of conditions, and it is comfortable enough to be ridden for hours at a time.

Available both with and without suspension, your best course of action is to test-ride bikes both with and without to see which you prefer. I like a bike with front suspension forks but no suspension at the back but you might find that a bike with suspension at both ends suits you better. On the other hand, a bike with no suspension at all will be lighter than one with, so if you don’t need it then buying a bike sans suspension will save you both money and weight.

Pros - a mountain bike is tough and widely available. It will tolerate a certain amount of abuse and copes as well with pot-holed city streets as it does fast downhill runs in the mountains.

Cons - that toughness carries a weight penalty, and a mountain bike is likely to be considerably heavier than something that is designed only to be used on the streets. Also, some mountain bikes are really nothing of the sort, so be careful if you see a new ‘mountain bike’ being offered for £150.

Best suited for - active cyclists who are willing to put up with a heavy-ish bike in exchange for the agility and ability it provides off the beaten track. If you enjoy running and walking in the wilderness, then a mountain bike would probably suit you very well.

The road bike

Also known as a sports bike or racing bike, the road bike will be familiar to anyone who has ever watched the Tour de France. Its drop handlebars encourage the rider to adopt a hunched, aerodynamic riding position, and its skinny tyres reduce drag between the bike and the tarmac. The bikes are light in weight, which makes them easy and fast to ride, as well as to lift on and off your car.

Pros - light and fast, they’re the easiest way to go very fast on the roads. Speeds of 30mph and more are achievable, which feels like flying when you are on a bike. Their fast, almost twitchy steering, means that the road bike has a sportiness to its ride that is impossible to achieve on any other type of bicycle.

Cons - that lightweight build makes them the most fragile model of bicycle, so they aren’t ideal for city use as a pothole could easily buckle a wheel or even damage the frame or forks. They aren’t the most comfortable of bikes either; that hunched riding position might help you cleave through the air with the minimum of fuss but it doesn’t half play havoc with your back! Also, the sheer agility of the bike can prove wearing on a long ride.

Best suited for - if you are a bit of a demon who enjoys going fast, then a road bike would suit you very well. Similarly, if you have to have the very best in life, then a carbon-framed road bike will almost ‘float’ in your hand when you pick it up - and will set you back an easy five-figure sum.

The adventure bike

An adventure bike, also known as a gravel bike, is a hybrid of a road bike and a mountain bike. It is nearly as tough as the latter and almost as light and fast as the former. It has dropped handlebars to give the rider a variety of hand positions, which is important if you’re going to be spending hours in the saddle. A wide variety of different tyres are available, from smooth for road use, all the way through to knobbly tyres for off-road riding, and even studded tyres for use in the snow!

Pros - a true, multi-purpose bicycle, the adventure bike is capable of fulfilling a number of roles with ease. Fitted with panniers and mudguards, it will serve you faithfully as a commuting bike, while still being fast enough to double up as a half-decent road bike at the weekend. Plus, it’s tough enough to be able to conquer canal towpaths and bridleways when you fancy getting down ’n’ dirty.

Cons - As with all hybrids, the adventure bike is something of a compromise. While models vary - and some are biased towards the sporting and twitchy end of the spectrum while others lean more toward the staid and stolid -  more role-specific models of bicycle will do any one particular job better than an adventure bike will.

Best suited for - as an all-round fun bike an adventure bike takes some beating. I’ve just bought one and found that it’s an utter delight on both the road and canal towpath. If you want one bike to do lots of different jobs, then an adventure bike is well worth looking at.

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The touring bike

The touring bike is essentially a road-biased adventure bike. Designed back in a time when the mountain bike wasn’t even a twinkle in its designer’s eye, the touring bike has been providing safe and sturdy transport for hardy, adventurous types for decades.

Its laid-back frame geometry and dropped handlebars make it a genuine mile-muncher, while its sturdy steel frame and multiple attachment points mean that it can carry multiple panniers and water bottle racks and can be repaired anywhere in the world if (or when) you break it; lightweight alloy and composite frames might be sexy and light, but nothing beats steel if you need to be able to get it repaired in the back-end of nowhere.

Pros - A touring bike is the donkey of the cycling world; slightly ungainly and most definitely at the unsexy end of the spectrum, they’re super-tough and easily repaired.

Cons - they are designed for long slogs carrying a huge amount of gear, so they’re usually quite heavy and not desperately exciting to ride.

Best suited for - if you’re intent on conquering nations, or even continents, weighed down with a fair amount of camping gear then a touring bike will get the job done better than almost anything else.

The folding bike

Built by people like Brompton and Dawes, the folding bike has small wheels and an ungainly frame design. But, they’re very, very clever and fold up to an almost unbelievably small size, which makes them perfect for taking on a train or carrying inside a car or caravan.

Pros - their packability means that they’re going to be on-hand at times when other, more conventional, bikes might not be. Plenty of people leave them in the boot of their car on the off-chance that they’ll stumble across a place to ride them. They’re also better at long-distance work than you might imagine too, so don’t rule them out if you like the odd longer ride.

Cons - they might work for long-distance touring but they’re more at home on shorter, predominately urban, rides. Those small wheels can give a slightly unstable, top-heavy feel to them, which some people don’t like.

Best suited for - commuters and those for whom the ability to stow them in small spaces is important; while some people have crossed continents on them, they’re really designed for use around the city, a role they excel at.

Electric bikes

We’ve covered electric bikes here, so I won’t go into much detail in this article other than to point you here to help you choose one, and here to help you get the most out of yours.

I will just add that while I have no real need for an electric bike as part of the appeal of cycling for me is the fitness aspect, I crave one as they’re such good fun to ride!

Remember, N+1…

Discounted bikes

If you join British Cycling, you will qualify for 10% off most bikes at Halfords, and 10% off accessories, parts, and clothing at Evans Cycles. You also get £10m of third party liability insurance and preferential rates of theft insurance.

Membership starts at £36.90 per year if you pay by direct debit.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.