Bikes 101

Bikewagon - BWCC

Familiarize yourself with today's bike types

A bike isn't just a bike anymore. You may have noticed that fact while shopping for a new bike or looking for parts for your old bike. Sure, they still have two wheels, but bikes have come a long way in the last 20 years. They can't be defined by just "road," "mountain" or "BMX" anymore. Those categories still exist, but they've spawned offspring.

So to help you get to know your bikes and be able to digest the alphabet soup (MTB, TT, FR: it's not quite a government bureaucracy yet, but it's getting there), here's a brief overview of what differentiates the main types.

Road bikes

Racing bike

racing bike

This is what most people think of when they hear "road bike." You know what I'm talking about: skinny tires and curved handlebars. It's made for pavement and pavement alone.

  • Lightweight frame tubing, usually aluminum or carbon fiber
  • Drop bar (curled downward) handlebars
  • Integrated brake/shift levers
  • Steep, responsive frame geometry
  • Narrow 700c wheels

Time trial/triathlon bike

TT/tri bike

Abbreviated as "TT" or "Tri," this bike is made purely for speed. That means aerodynamics takes center stage.

  • Wide aerodynamic frame tubing -- usually carbon
  • Handlebars with extensions and armrests so you can lean all the way forward and reduce wind resistance.
  • Separate shifters and brake levers
  • More relaxed frame geometry designed for stability with more weight over the front wheel
  • Narrow 700c wheels, often with extra-wide spokes or mono-spokes

Cyclocross bike

cyclocross bike

Abbreviated "CX" or "cross," this is basically a road bike designed for off-road use. No, I'm not talking off-road like mountain biking. I'm talking cyclocross races over groomed trails, grass and obstacles. These races feature fast riding and smooth transitions off the bike so the rider can hoist the bike over his or her shoulder and step over an obstacle or climb stairs.

  • Frame and fork designed to use with special, off-road 700c tires
  • Drop bar handlebar
  • Often times, you will see custom gear set ups and brake set ups
  • Cantilever, v-brake or disc brake compatible for more stopping power
  • Somewhat relaxed frame geometry designed for off road use
  • Higher bottom bracket for greater clearance

Commuter bike

commuter bike

Designs of commuters span a wide spectrum. In the end, what really makes a commuter a commuter is durable road tires and an abundance of utility. That means you have plenty of places for racks, lights, bags and baskets.

  • 700c or 26-inch wheels with road tires that offer good traction for a wide variety of surfaces and conditions
  • Flat or drop handlebar with extra comfortable grips or tape
  • Lots of options for brakes and derailleurs, depending on style of bike
  • Usually comes with frame mounts for storage racks or panniers and fenders
  • Relaxed frame geometry for comfortable riding

Fixed gear bike

fixie bike

Often called a "fixie," this bike has been popular with young urbanites in recent years. They're usually about as simple as a bike can get, and they're often as colorful as the personalities riding them. Track racing bikes -- like what you see at the Velodrome in the Olympics -- are also fixed gear bikes, but they're quite a bit more performance-oriented than their urban counterparts.

  • No gears or freehub/freewheel (if the bike is moving, the pedals are moving)
  • Very simple. You don't have to worry about derailleurs, cables and levers.
  • Track bikes have drop bar handlebars. Urban fixies cover the gamut.
  • Narrow 700c wheels, often with colorful rims and tires
  • Steep, responsive frames -- usually steel

Cruiser bike

cruiser bike

Sometimes you just wanna sit back and relax. Well that's what the cruiser bike is all about.

  • Heavy bike
  • Comfortable, easy-to-reach handlebars
  • Single speed or fewer gears than a regular road bike
  • Designed for cruising or riding on totally flat pavement. Lots of people will use them to cruise to the store or for leisure riding at the beach.
  • Usually 26-inch wheels with nice, wide tires
  • Super relaxed frame geometry

Touring bike

touring bike

Like the commuter, the touring bike needs plenty of places to carry stuff. Lots of stuff. And it needs to be durable. A coast-to-coast ride takes a long, long time.

  • Usually 700c wheels
  • Drop handlebar or butterfly handlebar to give you plenty of options for hand positions
  • Frame mounts for racks and panniers. Some are ready to tow a trailer.
  • Durable frame with relaxed geometry for a more upright position -- designed for long days in the saddle
  • Some cross bikes are adaptable to serve as touring bikes

Mountain bikes

Cross-country bike

cross-country bike

Abbreviated as "XC," cross-country mountain bikes are made for riding fast over mountain terrain that's not too brutal. These are basically racing mountain bikes.

  • Suspension fork with short to mid travel
  • Often hardtail (no rear suspension)
  • Low- to mid-volume tires with less aggressive tread
  • 26-inch wheels
  • Disc brakes, sometimes V-brakes
  • Designed for competitive mountain bike racing
  • Lightweight frame for uphill riding efficiency
  • Responsive frame geometry

All-mountain bike

all-mountain bike

Abbreviated as "AM," this is the typical "mountain bike" today. Just as the name implies, it's designed to be ridden across a wide range of mountain terrains.

  • Suspension fork with mid to long travel
  • Usually full-suspension
  • 26-in tires
  • Disc brakes
  • Mid- to high-volume tires, knobbier for better traction
  • Designed to handle all conditions
  • Mid-weight frame optimum for both climbing and descending
  • More stable and relaxed frame geometry

Freeride bike

freeride bike

Abbreviated as "FR," this bike is 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.

  • Long travel, full suspension
  • Designed for aggressive and trick riding
  • Heavy-duty frame and components
  • Disc brakes
  • Usually built with chain bash guard and limited gearing
  • Frame geometry is super relaxed and designed to be stable at high speeds
  • Good for jumping as well as tackling downhill courses

Downhill bike

downhill bike

Abbreviated as "DH," this is a one-way bike. You ride up on a ski lift or truck, and then you bomb down the mountainside on this heavy-duty beast of a bike.

  • Full-suspension bike with tons of travel
  • Heaviest bike on the market
  • Disc brakes
  • Sole purpose is efficient downhill riding. Uphill riding is no fun on this bike.
  • Limited gearing -- usually high gears for max speed downhill
  • Frame geometry places the center of gravity over the rear wheel
  • Raked out fork

Dirt jumper

dirt jumper bike

Abbreviated as "DJ," this mountain bike is made for catching air and doing tricks.

  • Hard tail or full suspension
  • 26-inch wheels
  • Disc brakes
  • Slick or knobby tire
  • Heavier duty frame to hold up to more abuse
  • Frame geometry specific for jumping

29er bike

29er bike

The 29er is a mountain bike with bigger wheels. When I say bigger, I mean a wider diameter. 29-inch wheels are really 700c wheels, beefed up for mountain use. 29er riders like the stability they get compared to 26-inch wheels.

  • Full suspension or hardtail.
  • 29-inch wheels and tires
  • Disc brakes
  • Great for taller people, but they make small sizes as well.
  • Frame geometry is usually comparable to the design of a cross-country bike, but many 29ers are more along the lines of an all-mountain bike.

Single-speed bike

single-speed mountain bike

Abbreviated as "SS," this mountain bike has only one speed (I guess that's why it's called 'single-speed,' huh). It's not a fixed gear, though. The rear hub has a freewheel, so you can pedal and coast.

  • Hardtail or fully rigid (rarely full suspension)
  • One gear with freewheel
  • Simple design.
  • Good for relatively flat terrain

BMX bikes

trick BMX bike

Trick BMX bike

This is the typical BMX bike most people know and love. You see it at the skate park and on the streets.

  • Usually features one straight cable from a brake lever to a rear brake
  • Short, durable frame -- usually steel
  • Usually 20-inch wheels, sometimes 16-inch
  • Lots of different pegs, tires, wheels, handlebars and more for limitless customization

race BMX bike

Race BMX bike

Designed to go fast with a few jumps thrown in for good measure, race BMX bikes are lighter and sleeker than their trick counterparts.

  • Lightweight frame -- aluminum, sometimes carbon
  • Skinny tires, 20 or 24 inches
  • Made for racing on a BMX track

There you go! That's a long list of bikes. And by no means is it all-inclusive; new hybrids and sub-genres are constantly being designed. This little guide should give you a pretty good start, though, so you can know what people are talking about the next time you unwittingly stumble into a bike conversation.

by Nathan Moulton

Nathan is the content manager at Bikewagon. He has written or edited product descriptions for thousands (probably tens of thousands!) of bike parts and accessories. Nathan joined the BWCC faculty in 2008.