Ahh the age old question. What kind of bike should I buy? Gravel bike? Road bike? Flat bar? Drop bar? Hybrid? Carbon? Aluminum? Hard tail mountain bike? Recumbent? (come on, I know you're out there). Picking out a bike can be a very daunting task. These days, purchasing a bike can represent a significant investment. So how do you make sure that you're getting the best bang for your heard-earned buck? Let's get into it. FYI, I'm including pictures of bikes throughout this post. All of them are bikes that I have personally owned, ridden, or otherwise am a fan of. None of this post is sponsored by any of these brands. Off we go.
First off, it is very helpful if you know what type of riding you want to do. Sometimes this can be your first and last question when it comes to buying a bike. If you only want to ride on smooth, perfect tarmac all the time, a road bike will suit you just fine. If your plan is to become the next gravel racing superstar, a drop bar gravel bike will be your best bet. But here in the real world, it's often not so cut and dry. When I first got into cycling, I bought a carbon frame gravel bike. Like a lot of people, someone suggested it to me and I trusted them. I thought it represented the perfect middle ground. I could ride it on the road, on gravel, on light mountain bike trails; it was light, comfortable and geared moderately quickly (more on that later.) Overall, it was a great bike to start on and learn what I liked and what I didn't like. As I got more invested in cycling, I realized I was far more interested in riding on the road. My main bike now is a carbon road bike.
So there is a definite argument for starting on a bike that will let you do a little bit of everything, and narrowing your specific area of interest as time goes on. Gravel bikes are great on gravel (obviously), but for the most part they are also perfectly adequate for riding on the road. Typically, a gravel bike will have a slightly more relaxed riding position, wider tires, and the gearing will be lower, meaning that you will have an easier gear than most road bikes. A lot of times, the tradeoff with having a lower gear is that your highest gear will be a little bit slower than the high gear on a road bike, but you will still be able to ride at road speeds with no issues. These attributes actually play really well into the hands of a beginning cyclist.
Sure, everyone wants to get a race bike that looks and handles razor-sharp, but in all honesty they are not nearly as comfortable as you might think. Professional cyclists have a whole host of trainers, masseuses, and workout/yoga regiments that help them stay in the proper shape to ride bikes like that; not to mention a pre-disposed genetic makeup that suits them to ride in those crazy positions. It is advantageous when you're first starting out to get a bike that won't immediately turn you off due to being too uncomfortable or unrealistically racy. Get a bike that will allow you to be comfortable, have some easy gears as you learn how hard it can be to ride up hills, and will let you try out multiple terrains so you can find the type of riding that really suits you. A bike that will fit wider tires can also be a lot more comfortable as you get into cycling.
These types of bikes can go by the gravel bike name, but there are brands that call them all road bikes, mixed surface bikes and other names as well. The moniker of gravel bike is pretty misleading. All road or mixed surface suits the category better. They are simply bikes built to ride pretty much anywhere.
Let me interrupt myself here for a second. I'm not saying that you shouldn't buy a racy road bike. There is nothing wrong with them. I ride a road bike (to be fair it will run 30mm tires, and it's not a back breaker. I consider it an all road bike.) I just want you to be aware that it might not be the best first bike for you. Don't fall into the trap of becoming discouraged with cycling or giving it up altogether because you start on the wrong type of bike.
It's also worth noting that there are plenty of road-focused bikes that are aimed at beginners and incorporate more comfort. There is a whole segment of bikes these days known as endurance road bikes. They typically fall somewhere in between a gravel bike and a road bike in terms of riding position. They also typically allow you to run slightly wider tires for better comfort and come with slightly easier gearing than a race bike.
But what if you already know what type of bike you want, or you already have a bike and you're reading this? Let's dig a little deeper. There are other decisions to make. Frame material is a big issue. You can get a bike that's made of carbon fiber, aluminum, steel, titanium, heck even wood. There is a lot of hubbub about carbon bikes, and it is for good reason. Carbon bikes are incredibly light, stiff, and fast. But don't be so quick to write off another type of frame. I've ridden steel and aluminum bikes that are just as much fun as my carbon road bike. A lot of the time, I think beginners are tricked into thinking that an aluminum bike will be twice as slow or three times as heavy as a carbon bike. The truth is that the weight differences between carbon and aluminum bikes are not as big of a deal as some people make them out to.
Most of us don't ride or race professionally. If you take a deep, honest look at performance and speed gains for the amount of weight you shed by buying lighter bikes and components, it very well might make you wish you had saved some cash. If you're being paid to ride bikes and every second counts, go carbon every time. But is it really worth a sore back and and extra 5000 dollars to finish your ride 2 minutes quicker? Maybe, but then again maybe not.
Aluminum bikes are great. They're comfortable and far more forgiving if you happen to crash or damage them. (I pray you never have to shell out for a carbon fiber repair.) Maybe after you've been riding for a while you will want to upgrade to a carbon bike, and that's fine. Just don't think that aluminum or steel bikes aren't as good as carbon. If it rides good, it is good.
There are plenty of other types of bikes we didn't really get into. Hybrid and city bikes for commuting, mountain bikes, flat-bar gravel bikes, recumbents (seriously where are my recumbent folks at.) Hybrid bikes are great if you will primarily be commuting or riding for fitness. They offer a much more reasonable entry-level price point to get into cycling. And they are again perfectly suitable to try your hand at riding on the road and on gravel to see what you really like. Mountain bikes are also awesome. For the sake of full transparency, let me preface this by saying I am not a mountain biker, and there is a whole other world when it comes to mountain bikes. To be broad and probably over-general, they are not as suited to riding on the road as other types of bikes. If you want to ride one on the road, you certainly can, but they typically have bigger and chunkier tires and much lower gearing which isn't ideal for road riding. So a mountain bike might not be your best bet for a first bike if your goal is to try out different types of riding.
To wrap up, I'm going to contradict myself quite a bit. If you're riding a bike, you are already on the right path. More people on bikes is always a good thing. Don't worry if you have a bike that doesn't seem right. Go ride it. Get out there and ride. Don't let any of this information discourage you. All bikes are cool. If you are feeling bad or regretting a recent bike purchase at this point, don't give up hope. There are tons of great options for buying and selling used bikes if you really feel the need to get something. Check out The Pro's Closet, or even just Facebook Marketplace or eBay.
This information is meant as a helpful tool if you're looking for your first bike or even your second or third bike. It is not the be-all-end-all definitive guide to getting the perfect bike. Everyone has their own path. The important thing is, again, that you just get out there and ride.
Anywhere is home. Just ride bikes.