Best bike: our buyer's guide to which bicycle type you should buy

Road bike vs mountain bike vs hybrid bike. The pros and cons of each

Picking the best bike to suit you can be a tricky task. Whether you want to get to work, get fit or just explore the countryside, the bicycle is the perfect tool to do that, but there are a confusingly huge — and growing — number of different types to choose from. So if you are asking yourself "which bike should I buy?" then read on as we guide you through the styles of bike on offer today so you can find the best one for your needs.

It’s important to have a think about what you want to do with your bike and where you’ll be going because the best bike for you totally depends on this. Whether you want to commute to work, get muddy thrills in the countryside or go on long road rides, there’s a bike that can do that.

Your choice of bike will depend on your own tastes, and the kind of distance and terrain you want to ride. There are many different types of cycling and a multitude of bikes that'll let you achieve them. Whether you’re an urban commuter, a lightning-quick road racer, an off-road trail blaster, downhill nutter, fixed-wheel fanatic, gravel path explorer or something else, there's a suitable bike out there for you.

(This article was updated in November 2016)

Road bikes: best for riding fast on tarmac

Road bikes are your fastest option, but bad weather and thieves will be against you
Road bikes are your fastest option, but bad weather and thieves will be against you

As the name suggests, these bikes are all about riding on surfaced roads — often as fast as possible. They’ve got lightweight frames and skinny tyres designed to help give you achieve maximum speed for minimum effort. They have dropped handlebars that allow you to get into an efficient and aerodynamic riding position and gearing that’s all about maximum speed.

Under the guise of slightly more relaxed 'endurance' bikes, they'll let you embark on big-mile rides with friends, but also lend themselves very well to commuting thanks to their ability to cover ground quickly. However, the speed-focused riding position can be uncomfortable for some riders and the lightweight wheels and tyres are susceptible to damage from kerbs and potholes. 

Many dedicated road bikes, especially ones at the racier end of the spectrum, will also lack the ability to carry luggage — so if you need to lug a hefty load, a pure-bred road bike might not be ideal.

Pros: Quick, efficient and fun

Cons: Can be fragile, light tyres puncture easily and the weather and thieves are against you

Mountain bikes: best for rough terrain

Mountain bikes are built to roll over truly bumpy terrain, but can be heavy and slow elsewhere
Mountain bikes are built to roll over truly bumpy terrain, but can be heavy and slow elsewhere

Made to take on the most rugged off-road terrain nature can offer, mountain bikes are built tough with aggressive knobbly tyres designed to find grip on almost any surface. They also have powerful brakes that use motorcycle-style discs, and more expensive machines will have suspension at both ends for better control over rough ground. The gearing is designed to get you up and down steep terrain, with a wide range to take on the varying gradients.

Even if you don’t plan to tackle mountain ranges, mountain bikes can be a good choice for general leisure riding thanks to their more relaxed riding position, though you’ll want to change the knobbly tyres for some slicks otherwise it’ll be very hard work on tarmac. While suspension is great for pure off-road riding, it means extra weight, costs more and can be inefficient, so it’s best avoided if you plan to spend most of your time on-road.

If you fancy heading into the back of beyond, pushing your limits and exploring the path less travelled, then check out our buyer’s guide to the best mountain bikes.

Pros: Great brakes, upright position, bombproof, versatile

Cons: Heavy, slow on tarmac, eye-catching to thieves

Hybrid bike: best all-rounder

Hybrid bikes strike a good balance for many casual riders
Hybrid bikes strike a good balance for many casual riders

Halfway between a road bike and a mountain bike, a hybrid takes the comfy riding position of a mountain bike and pairs it with a lightweight frame and fast rolling wheels of a road bike. They’re great if you need to cover on-road distance but don’t want to contort yourself into an uncomfortable riding position. Sitting in a more upright position may be less aerodynamically efficient but it also allows you to look further ahead, a huge boon in heavy urban traffic. 

If you want to go quickly on good roads but you prefer a more upright position or don’t get on with drop handlebars, this is the way to go. The only major downside, as mentioned above, with a flat-bar bike is that you’re not as aerodynamic as you are on a race bike and therefore not quite as quick.

Hybrid bikes often use more powerful disc brakes that give more consistent performance in wet weather, though at a slight weight penalty. They’re also equipped with plenty of mounts that allow you to carry more luggage, such as specialist pannier bags. 

If you need to bridge the gap between urban performance and confident handling, then our guide to the best hybrid bikes will give you all the information you need to know.

Pros: Fairly quick, versatile, upright

Cons: Can be almost as fragile as road bikes

Touring bike: best for carrying luggage and travelling far

Touring bikes are built for the roads less travelled, and also make excellent commuters for rough city roads
Touring bikes are built for the roads less travelled, and also make excellent commuters for rough city roads

While a hybrid bike is best suited to the city, a touring bike is designed to take on everything from a commute to a continent crossing adventure. They tend to have the same fast rolling 700c wheels as road and hybrid bikes but with fatter tyres that allow you to take on a mixture of terrain in comfort. 

The more relaxed riding position and more stable shape means that you can take on almost anything, whether it be a mountain pass when fully loaded with supplies or a quick spin to your job. 

If you need a highly versatile all-rounder then you should take a look at our guide to the best touring bikes, whether you’re going to familiar places or the route less travelled.

Pros: Tough, lots of load-carrying capacity, still fairly quick

Cons: Not quite race-bike quick

Fixed wheel/singlespeed bike: best if you hate maintenance

Singlespeed bikes take some getting used to but are a fast, low-maintenance option
Singlespeed bikes take some getting used to but are a fast, low-maintenance option

Popular with track cyclists and hardcore cycle messengers, the fixie is the ultimate in simplicity. A true fixie has no freewheel, so you always have to pedal if you’re moving. That brings an unprecedented degree of connection and control once you get used to it, but fixies are definitely not for beginners. 

They’re lightning-fast in the hands of an accomplished rider and the lack of complexity means they require minimal maintenance. That means they’re very attractive for confident commuters that don’t mind suffering if they live in a hilly location and want total control at all times, but it’s a high level of commitment for the average cyclist.

Once you've got the hang of riding a fixie, they're among the best bikes for commuting. This is what makes them popular with cycle couriers, who also like their reliability — a legal minimum fixie with just a front brake has almost nothing on it to go wrong.

Pros: Light, simple, quick

Cons: Some skill required

Gravel / adventure bikes: best if you're in a hurry on bad roads

Top 5 gravel bikes of 2016

This type of bike is quickly becoming very popular and fashionable, and it's easy to see why — they combine road bike looks and speed with loads of frame clearance for fitting fat, knobbly tyres of 35mm or more that can get you across almost any terrain, including terrible tarmac, gloopy mud, bridleways, gravel paths and more.

You can find adventure bikes made from steel, alloy, carbon and titanium, and at a range of prices from the affordable to the aspirational. Most will include eyelets for fitting mudguards and pannier racks, disc brakes (hydraulic if you're lucky) for better braking, and more relaxed geometry than a road bike to deliver better handling on a range of surfaces. They're also a great bet for road riding in winter, just fit some puncture-resistant tyres and you're good to go.

We'd probably include cyclocross bikes within this category too — they look very similar (disc brakes, fatter tyres), but may not have fittings for mudguards or panniers, and will almost certainly have a racier position.

Pros: Fast, comfortable, practical

Cons: Not much really. Attractive to thieves

City bike: best for hassle-free riding

Traditional dutch-style city bikes in their natural habitat
Traditional dutch-style city bikes in their natural habitat

A city bike, also known as the roadster, does a sterling job of providing short-range transportation in flat towns. What’s appealing about this style of bike is its simplicity. There’s very little to go wrong if you’ve just got one gear, and hub gear versions with up to 11 gears are still pretty tough.

Typical roadsters have chainguards and flat pedals, so you can hop aboard in your regular clothes. Self powered dynamo lighting and a lock are often built in, so a roadster is a one-stop purchase. They shrug off potholed streets too, while an upright riding position gives you a commanding view of traffic. The downsides tend to be their heavy frames, and while the riding positions are comfortable they're not the most efficient. 

The best city bike is a machine that combines functionality with style, so these really are machines that express your personality, whether it's classic Amsterdam cruiser or traditional mailman machine.

Pros: Great looks, relaxed riding position, practical

Cons: Heavy

Electric bike: best if you need a hand up the hills

E-bikes are growing rapidly in popularity
E-bikes are growing rapidly in popularity

With the boost of a 250W motor, electric or e-bikes are great if you're a commuter who needs to arrive at work in a less sweaty state, or if you’re less confident about your fitness. Electric bikes limited to 15mph can be used on the road without a helmet or licence — they’re bikes as far as the law is concerned, though you still need to pedal to get the most out of them as most are 'pedalecs' which boost your efforts with the assistance of battery power.

Most of them are designed to be comfortable and easy to live with thanks to flat bars, mudguards and luggage capacity. There’s a price and weight premium over an equivalent regular bike for the battery, motor and control electronics. However, as the technology develops, both prices and weights are coming down. 

The world of electric mountain bikes — also known as e-MTBs — is also a rapidly expanding one, allowing riders who may have needed to swear off their dirt riding activities to keep enjoying the countryside for longer than they might have imagined.

Pros: Easy to ride, comfortable

Cons: Regular recharging, heavier and pricier than a regular bike

Folding bikes: best if you're short on space

Folding bikes are a strong choice for those short on space, at home or work
Folding bikes are a strong choice for those short on space, at home or work

If you need to combine a bit of riding with urban portability, then there’s nothing better than a folding bike. They’re best suited to short rides — especially where storage space at either end is scarce — and their portability means they’re ideal when you might have to hop onto a train or a bus to get where you’re going.

That means that folding bikes are phenomenally popular among big-city commuters. The most compact ones will fit under your desk and they’re easy to carry as well. A folder won’t ride like a conventional bike because of the necessary compromises, but the best modern folders are surprisingly nippy.

Pros: Massively convenient to store, can be snuck onto trains

Cons: Slower than a big-wheeled bike and not as stable or pothole-proof

Kids bikes: best for growing riders

Finding the right kids' bike takes a little time and care, but will make someone very happy
Finding the right kids' bike takes a little time and care, but will make someone very happy

The first thing to keep in mind is that children's needs vary wildly depending on their age and ability. Balance bikes are where it's at for the preschool crowd, then by the time they progress to 16in wheels they'll (hopefully) be pedalling away without stabilisers before very long. 

Move up a notch to 20in wheels and gears start to make an appearance, then by the time they're nine and riding 24in wheels, they'll basically be riding smaller versions of adult bikes — disc brakes, suspension and all.

Jamie Beach

Deputy Editor, UK
Jamie's been addicted to bikes from the moment his stabilisers came off. Earliest cycling memory is the chipboard-ramp-on-bricks, but happiest one is bombing down a Mallorcan mountain pass that seemed it might never end. Always on the hunt for the perfect rain jacket, a keen collector of hats.
  • Discipline: Road, gravel
  • Preferred Terrain: Big mountains with long climbs, equally long and fast descents, the chance to get above the treeline.
  • Current Bikes: Genesis Croix de Fer, Kona Cindercone
  • Dream Bike: BMC TeamMachine SLR01
  • Beer of Choice: Augustiner
  • Location: Bath, Somerset, UK

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