Best bike: our buyer’s guide to which bicycle type you should buy in 2023

Road bike vs. mountain bike vs. gravel bike. What types of bikes are there and the pros and cons of each

Buyers guide to bikes. Road bike vs mountain bike. What is right for me?

Picking the best bike to suit your needs can be a tricky task. Whether you want to commute, 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 of bike to choose from.

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So, if you are looking to buy a bike but don’t know what type, then read on, as we guide you through the styles of bike on offer to help you find the best one for your needs.

It’s important to think about what you want to do with your bike and where you’ll be going because the best bike for you depends entirely on this.

Your choice of bike will depend on your own tastes too, and the kind of distance and terrain you want to ride. There are many different types of cycling and a multitude of bikes that will enable you to achieve your goals.

Whether you’re an urban commuter, a lightning-quick road racer, a trail centre hero, downhiller, fixed-wheel fan, gravel path explorer or something else, there’s a suitable bike out there for you.

A bike is a big investment so it’s also worth checking out our guide to the best bicycle insurance to protect your new bike.

Click on the following links to skip ahead to our sections on the different types of bike:

Road bikes: best for riding fast on tarmac

Male cyclist in green top riding the Trek Émonda SL 6 eTap road bike
Road bikes are best for riding on smooth, asphalted roads.
Russell Burton / Our Media

As the name suggests, road bikes are all about riding on surfaced roads, often as fast as possible. They’ve got lightweight frames and skinny road bike tyres designed to help you achieve maximum speed for minimum effort.

They have dropped handlebars (ones that loop down and backwards) that enable you to get into an efficient and aerodynamic riding position, and have gearing that’s all about maximum speed.

Under the guise of slightly more relaxed endurance road bikes, they’ll help 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 aero road bikes or climbing road bikes, will lack the ability to carry luggage – so, if you need to lug a hefty load, a pure-bred road bike might not be ideal.

But if they sound like your thing, head to our guide to the best road bikes.

Pros: Quick; efficient; fun

Cons: Easier to damage; less comfortable for casual riders

Mountain bikes: best for rough terrain

Cyclist in red top riding the Canyon Spectral 125 CF 7 full suspension mountain bike
Mountain bikes are best for riding off-road.
Russell Burton / Our Media

Made to take on the most rugged off-road terrain that nature can offer, mountain bikes are built tough with aggressive knobbly mountain bike tyres designed to find grip on almost any surface.

They also have powerful disc brakes that use car- or motorcycle-style discs at the centre of the wheels. 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 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.

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 the 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.

Like road bikes, mountain bikes are divided into sub-categories tailored to different riders’ needs and terrain.

The best cross-country mountain bikes are designed around speed. The best trail mountain bikes and the best enduro mountain bikes have more suspension to take on extreme terrain. The best downcountry mountain bikes sit somewhere in between cross-country and trail mountain bikes, offering speed uphill and enough suspension to take on trickier descents.

The best hardtail mountain bikes are a good option for riders looking for a more affordable mountain bike and one that’s simpler to maintain due to the lack of rear suspension.

Pros: Great brakes; upright position; tough; versatile

Cons: Heavy; slow on tarmac

Gravel bikes: best if you’re in a hurry on bad roads

Female cyclist riding the Vitus Substance VRS-1 HT Apex gravel bike
Gravel bikes are booming and growing ever more popular.
Russell Burton / Our Media

Gravel bikes are becoming very popular and fashionable, and it’s easy to see why.

They overlap with other bike categories such as bikepacking bikes and all-road bikes, offering versatility and practicality across a range of surfaces and riding styles.

Gravel bikes combine road bike looks and speed with loads of frame clearance for fitting fat, knobbly tyres. Gravel tyres are often 40mm or wider to get you across almost any terrain, including terrible tarmac, gloopy mud, bridleways, gravel paths and more.

Sometimes, gravel bikes are referred to as ‘adventure bikes’. Adventure bike frame materials include steel, aluminium, carbon and titanium, and at a range of prices from the affordable to the aspirational.

Many 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.

Adventure bikes that take luggage (typically frame bags, saddle bags and bar bags) are used for bikepacking, which is essentially touring, but with perceived better fashion sense and hashtags.

Gravel bikes are quickly evolving and we are seeing more of these bikes come with gravel bike-specific suspension.

Interested in a gravel bike? Our list of the best gravel bikes will help you find the perfect one for your needs.

Pros: Fast; comfortable; practical

Cons: Sometimes on the heavier side; attractive to thieves

Hybrid bikes: best for casual riders and short commutes

Gary Walker riding Ribble Hybrid Leisure AL bike in Bristol
Hybrid bikes are a very popular choice for bike commuters, thanks to their versatility.
Steve Sayers / Our Media

Best thought of as the halfway point between a road bike and a mountain bike, a hybrid takes the comfy riding position of a mountain bike and pairs it with a lighter frame and fast-rolling road bike wheels.

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 enables you to look further ahead, which is a huge boon in heavy urban traffic and ideal for cycling to work.

If you want to go quickly on good roads but prefer a more upright position, or don’t get on with drop handlebars, this is the way to go. The only major downside with a flat-bar road bike is that you’re not as aerodynamic as you are on a race bike and therefore you’re 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 enable 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: Typically heavier than road bikes; not as fast

Electric bikes: best if you want a hand up the hills

Specialized Turbo Vado 4.0 eBike
Many electric bikes have chunkier designs, but don’t let this fool you – they can travel at pace.
Russell Burton / Our Media

With assistance from a powerful motor, electric bikes or ebikes 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 bike laws vary from country to country and, in the US, can vary from state to state. However, in the UK (apart from Northern Ireland) electric bikes limited to 15.5mph / 25km/h can be used on the road without a helmet or licence. They are bikes as far as the law is concerned because you still need to pedal to activate the electric assistance (hence the term ‘pedelec’).

More powerful ebikes (some with motorcycle-style throttles) are also available, but in some countries, including the UK, these are classed as mopeds or motorbikes and therefore need to conform to the same rules (electric bike insurance, helmets and so forth).

Most ebikes are designed to be comfortable and easy to live with thanks to flat bars, mudguards and luggage capacity.

Often, there’s a significant price and weight premium over an equivalent regular bike for the battery, motor and electronics.

However, as the technology develops, ebikes rise in popularity and people realise their potential to help cut emissions, prices and weights are coming down. The reduction in price means there are plenty of cheap ebikes on the market.

Canyon Spectral:ON CFR electric mountain bike
Electric mountain bikes can be a total hoot in the hills.
Finlay Anderson / Our Media

The world of electric mountain bikes – also known as eMTBs – is a rapidly expanding one, enabling riders to keep enjoying the countryside for longer than they might have imagined and get to the top of trailheads with ease.

Electric road bikes are increasing in popularity too, helping you ride for longer. While they are a bit more niche than eMTBs, they are great for riders with health conditions that would otherwise stop them from riding altogether.

You may find the best electric hybrid bikes or the best folding electric bikes ideal for riding around cities.

You can also change a non-assisted bike to an ebike with the help of a conversion kit.

Our comprehensive list of the best electric bikes will guide you to the right electric bike for you.

Pros: Easy to ride; comfortable; fun

Cons: Regular recharging; heavier and significantly more expensive than an equivalent non-assisted bike

Touring bikes: best for carrying luggage and travelling longer distances

Dawes touring bike with pannier rack
Touring bikes are built for long adventures, but also make excellent commuters for rough city roads.
Russell Burton / Our Media

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.

‘Hardcore’ touring bikes designed for heavy loads will sometimes opt for 26in touring wheels because spares availability is often better when in far-flung regions.

The more relaxed riding position and more stable geometry of a touring bike mean you can take on almost anything, whether it be a mountain pass when fully loaded with supplies or a quick spin to work.

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 off the beaten track.

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

Cons: Not quite race-bike quick

Cyclocross bikes: best for cyclocross racing

Silver coloured cyclocross bike from Ribble
Cyclocross bikes are designed for riding fast off-road.
Robert Smith

Cyclocross bikes are similar in concept to road bikes and gravel bikes, but are designed for the racing discipline of cyclocross.

This means that although they’re going to have fat tyres, drop handlebars and in many cases disc brakes, they may not have fittings for mudguards or panniers.

Their geometry is typically more aggressive than that of gravel and adventure bikes, making them a less attractive proposition for longer days in the saddle.

Our list of the best cyclocross bikes compiles all the top-scoring cyclocross bikes from recent tests.

Pros: Fast, dedicated solution for racers

Lows: Usually not as versatile as gravel/adventure bikes

Fixed-gear / singlespeed bikes: best if you want a simple bike

Jack's State Undefeated is beginning to look very handsome
Fixed gear bikes, or ‘fixies’, are a great low-maintenance option.
Jack Luke / Immediate Media

Popular in the city, and the only option if you’re riding on a velodrome, the fixie (or ‘fixed wheel’, if you’re being traditional) is the ultimate in simplicity.

A true fixie has no freewheel, so you always have to pedal if you’re moving. That brings a particular degree of connection and control once you get used to it, but fixies aren’t the most beginner-friendly.

They’re lightning-fast in the hands of an accomplished rider and the lack of complexity means they require minimal maintenance. They’re great for confident commuters who 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 casual cyclist.

Once you’ve got the hang of riding a fixie, they’re among the best commuter bikes. 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.

Want to know more? We’ve got a full buyer’s guide to fixies and singlespeed bikes.

Pros: Light; simple; quick

Cons: Some skill required; hard when it’s hilly

City bikes: best for hassle-free riding

Mustang Dutch city bike in Copenhagen
Town bikes prioritise practicality over performance.
George Scott / Our Media

A Dutch-style city or town bike does a sterling job of providing short-range transportation in flat towns. What’s appealing about this style of bike is its simplicity, practicality and robustness.

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 town bikes have chainguards, kickstands and flat pedals, so you can hop aboard in your regular clothes. Self-powered dynamo lighting and a bike lock are often built in, so you won’t need many extras.

They shrug off potholed streets, while an upright riding position gives you a commanding view of traffic. The main downside is that they tend to be quite heavy, and while the riding position is comfortable, it’s not particularly efficient and you won’t want to take on any big hills.

Pros: Great looks; relaxed riding position; practical; ideal for wearing everyday clothes; usually very durable

Cons: Heavy and slow

Folding bikes: best if you’re short on space / best for public transport

Brompton P Line folding bike
Folding bikes are a strong choice for those short on space, at home or work.
Lucy Rowe / Our Media

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 capable.

Our list of the best folding bikes will steer you quickly to the folding bikes worth buying.

Pros: Massively convenient to store; can be taken onto public transport; small wheels are quick to accelerate

Cons: Heavier and slower than a big-wheeled bike; not as stable or pothole-proof

Kids’ bikes: best for… kids

Black Mountain Hutto kids bike
Kids’ bikes come in all shapes and sizes to suit all ages and abilities.
Black Mountain

The first thing to keep in mind is that children’s needs vary wildly depending on their age and ability.

A good way of finding the right size of bike for your child is looking at kids’ bike wheel sizes.

Balance bikes are where it’s at for the pre-school crowd, then by the time they progress to 16-inch wheels, they’ll (hopefully) be pedalling away without stabilisers before very long.

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

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Here’s our list of the best kids’ bikes. We also have a list of the best cheap kids’ bikes.