There are two main types of bike: ones people want, and ones they actually need.
What most people want is a cheap mountain bike with 27 gears, tractor tyres, full suspension, no mudguards, disc brakes, and a big soft saddle. But their imagined countryside hill climbs and technical descents won’t happen. Instead they’ll do one flat bank holiday rail trail, before the bike goes in the shed for the winter.
What most people actually need is a middlingly expensive town bike with medium tyres, seven or so gears (easily enough for everything except rugged off-road and racing) and no suspension (costly to maintain), proper mudguards (essential in towns), normal brakes and a small firm saddle (less of a pain in the backside).
But shops sell what people will buy, not what they need, so you’ll only see a couple of such things in the showroom, shuffled over into the corner at a discount. Otherwise the shop will be full of road and mountain bikes.
You can think of bikes on a scale of riding position, from meerkat-upright (town bikes) to wiping-noseon-handlebars (racers). Similarly, handlebars go from wheelbarrow-style (town bikes), through flat bars (hybrids and mountain bikes) to deer-antler drops (tourers and racers) to Superman-splayed-forward-arm racks (triathlon).
Here’s a rundown of them, from most common to rarest, and a guide to how to work out what type the purchaser should have bought instead.
Note that some types of bike cross over into one another, especially when one of them ignores a red light at a junction.
The ‘generic bike’: basically a mountain bike, but less rugged.
Advantages Usable for city streets, light off-road towpaths or rail trails; robust enough to stand being crammed into back of garage for 360 days of the year.
Disadvantages Only three of the 27 gears ever get used, meaning expensive replacement of whole kit when those three wear out. Lack of mudguards turns bike into urban muck-spreader in the wet. Lack of rack means riders carry luggage in rucksack on back, which is uncomfortable and sweaty – so rather uncomfortable for co-workers or pubseat neighbours too.
What they should have bought instead Town bike (‘Where exactly are the mountains in your town centre?’).
Mountain bike (MTB)
Intended for rough hill climbs and descents. Flat handlebars, suspension probably rear and possibly front, strong brakes, 20-odd gears, big fat tyres (26in, thanks to US imperial system, and car-style Schrader valves), bare-bones appearance: no mudguards or frills, even cheap frills.
Advantages Low gears for uphill; rugged enough to cope with very rough stony tracks, and being thrown into the boot of a car or the back of an ambulance.
Disadvantages Tiring and inefficient to ride on road and can’t carry luggage, so only good for off-road day circuits involving long car or train journeys.
What they should have bought instead Next year’s model with much better spec; or last year’s model with similar spec but much cheaper.
Bicycle-Shaped Object (BSO )
Imitation mountain bike sold dirt-cheap online or in supermarkets. Comes ready for self-assembly in box. Box probably more robust and better ride.
Advantages Mechanically minded owner can make it into acceptable bike by replacing a few parts, such as brakes, saddle, chain, gears, wheels, handlebars, mudguards and frame.
Disadvantages Classic mistake is to fit front forks the wrong way round, making bike very uncomfortable and possibly dangerous to ride. Next mistake is to fit forks the right way round, also making bike very uncomfortable and possibly dangerous to ride. Every part is such poor quality that it’s just not solid. Especially the back wheel.
What they should have bought instead A bike.
Built for speed and racing on smooth tarmac. 700c wheels (700mm, thanks to French metric system, and Presta valves with screwable collar). Razor-blade saddle, possibly carbon-fibre frame. Flashily coloured, skeletal and lightweight, and virtually silent, like its rider.
Advantages Cutting-edge technology, especially when you fall onto it on a 50mph downhill. Light as a feather – handy when the thin tyres puncture and, not carrying tools, you have to carry it back to the car.
Disadvantages Desirable, hence stealable, but strong enough lock weighs more than bike, defeating point; hence can never park it. Narrow tyres mean discomfort on anything but very smooth roads, though this does mask the pain of climbing Hardknott Pass non-stop.
What they should have bought instead Apparently identical model but half a pound lighter and a thousand pounds more expensive (‘if it makes just 0.1% difference over the course of a race…[raise eyebrows, open palms]’).
Usually small-wheel jobs for rail commuters, but also come in mountain-bike, road-bike, even electric-bike versions. Seem to defy some instinctive law of transport resources: you can ride to Sydney on one, but it decants into a shopping bag. Or even smaller areas, such as bicycle spaces on trains.
Advantages Can sleep, compacted catlike, in the cupboard under the stairs, instead of attacking people’s shins in the hallway. Can nestle under restaurant and pub tables so you don’t have to lock them to the NO CYCLES HERE sign outside. Can slip into car boots without struggle, unlike kidnap victims. Depreciate little, so if you really do get stuck, you can sell it and get a taxi. They delight small children, as they watch you trying in vain to unfold it. (Hint for Bromptons: raise saddle first.)
Disadvantages Cheap ones are awful, good ones (Bromptons) are expensive. Ride is never as comfy as normal bike.
What they should have bought instead One less quickly or compactly folded but with better ride quality (if they cycle more than say two miles between train and work); or vice-versa (if less than two miles). But a more expensive one, either way.
Town bike (aka Dutch bike)
Tall, sturdy, upright, probably Dutch – that’s the sort of rider using this one. In Britain, more likely in bike-promo ads, when ridden by long-haired young woman in frock, than on street, when ridden by grey-haired old man in cloth cap. Step-through frame suits both. Few gears, none high: takes so long to build up momentum from lights, no point.
Advantages Great for muscle development as you haul it over curbs or upstairs. Great for shopping and café hopping, hence bad for waistline. Currently retro-chic. Chainguard, mudguards, rack, bell, basket, pump, kickstand – so high scrap/parts value when fashion cycle makes it uncool again. Relatively undesirable to thieves without fork-lift.
Disadvantages Good ones are surprisingly expensive – but fantastic value per hundredweight.
What they should have bought instead A folder would be just as handy round town, but extend possibilities of using train, bus, etc.; and easier to hide under stairs when neglected. If comfort is issue, iron bed on casters would offer similar experience for less money.
Built for distance in comfort with big loads – the estate car of bikes. Drop handlebars enable rider to duck under inevitable all-day headwinds. Racks and panniers at rear, possibly front too, crammed with round-the-world luggage essentials (HD video, smartphone, laptop for blogging, etc.) despite only going to Wetherspoon’s.
Advantages Sturdy frame and tyres sufficient to cope with rough surfaces: farm tracks, canal towpaths, even some London roads. Excellent for shopping: can carry enough to double value of bike.
Disadvantages Niche market, so pricey and hard to find. Good ones last forever, so no excuse to upgrade to this year’s shiny new model.
What they should have bought instead Can try telling them ‘trekking bike’ (vague term for tourer-hybrid) but they won’t listen, as they’ll be too busy showing you the pics from their last tour.
Selecting the right bike
Talk confidently about the bike-fitting process. Everyone recognises that a bike must be fitted, like a bespoke suit, to the exact body shape of the rider – arm length, leg length and so on. And as nobody apart from expert bike builders knows the details, you can say pretty much what you like and it’ll impress most people.
Talk vaguely about measuring ‘standover height’ (how high a crossbar you can take without extending your vocal range) by involved processes such as leaning against a wall and getting a friend to put a book between your legs as high as it will go, comfortably. It won’t help you determine the right frame size much, but it’s a fun way to spend an afternoon, especially with an imaginative choice of book.
Traditional guidelines relating frame size to leg length are only of general help now, thanks to small mountain bike frames, so you can divert the topic to saddles, which everyone can relate to.
Everyone will think they understand your main points about saddles:
- Inexpert cyclists always have their saddle too low. (The leg should almost be straight with the pedal at the bottom.)
- They wrongly believe a big soft saddle is more comfy. (Small firm ones are better.)
- Women need different saddle shapes to men.
Men benefit from a hollow so their prostate doesn’t get squashed – you can move the conversation away here to entertaining anecdotes about medical examinations. Dismiss any talk of saddles causing impotence though; it was ‘one rogue study from the USA’ concerning only ‘triathletes on drugs’, and imply that ‘other studies have suggested cyclists are actually more fertile than noncyclists’. That’s not true, but most people will happily believe it. Women don’t benefit from a hollow, but do need wider saddles as their sit bones are wider apart than men’s.
For more bicycle-based bluffery, visit The Bluffer’s Guide to Cycling®