Every type of bicycle explained

Don’t know your gravel from your cyclo-cross? Let's go through all the main types of bikes

Clock11:00, Thursday 29th June 2023

The humble bicycle: two wheels, one behind the other, propelled by pedals and steered with handlebars. Sounds simple, but in fact, there are loads of different types of bikes out there, each with its own purpose and variations in design. With so many options, there really is a bike for every kind of rider and every kind of terrain.

If you’re still trying to get your head around what kind of bikes are out there, and what they’re all for, read on. We’ve explained the basics about all the most common types of bikes so you know what’s what.

Road bike

First off, the road bike. This is a type of bike that uses drop handlebars and large 700c wheels with skinny, slick tyres. Road bikes are light, aerodynamic, and fast – perfect for riding at high speeds on smooth surfaces. They’re usually constructed from aluminium or carbon, but some are made from steel or titanium.

They have a wide range of gears so riders can keep pedalling, whether they’re grinding up a steep climb or blasting along a fast descent. On modern road bikes, the gears are changed via a combined shift and brake lever on the handlebar, and most will use two chainrings at the front and between 8 and 12 gears on the rear wheel.

Cyclo-cross bike

In the early 20th century, road cyclists started racing their road bikes in muddy fields in the winter. And by the 1960s, bike companies had started making beefed-up road bikes specifically for these off-road races. Cyclo-cross bikes still look very similar to road bikes, but have a bigger frame clearance for wider tyres, different geometry to make them nimble through tight corners, and gearing suitable for slower speeds. Also, they’re generally more robust than your typical road bike. In recent years, we have seen disc brakes and 1x chainring set-ups become the standard set-up, two technologies that started out on mountain bikes (which we’ll get into later).

Gravel bike

At a glance, gravel bikes can seem quite similar to cyclo-cross bikes. Like cyclo-cross bikes, gravel bikes are beefed up versions of road bikes, designed for heading off road. Like cyclo-cross bikes, they have drop handlebars, and a frame not dissimilar to a road bike, but with wider tyres and a more durable construction. But where cyclo-cross bikes are made for short, twisty race courses, gravel bikes are designed for long days riding on mixed surfaces.

That means that they’re designed to be stable and comfortable, and often have mounts for bags and racks for loading them up with luggage and gear.

There’s a huge range of gravel bikes out there, each designed for different levels of gnarliness. Some are pretty similar to road bikes, just with slightly wider tyres. But some are much more chunky, with big, grippy tyres, an upright riding position, and maybe even suspension. These capable bikes might be slow on the road, but they can take you to places you never thought were accessible on a bike.

Time trial bike

Time trial bikes (or TT bikes for short) are the fastest type of bike on our list. They share many of the same components as a road bike, but use an extreme frame design and special, aerodynamic handlebars to put the rider in a streamlined position. With a time trial bike, reducing aerodynamic drag is the goal, as less air resistance will improve a rider's speed.

Most TT bikes will have a smooth disc wheel in the rear and a deep section front wheel to help reduce aerodynamic drag. As great as they are for going fast, they can be uncomfortable, and they’re not as stable to ride as other types of bike, especially when it comes to cornering.

Mountain bike

Next up, the mountain bike or MTB. Designed for rough, off-road terrain, they have flat handlebars, suspension, disc brakes and fat, grippy tyres. They’re built to be sturdy and strong, and have a relaxed, upright geometry for more control on the trails. The downside is that, with all that strength built in, they’re heavier and slower than other types of bike.

Mountain bikes come in many different flavours, each designed for a different kind of terrain. At one end of the scale, you’ve got cross country bikes, which are designed for light off-roading. As you progress through the categories, the suspension gets bigger, the bikes get heavier, and the capability increases. And after progressing through trail, enduro and all-mountain, you’ll find downhill bikes. These super tough bikes use massive suspension and durable parts, and are designed purely for flying down steep hills.

Hybrid bike

Hybrid bikes, as the name suggests, are a mix of types. They combine the mountain bike and road bike to create a versatile bike for riding around town or commuting. But hang on… a mix between a road and mountain bike? Sounds suspiciously similar to a gravel bike, doesn’t it? Welcome to the confusing and nonsensical world of cycling!

Essentially, a hybrid bike is a road bike, with flat handlebars from a mountain bike. They’re great for riders who want the fast rolling feel of a road bike, without the race-ready position. If you’re looking for a versatile bike to use day to day, a hybrid is a good choice.

Touring bike

At a glance, touring bikes look like hybrid bikes or gravel bikes. But in fact they are built fairly differently. These are bikes designed to carry you into the far corners of the globe, on poor quality roads, so forget about speed and performance – durability and comfort come first. These bikes are designed to carry lots of luggage, with special geometry, mounting points and low range gears to make a heavy load as manageable as possible.

Folding bike

Folding bikes are great for people who want to get from A to B but are short on space, and ideal for commutes that involve the train, car or bus. Your typical folding bike will use a hinged frame that will divide the bike halfway. Usually, the handlebars and pedals fold away too to make a very compact unit. They have small 20 inch wheels to bring the size down even more, and use slick tyres for city riding. They aren’t really designed to be ridden great distances or at great speed, especially as most tend to only have a limited gear range.

BMX bike

Next up is BMX. These were originally designed for racing on jump tracks, but modern BMX bikes are designed for doing tricks on jumps and skateparks. To give the rider plenty of room to manoeuvre the bike, they’re really small, with 20 or 24 inch wheels and a low frame. They have one gear and high-rise handlebars, and use a simple, robust construction.

Recumbent bike

Next up, the recumbent. These odd-looking bicycles place the rider in a low, laid-back reclined position, supported by their back and bum. Most recumbent models have an aerodynamic advantage over other types of bike: the reclined, legs-forward position presents a small frontal area that cuts though the wind. Recumbents use many of the same components with other bikes, but are built around a special frame. There is no standard approach to designing a recumbent, so there is a lot of variation between different types. Some have two wheels, some have three. Some have large wheels, some small. And some are open, while some are fully enclosed in an aerodynamic fairing. These aerodynamic versions are super fast. In fact, a fully-faired recumbent holds the world speed record for a bicycle.

Electric bike

Electric bikes are a pretty easy type of bike to understand: take any other bike configuration, add in a pedal assist motor and you have an e-bike. These are regulated in different ways around the world. Here in the UK, they’re limited to 250W of assistance up to speeds of 25kph. You can usually spot an e-bike pretty easily as they have a larger downtube to house the battery and the motor down by the cranks or in the rear hub.

Track bike

Last but certainly not least is the track bike. Track bike frames are very similar to road bike frames, but with some pretty crucial differences. They have no brakes, just one gear, and no freewheel. That means, if the bike’s moving, you can’t stop pedalling. Track bikes are designed to be aerodynamic and stiff to cope with the forces put through them when being ridden round a velodrome at high speed. They use wheels that look similar to those used on a time trial bike and sometimes even have a disc wheel in the front and rear. They’re intended for short, intense efforts on silky smooth velodromes surfaces. Comfort or practicality aren’t taken into consideration – the focus is entirely on speed.

And there you have it! Pretty much every type of bike under the sun, all in one list. If you’re just getting started working out what bike is right for you, hopefully that’ll give you a good idea of what kind suits your riding style. Perhaps this list has made you realise that the one you’ve got sitting in your garage isn’t right for your riding. If so… sorry! At least now you’ll be able to get something that suits your needs.

And if you need some more specific advice about choosing a road bike, we’ve put together some things to consider when you’re browsing.

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