Bicycling lets you have fun and get exercise while being kind to the environment at the same time. It can also be a great way to run errands, commute to work or experience a backcountry trail, not to mention more serious pursuits such as touring or racing. Whatever your goals, you have a number of bicycle options to take you there.

The aim of this article is to help beginners, casual riders or those who haven't ridden in a while to select the right type of bike for them.

What's Your Primary Riding Style?

Your first consideration is to know where you'll be riding: on pavement, dirt trails or both. Some bicycles are made specifically for a particular kind of riding surface, while others are versatile enough that, perhaps with a quick tire change, they can be ridden in more than one category.

Checkout our Bicycle Types guide for information on different types of bicycles.

Now consider the seat height. You want to make sure your leg has a slight bend when your pedal is at its lowest point in its rotation. To achieve this may involve making simple up or down adjustments to the seat height.

You should also have the proper reach to the handlebars. Your arms should not be fully extended; rather, your elbows should be slightly bent so that you feel comfortable and not too far away or too close to the handlebars.

For specific fit instructions, refer to our Fitting Your Bike article and videos.

Take a Test Ride

A test ride is a great way to discover what the best bike is for you. Most bike shops provide an area for customers to do this, usually in a little-used area of the parking lot. The stores in Seattle, Denver and Bloomington (Minn.) even offer onsite mountain-bike test trails.

Protect Yourself

Bicycling comes with many useful accessories and safety gear. The only real "must have" is a helmet. As with your bike, it's important that a helmet fits you properly. Check out our How to Choose a Bicycle Helmet article and video for practical tips. Other bike-comfort features worth considering include padded bike gloves and padded shorts.

Choosing a Bike for a Child

From bikes with training wheels to teen-sized versions of adult bikes, there are many options available for kids. The most important consideration when buying your child a bike is size. When shopping, keep in mind that children's bikes are measured by their wheel size, not frame size. The most common wheel sizes are 16", 20" and 24". The right size is one where the child can comfortably get on the bike and stand with his or her feet on the ground.

It is not recommended that you buy a bike that is too large for a child and then have them "grow into it." Doing so can set the child back in terms of riding skills and confidence. A properly sized bike will be easier for kids to handle, less dangerous and a lot more fun. And don't forget the helmet!

For a broader overview, see our Cycling with Kids article.

Bicycle FAQs

Q: Can I use one style of bike for different activities or terrains?

A: Yes, some kinds bikes offer this versatility, but not all. One of the biggest factors is the kind of tires. The smooth, thin tires found on many road bikes won't last long off of the pavement, for instance. However, many recreational and mountain bikes have tires that can handle both paved and unpaved surfaces without trouble. It's also possible to switch out smooth tires for knobby tires on many mountain and recreation bikes.

Q: Can I replace my bike seat with a more comfortable one?

A: Yes, there are many different kinds of bicycle seats (also known as saddles). Some are wider and shorter and specifically designed for women. Generally, men's seats are thinner and longer. Occasional riders should look for seats with generous amounts of gel padding to reduce riding soreness. Still not comfortable? Keep in mind that the angle of a seat can be adjusted, too. Generally, a flat seat or a very slight forward tilt is best. If you're a daily or long-distance rider, you should make sure your seat fits your particular bone structure. See our How to Choose a Saddle article for more information.

Q: Does it matter what kind of handlebars I get?

A: Yes. When looking at a bike, compare the level of the seat and the handlebars. Generally speaking, the farther the seat is below the handlebars, the more comfortable the ride. This is why many recreational bikes are set up this way. Seats that are higher than the handlebars, on the other hand, will allow you to ride in a more aerodynamic position and apply more torque to the pedals. This lets you go faster, but it may not be as comfortable. This is particularly important to note if you have back problems.

There are 2 basic handlebar styles: drop-bar and flat-bar. Drop-bar handlebars are lightweight, aerodynamic and sport a classic look. They are a better choice if you're planning to race or just want to go fast. They also allow for a greater number of riding and hand positions than flat-bars. The downside is that they put you in lower, more hunched over position that may put more strain on your back.

Flat-bar handlebars, though heavier than drop-bars, let you to sit up in a higher and more relaxed position so you can better see the road and potential hazards. This upright position also reduces strain on your hands, wrists and shoulders.

Q: How many gears do I need?

A: If your last bike was a 10-speed, then you may be surprised to learn that today's bikes commonly come with 18, 21, 24 or even 27 gears. You'll definitely want a bike with multiple gear options if you plan to ride any hills. However, the number of gears is not as important as how low the gearing goes. Gearing is achieved by having front chainrings and rear cogs with varying numbers of teeth, a discussion of which quickly gets beyond the scope of this introductory article. Unless you're tackling big inclines, this is not a major concern.

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