Friday, July 31, 2015

The Words We Use: Bicycle Type List/Descriptions

One day many months ago, I was walking through a bike shop, perusing and just listening to the conversations around me. As I meandered down the rows of bikes and products, I overheard a conversation between two women who were talking about all of the different terms that are used to describe a bike. From the sound of things, they did not ride much except for short purposes around town, but they'd been talked into a visit to the shop by their partners and were musing about all the different particularities of bikes and parts.

As they continued to speak, I started to think about how many different labels have been given to different types of bikes and how very confusing it would be to hear these terms and not really have a grasp on what these words truly mean.

Then I stopped and asked myself if I truly know what all of the labels mean. Sure, I can identify different sorts of bikes, but because we often use similar descriptors for differing bicycles, how confusing it could become to try to distinguish one from another.

It became an interesting idea to ponder, and soon I began to think about all of the different varieties and possibilities with bikes. I know that I have pretty specific ideas of what a particular bicycle is and what it does when a label is used, but then realized that this, of course, is formed by my exposure and experience with these types of bikes.
*Image found here
I have heard the term "touring bike," for example, used to refer to a bike that I would not label as such, and so I thought perhaps we could come together as blogger and readers to make up a list. I very much doubt that we'd all agree on the nitty gritty specifics for each category, but perhaps it would help someone who has wondered what exactly a specific bike type is and/or why it is separated into its own category.

With that idea in mind, I hope that as a reader you'll offer your experience, thoughts, and/or expertise in the comments so that if I have missed something or your definition differs from mine, we can help sort this out a bit. It really can be a confusing topic when I stop and think about it. Perhaps the basic categories are better understood, but as the labels continue to be created, I do think it can get overwhelming.

These are the categories that I hear frequently discussed, but if you have others, please do add them in the comments. The descriptions are brief and definitely not all-encompassing, so feel free to add your own observations at the end.

I've personally heard people use this category for any bike they typically ride on paved roads. But what is it really and how is it distinguishable as its own category? I think this type of bike is generally characterized by a couple of qualities. First, road bikes tend to be lighter in weight than other possibilities (though not always) and often have a more leaned-over-the-handlebars positioning. Usually, we see these types of bikes with drop handlebars, but the handlebar itself is not the defining characteristic of this type of bike and certainly is not a requirement to call a bike a "road bike."

This is also likely the category of bike one would use for racing or swift rides on paved roads. There are a whole slew of possibilities to fall into this category, and the specifics of each can be quite different from one another. Tires found on this type are often on the less-wide side of possibilities, ranging from 20-28mm, typically (Although, tires do not define a road bike either).

Within this category falls a variety of possible terms such as a performance bike, sport bike, competition bike, time trial, and others.

Mountain bikes are typically categorized by different handling than a road bike, as well as having much chubbier tires, often with deeper tread patterns. The term "knobby tires" is often associated with this type of bike. Tires are typically ridden at lower air pressure as well.

Those who opt for a mountain bike fall into a variety of categories. Some grew up knowing only Mountain bikes, and thus it is what they ride today. For others, they love the call of local hills and mountains and have purposely purchased a bike that handles rock, dirt, trails and so on more efficiently.

Some who use mountain bikes also race - but their races take place on unpaved roads (at least for the most part). Since these bikes tend to be heavier, it is more difficult to keep up with the speeds of those riding a road bike, but the sacrifices made allow for better handling and comfort over varying terrain.

Within this category there are also other sub-categories such as a downhill, trail, cross country, and race or trials bikes.

In my estimation, a city bike can truly be any bike. That bike you've had stored for years? It could be a city bike. That Craigslist find? It might be a perfect city bike too. I've seen all categories of bikes being used as a city bike, but I believe the quality that makes this type of bike functional as a city ride specifically is that it is easy to ride in traffic (possibly far more upright than other bikes, though not necessarily true of every city bike) and that it has the ability to carry goods such as a basket, a rack, panniers, and so on.

This type of bike is also frequently set up with some sort of platform pedal (meaning non-clipped pedals), but I've come in contact with those who prefer to always clip into his/her pedals, so it's not the defining quality of this particular type.

With the Dutch bike craze that took place here in the U.S. a few years back, I would say the city bike title is a good match for this type of bicycle, but it is not the only type of bicycle that can fall into this category. Typically, I think of a city bike as one that is ridden over shorter distances more as transportation and at slower speeds than many of the other categories of bikes.

Separating upright bikes into its own category may be a bit of a stretch, but I hear this terminology used frequently on its own, so how do we define it?

I often see upright and city used interchangeably, but as pointed out in the city definition, a person may choose to ride a bike that is more leaned over as a city bike, negating the term "upright" entirely. I believe an upright bike is just that - upright. It allows the rider to sit in a position to see all traffic with ease, and it relieves the pressures on arms and hands by placing the majority of weight distribution on the saddle. Of course, this is not an ideal riding position over long distances for most people, and thus this category of bike is often seen about town, running errands and the like.

Cross (Cyclo-Cross):
I was once described a cross bike as that of a love child between a road and mountain bike. Who am I to argue? In many ways, most cross bikes I've seen tend to resemble a road bike more so than a mountain, but it doesn't mean that there aren't those that lean more to the mountain side, certainly.

Late summer and early fall tends to be the time of year for cross racing season. If you like to get muddy, it could be a side of cycling to try out. But, of course, cross bikes can be ridden any time of year and allow the rider a kind of middle ground bike that is perhaps a bit swifter (lighter weight) than some mountain bikes, but often not quite as lightweight as a road bike. Tires tend to be a bit wider on a cross bike too, falling somewhere between the typical super-slim road tires and heftier mountain tires. The larger tires help with the mud and dirt accumulation on this type of bike.

This seems to be newer terminology used as the industry apparently wants to create a need for consumers to go out and purchase another bike, but I do think there are qualities to a good gravel bike, and it may very well be one already sitting in our bike fold. In my mind, a gravel bike can certainly double as a number of other possibilities such as a cross bike, a touring bike, a rando bike, a mountain bike, a hybrid, a single speed, and perhaps even other possibilities.

It seems the biggest definition for this type comes with handling and tires. While one could ride gravel roads with a skinny tired bicycle, there are options better suited to this type of riding. I know some people who use their road bike as a gravel bike by simply switching out brakes and tires. If it's comfortable for the rider, why not? If it can handle the roads, I see no reason not to use it as a gravel bike.

Hybrids may perhaps be the most perplexing of all the categories to me personally. As the name implies, it is a bike that brings together two different categories of bikes into one. What I find most interesting about this category is that a hybrid could lean more to the ride qualities of a road bike, or more to a mountain bike. It may also be completely upright as is sometimes the case, or it may have more of a racier stance in the saddle.

While most of the hybrids I see on the roads tend to sit pretty upright, there are a number of these type that have more of an aggressive posture while riding.

Any bike that allows or maybe even necessitates a slower, cruising speed on two wheels could fall into this category, in my mind. Typically though, a Cruiser has 26" wheels and wider tires. They often have very upright handlebars and wider saddles as well. These bikes often have a more relaxed and upright riding position. They range from classic style conversions to those built new and found in bike shops all over the country.

The Touring bike category may be the one that causes the most confusion and debate among cyclists. I think the definition truly depends on what the individual defines as "touring." So as to not confuse the starting point, I define touring as a bicycle to pedal long distances while staying overnight away from home between the starting point and the destination.

As such, a Touring bike is typically able to handle the load of both the riders weight as well as all of the goods needed for travel. This bike is typically heavier (more stout tubing to allow for the extra load) and geared in a manner that allows the rider to spin while carrying the excess weight. These bikes are often seen with multiple bags and/or panniers attached to the rear and/or front of the bike via racks and other contraptions.

While there are touring-specific bikes available for purchase, many use other categories of bikes for touring activities such as mountain or cross bikes. I think what matters most is that it's comfortable to the rider over long distances and that it can carry the weight needed for such travel.

Folding/Brompton/Bike Friday:
These tiny bicycles are the ideal solution for those with tight spaces and no room for bike storage. Built on 16" or 20" wheels (and sometimes, though infrequently, 24" wheels), these small bikes fold up even smaller, allowing for easy storage and travel.

I once knew a woman who carried her folding bike with her in her car in case of emergencies or the desire to take off on a quick ride. She said she never worried as long as she had her folding bike with her.

Fat Bike:
Fat bikes seem to be a category that has come up in the relatively recent past. They get their name from the very wide tires found on this sort of bike. Sand bikes, mud bikes, snow bikes all fall into this category for me. These bikes are built around wide forks (to allow for the bigger-than-average tires) and can be used with very low tire pressure, making them a good choice for traveling places that other types of bikes may not fare as well. Often this type of bike resembles the stance of a mountain bike and on many models it's easy to see the reflection of mountain bike history.

Cargo/Box Bike:
I'm going to include in this category a couple of different types of bikes. Longtails and box bikes don't look very similar, but their purposes are often along the same lines. Allowing for easier transportation of larger goods (or even people), those falling into this category are definitely the working-type of bicycle. While weight capacity varies depending on the manufacturer, their commonality is being able to haul the items we like to get around.

A box bike typically has a large box in front of the rider to carry the load and come as a two-wheeled, three-wheeled, or even four-wheeled bike, while a longtail or cargo typically holds the load in an extended portion behind the rider using an extra long wheelbase/frame and an extended rear rack.

While some people ride these types of bikes over long distances, most I have come across use these as around-town type transportation, to get groceries, to get small children around town and the like. Longtails are a little easier to use over longer distances because they don't have the bulk of a box bike.

I don't hear as much as I used to in my youth about BMX bikes, but from my understanding they do still have a following and I do, on occasion, run into someone riding a BMX.

These bikes are recognized by their smaller size in relation to other adult-sized bikes on the market and sometimes resemble a small motorcycle (though not always). It makes sense though, since these bikes got their start as kids began emulating motocross racers by riding on dirt tracks. In the mid-70s and even into today, the BMX bike has had its own following. Within this category are a slew of different types of riding, but I won't get into that here.

Randonneuring (Rando)/Brevet:
Not to be confused with a touring bike, a rando bike is also ridden for long distances, and may at times include a stop over for sleep (depending on the distance), but the rando bicycle is one that carries far less weight (generally just a front bag or a rear bag) with the intention of finishing the ride sooner than later. In fact, on official brevets, there is a time limit so the rider must work to hit each check point in the allotted time frame.

Some people use their road bike as a rando bike, some people use their cross bike, and still others have very specific needs or desires in a randonneur bicycle and purchase or have one made specifically for these types of rides.

Fixed Gear (Fixie):
Ah, the fixed gear bike. It has a reputation of its own that conjures an image of the skinny pant wearing, beard-donning guy for some people. While the fixed gear may have been a hipsters dream, the bike has moved beyond that stereotype and different types of people are found riding fixed gear. Really, nearly any type of bike could be a fixed gear as it has to do with the hub and not the frame itself.

Single Speed:
Unlike a fixed gear, a single speed may very well have a freewheel, allowing the rider to spin the pedals backward without slowing the bike. However, a fixed gear could be categorized as a single speed as it has only one gear. Single speeds can also fall into other categories as there are many road and mountain bikers who like to ride single... and, there are many commuters who prefer this type of bike as well.

I would describe a single speed more as a sub-category or possibility within other categories and not necessarily a category of its own. However, since it is quite popular to refer to a bike as a single speed bike, it only makes sense to have an understanding of what we're discussing.

Recumbent ('Bent):
I will admit up front that I have little experience with this sort of ride, so I won't be horribly descriptive here because I realize there could be other sub-categories within this one as well. A recumbent though is a bicycle that sits low to the ground and has more of an automotive looking seat than a traditional saddle as found on most other bicycles. The rider sits toward the rear of the machine with legs extended out in front, sitting in more of a laid back position.

While it may seem like an odd position, those who ride recumbent praise the lack of strain on their hands and arms, and I've personally witnessed many of them kicking some booty on the roads. I've learned never to underestimate a person riding a recumbent. They can definitely haul when needed.

A bicycle that is set up on three wheels would be categorized as a trike. I realize that by having three wheels, it is not longer technically a "bi cycle" but since we're discussing this in general terms, I think it's a valid option to bring up.

Most frequently, trike's are set up with two wheels in the rear and one in the front, but they are also built with one in the rear and two in the front. For those with stability issues, trikes can be a fantastic option for riding.

Usually, this type of bike is heavier and slower, and often used for short-distance travel. However, I have also had the opportunity to see road bikes, mountain bikes, fat bikes and others set up in a trike format, so they aren't all necessarily heavy and/or slower than other bikes.

If you don't have a headache yet from reading through all of this (how is that possible?!), I have great respect for you. It was a bit dizzying just typing it out and the descriptions are nowhere as detailed as they could be. As I thought I'd reached the end of my intended list, I would think of another to add and I have no doubt that I have still left off categories unintentionally. Even as I type, I realize I could probably categorize types like pedicabs and rickshaws as well, but for the time being, I'll leave those as a kind of sub-category of a cargo bike.

Through all of these descriptions, I realize that there is much in between or grey area. Not every category is absolute, and in fact depending on the person asked there could be a different answer given for particular categories. Some may feel quite strongly that a certain category should be defined other than the way it is described here, which is perfectly acceptable to me (and please, do share your thoughts in comments as I'm not attempting to be the absolute authority on such matters).

When a friend recently asked about what type of bicycle she should get, I couldn't help but pause for a long moment. This is truly a difficult question to answer when it comes to a person who hasn't ridden since his/her youth and who doesn't quite know yet what s/he will prefer. With so many categories and so many different possibilities for riding, how is one to offer up advice?

Of course, we start with questions about the intended use, but often a new rider isn't sure what they plan to do. When all else fails, most tend to recommend a mountain bike as it is capable, at least generally speaking, of being used anywhere a person wishes to go. After riding a mountain bike over long distances though, a rider may soon discover that they have need for something lighter and/or that allows them to get quicker speeds and into a more powerful position. S/he may also find that s/he prefers a different set up entirely. It is nearly impossible to get it right the first time, in my experience.

So, what is your favorite category of bike, or do you have a preferred style of riding? What other categories do you hear brought up that haven't been mentioned here? How do they differ and/or how are they similar to other categories? Who knew when we had our first banana seat or BMX that there would be so many choices to select from!


  1. I call my Bianchi Volpe a "road bike," but it's much heavier than CF and similar bikes made for racing. It also has a taller head tube and generally more relaxed geometry. I use it for long distance riding on roads. It could serve as a rando bike if I weren't so lazy, and I might use it for light touring one day. It also doubles as a commuter sometimes. It could technically be used for cyclocross racing, though I doubt serious racers would do that. It will also take pretty wide tires if I wanted to take it out on gravel.

    So, what does that make it? My wonderful, wonderful, bike!

    Now, my city bike "Sassy" is much less versatile, but she is the perfect bike for her designated purpose. Sassy is an upright Dutch-style city bike with an IGH, dynamo lighting, rack, fenders, chain guard, the whole shot. Sassy is my pick-up truck. She gets me and my stuff everywhere I need to go in the city, rain or shine, day or night.

    I do find the different ways of naming bikes helpful in the sense that it can tell you what the designer had in mind for a bike. But I suspect that for most riders, the specialization is unnecessary. And, for those new to bikes, it is downright confusing.

    1. I would agree that it's easier to put a simple "road bike" or "mountain bike" label to our bikes, but I'm amazed at how many terms we've come to use to describe different subsets of categories. I would also agree that no matter what the label we assign, the best part is just enjoying it.

      I do think all the different categories can be highly confusing to someone not used to hearing all the different possibilities. I think at times it becomes overly complicated - even though I'll be the first to admit that having bikes for specific tasks definitely can come in handy!

    2. I was pretty overwhelmed when I started cycling again. With changes to bikes and so many choices, I fumbled my way along, often wasting money. At least starting with vintage bikes kept it somewhat affordable. The right fit for different bikes was another obstacle, which took some time to figure out. I finally found that since I live in a hilly city with rough roads, I need a triple-crank bike with a frame of double-butted cro-moly, with at least 28-35c tires and city geometry. Hybrids work well because you need to see around you in traffic and this state has a bad national record for dangerous drivers. You can shake your bones riding the streets without a good sturdy bike or an aluminum version with fatter tires, and comfortable seat. Dutch type bikes are mostly used south of town on the trail where it's flatter, cruising around a downtown park or in flatter neighborhoods. The less fortunate use all kinds of bikes to get around here, even cruisers. Students in the area mostly ride vintage steel. I've advised a few beginners on how to start looking for the right bike. Mostly, I suggested that they figure out where they will be riding and what will be the purpose of the bike. Then some tips on getting a good fit and where they might start looking for a bike.

    3. I agree that starting with vintage or second hand bicycles is a wonderful place to begin. It is really challenging to know exactly what we want when just starting to ride. I would much rather see a person using a quality older bike than one from a big-box type store that is heavy with poor components. It can be a quick turn off to riding a bike at all.

    4. One caveat to be aware of on vintage bikes. Schwinn went their own way early on. We bought a 1961 Schwinn "Racer" from their lightweight series. It was a very nice, original, 3-speed bike. We then learned Schwinn 26" wheels are not the same as today's 26". Slightly different in size - just enough so the common 26 inch tires sold today do not fit. That, plus the Schwinn 26" wheels are steel, so rim brakes are not nearly as effective as they are on aluminum alloy wheels. Steel rims are not good in the wet.

  2. A few more: unicycle; beater bike; stingray; beach cruiser; low-rider...

    1. Cruiser would cover beach cruiser. Used would cover beater bike, stingray, but most people don't consider used as a type of bike in a new market. There are always specialty bikes, like tall bikes, but they aren't for most people. Retro antique bikes and unicycles are also not usually considered for beginners or for a mass market.

  3. ...and don't forget: penny farthing!

    1. Ah, the penny farthing. Don't see too many of those on the roads! :)

    2. Check out Joff Summerfield, touring round the world on his penny farthing!

  4. Thank god you stayed away from the term "Easy Bike"! Some of the marketing people for the "big box" bicycle outfits are trying to coin that term for basically what you might categorize as a city bike. Momentum Magazine posted an article about it a while ago. I see it as marketing mumbo-jumbo.

    I will also suggest the following for city bikes:
    - Typically a relatively upright bike so that the rider can see and be seen in traffic in congested urban conditions.
    - Handlebars may have rise or sweep for a more upright posture, or can be straight and flat for more forward lean and less sail area for the headwinds to catch. ( I prefer the latter, flatter bars with minimal sweep).
    - Often equipped with a front basket and/or rear rack to facilitate biking as transportation to/from work and/or shopping.
    - Fat tires are great for potholes, cracked and broken pavement and streetcar/trolley tracks. However, do expect to work harder pedaling - as the 40 to 50 psi tires do not roll as easily as 100+ psi skinny tires. I'm fine with that - I figure the fat tires will put hair on the chests of the men and make for skinny bottoms on the ladies (and men).

    As you mention, I too would place the Dutch bikes in the city bike category, with the proviso they are designed with geometry as flat-land-specific, and true Dutch bikes are very heavy-built, bullet-proof, and made to last 3 lifetimes.

    We have ridden road bikes most of our lives, mountain bikes for many years, and have now settled in with European-designed, city bikes as our primary bike. Our longest rides are 25 miles, these days (feels like 50 miles pushing the fat tires). More often, we are making shorter rides contending with traffic and poor roads - all perfect for a city bike.

    1. I'm giggling because I know that feeling well - of pushing a city bike to distances that perhaps some wouldn't even try to do. :) As long as you're enjoying the ride though, who's to say you shouldn't or can't? When I got my first cruiser bike in adulthood, I rode that poor thing all over the place. Some days I miss it because it was difficult to not ride around with a giant smile on my face. I loved that it was slow but it was also so much fun to ride.

      I appreciate you additions to the city bike category - certainly a more complete and descriptive addition to that category, so thank you.

  5. I find that I prefer comfort to speed, and feeling safe in all weathers is important to me. I am a Londoner and it rains quite a lot here. I have no car and use my bikes to get around, and I live in a very flat area. For these reasons I prefer steel, upright bikes and so I have a city bike for shorter distances and hauling goods around and a lighter, faster but still quite upright mixte for exercise and longer distances. I have a feeling I would like touring bikes too, your Velo Orange one is beautiful and I like the idea of being able to carry bags on longer trips too. Unfortunately I cant go touring at this stage in my life, both because my skill levels on a bike are not good enough and because of family commitments. Perhaps once my children are older I will be able to do it, if I can tempt my husband back on a bike! BTW G.E., did you see that Pashley is now selling a touring bike? Seems to be a men-only model though. Still, I thought it was interesting that they added one to the fold, so few manufacturers sell touring bikes here in the UK. Dawes do some but I don't particularly like them and the components seem cheap to me. Big brands like Giant don't seem to have any at all. The most common kinds of bikes in shops are road bikes, mountain bikes and City bikes. Shame as touring was relatively common in the UK in the past, and I do see people touring these days so the pastime is still popular in some quarters. We need a revival! I do wish we could buy Rivendell and Velo Orange bikes here, I like their philosophy and their bikes but nobody imports them.

    1. The Ridgeback World Panorama is an excellent bike. Check that one out. It's affordable and was ranked no. 1 in a bicycling magazine recently. It has a lighter Reynolds cro-moly frame.

    2. Stephanie, I hadn't seen Pashley's newest addition. I will have to take a closer look. It's always interesting to see what types of bikes are coming into the market.

      It is interesting that the UK doesn't have more touring bike manufacturers. I wonder why? Perhaps it is something that has seemed unnecessary for most people, or riders choose other types of bikes instead? I know a few people who have recently toured in the UK, but they've all been on road bikes... though I honestly didn't ask for many details.

      I think you've made a great point in stating that where a person lives can certainly provide motivation for one type of bike over another. Mostly flat roads can certainly make an upright bicycle, even one that's a little heavier, seem more workable. It may not work as well for someone who lives in a very hilly or mountainous region.

      Liz - Thanks for adding a suggestion for a touring bike!

  6. I am surprised that you left one entire bike category off. The electric bike. Granted one could argue that it lacks the simple esthetic of the regular bikes but it is a growing market. If the Copenhagen wheel ever becomes something more than a unicorn then I think lots of people may ride them. I thought this was an excellent and thoughtful article.

    1. I knew I would forget at least one - thank you for adding this one. When I was making my mental list, the electric bike was part of it and somehow it fell off the list once I started typing. I would definitely include this category as they seem to grow more and more in popularity. Even in our fairly small city we have a shop dedicated specifically to electric bikes - and I do see them on the roads, so I know they are being purchased and enjoyed.


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