I was recently asked about the difference between different bicycles and what each type of bike is best suited for. When I thought about these questions, I considered my own selection of bicycles and the specific purpose of each bike that I ride. I also thought about the question: If I only had one bicycle, what would it be?
To begin with, I’ll describe the different types of bikes that are available. Here’s a list of the types of bicycles I own (or have owned) and the types of riding that I’ve used them for:
These bikes include light-weight frames, smooth, skinny tires and drop handlebars. Their purpose is to ride on paved roads, although I’ve ridden mine on hard-packed dirt roads. Frames (like all bikes on this list) can be made of carbon (for the high-end, expensive race bikes), aluminum, steel titanium… There are sub-groups of road bikes that include: time-trial and triathlon bikes.
Cyclocross (CX)/Gravel Bike (sometimes called Adventure Bike)
At first glance, these types of bikes look similar to road bikes, in terms of geometry. Gravel bikes, however, have slightly wider tires with some tread to allow for off-road traction, and they usually have different brakes than road bikes. In the past, CX and gravel bikes were the same, but in recent years, bike companies have been introducing separate bikes for each. The differences are subtle (slight differences in frame geometry and gear ratios), but unless you’re racing CX, either bike type would be suitable for gravel riding.
Mountain bikes are designed for rougher off-road trails, typically singletrack trails through the woods. Gearing is different to allow for short, steep climbs and tires are 2+ inches in width with considerable tread to allow better grip on off-road trails. Handlebars are flat to allow for better control of steering and these bikes typically have a front suspension fork (and sometimes rear suspension) to make for a smoother ride on rough trails. Mountain biking has a whole subgroup of bikes that include: cross-country (less suspension), downhill (more suspension), all-mountain (moderate suspension).
Fat bikes are similar to mountain bikes, but have MUCH wider tires (on the order of 4 to 5 inches wide!). I originally thought of these bikes as having the sole purpose of riding in the snow, but in the two years that I’ve owned one, I’ve found it to be a fun bike for all seasons. It’s heavy and slow on roads and gravel trails, but it’s a comfortable ride and it’s the bike that I rode on a four-day, 420 km bikepacking trip this fall.
I’ve never owned a hybrid, but for someone who is just getting into cycling and wants to be able to ride on paved, dirt and gravel roads, this bike would be suitable.
There are also singlespeed bikes, fixed-gear bikes, track bikes, cruiser bikes… There really is a bike for any purpose!
So… getting back to that question… if I was to own just one bike, what would it be? It would like be my cyclocross/gravel bike. I put the most mileage on it this year (nearly 2000 km). It’s not bad on paved roads. It’s ideal for gravel/dirt roads. And I’ve even ridden it on some rooty, forest trails.
Either that, or my fat bike, which I can ride that anywhere, any time of year!