Cycling is THE activity for 2020. During the lockdown demand for bikes has more than doubled, with some stats suggesting that bike use has shot up to five times 2019 levels.
This suggests that a lot of people are taking to cycling for the first time. And while riding a bike is as easy as … well … you know, the sport comes with a lot of technical language that can be a barrier for newbies.
So, before you buy, check out our go-to guide. We bust the jargon, give you the gist of the gears, and cover what kind of bike would best suit you and your family.
Types of Bikes
Sure, all bikes use two wheels and pedal power (stand down unicyclists!). Beyond that, however, there’s a world of difference. Depending on how and where you want to ride, you’ll need a bike built for that terrain. Road cycling is a very different sport to trail or mountain biking, and commuter or hybrid bikes have their own unique specifications.
Step one, then, is to decide what kind of cycling you want to do.
Mountain biking is a specialist sport, but also most peoples’ introduction to cycling. Remember that bike you had as a kid? That was probably an entry-level mountain bike.
Mountain bikes are great for newbies because the features that make them ideal for off-road terrain translate to an easier time in the saddle for the unconfident rider. They have big, chunky tyres with plenty of grip. The frames are sturdy, which means more weight and easier balance. They also come with suspension forks to withstand impact. This is useful on technical trails, but also means extra comfort wherever you are.
For someone who actually wants to take their bike to the mountains – the specific details become more important. For example, you have the option of a full-suspension bike or a ‘hardtail’. Full suspension means suspension at the front AND rear forks, whereas a hardtail has no rear suspension. Full suspension will offer max impact protection, but it’s a trade off as a lot of experienced MTB riders claim that hardtails promote better posture, which will keep you more stable and comfortable long term. Hardtails are also generally cheaper and easier to maintain.
Road cycling is a totally different discipline to mountain biking. Road bikes tend to be much lighter, with slimmer frames and much narrower wheels. Often they come with ‘dropped’ handlebars, creating that hunched-over position that limits wind-resistance. They can look intimidating to the novice, who may think that they are only for the fittest of the fit, or an accident waiting to happen.
In reality that isn’t the case at all. If you are wanting to get out for longer jaunts on the road, then buying a road bike is a no-brainer. They are designed specifically for longer, faster rides, where the friction and weight of a mountain bike would quickly be a problem. Take it slowly at first and you will quickly acclimatise to the lightweight feel and handlebar set-up.
‘Hybrid’ covers a whole range of bikes. The term generally means a bike that is neither a fully-fledged mountain machine, nor a devoted road bike. Hybrid bikes sit somewhere between the two, borrowing the benefits from either camp.
They generally have wider wheels than road bikes, though with a smoother tyre than mountain bikes. This means they can cope with moderate trails and won’t add too much resistance on tarmac. Hybrid bikes tend to have riser handlebars (rather than dropped) and they tend to be heavier than a good road bike.
There are pros and cons to a hybrid bike. More weight but more comfort. Generally speaking, they are ideal for casual city riding, or long distance touring, where speed isn’t a priority. They also make for good commuter bikes as they can cope with winter conditions a little easier than a super-slim road bike.
If you are going for the full trail experience, or want a streamlined road racer then the hybrid won’t cut it. For everything else in between, it could be the perfect place to start.
Getting the correct size of bike is crucial to your comfort. The right size will mean better posture, with less aches and pains. It will also help you get the most out of your pedal power, converting your effort into movement more efficiently.
This isn’t an exact science, or a topic with a specific answer for each person. Your own body shape will play a part – especially the proportion of your arms and legs. This guide is here to help you pin down the basic range of sizes. You have some wiggle room as you can adjust seat and handlebar height if you find yourself falling between two sizes.
The ‘height’ of a bike refers to the length of the seat tube. This is the tube that leads down from directly under your saddle to the crank arm. (see diagram below). To make things a little more unnecessarily complicated, road bikes tend to be measured in centimetres, whilst MTB’s are measured in inches or in small, medium and large categories.
The table below is a basic size comparison. Bear in mind that specific brands may differ slightly.
If you are measuring for comfort you need to base your sizing on two measurements:
- Your inside leg – from the top of your inner thigh to the top of your heel.
- Your reach – this is the difference between your height and your arm span (fingertip to fingertip)
When you stand with a leg either side of the bike, there should be at least 2cm of clearance between your body and the top tube. This is known as the ‘stand-over height’ and it’s there to protect you (!!) if you slip off the saddle. So if you know your inside leg length, you can subtract 2cm and find a bike with a perfect stand-over height.
Reach is important to making sure you can hold the bars comfortably, reach the brakes easily, and change gear without problem. A positive reach means your arm span is greater than your height; a negative reach is the opposite.
If you have a negative reach you want to look for a smaller frame.
Kids’ bikes are measured differently to adult bikes. The size is based on wheel diameter.
Pedalled bikes for the youngest children (3-4 years old) start at a 12-inch wheel. The range goes up by two inches for each two-year age range, topping out at 26” wheel. After 12 years an average child could make the jump to a small adult bike.
Most kids’ bikes will be mountain bikes or sturdy hybrids. You won’t see a road bike until you get to at least a 24” wheel, and even then they are rare.
It is tempting to buy your child a bike for them to “grow into.” Avoid this. Whilst there is some wiggle room with seat adjustments etc., an oversize bike will be less stable and mean less control over pedals, brakes and all the really important stuff. You don’t want to put them off riding before they’ve even mastered it.
There is no need to be put off by cycling’s private language. For most people, all you need to know is that the bike has 2 wheels, decent brakes, and how many gears you have available.
For those who are more technically-minded, however, there is plenty to explore in your bike’s construction. This is particularly important if you plan to service your bike at home. To get you started, we’ve put together a quick guide to the key terms.
Frame – this is the general term for the collection of tubes that make up the main structure of the bike. Frames come in a variety of light metals, as well as carbon for a super-lightweight build.
Groupset – this is the collective name all the main technical components of your bike. It includes the brakes, gears, shifters, derailleurs, chain, cassette, and chainwheel.
Cassette – the cogs in the middle of your back wheel.
Chainwheel – the cogs that sit near to your pedals. Your bike will have between 1 and 3 of these and they transfer your pedal power to the front wheel. The number of cogs here, multiplied by the number of cogs in your cassette = your total number of gears.
Crank / Crank Arm – the arm that connects your chainwheel to the pedal. Most bike hieghts are measured from here to the top of your seat tube.
Derailleur – this is the crucial bit of the bike that lets you change gear. As you ‘shift’ gears the derailleur moves the chain from one ring to the next. All bikes have a rear derailleur that moves the chain across your cassette. If you have more than one chainwheel then you will have a front derailleur located there as well.
Forks – the tubes that extend down each side of your front wheel. They grip the wheel and make it turn when you turn the handlebars. Forks are also where the suspension is located. Some bikes have rear forks for extra suspension too.
Stem – the tube that attaches your handlebars to the bike. This is adjustable and can be extended or shortened to match your preferred riding position and posture.
Seat tube – the tube that extends from beneath your saddle down to the crank arm. This is often telescopic and can be adjusted to lower or raise your saddle. Most bike height measurements are based on this tube.
Shifters – the mechanisms that sit on your handlebars and allow you to change gear. There are a lot of different types of shifter. Some are finger-pull triggers, some have buttons you click with your thumb, and some have rotational shifters that you twist. Regardless of the style, all shifters work the same – moving your derailleur across the chainwheel or cassette to find each gear. See below for more info on shifting gear.
Bikes comes in a range of gear sizes, from single-speed road bikes to a whopping 27 gears for finely tuned riding. Simply put, the more gears you have available, the more specifically you can balance the ratio of effort to power.
Your total gear count is the amount of cogs in your cassette multiplied by the number of chainwheels. See the diagram – the cassette is the set of cogs on your back wheel, your chain wheel is the cog attached to the crankset and pedal.
For example: if your cassette has 7 cogs, and you have 3 chain wheels, this means your total gear count is 21. A 3-speed cassette with 1 chainwheels would give you 3 gears. Get it?
Why should I change gear?
You change gear to find the optimum balance of effort to power. If you are going up a steep hill in a high gear you’ll need to really struggle for each rotation of the pedals – though this will be adding maximum power to the front wheel.
‘High’ gears require more effort but apply LOTS of power to the wheels – this is ideal when you are already travelling at speed, or going downhill.
‘Low’ gears are for steep hills or getting the bike moving. There is less resistance, but also less forward momentum. If you try to pedal in a low gear on the flat or downhill you’ll just be spinning your pedals pointlessly.
On steep hills it is all about finding your personal comfort zone. Because there will be a limit to the amount of pressure you can put on your legs, you may need to drop down a gear, losing some forward power but avoiding injury or having to stop completely because it’s too hard to pedal.
If you are planning to use your bike for flat city commute or for casual country rides, then a bike with fewer gears (or even a single-speed) may suit you perfectly. With less parts comes less maintenance after all.
However, if you are looking for a sporty bike that will get you off the beaten track and to the top of big hills, then extra gears will come in very handy.
It’s all about making the best, balanced choice for you and your family. Don’t skimp on price if you plan to use the bike a lot, or for long distances. Pay attention to proper sizing and make sure you have enough gears to cover the kind of riding you plan to tackle.
Beyond that, just enjoy yourself. As 2020 has already proven, cycling is a joy, a hobby and a practical lifestyle all in one piece of kit.
Check out our extensive range of bikes, clothing and cycling equipment. If you have any questions not covered in this guide, feel free to drop them in the comments or on our social media channels.