Choosing a bicycle 101: Roadie, Hybrid, MTB, Touring or fixed gear?

23 September 2013   |   by Ajay Jaiman   |    cycling

So you’re thinking of buying a new cycle? And you are being bombarded by friends, fellow cyclists and salespeople by all kinds of conflicting information?

I have, in the past, tried to clear some smoke for friends. This is an attempt to make my suggestions available on the web. Do let me know if this post did the job for you. Let me start by saying that you will not get a straight answer. I will not tell you exactly what to do. Actually, I can’t because I don’t know anything about you. For instance, I have no clue where you live. What kind of terrain you plan to ride on, what motivates you, what your cycling goals are, how fit you are, and so on… All I can do is lay out ‘facts’ as objectively as I can, for you to chew on, and make up your own mind. When I say ‘facts’ please realize that these are not uncontested scientific facts of the kind we memorized in school. They are more like generally accepted norms.

[An MTB on a fully-loaded tour An fully-loaded touring bike

One more thing before we get to the meat. People are different. They have different skills, stamina, strength and threshold of pain. I might think riding 100 kms in a day is ‘nice’, you might think riding 100 kms is ‘nice’ only if it is done in under three hours, or you might think riding 500 kms is in a day is ‘nicer’. Or you might think riding 20 kms is ‘nice’. You and I may be on totally different cycles – literally and figuratively – and that is just fine.

I have seen some people do crazy stunts with a carbon Roadie – things that most people will not even try on a dual-suspension MTB (Mountain Bike). I have also seen MTB riders outrace riders on fancy carbon Roadies. Like I said, people are different. A post like this tries to address the ‘average’ person out there. So if you know that you are not average in some way, please feel free to calibrate the information for yourself.

With those disclaimers out of the way, let me start with a short listing of the basic types of cycles:

[An MTB on a fully-loaded tour An MTB on a fully-loaded tour

  • Road Cycle:
    Focused on speed on the road, with little or no regard for rider comfort.
  • MTB Cycle:
    Focused on ride-ability across the harshest and steepest of terrains. In the hands of a skillful rider it will go where the average SUV will not.
  • Hybrid cycle:
    Like the word indicates, it is a cross – between a road cycle and an MTB. A huge variety of versions exist across the spectrum.
  • Touring Cycle:
    Focused on reliability, comfort and weight carrying – designed to carry you and all your belongings across the world.
  • Fixed Gear:
    Focused on being reliable, inexpensive and literally maintenance-free. Generally speaking, a fixed gear cycle is useless in the hilly terrain.

Note: There are many other types of cycles, but in the interest of keeping it simple I am not including BMX, Time Trial, Cyclocross, Downhill, Recumbent etc.

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The following comparison table highlights the key features/aspects of each type of cycle (please see notes below the table for explanations):

  Roadie Hybrid MTB Touring Fixed gear
DESIGN FOCUS          
Speed Yes Some Some* No Some*
Comfort No Some Some* Yes Some
Minimal Maintenance No No No No Yes
Weight carrying No No No Yes No
Commuting No Yes No No Yes
           
TERRAIN FOCUS          
Tarred Road Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Gravel Some Yes Yes Yes Yes
Single track (pugdundee) No Some Yes Yes Some
Mild Off-road No No Yes Yes Yes
Serious Off-road No No Yes No No
           
SHOCK ABSORBERS          
Shock Absorbers -Front No Some Yes No No
Shock Absorbers -Rear No No Some** No No
           
TYPICAL GEAR SETUP***          
Front Gears (no. of teeth) 50/34 OR 50/40/30 48/38/28 44/32/22 48/38/28 No
Rear Gear Range (no. of teeth) 11/32 12/32 12/36 12/36 No
Typical Lowest Gear 34-32 28-32 22-36 28-36 Varies
Typical Lowest Gear Ratio (gear inches) 27.56 23.63 15.85 21.22 Varies
           
WEIGHT CARRYING CAPACITY          
Frame length for panniers No Yes Most^ Yes Yes
Eyelets for pannier racks No Yes Most^ Yes Yes
           
COMFORT          
Seating position^^ Bent down Upright Upright to semi-upright Upright Upright
Handlebar style Drops Flat Flat Flat/Drops/Butterfly Flat/Riser
           
COST IN INR^^^          
Entry Level Cycle 35k 20k 35k ~ 5K
Mid Level cycle 75k 40k 75k 75k 15K
High-end Cycle 150k 75k 200k 150k 30k

Notes to the table:

* To be read in the context of the terrain

** If you are reading this for advice you most certainly don’t need it

*** There is no ISO standard. There are a lot of variations. This is only indicative. Gear ratios are based on lots of assumptions (crank lengths, tire size and so on)

^ Except race-focused ones

^^ Seating position is a combination of top tube length, handlebar height etc.

^^^ Approximate range for established international brands_


hand propelled recumbent cycle A regular recumbent cycle, a hand propelled recumbent cycle (uses hands, instead of your legs to pedal) and a regular MTB!

Some FAQ’s about which cycle to buy:

  • You want to ride fast on decent roads.
    Consider a good Roadie.
  • You want to ride multi-week, self-supported expeditions in the Himalayas.
    Touring bike is your default choice.
  • You want to do some serious off-road rides.
    You have little choice: MTB.
  • You want to mostly ride on roads. But not necessarily on good roads. At least not most of the times.
    Get a road focused Hybrid. These do not have any suspension.
  • You want to mostly ride on poor roads, but on weekends you want to do some off-road too.
    Get a mountain focused Hybrid. The ones that will have a front shock absorber - typically with less than 100mm travel.
  • You can buy only one bike. You need to decide which one.
    Decide on how will you be using the cycle most often. In my experience most recreational cyclists spend most of their time riding in groups, and on roads. And occasionally on single tracks. If you roughly qualify, get a road-focused hybrid. If you are likely to be spending more time doing mild off-road rides get a mountain-focused hybrid. As a general rule, you are much better off buying a good Hybrid than a poor quality MTB – they generally tend to cost roughly the same.
  • You want only one bike that you want to tour with, but cannot afford a touring-specific bike, or you don’t plan to be expedition-ing?
    The answer depends on where you will be touring, for how long, with how much weight and so on. You could go with an MTB, and ‘some’ hybrids’ – not all hybrids have the right gearing for touring in hilly terrain. The answer perhaps requires a post by itself. Hopefully soon.
  • You have endless money but cannot make up your mind about which cycle to buy.
    Just buy one of each.
  • You have endless money but not enough space to keep all the cycles.
    Consider getting a top-end MTB. It might set you back by over a 200,000 INR but then you could really do almost anything with it. Well, almost anything. If you plan to be expedition-ing too then consider a titanium frame otherwise choose a carbon frame.

Still not sure? You are tired of all this ‘gyan’ (words of wisdom) and want a simple answer (to a complex problem).
Okay, if you insist. I will stick my neck out. If you are certain that you are not going to be doing much off-road then just buy a Hybrid. If you are not sure and want to play it safe then carefully evaluate your budget. If you can spend north of 30,000 INR then consider an MTB. Please do not buy a cheap MTB (especially DO NOT buy the cheap MTB with dual shock absorbers), a Hybrid would be a much better choice.

So good luck with getting your new wheels, and do write in if you have any experiences to share.