Bikes are vehicles, not toys. You shouldn't be rushed into buying a bike. There are a lot of pre-purchase decisions to make before you find the bike that's just right for you. Comfort, practicality, lightness, price, durability, and other considerations have to be taken into account. Before you head for the bike shop use this guide to work out which features you think you'll need.
What do you intend to use the bike for? Will you be commuting to work on it every day? Just nipping down to the shops now and then? Showing the kids your knowledge of the local disused railway paths at the weekends?
Will you be using it on city streets or off-road? For long periods on cycling holidays or short trips every day?
Probably it's a mix of many of the above. Bikes are very flexible creatures and can cope with whatever you throw at them, but it can't be escaped that many bikes have been designed for certain purposes and if most of your riding fits that criteria you've got a bike that will do what you want it to do.
Here are the basic types:
Road bikes are designed to be ridden at high speeds on smooth road surfaces. Because of this they are lightweight, with tyres pumped up to over 100psi to minimise friction, and dropped handlebars to force your body into that aerodynamically efficient Tour de France tuck. Road bikes can be easily damaged and are prone to punctures.
When you're not used to it, you will probably find the hunched forward riding position uncomfortable. This is not to say road bikes are for fit young people: plenty old-timers do hundreds of miles per week on their road bikes. It's just a matter of getting used to them.
If your primary aim is to get fit or do any kind of road racing then you need a road bike, even mountain bike professionals use them as part of their fitness training. If you're going to be commuting more than ten miles each way then a road bike - fitted with mudguards and a rack- can be a benefit because of its speed and the low rolling resistance of the tyres.
These now make up 70 percent of all bikes sold in the UK but that doesn't mean they are the right kind of bike for you. Very few mountain bikes - MTBs for short - get to see mountains but the chunky tyres, 26-inch wheels, strong frames and flat handlebars are pretty good for city streets too.
Because they are designed for going up (and down) steep slopes, MTBs have lots of low gears and highly effective brakes. For off-road comfort many MTBs feature front suspension forks; some also have suspension for the bum, too. These are called full suspension bikes and were originally designed for crazy downhill mountain bikers although suspension adds to any riders comfort.
Even without suspension products, the fat tyres on MTBs soak up the shocks and jarrs of off-road trails and city potholes. The knobbly tyres found on MTBs don't puncture easily but can rattle and hum on tarmac, slowing you down. By adding 'slick' tyres (ie fat tyres without knobbles), mudguards and lights you could convert your mountain bike into a good urban bike during the week and change back to knobblies for weekend rough stuffing.
Some hybrids come with internal hub gears. Component manufacturer Shimano calls hybrids 'Sports Touring Bikes' or STBs for short. Germans call them trekking bikes. Some people call them city bikes. Raleigh, and other companies, call them 'comfort bikes' because they equip them with seat posts with added bounce and suspension front forks.
The so-called Dutch roadster is a perfect utility bike, a real workhorse. They are virtually bombproof , very low maintenance and great in all weathers, although only really suitable for short journeys in flat areas.
A touring bike is a chunkier, more laid back and more comfortable version of the road bike. It normally has drop handlebars and mudguards and pannier racks for luggage. The wheelbase - the distance between the hubs - is longer than in either a road bike or an MTB, giving a smooth ride, ironing out all the bumps and potholes and making it easier to handle when loaded up with panniers.
Bicycle origami is thriving. Before we get to the dream of a fully integrated transport system the best way to get a bike onto a train, bus or underground service is to pack it down. There's even a theory that come ten years hence every new car will come with a folding bike in the boot because city-centre gridlock means cars will be next to useless and the only way to get about will be by bike!
Cheap folding bikes are heavy and don't fold down too well. More expensive ones fold down tiny in just 15 seconds. Because they are designed for the first and last legs of a commuter journey they sacrifice speed, stability and comfort for convenience. Typically they come with hub gears and may also be fitted with mudgurads and lights. Optional extras include folding pedals.
What size do I need?
To get the most out of cycling it's vital to have the right sized bike. Before setting off to the bike shop you need a tape measure. Your inside leg measurement determines what size frame you're going to need.
To find your frame size for road bikes and hybrids, multiply your inside leg measurement by 0.65, this will give you an approximate frame size in inches. The frame is measured by the distance along the seat tube from the centre of the bottom bracket to the centre of the top tube.
When you get to the shop, stand over and sit aboard a number of bikes.
When you stand over the bike there should be 2cm clearance between your crotch and the top tube for a touring bike, 3cm for a road bike, 4-6cm for a hybrid and 6cm+ for a mountain bike.
The reach of the handlebars should be comfortable and neither cramp you or strain your back. To pedal comfortably, the length of the crank should be about a fifth of your inside leg measurement. When you pedal, your leg should have a slight bend in it and never be extended fully. The old rule that you had to be able to touch the ground when sitting on the saddle is a load of tosh: if you can, your saddle and seat post need to be raised. (Note: this is not the case for children). Do this in small increments over a number of days so you get used to the new, higher position. Once you're used to it, you'll find you can cycle faster and for longer and with more comfort with less effort.
Am I pedalling right?
Cadence is important. This is the number of time your pedals go round per minute, your 'revs' if you will. Tour De France cyclists can pedal all day long and at great speeds because they 'spin'. Aim for something similar. Your legs should whizz round rather than strain in a high gear. And don't pedal with your heels. Your toes should be just over the lip of the front of the pedal.