The Low-Jargon Guide To All 21 Types Of Bicycles (& What They’re For)

Bicycle marketers, like all other marketers, are fond of new labels and categories.

For instance, if you haven’t tracked the bike industry for the last several years, then you might be perplexed by categories like “gravel” (what, do others just come to a halt at the first pebble?) and “enduro” (isn’t that a motorcycle thing?) or even “Dutch” (surely, there’s more than one kind in the whole country?).

But there’s a method to the madness, and by the end of this guide, you’ll be up to speed.

Better yet, you’ll know where to start looking for your own next ride.

I’m going to split this into four main sections: road (sport), city and commute, mountain, and BMX.

I’ll also give very brief suggestions of what they’re best for. Some overlap in use, and all are subject to personal preference, so the goal is just to point you in the right direction!

No matter what type you buy, plan on spending at least $500 for a new bike. Mind you, that’s a bare minimum, and fancier features or materials will quickly bump the price up. Whether it’s worth it is another matter, but keep in mind that Target bikes and the like are rarely fun or cost-effective in the long run.

As a quick caveat, there are a few, more niche styles that I won’t cover. They’re perfectly fine, but simply too obscure to worry about if you’re new (or newly returning) to cycling.

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Types of road bikes

Broadly, anything with relatively skinny tires and drop bars is fair to call a road bike. But as we’ll see in a second, that covers everything from a featherweight racing machine to a remarkably rugged pack mule of a bike.

Race & endurance road bikes

If you see a flock of weekend warriors zip by during your Saturday grocery run, this is almost certainly what they’re on.

The race and endurance varieties are about the same at a glance, and they function closely enough to lump together. Endurance models are likelier to have disc brakes, and usually slightly lower gearing.

(Some racing models are “aero,” as in aerodynamic. Their frames and basically all other components are specially designed to minimize wind resistance.)

But the biggest practical difference is that racing bikes will drop farther from the saddle to the handlebars, so the rider sits in a deeper forward lean. That’s notably more powerful, more aerodynamic, and less comfortable.

Best for:

  • Competitive road riding and training
  • High speeds on very smooth asphalt, over long distances

Also useful for:

  • Shorter tours with minimal luggage

Triathlon & time-trial road bikes

These are the slightly strange-looking bikes usually accompanied by those far stranger-looking aerodynamic helmets.

They emphasize aerodynamic for all-out speed on relatively flat terrain, at the expense of all comfort and practicality. (Triathletes do make subtle concessions to comfort given that they still need to run afterward, but these are subtle things like handlebar width or saddle position.)

Best for:

  • Triathlon and time-trial racing and training

Touring bikes

Going the other direction, touring bikes still bear a resemblance to racing and endurance road bikes, but with more relaxed geometry and an overall sturdier build. They’re not as fast, but more comfortable and practical.

They’re expected to carry significant cargo—perhaps enough to last someone through days or weeks of solo camping. They also avoid cutting-edge road bike components (like electronic shifting), which can be hard to service by the side of the road, and nearly impossible to replace when you’re somewhere remote.

Best for:

  • Long-distance road rides, especially with heavy luggage

Also useful for:

  • Commuting
  • Mellow dirt/gravel rides

Track bikes

Track bikes are designed for velodrome racing, and their stripped-down form has changed amazingly little over the years.

The hallmarks are a fixed-gear drivetrain and extremely low handlebars with a deep forward learn for maximum power and aerodynamic. Tires are also rock-hard and razor-thin, since they’re perhaps the only type of bike designed for truly flawless surfaces. Modern ones may use solid wheels for even better aerodynamics.

They caught on among bike messengers in the 1980s, and eventually grew from the messenger subculture into the hipster fixie craze of the 2000s-2010s.

Best for:

  • Track racing

Also useful for:

  • Impressing your hipster friends 😉

Cyclocross bikes

Cyclocross grew out of road racers’ off-season training in cold, muddy Central European winters. It’s exciting for riders and spectators alike to splash through enormous puddles and lead barriers (or fences, back in the day).

After a few decades, the phenomenon was big enough that serious racers wanted purpose-built bikes. And while they look much like road racing bikes, they’re built on stronger frames (to take all the jumps and bumps) with more ground clearance, disc brakes, and clearance for wide, mud-shedding tires.

Best for:

  • Cyclocross racing

Also useful for:

  • Gravel racing/training
  • High-speed commuting

Gravel bikes

What’s old is new again, and gravel cycling—the self-explanatory act of riding one’s bike on, well, gravel—has caught on in a big way. As a competitive discipline, it seems to have started with informal races on those endless Midwestern country roads.

Those conditions required more comfortable geometry, wider handlebars for control, generally disc brakes, and far fatter tires for traction and bump absorption.

All those traits solved a lot of the practical limitations of road bikes, while keeping their super-sporty feel. Gravel bikes’ versatility and outright fun probably made them fastest growing category of the late 2010s-early 2020s.

Best for:

  • Gravel racing/training

Also useful for:

  • Commuting
  • All-around adventure rides

Types of city & commuter bikes

A commuter bike can be anything you choose to use for commuting. That said, if you primarily cycle for transportation (as opposed to purely sport) then certain things are almost guaranteed to come in handy. All the types below have some combination of them.

Traditional Dutch bikes

The quintessential city bike is the big, upright, and (endearingly?) old-looking Dutch bike. While they’re probably English in origin, they’ve become so common in and well suited to Dutch cycling culture that the name stuck.

The hallmark is a perfectly upright riding position, which high and swept-back handlebars facilitate. Most are equipped with every imaginable accessory and convenience, from the obvious (like fenders) to the less common (like dynamo lighting and internally-geared hubs).

They can be difficult to find outside Europe, although some importers do offer them in limited numbers. Unfortunately, that means you may not have the chance to try one before buying, but this detailed look at whether Dutch bikes are worth it might make the decision easier.

Best for:

  • Relaxed commuting and urban transportation, especially when flat
  • Carrying compact but heavy loads (including children)

Also useful for:

  • Leisurely riding/cruising on asphalt or smooth dirt/gravel

Hybrid bikes

(Source: Trek Bikes)

Hybrid bikes are basically a combination of road bike frames, wheels, and drivetrains with a mountain bike cockpit. They often share practical accessories with traditional city bikes, but true to their roots, they lean toward the sporty side of things.

Hybrids aren’t designed for racing or extremely rough terrain, but they’re quicker than mountain bikes but more rugged and comfortable than (most) road bikes, which is a happy medium for many commuters.

Even though I personally prefer a more traditionally upright city bike, hybrids are still a great choice for daily use. To understand what your money gets you, take a look at this guide to my favorite hybrids around $500.

Best for:

  • Faster commuting and urban transportation
  • Riding for general exercise/fitness

Also useful for:

  • Dirt/gravel riding
  • Touring, if you don’t like drop bars

Modern city bikes

This is more my own term than the bike industry’s, but it seems fitting for all the bikes that put modern, hybrid-style, and readily affordable components on vaguely Dutch-inspired frames. It’s a more accessible take on a classic aesthetic.

By blending most of the comfort of a Dutch bike with most of the weight savings of a hybrid, they’ve particularly struck a chord with North Americans from the early 2010s onward.

This is one of the rare types whose success was driven less by major manufacturers than by smaller brands like Linus, Public, and Brooklyn Bicycles (as explained in this Brooklyn Franklin review).

Best for:

  • Commuting and urban transportation (usually flatter, but depends on gearing)
  • Leisure riding/cruising

Also useful for:

  • Gentle, flat dirt/gravel riding

Comfort bikes

There’s a fine line between comfort bikes and hybrids. In fact, a typical comfort bike is essentially a hybrid with a wide, cushy saddle and higher handlebars.

The better ones (like the Norco Scene) pictured above, basically combine the strength and light weight of a hybrid with the relaxed geometry and wide tires of a Dutch bike.

Compared to the clunky rental models that “comfort bike” might evoke, these newer models are surprisingly fun and quick around town.

Best for:

  • Leisure riding and cruising on pavement
  • Commuting

Also useful for:

  • Mellow dirt and gravel roads, for models with wide tires (around 50+ mm)

Beach cruisers

If a Dutch bike somehow looks too uptight and race-y, then nothing is more laid-back than a beach cruiser. They’re designed for exactly what the name suggests: leisurely rolling up and down the coast, with no agenda but seeing the sights and enjoying the fresh air.

Besides the extremely laid-back riding position, a clear giveaway is the handlebars that might look like those of a cruiser motorcycle. So-called balloon tires are another classic touch, probably born of a need for traction on sandy paths.

A few brands—most notably Electra—have used a cruiser-inspired design for more or less urban commuter purposes. Geometry tweaks, wider gearing, and all-around better component quality help.

Best for:

  • Very leisurely cruising on flat terrain without tight, sharp corners

Cargo bikes

They do precisely what the name implies: carry a whole lot of stuff. Many have cargo capacities of several hundred pounds, making them perfect car alternatives for families and certain businesses.

Cargo bikes come in a few flavors.

Long-tail designs are the most common, since they’re a standard city or hybrid design that’s stretched out to some degree.

There’s also the distinctive bakfiets (pronounced “bock-feets,” literally “box bike” in Dutch). They have a wheelbarrow-like box in the front for exceptionally large loads.

Like nearly everything else on this list, electric-assist versions are available. And if you want to carry large loads up hills at more than a snail’s pace, they’re probably necessary.

Best for:

  • Hauling unusually large or heavy loads over short distances

Also useful for:

  • Relaxed commuting and urban transportation (for a long-tail; less so for a bakfiets)

Folding bikes

If you live or work in a big city, you’ve probably seen fully-grown adults on what look like children’s bikes. These are in fact adult bikes, but ones designed to fold up to impressively small dimensions. That way, they’re easier to take on transit, store in offices and small apartments, or simply throw in the trunk of the car on the weekend.

Most ride a lot like hybrids, just with a nimbler but slightly rougher ride from the smaller wheels.

(There are in fact folding mountain bikes and drop-bar road bikes, too, but they’re not something you’re likely to see around town.)

There are some non-obvious things to consider about the folding design and small wheels, so check out this folding bike overview to start, and consider these drawbacks, too.

Best for:

  • Carrying on transit
  • Storing in extremely cramped places
  • All-around riding on asphalt (designs vary widely)

Also useful for:

  • Gentle dirt/gravel riding
  • Light touring

Mini velos

(Source: Orbea)

Many urbanites need something easier to handle and store than a full-size bike, but not as tiny as a folding bike. Mini velos serve that purpose, and they’re especially common in large East Asian cities, where small apartments (with equally small halls, stairs, and elevators) are quite common.

While the wheels are “mini,” everything else is what you’d find on a standard bicycle. They’re a terrifically practical solution, and I’ve always wondered why they haven’t quite caught on in the West.

This mini velo guide covers them in far greater detail, and shares a few of the most interesting models around right now.

Best for:

  • Storing in small apartments
  • All-around riding on asphalt (designs vary widely)

Also useful for:

  • Gentle dirt/gravel riding
  • Light touring

Recumbent bikes

Most of us do a double-take when we see a low, almost chair-like two-wheeled…thing…fly by on the bike path. As unusual as they look, those recumbent bicycles are more popular than you might expect.

The main advantage is back and hip support. In fact, for some riders with significant orthopedic challenges, they’re the best (or even the only) way to get around on two wheels. They’re also easier to adapt for hand power, which opens up cycling to those with limited or no use of their legs.

Best for:

  • Riding with certain orthopedic issues
  • Adapting for hand-powered riding

Types of mountain bikes

Mountain bikes range from light, quick XC bikes to massive downhill racers that look like motorcycles without an engine.

And as you’d guess, they serve very different purposes.

These days, virtually all have flat handlebars and disc brakes. A front suspension fork is basically universal as well, although the fork’s travel (the distance it compresses) varies quite a bit.

Beyond those basic similarities, everything from frame geometry to component choices depends on what it’s intended for.

Trail & XC bikes

These have a good combination of ruggedness, light weight, and climbing ability for general-purpose mountain biking. Some are more race-oriented, with lower handlebars for a more aggressive riding position, plus a whole lot of carbon fiber for weight reduction. Others a little more laid-back, but still designed for similar terrain.

Full-suspension and hardtail (front-suspension only) bikes are both common in this category. Hardtails predominate at lower price points, since they’re much cheaper to manufacture, but high-end hardtails are certainly available, too. Suspension travel is usually on the shorter side, since they’re not expected to launch off large drops or plough through boulders at high speed.

It’s a fuzzy distinction between XC and trail, but generally speaking, the latter denotes slightly wider tires, more upright posture, and longer-travel suspension. Again, they’re both terrific all-around choices if you don’t ride extreme terrain.

Best for:

  • XC racing
  • All-around trail riding
  • Extended off-road climbs

Also useful for:

  • Aggressive trail riding (on less race-oriented models)
  • Bikepacking and adventure riding
  • Dirt and gravel roads (especially if only front suspension, or none)

Enduro bikes

Enduro MTB racing is a relatively new phenomenon. It involves fast and extremely rough descents like you might find on a downhill course, but also requires climbing in between those sections. This calls for a bike that’s extra-stable at high speed, significantly stronger than your average trail bike, and has a couple inches of extra suspension travel to help you keep in control.

And if that sounds like typical, everyday riding—pedal to the top, bomb back down, and repeat—that’s because it is.

Consequently, enduro bikes have become a hit not just for racers, but for everyone who has to climb for their descents (or who think full-on downhill bikes are overkill).

Best for:

  • Enduro racing
  • Fast, aggressive trail riding
  • Large jumps and drops

Also useful for:

  • All-around trail riding

Downhill bikes

Downhill bikes are made for racing down ludicrously rough, steep terrain with enormous drops and jumps along the way. They look not unlike dirt bikes (i.e., motorcycles) with the engines removed.

There’s no need to pedal back to the top, thanks to chairlifts or shuttle vehicles, so gearing and riding position are optimized 100% for high-speed descents.

Best for:

  • Downhill racing
  • Extreme trail riding without climbs

Also useful for:

  • Enduro racing (on courses with minimal climbing)

Vintage MTBs

Modern hybrid bikes and vintage mountain bikes are very similar in design, and both are excellent for commuting and urban riding

This is more of a catch-all than an actual category, but vintage mountain bikes do have some meaningful differences.

Firstly, they’re more often made of steel than their modern counterparts. Multi-decade lifespans are common, with proper maintenance.

Most older MTBs also have a riding position that’s close to today’s hybrids than to any current-year mountain bikes. That’s partly because suspension didn’t exist (so the geometry didn’t need to accommodate it) and partly because most older race courses weren’t as punishingly technical.

For these reasons, some vintage MTBs make excellent all-around city and commuter bikes. They’ll need slight modifications to be suitable for commuting, they don’t have disc brakes (which most of us don’t really need, and use 26″ wheels rather than today’s 27.5″/650b and 29″/700c standards. But if that’s all right—and for most commuters, it should be—then vintage MTBs can be great deals on fun and endearingly retro bikes.

Best for:

  • Relaxed trail riding
  • Dirt/gravel riding

Also useful for:

  • Commuting and urban transportation (with some modifications)

Types of BMX bikes

BMX bikes are a whole other world from what we’ve covered above. They’re perfect for doing tricks or hitting the race track, thanks to bomb-proof parts and small, easily maneuvered frames and wheels.

But other styles are far better choices for any other purpose. Most notably, they’re not intended to ride sitting down, so they’re ill-suited to commuting or any other sustained effort.

BMX race bikes

BMX stands for “bicycle motocross,” which reflects its origins with young people on bicycles imitating their motocross heroes. You could say racing is the original form of BMX.

The name of the game is light weight, or at least the lightest weight that’ll still handle large, high-speed jumps on the track. To that end, aluminum and even carbon fiber frames are common. Tires are also a bit narrower than on freestyle bikes, mostly to keep weight and rolling resistance down.

The standard wheel size for youth and adults is 20″ (smaller for little kids). However, “cruiser” bikes with 24″ wheels are also commonly raced, and newer adult riders may find them more comfortable and intuitive.

Best for:

  • BMX racing

BMX freestyle bikes

Besides racing, the other big category of BMX is freestyle riding.

It breaks down further into dirt jumping, park/street, and flatland, each of which calls for slightly different bike features. But the variations are small—perhaps as subtle as tire choice and brake configuration—so the bikes are much more similar than not.

Many people even use a single freestyle BMX bike for more than one of those disciplines. They’re also possible to use for racing as a beginner, but most will need pegs removed and a brake added to meet racing rules.

Wheels are always 20″ for older children and adults, although smaller wheels do exist for kids’ bikes.

Best for:

  • Freestyle BMX riding

Also useful for:

  • Very quick trips around town
  • BMX racing at a beginner level (but may require modifications)

Parting thoughts on choosing the right type of bike

There’s a very good chance you’d enjoy more than one type of bike. More extreme or freestyle riding calls for a dedicated bike, as does almost any form of racing, but you probably don’t need a whole fleet.

That’s good news for your bank account, since dedicated bikes get expensive, fast!

Having owned or ridden all the above (except for recumbents), some of them quite extensively, here’s my simple suggestion:

Two purpose-built bikes are often more fun than one all-rounder.

But as a corollary, if you can only have one, then get the type that feels at ease with however you ride most often—not with the rare exceptions.

It’s more fun to take a bike a little beyond its intended purpose (within reason!) than to have one that’s overkill for 90% of your actual riding.

Otherwise, just like the person grocery shopping with squeaky-clean lifted 4×4, it’s over the top (and simply not fun) for how you spend the majority of your time.

And by resisting the temptation to over-buy right now, you’ll have a bigger budget when the time does come for an upgrade or a second bike.