BMX bikes all look similar at a glance, but that belies some big differences.
From little kids getting their first taste of a skatepark, to tall adults ripping up a race track, there’s a BMX bike for just about every person and setting.
There’s a surprising amount to wrap your mind around if you’re new to the BMX world, or cycling in general. This article will get you up to speed on the most common types and options, and briefly answer some questions you’ve probably pondered.
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How are BMX bikes different from…everything else?
BMX bikes are unique because they’re made to ride standing up for short, aggressive sprints and tricks. BMX bikes not intended for long distances or practical/utilitarian use, so they lack all but the most essential features.
In other words, they’re ideal for tricks and tracks, but terrible for commuting, mountain bike, long-distance riding, and so forth!
In practice, this shows up in a few aspects:
- A characteristically low seat that stays out of the way as the rider moves their weight for balance, jumps, and tricks. You can sit on it, but it’s there mostly to protect you from the wheel and to provide a spot to rest. It’s far too low to sit and pedal.
- Small wheels that are nimble and unobtrusive. The standard diameter is 20″ for older kids and adults, but 24″ bikes (known as “cruisers”) are also popular for racing, and 12″-18″ are widely available for younger riders.
- Super-strong parts that can handle crashes, “cased” jumps, and all sorts of (ab)use. Weight is somewhat of a consideration—more for race bikes—but strength is usually the top priority.
- Generally just a rear brake, and sometimes none at all. We’ll come back to this later.
Just how many kinds are there?
There are basically three types of BMX bikes: race, freestyle (park), and dirt jump. As similar as they look, there are actually some major design differences.
BMX race bikes
These are the lightest kind of BMX bike. They’re also the least burly—though still plenty strong—and can be made of anything from low-end steel to exotic carbon fiber.
Races seldom last more than 45 seconds, which is essentially an all-out sprint, so weight matters far more on the track than at the park or dirt jumps.
But race tracks have (milder) jumps aplenty, so race bikes are still sturdy enough to take a pounding. They just don’t need to withstand as much thrashing as park or jump bikes do, so the whole package ends up at least a few pounds lighter. High-end race bikes are well under 20 lbs, compared to roughly 25 pounds for something suited to the park or jumps.
Notably, race bikes always have a single rear brake. That helps scrub speed, which is critical in a tight pack. Front brakes are far more powerful, but panic stops are both unnecessary and unsafe on the track, so the rear brake alone is sufficient.
Most have slightly narrow tires with minimal tread. Less width means less weight and rolling resistance, while the smooth or lightly knurled tread provides a bit of traction for accelerating and cornering on hard-packed dirt.
Another visual difference is that race bikes don’t have pegs, since there’s just no opportunity for tricks on the track. What’s more, those protruding, pipe-like parts would endanger other racers.
Freestyle BMX bikes
Also known as park (or skatepark) bikes, these are probably the most common and versatile style. For most of us, they embody what the phrase “BMX” evokes: jumps, tricks, and tough-as-nails construction.
You’ll find fatter tires for traction and shock absorption, extremely beefy frames and rims, additional spokes for wheel strength, and usually at least one pair of pegs.
These can get heavy. Inexpensive (< $400) models often approach 30 lbs, although high-end bikes will drop at least 5 lbs thanks to higher-quality steel and more sophisticated manufacturing technqiues.
All that weight would be a handicap when sprinting out the gate, but it’s a reasonable trade-off for the knocks and bumps of freestyle riding.
These days, it’s en vogue to skip the brakes altogether on freestyle bikes. There’s an element of practicality, since the cables may get in the way during certain tricks (although a gyro—or brake cable detangler—can help solve that problem). But it’s also a trend and even a mindset, since riding brake-less arguably encourages a smoother and more deliberate riding style. Just beware that most jurisdiction require a brake when riding on public roads.
That said, flatland tricks often require both front and rear brakes, and usually a full set of front/rear + left/right pegs. The heyday of flatland was at least a couple decades ago, so few riders own dedicated flatland bikes these days.
Dirt jump bikes
Finally, dirt jumpers are somewhere in between, with slightly lighter frame and wheel construction than freestyle bikes, but still stronger than a typical racer.
Compared to freestyle bikes, dirt jumpers are far more similar than not. The most significant difference is deeper tire tread. Dirt jump landing can be steep and sketchy, so these tires are usually fatter than racing tires and feature a more pronounced chevron tread pattern.
A single rear brake is the norm, since it offers just enough speed control for safety, but no superfluous cables or weight.
There are no pegs, seeing as there’s nothing to grind or rest on mid-air.
Can you race on a freestyle bike?
You can generally race on a freestyle BMX bike if you add (or keep) the rear brake and remove the pegs. You’ll also want a higher gear ratio to help you keep up with racing speeds. Gearing changes are strictly optional, but prudent!
Contact your local race organizer in case there are any additional rules.
If you already own a freestyle bike, then it’s a good way to try out racing before spending more money on a dedicated bike. If you do get into racing, then you can upgrade to a lighter, quicker bike as you progress.
What about freestyle on a race bike?
Yes, it’s fine to ride freestyle BMX on a race bike. You might want to go easy, especially if you’re new to freestyle and struggling to ride smoothly. Race bikes just can’t handle the same beating as freestyle bikes.
If you keep progressing at the skatepark, you’ll probably want a separate bike with different tires, a set of pegs, a gyro brake system (or no brakes at all), and an overall strong build. But for testing the waters, your race bike is perfectly fine.
Do BMX bikes have brakes?
It depends on the style of bike. All BMX race bikes and most dirt jumpers have a rear brake. Freestyle bikes often have no brakes at all, but many (especially for new riders) still have at least a rear brake.
Freestyle bikes without brakes have become a ubiquitous trend in the last decade, give or take, but they weren’t always the norm. The invention of gyros (way back in the 1980s!) made it possible to use brakes even for complicated tricks,
But what about coaster brakes for BMX?
BMX bikes don’t have coaster brakes, since they’d make it impossible to backpedal. Instead, BMX bikes exclusively use hand-operated brakes.
Backpedaling enables you to reposition your feet for balance and support. Proper foot position is critical for all the tricks and jumps that BMX involves. Unfortunately, coaster brakes take effect when you (try to) backpedal, so they’d be challenging at best, and often downright dangerous!
Most coaster brakes also weight more than rim brakes, which is yet another reason they’re not used in BMX.
Note that some kids’ bikes with coaster brakes are design to resemble BMX bikes, and the manufacturer might even call them such. But that’s just marketing, and those bikes are not suitable for actual BMX use.
Do BMX tires use tubes?
Yes, virtually all BMX tires use inner tubes because they’re simple, easy to work with, and nearly universal. Tubeless BMX tires do exist, but they’re very rare, and require new rims and/or a special mounting process.
Tubeless tires can reduce weight, prevent pinch flats at low pressures, and reduce the effect of a puncture. But weight isn’t a big concern for BMX, there’s already less chance of pinch flats given the higher pressure of BMX tires, and you can also use sealant inside your inner tubes.
So, while the BMX world might adopt tubeless tires one day, inner tubes will remain the norm for the foreseeable future.
Do they make 24″ BMX bikes?
Yes, 24″ BMX bikes are common for teenage and adult racing, where they compete in the “Cruiser” class. You can also find 24″ dirt jumpers, which might be more comfortable for those around 6 feet and taller.
Some 24″ freestyle BMX bikes do exist, but they’re not common. The larger wheels are heavier and less nimble, and can get in the way during some tricks (especially grinds).
However, there are some slopestyle and dirt jump mountain bikes with 24″ and even 26″ wheels, which many riders use at skateparks and dirt jumps.
These lack the agility and lightness of a classic 20″ bike, and may have issues with cable routing and peg compatibility. However, they’re arguably easier for tall folks who take up freestyle as an adult.
Can I buy a BMX bike with suspension?
No. BMX bikes are rigid in order to maximize control, minimize weight, and reduce the number of breakable parts.
Suspension is great for eating up high-speed bumps. But BMX riding is on relatively smooth concrete and well-maintained, hard-packed dirt, so that bumpy “chatter” doesn’t really exist.
What about the large impacts? Well, if you ride smoothly (that’s the goal!) then your own body absorbs them. Suspension can react faster to repeated, high-speed bumps…but your knees and elbows can travel much farther and therefore absorb more.
(There have actually been a few BMX prototypes and DIY projects with suspension, but none are mass-produced, nor even available secondhand. If you’re really set on a BMX-like bike with suspension, then check out a 24″ or 26″ slopestyle mountain bike or dirt jump mountain bike, instead.)
Do BMX bikes have kickstands?
No, BMX bikes don’t and shouldn’t have kickstands. That’s for three reasons:
- Kickstands could extend by accident during a trick or a race, which would endanger you and others.
- There’s some risk of the kickstand catching on your foot or on an obstacle.
- Kickstands are just unnecessary weight, since it’s perfectly fine to set a BMX bike on its side.
Now, you might see kids’ bikes that are labeled “BMX” and sold with kickstands. However, these are generally big-box store bikes (avoid them!) and not actual BMX bikes. They simply look the part…kind of.