How to choose a bicycle

Whether you're after a Pashley Princess or something a bit more rugged, our guide to picking the perfect bicycle will sort your MTBs from your hybrids and have you cycling on your dream ride in no time at all

  • MTB, hybrid or road bike?

    With the exception of fold-ups, most of today’s bicycles still employ the classic diamond-shaped frame Essex-born John Starley invented in 1885. To the untrained eye, one bicycle looks much like another. It’s only when mounted that the rider is able to feel the differences between one model and the next. This is especially true when deciding between a mountain bike, a hybrid or a road bike. They may look similar, but there are major differences.

    MTB: (Scott Reflex 20, £479) - by far the most versatile of bike breeds

    Mountain bike
    The mountain bike (aka MTB) runs on 26-inch wheels, has a robust frame, fat knobbly tyres and low gearing to cope with very steep off-road excursions. Depending on the angle of the handlebar mount (or stem), it might require the rider to adopt a slightly tucked riding position. It’s this aggressive, hunched posture that tends to put some people off MTBs. Nevertheless, the MTB is by far the most versatile of bike breeds; it can easily be adapted for commuting purposes simply by swapping its knobbly tyres for slick road tyres (as we’ve done in the picture of Scott’s Reflex 20 model). Mountain bikes are divided into two main categories: hardtail (which has front suspension only) and full-suspension. Avoid buying a full-suspension bike for commuting alone: even the expensive models are heavy; the cheap ones are made out of plumbing materials.As with shoes, choosing an MTB that fits is paramount: you’re looking to get at least two-and-a-half inches of air between the top tube and your crotch. Any less and you risk a painful reminder that you have bought the wrong size. Most manufacturers build 14-, 15- and 16-inch MTBs for the smaller cyclist.

    Trusted brands: Scott, Kona, Trek, Specialized, Marin, Cannondale, Giant.

    Hybrid: (Ridgeback Genesis, £399) - large wheels, more speed, less effort

    The hybrid was developed as a sort of halfway house between an MTB and a road bike. The wheels are of a larger diameter, providing more speed with less effort. All hybrids are shod with slim, semi-slick road tyres for minimal rolling resistance and, as with road bikes, the outside front chain ring is super-large for a natural cadence when riding on the flat or downhill. Hybrids have a similar geometry to road bikes, the main differences being the flat handlebars and high-rise stem (the metal clamp that joins the handlebars to the headset). Consequently, the ride position on a hybrid is usually much more upright and comfortable than that of a road bike or MTB.

    Again, correct size is of the utmost importance, although here you’re able to get away with less standover height than on an MTB: an inch will usually suffice. Hybrids are capable of cruising along cinder tracks; they are not suitable for hammering along the South Downs Way or anywhere else with rugged terrain.

    Trusted brands: Ridgeback, Specialized, Scott, Trek, Marin.

    Road bike: (Bianchi Via Nirone, £499) - for speed, endurance and distance on tarmac

    Road bike
    If speed, endurance and distance are of the essence, and you have no desire to venture beyond the tarmac, nothing beats a good-quality road bike. The drop handlebars offer many hand positions for long journeys, the gears are perfectly set up for both climbing and tearing down hills, and the frame geometry is conducive to maximum energy efficiency and speed. The wheels and tyres are very narrow and light for minimum rolling resistance. Best ridden in Lycra cycle clothing and with clipless shoes on your feet.

    Trusted brands: Bianchi, Condor, Scott, Trek, Specialized, Cannondale, Colnago.

    Fold-up: (Brompton C3, £395) - no other style of bike can compete for practicality


    If you live within five miles of work or commute by train from outside the London area, consider a folding bike. It’s perfect for taking on the train (especially the smaller Brompton) and when you get to work, you can keep it under your desk. If there’s a downside, it’s the size of the wheels. Most folding bikes come with small 16-inch wheels and short wheel bases for practical folding. The drawbacks are a generally low top speed, poor energy efficiency and occasional instability. That said, no other style of bike can compete for practicality.

    Trusted brands: Brompton, Dahon, Birdy, Ridgeback and Giant.

    How much should I spend?
    Most beginners opt to spend no more than around £150 on a bike. And there’s nothing wrong with that. That said, chances are most beginners will know little or nothing about the workings of a bicycle so that when things go wrong, that nice cheap bike will end up in the shed – along with all the other cheap bikes in London. In the bicycle world, there is no such thing as cheap and cheerful. Cheap bikes are made from very heavy materials which give out after a few months’ commuting. It happens time and time again: loose headsets and cranks, wobbly wheels, slipping gears, stripped nuts, you name it.

    So, for the sake of reliability, better frame quality and low weight, consider spending in the region of £400. From £700 and up, the frame materials get even lighter and the components improve dramatically to include disc brakes for easy stopping in the wet. Bikes in this price range offer fuss-free riding year after year, with very little fettling required. Also, having spent that much, chances are you’ll look after it better than you would a cheap clunker. Besides, if you think about it, £700 is still some £150 cheaper than an annual two-zone Oyster card. Come the second year of ownership, you’ll be quids in.

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