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Which type of bike should I buy? From electric to trail, here’s everything you need to know

Whether you’re planning to tackle muddy woodland descents, try your hand at a spot of road racing or just amble along your local canal towpath, you’ll find a bike that fits the bill

Paddy Maddison
Wednesday 27 January 2021 17:41 GMT
When choosing a frame, it’s all in the geometry
When choosing a frame, it’s all in the geometry (iStock/The Independent)

The coronavirus pandemic has rendered many of the nation’s favourite ways to keep fit off-limits. As a result, more people are now turning to two wheels for their daily dose of exercise.

Government stats from summer 2020 showed cycling had experienced a 300 per cent increase in popularity, and as we cautiously edge further into the Twenties, that number isn’t getting any smaller.

But, for the thousands of newcomers, the world of cycling can be a confusing place. The seemingly simple task of choosing a new bike can quickly become a head-scratching affair, thanks largely to the dizzying amount of subgenres out there. Not all bikes are created equal.

That’s why the first step in buying one should be to get acquainted with the different types on offer, and decide which one best meets your needs.

Here you’ll find some key information on the most common types of bike and what sort of cyclist they suit best. 

Whether you’re planning to hurl yourself down muddy woodland descents, try your hand at a spot of road racing or just amble along your local canal towpath, you’ll find a machine that fits the bill below.

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps us to fund journalism across The Independent.

Finding the perfect fit

When shopping for a new bike, one factor trumps everything else: the fit. If a bike isn't the correct size for you, it's going to be uncomfortable and make it impossible to achieve a good riding position. 

Most manufacturers will have a chart somewhere on their website showing various models’ frame sizes relative to rider height. Sizes will usually be either numbers – 48, 50, 52, 54, etc – which usually denote the length of the seat tube or (less commonly) top tube, or the standard S, M or L format. The chart will give you a rough idea of which to pick based on your height.

But it's worth noting that this really is a rough idea. Things like inseam length and arm length all factor into it. The good news is that most of these variables can be addressed easily with small adjustments to the bike, like altering the saddle height or using a different stem (the bit that connects the handlebars to the steerer tube). For total peace of mind, get booked in for a professional bike fit at your local bike shop.

The details

Aside from a good fit, there are a few key factors to consider when choosing a new bike. These are the details that will determine performance and they vary greatly depending on a specific bike's intended purpose.


Unless you’re a track cyclist, a hipster or are deliberately trying to rid yourself of your teeth, you’ll want a set of brakes on your bicycle.

Brakes tend to come in two distinct varieties: rim and disc. Rim brakes are cable operated and work by pinching the rim of the wheel between two rubber pads. Disc brakes can be either hydraulic or mechanical (hydraulic is much more efficient) and work by pinching a metal disc attached to the hub of the wheel between two pads.

The best braking setup depends largely on how you intend to use your bike. For example, traditionally rim brakes have been the go-to for road cyclists as they tend to be lighter (although disc brakes are becoming increasingly popular), whereas disc brakes are the smart choice for mountain bikers as they offer more reliable performance when muddy or wet.


Groupset is the term used to describe all of the moving parts involved in braking, gear shifting and running the chain. It's essentially the engine of a bike and plays a massive role in determining performance and ride quality.

It's a big old can of worms, but the salient facts are these: there are three key manufacturers – Shimano, SRAM, and, less commonly, Campagnolo – and it’s best to stick to them; they can be mechanical or electronic; higher prices equate to increased lightness and smoother shifting; and they all basically do the same job.

Finishing kit

This includes any solid parts that are surplus to a bike’s frame and fork (frameset). We're talking handlebars, saddle, seat post and stem. These are the bits that can be easily swapped out or adjusted to achieve a better fit or increase comfort, so don't let something like an uncomfortable stock saddle put you off an otherwise great deal.

Wheels and tyres

What you're rolling on plays a massive part in how a bike feels and how it performs in certain conditions. Again, what to look for in a set of wheels hinges on their intended use. A pair of deep-section carbon wheels with 25mm slick tyres is all well and good if you're racing along tarmac, but not so much on a muddy mountainbiking trail.

Generally, some key things to look for in wheels are weight (lighter is better), material (carbon fibre is king but comes at a premium, opt for alloy to save money) and size (wheel size coupled with the frame's tyre clearance is important if you want to use fatter tyres).

Which type of bike is best for me?

Folding bike

In big cities like London where space comes at a premium, not everyone has the luxury of being able to store a full-sized bike. The solution? Get one that folds up small enough to pop in a cupboard. A folding bike is the perfect companion for urban commuting. It’s small, it’s practical and you can take it onto public transport without becoming public enemy number one.

Best for: Life in the city

IndyBest’s best buy folding bike: Brompton black edition S2L: £1190, Brompton

The classic Brompton is perfect for a long commute where you’ll need to slot it into the luggage space on a bus, tram or train (Brompton)

Taking the crown in our review of the best foldable bikes, chat to any cyclist about folding bikes and the name Brompton will soon come up. They have been built in London since 1975 to a design that has hardly changed. Our tester said: “The long seat post and a rubber suspension block in the rear assembly make for a comfy ride, while the 16in wheels allow for speedy acceleration. The smaller wheel size also means they are strong – important on potholed roads.” 

“This smart black version has straight S-type handlebars, two-speed gearing, mudguards and rechargeable Cateye lights – making it perfect for commuting. With practice, you should soon be able to fold one in about 20 seconds.”

Racing road bike

For those with a need for speed, a racing bike could be the best way to go. With drop handlebars, thin tyres and an aggressive riding position (stretched out with the upper body down low), they’re primarily designed to be quick, nimble and light. 

Ever watched the Tour de France? Then you’re already well acquainted with this breed of bicycle. The only drawback is that the aerodynamic riding position can be uncomfortable for extended periods, particularly for those who lack flexibility or aren’t used to it. 

The performance of a racing bike is usually maximised by using cycling shoes that slot into the cleats, a type of pedal with fastenings. These hold the foot in place, allowing for momentum to be gained through the entire pedal rotation. 

Best for: Speed and agility

Endurance road bike

Designed for long stints in the saddle on tarmac, endurance road bikes balance speed and comfort. They feature drop handlebars, thin tyres (usually somewhere between 25mm and 28mm) and offer a slightly more upright, less aerodynamic riding position than a pure-bred racing bike. As a result, they’re much more comfortable over long distances, where minimising position-related aches and pains is far more important than a small reduction in drag.

Best for: Anyone who wants to be quick but also comfortable, whether it’s on a 100-miler or just your daily fitness spin around the block

Time-trial bike

Time-trial (TT) bikes are designed to do one thing and one thing only: go as fast as possible, with minimal cornering. If you’ve ever seen a lycra-clad cyclist zip past while straddling something that looked more like a prop from Battlestar Galactica than a bike, chances are it was one of these. As the name would suggest, they’re for riding time trials – a type of racing where cyclists compete solo against the clock. 

Aerodynamics are central to the design of TT bikes. They need to cut through the air as efficiently as possible, and they put the rider in a very aggressive position to achieve this. The upside of this is that they’re extremely nippy. The downside is that they’re notoriously uncomfortable and highly impractical for casual, non-competitive use.

Best for: Going extremely fast in short bursts


If getting to and from the shops or simply having a leisurely pootle at the weekend is your main objective, then a carbon-fibre racing bike or full-suspension mountain bike is probably a tad OTT. What you need is a hybrid. These humble all-rounders take the best bits from a wide range of bike styles and use them to create something that’s functional and comfortable enough for the everyday, casual cyclist. 

Hybrids tend to feature flat handlebars, road-bike gearing and tyres of medium thickness for both tarmac and light off-road use. They’re also one of the most affordable and accessible types of bike, making them perfect for beginners or those on a budget.

Best for: Commuting, running errands and getting a spot of light exercise at the weekend

IndyBest best buy hybrid bike: Boardman HYB 8.9: £1000, Halfords


The winner of our review of the best hybrids, this one has got performance to match its good looks. “Boardman has gone for a 12-speed gearing set up with a single chainring at the front for simplicity and an astonishing 51 teeth available on the cassette. Such a combination will let you tackle just about anything our roads can throw at you,” our tester noted.

They found the integrated stem and handlebar set up clean and stylish, while the alloy frame and carbon fork mean it weighs in around the 10kg mark – something you’ll appreciate if trading up from a mountain bike or cheaper hybrid. “The 700c wheels are shod with quality 35mm Schwalbe Marathon tyres that should offer plenty of grip when you use the powerful Shimano hydraulic disc brakes. You can fit mudguards and a pannier rack to make it a great everyday commuter,” our reviewer added.

Gravel bike

A few years back, nobody had heard of gravel bikes. Now, they’re everywhere. Sometimes called “all-road bikes”, these drop-bar bruisers take the general geometry and configuration of a road bike and mate it with gearing and tyre sizes more akin to a mountain bike. The result is a machine that can zip over tarmac reasonably quickly, but, unlike a road bike, will excel when the road runs out. 

If you’re keen to get off the beaten track and away from traffic but don’t want to write the road off entirely, a gravel bike is the way to go.

Best for: Exploring the road less travelled

Cross–country mountain bike

Hurtling down near-vertical woodland trails isn’t for everyone. For those who still want to get off-road but in a less extreme manner, a cross-country (XC) mountain bike is a good option. XC bikes are usually hardtails and can be very similar to trail mountain bikes in many ways. The key difference is the geometry. 

While trail mountain bikes are built with going downhill in mind, XC bikes are designed to be versatile and need to be able to climb too. For this reason, they have a steeper head angle (meaning the front wheel sits further back), which makes them less suited to aggressive downhill riding but perfect for all-round off-road action.

Best for: Off-road versatility

Trail mountain bike

If your dreams are filled with jumps, berms and root-riddled descents then a trail mountain bike is what you need. These virtually bombproof machines feature flat handlebars, fat knobbly tyres, and a slack head angle (this means the front wheel is further out in front of the handlebars) for stability on steep downhill terrain. Trail mountain bikes also boast suspension for tackling rough and uneven ground at speed. 

There are two types of setup to consider: full suspension (shock absorbers in the fork and frame) or hardtail (fork only, rigid frame). The former makes for a smoother ride but some riders prefer hardtails for their lightness and the tactile feedback provided by the stiff back end.

Best for: Tearing it up at your local trail centre

IndyBest’s best buy trail bike: Privateer 141 complete bike: £2989, Privateer

The full suspension aluminium 141 is already producing some quality rides (Privateer)

This UK manufacturer is still a newbie in the trail-bike, making it even more impressive for winning our round-up fo the best trail bikes. Our reviewer said: “It has pitch-perfect geometry that translates into a feeling of great balance when in the saddle – even at speed when hurtling down a mountainside, you feel totally in control, giving you plenty of time to choose the right line and avoid obstacles.” They felt that it delivered a smooth ride when they wanted a burst of acceleration and kept things under control in the corners.

Electric mountain bike

What comes down must go up. In other words, unless your local trails are blessed with a gondola, chances are each glorious downhill run is going to be preceded by an uphill struggle to the top of a fire-road climb. It can be taxing on the legs, but that’s where electric mountain bikes come in. 

The addition of a small electric motor aids pedalling to make uphill sections less painful. Most will have a remote control on the handlebar somewhere that allows the rider to adjust the amount of assistance, or turn the motor off entirely. But all that convenience comes with a significant weight penalty, so if you want something that’s easy to throw in the back of the car you might want to have a rethink.

Best for: Enjoying the thrill of mountain biking, without the boring bit

Electric hybrid

An electric hybrid offers all the practical benefits of a regular hybrid but with an added bonus: it has an electric motor and a rechargeable battery. This provides a helpful push with each pedal stroke that can be dialled up or down as required, or even turned off entirely. It’s a great option for those who are building their fitness, or who might be apprehensive about relying entirely on their legs to do the work on longer rides.

Best for: Anyone whose legs need a little encouragement

IndyBest’s best buy electric bike: Volt Bikes pulse: £1,699, Volt Bikes

Volt Bikes are now designed and made in the UK (Volt Bikes)

Volt’s range is increasingly impressive, with strong designs and brilliant build quality, bagging them the title of our best buy in our electric bikes round-up. The pulse comes in two versions – one with a 60-mile range (£1,699) and the other with 80 miles (£1,899), and the former comes in two sizes. Our reviewer said: “Designed to be comfortable and manoeuvrable, the tyres are puncture resistant and the disc brakes make for a better ride in the wet. You can set the pedal assistance to five different levels, so you can save some of the power for when it’s needed for a hill. The powerful battery can be charged on the bike or removed.” 

Touring bike

With a sturdy steel frame, long wheelbase (the distance between the two wheels), upright riding position, mudguards and endless mounting options for racks and panniers, a touring bike is the go-to machine for multi-day cycling epics. These bikes are designed primarily to be comfortable and to carry a heavy load. They’re not fast, nor are they light, but they’ll happily lug you and your tent from one side of the planet to the other without so much as a whimper. 

But don’t confuse touring with bikepacking. Touring is done predominantly on paved surfaces, whereas bikepacking is largely off-road and tends to be done on either a gravel bike or a mountain bike.

Best for: Embarking on epic adventures

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