The first thing to learn about bikes is that while there are many different types, they all have a name. There’s nothing worse than reading an ad that is misleading because the seller doesn’t know what they have.
Roadbike: since the 1980′s, what we used to call 10 speeds (or 12 or more speeds), narrow tires, designed to be ridden in a tucked or aerodynamic position, (the better ones) manufactured of lighter weight materials; are now called roadbikes to differentiate them from other styles.
While every bike can be ridden on the road, the name “roadbike” is unique to the lightweight multispeed. Roadbikes can come in both men’s and ladies’s styles.
(photo courtesy Lovely Bicycle)
Mixte: Mixtes are a style of bike where the top tubes (there are two top tubes beside each other) run straight from the headtube to the rear dropouts.
This makes it lighter than traditional ladies’s bikes (but are stronger), and are typically equipped as a roadbike with lightweight wheels and drivetrain (multispeeds). They can be manufactured from high-carbon steel or from the finest and lightest chromoly steels. Though spurned in the US, mixtes are popular in countries where living spaces are smaller and storing multiple bikes is an issue.
The website Lovely Bicycle has some really good articles discussing mixte’s and choosing the right one for different types of riding.
Mountain bikes were originally just old bikes used to bomb downhill. As
parts broke or wore out (brakes were a real issue), the type evolved and has branched off into specialized designs; singletrack, downhill, etc. In some countries they’re called all-terrain bicycles (atb) but in the US the name mountain bike (mtb) has stuck.
Older, quality mountain bikes make excellent all around bikes as they can be be modified or upgraded for almost any kind of riding one would want to do.
Roadster. Think old English 3 speed. Upright seating, upright handlebars, often internal geared multispeed hub, often equipped with fenders. They were the basic (and only) transportation of many families in Europe, India, and Asia for many years. These were either imported and rebadged or manufactured in the US as well.
This style is still very popular for commuters as they can be shifted when stopped (something that cannot be done on most derailleur equipped bikes), and the upright seating gives the rider better viability–both to see and to be seen.
Cruisers Before the 80′s, there weren’t all these subcategories–we just had a bike. Chances were that here in the US it was a cantilevered frame Schwinn, Huffy or Murray, or one of the department store (Sears, Western Auto, Wards, etc) brands made by one of these manufacturers (rebadged with the store’s brand).
Since there was a need to categorize bikes, this slow, single speed,
cumbersome, yet easy to ride was associated with an earlier, more nostalgic time, and at the same time a resurgence of hot rods, “cruisers” became popular. Some marketing type came up with the connection and the name has stuck. A sub category, the beach cruiser, has surfaced since the 90s, styled like a cruiser but often with a longer wheel base.
Twentys, Shoppers: Twenty denotes the basic wheel size–20 inch– of a small framed yet adult bicycle and not to be confused with a childs bike or bmx.
The smaller wheeled bikes were popular in cities where storage was a problem–they simply take up less room. Every major manufacturer in the world (outside the US) produced one, and several still do today. Today’s versions are much lighter with a different focus; rather than being the family car then, now with alloy metal construction a new 20 can be a very lightweight and nimble bicycle. Some 20′s, such as the Raleigh 20 and especially the Moultons, tend to be collectible.
Bike Friday, of Eugene Oregon, currently manufactures a line of small wheeled bikes from a basic touring bike up to tandems — all are folders–but these are probably more properly categorized as small wheeled roadbikes as their design and function are more roadbike than shopper.
Folders Not really a category of it’s own, folders can be any bike that folds or disassembles. In fact most bikes can be retrofitted with connectors that allow them to disassemble. Folders tend to be 20s and are popular with travelers as some can be packed in suitcases (Bike Friday), or taken aboard airplanes or boats, or simply stuffed in a car’s trunk without the need for a bike rack.
BMX are bicycles that are raced on dirt tracks like motocross motorcycles. True bmx bikes are made of alloys and are expensive. The copies popular with youth and sold at department stores are that, only cheap copies and shouldn’t be ridden aggressively–they’re not designed for it. If you’re looking for a bike that can take the abuse and rigors of racing, research the brands that are available for that purpose.
Freestyle is riding skate parks, half pipes, ramps, rails, stairs, and more. Freestyle bikes are very specialized bikes, and are engineered and equipped for the abuse that they receive. Like bmx bikes, the copies that are popular with kids and sold at department stores are that, only cheap copies and shouldn’t be ridden aggressively–they’re not designed for it. If you’re looking for a bike that can take the abuse and rigors of freestyle riding, research the brands that are available for that purpose.
Muscle Remember the old Schwinn Sting Ray and it’s variants: Lemon Peeler, Orange Krate, Manta Rays, Fastbacks–they’re highly sought after and have their own category–shoot, they even have their own swap meets and shows.
Other manufacturers that imported bikes into the US usually had a similar style of which some are collectible, but the Schwinns still rule.
Tandems A bicycle built for two. Wonderful device for dividing marriages, friendships, or other relationships. The front rider steers (called the captain), the rear rider supplies power (called the stoker). Stokers are often known not to share the work of propelling the bike and often are the object of verbal encouragement (or abuse) from the captain.
Besides the fore and aft seating most commonly seen in tandems, there are side by side tandems called sociable tandems (where the captain can keep an eye on the stoker), recumbent tandems, a mixed tandem where the stoker sits in the front in a recumbent seat and the captain behind in a conventional bike seating position. This allows the captain to physically abuse the stoker when the captain feels that the stoker isn’t pulling their weight.
Recumbent A type of bike where the rider sits in a more conventional seat and with their legs and cranks forward. Outlawed from racing in the 1930s, (read the history here) they have only recently begun to regain popularity–especially among tourers and now again, racers.
There tends to be a fierce rivalry between diamond frame riders and
recumbent riders, and a lot of inaccurate information abounds. But then again there’s been some really crappy recumbent designs out there too. Every rider should try a recumbent at some point in their riding career.
Ordinarys Also called high wheelers, penny farthings. Still popular (surprisingly) among some riders.
Then there are more, some technically not bicycles as they have more than two wheels, but fall into the “bike” category it seems: cargo bikes, three wheelers, rickshaws, recumbent trikes, HPV’s (human powered vehicles) –and so on.