The City Bike Menagerie

Any bike you can hop onto and ride around your city is a city bike! But not all urban utility bikes are created equal. Here's our field guide.

The Road Bike

Designed for fast road riding! You can't beat a pure road bike for speed, but for comfort and practicality, road bikes sometimes leave something to be desired. The aggressive rider position that they encourage may be less comfortable in traffic than a more upright position, and they often lack fender and rack mounts and other utilitarian amenities. That said, a road bike will certainly get you around town quickly and efficiently, and old and new road bike frames are often built up into great city bikes. And some companies make products designed to help with this transformation, such as Race Blade fenders by SKS that mount to a bike's fork and seatstays with simple rubber attachments, making fender eyelets unnecessary.

A brakeless fixie in the city.

The Fixed-Gear/Single-Speed

Bikes don't get more basic than this. The rear sprocket of a fixed-gear bike is attached directly to the hub, so that anytime the wheel is moving, the pedals are moving, and vice versa. There is only one gear. A single-speed bike also has only one gear, but is equipped with a freewheel that allows the wheel to turn independently of the pedals, making coasting possible. Some bikes come with a "flip-flop" hub, with a fixed sprocket on one side and a freewheel on the other, for a little extra versatility. Many purely fixed-gear bikes have only a front brake, because the rider can use his or her muscles to slow the rear wheel's rotation. Some riders prefer to "skid stop" and ride with no brakes at all, but this is questionably legal in many cities and certainly not recommended for beginners.

Lots of riders swear by the simplicity a single-speed or fixed-gear bike provides, and some say that the direct link they feel between the actions of their legs and the rotation of the wheels makes them feel more connected to the road and more in control, especially in slippery or wet conditions. But if you live in an area with lots of hills, you might want to think twice before building up a fixie. And if you have any problems with your knees, you should probably go for gears.

The Touring Bike

These are bikes designed to go the distance! They look a lot like ordinary road bikes, but their geometry is designed for comfort and stable handling even when the bike is loaded down with gear. They come with heavier-duty wheels and lots of attachment points for racks, bags, and water bottle holders, making them versatile city bikes that are ready to hit the open road whenever you are. Plus, they're geared for loaded touring, which means they'll have enough range to get you up the steepest hills and still be speedy on flats and descents. And they'll probably fit wider tires to take on even the roughest commute.

The versatile Surly Cross Check cyclocross bike.

The Cyclocross Bike

Cyclocross bikes are designed for cyclocross racing, in which racers ride many laps of a varied course featuring anything from pavement to mud to wooded trails to grass. Steep hills and obstacles often force riders to dismount and carry their bikes. Bikes built for this kind of racing are light and narrow with drop bars like road bikes, but they have lots of clearance for wider, knobbier tires and take cantilever brakes. With plenty of space for fenders and a wide variety of tires, they've become popular with city riders who want a great, versatile, all-around bike that can take a little mud and still perform on the road.

The Mountain Bike

Mountain bikes come in almost as many sizes and shapes as city bikes! You probably don't need a full-suspension downhill rig for your commute or your grocery shopping. But older hardtail (no rear suspension) MTB frames can make great city bikes, bouncing over potholes with ease. They're rugged, won't mind a little dirt, and have plenty of clearance for fenders and wider, knobbier tires than other bikes, in case the terrain in your city includes dirt paths or gravel roads. If your area gets snowy or icy in the winter, you can even run studded tires. Or you can run slick tires for speedier riding on pavement. Mountain bikes are often equipped with disc brakes--less common on other bikes--with exceptional stopping power, especially in wet conditions.

That said, mountain bikes are often much heavier than their road bike counterparts. If you'll be carrying your bike up a flight of stairs to your apartment every night, or if you want a bike that'll let you go really fast, a lighter bike might be a better choice.

A typical hybrid. This one is a Giant Cypress.

The Hybrid

The love child of the road bike and the mountain bike, for the urban jungle. These bikes usually have a mountain bike's flat handlebars and more upright rider position, with a road bike's lighter components and harder gearing for extra speed on city streets. Many hybrid bicycles have simple front fork suspension; some also have seat suspension for extra cushioning. This suspension makes them less efficient on smooth surfaces, however.

Hybrids tend to be fairly inexpensive, entry-level bikes. They're a great choice for new riders who haven't figured out their riding style yet and need a reliable, comfortable bike for short trips.

A Dutch city bike with chain case and skirt guard.

The Dutch Bike

The granddaddy of them all. The original city bike. Built for everyday utility and transportation, by ordinary people wearing whatever they happen to be wearing, carrying whatever they happen to be carrying, and going wherever they happen to be going. Ubiquitous in Europe for a hundred years, these bikes are becoming more popular stateside as well, thanks in part to media attention, such as this New York Times fashion profile celebrating their elegance and practicality.

These bikes usually have fenders, chain guards or full chain cases, and even skirt guards (which partially cover the rear wheel), so riders needn't worry about showing up to their destinations with chain grease on their pants, coat, or skirt. Dutch city bikes also come equipped with racks and sometimes baskets. Their geometry is such that the rider sits completely upright, with a good view of traffic around them. However, that upright geometry, and the heaviness of these bikes, means that hill climbing can be a struggle. However, if you live in a relatively flat city, a Dutch bike can't be beat for ease of use and style.

The Bike Friday Pocket Companion folding bike.

The Folding Bike

That's right--these are bikes that will actually fold small enough to be easily stowed in a suitcase or a trunk, carried into work or a restaurant or your walk-up apartment, or carried onto a bus or subway train. Folding bikes make longer trips using several modes of transportation easy and convenient. They're also a popular choice with world travelers who see no reason why they shouldn't be riding on city streets (or countryside lanes, for that matter) even on the other side of the country or the globe.

Folding bikes come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Most of them have wheels that are 20" or smaller, for a folded size as small as possible. Most designs emphasis urban utility, ruggedness, and comfort, but others, like those made by Bike Friday, ride as smoothly and quickly as road bikes, according to the company. However, these bikes tend to cost more than comparable "regular" bikes and necessarily have a more complicated design, with parts that might be more difficult to replace or repair. Sure to be a conversation starter in traffic, though!

A retro cruiser bike.

The Cruiser

Also known as beach cruisers, these bikes are often single-speed with coaster brakes, though some have internal hub gearing or even derailleurs. They offer an upright position, swept-back handlebars and a retro look for comfort and style. Their minimal gearing and heavy weight limit their utility as versatile city bikes, but they're great for short, flat trips or a lazy Sunday cruise.

The Cargo Bike

These bikes are made to haul! Some are born and bred dedicated cargo-carriers, while others are retrofitted or upgraded with racks, baskets, or something like Xtracycle's Free Radical add-on, which extends the back of pretty much any bike to make room for lots of cargo and even a passenger or two. The possibilities are numerous. Here's just a few kinds of cargo bikes you might find out there.

Porteur Bikes. Originally used by newspaper couriers in Paris, each of whom would carry over a hundred pounds of newspapers on the big front rack of their bike. These bikes have large, stable racks attached to the front fork, so you can keep an eye on your cargo. Secure it with bungies, or attach a box, basket or bag to your rack. You might be able to find a dedicated porteur bike out there, or you can buy a sturdy rack (such as those made by Pass & Stow or CETMA Cargo) and make any bike into one.

A Dutch cargo bike.

Longtails. With extra long wheelbases for tons of storage in the rear without the hassle and handling problems of a trailer. The Xtracycle Free Radical bolts on to pretty much any bike frame to turn it into a longtail with two huge panniers and a platform for cargo or even passengers. Other companies make devoted longtail frames and complete bikes. The Madsen cargo bike, for example, comes with a long rack or a big rear bucket--your choice.

Box Bikes/Bakfietsen. A Dutch invention, with a big box up front for carrying kids and/or cargo.

Long Johns. Like a box bike, but with a platform instead of a box for extra versatility.

Cargo Tricycles. Usually these have two front wheels, with a large (really large) box for cargo or kids between them. The classic example is the Dutch Christiania trike. Some cargo trikes have two rear wheels, with a platform or basket between them.

Your Bike.

Maybe your bike fits neatly into one of these categories; maybe not. There's room for all types on the streets of your city. Go ride your bike!

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Comments from our Readers

Recumbent Bikes and Trikes, Touring and Camping.

Roadrunner003(Tampa Bay area, Florida), submitted 8/27/2010

You did not mention anything about Recumbent Bikes or Trikes! Also WITH Electric Motor OR Gas Engine.

As for Me I own a Catrike Villager Tadpole Trike with a Grubee 49cc 4G T-Belt 4-cycle Gas Engine mounted over the Rear Wheel. I use the Engine when climbing a Hill OR when I want to give my Legs a rest while riding.

I make sure I am Visable with a Trike Flag on a 6ft. Pole, a Red Reflector which extends out about 10in. on my Left Side. I have 2 Rear Blinking LED Lights 1 Red & 1 White with Recharable Batteries. I ride on the Sidewalks, Bike Lanes or on the edge of the Road if it's paved. I have a Bell with a Compass and a Squeeze-Bulb Horn. I'm thinking about putting Monkeyelectric LED Lights 32 Colored and programable on my Rear Wheel $60. I enjoy riding my Trike and TourCamping. I transport my Trike on a Trike Rack on my car. I stay at RV Parks for my Electrical needs. I use their Pool and all of their Amenaties and Clubhouse Activities and Tour the surrounding area on my Trike. That's the Economical way to see Florida and have a good time meeting new Campers. This is an enjoyable Lifestyle. D