Cycling: Choosing the Right Bike

My passion for cycling began in 1999 while training for my first triathlon. I was drawn by the enjoyment of being on the open road turning the cranks by the power of my legs and going distances that my running legs had not been able to carry me. At the time, I was riding an adapted mountain bike, trading out knobby tires for slick tires and adding a set of aero bars, in order to make the bike as road-like as possible. Little did I know that I was riding the predecessor of a modern-day gravel bike, which I currently ride.

Cycling is a popular means of commuting, recreation, and exercise. If you’re in the market for a new bike, you might have questions regarding what type to purchase. A bike is a significant purchase (rather than an investment in your health) so it is important to choose the right bike. What criteria should you use? There are three basic criteria. First, what are your goals for riding? Exercise? Recreation? Commuting? Racing? Secondly, what type of surfaces will you be riding on? Will it be on pavement, gravel, or trails? Third, do you have physical considerations that could impact the type of riding that you desire? Are there existing back, neck, shoulder, or knee issues?

Before breaking down the types of bikes, let’s talk briefly about frame geometry and tires. When speaking of geometry, we are referring to the construction of the bike frame, and how that impacts your riding position. You will commonly hear about a ratio called stack to reach. Stack is a measure of the relative vertical orientation of the frame. Reach is a measure of the horizontal frame orientation. More stack gives more of an upright position. More reach results in a lower or more aerodynamic riding position. Tire size and tread are important because it is how you and your bike interface with the road. Wider tires with more tread are more comfortable, and will be faster and more stable on gravel and dirt but will be slower on pavement. On the other hand, narrower tires with less tread are faster on pavement, but would not be suitable for trail riding.

Now, let’s discuss bike types.  If you want a bike to get you from point A to point B around town but could venture onto a dirt road occasionally, then a commuter or city bike is for you. These bikes have a higher stack-to-reach ratio, resulting in a more upright position. The next category, the road bike, will shine on paved surfaces. Road bikes are generally more oriented with a longer reach relative to the stack giving a more aerodynamic position. They have characteristic handlebars, looking like a ramshorn that allow three different riding positions. Tires tend to be on the thinner side ranging from 23 to 30 mm in width. These roll well on paved surfaces, and possibly some light gravel. The gearing is such that it enables the rider to achieve higher speeds and actually accelerate in downhill riding conditions. The next classification is the gravel bike, which is a more recent development. These bikes straddle the world of mountain and road cycling with frames that have more stack than a road bike and more reach than a mountain bike. Tires range from 38 to 50mm with more tread than a road tire. The cockpit has handlebars similar to road bikes and gearing is closer to a road style, but will generally have lower gears to allow ascent of steep hills. Another nice feature is that these handle paved surfaces decently, and can go off-road onto single track, though admittedly, with less comfort. The fourth classification is the mountain bike. The frame has more stack than reach giving the rider a more upper upright position, but not as much as a commuter bike. Handlebars are flat and wide for greater control. Gearing is set up to allow travel over trails and steep ascents. They can include front and/or rear suspension to allow shock absorption. Tires are wide, ranging from 1.75 inches to as much as 5 inches in the extreme, fat tire bikes. With these tires and suspension, mountain bikes will give more comfort over rough surfaces.

If you have some physical limitations, you might wonder what bike is right for you. Here are a few common issues with suggestions with which to start.

  • Neck pain, back pain, shoulder or wrist pain: choose a bike that sits more upright (more stack) – commuter, mountain, gravel, or an endurance/touring road bike
  • Knee pain: important consideration is appropriate gearing for the terrain where you ride and a proper position on the bike.
  • Balance issues – Commuter/city bikes that have “step through” frames
  • Strength issues – Most of the categories of bikes have electric assist options (e-bikes).

Now that you have considered the 3 criteria for choosing a bike, have a basic knowledge of bike types, and have a little understanding of what bikes can go with physical limitations, you are closer to choosing the right bike for you. The next step would be to go to one of the many bike shops in West Michigan where there are well-trained staff to help you out in your decision-making and can get you started in a basic bike fitting. There are many “tweaks” in the saddle, pedals, and cockpit that can optimize your riding positions. Of course, your physical therapist at Hulst Jepsen PT is always there to assist in the process too! We have a range of services from free consults to a two-visit MoveWell program to full physical therapy if you have sustained an injury. So get out, ride, and enjoy!

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Matthew Schmitz, MSPT