If you're in the market for a recreational bike, educate yourself before walking into your local bike shop. Basic recreational bikes come in two main flavors: Hybrids and comfort bikes. At first you might not notice much difference between the two styles but even small details can add up to a great ride -- or a bike that lives in your garage. Know the rider and know the bike to choose the model that's right for you.
Unless you are planning a grand tour of Europe by bike or weekends pumping the pedals up and down rugged mountain trails, you'll probably be well-served by a recreational bike. Rec bikes are designed to handle paved, dirt or gravel roads and are easier to drive on flat terrain. You can opt for different suspension systems and larger wheels for a smoother, less challenging ride; add racks for carrying groceries or picnic supplies; attach fenders to prevent splashbacks from puddles or muddy patches. You can customize your ride further with the choice between comfort and hybrid recreational bikes. Determine how you will use the bike most of the time -- weekend park trails, daily short commutes, urban errands, community and fundraising races, fitness and weight loss exercise -- and then select the comfort or hybrid bike that best serves your cycling style.
Comfort bikes are heavier than hybrids or road bikes so they are fairly sturdy. This also makes them slow, not a consideration for short hauls but an issue for long rides in the country or longer commutes. Their top tube is slanted for ease in getting on and off the bike and they have wide, 26-inch tires designed for pavement -- not very speedy but shock-absorbing. You sit upright on a comfort bike and the handlebars will only accommodate this riding position. It is more comfortable for new or occasional riders; your back, neck and shoulders don't have to adjust to a crouch position and you can see better in traffic. But sitting up straight isn't at all aerodynamic -- you pedal harder and go slower. Comfort bikes often come with a suspension seat post. It compresses under your body weight to cushion you from jarring road conditions. This might increase the effort you put into pedaling as you have no stable base to push off as you work the pedals.
Hybrid bikes borrow from road and mountain bike designs to innovate a set of wheels that you can take on or off the pavement. Road bikes are lightweight with skinny tires and drop handlebars. You ride in an aerodynamic crouch position, ideal for long tours but it takes getting used to. Most road bikes don't permit the addition of racks and the ride is stiff over bricks or rough roads. Mountain bikes are heavy with fat, forgiving, knobby tires and extra suspension. They are sport bikes, not suited for pavement without a change of tires, and very slow. A hybrid is lighter than a mountain bike, with front suspension to ease pavement jarring. Tires are 700c -- touring size for a faster ride than comfort bikes. adjust the stem that holds the handlebars to ride upright or crouched, and the frame takes racks or panniers for errands or trips. Hybrids are heavier and slower rides than road bikes so mixed use is the best use for one. They handle daily commutes, weekend rides and easy trails but make you work hard for speed and miles, unsuitable for touring.
Comfort and hybrid bikes can be slightly customized for a softer or faster ride. If you ride upright on a comfort bike, a fatter, cushioned saddle is kinder to your seat. Lean over the handlebars for better aerodynamics on a hybrid and you'll want a narrow saddle since less of you is in contact with it and your glutes, thighs and pelvis are moving more. You can also find saddles designed anatomically for men or women. Choose your gears, from 7- or 8-speed up to 24- or 27-speed, to match your ride. A lower number of gears is fine for short, flat rides; hills and heavy loads require more gears. Change tires from smooth to knobby on comfort bikes for varied terrain and some hybrids let you add wider tires for rougher surfaces.
Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .