What’s the Difference? Bike characteristics explained – by Ryan Hamilton

There are a lot of different types of bikes out there and your first trip to a local bike shop can leave your head swimming. If you’ve always used one type, or are just getting into cycling you may be confused as to what the differences are between these different bikes. Below I’ll lay out the major defining characteristics of each type of bike. Each of these bikes can be made out of any type of material with aluminum, carbon fiber and steel being most common. Within these categories are numerous minor differences to suit different goals and types of riders so be sure you consult with a qualified bike fitter or salesperson to find the right bike for you.


ROAD BIKE Except for possibly a mountain bike this is the bike that most people are familiar with.

Defining characteristics: 1. Drop “rams horn” handlebars 2. Narrow 23-28mm tires 3. Usually a double chain-ring in front, front and rear derailleurs 4. Can come with a triple chain-ring.



TIME TRIAL (TT) or TRIATHLON BIKE Typically used only in time-trials (TT) or triathlons. It’s considered bad form to take this on a group ride. These bikes typically have a frame that is designed to be as aerodynamic as possible with decreased surface area on the sides facing the wind and elongated shapes (like the shape of an airplane wing) which direct the airflow to reduce drag. Steeper angle to the headtube (where the handlebars connect to the fork tube) and the seat tube.  

Defining characteristics: 1. Aero handlebars 2.Double chain-ring (often, but not always) 3. Aero wheels, sometimes called ‘Deep V Wheels’ 4. Water bottle cages often mounted on handlebars or behind the saddle to further reduce drag 5. Clipless pedals which require special shoes equipped with cleats to match the pedals.


MOUNTAIN BIKE This has become the ubiquitous bike for most suburban people. Designed originally for performance in the mountains, it’s a bike that can basically be ridden anywhere, though it’s not necessarily the best or most efficient choice.

Defining characteristics: 1. Strait, flat handlebar 2. Wide knobby tires 3. Three chain-rings in front (though many are now coming out with just 2 chain-rings) 4. Chain-rings in front are much smaller and cogs in back are much larger to facilitate super low gearing to climb steep technical terrain 5. Almost always a suspension fork 6. Rear suspension is very common 7. Disc brakes or v-brakes.


TRACK BIKE (fixed gear, ‘fixie’) Designed for use on a velodrome track, but adopted and or modified by messengers and urban hipsters as their transportation of choice.

Defining characteristics: 1. A single chain-ring and single cog give it one speed 2. No freewheel, which means no coasting, pedals always turn. 3. Basically a stripped down road bike in all other aspects 4. No brakes 5. No shifters 6. No gears 6. No water bottle cages


CYCLOCROSS BIKE Modified road bike for off-road use. Check out Cyclocross for the Triathlete.

Defining characteristics: 1. Cantilever brakes 2. Wider 32-35mm knobby tires (not as wide as mountain bike tires) 3. Wider clearance between forks, chain and seat stays for the wider tires 4. Many have a slightly higher bottom bracket to clear obstacles and keep pedals from striking uneven ground 5. Many times the bottom of the top tube is flattened to make it more comfortable to shoulder carry the bike up steep run-ups.

Single_speed SINGLE SPEED Many people have decided they like the simplicity of a single speed bike. This can be found in any of the previous bikes.

Defining characteristics: 1. One chain-ring and one cog give it one speed 2. Has a freewheel hub so you can coast 3. No shifters or derailleurs








Ryan Hamilton is a regular contributor to TriEdge and Cyclocross Magazine. He is a cyclocross junkie and mountaineer who spends his days dreaming of ways to convince his wife to add to their gear collection.






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About The Author

Jen has been doing triathlon for several years. She is a former bobsled pilot for America Samoa and has a passion for the outdoors; especially winter mountaineering. At home she is wife to a mountain obsessed husband and mother of three girls, but here at EnduranceReview, she is an author, Managing Editor and token chick.