If you’re in the market for a new bike, the available choices can be quite bewildering. This is especially true if you’re new to biking, or have not bought a bike in a long time. The new bike categories are proliferating so fast, we’re running out of ideas for what to call them: hybrid, cross, gravel, adventure, touring… What does this all mean?
To help guide you toward finding the best bicycle for your microescapes and other everyday adventures, we put together an adventure bike buyer’s guide. You can quickly jump to any of the sections below:
- What to expect from this guide
- Should you buy a new bike at all
- Where should you buy your new bike
- Lifestyle and use considerations
- Types of bikes
- General characteristics of adventure-worthy bikes
- Comfort & fit
- Overview of adventure-worthy bikes
- How much will it cost?
Whatever you call them, most contemporary bikes offer off-the-shelf utility and a versatile range at a reasonable price.
This makes almost any bike in a popular category a worthy candidate to your microescape vehicle. And the question “what is the best bicycle?” has only one answer: it’s the one that’s best for you.
This may be a simple answer, but the way to finding that one best bicycle may not be so straightforward. Therefore, this guide is less about giving you advice on which type of bike to buy, and more about supplying you with information to help you make sense of the options and choose what works best for you.
What to expect from this guide
First of all, I should point out that this guide is adapted from the Complete Guide To Buying a New Bicycle, which I originally published on our brick and mortar store website. But while that guide focused more on urban bikes, here, I shift my focus to helping you find the best bike for quick getaways, which may often take you well past where the pavement ends.
This guide is not going to help you if you’re looking for a highly specialized bike to use for any kind of racing, competition or endurance event. Instead, we’ll cut through the jargon and the marketing hype, and use our many years’ experience to help you choose the right bike for your microadventure needs.
Should you buy a new bike?
In the age of disposable everything, a bicycle is quite the anomaly: with relatively simple care and maintenance, it will reward you with a shockingly long lifespan.
Vintage Chicago Schwinns from 60-70 years ago are still in use today. I personally ride a bike that was made in 1989. So far, bike manufacturers have not quite figured out how to make most bikes obsolete.
Therefore, tuning up and continuing to use an older bike can be a perfectly sound and economical decision, with the following guidelines in mind:
- The bike frame, fork and wheels should be of good quality and free from any structural flaws. Ask your mechanic to inspect the frame carefully before you invest in repairs. If the integrity of the frame is compromised, for example, frame is bent, cracked, rusted through, has broken welds, a seized seatpost or bottom bracket, it’s time for a new bike.
- The existing bike should fit your proportions and riding preferences. If you received a beautiful vintage bike from an older relative who was several inches taller or shorter than you, you could restore it for sentimental reasons, but it will not be a good fit for you. Similarly, if you’ve been handed down a vintage 10-speed, but your plan is to take monthly bikepacking trips on some dirt country roads, the bike might not be up to it.
- It probably doesn’t make sense to fix a bike in the condition of total disrepair, or with the majority of parts needing to be replaced. The exceptions would be a premium quality, undamaged frame, or a bike with very high sentimental value, on which I would not presume to put a price tag.
- A department store bike is not a good repair investment. It may be acceptable for someone on a very tight budget, but a complex and potentially expensive repair is not likely to yield good results.
Repairing an older bike is not always the more affordable option. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done, just know that in some cases a complete restoration can easily exceed what it would cost to buy new bike.
Make sure your expectations are reasonable. A thorough tune up should make the bike ride as well or better than when it was new, and some alterations (new saddle or handlebars, etc.) can make it more comfortable, but it cannot be turned into something that it is not.
To summarize: you should buy a new bike if the one you own doesn’t give you the riding experience you are looking for, doesn’t fit well, or can’t be brought back to a state of good repair within your budget.
If you are in the Chicagoland area, I heartily encourage you to visit our shop. If not, take some time to research the shops in your area to find one that you like.
If you’re trying to increase your riding enjoyment, getting a bike that really meets your needs where you are today would be a fantastic investment that will pay you dividends for years to come.
Where should you buy your new bike?
In short: NOT online.
While it is not secret that this is an affiliate site, and I make a small commission every time you click on and purchase a recommended product, you may have noticed that I do not have affiliate links to any bicycles.
While it is perfectly OK, and even expected, that you will do online research about how to find the best bicycle, when it comes to the actual purchase, you should put yourself in the hands of a competent sales person at a local bicycle store where you feel comfortable. Here are some tips on finding the right shop.
I believe that a solid relationship with your local bike shop is second only to fit and comfort in contributing to your satisfying experience with and enjoyment of the bike, outweighing other considerations, such as price or brand.
Lifestyle and use considerations
As you ponder the best bicycle option for your everyday adventures, it makes sense to imagine where and how often you would like to ride it. Some questions that may help you along:
- Will it be your dedicated adventure bike, or will it double as your commuter or grocery hauler? There’s a lot of cross-over here. A high quality hybrid bike can handle some adventures, and a gravel or touring bike will make an awesome urban workhorse when you’re back from your adventures.
- Do you plan to ride exclusively on pavement, or will you go off the beaten path? Check the tire clearances and gearing to ensure the bike is up to whatever you want to throw at it.
- Will you ride in inclement weather, or carry a bunch of camping gear? Make sure your new bike has attachments and eyelets to accommodate fenders and racks or bikepacking gear.
- Will you have to store your bike in a small space or carry it up the stairs? Will you be combining biking with other types of transportation? A folding bike can work very well in these situations, and it makes a terrific spontaneous getaway vehicle.
Types of Bikes
Below, we’ll list various types of popular bikes, and share some of our own perceptions about their best intended use. But we encourage you not to get too hung up on categories. As already mentioned, there is a lot of crossover between different types of bikes, and —with few highly specialized exceptions— most modern bikes perform well in a variety of uses.
A note about bike brands: bike brand is probably the least important factor in selecting the best bicycle. Here’s why:
Within a given price range, most reputable manufacturers of mainstream recreational bikes offer comparable value, quality of frame materials and components. However, different brands do use different frame design philosophies, resulting in different bike geometries, and consequently different fit. This means that if brand X works well for your tall and leggy friend, it may or may not work so well if you’re muscular and compactly built.
Please note the importance of price range. $1000 brand XYZ bike will be quite different in quality not only from a $2500 brand ABC bike, but also from a differently priced brand XYZ bike, so make sure you’re comparing apples to apples.
Therefore, it’s more important to carefully dial in your budget, and test ride bikes across different models and brands until you learn what feels best to you.
General characteristics of adventure-worthy bikes
I’ve thrown around the word “quality” a few times, but what exactly does that mean? It turns out that what seasoned riders and most specialty bicycle store employees consider good bikes share some common characteristics:
- A corrosion-resistant, durable and lightweight frame, either chromoly steel or aluminum (titanium is also a great, but much more expensive, option), with reliable construction (much more on frame materials here).
- Wheels that can take a beating: double-walled alloy rims, with sealed hubs and stainless steel spokes. Assuming they are properly set up during initial bike assembly, such wheels resist corrosion, and can handle rough roads and occasional potholes.
- A precision drivetrain from a reputable manufacturer (eg. Shimano, SRAM, Microshift), that allows for a reasonable cadence on long stretches of road, and a range of gears suitable for climbing.
- Anywhere from 10 to 27 speeds is common.
- Increasingly popular is the “one-by” drivetrain configuration: the familiar triple front chainring is replaced with a single one, and combined with a wide-range 10, 11 or 12-speed cassette on the back. This results in an intuitive shifting system, with a wide range of usable gears.
- Dependable brakes, including the following:
- Alloy (not resin) hand levers that allow for adjustment for smaller hand sizes.
- The brake mechanism itself should be sufficiently adjustable and solid to allow for noise-free, confident braking, without shuddering.
- On the majority of new bikes today, rim brakes (which grip the rim of the wheel) are being replaced with disc brakes (the brake mechanism squeezes a rotor attached near the center of the wheel). Once considered an expensive upgrade, disc brakes have become much more affordable, and may provide better stopping power in mixed conditions, such as rain, mud, and dust, especially while carrying loads. They ensure dependable braking regardless of the wheels being perfectly true. Braking action does not cause wear on the rims (which can shorten their lifespan).
However, keep in mind that rim brakes have been successfully used by long distance and adventure cyclists for decades, so the type of braking mechanism need not necessarily influence your final decision about what is the best bicycle for you.
Whatever the braking system, the most important thing is that it is properly and securely set up from the get-go, and regularly maintained.
- Your adventure bike should have eyelets for mounting fenders, racks, water bottles and more. This is a small but crucially important feature of any bike that will make it easy for you to carry loads and use the bike in less than perfect weather.
- Out-of-the-box rideability. It’s true that most bikes can be upgraded and improved through customization, a good basic adventure bike can be ridden as-is, once it has been properly assembled.
I tend to like bikes that don’t go over the top with whistles and bells. You can always upgrade a solid, basic bike with premium, puncture-resistant tires, a more comfortable saddle, different cockpit position, and ergonomic grips or bar tape.
Comfort & Fit
Comfort and fit are ultimately the main factors determining what is the best bicycle for you. For a thorough discussion, please visit my shop’s main website for the Common Sense Guide to Bicycle Fit to help you understand what to look for when test-riding new bikes, and request modifications on a bike you may want to purchase.
I cannot stress this enough: start with the correct frame size for your body, and you can enhance your comfort by modifying the touch points. If the bike is the wrong size to begin with, no amount of modification is going to make it fit you well.
Overview of Adventure-Worthy Bikes
Let’s take a look at some popular types of bicycles and see if they’re suited to adventures and microescapes you might have in mind:
The problem with hybrid bikes is that they don’t have a catchy name. In the world of cycling, hybrid is not very sexy word, and these days, there’s a misguided association with hybrid cars, leading people to think that hybrids are e-bikes. They are not.
What started out as a cross between a mountain bike and a road bike, resulted in a whole new bike category, offering a more comfortable riding position and more sensible tire width than either of the parents. This compromise between two styles of riding ushered in lifestyle biking –-a riding style all of its own.
To some, a “basic hybrid” may be the deal advertised for back-to-school with a free helmet and lock thrown in. In point of fact, a hybrid bicycle is a versatile vehicle that will dependably carry you and your gear year-round, whether you’re commuting or escaping the 9-5.
Unbeatable for their versatility, utility and ease of use, hybrid bikes are an accessible and convenient urban biking option. And, since most of us don’t have a stable of bicycles for different cycling needs, a hybrid is a veritable chameleon that performs quite well in various conditions.
- Hybrids usually offer a fairly upright (or adjustable) sitting position optimized for scanning traffic and for comfort.
- They feature moderately smooth street tires, generally wide enough to handle some unpaved paths, so you can confidently load up a hybrid with camping gear for some weekend escapes.
- Most hybrids feature plenty of mounting eyelets for racks and fenders,
- They can stand up to rigors of long-distance riding, however the straight or rise handlebars do not give you options of varying your hand positions on longer rides. (But there are after-market options for multi-position handlebars that work with hybrids.)
Folding bikes don’t typically figure on “Best Bicycle for Adventure” lists. Yet, the English-made Brompton folding bike is my hands-down favorite microescape tool. In fact, I wrote a separate post about it. Despite their diminutive size, Bromptons have been ridden by intrepid travelers around the globe.
While ordinary bikes give you freedom to move around the city with ease and sidestep traffic woes, folding bikes take your personal transportation freedom to another level. They give you unsurpassed versatility and flexibility, allowing you to combine biking with transit, ride-share, and giving you access to storage and security options unavailable to standard bikes. And that’s just for local commuting.
But for microescapes, they are unbeatable: throw one in the trunk of your car, or take it on a train after work, and you can enjoy spontaneous adventures literally on the spur of the moment.
- High quality folding bikes, such as Brompton or Bike Friday share the characteristics of adventure-worthy bikes listed above, plus:
- They are easily transportable in the trunk of a car without the need for a bike rack, and are generally welcome on trains, buses and airplanes.
- Many (but not all) folding bikes feature small wheels, which make the folded package more compact.
- Unlike standard bikes, they are highly adjustable for riders of different heights.
- Most folding bikes have adequate cargo-carrying capacity to make them good adventure bikes. Brompton folding bikes excel at this with a range of custom front bags and a rear rack that can be combined to carry a surprising amount of gear for such a small bike.
- Many folding bikes use rim brakes rather than disc brakes.
Classic touring bicycles are designed for longer times in the saddle. These bikes give the rider a more athletic and efficient, yet still comfortable riding posture. Drop handlebars accommodate multiple hand positions, which comes in, er… handy on longer rides.
- Most classic touring bikes feature a chromoly steel frame. Though not as light as more modern frame materials such as carbon or aluminum, steel is durable, capable of being bent and repaired without cracking, and is inherently resilient, which makes it comfortable to ride on over miles and miles of road.
- Moderately upright geometry, which allows the touring cyclist greater comfort over long miles, as well as the ability to view the scenery without getting neck cramps.
- Long wheel-base and long chainstays. Because speed and agility are less crucial than stability in long-distance touring, such bikes can be considerably longer than conventional ones. They’re designed to be stable under heavy loads and on long descents.
- Bomb-proof wheels. The wheels of classic touring bikes are usually 700c with a high spoke count, and durable, puncture-resistant tires to handle lots of road miles.
- Serviceable components.
- Classic touring bikes often have rim brakes, but mechanical disc brakes are becoming more common. Hydraulics are generally avoided, since they may not be easily serviced out in the hintelands.
- Bar-end shifters are common on touring bikes since they can be serviced or replaced more easily and economically than the more ergonomic integrated shift/brake levers.
- Drop bars or other multi-position handlebar, to allow some variation for where you place your hands and how much you lean over the the course of your tour.
- Carrying capacity. Touring bikes always have ways of mounting front and rear pannier racks and fenders.
Gravel Bikes, All-Road and Adventure Bikes
A few years back, if you were shopping for a “road bike”, you’d be shown a bike with a svelte frame, drop handlebars and razor-thin tires. A bike made for rolling swiftly over a smooth paved surface: tight, aerodynamic and zippy, without an ounce of spare fat.
But because most roads are imperfect, some of them intriguingly so, and so are human beings, the single-purpose road bikes have been displaced by much more adventure-minded and versatile all-road and gravel bikes.
A gravel bike at home on almost any terrain. Its adaptability and ruggedness makes it perfect urban workhorse, an ideal light touring or adventure bike, a great winter training bike, in short, the perfect do-it-all bike, if you can only have one.
On-road? Off-road? No problem. Gravel bikes are all about options.
- They are sturdy enough to carry significant loads and are sure-footed on both urban streets and gravel roads.
- They typically come with a strong wheelset that can stand up to unpredictable terrain.
- Gravel bikes can accommodate tire widths ranging from something resembling a road bike (about 28mm), a typical hybrid (around 37mm), to monster dirt-chewing tires more commonly seen on off-road bikes (47mm+). This makes a gravel bike at home on almost any terrain.
An interesting category that bridges the gap between gravel and mountain bikes is adventure/bikepacking bikes. These feature the drop-bar cockpit of a gravel bike, and chunky tires typically associated with mountain bikes, making them suitable for going where no bike has gone before.
- The vast majority of gravel bikes feature disc brakes. Cable-actuated disc brakes are found on entry-level gravel bikes (<$1500), while more expensive models may have hydraulic disc brakes.
- The majority of gravel bikes come with hubs equipped with thru-axles (rather than quick-release). Thru-axles are safer when combined with disc brakes, ensuring the wheel will not inadvertently come loose while braking over demanding terrain.
- They are designed to haul lots of stuff in unconventional ways. While most bikes have provisions for attaching a rear rack, fenders and one or two water bottles, gravel bikes have additional eyelets (aka “barnacles”) on the fork and beneath the down-tube for mounting extra bottle cages, fork-mounted carriers for lightweight camping gear, and additional supplies that an intrepid cyclist might need for a satisfying microescape.
- In addition to accommodating a variety of tire widths as mentioned above, many gravel bikes can fit either 700c or 650b wheels. Not that you’d necessarily want to change wheels mid-ride, but when you’re having trouble deciding on a new bike, it can be good to know you don’t have to be locked into one wheel size.
Some adventure & bikepacking bikes harken back to old school mountain bikes.
Trail Bikes & Hardtail Mountain Bikes
A mountain bike might be the best bicycle for your needs if your idea of microescape includes riding on singletrack.
Though less popular in urban areas than they once were, for many riders, traditional mountain bikes are still a great choice. Fatter wheels and tighter main triangle of these bikes put the rider in control over the terrain. Mountain bikes make great, tough, bouncy adventure vehicles, and can be used for bikepacking, bike camping overnights, or adventure-filled day trips off the beaten track.
- Fat, knobby tires, typically 2″ wide, or even wider on plus bikes or fatbikes. Contemporary mountain bikes feature 27.5″ (aka, 650b), or 29″ wheels. Older mountain bikes and most fatbikes run 26″ wheels.
- It’s uncommon these days to find rigid-grame mountain bikes, but you may see vintage Schwinn High Sierra’s or Bridgestone MB series with no suspension at all. Today most MTB’s feature front suspension (these are known as “hardtails”), or dual suspension.
- Hardtails and rigid MTB’s can be adapted to carry a bit of adventure gear. Dual suspension bikes can be a bit harder to adapt to carrying gear.
- Although you will find rim brakes on vintage mountain bikes, these days disc brakes and thru axles are de rigueur on off-road bikes
How much will it cost?
Today, most of our purchases are either completely disposable, or expected to become obsolete after a season of use. By contrast, a well-made bicycle is remarkable for its longevity. Even with regular maintenance and upgrades, over the course of its life a typical bicycle is unlikely to exceed a couple hundred dollars per year, and it will give you so much in return!
If you’re new to biking, it may come as a shock to learn that a $2000 bike is considered “mid-priced” by industry insiders. Here is a quick breakdown of what your money will buy in the real world:
In this price range you can find a wide assortment of quality hybrid bikes from various manufacturers. Adventure-worthy models are likely to start at above the $700 mark.
This is also the price range of many repairs, including major tune-ups or complete overhauls of existing bikes, including typical repair parts (tires, drivetrains, brake padds, cables), and some comfort upgrades (saddles, pedals, grips).
You will find plenty of options and assortment here, and bikes in this price range will have equipment and features that make them suitable for adventure, trail and distance riding.
- Gravel & touring bikes. You should expect to spend a minimum of about $1400 for a gravel bike, and $1700 for a touring bike.
- Lighter duty hardtail mountain bikes. You can find entry level hardtails for less than $1000, but if you’re expecting a bike that can handle the demands of singletrack riding on a regular basis, $1500 is about the bare minimum.
- Major vintage bike restorations and rebuilds are also likely to fall within this price range.
This is the “sweet spot” where you can pretty much get the bike of your dreams without going nuts. If this is how much you can budget on your bike purchase, you can reliably find a bike in any category that appeals to you. You’ll get a quality, lightweight frame with upper-end, precision components, and have a bike that is a joy to ride. A couple options available in this price range that you might not have thought of:
- Brompton Folding Bikes. This is a bike that will make you feel like you’ve grown wings. It is microescape artist’s dream. About $2000-2300 will buy a a nicely appointed Brompton, and $3000 will get you the <22lbs P-line model..
- Custom Builds. You can work with your local shop to build one-of-a-kind bike that suits your specific riding and lifestyle needs. Within that budget, your shop can source a nicely built frame, lace a custom set of wheels, and put together a component package that’s dialed in to how you want to use your bike.
Even with that steep $3000 up-front investment, a bicycle will continue to pay you back year after year with improved health, self-sufficiency and sheer enjoyment.
And the adventures and microescapes you rack up? Priceless.