Start by deciding which of the most common bike types makes sense for you—mountain, road, hybrid, or city/commuter. Next, factor in your goals. Consider things like what kind of terrain you'll ride most, what distance you want to cover, and what you want to accomplish.
If you're more interested in exploring off road, your choice is pretty straightforward: Look for a mountain bike with wide, knobby tires, a flat handlebar, strong brakes and shock-absorbing suspension that's made for rough, unpredictable trails. You'll then need to decide how much suspension you want (most have between 4 and 8 inches of travel) and which wheel size is right for you: 26-, 27.5- or 29-inch. Smoother trails require less travel and allow you to use larger, more stable wheels.
If you expect to spend most of your time on pavement, your options increase. Depending on your goals, you might want a road bike, a commuter, or a hybrid. Most road bikes have smooth, skinny tires and a curved handlebar, and place you in a bent-over position suited for speed. Hybrids provide comfort and stability via moderately thick tires and an upright riding position, a compromise that allows you to ride easily on city streets or packed-dirt paths. Commuter bikes range from sturdy workhorses to stylish fashion accessories, and often have utilitarian features like rack and fender mounts, an upright frame design and low-maintenance drivetrains.
"Choosing between the three depends on how hard, how long, and where you want to ride," says Mattie Davitt, sales manager at Piermont Bicycle Connection in Piermont, New York. "Many bike makers offer hybrids with high-quality drivetrains and disc brakes. They're lightweight and fun to ride, making them a solid choice for commuters or new riders who want one bike to run errands, cruise the rail-trail, and ride with the family. But if you're planning to burn some serious calories, train for a charity ride or maybe even sign up for a race, you'll be more satisfied with a road bike," says Davitt.
In terms of versatility, don't discount a road bike just because the name implies a single purpose. "Manufacturers are getting better at catering to people who want to do more than one thing," says Nelson Gutierrez, owner of Strictly Bicycles in Fort Lee, New Jersey. They see that buyers often want to use one bike for exercise and commuting. With features like thicker tires, disc brakes, and a more upright geometry, many current road models are fast, efficient—and rugged.
Once you decide how you'll use a bike, consider the following tips to focus your search.