Are you planning to buy a used or a new bike, and confused by all the bike terminology? Do you want to make sure you know what the ads mean, or what the sales people are talking about? Here is a quick guide to bicycle terminology to empower you when you are shopping for a new or used bike.
Aluminum bikes – these have frames made of aluminum, which has become the default for most modern bikes. They tend to be lighter than steel bikes, and have fatter tubes. Mrs. Average Joe Cyclist’s Giant Avail bike is a great example. You can read a review of this bike here.
ATBs – all-terrain bikes – see Mountain bikes, below.
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Bottom bracket – the part to which the cranks attach, as in the picture below.
BMX bikes – bicycle motocross bikes, also called stunt bikes. Smaller bikes, with bare bones accessories, but often fitted with special equipment, such as pegs to stand on. Used to do tricks such as leaping over ramps.
Caliper brakes – see Rim brakes, below.
Cantilever brakes – see Rim brakes, below.
Carbon-fiber bikes – these have frames made of carbon-fiber and are very light, but very expensive. They are not as strong as aluminum or steel. Some aluminum bikes do incorporate carbon parts. For example, carbon forks are fairly common on higher-end hybrids and road bikes, and are good at taking some of the edge off bumpy urban roads.
Commuter Bikes – Any bike that has been set up especially for commuting, with fenders, rack, lights, etc. See our post on How to Set up a Commuter Bike.
Components – Refers to the pieces that are added to the frame to equip the bike, such as the gear system, brakes, shift levers, crank set and pedals, seatpost, handlebars and derailleurs. Better quality bikes have better quality components. An ad that says something like “top of the line components” indicates that the bike has better quality components. Of course, to be sure the seller is telling the truth you would have to research the components (see Kinds of Shimano Components below).
Cranks – the parts to which the pedals attach.
Chromoly – Chrome Molybdenum Steel. A light, strong steel, often used to build fairly light, responsive, long-lasting frames. Sometimes called CRO MO.
Cruiser bikes or cruisers – these usually have balloon tires, upright seating posture, and single-speed drivetrains. They are pretty simple bikes, often incorporating quite stylish and fun designs. They are heavy but strong. They were very popular from the 1930s to the 1950s, and in recent times have become popular again. These are great bikes for riding in a leisurely way around a park, and they have many fans. In fact, if you live in a major city you might find a Cruiser Club you can join.
Cyclocross bikes – specialty bikes for cyclocross races. They are designed to be used on a variety of terrains, yet be light enough to pick up and carry across a river. They look much like road bikes, except the tires are fatter, and the frame is less rigid to soak up the bumps. A good cyclocross bike can be an excellent commuter bike – I use a Specialized Tricross (reviewed here) as my commuter bike.
Derailleurs – the name derailleurs comes from railway line derailleurs, because these are the things that move the chain from one chain ring onto the next. There are two of them, one at the front of the chain and one at the back. They are a high-maintenance part of the bike, needing frequent cleaning and oiling (like the chain). They are also very important to maintain – clean derailleurs will help keep your bike going well because your gears will work efficiently and smoothly.
Disc brakes – most commonly fitted to mountain bikes, disc brakes are heavier and more expensive than other kinds of brakes. Due to their weight and the fact that they work best with fat tires, they are almost never seen on road bikes. Basically they consist of a metal disc attached to the wheel hub. When the cyclist pulls on the brakes, pads squeeze the disc, slowing the wheel as kinetic (motion) energy is converted into thermal (heat) energy.
There are two kinds of disc brakes: hydraulic disc brakes and mechanical disc brakes. Hydraulic disc brakes are considered superior and are more expensive than mechanical disk brakes. Personally I love hydraulic disc brakes, as they give you higher precision braking, and are especially useful when commuting in very wet weather. On the other hand, mechanical disc brakes are easier to maintain. However, rim brakes also do a fine job of stopping your bike.
Electric bikes or ebikes – bikes with electric assists, which make it easier to cycle up hill, and to cycle in general. Most of these offer a combination of pedaling and electrical assist, with the assist powered by a rechargeable battery. These bikes are wonderful as they make cycling more accessible for people who are older or who have physical ailments, such as knee problems. They also make it feasible for physically able people to commute long distances without excessive exhaustion or sweat.
In fact, research indicates that people who buy electric bikes get fitter than people who buy regular bikes – simply because if you have an electric bike, you are more likely to use it for daily commuting. They are also ideal for parents who want to transport their children in a bike trailer. If you are interested in an electric bike, you might want to check out my book, How to Buy the Best Electric Bike (available as a download from this website, as a Kindle book, as a printed black and white book, and as a printed full color book from Amazon).
Fixed gear bikes, also know as Fixies – bikes that use a rear drive system, do not have a freewheel, and cannot coast. The pedals attach directly to the rear hub. Essentially you have to keep pedaling all the time, as these bikes usually have only a front brake, and sometimes have no brakes at all. When they have no brakes, you stop the bike by pedaling backwards. They usually only have one gear, as well.
Why anyone would want a fixie is beyond me, but if you do, please try before you buy, because they require a very different riding style. I remember I had one of these once, when I was a very little boy, and I recall having to brake by stamping down hard on the pedals. I was very happy to graduate to a real bike … However, these bikes now apparently have “hipster-cool,” so you can expect to pay more for them, even though they have less features.
Fork – this is the part that houses the front wheel. It is attached to the main bike frame, and consists of two blades (most round, some flat) that travel downward to hold the front axle, thus allowing the cyclist to steer. Some have suspension built into them, others do not.
Frame prices – the hierarchy of frame prices usually goes like this: low-end steel, low-end aluminum, low-end carbon, high-end aluminum, high-end steel and high-end carbon.
Full suspension bikes – bikes with front and rear suspension to soak up the bumps, as below (see also Suspension).
Hardtail – a bike that has front suspension but does not have rear suspension. Most mountain bikes fall into this category. Below is an example.
Head tube – the tube that contains the headset (steering bearings). The top and down tubes attach to this tube.
Hybrid bikes – a cross between road bikes and mountain bikes, and a good choice for commuting in the urban jungle. Not-so-young people sometimes find hybrids are easier on their backs. The tires are thinner than mountain bikes, but thicker than road bikes. (Tires can be changed, but only as much as the rims permit – for example, it is impossible to put a fat mountain bike tire on a thin road bike rim.)
Hybrids have straight handlebars, and usually have a fairly upright riding position. Upright is good for riding in traffic, as you can see better. Bear in mind that riding position can be adjusted quite cheaply, by changing the handlebars or the riser (the part that attaches the handlebars to the frame).
Hydraulic disk brakes – see Disc brakes above.
Lug or Lugged (frame) – some ads will proudly refer to a lugged frame. Lugged steel frame construction is a method of building bike frames using steel tubing mated with socket-like sleeves, called lugs.
Mechanical disk brakes – see Disc brakes above.
Mixte/Step-through – these bikes do not have a cross bar, making it easy to get on and off. They are sometimes called “lady’s bikes,” but in fact they are popular with all genders. They are especially useful if you have limited mobility, or are nervous because you haven’t been on a bike for three or four decades. They are also great if you want to bike in a skirt. A mixte usually has it top tube replaced by smaller-diameter twin stays, running from the top of the bike’s head tube down to its rear dropouts, and bisecting the rear triangle.
Mountain bikes – (also called all-terrain bikes or ATBs) bikes designed primarily for off road use, with straight handlebars, a strong (but heavier) frame, and fat (but again heavier) tires. Many have suspension shocks on the front, which add comfort (at the expense of weight). A feature I really like is suspension shocks with a lockout – this means you can turn off the shocks when you don’t want or need them. Although these bikes are called mountain bikes, many never go off road, as they are also suitable for rough urban commuting.
Bear in mind that their weight means you have to pedal harder for the same speed you could more easily achieve on a hybrid or a road bike. That’s why, if you take a look at the flocks of urban cycle-commuters that are becoming increasingly common in modern cities, you will see far more road bikes than mountain bikes. In fact, research shows that 95% of people who own mountain bikes never ride them on mountains, or even take them off road.
Pedelec – a bike that also has an electric motor, which helps cyclist to pedal but does not replace pedaling. This is the design of most electric bikes seen on the roads today.
Recumbent bikes (recumbents) – bikes on which the seat is tilted back and low to the ground, usually with the pedals on top of the front wheel. Although it looks as if the rider is lying down, recumbent bikes are in fact said to be the fastest type of bike because they are so aerodynamic. They can also be useful for people with back problems. One older rider I know says that sooner or later, every dedicated cyclist ends up on a recumbent! I am still waiting to see if it happens to me – they sure do look like fun.
Rigid bike – a bike with no suspension. Note this is not a bad thing – many of my favorite bikes are rigid! Suspension adds comfort, but it also adds weight, thereby decreasing cycling efficiency.
Rim brakes – as the cyclist applies the brakes, friction pads apply braking force to the rims of the wheels, slowing the bike down. Rim brakes are cheap and easy to maintain, but are not great in wet weather (especially on steel rims). On the plus side, you can upgrade these kinds of brakes simply by buying better quality brake pads, which do not cost a lot of money. (Even if you buy a brand new bike, this is an area where manufacturers often save money by using low-quality pads, so even with a new bike you might want to upgrade the pads.)
There are various kinds of rim brakes, including V-brakes, caliper brakes and cantilever brakes. Caliper brakes are self-contained, and are attached to the bike’s frame with a single bolt. The arms reach downward and therefore need to be long enough to get around the tire.
Cantilever brakes attach to the side of the frame or fork, requiring special brazed-on fittings on the frame. The brake consists of two separate arms, each of which is individually attached to the frame or fork.
V-brakes (see also V-brakes below) developed from cantilever brakes, and are considered the most cost-efficient way to achieve powerful and reliable braking. However, the older style cantilever brakes are well suited to the design of road bikes.
Road bikes (also known as racing bikes) – a lightweight bike with thin tires and (usually) drop handlebars, built for speed and a more aggressive style of cycling (your back is close to parallel to the road when your hands are in the drops). Although primarily built for racing, many people do use them for commuting. They are certainly the most efficient and fastest bikes. Personally I find the tires a bit thin for the potholes that typically litter roads designated as cycling routes.
Shimano – countless ads will mention that the bike has “Shimano components” or “Shimano gears.” This means that the bike’s components or gears were made by a Japanese manufacturing company called Shimano. For your purposes, this means close to nothing at all. Shimano has 50% of the world market in bicycle components, which means that they supply a full range of products, from bottom of the range to top of the range.
A Shimano product could be close to garbage, or close to heaven. To find out which, use the table below. Or you can just ignore the allusion to Shimano, and examine other aspects of the bike. You can take a little comfort from the thought that as Shimano manufactures components for some of the world’s greatest bikes, there must be some kind of positive trickle-down effect to the rest of its product line. (Shimano’s primary competition are bicycle component manufacturers Campagnolo and SRAM).
The table will help you to figure out if a bike is a good buy, as it shows you the level of quality of various Shimano parts (top quality is at the top). The top levels are very expensive, and are mainly used on expensive race bikes; the average cyclist does not need the top levels. For example, Deore is good enough for the average cyclist’s mountain bike – and Deore is only four levels from the bottom. In road bikes, the highest level I have ever owned is 105, and although I found those components awesome, I really did not need that level, as I am not even a casual racer. Tiagra and even Sora components are suitable for beginning and casual riders.
Kinds of Shimano Components, from Highest to Lowest Quality
Note that there is one more level, right at the very bottom: Shimano parts with no model numbers or names; these are made for department store bikes, and are cheap and nasty. So just because the ad says “Shimano”, this does not mean you are buying quality. Find out what kind of Shimano parts they are, and compare with the table to see where they fall.
Single speed – these bikes only have one gear. They are also known as fixies. They are popular at the moment, for reasons that escape me. My daughter wants one, which prompted me to ask her, “Why would you not take advantage of a century of advances in cycling technology?” To which her response was a withering look of pity, and a grunted: “They’re cool.”
I still think they are not the best choice, and they certainly make it hard to get up hills, or even to get the bike started. On the plus side, they’re usually cheaper and lighter than geared bikes. And they don’t have a geared derailleur system, so that is one less thing that can get dirty or broken – and one less thing that could be faulty on a used bike.
Steel bikes – these have frames made of steel. Steel is a little heavier than some materials, but it is flexible and makes for a comfortable ride. Most older bikes are made of steel. There is nothing wrong with a steel bike – don’t be taken in by the idea that you have to have an aluminum bike.
Suspension – a system that suspends a cyclist so that the ride is not so bumpy. (See also Hardtail and Full suspension bikes, above.) Most common on mountain bikes, but also used on many hybrids. The suspension is most commonly built into the front fork, but may also be built into the rear of the bike, or the seat post or the hub. Mountain bikes with both front and rear suspension are becoming more common, and are referred to as full suspension bikes.
Good ones are still very expensive. If you are buying a used full suspension bike, bear in mind that people who own these bikes often ride hard on rough terrain, or fearlessly hurtle down mountainsides, so the bike may have been soundly thrashed and possibly damaged. Check these even more carefully than regular bikes.
Touring bikes – (also called Trekking bikes) bikes designed to handle the demands of cycle touring. Cycle touring by definition entails cycling long distances while carrying heavy loads, and touring bikes are adapted to facilitate this. For example, they may have a longer wheelbase, so that your heels do not bang into your saddle bags when pedaling (a very annoying thing).
They are designed to be especially strong, and the frames have several mounting points so that multiple panniers and luggage holders can be carried. They are usually designed for comfort as well, given that bike tourists may spend many hours of the day in the saddle.
Trailer bikes – a bike that is trailed along by another bike in front. A tow bar hooks it to the bike that is pulling it. The trailer bike just has a back wheel, a seat, pedals and handlebars for the young rider to hold on to. These are designed for younger riders so that they can safely join their parents on rides. The person in front needs to be fit and strong!
V-brakes – these were developed by Shimano from cantilever brakes. (See also Rim brakes, above.) V-brakes are a side-pull version of cantilever brakes and, like cantilever brakes, are mounted on the frame. V-brakes or disc brakes are best for mountain bikes.
Vintage – in popular usage (and especially in advertising!) the word “vintage” means “Characterized by excellence, maturity, and enduring appeal; classic.” Many older bikes are advertised as vintage. As with cars and people, old age does not necessarily equate to excellence … so this is definitely a case of Buyer Beware! If you are attracted to a bike advertised as “vintage,” do a lot of research to make sure you are buying finely-aged quality (rather than simply clearing something rusty out of someone else’s garage). See also “Good Quality Vintage Bikes” below.
Women-specific bikes (also called Women Specific Design, or WSD) – some bike manufacturers now make bikes that they have tried to modify to fit differences in anatomy between men and women. The frame geometry may be slightly different (for example, the top tube is usually shorter), the brake and gear controls will typically be smaller, and the wheels may be smaller. But remember that everyone is different, and not all women need a WSD bike. As with everything else with bikes, the key is to find a bike that feels good to you, personally. So if you’re a man, don’t run away screaming if the bike has a teeny little “WSD” somewhere on the frame!
I hope this post was useful. Good luck with buying your bike!
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