What’s the most versatile style of bike?

I’ll admit, I’m a bit greedy in the bike department (but not as greedy as some people I know!) – I’ve got more than 3, and less than 5. However, I recently found myself wondering: if I could have just one bike, what would it be?

Here’s a look at the distinguishing features of the most common styles, and the bike that I believe is the most versatile:

Road bikes

Commonly searched for as ‘racers’ and ‘race bikes’, road bikes have seen a huge boom since the halo effect of the 2012 Tour win and Olympic achievements. A lot of people, however, aren’t actually racing their road bikes, but enjoying them for commutes, countryside rides and sportives.

Ribble carbon road bike

Endurance / Sportive

This style of bike is designed to be comfortable over long, often hilly miles. The geometry is generally relaxed – a shorter top tube will usually put the rider in a more upright position, which is less aerodynamic but puts lesser stress on the lower back. The wheelbase will be longer, which provides a little more stability.

Generally, the tyres will be wider (25c or 28c) and more robust than those on a race-ready bike, and the gearing will be more forgiving on the hills – generally with a compact chainset (50/34) and wide ratio cassette (11-28 or 11-32) which allows for lower resistance options.

In recent years, disc brakes have started appearing on these road bikes – meaning they have greater stopping power, even in the wet. If you’ve got a big sportive planned, and don’t want to miss out just because it’s raining, this makes the ride safer. However, you cannot race any UCI event (including British Cycling races – that’s most UK races) with disc brakes…

Race bikes

Designed more for those with a need for speed – race bikes are usually light, and have an aggressive geometry that puts the rider in a more aero position – bum up, head down.

Those days the high majority of bikes have compact chainsets, but some racers may have doubles, and the cassette is more likely to be closer ratio – that means that it’s easier to find the ‘perfect’ gear. There are fewer climbing gears available, but racers are often training plenty and can get over most hillocks with their gearing as it is. Also, they aren’t likely to be attempting the Fred Whitton sporitve or any long, climby endurance events on this bike.

Recently, the aero road bike has become more common – with hidden brake calipers, aero seatposts and integrated stems to save valuable watts – these are usually at the high end, however.

Time trial bike

Ah – my favourite. Time trial bikes are all about bearing wind resistance – they have the features of the race bike (light frame, similar, if not more extreme gearing), but with extension bars and geometry tweaked to put the rider in a forward position. I don’t suppose many people commute on these, so if you want more info check out this post.

Single speed 

These are mega popular in town – having just one gear is handy for a commuting bike as it requires considerably less maintenance. The simple feel of riding fixed is great fun, and many racers choose to do so over winter as it teaches them to spin their legs at a high cadence (and grind the hills if they need to).

Singlespeeds can be fixed or free – fixed means there is no freewheel hub, so you can’t stop pedalling. To slow down, you need to push against the pedals to create resistance. Track bikes for riding on the velodrome are fixed – and a lot of fun. Those with a freewheel are safer in traffic, as you can stop immediately.

A lot of singlespeeds have a ‘flip flop’ hub, so you can swap between fixed and free easily.

Hybrid bikes 

Dutch bikes in London

Hybrid bikes were created to bridge the gap between road and mountain bikes. There are many different styles – some are sporty and closer to mountain bikes, even having front suspension, whilst others such as ‘sit up and beg’ Dutch bikes are definitely more for town riding.

A sporty hybrid will have wider, grippy tyres that you can take off-road for a little exploration if you want to – but you won’t want to attack anything too technical (for that, you’ll want a mountain bike). These will however have a lightweight frame, which feels zippy on the road, as well – and some people ride sportives on hybrids. These are great for commuting, since you are in an upright position, can mix up the terrain (and tackle pot holed roads) but still feel relatively fast.

Dutch Bikes, such as Pashleys put the rider in a very upright position – they are usually not the lightest of machines and often have limited gears, since it isn’t expect that you will be climbing the Alpe de Huez. They are however comfortable, very stable, and usually have space for luggage. And yes, lots of people think they’re pretty.

Folding bikes 


Folding bikes are designed for those who have a train journey along the way, or little space.

Brompton are the number one brand – they design good quality bikes, that have their own range of spares and accessories, making them an attractive offer.

It is a myth that all folding bikes have diddy 20″ wheels – the Tern Eclipse P18, for example, is not far off full sized, but still folds up – a popular choice for caravan holidays, boating holidays (really!) and camping.

Folding bikes have also come on in recent years, with Tern Verge X18 even featuring aero wheels for all that super quick commuting between meetings. This said, it’s also £1,700..

Mountain bikes


I could write an entirely separate post for mountain bikes, but they’re not the most common commuting options so I will skim over a little of the detail.

Mountain bikes can be hardtail or full suspension. Hardtails are a popular option when riders are starting out – the front fork provides cushioning through the handlebars, and this is usually enough. Hardtails are also favoured by racers tackling less technical, enduro events because they weigh less, and the rear suspension may not be needed. In addition, rear suspension can create ‘pedal bob’, meaning some efficiency is lost.

Full-sus bikes offer greater comfort over lumpy bumby trails – they allow riders to roll over more obstacles, without noticing them nearly as much. The bike might be heavier, but the rider can attack more challenging terrain, and isn’t slowed down by concern over larger blips on the trail as they could be on a hardtail.

The next variable is wheel size. Until a few years ago, mountain bikes had 26″ wheels – and they were fine. For many riders, they are still fine – and bikes with 26″ wheels are less weighty, making them still better for some racers, and stronger, hence they are a preference for downhillers.

29″ wheels, comparatively, are larger and thus once up to speed faster rolling. They roll over obstacles more easily, but they do take more effort to get up to speed. In the middle – we have the newer addition of 650b wheel sizes, and these are fast become a favourite and best seller.



 I began this post looking for the most versatile bike – and here it is (in my opinion). Cyclocross bikes were initially created for cyclocross racing – that is 1 hour racing short circuits in a muddy field. Lots of mud, perhaps some trail, and even some concrete, too.

You can ride a cyclocross bike on the trails with a little practice. To tackle anything really technical, you might need a MTB, but a CX bike won’t limit many people on many rides.

You also get drop handlebars, and a road bike geometry – which means that when you are on the road, you’ll feel fairly at home, too.

Many CX bikes have disc brakes – this makes for great fast stopping, and knobbly tyres which shed mud (the frame is deigned to allow clearance for this). However, if you want to ride it predominantly on the road, you could swap the tyres for slicks, which would speed things up no end. If British Cycling racers where on your horizon, you would need to choose one with caliper brakes as the discs would be banned from bunch races. However, there are plenty available.

Cyclocross bikes have seen a little split recently, with some gaining the name ‘Adventure Road’ or ‘Gravel Bikes’. The key differences between traditional Cyclocross bikes and Adventure Road bikes are that the latter is designed for longer rides – often with panniers and a more relaxed geometry. Both options will serve you well on and off-road – which is why I think they’re the ultimate “if I only had one bike, bike”. Admittedly, it doeesn’t fold, and they’re rearely aero – but I’m not sure I’d want my CX bike to fold..

If you could have one style of bike for the rest of your life, what would you go for? 

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16 Responses to What’s the most versatile style of bike?

  1. Maria Gilbert 20/02/2015 at 12:21 pm #

    I love getting lost in the countryside and with my CX I don’t have to turn back if a road peters out into a cart track. Admittedly it looks a bit like an elephant in ballet shoes when I use slicks, but I successfully completed an 86 mile sportive on it last year and to be honest, nowadays I think I prefer it to my road bike.

  2. Brian 20/02/2015 at 12:27 pm #

    You’ve forgotten – like everyone one does these days – the touring bike. Essentially a road bike with more relaxed geometry, wider tyres, a wider range of gears, and usually a rack and mudguards. Perfectly suitable for year-round commuting, leisure rides at weekends on almost any terrain and, of course, for adventurous touring. I honestly don’t know why they’re not more popular.

    • TOM 22/02/2015 at 6:00 pm #

      I completely agree with you Brian. Five bikes in my stable. A hybrid, MB, Italian alum racer and 2 touring bikes.

      I worked my way up and just kept the older ones out of sentiment. Now the 2 touring bikes get all my time. They are identical except one is set up for dry/summer and the other for wet/winter.
      Being the same make/model/size , everything is interchangeable between the 2. I’m retired and in Portland, Oregon where we get plenty of rain. The more upright position and bump soaking steel frame suits me better. Tourers are usually make to take fenders and racks that some others won’t.
      And like you, I’m not sure why they are not more popular.

      Mine are both “Randonee’s” …French for safari.

      • Alehouse Rock 28/02/2015 at 1:30 am #

        Yes….and I dunno why they were omitted from Michelle’s original article. Is it because retail-wise, they don’t exist anymore? But fortunately there are masses of them around, for sale on the usual w’sites, simply offered as “Racing bike for sale”, which they mostly never were. (To the uninitiated, anything with drop-handlebars is a “racer”). I currently own more than one velo, and less than three! One is a famous 531 ex-racing iron; the other a famous 531 tourer, and I love’em both to bits.

  3. Brian 20/02/2015 at 12:29 pm #

    Sorry, on closer reading you’ve more or less described a touring bike without using the name!

  4. Baldcyclist 20/02/2015 at 12:50 pm #

    “Hybrid bikes were created to bridge the gap between road and mountain bikes.”

    It amuses me that the bikes pictures to denote ‘hybrid’, were around before road, and mountain bikes…. 😉

    • MJ Ray 21/02/2015 at 11:03 am #

      Indeed. “Dutch” bikes, or roadsters, or English light sports predate mountain bikes by decades and should be seen as a class of their own.

      Trade bikes (with their heavyweight frame racks) and full on cargo bikes could make a strong case for versatility too, although they’re not ideal for day touring!

    • Mik 23/02/2015 at 10:35 am #

      I found some definite bias there 🙂 . A lot of single speeds in town are flat bars, and I wouldn’t put hybrids in the same breath as Dutch bikes in an article that feels a need to split Time Trial, Sportive, Race, drop bar track and CX while forgetting Touring.

      Agreed on the conclusion though, if you were only allowed one to do everything, it’d be a CX, although possibly one on the Touring end of the geometry scale…

  5. Gemma 21/02/2015 at 7:15 pm #

    You missed rigid mountain bikes.

    Check them out, it’s exactly what you’re looking for.

  6. Phil 22/02/2015 at 5:53 pm #

    Seconded on the rigid MTB; Front shocks are nice to have if that’s what you think you need, but most of the time you aren’t going to need them, and cheap ones are not worth having at all. My bike is built around a Genesis Fortitude frame, which is overkill for a mainly commuting bike, but which will last for many years; the wheels, similarly, are overbuilt for the same reason. It is comfortable, durable and I can pedal it as fast as I want to, which is nothing like as fast as the Lycra road racers, but then they can’ t do anything but hare along at 30 mph- no popping to the library, doing the shopping, pootling around or enjoying the view.

  7. Jesper 23/02/2015 at 6:47 pm #

    The one bike I could not do without, would be my Danish upright 3 speed hub gear steel framed bike, that can carry everything I can throw at it, and that never breaks down, and hardly ever need cleaning.

  8. Roger 24/02/2015 at 11:13 pm #

    +1 for the rigid MTB. Pick up a decent one from the late 90s/early 00s that uses aheadset and modern sizing, 8 or 9 speed – a good solid Kona, GT, Marin…those all (generally) have rack braze-ons.

    Even if they have geometry for front sus it was generally 100mm in those days so some corrected rigid forks can be used.

    The wonderful thing about these bikes is that they’re incredibly practical – parts are widely available from Shimano Altus all the way up to XT.

    They’ll take you pretty much anywhere so you can put on a rack and some panniers and off you go. Some smooth tyres 1.3″-1.75″ makes them the perfect commuter and able to cope with the awful roads as well as tow paths and adventures.

  9. Hedgemonkey 27/02/2015 at 9:16 pm #

    Just had this exact dilemma and ended up with a Whyte Sussex. I love my MTB but it is literally just that, an MTB.
    So for commuting, day rides, a wee bit of weekend touring and slap some CX tyres on it, I can even ride some of the less rocky ( I now live in the Peak District ) trails.
    And the cable/ Hydraulic discs are spot on for the job.

  10. Dave 02/04/2015 at 11:02 am #

    I can’t do one all in one bike as I have a long commute so my Brompton does well with a bike train combo and for the bike part it has 16 gears. I fitted an Ultegra 53″/39 ” chainwheel together with an eight speed hub gear. It’s now both very fast and a good climber.

    My other bike is a Street Machine recumbent which I use for shorter <12 miles commute, trail and canal paths, and Adventure touring. The only problem with the recumbent is the stupid grin plastered on my face when I ride it

  11. GRC 13/04/2015 at 7:19 am #

    CX for drop bars or a MTB with some narrow slicks. I would swap out the traditional rear end for an Alfine 11 speed or, if feeling exceedingly flush, a Rohloff 14 speed. More than enough for the job and much less work.

  12. Olaf 28/09/2015 at 12:12 pm #

    I used a long time the old fashion race-bike (summer) and mountain bike (winter/ and trails) and changed all over to a nice Carbon CX bike, and indeed geometry is comfort, also running 46/36 and 12/30 all gearing is there, i am using a nice saddle (ergon in my case) and changed my nop-tires in a nice handmade gravel tire (i use challenge stada bianca 30mm but could also be an paris roubaix 27mm), ride on lower pressure like 60psi / 4bar and it’s comfort and nice-rolling all the way for long distances. Copple-Stones, Off-road / Sand / Gravel it al doesn’t matter it just fun to ride arround on a nice CX bike. In winter in the cold/muddy/trails i will use my noppy rocket-ron tires. And next year spring a bike update with a new chain, brakepads and tires to continue riding with fun……. i only don’t know how long my CX bike will do due to more intensitive use, but also it’s fun to change bike every 3 a 4 years

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