Learning to ride a bike is a childhood milestone. And there's good reason to stick with two wheels as we grow up. For one thing, it makes financial sense: With $4-a-gallon gas in some cities, commuting by bike is a cheaper option. Every type of bike is available at different price points, making it affordable for most riders. Prices range from $200 into the thousands, with average costs hovering around $500.
Biking is as good for your body as it is your wallet: In a study published in 2010 in the Archives of Internal Medicine, for example, researchers found that women who biked for as few as five minutes a day gained less weight than those who didn't ride. Other studies suggest that cyclists live about two years longer than non-bikers, and take 15 percent fewer sick days. And overall, research indicates that biking is good for the heart and helps stave off obesity, arthritis, and depression. (Expect to burn about 500 calories per hour, depending on how much you weigh, when moving at a moderate clip.) "The biggest thing is the fun factor," says cycling enthusiast Selene Yeager, author of Ride Your Way Lean: The Ultimate Plan for Burning Fat and Getting Fit on a Bike. "It's one of the closest feelings you can get to flying—it brings back the memory of your youth, it's a beautiful way to see places, and it's a relaxing form of exercise."
Once you decide to ride, the next step is weighing different types of bikes against each other and selecting the best fit. Choices include:
Road bikes. These light-weight bikes have skinny tires and drop handlebars that offer multiple options for hand position. They're ideal for riding long distances on paved or graded surfaces. They're built for speed, too, Yeager says. (Road bikes are used in the Tour de France race, for example.)
Mountain bikes. They have fatter tires than road bikes, along with flat handlebars and a thicker, more stable body. They'll take you over rocky terrain on trails, but can be used along smooth dirt roads and in paved parks as well. Opt for a mountain bike if you plan on cruising through dirt or parks, Yeager says. But keep in mind that they don't move as fast as road bikes. Mountain bikes typically have 21 to 30 gears. "If you think you're going to be riding through parks and gravely roads, get a mountain bike," Yeager says.
Recumbent bikes. Typically favored by seniors and those needing a rehabilitation tool, recumbent bikes offer lots of comfort by placing riders in a reclining position. Weight is distributed over a larger area than on other bikes. They're "as comfortable as an office chair," and are a "smart choice for the typical couch potato," says Peter Stull, owner of Bicycle Man, a shop in Alfred Station, N.Y.
Comfort bikes. Like their name suggests, comfort bikes are designed as leisure bikes, with straight handlebars and a wide, comfortable seat. They have thick tires and lots of reflectors, and riders sit upright, says Mark LaLonde, a former bike mechanic who now runs sales and marketing at Planet Bike, an online accessories shop that also hosts cycling information. They're smart choices for those who have relatively flat rides to work, aren't speed-demons, and who have physical ailments that make upright the most comfortable position. They're also typically the cheapest of the different bike varieties.
BMX/freestyle bikes. BMX bikes are designed for racing on dirt tracks; riders can move quickly and execute jumps in the dirt. Freestyle bikes, while built with a similar design, are intended for tricks and stunts. These typically aren't used for commuting, though.
No matter what type of bike you're interested in, try it out before sealing the deal. Most bike shops will have staffers on hand to answer your questions, and may let you test a bike for a couple of days to make sure it's the one. "They're experts in making sure it fits you properly," LaLonde says. "An ill-fitting bike will make your rides unpleasant."