With a history dating back more than a century, the bicycle has proven to be a remarkable adaptable mode of transportation. Relatively simple in design, and human powered, they are the epitome of elegant engineering. Still, bikes have changed dramatically in the past 40 years.
More to the point, bikes have become more specialized, with designs addressing the broad spectrum of terrain. In short, form following function. Whether you’re a beginner or an expert rider, here are a handful of newer styles you might want to add to your two-wheeled collection.
I have eight bikes — two road bikes, two “gravel” bikes, three cross-country mountain bikes (hardtail, softtail and full-suspension), and a fat bike. I love all of them, for many different reasons (like kids, I suppose). But if my house caught fire, and I had time to grab only one of my trusty rigs, I’d probably grab the fat bike. Why? Because of all my bikes, none have a higher “fun” factor than my Cannondale Fat CAAD.
As mentioned earlier, New England terrain is so varied that you need to match your bike to the topography. Except for the fat bike. As long as you’re not in a rush, the fat bike can handle a crazy array of ground cover, from dirt and mud to rocks and roots and even pavement. Granted, it’s not the fastest, the nimblest, or even the lightest. But it’s super stable, and the simple truth is that I cannot stop laughing while riding it. The fat bike brings me back to my youth like no other bike I own.
“Any bike that puts a smile on your face is a bike worth riding,” said Brian McInnis, owner of JRA Cycles in Massachusetts. “Fat bikes do that. It’s not always quantifiable as to why, but they do.
“It’s a different experience than riding a regular full-suspension bike,” said McInnis. “The tires can be smashed into anything, and all that happens is you get bounced in a different direction. Once you understand the physics of how this bike rides, you can use it for a unique and exciting ride experience.”
With its absurdly wide, low-pressure tires — ranging in diameter from 3.5 to 5 inches — the fat bike is comically slow on asphalt, but it will roll over most obstacles like an amoeba, which makes it especially fun on downhills. That same characteristic allows people to ride fat bikes on sandy beaches or through muddy bogs. The bike’s impressive gear ratio allows me to climb all but the steepest inclines, while the wide “contact patch” of the tires ensures the bike maintains considerable grip.
Plus, my fat bike is a true “four-season” machine. Come winter, simply lower the tire pressure to increase the tire’s “footprint,” and these bikes will practically float over snow. Put on a pair of studded tires and you can pedal across frozen lakes with all the confidence of a hockey player. Which means the fat bike removes any excuse I might have to not ride.
Slotted neatly between bombproof downhill mountain rigs and agile cross-country steeds, the versatile enduro bike fills that necessary sweet spot to maximize your time on the manmade flow trails now offered by many ski resorts and dedicated mountain bike parks. Unlike my first mountain bike — a fully rigid black-and-neon pink Trek Singletrack 970 — these burly steeds have plenty of suspension front and back, a dropper post, and are designed to be pointed down the hill. Gone are the heavy, lugged steel frames, the over-the-handlebar thumb shifters, and in many cases, even the front derailleur. Wheel size has changed, from 26-inch to 27.5 or 29, and the tires themselves are wider, providing better grip.
In short, today’s enduro bikes look a lot like my full-suspension cross-country rig went on a serious weightlifting regimen. And that results in a weight penalty. According to an old engineering maxim, you have three choices when buying a bike: “Light, Strong, Cheap — Pick two.” Enduro bikes follow this axiom to a proverbial “T,” with one exception. Even if it’s built strong and is costs a small fortune, a quality enduro bike is going to have “some” heft to it.
That’s because of the demands placed on an enduro bike. While I can ride my lightweight cross-country rig on manmade flow trails, it feels much more skittish than these stout rigs. Same goes for hitting any jumps. Fortunately, most parks that offer manmade flow trails also offer rentals, which is a great option for those who don’t spend too much time at lift-serviced areas.
One caveat, though — If you do rent an enduro rig, take some time to learn about it. They are different animals, and require a different touch. Likewise, if you’re shopping for an enduro bike, test ride each one. You’ll be amazed how different they all feel, despite having basically the same specs. But once you get them dialed in, they can absolutely rip.
Perhaps no one bike style better reflects the evolution of the bicycle than the gravel bike. One of the newest “segments” of the bike retail industry, gravel bikes are really something of a throwback, to the bygone days when there were far fewer paved roads. Some cycling enthusiasts will even proclaim “every bike is a gravel bike,” and they wouldn’t be wrong, since almost every bike can be ridden on gravel or dirt surfaces (with varying degrees of comfort).
The latest iteration of the “gravel bike” speaks to a specific style of two-wheeler. Though it resembles a road bike, with a traditional double-diamond frame and drop handlebars, the gravel bike’s closest cousin is the cyclocross bike. (Full disclosure: My wife and I both ride modified cyclocross bikes as our gravel rigs, and my 20-year-old titanium Litespeed is the one bike I ride most often).
“Gravel bikes are all about bringing it back to fun and recreation,” said Collin Dualong, owner of KC&E Adventures. “The nature of gravel bikes — having large tires, relaxed geometry and more robust components — doesn’t lend them to being the lightest on-road or most capable off-road, but they situate the rider nicely into this zone that is all about just appreciating the solitude of a dirt road or Jeep track. These bikes really make it all about the quality of the ride and the views.”
They are also among the most versatile bikes on the planet.
“Gravel bikes offer riders a wider range of options,” said Arlon Chaffee, a longtime gravel rider and owner of GRVL Cycling, a ride promotion firm. “With frame geometry that is more akin to a road bike combined with the ability to accept wider tires, expanded gear ratios and disc brakes, they are a ‘Swiss Army Bike’ solution — great on road and mixed-surface rides.
“I advise riders who are new or returning to the sport to consider a gravel bike, because it’s like getting two bikes for the price of one,” said Chaffee. “It can be handy to have two sets of wheels for your gravel bike, one for road riding and one for gravel.”
OK, let’s address the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Electric bikes, or e-bikes, are the fastest growing niche in cycling circles, and for very good reason. They’re a blast to ride. Though not cheap, the technology has advanced to the point where they won’t absolutely break the bank, either (though you can expect to spend well into four figures). For that investment, you get the benefit of a stealth “electronic assist,” which coupled with your own two legs will get you farther, faster (especially on the hills).
In reality, e-bikes tend to be the great equalizer, allowing people with physical limitations, or those who simply aren’t as physically fit, to ride longer, and keep pace with the pack during group rides. You can find e-bikes in road bike models, touring, commuter, gravel, fat bike, and mountain bike models. All provide an electronic assist that one rider described to me as a giant hand at your back, gently pushing you along. I vividly recall chasing down a rider a few years back on a Vermont rail trail. As I got closer, I noticed tufts of white hair sprouting from underneath the rider’s helmet. Pulling alongside, I met an older woman, probably in her mid-70s, riding an e-gravel bike. “How do you like the e-bike,” I asked, suspecting I knew the answer. “Oh, I love it,” she beamed, confirming my suspicions.
“I have a Specialized Creo SL Evo, an e-gravel bike, and I tell you that thing blurs so many lines for me,” says Dualong of KC&E Adventures. “We offer self-guided tours, and having these available allows access to so many more people over terrain that would normally require a high degree of fitness.”
But there’s a controversial side to the e-bike equation. They have a motor, and therefore are “motorized.” That’s a fact. And many off-road trails are closed to motorized traffic. Mountain bike advocates have worked tirelessly to be able to ride those trails and don’t want want to lose that access because mountain bikes are suddenly being lumped together with motocross bikes. Go on any online mountain bike forum these days, and you’ll likely find a robust, and sometimes heated, debate on the topic. Sadly, those “discussions” often reflect our pitiful political discourse these days, with many e-bikers announcing that they’ll ride wherever they damn well please. It’s a selfish, short-term approach that could possibly undo years of goodwill fostered by mountain bikers with other user groups.
E-bike proponents say the electronic “engine” has a regulator, which typically tops out at around 20 miles an hour. That’s true, but that’s still pretty quick for many trails. My wife and I were nearly hit by a woman aboard an e-bike who was traveling at a rate that her skill level didn’t match (she veered off the trail at the last second, crashing into some shrubs). In that regard, e-bike riders can sometimes resemble beginner skiers who find themselves atop an expert run that far exceeds their ability. They pose a risk not only to themselves, but others on the trail.
That said, e-bikes are here to stay. They provided a much needed jolt to an industry that was stagnating (pre-pandemic). And they allow people to ride longer, and more often, without paying a steep post-ride price for that effort. I’m all for that. Whether or not they belong on trails designated as “non-motorized” is another debate, one that I hope can be resolved by reasonable minds.