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The modern bicycle boom has produced a plethora of designs that can leave first-time buyers extremely confused. Mountain bikes and racing bikes are wildly in, but which do I need? Or would I do better with something else, even if it's not quite so trendy?

The answer, obviously, depends on what you want to do with your new bicycle. If you're fired up from watching Olympic racers, you may indeed want a racing bike. For trail riding, a mountain bike is obviously a necessity. But most people actually use their bicycles for activities more appropriately classified as "touring."

Touring is pleasure-riding where the aim is principally to explore the terrain near your home, or on vacation. Zipping along effortlessly is part of the fun, but there's no need to coax the last iota of speed out of your machine; that just distracts from watching the scenery or talking to friends. When touring, you also need to be able to sit comfortably on your machine for the duration of your outing, whether it's 10 miles or 100 miles.

There are five basic kinds of adult bicycles:

    Racing Bikes are lightweight, with narrow, high-pressure tires typically no more than an inch wide. Everything about them is designed for going fast, on pavement, with no baggage. The thin tires, for example, reduce both rolling resistance and the weight of the wheels, making quick starts and sharp turns easier. The first time you ride a racing bike, the highly responsive steering will probably feel unsteady, but it won't take long to get used to it.

    Racing bikes are fast and fun to ride for short distances, but be wary about sitting on one for long hours, day after day. They're unlikely to be sturdy enough or stable enough for fully loaded touring.

    Mountain Bikes are at the tough end of the sturdiness spectrum. Built for rugged gravel roads or breakneck charges up and down steep trails, a good mountain bike will easily take the strain of a heavy touring load.

    But the traditional mountain bike is best designed for touring under Third World conditions. The fat tires, even if you replace the traditional knobbies with thinner road tires, often run at low enough pressure to slow you down appreciably, and the standard straight handlebar gives you only one hand position, something that can get tiring after a few hours.

    A mountain bike can be improved for on-pavement touring by substituting lighter wheels and higher-pressure tires, and by changing handlebar style or adding bar extenders. Some newer mountain bikes have frames closer than earlier models to traditional road-bike frames.

    Mountain bikes are at their best for heavy touring, when you need the strength and stability. They're the only way to go for rough gravel or overnight trail rides. If your only bicycle is a mountain bike, use it for your first touring experiments, but unless you plan to do a lot of off-pavement touring, you'll want to shift to a touring bike or crossover bike.

    Sport Bikes are a little better on gravel than racing bikes, but aren't designed to go off-pavement for extended periods. They don't truly excel at any form of touring they're slower than racing bikes for light-duty use, and not quite as nicely designed for loaded touring as a dedicated touring bike.

    Dedicated Touring Bike is the best design for long-haul touring on mostly paved roads. They may even be able to accommodate fairly beefy tires (about halfway between racing tires and mountain bike tires) for extended runs off-pavement. Manufacturers' goals have always been stability, comfort, and the ability to carry heavy weight. There never have been many of these bikes on the market.

    Hybrid Bicycles mix the comfort, ruggedness, and security of mountain bikes with the quick steering response and reduced rolling resistance of wheels designed for road use. They typically have mountain-bike gearing and straight handlebars, and some even have front and rear suspension systems designed to absorb road shock, just as mountain bike suspension systems absorb the shock of rough gravel or trails.

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