I am passionate about bicycling. I love to ride every day, and often find reasons to ride a couple times a day. I discuss cycling with friends and think about it countless times a day. I structure my days off around my bike rides. When I am at work I am generally wishing I was on one of my bikes. You will know me in the airport because I am the pilot with all the bicycling stickers on his flight bag.
Riding bikes makes you feel better than being a kid again. The thrill generated by the hum of a tight road bike or the exhilaration produced by a mountain bike bombing down a trail is incredible. Calorie-consuming city bikes offer inexpensive transportation, free parking, and often more rapid commutes. If you haven't ridden a bike in a while, or even decades, you are missing out on unbeatable emotions and good exercise too.
The variety of styles of bikes and biking makes it impossible to get bored with the activity. Road races, mountain races, charity rides, distance competitions, and rides to get beer at the local pub should keep you occupied for a while. Everyone should have at least one bike, but three makes the most sense. Choice of bike is critical to the level of enjoyment derived and can be a mood killer if not done correctly.
Road Bikes (One of the first bikes you should own)
Road bikes are probably the most versatile and overlooked style of bike. They can be configured to speed along the road, race, serve as a commuter, and even tackle some serious off road conditions. Consider the classic Paris Roubaix race. For over 100 years cobbles, mud, water, gravel, and some pavement have been overcome with a road bike.
Right out of the store, a road bike is an incredibly fun machine to ride. The hum of the front tire on the pavement is an unmatched endorphin-generating sound. Miles and calories will fall behind you at an amazing clip. Clipless pedals are the only style to consider and are not to be feared. You will get accustomed to them very quickly and I have only once seen somebody fall over at a stop due to their pedals.
Most people are so satisfied with riding their road bikes that they don't need any more adrenaline in their system. However, if you do, you can always race your bike. Bike clubs based on racing will get you into criteriums, road races, time trials, and cyclocross. You will need to pay USA Cycling for a license to race. Timothy Finkelstein has a great blog about his cycling obsession
If you are going to use your bike mostly for riding around town or commuting, a road bike is unquestionably what you need. Most road bikes come out of the store or from Craigslist with tires that are 23cm wide. This isn't much rubber on the road and scares a lot of people away from road bikes. Consider however, that it is a simple operation to replace those tires with 25cm or 27cm wide tires with more aggressive tread patterns. You should also consider Armadillo tires which are extremely puncture- resistant. They are noticeably heavier than standard tires and will slow you down somewhat.
Mountain Bikes (The other first bike you should own)
If first you didn't purchase a road bike then a mountain bike is what you should get. Mountain bikes are great for off road. The fun of bouncing over rocks, roots, and barreling down hills is wonderful. You can get a variety of suspension systems from none at all, to front only (hardtail), to full. Hardtails are best place to start for cost and comfort reasons. A lot of energy is lost when pedaling a full suspension bike. Newer hydraulic and lockout systems are beginning to overcome this downfall.
Racing mountain bikes is just as fun as racing road bikes. USA Cycling is the place to get setup for this.
Many people incorrectly get a mountain bike to use as a commuter or city bike. They quickly become unhappy because it takes a lot of work to push fat tires around on city pavement. There are roads in the city; consequently, you should be using a road bike in the city.
The upright riding style of a mountain bike is great around town to see and avoid cars. If you like this style simply install straight or mustache style handlebars on your roadbike. If you cannot resist a mountain bike for the city, then put thin, 25cm tires on it and you will be much happier.
Single-speed or fixed-gear (The third bike in your collection)
Single-speed bikes are the perfect commuter or bar bike. They make runs to the grocery store fun. Single-speeds are just that, one gear. They are simple and tolerant of neglect, rain, and sand. You don't have to be concerned about the adjustment of derailleurs or shifters because there aren't any. Without a rear cassette there is no place for sand to accumulate which would typically destroy your chain and gears. Single-speeds are typically a roadbike style frame; though, sometimes mountain bikes are also turned into single-speeds. Attach some panniers or get a messenger bag and you are ready to run your errands without any gas.
A popular variation of the single-speed is the fixed-gear (aka fixie). These are the same bike; however, the fixed-gear has no freewheel in the rear hub. Consequently, whenever the rear wheel is turning, so are the pedals forcing the rider to pedal continuously. Fixed-gear bikes are a bit unique and take some learning so you don't get tossed over the handlebars by the ever-rotating pedals, but you will never have more fun on a bike than with a fixed-gear. These bikes were originally for track racing, but have found a great life as daily commuters and city bikes. Bike messengers often use fixed-gears as their work machine. Here is a video about New York City bike messengers and their fixed-gear bikes
I prefer my city bike to be built out of steel. Aluminum may be lighter and carbon ever more so, but the quality of ride offered by steel is unsurpassed. Steel is springy and really smooths the bumps and divets in the road which an urban rider is sure to encounter. Especially when their attention is focused on traffic or during nighttime rides. The only potential disadvantage to a steel bike is that it is susceptible to rust. This is easily prevented by bringing your bike inside when you get home and cleaning it now and then.
Fixed-gear bikes offer the epitome of riding. I started riding a fixed-gear with a Specialized Langster and quickly discovered the absolute joy derived from pushing one gear and perpetually turning pedals. However, I found the frame to be stiff, and uncomfortable as a city bike. I spent a few months watching Craiglist and found a 1970's Puch which I converted to a fixed-gear. The conversion was a great winter project to learn about bicycle mechanics. This bike is an incredible joy to ride. The steel lugged frame is springy, helping me tackle the Boston potholes.
If you are not feeling mechanically inclined, or just want to experience some of the most fun of your life, you can pick up a fixed-gear at your local bike store. Directly out of the box the Bianchi Pista or Redline 925 are the best if you need a daily commuter. Trek, Specialized, and Cannondale also make single-speed models as well. Though, these typically require modifications such as the addition of brakes or fenders to make them well suited to city riding. Additionally, most have a rear wheel with a flip-flop hub. This allows you to simply flip the rear wheel to select either single-speed with a freewheel or fixed-gear mode. Make sure you have at least a front brake on it if you are going to ride anywhere but the track though.
These are the funny looking bikes that are gaining in popularity. There are many variations including high or low racers, above or underseat steering, and long or short wheelbase. I own a Bacchetta Corsa. It high racer with a short wheelbase and above-seat steering. It is completely fun to ride and you can read my review of the Bacchetta Corsa.
Recumbents are every bit as comfortable as the look and are very fast. They remove any stress that a traditional upright bike may place on your back, elbows, wrists, or neck. You get a view while riding and will notice that your field-of-vision is really wide allowing you to really enjoy the scenery as you ride along. Recumbents take a bit of getting used-to; however, everybody adapts pretty quickly. Scott Chamberlain has a great weblog dedicated to bicycling and recumbents.
Hybrid (The bike nobody needs)
Hybrid bikes are often thought of as the same as crossbikes and people incorrectly use the titles interchangeably. Hybrid bikes are a cross between a mountain bike and a road bike and definitely not the less common, but significantly more fun, cyclocross bikes.
Hybrid bikes are the reason a lot of people don't like riding bikes. Typically a new bike owner desires one bike that will encompass all types of riding. Such a bike does not exist and any claiming to do so will not be enjoyable to ride. Hybrid bikes are terrible as mountain bikes since they typically have little, if any suspension. Furthermore, as a road bike they make the rider do a lot of work for little speed and poor handling in return.
Hybrid have tires that are fatter and more textured than road bikes, but narrower and smoother than mountain bike tires. Consequently, they are not aggressive enough for off-road use and it is way too much rubber for city or road biking. The straight handlebars on most hybrids do not give the rider many positions to choose from causing them to become uncomfortable quickly.
If you need a machine for commuting to work, friends, or the local pub you should not consider a hybrid but rather a road bike, cyclocross bike, or even a fixie. If you want a bike for cruising through the woods a hybrid would be an extremely uncomfortable choice and you would be better served with a true mountain bike be it hard-tail or full suspension.
If you absolutely must have a hybrid you might try Specialized, who seems to dominate the market with their Crossroads. The other manufacturers seem to have figured out that hybrids not good at much.
Maintaining Your Bike
Your bike will probably give you more hours of uninterrupted service than your airplane, boat, or car. Learn to change a tire as soon as you get your bike. Bike shops love to service bikes because it is typically not difficult and a huge revenue generator for them. You will probably have to drop your bike off and wait for a few days for it to be repaired. Nearly all repairs and tuneups can be done by the owner with either The Bicycling Guide to Complete Bicycle Maintenance and Repair: For Road and Mountain Bikes(Expanded and Revised 5th Edition) or Sheldon Brown's website. The only tools you'll need for most repairs are a few metric Allen wrenches. I use Park Tools as that is what pros use. Their website also has some great diagrams and instructions for repairs and upgrades.