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Better Ways to Roll: The Expansion of Versatile Bikes

Plus: Expert Picks in Road, Mountain, Hybrid & Comfort Models

New adventure bikes have extra-wide tires for smooth riding on paved and unpaved surfaces, while a majority of mountain bikes in 2015 lineups now have 27.5-inch wheels. Meanwhile, major manufacturers make e-bikes that give riders a motorized boost.

Age Fotostock

Recently, we noted the rapid growth of the number of bicycles, or bikes, that were designed for increasingly specialized niches. That growth hasn’t abated. However, bicycle manufacturers seem to be splitting their development efforts between these and models that are more versatile rather than more specialized. In other words, it’s more likely now than at any time in the past 10 years that you can find a single bike that can suit multiple purposes.

Riders who want a road bike now can find a wealth of choices that are fast on pavement and dirt roads while boasting a better all-weather performance than ever before. Likewise, mountain-bike technology progressed to the point where you can conquer huge climbs as well as race down challenging descents.

Technology hasn’t passed over casual riders. So-called e-bikes, which have rechargeable-battery-powered motors that amplify your pedaling, now are trickling into the United States.

GO BIG. Previously, almost every manufacturer sold at least one endurance road bike, which is distinguished by upright handling and seating positions and 25-millimeter (mm) tires, compared with the 23-mm tires that are on traditional road bikes. We found that the 25-mm tires provide better traction and roll faster than 23-mm tires do, but what’s new is that the latest iteration of road-bike tires are even wider.

Every major manufacturer now sells so-called adventure bikes. These bikes have tires that measure up to 40 mm in width, which allow the rider to tackle smoothly any type of paved or nonpaved road surface. Adventure bikes also are designed to allow for adequate clearance between a 40-mm tire and the bike’s brake, fork, frame and seat. (In other words, you can’t put a 40-mm tire on a regular bike.) Adventure bikes start at $460 and include the aerodynamic drop-style handlebars of conventional road bikes. Adventure bikes also typically include disc brakes, which deliver more stopping power and require less maintenance than do conventional caliper brakes.

As a result of the differences, adventure bikes are 2–3 pounds heavier than are conventional road bikes. The extra weight won’t make a noticeable difference to most riders when they ride uphill, according to physiologist and cycling coach Allen Lim. The extra weight, "doesn’t slow you down much, even on a really steep hill, at least not in the range of 200–230 watts that most consumers might work at,” Lim says.

The advantage of wider tires is that the increased cushion and grip provide worry-free exploration of unpaved roads.

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Regarding disc brakes: Three years ago, we predicted that major manufacturers would perfect their disc-brake systems so the price of road bikes that have them would fall below $2,500. That hasn’t happened. Why not? Disc brakes aren’t expected to receive approval for competition by cycling’s international governing body, Union Cycliste Internationale, until 2016 or 2017. As a result, most manufacturers postponed the development of disc brakes on their road bikes until 2016 at the earliest.

Likely to arrive sooner are lower priced tubeless tires for road bikes. Experts say tubeless tires provide a cushier ride than do tube tires while, of course, reducing the incidence of flat tires.

Twelve wheel manufacturers (companies that sell wheels and tires) and eight tire companies (companies that just sell tires) now manufacture tubeless road-bike tires. That’s twice as many as did 3 years ago, and we expect the number of companies to double again in the next 3 years.

Tubeless tires still are rather pricey at around $60 each, which is roughly twice as expensive as tube tires. However, tubeless wheelsets dropped in price. (Tubeless wheelsets consist of a pair of wheels in which the rims have an airtight seal that makes tubeless tires easier to install.) We found at least one tubeless wheelset that costs less than $500, which is half of the price of what the least expensive option cost 3 years ago. (Regular wheelsets cost about $200.)