As a kid I loved riding my bicycle, but after getting my driver's license I went over twenty years without riding a bike. Then as my kids got past the toddler years I decided that I needed to get a bike so that I could ride with my children and get some exercise. However, when I began looking for a bike to buy I was a bit confused by all of the different types of bikes to choose from -- and a bit shocked by some of the prices!
All I knew at the time was that I wanted to find a good bike for a reasonable price. Since that time, I have really gotten into cycling and have ridden a lot of different bicycles and have owned one or more of each type -- commuter bikes, road bikes, mountain bikes, hybrid bikes and cruiser bikes. So, here are my suggestions for finding the best beginner bike.
Different Types of Bicycles
First ask yourself: "how am I really most likely to use the bike?" Do you see yourself riding to work, riding quickly on the road for exercise, riding on trails through the woods, etc. Then consider the different types of bicycles that you have to choose from, as described in the sections below.
Mountain bikes are probably the most popular type of bicycles these days. Mountain bikes are meant to be ridden off-road, and many mountain bikes have suspensions that make the bumps easier to ride through. However, contrary to what some people think, a suspension fork does not really do much other than add extra weight if your main use for the bike is riding on pavement (even if it is bumpy pavement). Often mountain bikes do not come with easy attachments for fenders or luggage racks, but there are some generic universal options for both racks and fenders that can solve that problem.
Road bicycles are built for fast riding, and good exercise, but the bent over position is not comfortable for everyone. Road bikes, even beginner-level road bikes, tend to be more expensive than other types of bicycles. Road bikes can also come with "drop bars" which are the curly bars that offer multiple hand positions, or "flat bars" that are more like mountain bike bars, which only offer one, more upright, position. Many modern road bikes come with very skinny tires (23-25mm) that are not super cushiony to ride on, and may flat more easily than bigger tires.
Hybrid Bicycles are bikes that combine the speed of a road bike with the upright riding position of a mountain bike. One very affordable hybrid bike that has been recommended by Consumer Reports is the Schwinn Midmoor. Although many of these bikes have suspension forks connected to their front wheel, these are generally more for marketing than really effective -- and just add weight to the bike, so I'd advise trying to avoid hybrid bikes with suspension forks.
Cruiser bicycles, often just called Cruisers, are old-school simple bikes -- one gear, big tires, and often a coaster brake -- with an upright riding position. Cruiser bicycles have big saddles (seats) and big tires, and are comfortable to ride. But a cruiser bike would not be your best option if you want to ride at a fast pace, or for multi-hour rides, or for off-road riding. Cruiser bikes usually do have fenders and chainguards (or can easily accomodate adding them), which are nice additions for commuting. There are also some 3-speed cruiser bikes, which can offer just enough flexibility in gearing to make them work well for commuting -- in fact, a similar setup is probably the most common bike to commute on in the Netherlands, which is famous for bicycle commuting.
With the price of oil these days, many people are starting to use bicycles for their commute. Why not combine good exercise and transportation? While it is possible to commute on almost any bike, for commuting most people like a bike with amenities such as fenders, chainguards and racks to make commuting by bicycle a practical alternative to cars. Some commuter bicycles even come with front and rear lights already installed, which are powered by a dynamo using the rotation of your bike's wheels to generate electricity -- which is super nice not having to recharge or buy batteries.