Blame it on Lance Armstrong.
Or maybe it's the king's ransom we currently pay for fuel. After Armstrong won his seventh Tour de France in 2005, sales of road bicycles shot up 16 percent, as everyone who ever had a white-walled Schwinn Phantom as a kid wanted to be like Lance on a sleek road racer. (Sadly, most of these folks do not look like Lance in ultra-tight microfiber team jerseys.) The consumer demand gave bike makers the ambition to build better bikes out of exotic materials and add new features, and to repurpose the basic bicycle into specialized vehicles for various terrains.
We've checked out a few of the latest and greatest to get you rolling, whatever your needs may be.
FOR WOMEN ONLY
It used to be “girls' bikes” had frames without crossbars from the handlebar to the seat post. That custom became passe for many reasons, the biggest one perhaps because women stopped wearing skirts when they rode. But now there is the “step-through” frame that features a U- or V-shaped dip in front of the seat so you can get on the saddle easier; it also keeps your back upright instead of hunched over the handlebar, depending on how you adjust it. It's made for men and women, particularly those who have passed their Alpine staging age, ahem, but yes, you can wear a skirt. Biria's EB Top 3 Series (EB stands for “easy boarding”) features a 31-pound aluminum frame cruiser with a three-speed Shimano Nexus internal gear. $420, www.biria.com.
The Hybrid Priuses aren't the only hybrids on the road. Sometimes you want to ride on the smooth shoulder of the road, sometimes you want to cruise the bumpy bike path. The Schwinn Voyageur GSD Comfort Hybrid keeps to the traditions of the 113-year-old bicycle company by constructing a bike that is old-fashioned and yet thoroughly modern. The sturdy Comfort Tuned geometry, a suspension seat post, Radius Mech 7.0 disc brakes and SRAM 24-speed drivetrain add up to a ride that can take you places. $229.99-$379.99; www.schwinn.com.
THE ROAD BIKE
The Italians know how to make a bike, and as usual with things Italian, their bicycles aren't just incredibly functional but sexy, too. The sleek Eddy Merckx CHM Complete (which means you buy it put together, rather than in parts) is composed of all-Italian components, including a carbon-fiber frame, Campagnolo Centaur Ergopower shifters and rear derailleur, Veloce brakes and Khamsin wheels. It handles like a dream and accelerates like a sports car — an Italian one, of course. $2,500; Gitabike.com.
OPTIBIKE: The Electric Bike
Serious bike riders refer to the energy they use to move their bike as “wattage,” as in, “Don't burn all your watts on the first hill.” But the Optibike uses real wattage, as in electricity; you pedal as much as you ever do, but you go three times as fast by using the throttle to get help from the motor. The remarkably lightweight 2008 OB1, Optibike founder Jim Turner's signature model and available in limited quantities, provides 850 continuous watts coursing through its oil-cooled engine; there's a wireless PDA to tell you how much juice remains in the battery, and there's a GPS to keep you on track. $12,995; www.optibike.com.
GEAR GOTHAM: The Fold Up
Sometimes you want to fold up your bike and put it in the car or stack it in the corner of the office. The Gotham Citizen Bike does just that, unfurling into a 20-inch, hand-welded alloy bicycle in just seconds, with no tools required. The Shimano six-speed index gear system with grip shifter is enough to get you up the garage ramp without breaking a sweat. $274; www.citizenbike.com.
BIRIA RAT FINK: The Cruiser
With their fat tires and heavy-duty frames, cruisers are great for just about every condition except for going very fast. The Electra Bicycle Co. has a cool line of cruisers that are influenced by hot-rod car designs and can roll just as well through sandy beaches as suburban parking lots. We like the Rat Fink, a green machine with a flame decal motif that boasts a 3-speed Shimano Nexus gearbox and, to keep things simple, coaster breaks. $660; www.electrabike.com.