Join Date: Feb 2005
Location: Silver Spring, MD
Bikes: Fuji Supreme
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There are so many variations in bikes its not really possible to explain them all here. In general road bikes are designed for riding on paved surfaces and have skinnier tires with less rolling resistance and are geared for higher speed. Road bikes usually have drop handlebars and will be ridden in a more bent over aerodynamic position. Mountain bikes are designed for unpaved trails and generally have wider tires often with coarse tread/knobbies for dirt riding. Generally they have straight flat handlebars and you ride less crouched over than a road bike. Mountain bike will oftern have suspension built into the front fork and possibly the rear stays as well to absorb the shocks of rough trails. Then of course there are hybrid bikes which might combine any group of these features.
People commute successfully and comfortably on every type of bike. If you have a long commute on highways and roadways you might consider a roadbike since it is likely faster and more efficient. On the other hand if your commute is mostly unpaved paths and trails or if the roads you will ride are in really bad shape a mountain bike might give a better ride at some sacrifice of efficiency. The wider tires will give you a more comfortable and stable ride.
If you go to a bike store looking for a commuter bike, chances are they will point you toward a hybrid bike. Such bikes have you sitting a little more upright position which can be convenient in traffic. Tire width will be somewhere between road bikes and mountain bikes which gives you a more comfortable ride and better stability on rough surface than a true road tire, but less rolling resistance than a mountain bike. Hybrid bikes may have suspension forks and seat posts. Whether or not they are a good idea is somewhat a matter of personal preference and if you use the search function you will find many debates on suspension. The downside of suspension is that some of the energy you put into peddling is transfered into compressing the suspension. Whether that is an issue depends on your riding style, goals and where you ride.
My sest advice to pick a new bike is to go to a local bike shop [LBS] (or even better yet more than one bike shop) and test ride several styles of bike that fit you. The fit is important and until you get on a bike you really won't be certain how it will feel for you. Its also good to find a LBS where you feel comfortable and can ask questions and get the information you need. Since you are looking to commute I would look for an LBS that handles commuters since they can offer all sorts of advice on your area.
So use the search function on this forum, check out the commuting section and you will find lots of discussions of what makes a good commuting bike, price ranges, suspension and everything else you could ever think of. Enjoy your test rides and let us know if you start commuting how it goes.