While road bikes and mountain bikes make up the most popular types of bicycles in the world, BMX bikes aren’t too far behind.
Simple in their build and operation, these bikes can handle certain loads and tackle demanding terrains that mountain bikes and road bikes would never dare to.
BMX bikes once represented a small niche or offshoot of traditional bicycles, but have since grown and evolved to encompass a number of different styles and riding formats for riders on all levels.
Although the best BMX bikes may seem very simple to the naked eye, they can actually be quite complex, and require just as much discretion and knowledge before buying as with any other kind of bike. Choosing the wrong bike for a particular use or style can lead to plenty of buyer’s remorse.
This guide will delve into all the essential information one should know about BMX bikes, including different types, riding styles, sizing, components, and much more.
By the time you’re done reading, you should be well-versed in BMX bikes, and more prepared to make an informed buying decision.
Let’s start by first going over what exactly a BMX bike even is.
A BMX bike has many loose definitions, but at its center, a BMX bike is primarily an off-road bike used for both racing and stunt riding. Since its initial inception, street and freestyle riding has been largely incorporated as well, with many BMX bikes capable of handling both.
BMX actually stands for “bicycle motocross,” a nod to the bike’s initial foundations and usage. The earliest forms of BMX bikes were made for motocross enthusiasts who wanted a bike they could ride on similar dirt courses. (More on that in a minute.)
The term "BMX bike" is now used in reference to not only the original race bikes, but also bikes used for dirt, vert, park, street, flatland and BMX freestyle disciplines of BMX.
Although there are many different styles of BMX, the bikes themselves are almost always very similar, with just a few variations in between.
BMX bikes are smaller than other bikes, and much stockier as well. They have a simple frame setup, and use thick, fat tires for better traction and shock absorption. Multiple gears are a rarity, and hand brakes are only utilized on certain types.
These bikes are designed to withstand the rigors of various BMX courses and riding styles, while using as few moving parts as possible.
This means having only one gear, and a minimal brake setup, if any.
At its core, a BMX bike is strong, rigid, light, simple, and easy to maneuver on the ground and in the air, with just a few differing features and details in regards to the use it’s intended for.
BMX biking doesn’t exactly have a definitive start date, but the origins can be traced back to the very late 1960s, and early 1970s. This was when BMX was still solely in reference to the bicycle motocross aspect, before other disciplines were developed.
Although it’s safe to assume that early styles of BMX biking were likely taking shape around the United States and overseas, it wasn’t until the release of the motocross-oriented film/documentary On Any Sunday was released in 1971 when BMX really began to take off.
The film was primarily about the world of motocross and other styles of off-road motorcycles, but it was the opening credits scene that has been largely attributed to piquing interest around the country, primarily in Southern California.
During the opening credits, a handful of young boys are seen riding their makeshift and modified BMX bikes along vacant lots and dirt trails, including a few informal race settings. The scenes go on for over four minutes, giving the early forms of BMX biking a massive spotlight.
It wasn’t before long that other kids were catching on to the fad, with the majority of them purchasing Schwinn Sting-Ray bikes, just like they’d seen in the film.
This was an easy compromise for parents that had young kids interested in motocross, but didn’t want to purchase expensive motorcycles, or simply didn’t want their young kids riding them. BMX was an easier way for kids to ride on dirt racing tracks without all the things that accompany actual motocross riding.
The Sting-Ray quickly a forerunner of what would late become BMX bikes, with its aggressive build, banana seat, tall handlebars, and small frame set up.
Many of the early BMX pioneers would modify their Sting-Ray, in order for it to more resemble motocross bikes, making them more apt to handle dirt courses that included jumps and other obstacles.
By 1977, the BMX craze was in full swing, with loosely organized BMX races popping up all over the west coast.
That same year the American Bicycle Association was created as a way to provide more organization, along with official sanctioned events.
Over the next few decades, BMX racing would continue to grow and spread, eventually landing an official spot in the summer Olympics in 2008, where it is still an official event currently. Numerous racing circuits take place all over the world, including right back at the home of BMX, in Southern California.
During the middle and late 1970s, another form of BMX riding was made popular by pioneers such as Bob Haro, known as freestyle BMX. This form of riding took place everywhere from the streets in urban areas to empty swimming pools, similar to street-style skateboarding which was also growing in popularity in the area.
Freestyle riders would get air anywhere they could, whether it was off ledges, staircases, homemade quarter pipes, and pretty much whatever else. An emphasis was placed on doing stunts on the bike, whether it was spins, flips, grinds, etc.
This led to more developments with BMX bikes, with freestyle versions consisting of a more heavy-duty frame, and any other components that could better withstand long drops and hard impacts. Pegs were implemented around this time as well.
By the late 1970s, many concrete skateparks had become more accommodating to freestyle BMX riders, and several different competitive circuits began to form as well, most notably by the American Freestyle Association, which helped organize competitions on flatland and quarterpipe tracks.
The 1980s and 1990s, saw even more evolution in the sports, as other niche riding styles became more widespread, such as flatland, vert, and more.
Today, BMX bikes have a similar appearance across different formats, with a few choice implementations and tweaks that make them better suited to their respective riding style and type.
The modern BMX bike has not evolved much since the 1990s, which includes kids-style BMX bikes, or even balance bikes that are the most popular bike style for young kids who are just learning how to ride.
Due to the variances in the different styles and types of BMX riding, a number of BMX bike types have been created and changed over time in order to provide the necessary characteristics needed for specific kinds of riding and conditions.
This is the original BMX bike. BMX racing involves short, high-speed sprints around a dirt track, which features multiple jumps, turns, and berms, creating a very action-packed course that must be navigated with care while maneuvering through and around other riders.
Racing BMX bikes are built to be very lightweight, while adding an added measure of maneuverability and stability that gives the rider enough control and speed to be as competitive and fast as possible.
They are essentially modeled off of motocross bikes, and retain many of the same features and characteristics -- minus the engine part.
This means that the frame places the rider in a more upright and taller position, giving them better control on the handlebars, and a better line of vision as well. Racing BMW tires are relatively thin and low-profile, with just enough tread to increase traction on a dirt course, without taking away too much speed.
The wheel size on a racing BMX bike is always 20 inches. The crank is longer for added pedal power and efficiency, the seat is small, and the rear hand brake is very strong, and offers a great level of control over the braking, which is needed in racing situations.
While racing BMX bikes are ideal for actual racing, they are also very versatile, and are perfectly fine for casual riding as well -- although not so much for street course and freestyle riding.
Freestyle BMX bikes are built for a wide range of riding styles, ranging from street courses to skatepark-style halfpipes. They are not nearly as speed-oriented as racing bikes, and it shows in numerous ways.
The term “freestyle” encompasses a lot of different riding styles, so we’ll touch on those before explaining the bike characteristics.
At its core, freestyle riding is any BMX riding that is focused on stunts and airs, rather than racing or handling jumps as part of a course.
Also known as a halfpipe, a vert is a double-sided ramp of sorts that is inspired by the skateboarders and BMX riders of old who used to ride inside of empty pools to get air when launching off the edges.
Halfpipes can vary in height, but the most common ones that you’ll see on events such as the X-games, or any other professional competition can exceed the 8 meter mark.
During halfpipe or vert riding, the rider will go back and forth to each side, launching into the air each time and performing any number of twists, flips, spins, and any other kind of stunt. The rider may also grind the metal coping on the edge, and there are sometimes extension boxes on the top of the vert as well.
Vert BMX bikes are generally standard freestyle bikes, with a few tweaks or modifications depending on the rider’s preferences. They are often very strong, and use smooth tires.
-Street riding refers to any freestyle riding that takes place on the streets of an urban area. This can include stairs, rails, ledges, walls, and really just about anything else the rider can incorporate when performing tricks and stunts.
The primary surface is pavement, so the bike will have smoother tires for better traction and speed. The frame will be slightly heavier as it needs some extra reinforcement to deal with all the impact. The bike will usually have front and rear brakes as well.
Park BMX riding is a more standardized form of street riding. The “park” refers to a bike or skate park course that has been set up with numerous ramps, quarter pipes, boxes, rails, bowls, and sometimes even stairs and halfpipes.
The park can consists of both wood and cement features, which means the bike will be setup just like a street freestyle BMX bike. This means smooth tires, a thick frame, double brakes, and a smaller crank and cassette.
In general, freestyle bikes are almost always heavier than race bikes, and have a much higher amount of strength. The handlebars have a slightly different build, and a full brake setup is common.
Pegs are another common feature for these bikes. The pegs are installed on each side of the front and rear wheel hubs, and give the rider the ability to perform grinds, stalls, and even stand on them for certain tricks.
If you’re looking for the most versatile type of BMX bike that is able to handle the most, while still offering a solid casual riding experience, a freestyle bike is your best bet.
The gear ratio is different on these bikes as well, making them easier to pedal from a complete stop, with more emphasis on short bursts of speed, rather than long, sustained speeds during a race.
Dirt Jump BMX bikes are designed to handle and size or frequency of jumps on a dirt track. This can be a course of multiple jumps, or one “big air” style of jump. This is a form of freestyle riding in a way, as dirt jumping events are almost entirely comprised of tricks and stunts that are scored by a panel of judges.
In a way, these bikes sort of bridge the gap between freestyle and racing bikes. You get the jump-oriented build of a freestyle bike that prioritizes speed last, combined with a lighter weight, and tires with much more tread and grip for the dirt.
This results in a BMX bike that can maneuver dirt easier, take punishing landings, and get bigger airs without as much effort.
Flatland BMX riding is the exact opposite of every other riding style, as the goal is anything but speed and air.
Flatland BMX is more or less a form of dancing on a bike, for lack of a better term. The rider will stay in an isolated area on a pavement surface, while moving and manipulating the bike in various ways.
The rider will usually get the bike moving at a low speed, and then do various spins and twists along the bike, such as walking across the frame, spinning the bike on one wheel in a circle, and a ton of other high-skill moves. Take a look at this great video of flatland BMX competition held in Germany.
Flatland BMX bikes are the most different of them all. The frame is more compact and smaller in general, with the top and bottom tubes pushed close together in order to provide the rider with more clearance when performing tricks.
Some other big differences include a “freecoaster” hub, and zero-offset fork. The freecoaster hub allows the rear wheel to spin backward without turning the cranks. This lets the rider roll any direction, while maintaining the same foot orientation, helping improve balance.
The zero-offset fork puts pressure on the handlebars and into the front-wheel axle. This also improves balance, placing it towards the bike’s front end.
Flatland bikes have different brake setups, depending on preference. A front and rear U-brake are the most common. If a front cable is used, a cable detangler is required to keep the brake cable from winding around the frame when doing handlebar spins. Some riders may elect to use just a rear brake, or no brakes at all.
Flatland bikes use four pegs, sometimes at much longer lengths than you’d find on a freestyle bike. The crankarms are short, the seatpost is longer, and the bike’s tires are smooth and inflated to their fullest point.
All of these characteristics create a bike that is perfect for various on-ground tricks, but not really for much of anything else -- even casual riding.
BMX bikes are the most simple of all bikes, and likewise have a simple sizing method for determining the most accurate size for your body. The only real measurement that matters when determining a bike size is your height.
This chart goes over the 8 common BMX size types.
4'4" & under
15" - 16.5"
25mm - 35mm
2" - 2.5"
20" - 22.5"
145 - 155mm
41-43 / 16
4'2" - 4'10
16" - 17.5"
30mm - 40mm
2" - 3.5
21" - 23.5"
155 - 165mm
41-43 / 16
4'6" - 5'1"
17" - 18.5"
40mm - 45mm
3" - 5"
22" - 25"
160 - 175mm
42-43 / 16
5'0" - 5'4
18.5" - 19.5"
43mm - 48mm
5" - 7
25.5" - 27"
170 - 175mm
42-43 / 16
5'2" - 5'6
19.25" - 20"
43mm - 48mm
6" - 7"
25.5" - 27"
170 - 175mm
42-43 / 16
5'3" - 5'8"
20" - 20.5"
50mm - 55mm
7" - 8
27" - 28
175 - 180mm
43-44 / 16
5'7" - 6'0"
20.75" - 21.25"
50mm - 55mm
180 - 190mm
44 / 16 & over
6' and over
21.25" - 22"
52mm - 60mm
180 - 190mm
44 / 16 & over
Like other bikes, a BMX bike can be broken down by its components. Each part of the bike serves a different function, so informing yourself as to how all of it works will give you some useful insight that will help you understand the bike better.
The frame is where it all starts on a BMX bike. Although frames were once all very similar early on, each BMX style has evolved to where certain frame designs are better than others for the corresponding riding style.
Regardless of riding type, a BMX frame still consists of all the same sections, and performs the same functions.This means it will support the east post, handlebars, fork, and drivetrain.
We’ve touched on this a little already, so it’s time to go a little more in-depth as to how each frame differs depending on the type.
Flatland frames are the most noticeably different. They are most often crafted from lightweight steel, incorporate shorter top-tube lengths, shorter seat tube lengths, and have a very tight/steep geometry with smaller rear axles.
The frames are made to provide maximum clearance and strategic weight distribution, making them not suitable for freestyle or race riding.
These frames are made to accommodate larger wheels. They can be used for anything from jumping to flatland, and are mainly a matter of both preference and the rider’s size. Taller riders may prefer these sizes, or anyone looking to experiment with larger tire sizes in general.
The geometry will vary depending on the intended use.
When shopping for a BMX bike, you may encounter these abbreviations from time to time. Here is a quick explanation for each one.
BMX frame materials vary depending on the type of bike, and its overall quality. Although BMX bikes are available in a range of materials, there are three common materials you’ll encounter the most.
Aluminum frames are found with many different types of BMX bikes, but are largely considered the most useful and appropriate with racing bikes. Aluminum is lightweight, but has a lower stress rating. Still, it’s popular among racers solely due to the weight aspect.
Perhaps the most-used frame material, steel is very common with street and freestyle bikes. It has a higher stress rating, and can withstand the punishment doled out from hard landings and crashes.
The only drawback to steel is its higher weight, but this isn’t that much of an issue if it's being used for anything other than racing. Higher-quality BMX frames are made from high-tensile steel, which helps cut down the weight.
Chromoly is widely considered to be the best frame material overall. Chromoly is actually a steel alloy (steel, chromium, and molybdenum) that was developed as a lighter and more durable alternative to hi-tensile steel.
Chromoly is the best choice for high-impact riding, as it possesses extreme durability while also ensuring a lower weight. Many BMX frames these days are a mixture of chromoly and 2010 steel, helping keep the price manageable for most.
A BMX fork connects to the front of the frame, and to the handlebars and stem. The fork directly influences how the bike handles, how it handles certain tricks, and the general feel overall. Forks are made the same way frames are, and offer the same material choices.
If you are choosing a fork for your bike, you will not only get to select the material, but also if it has brake mounts or not.
As we covered earlier, not every BMX bike needs front brakes. Flatland and street BMX bikes are the types that most often need a front brake in addition to a standard rear brake, so keep that in mind.
The drivetrain is comprised of the entire pedaling system responsible for powering the bike.
The crankset is the tubes that connect the pedals to the sprocket. They are available in different lengths, and different materials and builds as well.
A bottom bracket connects the crankset to the bike and allows the crankset to rotate freely. The bottom bracket contains a spindle which the crankset attaches to. Bearings allow the spindle and cranks to rotate. The sprocket and pedals attach to the crank shaft.
The sprocket, sometimes called a chainring, is what holds the chain where the pedals and crankset are located. It can come in as many as 36 teeth, or 23 teeth, depending on the set up and gearing.
The platforms attached to the crankset, which are used to power the drivetrain with your feet.
The enclosed metal links that run along the sprocket and rear cassette to power the drivetrain and turn the rear tire. Different chain types will result in different gearing set ups.
The rear hub is the other contact point for the chain, combined with the rear cassette. It is responsible for turning the rear wheel. Freecoaster hubs allow you to travel go backwards without the need to pedal backwards at the same time, while standard hubs can’t.
Wheels are what holds the bike’s tires. They are available in numerous configurations in terms of weight, spokes, and rim size. 20 inches is the standard size, but some smaller riders may use 16 and 18-inch sizes.
BMX rims are offered in two types: single-wall or double-wall. The double-wall rim is the stronger choice, as the extra material dds strength. Aluminum is the most common material for rims.
Spokes are responsible for reinforcing the wheels and rims, while providing stability as well. 48 spoke configurations were common in the past, but many bikes now use 36 spokes with a thicker size to save on weight. Most freestyle and jumping bikes still opt for the 48.
Certain freestyle wheels now utilize thicker spoke set ups that kind of resemble aero bike wheels for road bikes. This makes them lighter, while still offering enough strength to withstand hard landings.
Hubs are what connect the center of the wheels to the fork and rear drop-out on the frame.
Tires will vary depending on the riding style and type. Flatland BMX bikes have smooth treads, and are intended to be inflated to a maximum PSI. Dirt jumping tires have the most tread, while racing bikes have a moderate amount of tread for added grip without sacrificing speed.
Street and freestyle bikes have a very minimal amount of tread, and are a bit thicker as well for added shock absorption from landings. Fat tires are now making their way into the sport as well, but as still rare at this point.
Handlebars connect to the headset, which then connects to the fork. They are responsible for steering and handling, and come in either 2-piece or 4-piece construction. Height and angles are largely a matter of preference for the rider, along with what type of riding they will be doing.
Used for stopping, and operated with hand levers. U-brakes lack the definitive stopping power of linear brakes, but provide more control and leeway. Most BMX bikes will at least have a rear brake, with a few having front brakes as well, especially flatland bikes.
Seats are largely ignored on BMX bikes, with most manufacturers focusing on saving weight rather than providing comfort.
Gearing is different on a BMX bike than what you’d find on a road bike or mountain bike with multiple gears. BMX bikes almost always have one single gear, making the actual configuration of the utmost importance in terms of the riding type, and what the rider wants.
With a taller gear, a larger ratio exists between the teeth count of the sprocket and the rear cog. Short gearing is the opposite.
So, with tall gearing, it’s harder to pedal, with less cranks to get up to a fast speed, and faster top speed. Short gearing is easier to pedal, with more cranks needed to get up to speed.
Flatland riders will prefer a short gearing, while other styles may vary. Racers generally prefer taller gearing. The more teeth in the sprocket, the taller the gear ratio. The less teeth, the shorter the gear ratio.
Another reason some riders may like a shorter gear ratio and smaller chain is the fact that it provides more ground clearance, which can be helpful with grinds and stalls on a street course or vert.
The following five BMX bike brands have established themselves as among the most popular, consistently putting out quality BMX bikes year after year.
Established in Simi Valley, CA in 1974, and originally a part of BMX Products, Inc, Mongoose eventually became a part of Pacific Cycle after being an influential BMX manufacturer during the sport’s inception.
Today, they make two separate lines of BMX bikes: a more entry-level line of bikes found in larger chain department stores, and higher-end bikes only available online and through specialty bike retailers.
Diamondback was formed in the late 1970s in Kent, Washington, starting out specifically as a BMX bike company, before getting involved in mountain bikes and road bikes.
The company puts out some of the most quality and affordable bikes on the market, and continues to emphasize their mid-range BMX line that allows intermediate riders to access competition-level bikes, at an entry-level price.
With over 20 years of experience, WeThePeople manufacturers complete bikes, along with frames and other parts, catered to high-level BMX riders and frequent competitors. They maintain and sponsor a professional BMX riding team of over 20 riders.
Haro Bikes was founded by Bob Haro in 1978. He introduced the company's’ first successful freestyle line in 1983, and hasn’t looked back since. Bob is credited with pioneering the freestyle aspect of BMX, and has made it a point to push for evolution and innovation in his BMX bikes for all riding styles.
The company went through a series of sales in the 1990s, but quickly established themselves as a leader in BMX manufacturing, as well as sponsoring many high-level events around the world.
Haro continues to sponsor an impressive roster of riders who have won everything from World Championships to X-Games events.
Based out of Rochester, NY, Kink was initially a parts manufacturer that eventually went on to put out complete bikes. The still offer a wide range of replacement and upgrade parts, but have shifted a focus to crafting detail-oriented BMX bikes, while also retaining a large roster of professional riders.
We hope that you now have a much better idea as to the many types of BMX bikes, their uses, and all of the components that go into making a bike. While this article isn’t exhaustive, it does serve to get you up to speed on all of the crucial, need-to-know info required before moving to purchase a BMX bike for you or someone else.
If you’re looking to buy a new BMX bike, be sure to go check out our buying guide, which covers a wide range of BMX bikes for virtually any type of budget. Take a look at our reviews section as well, which goes more in-depth, helping you make the best buying decision possible.
This post was last updated on September 21st, 2018 at 10:17 am
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