When you buy a bike, you want to make sure you are buying quality, something that will last for years to come and that will help you get around with comfort and speed. The top cycling brands often have deep ties to the cycling community, with many of them being started by former racing greats.
A Brief History of Bikes and Bicycling
When was the first bike built and who built it? That information is pretty much lost to the sands of time. As the Smithsonian Institute notes, it’s pretty much impossible to say who invented the bike.
What is clear is that people were using two-wheeled vehicles by the beginning of the 19th century. In fact, some people date the invention of the bike all the way back to the 1400s. According to the International Bicycle Fund, a sketch for a bike, credited to none other than Leonardo DaVinci, dates to the 1490s.
Interestingly enough, we might have the eruption of a volcano to credit with the actual built of one of the first bike-like vehicles. In the early 1800s, a Baron von Drais, also known as Karl or Charles, designed a vehicle with a steerable front wheel. Drais also included a padded seat in his design and an armrest that allowed him to balance the vehicle and steer.
Drais apparently created the vehicle, later called a velocipede by the French, in response to the death of horses and widespread starvation that occurred as a result of the eruption of Tambora, a volcano in Indonesia, which had one of its most powerful eruptions in 1815.
Although the velocipede quickly became popular, it was missing one thing that’s a key feature on today’s bikes. It has no pedals. Instead, people pushed the bike forward using their feet, similar to the way the cartoon family the Flintstones drove their prehistoric car.
It wasn’t until 1863 that bikes got pedals. Even then, the pedals weren’t quite like the ones people are familiar with today. They were attached to the front wheel of the vehicle
In the US in the late 1800s, designers set out to create a safer bike. One model that was somewhat popular at the time was also very dangerous. High wheel cycles, sometimes called Ordinaries, were tricky to ride and had a high risk for accidents. It wasn’t uncommon for people to tumble head first over the front of their “Ordinaries.”
The Safety bike looked like the bicycles of today. Its wheels were the same size; it had gears and a chain driver. Although the Safety bike did initially have hard rubber tires, those were soon swapped out with air-filled or pneumatic tires.
As bikes started to take off and became accessible means of transportation for men and women, bike-centric companies began to pop up. Some of those brands, such as Bianchi, remain among the top cycling brands today. Others, such as Schwinn, have evolved considerably over the past century and are no longer the leading companies they once were.
What Makes a Good Bike Brand
It can be challenging to put a finger on what makes a cycling brand a good brand. In some cases, it does come down to personal preference and opinion. One cyclist might have had a bad experience on a Trek bike or might have found a Bianchi bike uncomfortable and might swear that brand off for life, despite the excellent reputation either company has.
Usually, a good cycling brand offers a range of different bike styles as well as a range of price points. Although it might have some models that only cost a few hundred dollars and that use entry-level components, those bikes still provide a decent ride. A top-quality brand’s higher-end models are going to be precisely that — the best bike you can get for the money.
Often, a great bike brand has some deep connection to cycling or the cycling community. For example, some favorite labels were created by former professional cyclists, who have a decent idea of what makes for a quality bike.
How We Chose the Top Brands
When picking out the top bike brands, we looked at a variety of factors. One was how many models a brand produced and whether it had a bike to suit a variety of cycling styles or needs. For example, we tried to stick with brands that produce both road and mountain bikes, since a company that is super specialized is going to appeal to fewer people.
We also looked at the price points of the bikes offered by the brands and the components used. Brands that only produce low end, low-quality bikes were out. We also didn’t want to solely focus on brands that produce the caviar of bicycles, although we know those companies appeal to some riders.
Top 15 Bike Brands
Trek Bicycle Corporation got its start in Waterloo, Wisconsin in 1976. According to CNBC, it is the largest bike brand based in the US. Although most of its production has moved overseas, the company still produces some bikes in the US. As of 2014, it was making about 25,000 bicycles domestically each year, which amounted to about half of all bikes produced in the United States.
Trek produces a wide range of bike styles, at a full range of price points. It makes bikes for men, women, and children, as well as biking gear and apparel. Along with traditional foot-powered bikes, Trek makes several electric mountain bikes. Bike prices range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand.
Although Trek might be the most recognizable name the company produces, it has a full line up of brands in its stable. Those other brands include DreamBikes, Bontrager, and Electra. Until 2008, the company also produced LeMond cycles, a line of bikes initially developed by Greg LeMond, a US cyclist who won the Tour de France.
Cannondale is another top bike brand that dates back to the 1970s. While two buddies founded Trek over a glass of beer, Cannondale was birthed above a pickle factory in Connecticut. At first, the company didn’t make bikes but instead produced a bike trailer, accessories, and apparel.
In 1983, the brand created its first bike, a touring model. It followed up with a racing bike the next year. In 1997, Cannondale made waves at the Tour de France by having members of the Saeco cycling team (who rode the brand’s bikes) ride on aluminum frames. According to company legend, the leader of the Saeco team declared Cannondale bikes to be the best.
Today, the brand produces a range of bikes, including mountain bikes, road bikes, and ebikes. It also has models for children and women and tandem bikes. Generally speaking, Cannondale bikes are at the higher end of the pricing spectrum. Most of its models are more than $1,000, and even its kid’s bikes are a few hundred dollars each.
Kona Bikes is a relative newcomer. The brand was started in 1988 by Dan Gerhard and Jacob Heilbron. The pair continues to own the brand today, and it remains to be based out of the Pacific Northwest.
Kona’s claim to fame is being the first company to produce a straight leg mountain bike production fork. The brand worked with Brodie (aka Bruce Spicer) to develop the bike style. Currently, Kona has 10 versions of the fork, made for mountain bikes and asphalt bikes of various sizes.
Although originally Kona focused on mountain bikes, today it produces a full range of styles, including road bikes and cyclocross bikes. It introduced its first carbon frame cycles in 2011, with a cyclocross racer and a Kula Watt 26” hardtail.
Kona produces bikes at a range of price points, with its least expensive models starting at a few hundred dollars. Its higher end, specialized bikes can cost upwards of $5,000.
Colnago is a bike company based in Italy. The brand dates back to 1952 when Ernesto Colnago founded it in Cambiago. Ernesto Colnago was initially expected to take over his family’s farming business but pursued a career in cycling from a young age. At 13, he was the apprentice at a bike company and eventually opened his shop.
The Telegraph has called Colnago the Ferrari of cycling brands, describing it as a bike-maker for cycling connoisseurs. The description is apt, as many of Colnago’s higher-end models are entirely handmade in Italy and feature top-quality components.
Colnago is not a budget conscious brand by any means. Its most affordable models cost more than $1,000, and its top-of-the-line racing bikes go for more than $5,000 or $6,000.
Another Italian bike brand, Bianchi has the distinct honor of being the oldest continually operated cycling company in the world. It dates back to 1885 when 21-year-old Edoardo Bianchi took it upon himself to add a chain to the famous “Ordinary” bicycles and to reduce the size of the front wheel.
You could say his idea was a success. Over the years, Bianchi was credited with several other developments in the design and function of the bicycle. For example, he created the first-ever front brake in 1913.
Throughout the 20th century, Bianchi cycles were ridden in several major bicycling tournaments and often won those tournaments. Riding a Bianchi, cyclist Fausto Coppi won his first Tour de France in 1949. Felice Gimondi also won the race on a Bianchi in the early 1970s.
Today, Bianchi produces city, mountain, and racing bikes at a variety of price points, starting at a few hundred dollars. It also makes electric bikes and models for children.
Raleigh Bikes is a British cycling brand that got started in 1887, making it one of the oldest bike brands out there. At the time, the brand produced around three bikes per week. As early as 1896, production had increased to 30,000 cycles per year.
Throughout the 20th century, demand for the bikes increased, and the brand continued to grow, producing more and more cycles each year and expanding the size of its factories and plants. It even dabbled in motorcycles for a while. In the US in particular, demand was high for the brand’s 10-speed cycles.
Like a few other top brands, Raleigh is no stranger to the Tour de France. Cyclist Joop Zoetemelk of Holland won the race on a Raleigh bike in 1980. In 1989, the French team Système U was riding Raleigh bikes when it lost the Tour by just 8 seconds to Greg LeMond.
Today, the brand produces a mix of city/commuter bikes, mountain bikes, and road bikes. Its prices are relatively moderate, with some of its bikes costing in the $300 to $400 range and its higher-end bikes topping out at under $3,000.
Cervelo is another relatively young bike brand. It got started in 1995 in Canada. The goal of the company is simple: It aims to design the world’s fastest bike. To that end, it’s probably not a brand that you’re going to check out if you’re new to cycling or if you’re looking for a bike for commuting or occasional use.
But if you regularly feel the need for speed on your bike, whether you’re training for an Ironman or the Tour de France or just enjoy a weekend ride, this might be the brand for you. Cervelo has five series of road bike – the C series, P series, R series, S series, and T series.
None of its bikes are cheap. The lowest end models, the S series, start around $5,000 while the P series and R series easily cost more than $10,000.
Orbea is a Spanish bike company that began life in 1840 as a rifle company. It didn’t start to make cycles until the 1930s. It employed thousands of Spanish citizens during the era of the Civil War and was eventually bought by its employees and turned into a cooperative in the early 1960s.
Then, it built a larger factory and began producing recreational bikes as well as road and racing bikes. Today, the company produces a range of recreational bikes, road bikes, and electric bikes.
As you might guess from the name, BMC Switzerland has its headquarters in Switzerland. The company began in 1994 and currently has around 120 employees around the world. BMC supplied bikes to the Phonak Cycling team, a Swiss team that was overseen by Andy Rihs. Rihs eventually took over the entire company in 2000.
Since then, BMC bikes have won several bike tournaments and races, including the Tour de France in 2011. The brand currently makes a full range of bikes, including road, mountain, and recreational cycles.
The founder of Merida Bikes, Ike Tseng, got the idea for the company on a visit to the US in the early 1970s. Tseng went to a bike shop and found a note there stating that the repair shop wouldn’t work on any bikes produced in Taiwan, due to the low quality of those cycles.
Tseng set about to create a bike brand and high quality bikes that were made in Taiwan. Merida, which was officially in found in 1988, does just that. The company combines Taiwanese manufacturing with an R&D arm based in Germany. Today, it produces a range of bikes, including city/commuter bikes, mountain bikes, and road bikes.
Focus Bikes is a German cycling brand that got started in the 1990s. The company was founded by Mike Kluge, who was a cyclocross champion.
At first, Focus bikes focused on mountain bikes, but eventually expanded its range to include touring cycles, road bikes, and city bikes. Today it offers a full range of bicycles, including e-bikes, cyclocross bikes, and bikes for kids.
Jamis Bikes got its start in 1979 when it launched the Earth Cruiser, a boardwalk bike that’s often said to have kickstarted the beach cruiser trend. A few years later, in the 1980s, the brand began producing mountain bikes in addition to its cruisers. By 2001, Jamis’ Dakar Comp was named the Best Bike in the $800 to $1500 range by Mountain Biking Magazine.
Today, Jamis continues to produce a range of bikes, including adventure cycles, mountain bikes, road bikes, and commuter cycles.
Eddy Merckx is another high-end, high-quality cycling brand created by a former cycling champion. If you ask the company, it will tell you that Merckx was the best cyclist who ever existed. He won five 5 Giro d’Italias, five Tours de France, and more than 500 races over the course of his career.
Merckx started his bike company in 1980 and remains a part of it, contributing to the design of cycles and test riding new models. The brand produces road bikes for men and women, as well as gravel bike and cyclocross cycles.
Castelli is known for producing cycling clothing. The brand traces its origins back to a tailor named Vittore Gianni, who was active in the 1800s. In the 1930s, Armando Castelli began working with Gianni and eventually purchased the business from him.
In the cycling clothing world, the brand is credited with many first. It developed the first Lycra-spandex shorts, as well as the first colored shorts and the first thermal cycling clothing. Today, the brand continues to engineer and design performance cycling clothes.
Created by Giovanni Pinarello in 1952, Pinarello is another Italian cycling company. Giovanni started the company after he was fired from his cycling team at the last minute and given a considerable sum of money as a parting gift.
The brand began producing handmade bicycles in the early 1960s and won its first Giro d’Italia race in 1975. In 1988, the brand won its first Tour de France. Today, Pinarello produces a variety of bikes, including “fixies,” road bikes, mountain bikes, and track bikes.