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We’re going to delve into the confusing world of hybrid bikes and shed a little light on what features are commonly seen on these awesome recreational bicycles. We’ll look at why they’re such a great option for so many people (myself included – I’m a big fan) and take a detailed look at the situations where hybrid bikes are ideal for.
Hybrid bikes are a fantastic all-rounder and are particularly good for urban commuting, leisure riding and improving fitness. They’re the jack-of-all-trades in the cycling world
What is a hybrid bike?
Let’s start by taking a look at what the meaning of “hybrid bike” really is. It’s a term that’s often used in the bike industry, but it’s not really something that’s made it out onto the street. And, in recent years, things have gotten even more confused with the introduction of hybrid cars.
For the sake of clarity, “hybrid cars” are a type of vehicle that use multiple forms of energy to move them and their passengers along. Every car manufacturer seems to have their own variation but, typically, they combine a traditional gas engine with an electric motor. In that sense they’re closer to an electric bike, which combines leg power and electric power.
In contrast, “hybrid bicycles” are regular push bikes where the power comes from the rider’s legs. What distinguishes them from other bikes is that they’re designed to be a combination of the ruggedness of mountain bikes and the speed and efficiency of road bikes. This makes them incredibly versatile and perfect for so many types of cycling.
You might see these bikes referred to by a variety of names depending on their design, purpose, and the specific features they incorporate. It’s worth being aware that different manufacturers might call similar bikes by completely different names – so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the key features to look out for (we’ll come on to this in a moment).
Some of the common names include:
- City bikes (these generally have smooth tires and are often thin wheel bikes for speedy cycling on city streets)
- Commuter bikes (for urban commuting to work, school or college; these are similar to city bikes and may also feature bike racks for carrying gear and fenders for keeping pants dry)
- Cross bikes or crossover bikes (versatile bikes that may have wider tires for handling light-duty trails as well as pavement)
- Comfort bikes (these recreational bikes prioritize rider comfort, often featuring more upright riding positions and plush padded saddles. They are designed for leisurely rides on paved paths or smooth dirt and gravel trails and may have low-step or step-through frames for easy boarding)
- Fitness bikes (sport hybrid bicycles that are designed with exercise and fitness riding in mind, with skinny tires, light frames and a more aggressive riding position, these lightweight hybrid bikes are closer to road bikes than mountain bikes)
- Dual sport bikes (closer to mountain bikes, dual sport bicycles typically have more rugged features and may also feature suspension on the front forks for comfortable riding on off-road trails)
As well as these you’ll also see hybrids billed as “all purpose bikes”, “all around bikes”, “multi purpose bikes”, “casual bikes”, “multi use bikes” – essentially comfy bikes that blend the best of all worlds and are great options for leisure riding.
By now, you’ll no doubt realize that hybrid bikes come under many different names. From the list above you’ll also see that that’s because there actually aren’t that many common features amongst hybrid bikes.
To understand this, it can help to visualize all hybrids as sitting on a spectrum that goes from speedy road bikes at one end through to tough mountain bikes at the other:
Hybrid bikes that are designed for fast speeds will be gathered at the road bike end. They’ll typically have larger wheels (often 700c), slim tires with little tread, a slim lightweight frame and a riding position that is less upright and more forward leaning. They usually have fewer gears than a mountain bike (to keep the weight down) and the gearing will be higher (allowing for faster speeds).
Hybrids that are designed for more trail or gravel riding will hang out at the mountain bike end of the spectrum. These bikes will feature a range of wheel sizes (often 26” and 27.5”), thicker knobblier tires, chunkier frames, possibly front suspension forks, and a riding position that is more upright. They generally have more gears (21, 24 or 27) and the gearing will be lower (allowing for easier uphill climbing).
In between these two extremes, you’ll find a wide variety of hybrid bikes, with a wide variation in features: rim and tire sizes, frame materials, saddle comfort, low-step/step-through frames, gears, etc.
Choosing the right one for you therefore comes down to deciding what you’d like to do with your bike and where you’d likely to go cycling. To answer that, we need to consider what a hybrid bike is good for.
What hybrid bikes are great for
As a general rule-of-thumb, if you don’t know what type of bike you should buy, then it’s likely that a hybrid bike is the right type of bike for you.
Well, if you know that you want to spend your days zipping along smooth pavement in tight spandex, then you already know that a road bike is the right one for you. Similarly, if you’re only happy when you’re hanging over the top edge of a steep and rocky downhill trail, then you know that a mountain bike is right.
For everyone else in between then hybrid bikes open up a whole treasure trove of possibilities.
Hybrid bikes are good for three broad categories of cycling:
- Urban commuting
- Leisure riding
- Improving fitness
Let’s take a closer look at these and see what flavor of hybrid bike works best for each one.
Hybrid bikes are a fantastic choice for commuting to work, school or college.
The perfect commuter bike is a machine that does a little of everything and does it really well.
City commuting is typically on smooth (or smoothish) pavement, but it might also include potholes, kerbs and steps to negotiate. So, you’re looking for a bike that is strong, yet light and agile – an aluminum frame is best for strength and low weight. You also want a bike that has an upright riding position – this makes it easier to see the road ahead, over parked cars and other obstacles. A commuter bike with drop bars can be particularly useful when you’ve got long fast straights on the way in to work, or if you’re typically battling headwinds.
The bike should be comfortable to ride on as you may be riding in work pants or skirt, rather than padded bike shorts. On that note, it may be worth looking at low-step or step through frames too, as these can make mounting and dismounting easier in restrictive office apparel.
Reliability is key as no-one wants to be short of time for getting to an important meeting with a bike that is refusing to get them there – for that reason, I prefer a 1x hybrid bike for commuting, that is a rear derailleur only. This reduces the number of gear options available, but the big advantage is that it gets rid of the front chain rings and derailleur. The result is that, on average, you’ll have fewer mechanical issues and the overall bike will be lighter and simpler to operate.
Useful add-ons to look for in a commuter hybrid bike include front and rear fenders, a loud bell (for alerting other road users), and a rear rack / front basket for storing work essentials.
Go for a bike with large wheel rims (29” or 700c), with slim tires that have some, but not too much, tread. These will roll along fast without much road vibration, whilst still giving good cornering ability in wet conditions.
Hybrid bikes are the perfect choice for casual riding because they’re a go-anywhere do-anything type of bike.
If you’re after a bike that can take you on park rides with the kids, light duty singletrack adventures, leisurely pedals to the pub, or trips to the grocery store, then a hybrid is ideal.
And the great news is that there are many budget options available – $600 can get you a light high-spec bike with powerful disc brakes from a well-respected bike manufacturer such as Trek Bikes.
A hybrid that works well for leisure riding is typically in the center of the road-bike-to-mountain-bike spectrum of hybrid bicycles that I mentioned earlier.
You’re looking for hybrids that are light but strong, so aluminum or steel frames are ideal. You’re also looking for medium sized wheels (think: 26” or 27.5”) and mid-sized tires with some tread. This combination gives smooth rolling and agile, confident cornering. Just the thing when you’re trying to keep up with the kids!
Hybrid bikes are especially good for improving fitness levels (even better than a road bike, in my opinion).
Whilst any bike is great for improving fitness (so long as you use it!) there are some features to look for on hybrids that are particularly suited for this.
So-called “fitness bicycles” sit very much at the road bike end of the spectrum of hybrids. That said, there are some key differences that you’ll notice if you compare them side by side.
The frame of a good fitness hybrid bike will usually be constructed from aluminum. However higher-end fitness bikes may swap out the aluminum in favor of carbon fiber instead. This can add to the price but can give significant weight savings that translate into faster speeds so it’s worth looking out for them.
Fitness hybrids will normally have 700c wheel rims combined with slim tires and some tread. Tires on these bikes typically are in the range of 700 x 28c to 700 x 32c i.e. wider than on most road bikes.
In general, the riding position on fitness bikes will be more upright and less hunched than on a road bike – that makes them much more comfortable to ride for many folk. Comfort is also helped by swapping the drop bars of road bikes for a straight handlebar (which also gives more responsive steering).