This is one of a series of posts designed to help people who are new to cycling get started. In earlier posts I recommended that you buy your bike from a good bike shop and suggested you think about how you’d like to use your bike before deciding what kind of bike to buy. The kind of bike you ride and the kind of riding you want to do are so closely related that I recommend you take a look at “What Kind Of Cyclist Do You Want To Be?” before reading this post if you haven’t done so already.
The first and probably most important decision a new rider has to make is what kind of bike to buy. Choose the right kind of bike at the beginning and you may be opening a whole new world that will give you years, maybe a lifetime, of enjoyment. Choose the wrong kind of bike and you may have just bought an expensive garage ornament. There are so many different types of bicycles out there and so many variants on each of those different types that it would take a book to cover them all. It would also be useless information for many new riders because most of the variants are designed to fit a highly specific need or small niche in the cycling market. Most new riders will be faced with choosing some type of road bike, mountain bike or hybrid. If you are at all unsure about which type of bike is right for you, renting a bike for a day’s or weekend’s worth of riding is highly recommended. This post takes a more detailed look at hybrid bikes.
Hybrid bikes fill the gap between the heavy, rugged mountain bikes and the light, swift road bikes. That’s a wide gap and by combining different road and mountain bike features you can find a hybrid to fill just about any slot in it. They’re the swiss army knives of cycling.
Hybrid bikes typically feature frames that are lighter than a mountain bike but heavier than a road bike. Handlebars are usually flat like a mountain bike and the rider sits in much more of an upright position than on a road bike. They have the larger wheels of the road bike, but the wheels are heavier and more solidly constructed than a set of race wheels. Tires are typically a compromise between the narrow, smooth high pressure tire of the road bike and the fat, wide, markedly knobbed tire of the mountain bike.
It’s difficult to characterize the “typical” hybrid because they run the entire gamut from the pure mountain to the pure road bike. At the mountain end of the continuum, a hybrid will be up to the task of riding on well maintained gravel bike paths and beginning-level non-technical trails. At the road bike end of the continuum a hybrid may be suitable for medium length fitness and endurance rides on paved roads. However, because the bikes are all called “hybrids” doesn’t mean that any one of them can do all these things equally well. Road-oriented hybrids will be good at road-style riding and poor at cross-country style riding and vice-versa, the mountain-oriented hybrid will not do very well over long distances on a paved surface.
The wide range of bikes that fall in the hybrid category can pose a problem for a new rider who may have a hard time telling a road-oriented hybrid from a middle-of-the-road hybrid from a mountain-oriented hybrid. In addition, it’s probably the case that most of the crappy bikes sold by mass-market retailers that are cheap in terms of intial cost and expensive in terms of what you get for your money are properly categorized as hybrid bikes no matter what the retailers call them. For these reasons it’s a good idea for riders who may be interested in a hybrid to buy their bike from a bike shop where they can get good advice about what kind of hybrid to buy.
One of the strengths of a hybrid bike is its initial cost. Good entry level hybrids start at around $300, the least expensive entry point of the road, mountain, hybrid bike triumvirate. Another strength is their versatility. A middle-of-the-road hybrid can be riden on undemanding unpaved surfaces better than a pure road bike and can be ridden for fairly short periods of time on paved surfaces better than a pure mountain bike. Hybrids are good for light recreational riding, zipping down to the store, or going for a ride through the neighborhood with the kids. Perhaps most importantly, a hybrid gets a new rider out on the bike so he can discover for himself what kind of cyclist he wants to be.
The major drawback of a hybrid bike is the flip side of it’s major strength. Its versatility insures that it doesn’t really do anything well. When compared to a road bike, the increase in weight, the increase in tire width and tread, and the upright riding position combine to make riding any kind of distance more difficult than it ought to be. In addition, the hybrid bike’s flat handlebars put severe limits on where you can put your hands which can lead to numbness in the hands and stiffness and discomfort in the neck, shoulders and back on longer rides. This can be especially problematic for riders with carpel tunnel syndrome. When compared to a mountain bike, the decrease in weight and sturdiness combined with the decrease in tire width and tread put limits on where the hybrid can go off-road and make the bike more prone to breaking down when you come upon obstacles that are beyond the capabilities of your bike. When the riding gets serious, hybrids get left out off the road and left behind on the road.
A hybrid can be an ideal choice for the new rider who isn’t sure what kind of riding he wants to do. The fitness benefits of road riding and the idea of spending wonderful days going for long bike rides in beautiful weather make a road bike sound appealing but the excitment and challenge of off-road riding also sounds appealing. You’re not ready to commit to one or the other. What do you do? One solution is buy a hybrid and do the dialed back versions of each and see which you like the best. Riders who are thinking about cycling as a fairly low stress form of leisure activity that also has some health benefits are likely to be attracted to hybrids as well. A lot of people buy a hybrid as their first bike, discover they really enjoy some aspect of cyclng, and then move beyond the hybrid to a mountain or road bike as their interest and fitness levels increase. As long as you understand that it is often a temporary first solution, a hybrid bike may be just the bike you need.