Welcome to our buying guide: How To Buy A Hybrid Bike
If you are like us, the first question that comes into your head is: “Well what the heck is a hybrid bike anyway?” (to be honest, some of our staff thought it was some sort of bike that had an electric assist motor, like a hybrid car…. hey seems logical!!)
Hybrid bikes, city bikes, comfort bikes…three different terms for basically the same thing: a bike you can ride around town without looking like a frustrated Tour de France wannabe or a mountain biker in search of a mountain.
In the “good ol’ days”, you had your regular bikes you ride on the road (a.k.a. road bikes) and then you had your dirt trail type bikes (a.k.a mountain bikes). Eventually the call came for a sturdier road bike. The best hybrid bikes combine the features of mountain bikes and road bikes – hence the name. They have wider tires and stronger wheels than road bikes – meaning you won’t be reaching for the puncture repair kit every time you hit a pothole – but are lighter and more responsive than a mountain bike.
What the heck do all these terms mean?
Bike geeks can (and do) argue for hours about different sub-categories of hybrid bike. You’ll hear people talking about city bikes, commuter bikes, comfort bikes and trekking bikes – and the lines between them are blurred in the extreme.
Just so you’re not freaked out when you see all these different words being mentioned in hybrid bike reviews, here’s a rough translation:
A commuter bike is put together for convenient rides over short distances. They’ll often have either integral carrying racks and fenders, or easy points of attachment for them to be added later.
A city bike is very similar, but is more likely to have suspension so you’re not rattled by potholes and jumps down curbs. Tires will be tough to deal with hazards like broken glass, and the frame tends to be light so you can get away quickly from traffic lights.
A comfort bike, as the name suggests, is built for comfort rather than speed. They’ll often have ‘roadster’ handlebars that bend back towards the rider for an upright ride, and the seat is wider and more padded than on the typical hybrid. These are usually the most popular. In fact, the two bestselling hybrid bikes on Amazon are the men and women’s version of the Schwinn Discover Hybrid Bike (the women’s version pictured right). Both bikes are in the comfort bike category.
A cross bike, by contrast, is built to handle longer rides and accommodate higher speeds. The emphasis is on a light weight and a fast ride rather than features, so it might lack tough tires for city rides and suspension for greater comfort.
In truth, to the majority of people it will sound more like marketing (to the super bike aficionado they may notice these slight differences). The overall general truth is this: if you want to commute across town, ride trails near your house or cycle for general fitness, some kind of hybrid bike is what you need. And there is a lot of overlap between the different types so whether a cross bike, city bike, or comfort bike, any of these hybrid will fit most general use needs.
What features should you look out for?
Hybrid bicycle reviews will list endless different specs, but what should you pay attention to in order to select the best hybrid bike for you? That’s what we’re here to help with.
Since you’re not going all-out for speed, hybrid bikes usually have a frame made of chromoly steel or aluminum. These are heavier than the carbon-fiber that you’ll find on road bikes, but they’re also more affordable.
Aluminum is a good choice because it won’t corrode. And if you really want to splash the cash and have the lightest bike possible, there are hybrid bikes with carbon-fiber frames available.
You will see two types of aluminum frame on hybrid bikes: aluminum 6061 and aluminum 7075. Aluminum 7075 is both stronger and more expensive. It is also a bit more prone to corrosion and less flexible for welding. Aluminum 6061 has a different composition (mostly magnesium and silicon) which makes it much easier to shape and weld compared to other aluminum alloys because of their chemical composition. Let’s face it: bicycle frames are pretty complex molds compared to aluminum bats or airplane parts. That is why you will most likely see your hybrid bike with aluminum 6061 frames.
Depending on whether they take after their mom (a road bike) or dad (a mountain bike), hybrids will have either 700c wheels or 26-inch wheels.
700c wheels are inherited from road bikes, and tend to make for a faster, sportier ride. Conversely, 26-inch wheels derive from mountain bikes and are more heavy-duty.
Hybrid bikes have tires between 28mm and 40mm wide. The wider the tire the better grip it’ll have on the road. But the flipside of this extra friction is that it’ll limit your speed.
The tread of the tire is important too. If you’ll be riding on a variety of different surfaces, multi-condition tires are a good choice: they have a smooth center to get you moving quickly on tarmac, but knobbly edges for traction on gravel or dirt.
If you’ll be sticking to the city, you might want to choose a hybrid bike with slick tires in the style of a road bike for an improved top speed.
Most casual riders find flat handlebars the most comfortable – it makes for a natural, controlled position with good vision of the road around you.
It’s also possible to find ‘North Road’ style handlebars, that are swept back toward you so you can sit more upright and not have to lean forward. This style makes for comfort rather than speed, so you’ll often find hybrids with these handlebars marketed (appropriately) as ‘comfort bikes’.
Even city riding can be a bumpy experience, but a hybrid bike with suspension can make you pothole-proof – at the expense of a bit of extra weight and cost.
Suspension on hybrid bikes usually takes the form of a suspension fork. This uses either air or rubber springs to compress and expand as you go over bumps, smoothing out the ride.
If you’re not scared of the odd jolt and you’re planning on sticking to just smooth roads, you can save money and a bit of weight by sticking to models without suspension. But you don’t have to be bound to your choice: you can also buy suspension seat posts that absorb vibrations that would normally rattle your lower back. Some bikes come with suspension seat posts, but you can also buy them separately if you turn out not to be as tough as you thought…
The moving parts are what really distinguishes one hybrid bike from another, and gears will make a huge difference to your ability to deal with different types of terrain.
A lot of people take the view that more gears is always better, but gears add expense – and mean you’ll be endlessly flicking between them to find the best combination.
In truth, if you’ll be riding around town on relatively flat surfaces, an 8-speed gearbox should be enough. You only need to trade up to 14-30 speeds if you’ll be dealing with lots of hills or carrying a lot of weight. These extra gears will give you more options at the high end, meaning you’ll be able to find a gear that keeps you moving up hills without spinning your legs and going nowhere.
If you’re happy to stick to 8 or fewer gears, and added benefit is you’ll have the option of internal hub gears that are far easier to maintain. For more than 8 gears, unless you add a lot of expense the only option is traditional derailleur-style gear systems.
Hybrid bikes are generally equipped with either hub breaks or direct-pull brakes. Both types are great for city riding, giving good control on downhill sections, and powerful sudden stops even in rainy conditions.
It’s possible to get hybrid bikes with newer disc brakes. These are better for control in muddy conditions or on steep descents, but aren’t strictly necessary for most casual or commuter journeys. Far more important than the type of brakes is ensuring they’re set up properly.
Unless you’re riding extremely seriously, you won’t need to worry about the type of chain your bike has. Unless you want one with no chain at all!
A new generation of chainless bikes is now available. As an example, pictured right, the Sonoma men’s chainless drive evolution urban commuter hybrid bicycle (try saying all that in one breath after climbing a steel hill) is breaking new ground with its chainless system and has quickly become one of the top selling hybrid bikes for men on Amazon.
If you’ve ever had a chain come loose and ended up at the side of the road with grease all over your hands and clothes, you know what a big deal it is to get rid of chain-related issues. And if (like any sane person) you’re not big on Lycra and want to commute in your work clothes, it removes the risk of getting pants or skirts caught in the chain too.
A chainless bike (with the technology as it stands) will limit your top speed, but you might decide that’s a trade-off worth making. Even if you decide that’s not the way to go, some hybrid bikes have chain guards that make tangles less likely.
If you’re going to be schlepping your stuff around town, you can look for a bike with an integral rack for panniers – but it’s easy to add one yourself later. You can also find hybrids with built-in lights, fenders and lock mounts, but these can be added later too. Every addition means more weight, but for city cycling you’ll probably care more about convenience than skimming a second or two off your commute.
You can also geek out like crazy with all kinds of cycling computers and heart rate monitors. Because we don’t have enough electronic devices in our lives, right?
To find the best hybrid bike for you, you need to think about the type of cycling you’ll spend most of your time doing, and the factors that matter the most. Most decisions involve a trade-off between speed and comfort. But the good news is that the best hybrid bikes are extremely adaptable, so whatever your riding style you’ll find a bike to get you there.
Where to go from here? Now that you know about some of the different features and make-ups of hybrid bikes, we encourage you to check our bestseller hybrid bikes list as a place to start your research. Considering the wide range of needs of thousands of hybrid bicycle owners, we theorize that the bike that ends up fulfilling most of the varying needs the best is what rises to the top of the bestseller lists. Definitely a great place to start.
Happy shopping and happy cycling!