Editor’s Note: While Jeff has been mountain biking since the early 1990s, he still has a lot to learn about mountain bikes. Any opinions expressed in this article are Jeff’s personal opinions, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Singletracks.com.
Occasionally when an acquaintance finds out I run a mountain biking website, their eyes get big and they tell me, “I’ve been thinking about getting into biking and maybe riding some trails.” At this point, I know what’s coming next: they want to know which hybrid bike they should buy because, you know, they’re hoping to ride on the road, and maybe some trails too. Not that I blame them. Who wouldn’t want a do-all bike?
The problem, as most mountain bikers know, is that hybrid bikes aren’t really well suited to riding singletrack. Sure, for riding the occasional gravel road or path, a hybrid is just fine. Then again, so is a ‘cross bike or even a gravel grinder, which is the type of bike I would choose if I were buying one bike for on- and off-road use. But I digress.
So here, for posterity, are my arguments against buying a hybrid bike, especially if one’s intent is to have a good time riding singletrack trails.
Hybrid Geometry Is all Wrong for Mountain Bike Trails
Mountain bikes are designed to do a few things that road and city bikes just aren’t designed to do. Because mountain bike trails require more steering than a ride down the street to the coffee shop, mountain bikes feature overall geometry that’s designed for faster, more responsive steering than hybrid bikes.
And since hybrid bikes tend to appeal to more casual, inexperienced riders, they are often designed for comfort over performance. This means hybrid riders will be more upright than mountain bike riders, which can make bike handling on twisting trails awkward and downright dangerous.
Hybrid Bikes Have Cheesy Tires
Judging by the stock tires on the hybrid bikes I’ve seen, these bikes are designed for like 90% on-road, and 10% off-road use–and that’s being generous. In fact, these days most companies aren’t even calling these bikes hybrids; instead, they’re “urban” or “city” or “metro” bikes. The tires on hybrid bikes are often considerably wider than those on road bikes, but the tread patterns are clearly optimized for rolling fast on pavement.
My recommendation to anyone trying mountain biking is to start with tires that are at least 2.2-inches wide. If you find a hybrid bike that can fit tires this wide (most are going to come with tires well under 2-inches wide), then maybe–maybe–you could consider venturing out onto trails. Just make sure the wider tires are designed for mountain biking and feature a tread pattern that has some bite to it and decent side knobs.
You’re Going to Hate Riding Off-Road Without Suspension
Yes, I know plenty of really nice people who ride rigid mountain bikes, many of them singlespeed, but let’s be honest: the people who ride those bikes are masochists. In general though, mountain bikers prefer bikes with suspension, preferably front and rear. Unfortunately most hybrid bikes don’t offer any suspension at all. At a really basic level, suspension makes riding bumpy, uneven terrain less painful and more enjoyable.
Not only does suspension make the ride more comfortable, it also gives the rider more control. So instead of getting bounced off the bike when encountering a web of tree roots, riders with suspension will remain planted on the bike and in control.
Hybrid Bikes Must Make Sense for Someone, Right?
Hybrid bikes certainly have their place, but don’t let the name hybrid lead you to believe these bikes are a cross between a road bike and mountain bike. They’re not.
Instead, think of a hybrid bike as a bike for a college student who just needs a reliable and comfortable way to get to class. Hybrid bikes are also a great choice for moms and dads who want to ride around the neighborhood streets with their kids.
But if you’re buying a bike for your own recreational purposes, I beg you to first think about what type of recreation you’re into. If the idea of riding efficiently along quiet, mountain roads appeals to you, get yourself a road bike, even an entry-level one. And hey, if you do decide you want to venture off the pavement, slap on a set of wider, semi-knobby road tires and hit the gravel roads.
On the other hand, if you prefer the idea of riding a bike on unpaved paths through the woods, get yourself a starter mountain bike. You can throw slick tires onto a mountain bike later if you find yourself gravitating toward the paved greenway paths.
Friends, if you want my advice on buying a hybrid bike, here it is: don’t buy one. Decide which type of bike riding you’ll do the most, and buy a bike that’s meant for that type of riding. Only then will you begin to understand why your cycling-obsessed neighbor has a garage full of bikes.