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Buying a new bike can be a mind-boggling business, not least because of the many types of bikes that confront you. It used to be simpler.
Nearly everything with a drop handlebar was a “racing bike” in naiver times. Eddie Merckx was in his prime. Or you might have bought a sit-up-and-beg bike for shopping trips.
Today, road bike vs hybrid is one of the most common choices that bicycle buyers face. Which of these is better for you? This article will help you find out.
What is a Hybrid Bike?
A hybrid bike is a mixture of mountain bike, touring bike and road bike, and its specification can be biased in any of these directions.
You could think of a hybrid bike as a sportier version of a utility bike, or city bike, the like of which are often available in urban bike-hire schemes.
A good reason for buying a hybrid bike is that you want to do a bit of riding on various terrains. It’ll be better for off-road stuff than a dedicated road bike or touring bike, but it’ll also carry you along at a respectable speed on the asphalt.
Read more: Drop bars vs Flat bars
Features to Look for in a Hybrid Bike
Depending on what surfaces you’ll ride most on and the main purpose of the bike, you can pick a hybrid to suit you. Below are some of the features you’ll find.
- Frame: can be steel, aluminum or carbon. Carbon offers a benefit in lightness but is not always more comfortable to ride over distance, especially compared to steel.
- Gears: hybrids can have anything from a single gear to a triple crankset and 9 gears (3 x 9). A wider choice of gears means greater suitability for hillier terrains.
- Brakes: like other bikes, hybrid bikes are available with rim brakes or disc brakes. Disc brakes are more effective in the wet, but repairs are trickier.
- Handlebar: hybrid bikes normally have a flat bar, allowing an upright riding position that is easy on your back. Riser bars offer a more relaxed seating position still. You can install other bars for faster or longer rides.
- Wheels: hybrid wheels are often 700c but may sometimes be 26in. The latter are a tad stronger in case you’re a heavier rider or planning on loading up your bike for tours.
- Suspension: some hybrid bikes feature suspension forks, but these add weight to the bike. They’re only a good idea if you’re planning on a lot of off-road riding.
Video: How to Choose a Hybrid Bike
What Is a Road Bike?
A road bike can take various forms, but everything about it is designed to maximize speed and efficiency when riding on the road.
You’d choose a road bike if you wanted to cover a lot of ground on paved roads in a short space of time. But there’s some variability within that remit.
Even if you’ve narrowed down your buying choice to a road bike, you’ll still see a bewildering array of specifications attached to them.
Here is a brief guide to road bike specification:
- Frame: can be aluminum, carbon, steel or titanium. In road bikes, carbon is a popular material because of its inherent lightness. Titanium and high-quality steel frames often yield an exceptionally comfortable ride.
- Gears: off-the-peg road bikes usually come with a [twin] compact crankset and an 11-gear rear cassette. The size of sprockets on the cassette is of particular interest if steep climbing is on the cards (more teeth = easier).
- Brakes: can be rim or disc brakes. The latter are safer when descending steep hills or mountains because they don’t heat the rim and increase the risk of a tire blow-out. We wrote a guide to road bike brake pads.
- Handlebar: a defining feature of a road bike is the drop handlebar, but this can vary quite a lot in its “drop” and “reach”, affecting your position on the bike. The length and angle of handlebar stem also influences this.
- Wheels: wheels are usually 700c on adult road bikes. The number of spokes in a wheel is a defining factor in strength. Road wheels are slim, and the bikes don’t allow clearance for fat tires.
- Suspension: there is no suspension fork on a road bike. It is possible to buy suspension seat posts and handlebar stems to reduce vibration from the road.
Read more: Guide to road bikes under $2000
Road bike geometry
Frame geometry is important in road bike design as it defines the bike’s chief strengths. A so-called “fast” road bike usually has aggressive geometry. This forces the rider into a lower, more aerodynamic position at the cost of some comfort.
Road bikes with a more relaxed geometry are ideal for long-distance endurance rides at a moderate pace. You can get tremendously fit doing this, and a comfortable bike may be faster on all-day rides.
Video: Road Bike Geometry Explained
Road Bike Versus Hybrid: The Key Differences
Having summarized hybrid bikes and road bikes, let’s get into the key differences between them. Choosing one over the other inevitably comes with forfeits and gains.
Speed: How Much Faster is a Road Bike Than a Hybrid?
If speed is your main aim, you shouldn’t buy a hybrid bike over a road bike. You can probably reckon on a 3 to 5 mph difference at least over a smooth surface.
On a road bike, you’re unlikely to be seated bolt upright even if you’re riding on the hoods. On a hybrid bike, you’ll lose a significant amount of speed purely because you’re creating a less aerodynamic shape.
The tighter clothes you’re more apt to wear on a road bike will also make you faster.
In general, the wider, lower pressure tires found on a hybrid bike will slow you down on a smooth road surface versus road bike tires. This is because the contact patch with the road is bigger, increasing rolling resistance.
If you rode 32mm hybrid tires off-road, they’d absorb bumps better than skinny road tires. That’s where the speed advantage starts to swing in the opposite direction.
A typical hybrid bike is heavier than a road bike in its frame, wheels, and components. On flat terrain, that’s trivial, but on a hilly ride it makes a difference to average speed.
Which is More Comfortable Between Road Bikes and Hybrids?
A hybrid bike is easily more comfortable to ride over short distances. The cyclist’s upright position together with fatter, ride-smoothing wheels ensure that.
Over longer distances, a road bike would be more comfortable for many people.
A hybrid bike is good for long distances if it is fitted with a suitable saddle (probably not heavily padded) and a tolerable handlebar. A lower, more forward-positioned bar may be beneficial over several hours.
Although a hybrid bike is more tiring to haul over longer distances than a road bike, it can counteract this with touring-bike qualities. For instance, a decent steel frame and a triple crankset makes for a plush ride and gives you some easy gears for hills.
Hybrid bikes have wider handlebars than road bikes, making them easier to steer and handle, particularly on rough terrain. A narrow handlebar can make steering almost too responsive to the point of being twitchy.
A wide road bike handlebar might measure 44cm center to center, whereas a flat hybrid handlebar can go up to 70cm. Wider handlebars also help breathing during exercise.
Weight Bearing Qualities
More robust hybrid bikes are undoubtedly better for carrying luggage than road bikes. Many come with mounts for installing racks and panniers. Those with smaller 26-inch “mountain bike” wheels are sturdier still.
Road bikes are sometimes advocated for ultralight touring, where luggage is kept to a minimum. As soon as you add lots of weight onto a road bike, there’s a significant risk of spokes breaking.
Differences in Versatility
If you’ve got this far in the article, you’ll have fathomed that hybrid bikes are more versatile than road bikes. But what can you do on each?
On a road bike you can go off-road slightly onto paved trails. If you stick some robust tires on, you might even get away with some gravel riding. The amount of clearance a road-bike frame has for wider tires affects its versatility.
Hybrid bikes can make the transition between smooth and moderately rough surfaces much more readily than a road bike. And they can handle more roughness.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is a Road Bike Easier to Ride than a Hybrid? – A hybrid bike will have a wider handlebar and a geometry designed for stability. In that sense, hybrid bikes are easier to ride. Road bikes are designed to be responsive at high speed.
Is a Hybrid Bike Good for Long Distance? – A hybrid bike may not be ideal for long distances “out of the box”. Particular attention should be paid to the points of contact with the bike—saddle and handlebar. As well, a suspension fork is a disadvantage for long-distance road riding, as are slower off-road tires.
Are Hybrid Bikes Good for Trails? – Yes, hybrid bikes are excellent for riding any trails where the surface isn’t extremely rough. You can go off-road with ease.
Are Hybrid Bikes More Comfortable? –Hybrid bikes aremore comfortable over relatively short distances. Features like padded saddles have a habit of becoming uncomfortable over many miles, and an upright riding position may start to jar.
Can I Convert My Hybrid to a Road Bike? – You can, but you’d be starting with a frame that is probably on the heavy side and designed to place you in an upright position. It’s an expensive project if you install a new groupset. An arguably more sensible route is to “roadify” what you have by fitting faster tires, a longer handlebar stem and a narrower handlebar.
The Final Say – Which Style Is Best for YOU?
This is the low-down on road bikes vs hybrid bikes:
If you have the fast gene that makes you want to ride a bike as quickly as possible, you need to ride a road bike on smooth surfaces.
Of course, if you’re a strong rider, you may ride faster on a hybrid than another rider does on a road bike. But you still won’t be going as fast as you can.
If your aim is to leave home on your bike and go wherever the mood takes you (within reason), a hybrid bike is for you. It’s a can-do choice.