The market for performance hybrids is big, and it’s growing. The number of people who are riding to work is increasing: The American Community Survey, which the US Census Bureau conducts annually, tracks the estimated rate of bike commuting nationwide: In 2010, the number of workers who reported commuting by bicycle was 731,286; in 2018, that figure was 821,201, a rise of 12 percent. According to a US Department of Transportation report from 2009, 75 percent of bike commuters ride about five miles per trip.
Because it’s not a niche market, though, hybrids don’t attract the kind of enthusiasts who keep endless threads going on road-bike or mountain-bike forums, debating the merits and flaws of different brands and models. Magazines like Bicycling and Outside and Men’s Journal will occasionally cover hybrid bikes or recommend one in the context of a larger bike roundup. Still, we dug up what reviews we could find, looking for praise and dings.
The sweet spot for a starter bike like this used to be $500. Drop much lower, and you’ll get stuck with outmoded or truly poorly made parts that might be hard to replace once they wear out; spend more, and you can get a nicer bike, with lighter components, but that defeats the purpose of a starter bike. However, many of the $500 bikes we looked at a few years back have gone up in price, some by as much as 10 or 15 percent. We did still find some hybrids from reputable manufacturers that cost less than $500, but almost all of those had one or more deal-breaking problems.
After seeing what’s available now, consulting buyers’ guides both online and in print (our library of more than a dozen bike-repair manuals), and interviewing commuters, bike-shop owners, and mechanics, we settled on the following criteria for a good, basic hybrid-fitness bike.
Fitness-appropriate geometry: When bike people talk about “geometry,” they’re talking about the angles at which the tubes that make up the bike’s frame meet. Change the degrees of the angles, and you change the way the bike handles on corners and going up and down hills. The more vertical the head tube is—that’s the tube connecting the handlebars to the front fork and wheel—the more quickly the bike will turn. Which sounds good, but if the bike is too responsive, it could feel squirrelly and unstable. For efficiency’s sake, the design of your hybrid’s frame should be closer to that of a road bike than to that of a comfort bike, or a porteur-style retro bike (the ones with swept-back handlebars and, sometimes, a front rack like the ones Parisian newsboys once used). You don’t want to sit straight up, especially on a longer weekend ride. Why? You’ll have to fight the wind more if you’re sitting up, and, adds Kevin Womac of downtown Chicago’s Boulevard Bikes, “If you lean over, you can use more of your core muscles to pedal, so your legs aren’t getting as tired.”
Flat handlebars: These are definitely more user-friendly than the drop bars you see on a road bike, and since you will be more upright, your field of vision will be broader—a plus in city traffic.
Safe, strong brakes: On a flat-bar bike like this, you’ll have a choice of traditional V brakes or disc brakes. Although mechanical (or cable-actuated) disc brakes are becoming more and more common on low-priced hybrids, we don’t see them as a necessity as much as a nice thing to have if you live in a place with a lot of rain and snow and hills. As Loren Copsey, co-owner of The Daily Rider in Washington, DC, said, “On these bikes you’re going to get entry-level disc brakes, which are hard to set up and hard to keep adjusted, and lower-quality pads—and they’re not necessarily even more powerful than rim brakes. So you might get more value at that price point with the one that has the V brake and the nicer drive train.” Also, bikes with disc brakes are almost always heavier than comparable bikes with rim brakes, and a lighter bike is easier to ride uphill, and easier to lift onto a bike rack or carry up a flight of stairs.
Fender and rack mounts: Instead of using a backpack to carry your laptop or groceries, using panniers attached to a rear rack lowers your center of gravity, which is a good thing. Also, no sweaty back. Fenders will keep you (and your riding companions) at least a little drier when you’re riding in the rain—or on wet roads, after the rain has ended.
Puncture-resistant tires: Such tires are heavier and slower than the speedy slicks you’d use on a road bike, but any time that you might lose due to the extra weight is time you’ll probably gain back (and more!) by not having to stop to fix a flat.
Gearing appropriate for your terrain: By this we mean, for the most part, that the bike should have gears and not be a single-speed. Not that single speeds don’t have their place. In parts of the country that are flat and have vicious winters—hello, Minnesota!—the fewer moving parts in a drive train, the better. But most of us have at least a few hills to climb, or headwinds to battle, and gears will come in handy. Almost all geared fitness hybrids come with a triple front derailleur and seven or eight gears in the back, for a total of 21 or 24 gears, which would give you enough options for pretty much anywhere you’ll be riding. Something we’ve seen more of lately are hybrids with just a single chainring up front and no front derailleur, and a bigger set of gears in the back. (This type of setup has been popular on mountain bikes for years now.) Having one fewer shifter to deal with is appealing, but to get the equivalent range of gears without two or three chainrings, you need big—and expensive and heavy—cassettes in the rear. So we eliminated such hybrids.
A sturdy yet reasonably lightweight frame: You do want to be able to carry your bike up steps or down into the subway, or be able to lift it onto a bus or a bike rack. But you also want something that can withstand being knocked around a little. So you’ll probably be looking at an aluminum frame. Aluminum’s a third of the weight of steel, and it doesn’t cost nearly as much as carbon (though the ride can be stiff and a bit jarring). Steel provides a cushier ride, but a good-quality, lightweight steel frame will not be cheap. Almost all of the bikes we looked at, though, do have steel-bladed forks; the slight increase in weight that they add is worth the vibration dampening they provide.
Decent-quality components: Here, it’s a matter of finding the right balance of price, quality, and durability. Most of the front and rear derailleurs on these bikes—and shifters and brake levers, too—are made by Shimano, and although they’re not top of the line (or even middle), they’ll work just fine and will last at least a few commuting seasons. “If you’re not racing, a slightly heavier derailleur isn’t going to make a big difference. I don’t think somebody’s going to notice performance issues right off the bat, and when the derailleur needs to be replaced, the cost will be fairly minimal—$20 to $30,” said Womac. “Yes, cheaper derailleurs do look uglier, but that’s just aesthetics.” One thing we did avoid, though, were bikes that come with old-fashioned freewheel cogsets on the rear wheel, instead of the more modern cassettes. A common complaint on the few hybrid user threads we’d found was being stuck with a wheel whose hub was compatible only with freewheel cogs, which are becoming hard to find, especially high-level ones. And what you really don’t want to buy is a bike with a freewheel and disc brakes. If that rear wheel gets stolen or irreparably damaged, good luck replacing it, said Copsey: “You just can’t find those two things on an off-the-shelf wheel.”
Wide rims: The wider the rims on the wheels, the wider the tire you can use, and the lower the air pressure you need, which gives you a more comfortable ride. “A big fat tire is the poor man’s suspension,” said Michael Ferrand, owner of Bicycle Michael’s, in New Orleans. The norm for these bikes is 32 mm—you’ll want at least that. Speaking of suspension, none of our experts would recommend getting a $500 bike with front suspension, no matter how bad the roads are in your city. These models are often called dual-sport hybrids. As Emily Thibodeau, owner of Hub Bicycle (now closed), in Cambridge, Massachusetts, put it, “At this price point, the shocks you’d get are really heavy and can’t be adjusted—it’s like having a glorified pogo stick on the front of your bike.”
When we compiled this guide, in 2017, we started with a master list of 45 bikes and filtered it down to 16 using the above requirements. For our next update, in 2019, we started with those 16 bikes, checking to see which aspects and components had changed and which had remained the same. When necessary, we called in models that had undergone any substantial changes. For this update, we confirmed that our current picks haven’t changed (apart from, sometimes, which colors the bikes come in), and we considered which new bikes we might test. (Testing has been postponed by current shelter-in-place restrictions; we hope to look at the Co-op Cycles CTY 1.1 from REI.)
Next came the test-riding stage. The highlight was what I like to call the Supermarket Slalom: riding up and down a steep little driveway leading to my local Safeway, while weaving in and out of the soft-hit poles that separate the cars from the pedestrians, to test the bikes’ handling. (I promise: No pedestrians were harmed, or startled, in the course of researching this story.) San Francisco even obliged with a few rainstorms, which made the abundant broken glass in the parking lot even more appealing to tires and made the pedestrian walkway’s plastic surface even more slippery—and allowed me to vet all of the bikes’ brakes for wet-weather performance.
Here are two things to remember when you’re shopping. First, you should try to test-ride any bike you’re considering buying—how a bike feels to you and how your body feels while riding it are intensely personal. And that raises the question of women-specific design (aka WSD). Though most companies do offer step-through or low-rise versions of each bike (we’ll point out when our picks do), more than a few are now offering parallel models (or even complete brands of bikes) designed for smaller riders with proportionally shorter arms, narrower shoulders, longer legs, and smaller hands. Usually, these riders are women, which means that these models and brands have tended to come in what the companies believe are female-friendly colors (and sometimes, sadly, with components that are not quite as good). Still, no matter what gender you identify as, if your body resembles the description above, you’d be smart to try WSD models too—you might just find a bike that fits you perfectly. Conversely, if you’re a tall person of any gender who has broad shoulders, WSD bikes might not be for you. The second thing to bear in mind is that bikes don’t often change that much—or at all—from one model year to the next. If the bike you like isn’t available anymore but the dealer says that next year’s model will be available soon, ask if it’s a “carry-forward” model. If it is, nothing will be changing.