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Main Question: What should one look for on a sport hybrid if the primary use will be commuting and riding around 10 - 20 miles a day for exercise?

Motivation: I was a resident of Chicago (which was absolutely beautiful for biking along the shore and such) and I had a 1977 Trek road bike that I loved. Now I live around the New Orleans area and the roads are absolutely terrible to bike on; I have replaced tires, tubes, and rim tape a number of times, but it never quite works; it's getting to the point where I'm worried about going farther distances because I'd be stuck there if my tube popped (and this has, in fact, happened a few times...). I went to my LBS and they told me that I should think about getting a sport hybrid --- and if this term is not standard, it seems like a hybrid which doesn't have shocks.

I am reluctant to buy one because I don't know all that much about bikes yet and I'm not sure what to look for in this type of bike; moreover, I am used to drop handlebars which are not standard in sport hybrids. Does anyone have any experience with these kinds of bikes or from going from a road bike to a sport hybrid? Are these kinds of bikes good for commuting to work ( < 5 miles) and for longer exercise rides (10 - 20 miles), or would a different bicycle be more fitted for these purposes?

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Could you be more specific about exactly what kinds of terrible the roads are? Rough, nearly gravel, lots of glass, lots of thorns? –  freiheit Mar 10 '11 at 18:29
    
Yes; there are tons of cracks in the roads, rocks, beads (it is new orleans...!), branches, and even glass. The backroads are cut up enough to where I have to stop, get out, and walk my bike around the holes and fractures. So, things like this. –  james Mar 11 '11 at 0:06
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Based on the problem description in your question ("I'm worried about going farther distances because I'd be stuck there if my tube popped") why aren't you asking about puncture-resistent or puncture-proof tires, or changing tires, and/or changing wheels to accomodate those tires, instead of asking about new types of bike? –  ChrisW Mar 11 '11 at 0:19
    
@ChrisW - Exactly! –  user313 Mar 11 '11 at 0:27

7 Answers 7

If you're dealing with rough roads, a bike with slightly wider tires will be more comfortable, less likely to throw you with small obstacles/ruts, and probably have a wider selection of puncture-resistant tires.

Most road bikes are designed for very narrow tires and can't accomodate anything much wider. Narrow tires on rough roads are more likely to get caught on small ruts (etc).

You could always put the widest puncture resistant tires possible on your old road bike (maybe also a tire liner, puncture resistant tubes, etc) and pack a decent repair kit (2 tire levers, 1 tube, a few patches) into a seat bag.

I think the definition of a "sport hybrid" is fairly flexible (vague, inconsistent). "Hybrid" almost always means a bike with flat handlebars (like a mountain bike), but with larger thin wheels like a typical road bike. A "sport" hybrid is one that's a little more geared for speed than comfort (possibly even the same as a "flat bar road bike"), so maybe has you leaned a bit more forward and has some higher end components and probably no suspension stuff.

For a less than 5 mile commute on relatively flat ground, any bike you like will do, as long as it's capable of carrying whatever you want to carry and ride comfortably over the roads. For your longer ride you're more likely to want the drop handlebars, mostly to have more positions for your hands, but also to go faster. You can add extensions or replace the bars on a flat-bar bike to get more hand positions, though.

For the somewhat longer rides, if you want to be able to go relatively fast and you have to deal with bad roads, I'd look at:

  • Sport hybrids
  • Cyclocross bikes (made for racing on mixed trails/mud/pavement)
  • Touring bikes (road bike designed for long trips in possibly terrible conditions. wide tires, tough frame)
  • "Commuter" bikes (hybrids optimized for commutes).
  • any number of more basic less specifically named "flat handlebar road bikes" or "hybrids"

For all of those, you're likely to want to replace the stock tires with something more puncture resistant (for the glass you don't see), and maybe have those be wider tires, too.

From your description of liking drop handlebars, I'm thinking a cyclocross bike might be the best option. Cyclocross frames tend to be very similar to road frames, but can handle wider tires. There's other less important differences that could be asked in another question. Probably won't come with handlebars as low as many modern road bikes, but that is likely to be fixable. The cheaper cyclocross bikes often have the stuff to make it easy to mount a rack and/or fenders, too.

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It sounds like we have similar needs in bikes. I'm new to having a "real" bike (not just a $150 break-it-in-a-year bike), so my first stop was a number of local bike shops.

At the shops I tried to honestly answer what I planned on doing with the bike (~3 mile commute daily, weekend leisure/exercise rides, and running errands) and let the staff guide me towards a style, unanimously they steered me towards a hybrid--and all three shops advised me on the Trek Fx line (as well as other hybrids).

The main reason for the hybrid was:

  • I was used to low-end mountain bikes, with "regular" handlebars, and an upright sitting position.
  • I had no desire to do "real" mountain biking. 99% of my rides are on roads, bike-paths, or well packed dirt roads. Shocks, big tires, etc had very little benefit for my actual usage.
  • The hybrid tires compromise on size, pressure, and durability between mountain and road. The middle-road between the wide/knobby mountain and skinny/slick road tires leaves you with some traction for loose gravel (on the road or on dirt trails), are more durable than road tires, and still much lighter/faster than mountain tires.
  • I wanted to be able to run errands and lug home a load of stuff, maybe up to ~50lbs.

I settled on a Trek Fx 7.3 and aside from a couple small shortcomings am very happy. I've had it for about a month, and have put about 150 miles on it--I use it as often as possible for my commute and errands and am trying to go on at least a couple 20+ mile rides in the week. The seat and grips are about the only things I plan on swapping out. I've added a rack and bag, and plan on a set of fenders shortly.

Overall, despite friends insisting "hybrid means terrible at everything" I've found it to be a very good balance between mountain and road. I may experiment with skinnier tires and/or drop-bars, but in both cases it's out of curiousity rather than deficiency. I rarely wish for either more top-end gears or bottom-end.

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A sports hybrid is named for being a hybrid of a mountain and a road bike. One advantage of a hybrid is the upright cycling style where your face is pointed more straight ahead rather than looking up with drops. This can also be achieved with drop handlebars by raising them until they are at a level or slightly higher than the seat. This is easier to do with older bikes which no not have the threadless headsets. A 5-mile commute would be fine on this type of bike but I think that a 20-mile ride would begin to suck pretty quickly since you can really move your hands around. A second advantage is that the hybrid's relatively thicker tires will allow you more advantages than traditional 700c 'skinny' road tires. They can handle gravel and potholes and pretty much anything else that you might encounter on a city street.

Having said that, to me the biggest disadvantage of the hybrid is that it is a compromise from two 'focused' efforts to be something that by definition is unfocused but tries to be everything to everybody and achieves being nothing. Technically, I think the lack of hand placement is the biggest impediment.

If you still have your Trek, I might recommend raising the handlebars a bit and mounting the fattest Schwalbe tires you can on it. They are bombproof and comfy though they are heavy. Stick some fenders on it and you are good for 4-season riding.

I think both Surly and Civia make some very nice and reasonably affordable (this is always in the eye of the beholder) bikes that would suit this purpose.

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Do they have four seasons in New Orleans? –  DC_CARR Mar 10 '11 at 19:32
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hot, hot and sticky, hot, and not quite so hot? –  john busteed Mar 10 '11 at 19:33
    
"Technically, I think the lack of hand placement is the biggest impediment" - I'm not sure what you mean: do you mean that drop handle bars afford more positions, and that hybrids have straight bars with fewer hand positions? Why is fewer hand-positions a drawback? What do you think of bar-ends? –  ChrisW Mar 11 '11 at 0:28
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@ChrisW - More hand positions means that you'll be more comfortable on longer rides; shifting hand positions helps fight hand pain, and flat bars offer very little in the way of hand position variety. Barends offer the rider additional hand positions, although not as many as drop bars. They also have the advantage of being quite inexpensive and easy to install and try out. –  Neil Fein Mar 11 '11 at 2:28
    
I personally hate flat bars even with bar ends. My hands always start to ache within 30 minutes. But that and $3 will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. –  john busteed Mar 11 '11 at 20:34

I feel a strong need to come to the defence of decent hybrids!

I ride a Specialized Hybrid sport bike. I live in the South of the Netherlands and I chose a hybrid because I ride a combination of roads, asphalt bike paths, gravel paths and forest trails. The trails range from soft sand to mud and everything in the middle. The only thing we lack is hills...

I replaced the original tyres with Schwalbe Smart Sam tyres which have enough grip for the trails but run quickly on smooth paths.

It is a compromise and the narrower tyres are not ideal in dry soft sand. But it's a great bike and I comfortably ride 80 - 100 km on mixed paths with no real problems..

By definition a hybrid is a compromise, but not necessarily a bad one...

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A hybrid isn't necessarily the bike you should be looking for. Most of them have knobby tires, which are awful for riding on streets. They use flat handlebars, which (IMHO) are less useful than drops. You can only ride on flat handlebars in the one position, but you can ride drops in a similar position (on the hoods), plus you have more options for changing positions for comfort on longer rides.

A commuter-style road bike, however, should come equipped with wider road tires (which have better grip than knobby ones, especially in corners) that should have a greater resistance to punctures. For instance, I've ridden on 28C Panaracer Ribmos for over 3,800 miles without a puncture or flat. It should also have fenders to protect you when it rains, and possibly a rack on which to carry cargo.

Maybe I'm biased, but hybrid bikes have always seemed to me like the wrong tool for any job. They're not good off-road, they're not good on roads, and in my experience they're often manufactured extremely poorly. Something like a Surly Cross Check is a good place to start looking, although you don't necessarily need to spend that much money. Especially if you can find a good deal on something from Craigslist or eBay. But a solid bike like that will last you hell of a lot longer of solid use than a crappy hybrid will.

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Most hybrids I've seen don't come with knobby tires. Maybe this is a regional difference? –  Neil Fein May 18 '11 at 17:47
    
Could be. Also, I haven't looked at hybrids in awhile. I wrote them off long ago. –  Stephen Touset May 18 '11 at 19:23
    
Might you consider editing your answer, then? –  Neil Fein May 19 '11 at 2:11
    
I still haven't seen evidence in a long while that hybrid bikes serve any real purpose. They seem to be there solely so bike shops can foist them upon consumers who either don't know what they want, or have misguided notions about what kind of bike will suit their needs that they can't be steered away from. Perhaps I'm wrong. Mod me into oblivion. –  Stephen Touset May 19 '11 at 19:07
    
@Stephen- Um, that's not my job. Just a suggestion, and I'm also a cyclist and member of this board, in addition to being a mod. –  Neil Fein May 20 '11 at 13:46

I was going to say that a 'cross bike or tourer might be a good option. (though considerably more expensive than the typical hybrid) Both can easily be equipped with rather gnarly tires which should take just about anything you can throw at them. The problem with upright-position hybrid or "fitness" or "comfort" bikes is that they are not particularly efficient. 10-20 miles a day is not "serious" mileage, but still turning in that distance constantly with essentially all your weight on your....Fundamental bits can be a strain... Such bikes are intended for more casual use.

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I have an Opus Legato, which is a 27 speed drop handle bar road bike. The roads in my town are terrible also. My solution was to put rather fat nearly slick tires on it (700mmx38mm). I did this with a circa 1997 Devinci Caribou as well. It can bounce through potholes and I jump kerbs all the time. The tire depth prevents bottoming out on the rim. Works well for medium rough off road riding as well.

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