Can You Take a Hybrid Bike Off Road? (And Should You?)

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Have you taken a recent interest in getting a bicycle but don’t know what you want?

Maybe you’re trying to get a little more active, and you see yourself cruising down urban streets and bike lanes during the week, then getting a little more adventurous with some off-road riding on weekend getaways.

You’ve heard of hybrid bikes, and you’re hoping that the term “hybrid” suggests a bike that will be able to satisfy your need for nimble road riding while also being able to tackle some rough terrain on the weekend. But can a hybrid bike go off road?

Read on to find out. We’ll start with the basics.

What is a hybrid bike?

Suzanne walks into the board meeting at Bikes Inc. Her boss, Mrs. Bigwheelie, sits at the head of the table.

“Suzanne,” she says, “What if we had a more versatile bicycle—one that could satisfy both your road-riding urges and mountain trail desires!” The big boss slams her fist down on the table. “Make it so!”

Perhaps that’s not how the hybrid bicycle was born, but here we are, looking at a category of bike that’s often maligned by snobby riders.

Some people say, “Just buy multiple bicycles.” That may work for some, but even the wealthy don’t have space for several bicycles if they live in an apartment. If you’re dating someone who owns both a road bike and a mountain bike, you’ll have a mini fleet!

A hybrid can be an excellent choice for those on tight budgets, or who enjoy versatility.

It is important to note that there is a spectrum of hybrids. Some are much closer to a road bike, others are much closer to a mountain bike. If off-roading is your main concern, then you will certainly want to be looking at bikes near the mountain-bike end of the spectrum. Just remember that they will likely be slower and make for a more difficult commute than hybrids at the other end.

Schwinn GTX 2.0 Comfort Adult Hybrid Bike, Dual Sport Bicycle, 18-Inch Aluminum Frame, Black/Blue

The Schwinn GTX Hybrid is a good example of a hybrid bike that falls more toward the rugged, mountain bike end of the spectrum.

Hybrids don’t get much love from bicycle purists. They will often argue that it’s better to put road tires on a mountain bike—or knobby tires on a road bike—than to purchase a hybrid and try to ride both styles on the same cycle.

While I appreciate the purist point of view, I disagree with the notion that you could enjoy road tires on a mountain bike. While you are huffing and puffing up a hill, bouncing up and down, you could very well find yourself being passed by Johnny No-Helmet riding a stolen single-speed, who’s going twice as fast with half the effort. The hybrid bicycle prevents this scenario by offering fantastic versatility and great bang for the buck.

What’s it like to ride a hybrid bicycle?

A hybrid bicycle’s tires work well for road riding, providing much less resistance than any off-road, knobby bicycle tire while still giving you decent traction when you’re off road.

Closeup of a hybrid bike tire
The tread on a hybrid will usually give you some traction on wet or uneven terrain, but won’t slow you down too much on smooth pavement. (© Gavin Anderson | Creative Commons)

Without a rear suspension to dampen your pedaling efforts, you’ll fly up the hills. While the lack of a front suspension fork and “hard-tail” suspension in the rear are limiting factors in the bicycle’s ability to go fast on rough terrain, it certainly does not exclude it from mountain bike trails.

The gear ratios of a hybrid bicycle are more tuned toward road riding, while the components are beefed up for some moderate off-roading. If you’re planning to ride off-road and travel uphill much, you may want to look into an e-bike instead. The assistance of the electric motor is very useful in scooting you up steep, muddy trails!

My favorite thing about the hybrid bicycle is that it’s the ultimate “grab-and-go” bicycle to put on the back of your car for the weekend. Anywhere you want to ride, save for the most sketchy and challenging black diamond trails, it will take you.

Trek hybrid bike against a brick wall
A hybrid makes a great ‘grab-and-go’ bike. (© Yohan euan o4 | Creative Commons)

Without an expensive suspension and wilder frames, hybrids are also less of a target for theft. Good mountain bikes can easily be over $5,000, while hybrids are generally much, much less expensive.

Hybrid bicycles and commuting

A hybrid bicycle is at home as a workhorse—your reliable steel steed to take you to work in the morning, to the grocery store on a rainy evening, or just along your friendly local seawall or forest path. Sporting wet-weather tires, a hybrid is much easier than a road bike to ride when it’s wet. The more expansive, textured tires provide a better grip. It also offers a friendlier seating position.

Road bike fans can easily argue that road bikes make better commuters on sunny days, and I would tend to agree. However, for 99 per cent of riders, the choice would be obvious on any rainy day.

Anyone who has ridden a mountain bike will tell you they suck the pump! That is, the compression of the suspension will sap your energy, forcing you to put in much more effort to move than you will with the rigid, non-suspended hybrid.

A hybrid bicycle has nearly all the capabilities of a road bike with a little less speed and most of a mountain bike’s capacity, just without the ability to perform more extreme stunts.

Can a hybrid bicycle truly go off road?

Growing up in North Vancouver, a suburb of Vancouver that is backed up against a mountain range, I remember the early days of mountain biking on Mount Seymour, and watching people bomb down runs with absolutely no suspension.

Mountain biker on a forest trail
Mountain biking in North Vancouver. (© David J. Laporte | Creative Commons)

The key to mountain biking on such low-tech equipment is standing on the pedals and using your arms and legs as the suspension.  You have to be active in directing how the bicycle responds to the trail. It takes a lot of skill and strength, much easier said than done.

A better-equipped mountain bike will take you down rough terrain in relative comfort compared to a hybrid bicycle. The hybrid bicycle frame design will generally have you sitting up higher than a comparable mountain bike. One solution to the inherent instability would be to remember to lower your bicycle seat when you transition from road riding onto a mountain bike trail.

When you have a hybrid bicycle on a mountain bike trail, don’t get too jealous of your mountain-bike equipped friends and try and follow them at top speed. Mountain bike tires are thicker and inflated less so they can handle impacts. A hybrid bicycle with its standard 700c tires will have a really hard time staying inflated if you hit any roots or obstacles at high speed. Stick to riding gravel and dirt when possible. Avoid the pumpkin-sized rocks your mountain bike friends can hit head-on.

Road bike vs. hybrid bike vs. mountain bike

If you’re still on the fence about what kind of bike you need, let’s give a quick rundown of some fundamental mountain bike obstacles and consider how a hybrid bike would perform in comparison with a road bike or a mountain bike.

Obstacles

Skinny: Any straight, curved, or combination of narrow planks creating a track to ride along. It can be as narrow as your bike tire with 10-foot drops below it on extreme trails.

  • Mountain bike: Knobby and thick tires provide exceptional traction for riding a skinny and good suspension to cushion the landing if you lose control and jump off.
  • Hybrid bike: Textured tires of a hybrid give enough grip even on wet wood to allow you to navigate these with caution.
  • Road bike: I hope you paid your medical bills because if your smooth road tire hits one of those wet wooden planks, you’re going to slide right off.

Roll down: Any significantly steep formation that you can lean back and roll down. If the bottom of the roll down is sufficiently curved, you can roll down 90-degree drops safely with the right technique.

  • Mountain bike: Designed with a low center of gravity, this bike allows for extreme angles without throwing the rider off, and roll downs are a little challenge.
  • Hybrid bike: Keep your seat low, lean back, and you should be able to handle all but the most extreme.
  • Road bike: Even with the road bike’s seat down, the frame itself may want to pitch you over the handlebars.

Drop: An outcropping of rock or ledge that has a sheer drop below it.

  • Mountain bike: Huge suspension travel and big tires provide a soft landing.
  • Hybrid bike: Anything more than a one-metre drop and you’re pushing your luck!
  • Road bike: Just as you wheel your Trek Madone SLR 9 up to the edge of the drop, the rest of the mountain bikers will stare at you in awe—just before you end up in a pile of broken parts at the bottom of it.

Jump: A ramp or feature allowing you to soar through the air.

  • Mountain bike: The suspension compression going into the jump provides a spring to fly higher than the birds.
  • Hybrid bike: Again, careful not to exceed one-metre-high jumps!
  • Road bike: Buy life insurance.

Gravel and rocks: Thick patches of baseball-sized rocks and smaller.

  • Mountain bike: Absolutely no challenge. Rolling over these will be almost like sitting on a comfy couch.
  • Hybrid bike: Navigate through the field without hitting the largest rocks directly, and you should be fine.
  • Road bike: Right before you end up face-down in your spandex, you will hear, “Nice bike, man!”
Mountain bikers on a rocky riverbed
You’ll probably want to avoid this sort of thing on a hybrid bike.

Boulder field: Any terrain feature that requires bumpy navigation down what almost looks like a stairway made of rocks. It can be quite steep and intimidating.

  • Mountain bike: A competent rider can fly down these sections, the suspension eating up massive hits without complaint.
  • Hybrid bike: All but the most skilled riders should walk their hybrid here.
  • Road bike: You’re trying out for the X-games, or you have gone mad.

Final thoughts on hybrid bicycles and their toughness

While road bikes have a higher top speed, get more looks parked outside your local coffee shop, and are generally more agile, they are fragile beauties that prefer sunny days and the open, smooth road—much to the contrast of the mountain bike.

Mountain bikes are frustrating for commuting and can feel like punishment to pedal. Depending on how loose your front fork is and how much travel it has before the bump stops, a mountain bike can also be a bit dangerous in sudden-stopping situations in urban traffic, with the front end compressing so fast and resulting in a rider sailing over the handlebars.

In summary, unless you are trying to be Lance Armstrong or intend to see jumps higher than one metre quite regularly, the hybrid bicycle will be a reliable workhorse no matter the conditions or terrain.

Image at top: © Lynn Baxter | Creative Commons

3 thoughts on “Can You Take a Hybrid Bike Off Road? (And Should You?)”

  1. When you ride for transportation you might have to change terrains for your commute. That it is the true benefit of a hybrid to ride real roads not just paved smooth roads.

    Reply
  2. Thanks for the breakdown. I have a hybrid and I am planning to replace it so I have been trying to figure out if I want another hybrid or a road bike. Your article has helped. I am going to stay with the hybrid.

    Reply

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