The Best Hybrid Bike
After 50 hours of research and testing conducted over the past 2 years, we’ve determined that if you want a versatile bike for riding around town, a performance hybrid like the $490 Trek 7.2 FX is likely the right bike for you. In a world congested with countless nearly-identical bikes, the 7.2 FX is our top choice for the second year in a row, and it can work for anything from short road rides to commuting moderate distances to work. It’s nimble, lightweight, and better-equipped for the price than any other brand-name bike in its price range.
It comes standard with some basic components, like metal pedals, that the competition will sometimes charge extra for. Its steel fork absorbs more road vibration than the aluminum forks that equip a lot of the closest competition. And it also has puncture-resistant tires, which saves you from spending (minimum!) another $60 to upgrade. Basically, the Trek FX 7.2 doesn’t nickel and dime you for important features that contribute to the comfort and quality of the ride.
Trek made some minor changes between last year’s model and the new 2015, but at its core the Trek FX 7.2 is the same great bike we liked last year—just at a lower price. This is great news because you’re paying less for a bike that rides just as well. Like last year, when compared to other brands, Trek just gets it right. Specifically, for the $490 MSRP (though it often retails for less) you can expect to get a steel fork, metal-wrapped pedals, Shimano shifters and derailleurs, and puncture-resistant tires, which are exactly the features you need. These are things that contribute to the comfort of the ride, and on other similarly-priced bikes these components are often made of materials that wear out faster or aren’t as suited for the job of everyday riding.
It also comes in a women’s-specific design configuration (which you may not want—more detail on this here) and a disc brake model if that’s something you decide you need (but for casual street riding, we don’t think you do).
If you don’t have a Trek dealer near you, or the Trek is selling for substantially more than its $490 MSRP, the Specialized Sirrus a good alternative. The only major difference between the Sirrus and our top choice is the plastic pedals, which won’t grip as solidly or last as long as the alloy cage pedals on the Trek. There’s also the paint job, which comes down to personal preference. The Specialized is available in WSD as well.
The $520 Jamis Coda Sport has a steel frame, as opposed to aluminum like the Trek. The difference can be felt in the smoothness of the ride—steel absorbs more road chatter and can go a long way to mellowing out some of the more jarring bumps and inevitable holes in the road. It also fits a little differently, with a lean over the handlebars that’s just a teeny-tiny bit more aggressive than the FX’s.
However, the handling is a little more sluggish than on either the FX or the Sirrus. The Coda is also a little pricier. We feel strongly that the more agile handling of the FX is better suited to city commutes, but the Coda is a great bike for easy-going rides.
Table of contents
- Why should you trust us?
- Who is this guide for?
- How we picked
- Our pick
- Why is the 7.2 FX better than the 7.1 or 7.3?
- A very close runner-up
- A smoother, mellower ride
- What if I want disc brakes, carbon fiber, or other upgrades?
Why should you trust us?
This guide features reporting and testing by Thom Parsons and Eve O’Neill, both of whom have extensive experience riding and working with bikes.
Parsons spent more than 15 years working as a journeyman mechanic at some of Boston’s largest bike shops, about the same number of years racing bikes at the Expert or Elite level, and helps run a program that distributes more than 1,000 bikes per year to low-income Boston residents. His original reporting was grounded in his real world experience of seeing all kinds of bikes after they’ve been out in the real world for a few years. After a while it becomes obvious what works and what doesn’t as far as bike parts go.
O’Neill has been a regular commuter in the cities of San Francisco and Oakland for the past 8 years. An alum of several 100K rides and a frequent race day volunteer, she has been researching and reporting on commuter and cycling gear for The Sweethome for almost two years.
We also spoke to Sarai Snyder, founder of Girl Bike Love and CycloFemme; David Studner, project manager for Trek’s City Bike division; and the staff members at more than seven Bay Area bike shops, including Roaring Mouse Cycles, Missing Link, Bay Area Bikes, City Cycle of San Francisco, Mike’s Bikes, REI, and Performance Bicycle.
Who is this guide for?
The fitness or performance hybrid is great for anyone buying their first bike—or first bike in a long time. If you want to get into cycling, start here. This is also the right bike for commuters, able to cover moderate distances over varied terrain with ease and relative comfort. And if you want to go on long, leisurely weekend rides with your friends or family this is the bike for you. While it’s not as light and fast as a road bike, you will be comfortable on most recreational trips of roughly 25 miles or less.
If you already own a mountain bike or road bike, but use it primarily for getting around town, you might consider adding this to your stable. A hybrid is often cheaper to fix (no specialty parts in weird sizes), can be tricked out with racks and fenders more easily, and it’s also an investment in health and security. The comfort of the ride reduces long-term wear and tear on your body, and if it gets stolen, it’s cheaper to replace than your prized mountain or road bike.
And it doesn’t look too dorky. The same can’t be said for clunky comfort hybrid bikes, which add ineffective and heavy suspension that even a 90-year-old grandmother wouldn’t benefit from. Similarly, “commuter” hybrids can come equipped with racks and fenders (mud/rain guards) that add a lot of unnecessary weight.
Weight is a moderately important consideration for commuter bikes. There’s no need to make investments in shedding ounces; we just mean there will probably come a time when you have to get this thing up a set of stairs. When you do, you’ll be happy you left all the extra clutter behind. And if you like those features, you can always add them later on.
Another good thing about fitness hybrid bikes is that they don’t become redundant if you decide to upgrade to a higher-end road or mountain bike. This bike will always serve a purpose, even if it’s just your commuter or grocery-getter, providing you with all the benefits we mentioned above.
How we picked
I started my research by searching the web for “best hybrid bike” and “hybrid bike guides.” What I found wasn’t all that helpful. There are lots of sites out there that will help you decide what type of bike you need, breaking down the differences between a “Fitness Bike,” “Comfort Bike,” “Mountain Bike,” “Cross Bike,” “Road Bike,” and “Unicycle.”1
Bicycle Habitat and Consumer Reports both have great guides for narrowing down what kind of bike you need. Of course there are also a whole lot of guides out there created by retailers who just happen to sell the bikes they coincidentally end up recommending. You should probably steer away from those.
The guides will tell you that a bike is better due to some vague reason—“it will dish out whatever you can take,” “it has a solid Shimano parts package”—but this stuff is meaningless. What they fail to mention is the truth about this category of commuter bikes: They are all basically the same.
Our experience in the bike industry has taught us that around $500 is a good amount to spend on a first-time or casual-use bike. That’s the price point at which you can start expecting bikes to last a long time and perform consistently well between tune-ups, which are fewer and farther between. Spending less means you’ll end up making up the difference, and then some, in maintenance costs. Spending more means you’re mostly paying for lighter, more premium materials and components that a novice biker won’t really notice or benefit from—especially if you’re talking about a hybrid bike, which is designed for versatility and approachability over pure speed.
If you want a lighter bike, it’s worth looking into if you commute a very long distance, or if you plan on getting into road cycling and are going to log 20-100+ miles every weekend. But it’s not worth it for simply riding around town, because lighter-weight bikes aren’t very utilitarian and because they can be very, very expensive. They often can’t accommodate things like racks and fenders, and expensive bikes become targets for professional bike thieves like the ones we interviewed for our bike lock guide.
At this price point, a hybrid’s frame should be aluminum—and most of them are. Despite what the various manufacturers claim, the frames on these bikes are nearly identical. This doesn’t stop the major bike brands from trying to set their bikes apart with marketing spin: Trek uses “Alpha Silver Aluminum,” Cannondale uses “Quick, Butted 6061 Alloy,” Giant uses “ALUXX-Grade Aluminum,” and Specialized uses “A1 Premium Aluminum fully-manipulated butted tubing.” One very useful review touted a bike’s “welded aluminum” frame. Yes, that’s how aluminum tubes are put together, by welding them. That’s like saying a car has “turning wheels.”
There are a few options with steel frames, but with a few exceptions, cheap steel is heavy and not worth your consideration. Steel is like steak: You should pay a lot for the real deal or greatly lower your expectations. Buying a $500 steel hybrid is like getting a steak at a diner—it could be great, but the odds aren’t in your favor.
That said, many of these bikes, including the Trek 7.2 FX, have steel front forks (the thing that holds the front wheel). Steel is a great material for a fork. It’s much better at absorbing road chatter and vibration than an aluminum fork, and the weight penalty is more than made up for by the added comfort.
When it comes to gear-shifting and braking components on low- to mid-range hybrid bikes, you are effectively dealing with two major component manufacturers: Shimano and SRAM. At this price, you want Shimano. While SRAM has made a name for itself with its high-end components, it is still severely lacking at the more economical end of things. Shimano has been at it longer and produces the hell out of some cheap, indestructible drive train components (cogs and chainrings).
Through Thom’s line of work he gets to see bikes from every era. In last year’s guide, he wrote: “We’ll get bikes at the shop from the ‘90s, even the ‘80s with still-functioning Shimano shifters and derailleurs (the things that facilitate shifting between the different gears). On the other hand, we’ll install brand-new SRAM components on a bike and see them deteriorate and then detonate within weeks or months. Even Shimano’s low-end stuff is made mostly of metal. SRAM’s low-end components are primarily plastic, more Mattel than metal.”
All bikes in this price range have almost identical parts: rim brakes, 24 speeds (more than enough for covering most hills), and house-brand everything from wheels to grips. The only way to discern between them is by splitting hairs when it comes to their spec and price. So we took out my mini axe and set to splitting.
We pored over dozens of spec sheets looking for differences, and the bike companies didn’t make it easy—one company will use “Shimano Altus” to describe a front derailleur (the front shifty thingy) while another will call the same derailleur by its part number, “FD M191.” We came to the conclusion that unless you are buying a bike online from some cut-rate outfit, you are basically going to be getting the same bike across about fifteen brands. The only major differences were in the quality of the tires, pedals, and other minor components.
Many bikes were eliminated from the line-up because they had inferior parts packages, had heavy steel frames, came from not-so-legit manufacturers, or just looked dumb. If a bike didn’t at least look cool online, we didn’t bother meeting it in person.
In the end, we felt the only way to make a determination was to actually go and throw a leg over a few of these bikes. Bikes we test-rode in 2014 included the Cannondale Quick 6, Raleigh Cadent FTO, Giant Escape 2, Specialized Sirrus, Kona Dew, and the Trek 7.2 FX. It was difficult to discern any differences between these bikes since, again, they’re designed to be roughly similar in riding experience. But, under close scrutiny, Thom found that the Trek had a slight edge.
In late 2014 Eve O’Neill gathered all the specs for both the 2014 and 2015 models of the original recommendations and compared models. Attention was given to what types of materials and components had changed (if any), whether there was a resulting fluctuation in cost, and if so what value was lost or gained in the process. Several bikes had been phased out entirely or absorbed into other lines, and additional research was done into all the major dealers we mentioned to cross-check any sourcing issues or future plans to change, modify, or discontinue popular models (which happens a lot).
For the most part, the bikes remained similar, but manufacturers quietly implemented minor changes in component quality and pricing throughout this price point. As a rule of thumb, component quality was reduced in ways that casual riders wouldn’t notice and prices were lowered accordingly to make the bikes more affordable. It’s basically a wash in terms of value for most models. She then tried out the new Trek 7.2 FX, Specialized Sirrus, and a commenter favorite—the steel-framed Jamis Coda.
For the second year in a row, the 7.2 FX feels premium without the price tag because it includes some crucial and basic features that make your ride more comfortable. Some of those basics, like pedals for example, don’t seem that exciting at first. But these smaller details have significant impact for a casual rider, and the FX is the only bike we found where no compromises were made.
Speaking of, the FX features steel-wrapped Wellgo platform pedals, and none of the equivalent models we looked at from Specialized, Cannondale, Motobecane, Giant, or Diamondback have them. The FX also has a steel fork. The fork is the part of the bike that holds your front wheel to the frame. Bikes of this type and price tend to have forks that are made of either steel or aluminum. In general, a steel fork is recognized as an advanced component because it gives you a smoother ride. Most bikes we looked at had a steel fork for this reason, and yet there are still one or two very popular models, such as the Giant Escape 2, that feature aluminum forks. Puncture-resistant tires also come standard on the FX. All of the models we recommend have them, and again, equivalent bikes from Cannondale, Giant and Kona don’t.
The 7.2 FX gives you all of these advantages and is still less expensive than every equivalent model we looked at. Even better, the price has dropped significantly, from last year’s MSRP of $550 to $490, and you can often find them sold for less.
The price reduction is likely due to a decrease in the quality of two components. Specifically, the aluminum frame was downgraded from Alpha Gold to Alpha Silver,1 and the rear derailleur has been slightly downgraded, from Alivio to Acera.2
This is actually good news, because while you won’t notice the cheaper frame or derailleur, you will notice that Trek kept all the tiny details that make it superior to the competition—the alloy-wrapped pedals, the flat-resistant tires, and the covetable yet hard-to-find steel fork—and made the whole package $60 cheaper. There is no compromise in the quality or the comfort of the ride. Should you happen to find a 2014 on clearance, buy it. It’s still the same great bike as the 2015, with the tiny added benefit of having those two slightly upgraded components.
Stating that the Trek 7.2 FX is the best hybrid bike isn’t exactly earth-shattering news. It’s like saying that McDonald’s is the most popular fast food restaurant. Both the brand and model are versatile and widely available, which is part of what makes them so popular.
Let’s start with its flat-resistant tires. Even as an experienced bike mechanic who can fix a flat in a matter of minutes, I prefer to avoid being put in that situation. I don’t want to be stuck on the side of the road in a sketchy neighborhood fixing a flat in the rain while stressing about being late to work. You might be thinking, “well, they’re just tires, I can just replace them,” and you definitely can, but that would run you an extra $60 to $100. Definitely better to just get a bike that comes with them, especially when you consider the fact that a set of these can easily go for thousands of miles before needing replacement. Among the bikes not sold exclusively online (again, here’s why you shouldn’t buy bikes online), this was one of only three models (one of which is an alternate pick) in this price point that have this feature.
The 7.2 FX comes with metal-wrapped pedals, which only a few other bikes have, and those would otherwise run you another $15 to $20. The alloy pedals are going to hold up better than plastic pedals and they provide more grip in wet conditions.
Aside from the nicer components, there’s also the issue of handling. We took all the top contenders—the Trek FX 7.2, the Specialized Sirrus, and the Jamis Coda Sport—out for a test ride, and I took both bikes through a series of small obstacles. I rode up on the grass, through hard right angles on sidewalks, between car barriers, dodged traffic, etc.
The Trek and the Specialized ride identically. If I had the ability to do this test blindfolded, it would be hard to figure out which was which. Around the tight turns they are very agile, when dodging things like cement barriers and potholes they are quick and responsive. The difference between the two bikes (aside from the plastic pedals) really does come down to which paint job you like better.
However, there is a major difference between the FX and Coda Sport. The Coda was more difficult to get around sharp turns and just a tiny bit more sluggish when responding to obstacles in the road. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a different thing. The beauty of steel bikes (like the Coda) is that once you get them moving, they stay moving, and the different way it handles in the front contributes to that smoother ride and forward momentum.
What it comes down to is that the way the FX handles is slightly better suited to the stop-and-go demands of city riding. If someone asked me which bike to get for their urban ride, and they weren’t super interested in doing test rides or shopping around, I would wholeheartedly recommend the FX over the Coda.
And the FX isn’t very heavy. I thought, “This is a bike I could see myself carrying up the stairs to my apartment.” At 28 pounds, it wouldn’t give me a hernia doing so. (Sweethome editor in chief Jacqui Cheng actually does carry a very similar bike—the Trek 7.3 FX—up flights of stairs on a regular basis, so as long as you’re reasonably able-bodied, it’s doable.)
Ideally, you should buy your bike in person. A good bike store will help you find the right size to fit your needs and maybe even swap out some parts to really dial in a good fit. That’s in addition to perks like comped maintenance and professionally checked assembly that is guaranteed to be safe and of high quality. (More on why we recommend this here.)
If the fit of the bike is anywhere near good, the only place you’re going to notice a difference is at the saddle and the grips. I found the grips and saddle on the Trek comfortable, but saddles in particular are a very personal thing. What works for one person might not work for another. Again, these items can be swapped out for little to no charge by a good shop.
Also, as with most bikes of this type, both the frame and the fork are fender- and rack-ready (as indicated by the little holes on the back of the frame and bottom of the fork).
In the end, the Trek 7.2 FX doesn’t have a ton of advantages over the closest competition, but it definitely has something. That said, as aforementioned ad nauseum, there is very little difference between the bikes discussed here. If you find a better deal on a Specialized or if you prefer the style, I’d go for it.
Why is the 7.2 FX better than the 7.1 or 7.3?
The reason why we went with the 7.2 FX over the 7.1 is mainly that the 7.1 has a clunky freewheel system instead of a lighter, better-sealed, and more-efficient freehub system. In a freewheel system, the ratcheting part of the hub system and the sprockets/cogs are one unit that must be replaced together when worn. With a freehub system, the sprockets/cogs slide onto a freehub body and can easily be replaced separately when worn.
If you’re riding your bike in a semi-regular fashion, you will be replacing your chain and cassette (what all the sprockets/cogs are called together) once per year. The 7.2 FX also makes the jump to flat-resistant tires and metal-caged pedals. If you put those components on a 7.0/7.1 after the fact, that would offset the money saved up front anyway and you’d still be stuck with the inferior freewheel.
Other than a few component upgrades (slightly lighter wheels and tires, along with a slightly higher-end drivetrain), the big selling point for the 7.3 FX is the oversized stem and bar system. Traditionally, the diameter of a handlebar and the corresponding stem clamp is 25.4 millimeter (1 inch). “Oversized,” in this case, means 31.8 mm (about 1.25 in.). It’s visibly noticeable—it looks cool to some people and it definitely adds stiffness.
But here’s the thing: oversized systems were developed so Tour de France-type bike racers could have a stiffer platform for sprinting at 40+ mph while wrestling their bikes like angry gorillas. This stiffness also translates into less absorption of road shock and more abuse on your body. This is fine if you’re getting paid six figures to ride your bike and you’re getting massages every night, but for the average cyclist, an “under-sized” system is adequate.
A very close runner-up
Speaking of the Specialized, the Specialized Sirrus stands toe-to-toe with the Trek 7.2 FX—it even has flat-resistant tires. The only place it comes up short is with its plastic pedals, which won’t be as durable. It’s another great-looking bike that feels good to ride. I also found that it was priced well below the MSRP at one shop I visited. Enough below that replacing the plastic pedals when they break still wouldn’t bring it up to the price of the 7.2 FX sitting next to it in the rack at the same shop. Another reason why it’s good to shop around.
A smoother, mellower ride
The $520 Jamis Coda Sport is for someone who wants a ride that’s smoother than our top two choices and feels a bit different as well, but at the expense of maneuverability.
Unlike the Trek FX and the Specialized Sirrus, which have aluminum frames, the Coda Sport has a steel frame. Practically speaking, steel has the ability to absorb more road noise than aluminum, giving you a smoother ride. But that doesn’t really cut to the heart of the matter. When people talk about the “feel” of riding a steel bike, they’re referring to something a little more esoteric than its practical advantages. What devotees of steel bikes really love is their vibe.
If you’ve ridden the FX and the Sirrus, and you have some nagging feeling that they’re just not quite right, but can’t explain why, try the Coda Sport. It fits all of our criteria for a great commuter bike: It has reliable Shimano shifters and derailleurs, metal wrapped pedals, puncture-resistant tires, and the right price.
However it’s more expensive than our pick, and the 2015 model downgraded its chain and cassette from the 2014 version (they are no longer Shimano). The major area in which it differs from our top choice is in the handling, as discussed earlier. That steel frame has a nice feel on pavement, but the tradeoff is that it’s harder to get around small obstacles and put through quick turns, putting it at a disadvantage if you plan on riding in trafficky urban areas. It also has a slightly more aggressive stance, putting you slightly further over top of the handlebars, but the difference is so small it could just depend on how high your seat is. Yet another reason to try before you buy.
What if I want disc brakes, carbon fiber, or other upgrades?
When you start looking at more expensive models of hybrids like the ones you’ll find in the FX series, the parts begin to slowly get better. You’ll notice that the quality of the shifting and gearing components goes up, the fork will possibly be upgraded in material from steel to carbon, and you can also opt to get disc brakes.
All of these things are good. If you know you want to spend more money on some of these upgrades, don’t talk yourself out of getting what you really want—go for it. But if you’re a first-time buyer or find yourself on the fence because a salesman has done a great job of talking you into disc brakes (they always try), know this: As a commuter or casual cyclist, there’s a 99.9 percent chance you don’t need any of it.
It’s also useful to know that not all parts are created equal. The versions of these components that you get by tacking a few extra hundred onto the price tag are good, but at this price point, you probably aren’t getting what you’d expect for your money. Because disc brakes and carbon fiber are such visible upgrades, they’re an easy upsell on the showroom floor. What’s not as visible is the fact that the “upgraded” components aren’t always better than the parts they’re meant to improve upon.
First, let’s talk about disc brakes. Any hybrid bike in this range is going to have a big brother with disc brakes (what they use on cars and motorcycles). The Trek 7.2 FX has the 7.2 FX Disc at $600 and the Specialized Sirrus has the Sirrus Sport Disc at $700. The advantage of disc brakes is that they brake exactly the same way all the time, regardless of conditions (e.g. rain, snow, fog, etc.). If you are planning on riding in adverse conditions, they’re worth considering. The pads last longer with little to no adjustment and they are more reliable than rim brakes in the wet. However, it’s worth noting that if your fear is having to navigate the occasional puddle or slick wet road, know that it’s impossible to hydroplane on a bike. Unless you’re planning to ride in the rain, snow, and ice on a very regular basis, they are not worth the extra cost.
But even if you are going to ride in wet conditions on a regular basis, not all disc brakes are the same, and the cheap, cable-actuated mechanical disc brakes you’ll find at this price point will actually have less stopping power than standard v-brakes. There is such a thing as a “nice” mechanical disc brake (Avid’s BB7 is legendary for its reliability and ease of maintenance), but off-the-shelf bikes are more commonly equipped with inferior Tektro or other generic white-label components that are more for show than performance. On the other hand, hydraulic brakes are actuated by brake fluid (like what you’d find in a car) and actually are more powerful. However, they are also expensive and require advanced maintenance (like what you’d find in a car). Total overkill for a bike like this.
Another very common upgrade you can get is from a steel or aluminum fork to a carbon fiber fork. Carbon fiber is not made of metal at all. It’s almost like fabric that’s been woven with carbon fiber threads and made rigid by binding it with polymer. It is very strong and very light, which are good qualities for bike parts to have. It’s considered an upgrade because it’s lighter than steel and it’s also very good at absorbing vibration from the road.
Again, if you want a carbon fork or took a test ride and love the way it rides, by all means, go ahead and get it. But at this price point, the difference in road vibration will be undetectable. The weight saved is insignificant for the average commuter. And once more, you absolutely get what you pay for. If the spec sheet for the model you’re considering actually lists the fork as being made of “carbon composite fiber” or just “composite,” that means that it’s only partially made of carbon fiber and can contain a large proportion of cheaper, heavier fibers as filler. The real thing costs real money.
WSD or “Women’s Specific Design”
Something you’re bound to run into is the acronym “WSD.” WSD stands for “Women’s Specific Design.” WSD bikes have slight tweaks to the frame geometry and componentry that claim to be optimized to work with the female physique. Sarai Snyder, founder of Girl Bike Love and CycloFemme, elaborates:
“As a little person of just 5’ 2″ (on a good day), attention to women’s specific design has greatly increased the smaller bike options available for me. But I think the term ‘Women Specific Design’ can be a little misleading. Most of the time WSD means a shortening of the top tube length, smaller all around sizing, and the addition of a women’s specific saddle, narrower handlebars, shorter stem, and maybe even a shorter crank length. These things account for the notion that most women have shorter torsos, longer legs, and narrower shoulders on an all around smaller frame than men.
Realistically, we are all unique in our build. A woman of 5’ 10” might be hard pressed to find the benefits of WSD. It should also be noted that for some companies WSD is really just an excuse to change the paint scheme to market to a different audience. In the end, the most important thing is finding the bike that fits your body and your riding style as an individual.”
Thing is, WSD may not actually fit you better, even if you’re a woman. I (the woman updating this guide this year) ride more comfortably on the men’s version. A shop owner I spoke to for this guide mentioned several of the WSD bikes he sold last year were sold to men. The only way to tell what fits best is by trying them out yourself at a bike shop.
Why shouldn’t I buy a bike online?
It’s generally not a great idea to purchase a bike online. And we’re not talking about this from a poetic “buy local” perspective. Buying from a shop ensures you get a safer product thanks to professional assembly and will often end up being cheaper in the long run. Plus, if you have someone helping you set up a bike, you’re more likely to have a good experience with it.
There’s no denying that you get a better bike for your money when you buy online. A Diamondback Insight 2 on Amazon is going to run you less than a Specialized Sirrus, and the Insight has a superior parts package. Similarly, a Motobecane Cafe Latte on Bikes Direct is going to cost less than a Trek 7.2 FX and come with much better parts, but as a novice biker, you’re unlikely to notice the marginal benefits of $40 handlebars over $30 handlebars (if there are even any to be had).
On the other hand, the lack of care and attention put into your online-ordered bike will be blindingly obvious (possibly literally) when you hit a pothole and your wheel winds up turning 90 degrees while your handlebars stay straight ahead as you fly over them.
Online retailers and big box stores work on volume, and they tend to pay their mechanics (and I’m using this term loosely) a piece work rate as opposed to bike shops, which pay mechanics by the hour. A piece work bike assembler churns out bikes as fast as they can—they fly out the door and he or she never thinks about them again because they will be sold to someone far away.
A shop mechanic, on the other hand, has to be more accountable. If that person neglects to tighten a pedal and the customer eats it on their first ride, he or she will see the customer come into the shop the next day all battered and bruised. The shop will feel awful for causing a customer injury and the mechanic will definitely feel awful when he or she gets fired.
For safety’s sake, even a bike that is advertised as “90 percent assembled” is going to require a trip to a bike shop for final assembly and a safety check. This assembly and safety check is going to run you $60 to $150. “Whoa!” you’re saying, “But I only paid $300 from the whole bike.” Thing is, for liability (and ethical reasons) a shop mechanic must go over every bolt on that bike to make sure it was assembled correctly, which, more often than not, it wasn’t. Just go down to a Sears or even a Dick’s Sporting Goods, put the front of wheel of the bike between your knees, and try to twist the bars. You’ll see how much those guys care about your wellbeing as the bars easily turn sideways while the wheel stays in one place. That’s not what’s supposed to happen.
Seth Sampson, manager of Giant Bicycle Store in Boston, put it best: “It is amazing what can go wrong, even when you have only 10 percent of the bike to build. Our bikes have better quality and are correctly assembled. You can always save more [up front] buying online, but end up paying more to make it work right.”
You will also notice that, with your online order, nobody helped you find the ideal size for your body measurements, and unless you really know what you’re doing, you’re probably going to buy the wrong size bike. There’s a lot more to fit than just the number on the frame. Just the frame itself has no fewer than seven major variables that comprise its “geometry,” all of which affect how a bike ultimately feels. Bikes like these tend to have more or less identical geometry across brands, but there are other factors that contribute. A good shop will help fit you to a bike and make any alterations that might be necessary. Saddles, stems (the thing that holds the handlebars), and the handlebars themselves can often be swapped out for a better fit and improved comfort.
You’re also likely to get perks and freebies for purchasing from a shop, like a free 30- or 90-day break-in tune-up that would otherwise run you another $60 to $100 for your super-deal bike from Bikes Direct. And don’t think these are just “nice to have” but unnecessary; cables will stretch and need readjustment after the initial few weeks of riding. Many shops will also give you discounts on accessories like locks, lights, helmets, and fenders within a certain window after your purchase. Not to mention help with warranty issues. Your shop will deal with that annoying stuff for you. Even expensive bikes break, and it’s good to have someone in your corner when things go awry.
Hopefully we’ve convinced you by now that it’s worth going to a real bike shop to get your bike. Now for the bad news: Not all bike shops are created equal, and it’s up to you to find a good one you can trust. Yelp and advice from friends can help, but ultimately you’re going to want to shop around a bit to see for yourself. Especially if you find that you have an affinity for a bike, but its gears weren’t working well on a test ride from a particular shop.
You want a shop that will take care of your needs throughout the shopping process and offer you services even after you’ve made the purchase. Make sure the salesperson takes the time to quickly look at you on the bike to make sure your saddle height is roughly correct. And make sure the bike is properly set up when you’re test-riding it; if the shop is sending you out on a bike with rubbing brakes or loose bars, this reflects badly on how well they will service your bike in the future. It’s also worth asking them to adjust the bike before you make a final decision. If they fail on any of those accounts, it’s probably a good idea to look elsewhere.
Shopping for a kid’s bike? You’ll also want to do that in person, for the same reasons listed above. There are some useful tips for getting the size, weight, and features right for every age group from preschool through 12 years here.
What about the other bikes I tested? Well, as I stated earlier, none of them are really bad. In fact, if you can get them for significantly cheaper than the Trek or Specialized, they might even be the better buy. But I had my reasons for not choosing them.
The Cannondale Quick 6 is arguably the coolest-looking bike in the mix but it doesn’t have the alloy pedals or flat-resistant tires of the Trek 7.2 FX. In 2014, this was actually a less-expensive model than the FX, and if this bike happened to be on sale it might be the one model that could draw my interest away from the Trek. But now that Trek made its 2015 updates, at $520 the Cannondale is now $30 more expensive (at least MSRP-wise).
The Giant Escape 2 is a very popular bike, but I’m not sure why. Giant decided to go with an aluminum fork on this bike. It’s lighter but does much less than the steel forks found on the other bikes listed here to dampen road shock and vibration. It also doesn’t have the flat-resistant tires of the Trek.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Kona Dew has a kind of silly-looking narrow-legged steel fork that comes off as an unfortunate afterthought when juxtaposed with its wider-tubed aluminum frame. Which is weird because Kona generally gets it right aesthetically. Looks aside, at $525, the Trek remains a better value.
The Raleigh Cadent FTO was available when we wrote our original hybrid guide last year, but as of now it seems to have been discontinued or renamed according to one dealer, as they no longer have it in stock and it isn’t on order. I still can’t recommend it. The FTO has sub-par plastic pedals, an aluminum fork, and tires that aren’t extra resistant to punctures.
As for bikes I didn’t test, let’s just say there were a lot. But I had a good reason for skipping each one.
The Motobecane Cafe Latte is only available for purchase online, via Bikes Direct. Aside from the endless problems with this mentioned earlier, you get a lot of bike for your money. Of course you then have to have it assembled at a bike shop, tuned at a bike shop after it breaks in, and Bikes Direct won’t be easy to deal with when it comes to warranty issues. It’s not like sending back your iPhone.
Schwinn has a similar brand image issue as Raleigh and the Sporterra 3 is their version of this bike. They have effectively become synonymous with crap. This an ugly bike with a horrible name from a less-than-reputable manufacturer. They are now owned by the company that produces Pacific Bicycles—the only brand that gives Huffy a run for its money in the race to the bottom of the bicycle food chain. The Sporterra also seems to have vanished from the internet, which could mean it’s being discontinued.
The Diamondback Insight 2 is one of the only bikes in this list available on Amazon. As previously mentioned, buying bikes online is not a great idea for so many reasons. It is cheap and you will get slightly nicer components at the same price point as the Trek or Specialized, but you’ll pay for it later. This bike is also becoming consistently unavailable.
What about boutique brands?
Boutique brands make good bikes, and if you’ve fallen in love with a bike from one of these companies, by all means buy it. But like we said, at this price point, in this category of bike, pretty much everything is the same. If the hybrid you buy costs a little more, you’re paying strictly for aesthetics. You’re not getting a better bike.
Care and maintenance
Hybrid bicycles require the same maintenance as any other bicycles—lube the chain (but not excessively) and fill up the tires to the recommended pressure weekly (check out our guide on bike pumps). Nearly all bike shops have free air either in the form of a compressor or a floor pump with a gauge. Gas station compressors are set very high (and they charge you money), which can result in blowing the tire right off the rim with a terrifying gunshot-like sound. And remember, bikes like to be stored in dry places whenever possible. I’d advise getting your bike tuned annually. If you do find that you’re riding regularly, it is a good idea to grab a small bottle of lube and a floor pump.
Pro tip: If you live in a part of the country where there is a winter, take your bike to the shop in the middle of winter. You’ll beat the spring rush when everyone decides on the first gorgeous day that they all need their bikes NOW! A bored winter mechanic will spend much more time on your bike than a stressed-out summer one. Especially one who is rewarded with craft beer or homemade cookies. Oh, and make sure you get a good lock and learn how to use it.
What to look forward to
The biggest forward trend in the hybrid category revolves around making disc brakes available on lower-end models of bikes, which you may or may not need. Bike sensors, an accessory you can buy and basically “plug into” your bike (both Trek and Giant have this capability) are also getting slight upgrades—several of them are now compatible with a broader range of devices (like your smartphone) instead of only with a dedicated bike computer.
But the real upheaval is happening in the world of urban utility bikes. From the Bike Design Project emerged a bike called the Denny, which has automatic shifting, a built-in front rack, handlebars that transform into a bike lock, a completely redesigned fender, turn signals and other integrated lighting, and a belt drive instead of the traditional chain. And it’s no longer simply a concept bike, as Fuji will be manufacturing them sometime in the near future.
There are designs on Kickstarter with integrated GPS systems. Priority Bikes, a company operating out of New York, has focused on stripping down the urban commuter to basics without making it so minimal it can’t be used by the average rider. Even Trek knows which way the wind is blowing, and manufactures the Lync, a utility bike that moves in a similar direction with battery-powered features, such as lights, built right into the bike.
This is a category of bicycle that’s just beginning to define itself, and as such a lot of these new ideas have yet to be tried and tested. Carbon belt drives are the exception, and every bike we just mentioned, with the exception of the Lync, features one of these.
They have some advantages for commuters. They’re durable and clean, and you don’t have to lube or otherwise maintain them like a chain. The disadvantage is that they can only be used with single-speed bikes or internal hubs, so they can’t be used with a wide range of gears. That can make getting up and down hills significantly more difficult. But overall, the general consensus is that belt drives have been around long enough and are really effective at what they do, and so it’s technology that’s here to stay.
Wrapping it up
For the second year in a row, we like the Trek 7.2 FX most because it looks and feels good and it has a couple features that the competition doesn’t have. And now that the cost has dropped on the 2015 model, it’s an even more viable option than the closest competition. Talk to your local bike retailer, shop around, and don’t hesitate to have them tweak a bike you like.
Originally published: April 3, 2015