I’ve had a solid hybrid with some MTB modifications for many years, but I’ve wondered if it’s time to get myself a proper mountain bike. Many people interested in starting cycling are familiar with mountain bikes but might not know what makes a hybrid different and which bike is better.
Mountain bikes have a more durable frame, with steeper angles, dual suspension, and thicker tires with knobbier trad than a hybrid. Hybrids are lighter and can be modified to carry racks and fenders. Hybrids are good urban commuter bikes, while MTBs handle off-road conditions better.
Mountain bikes and hybrids share several similarities, but they are also different enough that it’s not a question of which is better or worse but which is right for what you plan to do. A hybrid makes a great all-rounder bike, while an MTB is for trails. Let’s look at what hybrids and MTBS offer a rider.
How are a Mountain Bike and a Hybrid Different?
At first glance, you’ll probably easily spot that a mountain bike and a hybrid are different bike styles. While a hybrid usually doesn’t have the sleek look of a road bike designed for racing, it’s still not quite as rugged as its mountain bike counterpart.
I like to think of hybrids as the workhorse of bikes. Hybrids combine elements of road and mountain bikes to make a bike that handles flattish road commutes well, with the ability to take on packed-ground trails and steep hills where necessary.
A good hybrid is also usually quite customizable — so in my case, my 7-speed hybrid is fairly rugged with wider, knobbier tires than most standard hybrids, has disc brakes, and is good for multi-terrain use. I added an MTX Quick Track cargo rack and bag because this would be my commuter bike.
While you can get some entry-level MTBs that allow you to attach racks, they’re not available on higher-spec bikes as there is no need for panniers while riding dirt tracks.
So why would I want a mountain bike now? Let’s look at what makes hybrids and mountain bikes so different from each other.
Just one look at the two will immediately show a difference. A hybrid bike frame is closer to a road bike because it is not expected to take on extreme conditions like mountain bikes. Hybrids have thinner, lighter frames than mountain bikes.
Mountain bikes are designed with more extreme angles to their frame, and bike reviews will often list a series of measurements to help you decide if the bike is right for your purpose.
With hybrids, most people don’t think too much about these aspects, but when it comes to choosing an MTB, they can be very important. The steeper angles of MTBs shift the rider’s center of gravity, which helps with inclines and can make it more efficient to pedal and maneuver your bike.
The head angle gets a lot of attention because the steeper the head angle, the better handling you’ll have, but with the downside, you’ll lose stability at speed.
Suspension requirement is a big difference between the two types of bikes. Hybrids are mainly used on urban routes with light off-road work, whereas your mountain bike will handle some pretty varied surface extremes.
A mountain bike needs sturdy suspension that can handle big drops, and their heavy suspension also helps with control. They will also have both front and back suspension systems.
Hybrid bikes also often come with front suspension, but it’s usually pretty basic and doesn’t do as great a job as MTB suspension, though it might help for a smoother road ride and absorb some minor bumps.
The suspension designs of mountain bikes will add to the frame weight, which is a consideration if you know you’ll be carrying your bike up and down stairs, for example. The added weight is one of the reasons your average hybrid will only have a front fork suspension.
The standard brakes on most hybrids used to be rim brakes or V-brakes – they’re the ones that clamp down on your wheel with the use of friction pads. They’re easy to maintain and replace, are fairly inexpensive, and don’t add much weight to your bike, making them a popular choice for most road bikes.
The brake pads need to be replaced as they get worn down and can be less effective in the wet. While powerful, they don’t have the stopping power a mountain bike needs.
Hybrids are usually short commutes, don’t need disk brakes, and sometimes use rim brakes, while MTB have disk brakes. My hybrid has front and rear disc brakes, and many hybrids now come standard with disc brakes.
Mountain bikes usually use either mechanical or hydraulic disc brakes. Hydraulics offer much better control and power but can be harder to fix and maintain. Because they’re easier to install and adjustment is usually easier, most MTBS will have mechanical disc brakes.
Disc brakes offer better strength and are more effective across all kinds of terrains, but they also have a longer stopping time, and the discs can overheat.
Mountain bikes have to deal with more variety in terrain, from flats to steep hills, and have a wide range of gears to help tackle different inclines. You use gears to multiply the force of your pedal push, which is why they’re so important in mountain bikes.
Your low gear settings will be the ones you use for climbing inclines, while your high gear setting will help prevent spinning out on declines. All mountain bikes will have a rear cassette (the cogs) and rear derailleur, while some will also have a front derailleur.
Hybrids usually use derailleur gears, which use mechanisms that shift the bike chain around the sprockets on your rear wheel. Depending on the make, you can get bikes with internal gear hubs requiring less maintenance and offering greater reliability.
Mountain bikes deal with a greater range of terrain types from wet and dry, muddy, gravel, and added obstacles on the track, so their tires are usually wider and thicker, with a knobby tread. You can get MTB tires from narrower cross-country tires to fat tires for extreme conditions.
A cross-country (XC) tire’s average width is 1.6-2.2 inches, while fatter tires for endurance, trial, and downhill racing are usually 2.3-3 inches.
The tread (how knobby or smooth the tire is) will also depend on the conditions you plan to use the bike. Knobbier tires will give a much better grip but lose out on speed. The smoother tires are better for hard-packed trails, while larger knobs will give downhill racers better tractions.
The tire tread pattern also plays an important role, depending on whether you ride mainly on muddy or rocky roads.
For example, you’ll want your tread with larger knobs on the outside if your trails are mainly stony and gravelly, or the large knobs in the center if you’re usually hitting fresh mud.
Bigger, thicker tires can slow you down, so hybrid bikes intended mainly for road use will have thinner tires and slicker treads to increase speed.
Fenders and Cargo Racks
Hybrid bikes are often used for commuting, so many come equipped as standard with fenders and cargo racks. The fenders help keep mud splashes from your clothes, while the cargo racks enable you to add panniers and carry extra luggage.
Only beginner-level mountain bikes will usually have a way to fit a cargo rack on, as they are unnecessary and would get in the way of biking on trails.
Mountain bikes and hybrids usually use wide, flat-bar handlebars, though some hybrids will have the standard dropped handlebars of road bikes.
The wider flat grip gives better stability over rough terrain, offering more control to the rider. Most hybrids come with flat grips, but you can change to drop handlebars if you feel more comfortable with them. However, it’s a complicated process involving changing multiple parts.
Which Is Better – Mountain Bike or Hybrid?
From the above, you can see that it’s not about better, but which is better for what you want to do. If you’re looking for a balanced bike to take you commuting through the work week and some easy trails on the weekends, then a hybrid is a solid bike choice.
You can customize your hybrid to suit your seat, grip, brake preferences, and other details. It will give you decent speed on roads while still being able to handle a packed-dirt pathway. If you’re often carrying cargo around, stick with a hybrid.
I use my bike for small shopping trips and commuting, and I can pack a fair amount of groceries in my panniers and still have good weight distribution and remain stable.
On weekends I can go for longer rides in the countryside and pack myself lunch, a soda, and an extra jacket. My Norco handles the packed dirt trails and the roads with equal ease.
Alternatively, if you prefer a bike for the thrill of off-road racing, downhill acing, or covering much rougher terrain than a dirt road, then a mountain bike is a far better option. You’re not going to enjoy the bumps and jolts and rough ground on a bike like a hybrid without adequate suspension
Are Hybrid Bikes Good For Trails?
The answer to this is determined by what you mean by trails. I often take my bike out for day rides on the hiking trails near me, and they have stretches of paved pathways and many sections that are packed dirt (and, thanks to my rainy climate, essentially mud.)
You can improve your hybrid’s ability to go on off-road by swapping out your tires for a set that will work better in the conditions you normally ride in. Instead of using a slicker commuter tire, look for a wider tire (as long as it fits your rim and has clearance, meaning it can move freely).
A good width of the tire for a bike you’re using on cross-country and some trails will be around 2.25 inches. Remember that the fatter tires will also help absorb shock from gravel and bumps and make your ride smoother and more comfortable.
The upright seating position of a hybrid will also help since it will make you more stable than if you were trying to ride a trial with a road bike with its hunched forward seating position.
On the other hand, a hybrid will not be great if the trails you’re riding on have steep downhills or technical courses with inclines, very rough ground, and drops.
Is a Hybrid Bike Worth It?
A hybrid bike is worth it if you enjoy using it, get the most out of it, and it suits your lifestyle. Ultimately, I decided to stick with my hybrid because I don’t do enough heavy trail riding to justify a new bike.
The elements that made me think about getting a mountain bike were the steep hills I have on several of my routes and the state of the dirt paths during spring and autumn. I decided I still used the bike mainly for commuting and light groceries, so the panniers were necessary.
I plan to upgrade my tires to ones with a slightly different tread pattern to improve my grip in the mud. My usual circuit is thirty miles, with a good portion of that on paved bicycle paths and roads, so a bike designed for more extreme conditions isn’t necessary.
Mountain bikes can also end up quite heavy because they need to be so strong and durable, and I have quite a few sections where I need to carry my bike up and down steps, so for me, the lighter hybris was far more practical.
Also, a decent hybrid bike will usually be cheaper than a decent mountain bike. If you look for exactly what you need, you can customize a decent hybrid to suit your specifications and still have a comfortable ride without spending a fortune.
Hybrids share a lot in common with mountain bikes, including the upright seating position, the flat grip handles, the wider tires, and the durability. A mountain bike is designed for much more extreme terrain and has better shock absorption, multiple gears, and disc brakes.
A hybrid is a workhorse bike that gives you better speed on a paved road than a mountain bike but will offer more stability, comfort, and endurance than a road bike. They are the ideal commuter bike and excellent for fun, longer rides where speed is not the issue.