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Hybrid vs. Road Bike Riding Position
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Hybrid BikeHybrid bikes are great for short casual rides (perhaps 10-20 miles) however they're not the best choice when you're going longer distances.  That's when a road bike would be better.  The most important difference between hybrids and road bikes is your riding position - how you're seated on the bike and how you generate power when pedaling.

So what exactly is the difference between the riding positions on a hybrid bike vs. a road bike, and why does it matter? This can best be explained by performing a simulation which you can do at home.

To simulate the riding position on a hybrid bike, have a seat at your dining room table. Keep your back straight, put your arms out straight ahead, make a fist with both hands and rest your arms on the table. Now press down against the floor with each foot; alternating left and right. Here’s what you should notice. Your legs are doing all of the work; you’re not able to generate a lot of pressure against the floor; and all of your body weight is on your bottom.

On a hybrid bike the majority of your body weight is concentrated on the seat and your hands are mostly steering. Your legs are pedaling however they’re not receiving any assistance from the rest of your upper body.

Now let’s perform a simulation that more closely resembles road bike riding position. What you’ll do is get into a runner’s stance - just as if you’re about to run a 100 yard dash. Get down on the floor and put two hands on the ground, one knee up to your chest, and the other leg extended behind you. Now press your extended leg against the floor, and alternate leg positions between extended and knee to the chest, left/right. You should notice how your entire upper-body is providing force all the way down to your foot and you’re able to press much harder than in the seated hybrid position at the table.

On any bike there are three "contact points” between you and the bike –

  1. Your feet on the pedals
  2. Your hands on the handlebars
  3. Your bottom on the seat

Road BikeOn a properly fitted road bike your body weight should be evenly distributed between the three contact points – feet, hands and bottom. Therefore excess pressure is relieved from any one of the three contact points, as you'll experience with the seat on a hybrid.  There are lots of other benefits to this riding position. Leaning forward puts you in more of a "runner’s stance” and you’ll be able to generate more pressure on the pedals from your entire body.  As you’re riding, you can shift your body weight from seat (leaning back), to handlebars (leaning forward) to pedals (standing) if you become sore or fatigued.

Another important point to consider is the handlebar position on hybrids vs. road bikes. Most inexperienced cyclists seem to think that the handlebar position on a hybrid bike is more natural and relaxed as compared to the "rams horn” design of road bikes. Actually, it’s just the opposite. Your hands and arms will become fatigued much sooner on a hybrid. Here’s why.

Stand up straight with your arms at your side and relax all muscles. Your thumbs should be facing forward and your palms will be against your body. Now raise your arms 90 degrees, as if you’re holding ski poles. You’ll notice that your thumbs are on top and your pinkie is closest to the floor. This is your body’s natural position when your arms are extended out in front of you. Next, turn your wrists 90 degrees, so that they’re in the position of hybrid handlebars (thumbs facing each other). When you just turned your thumbs together to mimic the position of hybrid handlebars you should notice something. The ski pole position was much more relaxed and natural, and the hybrid position requires extra effort to simulate. Try holding each position for 10 minutes and you’ll begin to feel strain on your wrists from the hybrid position. There’s no strain when holding the ski pole position of a road bike.

There’s another bonus to the road bike rams horn handlebar design. There are three different positions which you can hold the handlebars. Most often you’ll see riders holding the top of the brake hoods and their hands will be in the ski pole position demonstrated above. This is the most relaxed and natural position for your hands. You can also hold the handlebars horizontally, the same as a hybrid bike, to vary your riding position. The third option is to lean forward and grab the handlebars on the curved portion (the drop) to generate additional power from a lower riding position.

There’s one more thing to consider when evaluating the riding position on a road bike. Manufacturers make bike frames with different geometry, which will ultimately determine your riding position. An aggressive or racing frame will require that you stretch farther forward. The more forward that you’re leaning, the more power you can generate. This is great for an experienced cyclist looking to go as fast as possible. For recreational cyclists (most of us) you’ll probably want to consider an "endurance" frame that puts you in more of a relaxed or upright riding position.  Endurance frames are generally the better choice for most cyclists, as they're sort of a "compromise" between hybrids and racing road bikes.

When you compare the photo of the hybrid bike above, to the road bike below, you'll notice something else.  The handlebars on the hybrid are several inches higher than the seat; whereas on the road bike, the handlebars and seat are very close to the same height from the ground.  The relationship of your seat height to handlebar height is what will determine whether you're riding an aggressive (racing) or relaxed (endurance) frame.  Seat height above handlebars = aggressive; seat height below handlebars = relaxed.

You’ll want to head to your local bike shop to test different frame setups, to see what works best for you and your style of riding.

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Linda B. KolkoLinda is the C Ride Coordinator for MD & DC.