gravel bike path in the mountains

Today’s question is from a guy who has been riding an old mountain bike and is now choosing between a cyclocross bike and a hybrid for rail trails and road riding. I’ll provide information about cyclocross bikes, hybrids, touring bikes, and “all road” bikes (i.e. gravel bikes) that might be good options.

Do I Need a Cyclocross Bike or a Hybrid for Riding Road and Rail Trails?

Coach Levi, I need your help. I’m 53 years old and began riding a mountain bike (Trek 3700) on rail trails 4 years ago. A typical ride is 20 – 25 miles per ride. Last summer I rode from Cumberland to DC on the C&O Tow Path. My friends on hybrid bikes seemed to have an easier time of it than me. I am planning to do the Great Allegheny Passage in May. I also plan to do some modest road riding. Knowing this information, do you recommend a hybrid bike or a cyclocross bike. My budget is $1,200+.

Thanks Coach!
Rail Riding Rick

Hi Rick,

I’ve ridden parts of the Great Allegheny Passage myself. That’s some fun riding. But you’ll probably have more fun if you’re riding a bike that’s lighter and faster than your mountain bike.

It sounds like you’ll be dealing with paved roads, paved bike paths, and some crushed gravel/limestone paths. Potentially some dirt road sections as well. All those surfaces are pretty smooth, and can be ridden with a regular road bike if you wish. But if you’re not planning to race on the road, there are better options suited to this particular type of riding. Something with slightly wider tires and a more comfortable riding position would be better.

Now more than ever, there are so many bikes that are perfect for long rides and tours where you’ll encounter a variety of road conditions. Consider these options:

A Cyclo-Cross Bike Is Not Ideal

At one point (probably 10-15 years ago now), if you needed something in between a road bike and a mountain bike, you’d have to get a cyclo-cross bike. Those allowed you to ride dirt roads much faster than you would on a mountain bike, and were sturdier than a road bike.

The downside was that these were still racing bikes. And they were meant for short races – 60 minutes or less – on specifically prepared terrain that lacked major hill climbs. They had aggressive geometry, narrow gear ranges, and might even lack water bottle mounts! (Let alone mounts for a rear rack.)

You probably won’t encounter super steep climbs on the rail trails, but since you live in the Allegheny Mountains, you certainly have some hills out there on the road. This means you’ll want a good range of gears – low enough gears for comfortable climbing, and high gears you can actually pedal on the descents without spinning out.

Skip the cyclo-cross bike. Cyclocross bikes aren’t that great in hilly terrain, and while the “off road” potential is nice on rail trails, it is not necessary. You don’t need mud tires, just something on the wider side, perhaps 700×32 or 700×38. And you might not like the typical racing geometry found on a cyclocross frame.

A Hybrid Is a Good Option

A hybrid (literally a “hybrid” between a road and mountain bike) is ideal for riding where you don’t encounter extreme terrain that requires a mountain bike. It’s sort of the “jack of all trades” of the bike world.

Riding on dirt roads or crushed gravel paths? The wide tires can handle that, and the upright geometry provides stability and confidence.

Riding on pavement? It’s still reasonably quick.

Climbing hills? Virtually all hybrids will offer a wide range of gears, with low gears for climbing and high gears for descending.

Riding day after day? Hybrids are usually comfortable enough that you can ride multiple days in a row.

Consider the Trek FX Sport 4, which retails at $1200. It comes with rack & fender mounts, Tubeless Ready rims, puncture-resistant tires, and hydraulic disc brakes. The 700x32c tire size is great for a mix of pavement and well-maintained rail trails.

You may prefer a bike with a drop handlebar for more hand positions on your long rides, so consider that, too, since a lot of hybrids come with flat bars. However, some people prefer a flat bar like you are used to. I think the flat bar would be just fine for your 20-25 mile rides – and then some.

Best Choice: An “All Road” or Gravel Bike

What if you could get the versatility of a hybrid while still maintaining the ability to go really fast? That’s what gravel bikes are for! They’re sort of like cyclocross bikes but better suited to long rides and tours on gravel paths and dirt roads.

This type of bike has really taken off in recent years. Now, in 2019, just about every manufacturer offers one. Trek and Specialized, for example, offer complete lines of gravel bikes with multiple models for both men and women.

A good choice is the Trek Checkpoint AL 3, which retails right at $1200. It offers everything you need in a gravel bike, like a lightweight aluminum frame, Shimano drivetrain, thru axles, Tubeless Ready wheels, rack and fender mounts, and disc brakes for better braking power in all weather conditions.

It comes stock with 700x32c tires, which are great for general use, but you may want wider tires if most of your riding will be off pavement, or if you’re carrying stuff on your rack. Fortunately, the claimed max tire width is 38c Bontrager tires – the ideal all-purpose tire width.

You may also want to consider the Cannondale Topstone, starting at $1,050. Or perhaps the Surly Disc Trucker, a $1,550 long-distance touring bike. And don’t forget the Specialized Diverge lineup, which has some really fancy options if you want to spend more.

Those are all great bikes for riding pavement, dirt roads, rail trails, crushed gravel, crushed limestone, etc.

You can always change your tires for different surfaces!

We’ve been mostly talking about the best bike for riding rail trails, but don’t forget – we can also discuss the best bike tires for rail trails!

Both of the bikes I’ve mentioned as examples come with 700×32 tires. If you want more comfort and a better ride on rougher surfaces – I’ve heard the C&O Tow Path gets a little rough – you could swap in some 700×38 tires. If you need more of a tread pattern to handle rougher surfaces, you can find that, too.

If you’re shopping for tires, I can highly recommend the Schwalbe Marathon tires. The Schwalbe Marathon Plus bike tire comes in many sizes, from 700×25 up to 700×38. It’s a puncture-resistant tire with excellent sidewall life. The sidewalls even have a reflective stripe for increased visibility! You can find it at REI. For more aggressive tread, consider the Schwalbe Marathon Mondial in a 700×40 size, available online at Amazon.

Another big tire with a great tread pattern is the Clement Cycling X’PLOR. Lots of little knobs provide traction in dirt and gravel while maintaining low rolling resistance on smooth roads. Buy on Amazon.

Bottom Line: Take It for a Test Ride

I think you’ll be very happy with either a hybrid or a gravel bike (or an “all road” bike or an adventure bike or whatever they happen to be calling them). Either type of bike will be faster and more comfortable than your Trek 3700 mountain bike.

Whatever you do, test ride the bike first. That’s the only way to know if the little nuances of the bike agree with you! There is no “best bike” unless it fits you.

Enjoy the Great Allegheny Passage!

This article was originally published on May 7, 2011. It was updated and re-published on May 18, 2019.

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6 Comments
  1. The Surly Long Haul Trucker with 28mm tires on works great on the C & O Canal and the Great Allegheny Passage. Both trails are crushed gravel, pack dirt or something similiar. The trucker has a long wheel base which makes it very stable in those conditions. The 28mm tires provides easy rolling on pavement.

  2. @Keith

    Yeah, that Surly looks like a pretty awesome touring bike!

  3. Would a Breezer Uptown bike be good for 25 mile rail-trail rides?

    • @Margo

      Yes indeed, the Breezer Uptown looks like it would work fine. It wouldn’t be the fastest bike, but it would be comfortable and dependable.

  4. I see some trails referred to as gravel. Sometimes crushed gravel. Sometimes crushed limestone. What’s the difference between crushed gravel and crushed limestone?

    • @James

      I see that too. It’s a good question.

      You might need to ask a civil engineer to get a detailed answer. But I think a lot of people use those terms interchangeably.

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