Transforming a Hybrid Into an MTB

Goal: Make a hybrid bike suitable for the trail, or at least XC, riding.

Differences Between MTBs and Hybrid Bikes

1. Head Tube Angle

The head tube angle (HTA) is the angle formed by the bicycle’s head tube and the ground. A slacker head tube angle positions the front wheel further in front of the bike and makes it easier to overcome irregularities. For that reason, modern MTBs have much slacker HTAs than retro models.

A slacker head tube angle has three main downsides:

  • Drag

A slacker head tube angle makes the back of the rider more upright/vertical and reduces the aerodynamic properties of the bike.

  • Decreased maneuverability at slow speeds
  • Extra weight on the rear wheel (makes climbing harder)

Due to the shortcomings above, hybrid bikes have much steeper head tube angles than trail and even some XC bikes.

The steeper head tube angle of a hybrid makes the bike a lot less adequate on a trail than a dedicated MTB. You may be able to ride on the same terrain, but your speed will have to be much lower, or else you risk going over the handlebars.

Theoretically, it’s possible to slacken the head tube angle of a hybrid by installing a fork with more travel. However, the frames of hybrids are not the strongest and the head tube of the bike could crack or even break completely. Additionally, the extra travel will throw the rest of the bike’s geometry off.

The table below compares the HTAs of popular MTBs and hybrids:

Calibre Line 2964.9°Cube Hyde Pro71°
Cannondale Habit 568°Cannondale Quick 471°
Trek Fuel EX 8 XT65°Trek FX 270.5°
Specialized Epic Comp67.5°Ribble Hybrid AL71°
Santa Cruz Chameleon65°Vitus Mach 3 VRX71°
Vitus Sentier 29 VRX66.5°Specialized Sirrus 2.070°
Orange P7 R 2965°Orbea Vector 1571°

The data reveals that hybrids have 4-5° steeper head tube angles. This is a significant difference.

2. Suspension

Modern trail bikes have dual suspension with lots of travel. The purpose of the suspension isn’t just to make the ride more comfortable but to increase traction too.

When a wheel meets an irregularity (e.g., a rock), the suspension compresses. As a result, the tire remains in contact with the ground, and the bike keeps its traction. Without the suspension, the wheel would jump around. If the wheel is in the air, then it doesn’t have traction. Consequently, the rider can not ride as fast without risking a fall.

The vast majority of hybrids have only a front suspension fork with very little travel. Not only that but the front forks are usually as entry-level as it gets and don’t work as smoothly as needed. Hence why some people argue that a hybrid would benefit from a rigid fork as the current ones are simply adding weight and increasing the maintenance chores without giving much in return.

The absence of a rear shock further decreases the off-road capabilities of the hybrid and makes it illogical to even compare a hybrid to a legit trail bike.

4. Brakes

Many hybrids come with V-brakes. While V-brakes are pretty decent, especially in dry weather, they can’t match the performance of disc brakes.

Rim brakes operate by grabbing the rim. Since the rim is fairly large and close to the tire, it gets contaminated and wet. The first few wheel rotations during braking are cleaning the rim. Only then, the brake shoes can fully catch the rim.

In different, disc brakes operate by grabbing a set of rotors which are smaller and further away from the tire. Also, the rotors have cutouts which guide water out. Thus, disc brakes usually perform in wet weather almost as well as they do in dry conditions.

The disc brakes on MTBs make it possible to cover harsher terrain. Without them, the rider wouldn’t be able to take as many risks and shortcuts.

5. Stem

MTBs use wide handlebars and short stems because that combination makes it easier to cover technical terrain. Meanwhile, hybrid bikes rely on longer stems and narrower handlebars.

A longer stem makes the steering slower and is therefore beneficial when riding at higher speeds. Hence why road bikes have long stems too. However, longer stems make it more difficult to ride on technical terrain.

Of course, the stem and handlebars are fairly easy to replace.

6. Tires

Hybrids are designed primarily for paved roads and slight off-road. The tires reflect that and are usually under the semi-slick category. Those tire models are great for riding in the city thanks to the lower rolling resistance and the increased contact patch but underperform off-road because the thread pattern isn’t aggressive enough to dig into the ground to find traction.

7. Drivetrain

At the moment, MTBs are having 1x and sometimes 2x drivetrains. Meanwhile, hybrids often come with 3x drivetrains. 3x drivetrains are cheaper and offer more top speed.

That said, the extra chainrings aren’t necessarily a major disadvantage. The only notable downsides are the additional weight (the difference is negligible) and the reduced ground clearance (higher chances to catch an object with the large chainring).

8. Strength

MTB frames are often made of stronger aluminum (e.g., 70705 alloy) or carbon and have additional reinforcements (e.g., head tube gussets). Consequently, a hybrid frame is more likely to crack when the bike is used on legit MTB terrain.

That said, the geometry of the frame as well as the lack of suspension will act as a “bottleneck” preventing the rider from taking huge risks and will therefore reduce the chances of frame damage due to super aggressive riding.

9. No Dropper Post

Modern MTBs have a seat post that can be moved up or down via a command button on the handlebars. Dropper posts allow riders to dynamically move from technical riding (lower seat post) to pedaling (seat post at regular height).

Hybrids come with standard rigid seat posts. Of course, a dropper seat post can be installed, but the upgrade isn’t cheap and when you add the price of the additional components needed to get a hybrid close to an MTB, one may conclude that it’s better to go for entry-level or a second-hand MTB.

Final Thoughts

A hybrid cannot become a full-blown MTB due to its geometry and the lack of adequate MTB components. However, if the geometry of the hybrid is fairly aggressive and the frame is decent, it can become an acceptable machine for gravel and lighter cross-country terrain.

The recommended upgrades for the transition are:

  • New fork of a better quality. The travel of the fork, however, shouldn’t exceed the limits of the head tube.
  • Wider, off-road tires
  • Disc brakes (if the bike doesn’t have them already)
  • Shorter stem + wider handlebars

Leave a Reply