Flat-bar road bikes are the opposite of go-anywhere multi-use hybrids. They're designed, like their drop-bar cousins, to be quick and efficient on roads only. They're not for unsurfaced tracks. Tyres are narrower, gears higher. If you want the zippiness of a road bike without a drop handlebar, this could be just the bike you're looking for.
Despite its name, a flat-bar road bike isn't simply a road bike with a flat handlebar. It's longer in the tube than an equivalent drop-bar bike. That's because you reach past the end of the stem when you grip a drop handlebar; on a flat bar, you don't. If the frame weren't longer, you would sit up more. This longer frame is good news for commuting: your feet are less likely to hit the front wheel on tight turns, especially if you use mudguards or you ride a small frame size.
For urban riding, a flat bar has more pros than cons. The wider, transverse grip gives you lots of steering leverage for easy control. Brake and gear levers are right by your hands; you don't need to reach for them. And there's no head-down, on-the-drops riding position, so you won't find yourself staring at your own front wheel when a car has braked just in front of you…
There are disadvantages too. Most flat bars offer a single hand position that puts pressure on ulnar and median nerves, leading to numb or tingling fingers, and a skinny, high-pressure front tyre exacerbates this. So be prepared to invest in ergonomic grips and/or bar ends if your flat-bar road bike doesn't come with them. The riding position isn't as aerodynamic either, so head winds and long-distance rides can be more of a trial.
Flat-bar road bikes typically use the same gears as road bikes, albeit with different levers. That means higher gears than other hybrids, with a 50-34 compact double chainset driving a closer-ratio cassette. Cassettes of 12-25 teeth used to be common, but now that wider ratios are becoming popular on road bikes, 11-28 or 11-30 is readily available. If you want lower gears still, to make hills and load-hauling easier, look for a triple chainset with a 30-tooth inner ring and/or a bigger cassette; 11-36 is possible if the manufacturer specifies a mountain bike rear derailleur.
You might expect flat-bar road bikes to have sidepull calliper brakes like road bikes. Some do. But disc brakes (both mechanical and hydraulic), V-brakes, and cantilever brakes are also used. If the bike has sidepull brakes, look for longer-reach callipers (57mm drop) rather than short-reach ones (49mm). The extra length gives room to fit 25mm or 28mm tyres and mudguards safely. Brake models to look for include: Shimano R450, R451, and R650; Tektro R317, R538, R539, and R737; and Miche Performance. The other kinds of brakes have much more clearance around the tyre, so fitting mudguards or fatter tyres shouldn't be a problem. Hydraulic discs offer the most reliable performance.
The more you spend on a flat-bar road bike, the skinnier and racier the tyres and wheels will be. There's a trade off between speed and durability. If you're a light rider on good roads, don't worry about 23mm tyres and 28 spoke wheels. If you're bigger or will encounter less well-surfaced roads, then 25mm or 28mm tyres will offer more comfort and more protection from pinch-punctures. The strength of the wheels will depend on how well they're built and not just the number of spokes. But all other things being equal, more spokes means a stronger wheel. Want a rule of thumb? What's your waist size in inches? Subtract four from that and that's about the minimum number of spokes you want in the more weight-bearing rear wheel to avoid breaking them. Big blokes take note.
The frame of virtually every flat-bar road bike under £1000 will be aluminium, although the fork might be steel (if it's cheap) or carbon fibre (if it's expensive). Make sure the frame has the fittings you want, as you'll be adding any accessories such as mudguards and a rear rack yourself.
Here's a few of the flat-bar road bikes on the market.
Giant Rapid 4
Giant's Rapid (men's) and Dash (women's) ranges are classic-looking flat-bar road bikes with sidepull brakes. These are deeper-drop Tektro R359 callipers, which is good, although a bit more length in the fork and seatstays would maximise the room underneath them. Gearing is Shimano's entry-level 8-speed 2400 road groupset, with a 30/28 bottom gear thanks to a triple chainset. The Rapid 4 comes with bar ends, which you'll appreciate more the further you ride. Giant-branded wheels (28 rear, 24 front spokes) are shod with 25mm training tyres.
Like the similarly numbered Giant, Eastway's all-aluminium 4.0 is their entry-level model. It's equipped with 10-speed Sram X5 components. That's a mountain bike groupset, so even though the cassette is an 11-28, you could simply swap this for an 11-36 to gain more easy gears than its 50-34 compact double chainset currently offers; you'll probably need a new, longer chain. The brakes are Avid BB5 mechanical discs, the rear mounted inboard so it won't interfere with a rear rack. Tyres are 25mm Kendas, but there's scope to fit wider ones.
Scott Metrix 20 Solution
'Solution' means 'a solution for women': the fit of the bike is designed to be female friendly, with a shorter, more upright reach. A carbon-legged fork saves weight and should slightly reduce road buzz compared to aluminium. Gearing is 'only' 9-speed Shimano Sora, with a 50-34 compact double and an 11-30 cassette, so bottom gear could be lower. Since the brakes are Tektro RX3 mini-Vs, there's more room above the generously-wide 28mm Continental Ultra Sport II tyres to fit mudguards. The wheels should survive the daily grind better, as they have 32 spokes apiece.
Cheap doesn’t have to mean nasty. Choose wisely and you can buy a decent new commuter bike for £250 or less.
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