Best Bikes for the GAP Trail and C&O Canal Towpath

What is the Best Bike?

If you have never biked the GAP before, one central question probably comes to mind: what kind of bike is best? The easy answer is: the one you have. But if you are shopping for a new bike to kick off your trip in style, there are some considerations to keep in mind that will help make your trip easier and more comfortable.

Hybrid or Comfort bike

This is the typical bike that, if you walked into a bike shop and told the salesperson you were going to bike the GAP, you’d likely end up with. It’s called a “hybrid” because it combines the smooth rolling of a road bike with the sturdiness and shock absorption of a mountain bike. The key feature is an upright riding position that is more comfortable and less aggressive than that of a typical racy road bike. Hybrid bikes have flat (or slightly rising) handlebars, 700c wheels (the same size as a road bike), and tires that are a happy medium between mountain and road sizes, usually 30-40mm, with a bit of tread to keep traction in soft surfaces. Often they also have a suspension fork and/or suspension seatpost to soak up bumps. Comfort bikes are much the same, but with 26” wheels — the same size as a mountain bike — and fatter tires. A great choice for a more casual pace.

Hybrid - great for rail-trails.

Hybrid – great for rail-trails.


Touring bike

The long-distance hauler of the bike world. Touring bikes are based on road bikes, with the same size wheels (700c) and drop (or “curly”) handlebars, but with a longer wheelbase and sturdier frame to handle being loaded down with racks and panniers. Tires are also typically wider than that of a road bike, 28-40mm, and are often reinforced to help prevent the dreaded flat. As long as you are comfortable with a more bent-over position on the bike, drop handlebars are a good choice for long trips because you can change hand positions to prevent discomfort, and tuck down out of the wind if it’s not in your favor. The frame is typically made of steel to provide a solid yet supple ride that won’t beat you up, especially on longer touring days of 50+ miles.

Surly LHT for bike touring

Surly LHT for bike touring

Gravel or “B-road bike

This is a fairly new style of bike that has developed in the last several years specifically for riding and racing long distances on dirt or gravel roads. Sounds perfect for the GAP! It is, if you’re a seasoned rider who wants to pedal some big mile days, or if you want a sportier, lighter option. Gravel bikes are based on road bikes, with drop handlebars and 700c wheels, but have a slightly higher handlebar position and a longer wheelbase (though not quite as long as a touring bike) for comfort and control on rough surfaces. They also have room for pretty fat tires — not as big as a mountain bike, but close. Frames can be aluminum for stiffness and speed, or steel for a more supple ride, but all tend to be fairly lightweight.

Start gravel grinding!

Start gravel grinding!

Cyclocross bike

Originally intended for the fun, intense sport of cyclocross (think road bikes on muddy tracks in winter), these sporty bikes have branched out, and can be used for commuting and touring. Cyclocross bikes are based on road bikes and have 700c wheels and drop handlebars, but they also have room in the frame for bigger tires with small knobs, in the 28-40mm range. They have a shorter wheelbase and a lighter frame than a touring bike, giving a snappy feel. Higher-end models that are intended for racing may lack rack and fender mounts, but plenty of “all-arounder” models come equipped with these mounts, and may also have tour-friendly features such as flat-resistant tires.



Mountain bike

The classic bike for trails, mountain bikes have a flat handlebar and a sturdy frame, often with suspension in the front (and sometimes rear, too). When they first came on the scene, mountain bikes had 26” wheels, but these days they can also have 27.5” or 29” wheels — the bigger sizes are great for rolling over obstacles, or for fitting bikes to taller riders. Typical fat, knobby tires (2” and up) are perfect for mud, but can feel slow on smoother sections of crushed gravel or pavement. If this is the bike you have, no problem — you can swap the tires for ones with a smoother tread to gain some speed.


Cruiser bike

This is the bike for slow and comfortable rolling along. Cruiser bikes have a curvy frame that allows you to sit back, like a lounge chair — perfect for those with back or neck issues. These bikes typically have fatter tires, like a mountain bike but without knobs, and wide, swept-back handlebars. If you want to travel very short distances at a relaxed and easy pace each day, this is the bike for you.

For shorter rides

For shorter rides

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