Best: Cyclocross/Touring bikes
This is a distance ride, so efficiency is the key, and the riding position of a touring road bike is simply the best. A racing road bike will be too “aggressive” (bent over more to cut through the wind). But all your hybrid options (with flat handlebars) put you too upright and you can’t fully use all the muscles in your legs. And the hybrids are MUCH heavier, so that will slow you down.
Cyclocross and Touring bikes are also sturdier. They are often steel or aluminum, but now many manufacturers are using carbon fiber, so they can handle the minor off-road components of our ride. They are also designed to accept wider tires than regular road bikes. This is critical! You can do the ride on skinny tires, but they give you less stability (more likely to fall) and less shock absorption (adds up over 300 miles). Road bikes normally run on 23mm or max 25mm width tires. They will work, but they will be at a higher pressure, and you’ll feel it. It’s amazing what moving to a 28mm tire will do to the long-term comfort, and personally, I won’t ride on the canal (the rougher part of the trip) on less than 32s. But to use those bigger tires, you will need a bike that has brakes that are big enough (which are standard on cyclocross and touring bikes).
Beware of some of the cyclocross bikes, though, because they are originally built for off-road racing, so they may not be set up to comfortable enough for you.
The down side of this type of bike is stability. They are basically road bikes, and we are taking them off road. The C&O Canal has lots of holes, rocks, and roots, and if you are not a skilled biker, hitting them (on a touring or cyclocross, but particularly a road bike) might knock you over. Cyclocross and touring bikes are more stable than straight road bikes (which is why they are my top recommendation), but if you’re a novice cyclist, you might want to go to the more stable (but not as efficient) hybrid.
Do: If you want to maximize both comfort and speed.
Don’t: If you don’t feel stable when riding off road.
Focus on Speed: Road Bikes
If you really want to be the fastest, then you can get a straight road bike for this trip. If you have the budget, make it all carbon, though you probably won’t want a real racing geometry. But many of the not-quite-high-end road bikes have a more “comfortable” riding position that is better suited for this ride. You will end up with 25 tires and if you’ve got decent riding skills, you will likely not fall even when we ride on the canal. These bikes will all be several pounds lighter than the cyclocross and touring bikes. If you don’t think a few pounds makes a difference, remember you are multiplying it by 300 miles.
Do: If you absolutely must be the first to the beer each day.
Don’t: If you can’t handle the rough ride.
Focus on Stability: Mountain and Hybrid Bikes
A few years ago, everyone on this trip rode hybrids. They were the lighter alternative to mountain bikes! They have road-bike wheels and tires, and flat handlebars like mountain bikes which gives you a more upright riding position that is easier on your back. Hybrids and mountain bikes generally have front shock absorbers, which is great for riding Day 3 and 4 on the C & O canal.
While these bikes are generally heavier, if you compare a quality cyclocross bike to a similarly equipped mountain bike, the weight is often neglible.
Do: If you’ve got all day and don’t want to fall over.
Don’t: If you get mad when others finish before you.