If you're ready to ride a bike for fitness but not ready to hunch over like a Tour de France racer or tackle death-defying single-track trails in the mountains, a single-speed, bulbous-tire beach cruiser won't do. You need a "fitness bike," what the industry now calls the broad category that combines the large, fast-rolling 700-C wheels of road bikes, a tough multi-tread tire and the straight handlebars of a mountain bike. Formerly known as hybrids, these lightweight aluminum-frame bikes have become more refined, stylish and specialized; all work for commuting while sporting varying capabilities for pavement and mild dirt paths. Here are four notable, entry-level 2013 models, each outfitted with mounts for racks and water bottles, and priced so they won't break the bank.
Almost do anything
Specialized CrossTrail: A versatile pavement and dirt-path bike with Shimano Altus 24-speed trigger-shifter gearing, light-duty suspension fork with 60 millimeters (2¼ inches) of travel, tough multi-belt 38-millimeter-wide tires and anti-numbness platform handlebar grips.
Likes: Rugged, fast and comfortable. Perfect if you ride on the street and well-graded dirt paths. Although not designed for it, the CrossTrail even got me through some rocky single-track trails due to its shock and bulletproof knobby tires. Higher-end models add disc brakes, a lock-out on the fork, internally run cables and better components.
Dislikes: Since the fork tempts you to do challenging trails that you probably shouldn't do, I would have preferred a higher, mountain-bike-style bottom bracket (pedal axel) for rock clearance and a wider frame spacing to accommodate wider tires.
Price: $580 ($630 with disc brakes). (408) 779-6229; http://www.specialized.com
Felt Café 7: A simple, civilized and stylish road or mild trail bike with 7-speed gearing, a coffee cup holder on the handlebar, a kickstand and several fashion and comfort touches.
Likes: It has a rock-solid feel; a comfortable ride, due to tall, swept-back handlebars; and it's loaded with classy touches, including the frame's intricately shaped top tube, stitched synthetic leather grips and matching seat, and, of course, a cup holder. Designed for ease of use by hassle-averse riders, there's just one twist shifter, no front derailleur, a cushy seat, rubber pedals that can be ridden barefoot and a kickstand. The men's model is all black; the silver women's has a step-through frame. Café models with up to 24 gears range to $669.
Dislikes: Lack of a double or triple front gear and front derailleur limit the bike's top-end speed, granny-gear hill-climbing ability and commuter potential.
Price: $499. (949) 452-9050; http://www.feltbicycles.com
Style and speed
Electra Verse: The stylish 21-speed fitness road, dirt path and commuter bike combines comfort, performance and classy design features.
Likes: Sleek good looks due to an elegant frame with a sweeping top and bottom tubes, hidden internal-frame brake cables and road-bike-style caliper brakes. The tall stem puts you in an upright position that makes for comfortable long-distance riding and nimble handling. The Shimano Acera 21-speed drive-train with trigger shifters offer plenty of options for flatland speed and hill climbs. Mixed tire tread can handle smooth gravel paths. Includes attachment points for racks. $639 moves you up to 24-speed Alivio.
Price: $539. (760) 607-2453; http://www.electrabike.com
Trail to commute
Trek 7.2 FX: The all-conditions performance fitness bike for road, trail and commuting comes with 24-speed Shimano Alivio drive-train, puncture-resistant tires and mountain-bike style V brakes.
Likes: Fast, quick and balanced on road and mild dirt paths. Like the Specialized, it has more of a leaned-over, high-performance position than the Electra or the Felt, plus just enough style (note the red accents) to feel hip. Fender mounts make it a worthy all-weather commuter. It's also available in a women's model with altered dimensions. The FX's higher-end models have disc brakes and better components. For more off-road capability, go to the Trek 8 Dual Sport bikes, which have a light suspension fork.
Price: $549.99. (800) 313-8735; http://www.trekbikes.com
Wallack is the coauthor of "Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100." firstname.lastname@example.orgCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times