Last updated: September 26th, 2023
Cruisers are one of the most iconic bicycles styles ever devised. Very few others have the same power to conjure a whole scene in your head.
But that doesn’t always translate to practicality.
And as we’ll see, cruisers are fun to ride in the right setting, but downright tough in others.
One quick clarification: we’re talking about traditional beach cruisers here. The “cruiser” label often gets misapplied to city and Dutch bikes, which are quite different from cruisers.
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Here’s whether a beach cruiser bike is hard to ride
Cruiser bicycles are easy to ride on flat, straight routes but very hard to ride up steep hills and to navigate tight turns. That’s because of their signature traits: relaxed riding posture, balloon tires, and long wheelbase.
Those attributes add up to a terrific beach bike—no surprise there!—but they come at the cost of efficiency and precise handling.
Cruisers are also heavier than most, which makes acceleration and climbing all the more difficult.
Cruiser parts emphasize convenience
For ever single bike components, there’s a vast range of types, styles, and prices. Cruisers almost universally use components that maximize convenience (and savings) at the cost of performance.
As we’ll see, that’s especially true of brakes and gears.
Do cruiser bikes have brakes?
A rear coaster brake is typical, and you’ll still see some models with nothing more than that. Unfortunately, it’s a basic principle of physics that your front wheel has most of the potential braking power. So, without a front brake, your stopping distance is extremely long. Too long, in fact, to be safe around traffic.
These days, it’s more common to see either front + rear rim brakes or front rim + rear coaster brakes. Those configurations are both safe, assuming the brakes are properly adjusted. Brake power is diminished in the rain, but most cruiser only see fair-weather use, so it’s not necessarily a practical problem.
Finally, some higher-end cruisers have adopted disc brakes, just like most other types of bikes. Discs come in two varieties: hydraulic and mechanical.
- Entry-level mechanical discs (like you’ll typically find) are often no more powerful than well-adjusted rim brakes. Their main advantage is preserving full power in wet weather.
- Hydraulic discs generally have better power and modulation than mechanical, but they’re also costlier. They’re not especially common on cruisers, which generally skew toward the cheaper side.
Do cruiser bike have gears?
Cruisers are traditionally single-speed or 3-speed (via an internally-geared hub). That’s fine for flat areas with mild headwinds. However, limited gearing plus very relaxed posture make it hard to tackle hills or stiffs winds.
Many newer models use a 7- or 8-speed derailleur, which offers significantly lower and higher gearing for climbs and descents, respectively.
Still, cruisers are intended for low-key use on mellow terrain, so truly versatile gearing (like a double chainring or wide-range 1x) is essentially non-existent.
Are cruiser bikes good for long rides?
It’s possible to ride a cruiser many miles, but long rides are harder and slower than on other bikes. There’s a ton of wind resistance in the upright riding position, as well as rolling resistance from the extra-wide tires.
That’s all well and good if you’re not in a hurry and you don’t mind working harder. But it’s no accident that road and touring bikes, which are intended for distances, differ on every level.
Weight matters, but less than you’d think
Contrary to popular belief, their weight isn’t a big problem for long distances. It does require more effort to get moving in the first place (you know, an object at rest…) but it’s not dramatically more effort to keep rolling. It’s only likely to be an issue if your long rides also involves a lot of stop-and-go.
Weight may become a problem on hills, but the riding position and single speed are far bigger limitations. More on that a bit later.
Wind resistance and pedaling power
When you’re that upright, your torso is like a sail. As the miles add up, so does the cumulative energy you’ve spent fighting the wind. That’s exactly why races lean and tuck so far forward.
Additionally, upright posture makes it harder to involve your glutes in the pedal stroke. That’s generally no problem for short rides, but it slows you down over the long haul.
Are cruiser bikes good for hills?
No. Cruisers may be the worst possible bicycle for hills. The biggest challenge a riding position that’s inefficient when seated yet awkward when standing. Many are single-speed and most are extremely heavy, too, which make climbing on a cruiser even harder.
Single-speed cruisers are the most traditional design. Technically, it’s possible to select a gear ratio that suits hills. In. reality, most are geared for their “native habitat” of beachfront rambling, so it’s far too stiff of a gear for ascending hills.
Why cruisers’ riding position makes climbs hard
Normally, single-speed riders get more power on climbs by standing up. Simple enough…but the only problem is cruiser-style handlebars sweep back so dramatically that it’s awkward to pedal while standing up.
Some models, like most of the Electra Townie line, offer multi-speed drivetrains that make them more practical.
As mentioned above, the uprightness also make it harder to use your glutes to strengthen your pedal stroke. You can overcome that by leaning forward as you climb, to reduce the angle between your legs and torso.
Still, you may need to walk to the top of a steep hill. On the bright side, you’ll be comfortable coasting down the other side.
The issue with brakes
If you do make it up, then take care on the descent. Many cruisers only have a rear coaster brake, which is not nearly powerful enough to stop at high speeds. And I consider it unfit for riding near traffic, period.
Bottom line: slow down more and sooner than you think you need to!
If you can’t avoid quick descent and/or mingling with cars, then it’s worth spending a little more for a cruiser equipped with two hand-actuated rim brakes. (Or consider one of the alternatives suggested at the bottom of the page.)
So, what are cruiser bikes good for?
They’re ideal for enjoying the scenery over short to moderate distances, at a mellow and uninterrupted pace. Think sightseeing, recreation, or very easygoing commuting.
If you picture a Southern Californian surfer rolling down the Venice boardwalk, no cares and no hurry, then you’ve got the right idea.
In a word, cruising—just as the name suggests!
Can you ride a cruiser bike on trails?
Yes, to some extent. They’re surprisingly smooth on flat, dry dirt and gravel roads (thanks to wide tires). But when the trail becomes tight or steep, cruisers are too slow and cumbersome.
For one thing, rugged terrain probably violates the warranty and poses a breakage/safety hazard.
More practically, the sheer length of the bike will be extremely hard to maneuver. The gearing isn’t conducive to the quick ups and down on most trails, either. Finally, most cruisers have only a rear coaster brake, which is simply not safe for aggressive or challenging trail rides.
Customization is a popular hobby
Riding scenarios aside, they’re fairly popular to customize and show off.
Some enthusiasts take aesthetic cues from motorcycles and turn their cruiser bicycles into completely unique, chromed-out choppers and the like.
That’s a whole scene that I know nothing about, so here’s a video featuring some incredible custom cruisers:
Are beach cruisers good bikes for you?
Cruisers are easy and relaxing for slower, shorter rides on smooth and flat terrain. They’re hard to ride in most other situations. Then again, they were never supposed to be all-purpose bikes, so it’s not fair to hold that against them.
Horses for courses, as they say.
If you’re looking for a bicycle only for shorter, flatter leisure rides, then a cruiser fits the bill.
But if you want something for that purpose and others—like commuting, light dirt/gravel riding, or extend climbs—then you’d best look elsewhere.
For instance, a Dutch-style city bike is equally comfortable, but far better equipped with (available) wide gear ranges and heaps of useful accessories.
Alternatively, a hybrid feels sportier and less relaxed, but can cover a huge range of terrain and inclines.
There are many other types of bicycles, too, but those are probably the most useful alternatives.
At the end of the day, the right bike is simply whichever puts you at ease wherever you’ll realistically ride most of the time.