Do Mountain Bikes Make Good Commuter Bikes? [Pros and Cons]

Road bikes and mountain bikes are the two main categories of bicycles. Each option is made for specific environments, as suggested by the names.

Since road bikes are meant for traveling on paved roads, they are frequently used for commuting. Mountain bikes are made for traveling off-road and on bike trails.

Man on mountain bike after researching if mountain bikes do make good commuter bikes
Mountain bikes are designed for tackling rough, gritty terrain.

Do Mountain Bikes Make Good Commuter Bikes?

Mountain bikes make good commuter bikes in specific situations, such as when riding on difficult terrain. A mountain bike may offer more stability on roads with lots of potholes and rocks or when traveling over gravel roads.

There are several advantages and disadvantages to riding a mountain bike to work. Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of using a mountain bike as a commuter bike….

Mountain Bike vs. Commuter Bike: What’s the Difference?

To determine which bike type is best for your commute, you should first understand the differences between the two types of bikes.

Mountain bikes are built for off-road use and do not typically perform as well on paved roads. Some of the main differences between mountain bikes and road bikes include:

  • Frame
  • Suspension
  • Gears
  • Wheels
  • Handlebars
  • Pedals
  • Brakes

Mountain bikes typically have heavier, more durable frames compared to road bikes. The bike frame is designed to take a beating without cracking or bending. Road bike frames are lightweight, which helps increase speed and reduce resistance.

Mountain bikes also have suspensions for both the front wheel and rear bike wheel. The suspension system helps absorb shocks when riding over bumps and uneven terrain. You are less likely to find suspensions on road bikes. However, some high-end commuter road bikes include front suspension.

Mountain bikes often have fewer gears compared to road bikes. The extra gears are included to give road cyclists greater pedaling efficiency in different situations.

Mountain bikes tend to have wider wheels with deeper treads compared to road bikes. The typical road bike has thinner, smoother tires to reduce resistance on the asphalt. Reducing resistance allows cyclists to travel faster.

Mountain bike tire that can sometimes make for good commuting
The knobby tires on a mountain bike can slow you down, but a wide tire provides more traction and stability.

The handlebars on a mountain bike place you in more of an upright position. The handlebars on a road bike are narrower and force you to lean forward.

Road bikes typically have pedals with bigger cleats for keeping your shoes in place. The pedals used for mountain bikes often have smaller cleats, allowing you to unlock your shoes faster in case you fall.

The brakes are also different between mountain bikes and road bikes. Road bikes allow you to stop quickly with less pull, while mountain bikes tend to gradually brake.

Advantages of Commuting on a Mountain Bike

Given the differences between mountain bikes and road bikes, a road bike is typically better suited for daily commuting. However, the features of a typical mountain bike offer several distinct advantages:

  • More traction
  • Increased suspension
  • More comfort
  • Increased durability
  • Versatility
  • Maneuverability
  • Quick dismount

Mountain Bikes Offer More Traction

Mountain bikes provide more traction compared to road bikes due to the size and shape of the wheels. Most mountain bikes are equipped with fatter tires with deep treads. Road bikes have thinner, smoother tires.

You also inflate mountain bike tires with less air, which allows the tire to flatten out as you ride across flat surfaces, such as an asphalt road. As the tire flattens, it provides more traction.

When riding on dirt, the flatter tires roll over the rough surface. The skinny tires found on a road bike are more likely to cut into the dirt.

Increased traction may be beneficial when commuting to work during the winter. Flatter tires with more traction reduce slippage on snow and other loose terrains. However, thinner tires are more stable in rainy weather conditions, as they minimize contact with the slippery surface.

More traction is also beneficial for riding on gravel roads and dirt roads, as well as in other environments with small rocks and debris. You can ride a mountain bike over pebbles and small rocks without any difficulties.

Cyclist riding in the rain after researching if mountain bikes do make good commuter bikes
If you live in a city where rainy weather is common, a road bike might be the better choice.

Mountain Bikes Have Better Suspension Systems

Mountain bikes are often equipped with suspensions for the front and rear wheels, which can result in a smoother ride when commuting on bumpy surfaces. If the roads that you travel to and from work include lots of potholes and cracks, you may prefer riding a mountain bike.

You are less likely to feel the shock of riding over a large pothole with a quality mountain bike. You are more likely to feel the impact when riding on a road bike. The shock of riding over a pothole or hitting a bump may cause you to lose balance, increasing the risk of accidents.

Riding a Mountain Bike May Be More Comfortable

The design of the typical road bike forces you to lean more, which may be an issue for those who suffer from back pain. Both types of bikes require you to sit in a forward-leaning position, but a mountain bike allows you to assume a slightly more upright riding position.

Sitting in an upright position is easier on your back but also limits your pedaling power. You may find it a little more difficult to pedal at full power on a mountain bike, but you can enjoy a more comfortable sitting position and retain more control over the bike.

Mountain Bikes Have Durable Frames

Mountain bikes are designed to take a beating and keep working. The frame is often made to withstand impact damage.

Most bike frames are made with one of the following materials:

  • Carbon fiber
  • Aluminum
  • Steel
  • Titanium

Mountain bike frames are often made with steel, which is more durable than the other options. But it is also the heaviest material. Titanium is lighter but only used by a few mountain bike manufacturers.

Many high-end road bikes are made with aluminum or carbon fiber frames. Carbon fiber is one of the most expensive materials for bike frames and provides more stiffness compared to aluminum. Both options are more prone to cracking and bending compared to steel and titanium.

Cyclist and bike on the ground following an accident after cyclist researched if mountain bikes do make good commuter bikes
A road bike is more likely to suffer significant damage from an impact.

Riding a Mountain Bike Provides Versatility

Road bikes are difficult to ride off-road. The slick tires create less traction and resistance, which increases the risk of slipping on loose stone or dirt.

Mountain bikes are built for off-road use but may also work well in certain urban settings. This makes mountain bikes more versatile. You can use the same bike for commuting and for off-road adventures.

Mountain Bikes Are Easier To Maneuver

Commuting to work on a bicycle can be dangerous. Approximately 850 cyclists are killed by motor vehicles in the U.S. each year. When traveling at fast speeds on a road bike, you have less time to react. The forward-leaning rider position also decreases your maneuverability.

Mountain bikes are designed to be more responsive. The wide handlebars give you more control, allowing you to maneuver around obstacles quickly.

Mountain Bikes Are Easier To Dismount

You can easily jump off a mountain bike. Compared to road bikes, mountain bikes have wider handlebars and smaller cleats on the pedals, allowing you to hop off before you crash.

As mountain bikes are also more durable, your bike is less likely to suffer significant damage after you jump off.

Disadvantages of Commuting on a Mountain Bike

While riding a mountain bike to work may help you deal with potholes, you also need to consider the following disadvantages:

  • Heavier frame
  • Increased rolling resistance
  • Less efficient pedaling
  • Slower speeds
  • Braking takes longer

Mountain Bikes Have Heavier Frames

The average mountain bike weighs about 30 pounds, while road bikes typically weigh about 18 pounds. If you need to carry your bike during your commute, the extra weight can become an uncomfortable burden.

For example, your commute may involve riding a certain distance to catch a bus or subway. You may also need to carry your bike up or down flights of stairs. Carrying an extra 12 pounds can quickly wear you down.

Cyclist trying to catch the bus while on a bike after researching if mountain bikes do make good commuter bikes

Mountain Bikes Create Extra Rolling Resistance

Mountain bikes are typically equipped with wider tires compared to road bikes. The wider tires create more surface friction with the terrain, which is useful for off-road riding. However, the increased friction adds more rolling resistance on paved roads.

Rolling resistance is the resistance created by the wheels of your bicycle as they roll over the road. Increased resistance means that you need to pedal harder, which may lead to fatigue during a long commute.

The Suspension System Decreases Pedaling Efficiency

Mountain bikes typically include actual suspension systems to absorb shocks when riding on rough terrain. The shock absorption is useful when traveling on a bumpy road, but it limits your pedaling efficiency.

The suspension system steals some of the energy generated by your pedaling. In addition to dealing with rolling resistance, you need to deal with a reduction in pedaling efficiency. But this is more of a concern when riding on smooth roads without frequent stopping and starting. You are less likely to notice the decreased efficiency when riding on bumpy roads littered with potholes or when frequently stopping at red lights.

You May Travel at Slower Speeds on a Mountain Bike

If you have a long commute, riding a road bike may make more sense. Standard road bikes are designed to minimize wind resistance and surface contact to achieve faster speeds. You can glide across smooth surfaces at faster speeds, allowing you to reach work faster.

Most cyclists average a speed of about 15 mph on road bikes. Riding a mountain bike on the same road may drop your average speed closer to 10 mph. Traveling at slower speeds may increase the duration of your commute, requiring you to leave for work earlier and get home a little later.

You Need To Give Yourself More Time To Brake

If your commute involves a lot of stop-and-go city traffic, you may want to ride a road bike. People on road bikes can stop on a dime, while mountain bikes brake more gradually.

Braking slowly may keep you from flying over the handlebar when traveling at fast speeds but makes it difficult to frequently stop at a red light every block.

Cyclist stuck in bike traffic after researching if mountain bikes do make good commuter bikes

When Is Riding a Mountain Bike for Your Commute a Good Idea?

A mountain bike may be a good choice for a commute if your route includes poor roads or requires you to travel off-road. The suspension and wider tire size can make it easier to deal with potholes, rocks, and loose terrain.

If you currently commute on a road bike, you likely know that a single pothole can be a major disaster. Mountain bikes allow you to travel on a wider variety of terrain with fewer issues.

On the other hand, average mountain bike tires are not made for smooth asphalt roads. If your path mostly includes smooth roads, you may struggle to pedal efficiently. Exerting yourself during a commute may leave you sweaty and tired before you even show up to work.

Keep in mind that you can equip a mountain bike with different tires. You can add tires with less tread or increase the air pressure to reduce traction. But if your bike commute includes snow-covered roads, you’ll want to stick with the fatter tires.

Conclusion

Mountain bikes can work as commuter bikes. The disadvantages of a mountain bike are mostly related to decreased pedaling performance on smooth surfaces. The fatter tires create more traction, which can slow you down on a paved road that’s in good condition.

A mountain bike is better suited for the average bike commuter who rides on uneven surfaces, such as roads with potholes and gravel. If your daily ride includes varied terrain, a mountain bike may decrease your risk of slipping and sliding.

A mountain bike can also make for a more comfortable ride, as you do not need to lean over the handlebars. You can sit more upright, which may be better for people with back problems.

Mountain bikes also tend to provide increased maneuverability, versatility, and durability. You can maneuver more easily around obstacles on a mountain bike, which is useful for dealing with annoying traffic congestion.

Depending on your specific situation, both bike types can be nice options. But no matter which option you choose, consider getting a bike basket or panniers for storing your work clothes and other gear during your daily commute.