Should You Get a Road Bike or a Mountain Bike?

Road bikes and mountain bikes are two of the most popular categories of bicycles. As the names suggest, each is designed for a specific environment.

When shopping for a new bike, you might wonder whether one type of bike offers advantages over the other. Is one faster or easier to ride? If you can’t decide between a road bike and a mountain bike, take the time to compare their differences, pros and cons.

Key differences between road bikes and mountain bikes

Road bikes are made to provide a better riding experience for cyclists on paved roads and even terrain. Mountain bikes are designed for off-road use on rugged terrain. The frames are designed differently. They also use different tires, gears, suspensions and other components.

Bike frame

Road bikes have light frames designed to place you in a forward-leaning riding position. This helps you transfer more power to the pedals and increase your speed.

Mountain bikes have heavier, more rigid frames. The heavier frame provides increased stability and traction for off-road riding.

road bike vs mountain bike frame
The differences between a road bike frame (left) and a mountain bike frame are clear when you view them together.

Handlebars

A road bike typically has drop handlebars instead of the flat handlebars found on mountain bikes. Drop handlebars improve aerodynamics and make it easier to shift your body weight forward.

Suspension

A mountain bike is likely to have a suspension system, which is not often found on a road bike. Suspension bikes are designed to absorb bumps and provide a smoother ride when mountain biking, which is not necessary on paved roads. As road bikes are designed for speed, a suspension system is an unnecessary addition that reduces efficiency on a paved surface.

Gears

Mountain bikes tend to have more low gears, which are used for climbing steep hills. Road bikes have more high gears, which are used to achieve more speed.

Comparing road bike and mountain bike performance

The differences in the design of road bikes and mountain bikes lead to a variety of differences in how they perform. Here are some of the key factors to consider:

  • Weather
  • Terrain
  • Distance

Road bikes and mountain bikes are suited for riding in most conditions, including wet or rainy conditions. However, mountain bikes provide better traction. If you’re worried about slipping on ice, snow, or puddles of water, a mountain bike may be a better choice.

Mountain bikes also provide better handling on off-road terrain and loose surfaces, including bike trails. Yet, the wider tires are also well suited for unpaved roads and bumpy urban terrain. Not all cities and towns have smooth, paved roads. If you anticipate bumpy terrain, a mountain bike may work better in your area.

A mountain biker coming over a bump on a trail
For any sort of bumpy terrain or loose surfaces, you’re better off with a mountain bike.

The distance that you plan on traveling may also impact your decision. Mountain bikes require more effort, which can wear you out quicker. A road bike allows you to achieve faster speeds with less effort.

Road bikes are also great for cardio exercise. Compared to mountain bikes, road bikes tend to be trickier to handle at slow speeds, requiring road cyclists to maintain a steady speed. Maintaining a steady pace and traveling longer distances make it ideal for working out.

Road bike advantages

  • Lightweight frames
  • Faster speeds
  • Less maintenance

Mountain bike advantages

  • Greater stability
  • More traction
  • Upright posture

Effort required on a mountain bike vs. road bike

A mountain bike tends to require a higher level of effort from the rider. Mountain bikes are often heavier and more flexible. They also place you in more of an upright position.

The gear system and suspension system also limit the overall efficiency of the drivetrain. Due to these factors, you need to pedal harder to travel the same distance.

Which is better for exercise?

Both types of bikes offer a good form of exercise but are suited for different types of exercise. Road riding provides great cardiovascular exercise, especially when going on long rides.

A mountain bike requires more pedaling effort, which works the leg muscles of mountain bikers. Navigating tight turns and uneven terrain also requires you to engage your core muscles, shoulders and arms. You get more of a full-body workout with a mountain bike when riding on rough terrain.

Mountain biker staying under control as he navigates a downhill trail
Navigating tight, narrow turns on a mountain bike provides a good core workout.

Gearing on a mountain bike vs. road bike

Gearing is typically easier on a mountain bike, but you don’t need to change gears as frequently on a road bike. Shifting may require a little more effort on a mountain bike because you are likely to be navigating winding, bumpy terrain at the same time you access your shifters.

How much faster is a road bike than a mountain bike?

When traveling on the same type of terrain, a road bike may offer speeds up to 15 per cent faster than a mountain bike. A commute that takes you half an hour on a road bike could take 35 minutes on a mountain bike.

Mountain bikes are slowed by their wide tires and lower tire pressure, which creates more friction with the riding surface. You also sit more upright, making it difficult to lean your body forward for better aerodynamics. A suspension system will reduce the efficiency of the drivetrain. Having fewer high gears for faster speeds will also limit how fast you can travel on a mountain bike.

Are mountain bikes good for long distance?

Mountain bikes are not ideal for long-distance trips. The typical mountain bike is heavier, provides more resistance, and is less efficient than a road bike. You will have to work harder to travel on a mountain bike, especially when cycling on paved surfaces. If you plan on traveling a long distance, a road bike is the better option.

A road cyclist on a paved road alongside a lake in the mountains
A road bike is certainly better for long-distance rides.

Can you convert a mountain bike to a road bike?

A mountain bike is what it is, and it is not a road bike. However, there are steps you can take to make your mountain bike ride and perform more like a road bike. These involve adjusting the suspension, tires, handlebars and seat.

  • Suspension: If your mountain bike has a lockout suspension, you can adjust the compression rate of the front fork to make it more rigid. While you can’t completely disengage the suspension system, you can make it less flexible.
  • Tires: Mountain bike tires are thicker and filled with a tire pressure of 25 to 35 psi. Road bike tires often have a psi of 80 to 130 psi, which would likely pop your mountain bike tires. However, you can pump them up to 50 to 70 psi to bridge the gap.
  • Handlebars and seat: You sit more upright on a mountain bike, so lowering your handlebars or switching to a set of drop bars may help you achieve a more aerodynamic riding position, as will raising your seat.

Can you put road tires on a mountain bike?

Most road tires will not fit a mountain bike. Mountain bike tires are typically 2.25 to 2.4 inches wide. Road bike tires are often about one inch wide. An alternative option is to increase the tire pressure or use fat road tires.

Final thoughts

Road bikes and mountain bikes are built for different settings. The bottom line is that you should choose a bike based on its intended use instead of trying to make it work in a different environment.

A road bike is a preferred choice for cycling on paved roads. If you’re an urban commuter who needs to get around the city, road biking is the best choice. If you mostly ride on dirt or bumpy terrain, you may prefer mountain biking. A mountain bike provides better stability on uneven terrain.

While people often think of mountain bikes on dirt paths, they can be used in other settings. A mountain bike may work well on city streets dotted with potholes or rural areas with lots of unpaved roads.

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