When buying a new bike, one of the most important decisions you’ll have to make is whether you want to go with a more road oriented bike or an off-road oriented bike. Pretty much all bikes fall into one of these two categories. This guide lists the pros and cons of riding a mountain bike vs road bike. We’ll compare weight, efficiency, handling, durability, versatility, cost, and more. I’ll also outline each of the different types of mountain bikes and road bikes that are available.
This best bike for you depends on a number of factors including the type of terrain you ride, the distances you plan to ride, who you plan to ride with, personal preference, and more. These days, choosing a bike is more difficult than ever simply because there are so many options to choose from. Over the past decade, a number of new cycling niches have evolved. You’re no longer limited to strictly road or mountain bikes. Bikes have also become more efficient, affordable, and reliable.
This article is geared toward those who are new to cycling, those who can only afford one bike, and those who are looking for a new bike but aren’t sure what to buy. Whether you ride for transportation, to save money, or just for fun, I hope this guide helps you choose the best bike for your style of riding.
What is a Mountain Bike?
Mountain bikes are rugged and durable bikes that are designed for off-road cycling. They can be ridden on single-track trails, mountain bike trails, fire roads, gravel roads, pothole-filled city streets, and pretty much any type of paved or unpaved surface. Depending on the design, a mountain bike can handle terrain consisting of loose dirt, gravel, roots, rocks, logs, steep grades, sand, snow, grass, wet surfaces, jumps, drops, wall-rides, and more.
Mountain bikes have a similar general design to any other bike with a few major differences. The main difference is that mountain bikes are designed with durability in mind so they can hold up to the demands of off-road riding. For example, mountain bikes are constructed with heavier duty frames and wheels than road bikes. These make mountain bikes heavier than road bikes. Mountain bikes also feature a few major design differences that allow them to perform well on rough or loose terrain.
The main feature that distinguishes a mountain bike from a road bike is the wheels and tires. Most modern mountain bikes come with rims that measure 29” or 27.5” in diameter and 30mm wide. Older mountain bikes came with 26” wheels. Mountain bike wheels usually have a higher spoke count than road bike wheels (usually 32 instead of 24). The extra spokes improve wheel strength and durability. The wheels can handle the stress of bumps, drops, and jumps without bending or breaking.
These rugged bikes also feature knobby, high-volume tires that measure 1.8-2.5”+ in width. Mountain bike tires are typically run at 20-30 psi. These large tires give the bike plenty of traction. The tires are also relatively soft due to the low air pressure. This helps to absorb bumps.
Most mountain bikes also feature wide, flat handlebars. These provide leverage for steering and controlling the bike accurately and quickly. This makes it easier to navigate terrain with lots of roots, rocks, and other obstacles. Drop bar mountain bikes are also available.
Most mountain bikes also have a suspension system. Hardtail mountain bikes have fork suspension and a rigid frame. Full-suspension mountain bikes have both fork suspension as well as rear suspension built into the frame.
The suspension system absorbs large bumps from rocks, roots, holes, and other obstacles in the trail so the bike doesn’t bounce around too much as you ride. It also helps to reduce vibrations and improve comfort. The suspension also helps to improve handling and makes the bike easier to control.
Different suspension systems are available with different amounts of travel. Most mountain bikes have somewhere between 100 and 200mm of suspension travel. More travel allows the bike to absorb larger bumps but makes the bike less efficient.
Mountain bikes also have a wide gear range with lower gearing than road bikes. The steps between gears are typically larger. The low gears allow you to power up steep hills. The large gear range allows you to cover a wide range of different grades. Most modern mountain bikes have 1X gearing with one chainring and a 9-12 speed cassette. 2X and 3X gearing with up to 36 speeds are also available.
Mountain bikes also feature powerful brakes that allow you to slow down quickly while descending steep mountain trails. Most mountain bikes have disc brakes rather than rim brakes because they offer more stopping power and perform better in wet and dirty conditions. The disc brake rotors typically measure 160-200mm in diameter. Both mechanical and hydraulic disc brake models are available.
A number of different types of mountain bikes are available. The five most common include hardtail, trail, cross country (XC), enduro, and downhill mountain bikes. The ideal mountain bike for you depends on the terrain and distances you plan to ride. Some models are optimized for efficiency while climbing and riding long distances while others are designed for descending. I’ll outline each type of mountain bike in-depth in a later section of this guide.
What is a Road Bike?
Road bikes are designed to be ridden on paved surfaces. They feature a lightweight and aerodynamic design. Road bikes are optimized for speed and efficiency rather than comfort and durability.
The general road bike design hasn’t changed much over the years. At first glance, modern road bikes look very similar to road bikes from decades ago. Road bikes are sometimes called racing bikes.
Most road bikes feature a lightweight and rigid frame with a flat top tube and short seat post. The most common frame materials are aluminum and carbon fiber. Titanium and steel-framed road bikes are also available. The frame and fork are usually designed to be paired together.
These lightweight bikes feature skinny and slick tires that measure 23-30mm in width. The tires are run at high pressures of 70-120 psi. These tires are designed to roll fast and efficiently on paved surfaces. Road bikes have lightweight 700c wheels with 18-28 spokes. The lower spoke count saves weight and improves aerodynamics. To further improve aerodynamic efficiency road rims are made deeper than mountain bike rims. Road bike wheels also aren’t quite as robust as mountain bike wheels because the rims are lighter and the spoke count is lower.
Road bikes come with higher gearing than mountain bikes. The gear ratios are usually spaced close together so shifts don’t disrupt your cadence quite as much. The higher gear ratios and tighter gearing allow you to maintain a higher average speed. Most modern road bikes come with 2 chainrings and 9-12 cassette cogs for a total of 18-24 speeds. Electronic shifting is common on higher-end models.
To improve aerodynamic efficiency, most road bikes feature drop handlebars. These offer three distinct hand positions: the tops, the brake hoods, and the drops. The tops and hoods provide comfortable hand positions for cruising and climbing. The drops allow you to crouch down into an aerodynamic position to reduce wind resistance so you can ride faster and more efficiently. Being able to grip the bars in multiple places increases comfort on long rides. Flat bar road bikes are also available.
Road bikes are available with either disc brakes or rim brakes. Dual pivot rim brakes are the most common. Most road bikes come with integrated shifters. These combine the shifters and brake levers into one unit.
A number of different types of road bikes are available including racing bikes, aero bikes, touring bikes, gravel bikes, commuters, triathlon bikes, city bikes, and more. I’ll outline each type of road bike in a later section of this guide.
Mountain Bike Pros
Mountain bikes offer more traction/grip
The wide, knobby tires give mountain bikes a larger contact patch with the ground than narrow road tires. This increases traction by creating more friction between the ground and tire.
To further increase traction, you can run your tires at lower air pressure. Most mountain bike tires run at around 30 psi as opposed to 100 psi for road tires. This allows the tire to deform at the contact patch so even more tread touches the ground.
The suspension system also increases traction by ensuring that the tires remain planted on the ground while you ride over rough surfaces. Your tires won’t bounce off the ground and lose traction when you hit a bump.
The extra traction allows you to accelerate, corner, and brake a bit harder without having to worry as much about your tires sliding out. With a mountain bike, you can ride loose surfaces like gravel and sand. You can also ride or wet or slippery surfaces. For example, if you ride in the rain often, you might be better off with a mountain bike. Mountain bikes can also handle steep inclines. The rear tire is less likely to spin out.
Mountain bikes allow you to ride more places
With a mountain bike, you can explore unpaved trails, dirt roads, single track, mountain trails, and more. You can even forge your own trail. Mountain bikes can handle any surface including dirt, gravel, roots, sand, snow, and rocks. You’re not limited by having to stick to paved roads or trails when riding a mountain bike.
This is made possible thanks to the wide tires, durable frame and wheels, and suspension system. The knobby tires create extra traction which allows you to ride loose or slippery surfaces. The heavy-duty frame and wheels increase durability, allowing you to ride rough terrain without causing damage. The suspension system improves handling and control.
Some mountain bikes are more capable than others. For example, fat bikes feature 5” tires. These distribute your weight across a larger surface area. This allows you to ride over soft surfaces such as deep sand, snow, and mud without sinking in. Downhill mountain bikes have a huge suspension range, allowing you to tackle large jumps, drops, and bumps at high speeds. You’ll want to choose a mountain bike that is designed for the terrain you intend to ride.
Mountain bikes are more durable than road bike
Mountain bikes usually have stronger wheels than road bikes. For example, they may have 32 spokes rather than 24. The extra spokes increase wheel strength by better distributing load across the wheel. Mountain bike rims are wider as well. Most mountain bike rims measure 30mm wide vs 20mm for road rims. The extra thickness of the rim adds strength. The stronger wheels make broken spokes, bent wheels, and cracked rims less common. You can hit potholes and bumps and ride off curbs without having to worry about wheel damage.
Mountain bike frames also tend to be a bit beefier. The frame tubes are often thicker and stronger. This makes them less likely to bend or crack during an impact. Mountain bike groupsets are also a bit heavier duty and more robust than what you’d find on a road bike because clearances aren’t quite as tight. The high-volume tires are also less likely to suffer pinch flats. The extra durability is necessary for the bike to survive the abuse of bouncing around on rough roads and trails.
If you tend to be hard on your bike, you might benefit from the extra durability of mountain bikes. You can ride up and down curbs and speed over pothole-filled streets without having to worry about causing damage. The bike may be more likely to survive a minor accident without sustaining damage as well. Generally, a mountain bike can survive a harder impact force than a road bike without failing.
Mountain bikes offer a smooth and comfortable ride
The wide, high-volume tires run at low air pressure. This makes the tires soft, which allows them to absorb more shocks and vibrations. When you hit a rock or root, the soft tire deforms around it instead of bouncing off.
Most mountain bikes also feature a suspension system. This can help to absorb larger bumps and potholes. The suspension system absorbs shocks while the seat and handlebars remain relatively stable. When riding over particularly rough surfaces, a rear suspension system can really help to smooth out the ride.
When you ride a mountain bike on a rough trail or road, the ride will feel less harsh than a road bike. This is a nice feature for those who ride on cracked and pothole-filled roads. The smooth ride can be a nice feature for someone who has back or joint problems. The smooth ride is also more comfortable.
Mountain bikes are cheaper
For whatever reason, mountain bikes usually cost a couple of hundred dollars less than road bikes of comparable quality. You can buy a decent mid-range mountain bike for around $800-$1200. Entry-level options start at around $400. To compare, a mid-range road bike cost around $1000-$1500. Of course, lower-end and higher-end options are also available.
Replacement mountain bike parts also tend to be cheaper than road components. For whatever reason, flat bar components tend to cost less than drop bar components. If you crash and break a shifter or brake lever, you’ll save a bit on replacement costs. There are loads of cheap mountain bikes parts available if you’re on a tight budget. You can buy a basic shifter or brake lever for just a few dollars.
Another great way to save money is to buy used. There are plenty of used mountain bikes available for cheap. Oftentimes people buy them, don’t ride them, then sell them a couple of years later. Vintage mountain bikes are a great option as well. For example, I ride a 1980s Schwinn High Sierra that I converted into a touring bike. It cost me less than $150 to buy the bike and make a few upgrades. I’ve put a couple of thousand miles on the bike and even took my first tour on it.
More comfortable ride position
Mountain bike frame geometry puts the rider in a more upright riding position. Many riders find this to be more comfortable than the aggressive ride position of road bikes. There are a few reasons for this.
First, most of your weight rests on your bottom. You put very little weight on the handlebars. This puts less stress on your shoulders, wrists, and hands. Your arms don’t fatigue as quickly while riding as a result.
The upright position also allows you to hold your head, neck, and back in a more neutral position. You don’t have to hunch over to ride or bend your neck backward to look ahead. This puts less stress on your back and neck. This position also gives you a clear view of the trail ahead.
In addition, this upright ride position allows for better breathing. You can more easily breathe with your diaphragm because you aren’t leaning forward and compressing your abdomen. Riders with respiratory issues often find mountain bikes to be more comfortable for this reason.
To compare, road bikes put the rider in a more aggressive ride position with their body angled over the handlebars. This can be uncomfortable for some riders.
Mountain bikes are more versatile
You can ride a mountain bike places that a road bike simply can’t go. This allows you to use the same bike for multiple types of cycling.
For example, you can use your mountain bike to commute with during the week, take it out to ride some dirt trails on the weekend, take a bikepacking trip during your vacation, and ride paved bike paths with your family and friends once in a while. Mountain bikes allow you to ride both on and off pavement. You can’t really do that with a road bike. This versatility makes mountain bikes a great choice for those who can only afford one bike as well as those who only have space to store one bike.
If you plan to ride your mountain bike on the road often, you can also mount narrow road tires. These are much more efficient while riding smooth paved surfaces. Most mountain bike rims are narrow enough to run 1” wide tires. Some riders even have 2 sets of rims. One with wide mountain bike tires and one with narrow road tires. They swap them out for the surface they plan to ride. It’s kind of like having two bikes in one.
Mountain bikes are easier to control and maneuver
Mountain bikes come with flat handlebars. Many new riders find these to be easier to ride than the drop bars that typically come with road bikes. The reason is that flat bars are wider than drop bars. This extra width gives you more leverage. A larger movement of the handlebars creates a smaller movement of the front wheel. You can steer the bike more precisely with flat bars.
The extra leverage also allows you to turn the handlebars a bit faster. You can more easily correct your steering. This makes it easier to maneuver a mountain bike around obstacles, through narrow gaps between traffic, and while riding at low speeds. You can steer the bike precisely where you want to go.
You also put less body weight on the handlebars while riding a mountain bike due to the upright ride position. This makes it easier to turn the handlebars quickly. Mountain bikes are more easily maneuverable than road bikes for these reasons.
In addition, the brake levers are easier to access with flat bars because they are right at your fingertips at all times. This allows you to brake faster and stop a bit sooner. When riding drop bars, you sometimes have to move your hands to a different position to brake. This costs you a bit of time.
The suspension system also makes the bike easier to control while riding over rough surfaces. The shocks absorb impacts while the frame, seat, and handlebars stay relatively stable. The bike isn’t bouncing around under you. This allows you to easily control the bike, even when the terrain under you is uneven.
Mountain bikes can be safer
While riding a mountain bike, you’re more likely to suffer a minor injury but less likely to suffer a major injury or die. There are a number of reasons for this.
First, most people ride their mountain bike off-road where there is no traffic. For this reason, you’re less likely to be hit by a car and be seriously injured. This makes a mountain bike a great choice for someone who lives in a crowded city with few bike lanes. You won’t have to worry about crossing busy streets or deal with crazy drivers. You can ride out in the woods far away from those dangers.
Crashing while riding a mountain bike often causes less serious injury as well. The reason is that most mountain bikers ride on dirt trails with vegetation on the sides. Dirt and vegetation are softer surfaces than pavement to land on. Minor injuries such as scrapes and scratches may be a bit more common. Tree branches and brush can scratch your arms and legs as you ride by. If you come off the bike while riding a trail, you might get bruised up a bit. Serious injuries are less likely.
Mountain bikes are slower than road bikes because they are heavier and have lower gearing. For example, most mountain bikers ride at speeds of less than 10 mph while road bikes reach speeds well over 30 mph. If you crash, your injuries may be less severe because you weren’t moving as fast. You’ll also land on softer dirt or vegetation instead of hard pavement.
The extra traction of the wide tires makes it less likely for your tires to slide out from under you unexpectedly while riding on the road. For example, if you hit a patch of gravel, you’ll probably stay upright. The brake lever position also allows you to stop a bit faster in an emergency situation because you don’t have to move your hands to brake. This reduces your stopping distance. The upright riding position also gives you a clear view of the road or trail ahead of you. You may be a bit less likely to crash on a mountain bike for these reasons.
Of course, mountain biking isn’t always safer. Downhill riders take big jumps and ride at high speeds. A crash could easily result in broken bones or serious injury.
Mountain biking is healthier than road cycling
All cycling is good for your health. Mountain biking is just a bit better than road biking. There are three main reasons for this. First, mountain biking can improve bone density. This is possible thanks to the frequent impacts and vibrations that you experience while riding over rugged terrain. These types of impacts strengthen your bones. As a result, you’ll be less likely to break a bone if you fall. Having strong bones is important for your overall health.
Mountain biking can also help with muscle toning because you have to use your whole body to control the bike while riding rough surfaces. You really have to manhandle a mountain bike to navigate a rugged mountain trail. This helps you build upper body muscles. You’ll also ride your mountain bike at a wide range of cadences from quick bursts of power to sustained pedaling. This helps you activate different muscle groups and tone your legs.
In addition, mountain bikers tend to breath in less pollution than road bikers. This is the case because mountain bikers ride off-road where there are fewer cars. You’re not inhaling car exhaust and other pollutants while riding in the woods. This makes mountain biking a bit better for your health.
Riding a mountain bike teaches you more technical skills
Riding a mountain bike teaches you some important skills that you can’t learn as easily while riding a road bike. This can make you a stronger overall cyclist both off-road and on.
For example, while mountain biking, your bike handling skills improve. You learn how to choose a line and how to recover when you lose traction. You’ll also learn how to balance the bike on uneven terrain. This can help you maneuver better and overcome various obstacles. You pick these skills up quickly because you constantly encounter new obstacles that you have to overcome while mountain biking.
In addition, your pedal stroke will improve while mountain biking. While riding varied terrain, you’ll learn how to pedal smoothly, sprint powerfully, fluctuate your pedaling force, and coast efficiently over obstacles.
Mountain biking can speed up your reflexes as well because you’re always encountering a new obstacle to ride over or avoid. You can also take bigger risks while mountain biking. If you crash in the dirt at low speeds, you’re less likely to suffer an injury. This allows you to test out and perfect new skills without the fear of injury.
All of these skills translate directly to road riding. In fact, some road cyclists use off-road riding for training during the off season because these skills are a bit harder to learn on a road bike.
Better parts availability
Mountain bikes are probably the most common type of bicycle around the world. Wherever you are, you can almost always find a spare tire, rim, brake lever, shifter, cable, etc. Particularly if you ride a basic bike with 26” tires and an 8 speed drivetrain. Small bike shops and many department stores carry mountain bike parts. Road bike parts can be a bit harder to find.
Of course, mountain bike components aren’t always easier to find. Modern components such as hydraulic disc brakes, 29er wheels and tires, and 1X drivetrain components can be rare in some parts of the world. If you choose a bike with modern parts, you’ll want to consider parts availability.
If you ride in the developed world or in a large city, parts availability doesn’t really matter because you can always order what you need online or visit a high-end bike shop. For those who ride in the developing world or a rural region, you may want to consider parts availability when choosing a bike. Generally, mountain bike parts are easier to come by than road parts.
You can run mountain bike tires at low air pressure
Mountain bike tires are typically run at 22-35 psi. To compare, road bike tires are run at 80-130 psi. Running the tires at low pressure is possible because wider tires have a higher volume. This makes the tires less likely to bottom out and hit the rim.
There are two main benefits to running your tires at lower pressure. First, the ride is smoother because the softer tires can absorb shocks and vibrations. The large tires can deform around obstacles like rocks and roots instead of bouncing off.
Softer tires also provide better traction. The soft tires deform at the contact patch so more tread touches the ground. This increases friction between the tires and the ground.
If you’re riding a particularly rough or slippery surface, you can let some air out of your tires to make the ride smoother or improve traction. You don’t have to worry as much about pinch flats either because the high volume tires have more distance to travel between the tire and rim. They’re less likely to bottom out.
Mountain bikes inspire confidence and are great for beginners
Mountain bikes are easy to ride and are very forgiving. The wide handlebars and upright seating position allow you to easily control the bike. The traction allows you to ride slippery surfaces such as sand, gravel, and ice. The extra grip also allows you to stop, turn, and accelerate hard without having to worry as much about your wheels slipping. The high-volume tires and suspension system can absorb shocks. If you hit a bump or pothole, chances are the wheels will roll over it. The wide tires also offer good balance and stability.
All of this makes mountain bikes easy to ride and inspires confidence. For these reasons, a mountain bike is an excellent choice for beginner cyclists, including children.
Mountain bike culture
Both mountain and road cyclists have their own unique cycling culture. The sports are very different. In my experience, mountain bikers tend to be a bit more laid back and accepting of new riders. Mountain biking is also a less competitive activity. Many riders just ride for fun with friends. There is often no competition involved. The only goal is to have fun and enjoy nature. If you’re a casual cyclist, you may prefer mountain bike culture.
You can ride a mountain bike on road
It’s perfectly fine to ride your mountain bike on pavement. It might not be fast or efficient but it will handle the terrain just fine. You can’t do the opposite and ride a road bike on mountain bike trails.
Mountain bikes look rugged and tough, like they’re ready to ride anywhere. Many cyclists prefer the looks of mountain bikes. Of course, looks are subjective.
Mountain Bike Cons
Mountain bikes weigh around 28-32 lbs (12.7-14.5 kg). To compare road bikes weigh around 18-25 lbs (8-11 kg). On average, a mountain bike weighs 10-12 lbs (4.5-5.5 kg) more than a comparable road bike.
Mountain bikes are heavier due to the larger tires, suspension system, and beefier frame and wheels. These all contain more material, which adds mass. The extra weight makes mountain bikes a bit slower and less efficient. Particularly when climbing hills. It takes more energy to move the extra weight around.
The extra weight also makes mountain bikes harder to transport. For example, if you need to lift your bike onto a roof rack or carry it up a flight of stairs, it will be a bit more difficult with a heavy mountain bike. If you fly with your bike, you may have to pay more overweight luggage fees.
Mountain bikes are less aerodynamically efficient than road bikes
The upright ride position and wide handlebars turn your body into a sail. Your chest and spread arms create a lot of wind resistance. The wider tires and extra spokes in the wheels also create additional drag. You have to pedal harder to overcome the extra resistance.
When you’re riding at low speeds, aerodynamics don’t really matter. When you reach speeds of around 10 mph, air resistance becomes the main force acting against you. This can really slow you down when riding into a headwind or trying to ride fast. The faster you ride, the more aerodynamics come into play. For more info, check out this interesting article about cycling aerodynamics.
You can crouch down on your flat bars to improve aerodynamics but you can’t maintain this position for long. It gets uncomfortable quickly.
Mountain bikes only have one hand position
Standard flat handlebars that come with most mountain bikes only offer one grip location. The problem with this is that you can experience hand numbness or wrist pain after holding your hands in the same position for too long. This is caused by pressure on the nerves in your wrists. Gripping your handlebars the same way for days on end can actually cause irreversible nerve damage in extreme cases. Bikepackers sometimes experience this.
Luckily, there are some solutions. You should start by choosing comfortable grips. Many mountain bikers prefer thick grips. You could also install a different type of handlebars that offers more hand positions. For some ideas, check out my list of 17 types of bike handlebars. Another option is to install bar ends on your existing flat bars. These create a second hand position. Wearing gloves can also help avoid numbness and pain.
While cycling you should pay close attention to your hands. If they start to feel numb, take a break. Hand numbness can be permanent. For more info, check out this interesting article.
Mountain bikes are less efficient than road bikes
There are a number of reasons for this. First, because mountain bikes are heavier, it takes more energy to bring the bike up to speed and maintain your speed. It takes more energy to move more mass around.
Wide and soft mountain bike tires deform at the contact patch. They make more contact with the ground than narrow and hard road tires. This creates extra friction, which costs you energy to overcome. In other words, mountain bike tires create a lot of rolling resistance.
The upright ride position also creates additional air resistance, which can also slow you down. The wide tires also add more air resistance than narrow road tires. It takes more energy to overcome this additional air resistance. Particularly while riding at speed.
The suspension system can also waste energy compressing and rebounding as you pedal. While you pedal, your weight shifts and causes the suspension to compress unnecessarily. You’re wasting energy compressing the suspension that could have been used to move you forward. This phenomenon is called pedal bob.
Mountain bikes don’t maintain speed as well as road bikes. When you stop pedaling, you’ll slow down faster due to the extra rolling resistance and drag. When riding a mountain bike, you’ll burn more energy and cover less ground than you could on a road bike. For these reasons, mountain bikes aren’t ideal for long distance riding, unless you plan to spend the majority of your time riding off-road.
Mountain bikes require more frequent maintenance
One drawback to riding a mountain bike is that you’ll have to clean it after almost every ride if you ride in dirty, dusty, or muddy conditions. This involves wiping down the frame, wheels, and suspension components as well as cleaning and lubing the chain. This takes some time.
This cleaning is necessary to prevent wear and tear caused by contaminants such as dirt and sand making their way into the drivetrain and suspension components. If you don’t clean your mountain bike regularly, the drivetrain and suspension components can get contaminated with debris and stop working properly.
Mountain bike suspension components also require regular maintenance. Both fork suspension and rear shocks need maintenance about once every 6-18 months depending on how much you ride and the type of suspension your bike has. Suspension maintenance involves cleaning or replacing the seals and oil in your suspension system. Every couple of years, you’ll have to have the suspension fork and rear shock rebuilt. You don’t have to worry about this with road bikes because the frame is rigid.
Mountain bikes require a larger gap to pass through
The widest part of most bikes is the handlebars. Mountain bike flat bars tend to measure about 200 mm wider than the drop bars that come on most road bikes. The extra width makes it harder to squeeze through tight gaps.
This can be a problem if you commute through dense traffic or a crowded city or on narrow trails. One solution is to install more narrow handlebars or hack a few inches off of each side of your existing handlebars. For most riders, the extra width isn’t a problem.
Mountain bikes are slower than road bikes
There are four main reasons for this. First, mountain bikes are heavier. The extra weight slows you down. Next, the wide and soft tires create extra rolling resistance. This slows you down as well. Mountain bikes also put you in a less aerodynamic riding position. This creates more drag, which further slows you down. Finally, mountain bikes have a larger gap between gear ratios. This throws off your cadence while shifting. It takes more time to return to your optimal cadence. This also slows you down.
You can’t accelerate as fast and you’ll maintain a lower average speed when riding a mountain bike. You’ll spend more time in the saddle to cover the same amount of ground as you would with a road bike. If your friends all ride road bikes and you ride a mountain bike, you may have trouble keeping up with them.
You can’t cover as much ground as quickly
When riding a mountain bike, you’ll maintain a slower average speed than you could with a road bike. The main reason is that you’re facing an aerodynamic disadvantage. The extra weight and rolling resistance slow you down as well.
Over long distances, this inefficiency adds up. For example, while riding on the road, you may travel 2 mph slower on a mountain bike than you could on a road bike. Over a full day of cycling, you may cover 10-20 fewer miles than you could with a road bike.
For this reason, mountain bikes aren’t ideal for long distance on-road riding such as bicycle touring. It will take longer to cover the same distance that you could on a road bike.
Mountain biking can be less accessible
Most people live in a city these days. Chances are, there aren’t any mountain bike trails near your home. You probably can’t just ride from your home to the mountain bike trails outside of your city. In order to access the trails, you may have to load your bike into your vehicle and drive. This can be a hassle. You might bike less often as a result.
Road Bike Pros
Road bikes are lighter
The average high-end road bike weighs about 8 kg or around 18 lbs. Professional racing bikes weigh just 6.8 kg or around 15 lbs. This is the minimum bike weight allowed in professional road cycling by the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale). To compare, a mountain bike weighs about 12.7 kg or around 28 lbs. As you can see, a lightweight road bike will weigh 4.5-5.5 kg or 10-12 lbs less than a comparable mountain bike.
Road bikes are optimized for light weight. They come with lightweight wheels with a low spoke count and narrow rims and tires, no suspension system, and a frame and fork made from a lightweight material such as aluminum or carbon fiber. Road bike drivetrain components tend to be lighter as well. A lighter bike allows you to ride faster and more efficiently. It takes less energy to move less mass around. The lighter bike is also easier to carry and transport.
Road bikes are more aerodynamic
While cycling, aerodynamics play a major role in your speed and energy usage. In fact, according to this interesting article about the aerodynamics of cycling, “As much as 90% of the resistance a rider has to overcome is the aerodynamic drag.” The faster you cycle, the more aerodynamics matter.
Road bikes are designed with aerodynamics in mind. They place you in an aggressive aerodynamic riding position. The narrow drop bars keep your elbows in and allow you to crouch down. This reduces drag significantly, which increases your speed and energy efficiency. Road bike tires are also more narrow and the wheels contain fewer spokes. This further reduces drag. You don’t have to pedal as hard because you don’t have to overcome quite as much wind resistance.
This aerodynamic efficiency comes in handy when you’re riding into a headwind, descending a hill, or simply trying to ride fast. You can maintain a faster average speed and burn less energy. For more technical information, check out this scientific study about the development of cycling aerodynamics (this links to a PDF).
Road bikes offer multiple hand positions
Most road bikes feature drop bars. These offer 3 distinct hand positions: on the top of the bars, on the brake hoods, and in the drops. The hoods and bar tops are comfortable for cruising. Riding on the hoods gives you plenty of leverage for climbing. Riding in the drops puts you into a perfect aerodynamic position for descending hills and riding into headwinds. You can also grip other parts of the bars as they are completely covered in grip tape. Grip positions are unlimited.
Having multiple grip positions benefits long-distance riders, like bicycle tourists. Each grip position uses a different set of muscles. Switching your grip up allows different parts of your hands and wrists to relax and takes pressure off of the nerves in your wrists. This allows you to ride longer without experiencing hand fatigue or numbness. This greatly increases comfort. Of course, not all road bikes come with drop bars. Some have flat bars.
Road Bikes are better for climbing hills
Road bike frame geometry and drop bars allow you to achieve a powerful climbing position. Particularly while standing.
The drop bars give you good leverage to lean the bike back and forth as you pedal. You want to lean the bike away from the foot that is delivering power on the downstroke. This helps you move your body weight from one foot to the other. When you do this, you’re using your upper body to help you pedal.
Road bike frame geometry also makes climbing easier. The riding position allows you to lean your body forward slightly while pedaling. This can help you deliver more power while climbing.
The lighter weight of road bikes also makes climbing much easier because you’re moving less mass up the hill. If you ride in a hilly or mountainous area, a road bike may be a good choice because it will allow you to climb much easier.
Road bikes are more efficient than mountain bikes
There are several reasons for this. First, road tires create less rolling resistance because they are more narrow and harder. They don’t deform quite as much at the contact patch so less of the tire contacts the ground. Road tires create less friction.
Possibly the biggest factor determining efficiency is aerodynamics. Road bikes provide a significant aerodynamic advantage over mountain bikes thanks to the ride position. The frame geometry and handlebar design allow you to crouch down to reduce drag. This way, you don’t have to pedal as hard to overcome wind resistance.
Road bikes are also significantly lighter than mountain bikes. It takes less energy to move less weight around. Road bikes also don’t have heavy and inefficient suspension systems that waste pedaling power. In addition, road bikes disrupt your cadence less while shifting. This is because the gear ratios are closer together. You don’t have to spend as much energy regaining your cadence after a shift.
Riding a more efficient bike allows you to ride further without tiring out. You’ll burn less energy and arrive at your destination sooner.
Road bikes require less frequent maintenance
Road bikes tend to stay cleaner than mountain bikes. This is the case because they’re ridden on pavement rather than dirt and mud. You don’t have to clean and lube the chain quite as often as a result. Mountain bikes require cleaning after pretty much every ride.
Road bikes also don’t have suspension components. The frame and fork are rigid. This cuts out a significant amount of maintenance. You never have to worry about cleaning seals or replacing oil or sending suspension components out for rebuilds. This saves you time and money.
One maintenance job that you’ll have to do a bit more often on a road bike is checking the tire pressure. Because the tires have a lower volume, they are much more sensitive to pressure changes. You’ll want to be sure to own a good pump and gauge.
Road bikes are faster
There are a few reasons for this. First, road bikes are lighter. You can accelerate faster and reach a higher top speed with a lighter bike because you’re moving less weight around. The frame geometry of road bikes also puts you in the ideal position for maximizing pedaling speed and power.
Road bikes are also more aerodynamic thanks to the aggressive ride position and drop bars. This allows you to cut through the wind and reduce drag. The faster you ride, the more important aerodynamics become.
Road bikes also shift quickly and smoothly because the gear ratios are closer together. Shifting disrupts your cadence less. When you shift up into a harder gear, you can quickly gain speed and regain your optimal cadence.
Finally, the narrow, high-pressure tires reduce rolling resistance. Interestingly, slightly wider road tires are faster than extremely narrow tires because they have less internal friction or hysteresis. They deform less at the contact patch. For more info on this phenomenon, check out this interesting article.
This is a personal preference but I think road bikes have a really classic and iconic look. When I picture a bicycle in my mind, I think of a road bike. The drop bars, narrow tires, and rigid frame make the bike look clean and fast. Of course, looks are subjective.
Road bikes can pass through more narrow gaps
Drop bars measure around 40-46 cm in width while flat bars typically measure 58-60 cm. This means road bikes are around 20 cm narrower than mountain bikes. This narrow width comes in handy if you ride through tight traffic or crowded bike paths in a city. With a road bike, you can pass through gaps that you couldn’t fit through with a mountain bike. This can speed up your commute. This is really only beneficial for those who live in compact and crowded cities.
Road biking is an excellent cardio workout. Cycling at speed really gets your heart rate up. You can easily control the intensity of the workout by changing your speed or cadence. This allows you to stay in your optimal heart rate zone.
Cycling is also good for weight loss. You can burn around 400 calories per hour. As an added bonus, cycling is easier on your joints than running. As long as your bike fits you well, you won’t wear out your knees or ankles while cycling. To help you track your fitness, you can wear a heart rate monitor and install a power meter on your bike.
Road biking is more accessible
These days, most people live on a paved road in a town or city. With a road bike, you can walk out your front door and start cycling. With a mountain bike, you have to travel to the mountains or trails outside of the city in order to ride.
You can cover more ground more quickly on a road bike
Road bikes allow you to maintain a higher average speed and burn less energy. This is possible because road bikes are lighter and more aerodynamic. They also create less rolling resistance. As a result, you’ll be able to ride further with a road bike than a mountain bike.
This makes road bikes a better choice for those who have a long commute as well as bicycle tourists. If you plan to commute 15 miles with your bike, you might be able to cut a few minutes from your commute if you choose a road bike instead of a mountain bike. If you’re planning a month-long tour, you might be able to cover a few hundred more miles on a road bike than you could on a mountain bike.
Road Bike Cons
You can’t ride as many places with a road bike
With a road bike, you’re pretty much limited to riding on paved roads. The low-volume tires and rigid frame can’t handle large bumps, rocks, roots, and other obstacles without bottoming out. Soft surfaces are a problem as well. The narrow tires sink into soft sand, mud, and snow because the contact patch is smaller. When the tires sink into soft surfaces, friction prevents you from riding.
You can install slightly wider tires to make a road bike a bit more off-road capable. For example, some road frames have enough clearance for 40-45 mm wide tires. These should give you enough traction to ride gravel roads, fire roads, and some smooth mountain bike trails. You won’t be able to ride single track, downhill trails, or anything too extreme with a road bike.
If all of your friends ride mountain bikes and you ride a road bike, this can be a problem. You won’t be able to ride with them when they go off-road.
Road bikes offer less traction
Narrow road tires make a smaller compact patch with the ground than wide mountain bike tires. This reduces traction because the tire can’t create as much friction with the road. Road tires also need to be run at higher pressures than mountain bike tires to prevent pinch flats and rim strikes. This reduces traction by preventing the tire from deforming at the contact patch. Less tread touches the ground. Road bike tires also tend to have less tread than mountain bike tires. Most riders run slicks. These offer good traction on smooth roads but can lose traction if there is gravel, sand, or other debris on the road.
This lack of traction makes it difficult to ride a road bike on some surfaces. You’ll have to be extra careful while riding your road bike on loose surfaces such as gravel or dirt roads or sandy patches. Slippery surfaces such as wet roads can also be challenging to ride. You won’t be able to corner, brake, or accelerate as hard on these types of surfaces because your tires can slip more easily.
Road bikes are less durable
Road bike components tend to be a bit more fragile than mountain bike components. This is the case because road bikes are optimized for light weight. Some durability is sacrificed. Road bike parts can be a bit less durable because they don’t have to put up with the stress of off-road riding.
For example, road bikes typically have weaker wheels than mountain bikes. The main reason is that road bike wheels often have a lower spoke count. They may have 24 spokes instead of 32. This makes broken spokes more common because each spoke must handle more load.
Road bike rims are often larger in diameter and more narrow as well. Most road bikes feature 700c wheels. Many mountain bikes these days have smaller 650b wheels. Larger and skinnier wheels are structurally weaker. For these reasons, road bike wheels can be a bit less durable than mountain bike wheels.
You have to be a bit more careful while riding up and down curbs or over potholes. The rim can more easily bend or crack if you hit a large bump. The narrow, low-volume tires can suffer from pinch flats more easily as well.
In addition, road bike groupsets and frames can be a bit less robust than what you’d find on a mountain bike. If you’re hard on your bike, you might encounter more problems. Parts can break more easily. In the event of an accident, a road bike may be more likely to sustain damage.
Road bikes have a rougher ride
Road bikes have a harsher ride than mountain bikes. They can’t absorb shocks and vibrations as well as mountain bikes. If you run over a rock, the hard tires bounce off instead of deforming and absorbing the bump. This allows shocks to transmit through the frame and into your body. You’ll feel more vibrations from the road as well while riding on a rough surface.
Road bikes also don’t have any suspension system to absorb shocks. The frame and fork are completely rigid for the sake of efficiency. When you ride a road bike on a rough, pothole-filled road, the ride will feel harsh and uncomfortable. This can be a problem for people with back or joint problems. The rough ride can cause fatigue as well.
If the roads in your area are in good condition, the ride will feel smooth and comfortable. Riding a road bike on a freshly paved surface feels smooth as butter. If the roads are in poor condition with lots of cracks, potholes, and debris, you may find riding a road bike to be uncomfortable.
Road bikes tend to be more expensive
Decent, mid-range road bikes start at around $1200. Entry-level models start at around $600. High-end road bikes with carbon frames, electronic groupsets, and all of the bells and whistles can cost well over $10,000. The sky is the limit. Mountain bikes of similar quality typically cost $200-$400 less, on average.
Replacement road bike components tend to be more expensive as well. For example, drop bar shifters and brake levers usually cost more than flat bar variants, for whatever reason. Road-oriented derailleurs, cassettes, and chainrings are sometimes more expensive than off-road models. Eventually, these parts need to be replaced when they wear out. This increases the cost of ownership over time.
One way to save money on a road bike is to buy a used bike. You can pick up a high-end vintage road bike in good condition for just a couple of hundred dollars. It may not have all of the features of newer bikes but it will offer excellent performance for the price. For example, I bought a Centurion Dave Scott Iron Man for around $200. I rode that bike to school every day for a couple of years.
Road Bikes Have a Less comfortable ride position
Road bike frame geometry places the rider in an aggressive ride position. While riding a road bike, you lean forward with part of your body weight resting on the handlebars. Some riders find this position to be less comfortable than the upright ride position of mountain bikes. The extra weight on your wrists, hands, and shoulders can cause fatigue. The aggressive ride position also forces you to hold your back and neck in an unnatural position. In order to look out ahead and get a clear view of the road, you have to bend your neck back slightly. If you have back or neck problems maintaining this position can be an issue.
Road bikes are less versatile
Road bikes limit you to riding on paved roads. A patch of gravel, sand, a stick, or a piece of debris in the road could cause you to fall. Riding a road bike on uneven surfaces is dangerous. This means that there are many places that simply you can’t ride a road bike. This limits the types of riding you can do.
For example, you can’t ride a road bike on singletrack trails, mountain bike trails, or in the mud, snow, or sand. If you want to ride these types of terrain, you’ll have to buy a second bike. For this reason, a road bike may not be ideal for a person who wants to ride multiple types of terrain but can only afford one bike.
Road bikes are harder to maneuver
Most road bikes come with drop bars. Some new riders find that drop bars make the bike a bit harder to control compared to flat bars that come with most mountain bikes.
The main reason is that drop bars are more narrow than flat bars. They can’t give you quite as much leverage. This makes it more difficult to steer the front wheel precisely. A smaller movement of the handlebars creates a larger movement of the wheel. You also can’t turn the front wheel quite as quickly because the narrow drop bars provide less leverage. This makes it a bit harder to balance while riding at low speeds.
While riding a road bike, you also put more bodyweight on the handlebars due to the aggressive frame geometry. This makes it a bit harder to steer quickly and accurately because you’re putting more pressure on the handlebars while you ride. Road bikes are harder to maneuver for these reasons. They are designed for cornering at speed, not precision steering at low speeds.
I remember when I first started riding drop bars, I felt unstable. Particularly while riding at low speeds. I couldn’t control the bike quite as accurately as I was used to. While riding at speed, the steering feels smoother.
In addition, the brake levers on drop bar road bikes are a bit harder to access. Because there are multiple grip positions, you might have to move your hands to brake. For example, if you’re riding with your hands on top of the bars, you’ll have to move your hands to the brake hoods to reach the brake levers. This adds another level of difficulty to controlling your speed in some situations. It takes more time to slow down. This increases your stopping distance.
The lack of suspension also makes road bikes harder to control while riding over a rough surface. You can’t control the bike as well when it’s bouncing around violently under you.
Of course, after riding a road bike for a couple of hundred miles, steering and braking become much easier. There is a small learning curve to riding drop handlebars. For more info, check out my guide to drop bars vs flat bars.
Road bikes may be more dangerous
The biggest risk of road cycling is getting hit by a car. After all, you ride on the road right next to traffic. 3,000 lb vehicles travel at high speeds right next to you. For this reason alone, you are more likely to die while riding a road bike than a mountain bike. Most cyclist and car collisions occur because the driver didn’t see the cyclist.
Road bikes are also 15-20% faster than mountain bikes. If you crash, you’re more likely to suffer a serious injury like a broken bone or head injury. At the very least, you’ll get some road rash. When you crash on a road bike, you also land on a hard concrete surface rather than softer dirt and vegetation.
The lack of traction can also make road bikes dangerous in some situations. If you hit a patch of gravel or sand on the road, the bike can easily slide out from under you. This happened to my friend on our first bicycle tour. Luckily, he wasn’t injured too badly.
The brake lever position on drop bars can also be a safety issue. Sometimes you have to move your hands before you can apply the brakes. For example, you can’t reach the brakes from the drops. In an emergency situation where you need to stop fast, the extra fraction of a second it takes to move your hands could end up costing you because your braking distance will be a bit longer.
Having said this, road bikers suffer less frequent minor injuries than mountain bikers because crashes are less common. For more info comparing road and mountain bike safety, check out this interesting article.
Parts availability can be poor in some parts of the world
Road bikes are not very common in some parts of the developing world. If you ride in one of these places, you might have trouble finding certain replacement parts such as a brake lever, derailleur, wheels, 10+ speed cassettes, slick road tire, or pretty much any modern component. Ordering online may not be an option because deliveries are unreliable and import taxes are high.
It can also be hard to find parts in many rural areas. Sometimes small bike shops or department stores carry a small selection of mountain bike parts but not road bike parts. In this case, you may need to order online to get the parts that you require. If you live in a place where road bikes are uncommon, you may want to consider parts availability when choosing a bike.
If you live in a large developed city, parts availability doesn’t really matter. You can go to a high-end road bike shop to buy pretty much anything you need. If they don’t carry the parts, you can just order online.
Some technical skills and techniques are harder to learn on a road bike
While riding a road bike, you may not learn some important bike handling skills. For example, you might not be able to choose a line as efficiently. If you hit a slippery patch of loose gravel, water, or oil and lose traction, you might not know how to recover.
It’s harder to learn these skills while road biking because you encounter situations where you need to use them less frequently. Usually, the road is clear and traction is good. When you encounter a hairy section of road or a slippery surface, you may not know what to do if you didn’t learn these skills while riding off-road. While riding a mountain bike, you’re regularly navigating technical terrain and recovering from slips. You pick these skills up quickly.
In addition, your balance might not be as developed and your reflexes might be a bit slower when you only ride on the road. For example, you may have trouble balancing the bike while riding at low speeds. If you encounter an unexpected obstacle, you may have trouble reacting fast enough to avoid it.
These skills are harder to learn while riding on the road because the road is usually smooth and you’re usually traveling at higher speeds. You don’t need to balance as often or react as quickly in most situations. While riding a mountain bike, you’re constantly balancing and reacting to new situations.
It’s harder to develop technical skills on a road bike. You’re forced to develop these skills on a mountain bike because you’re constantly encountering new obstacles to learn how to overcome. For these reasons, road bikes aren’t ideal for those who are just learning to ride. If you don’t learn the proper skills and techniques, you won’t become a strong cyclist.
Road biking may not be as healthy as mountain biking
There are two reasons for this. First, road bikers breathe in more pollution from exhaust fumes than mountain bikers. The reason is that road bikers tend to ride near traffic while mountain bikers ride in nature away from traffic. Breathing in this pollution can be particularly hard on those with certain respiratory problems. For more info, check out this article about cycling in heavy traffic.
Another problem with road biking is that it can be bad for bone density because it is such a low-impact workout. Your bones are not weight-bearing while you’re cycling. According to this interesting article, road cycling can actually weaken your bones. This increases your chance of breaking bones during a crash. This becomes an issue for some avid cyclists. If you’re cycling for your health, you may want to pair cycling with weight training or another higher impact activity such as running. Good bone density is important for your overall health. Particularly when you’re older.
You must run road tires at higher pressure
There are two reasons for this. First, the narrow, low-volume tires can bottom out and cause pinch flats if the pressure is too low. Pinch flats happen when the tire hits the rim. The tube gets pinched between the tire and rim and tears, causing a flat.
Bottoming out hard can also cause damage to the rims. If you hit a bump and your tire doesn’t have enough air, your rim can strike the ground and crack or bend. You’ll want to be particularly careful of this if you choose a bike with carbon fiber rims.
The exact tire pressure you’ll need to maintain depends on the tire width, your weight, and the surface you ride. Generally, 25mm road tires need to be run at 100+ psi for an average-sized rider. Mountain bike tires can often be run as low as 25psi.
One drawback to running higher tire pressure is that the ride is a bit rougher. The hard tires tend to bounce off of obstacles instead of absorbing them. Shocks and vibrations from the road can travel through the tires and frame and into your body.
Firmer tires also don’t offer as much traction because the contact patch is smaller. This is the case because the harder tires can’t deform as much where they meet the ground. Less tread touches the ground so there is less friction between the tire and the ground.
Road bike culture
In my experience, road cyclists tend to be more serious about their sport than mountain bikers. They are more competitive. Some only seem to care about speed and efficiency. Some come off as a bit elitist. If you ride competitively or you’re really involved in the sport, this is fine. If you’re just looking to ride casually and have fun, it can be a bit harder to integrate into road bike culture. Of course, this isn’t the case with all road bikers. Many are incredibly friendly and welcoming. Many just ride for fun.
Road bikes aren’t ideal for beginner cyclists and kids
Road bikes are a bit more difficult to ride than mountain bikes. This is the case because the narrow handlebars and aggressive ride position make it a bit harder to control the bike. Because road bikes have less traction, you can’t as easily ride slippery surfaces. You also can’t stop, accelerate, or corner as hard without having to worry about your tires skidding or sliding out. The ride can be a bit rougher as well because there is no suspension. All of this makes it slightly harder to learn to ride a road bike. For these reasons, a road bike may not be the best choice for a beginner cyclist or a child who is just learning to ride.
Maximum tire width is limited
Most road bike frames limit the maximum tire width to 35-45mm. If you tried to install wider tires, they would rub on the frame. Some riders like to install wider tires on their road bike. This allows the bike to handle some rougher surfaces such as gravel and dirt roads and some smooth trails. Sometimes the maximum tire width isn’t wide enough.
If you plan to ride during the winter, you may want to install studded bike tires for extra traction on snow and ice. In this case, you’ll want to make sure your road bike can at least accommodate 32mm wide tires. This is the minimum width of studded bike tires.
A Third Option: Hybrid/Comfort Bikes
Hybrid bikes are a cross between road bikes and mountain bikes. Most models feature a comfortable upright ride position, flat handlebars, and wide-range gearing. These features make hybrids similar to mountain bikes. Most hybrid bikes also feature narrow and fast-rolling tires with light tread and a lightweight frame and wheelset. These features make hybrids similar to road bikes.
Hybrid bikes usually come with tires that are slightly wider than what you would find on a road bike but much more narrow than mountain bike tires. Hybrid bikes are usually lighter than mountain bikes but heavier than road bikes. Many models also come with a short travel front suspension fork and wide padded seat to improve comfort.
Hybrid bikes are efficient and easy to pedal on pavement but still maintain some off-road capability. These bikes are built for recreational riding. They make great commuters, cruisers, and fitness bikes. They are typically very comfortable and easy to ride.
Hybrid Bike Pros
- Comfortable- Hybrid bikes are designed for comfort. They feature wide padded saddles, large platform peddles, an upright ride position, and flat handlebars with ergonomic grips. Most have a suspension fork or suspension seat post to absorb larger bumps like potholes. Hybrid bikes ride smoothly and comfortably.
- Easy to ride- Hybrid bikes have a low center of gravity. This increases stability. Most models come with wide flat handlebars which make the bike easy to steer and maneuver. Hybrid bikes are easy to keep upright while riding at any speed. They steer predictably and easily.
- Good traction- Hybrid bikes offer better traction than road bikes. This allows you to ride where a road bike couldn’t. For example, you can ride a hybrid bike in wet weather, on gravel and dirt roads, over potholes, on grass, and more.
- You can customize a hybrid to suit your needs- You can take a hybrid bike and make it more road or off-road oriented. For example, if you want to ride a bit gnarlier trails with your hybrid, you can install some wider knobby tires. Most hybrids have plenty of frame clearance. If you want to spend more time riding on the road, you can install slick road tires.
- Affordable- Most hybrid bikes are mid-range bikes that are designed for average recreational riders and commuters. Prices are reasonable. You can buy a decent hybrid bike that will last for many years for $500-$1200.
- Hybrid bikes offer the best of both worlds- Hybrid bikes combine the light weight and efficiency of road bikes with the durability and comfort of mountain bikes.
Hybrid Bike Cons
- There are compromises- Hybrid bikes aren’t quite as fast and efficient as road bikes. They don’t have as much traction as mountain bikes. When choosing a hybrid bike, you are making a compromise one way or the other. A hybrid bike won’t perform as well on pavement as a road bike and it won’t perform as well off-road as a mountain bike.
- Inefficient- Hybrid bikes have more rolling resistance than road bikes due to the wider tires. They are also heavier than road bikes. In addition, the upright ride position creates more drag. The front suspension can also cause some energy loss. This makes hybrid bikes a bit less efficient than road bikes while riding on pavement.
- Lower quality- Hybrid bikes are made for recreational riders. Most are low-end to mid-range. Most feature a decent aluminum frame and wheels and a mid-range mountain bike groupset. There aren’t any professional-quality hybrid bikes because professionals don’t ride them. They aren’t designed for competitive use.
- Looks- Hybrid bikes don’t look very exciting. They are a basic bike.
For more in-depth info, check out my guide to hybrid bikes vs mountain bikes.
Things to Consider When Choosing Between a Mountain Bike and Road Bike
Before you settle on a particular type of bike, you’ll want to spend some time thinking about how you’re going to actually use the bike. You may find that one type of bike better suits your style of riding than the other. A few important things to consider when choosing between a mountain bike and road bike include:
- Where you plan to ride- Think about the kind of terrain you plan to ride. If you plan to spend most of your time exploring trails or gravel roads, you need a more off-road oriented bike, like a mountain bike. If you exclusively ride on paved roads, you’ll be better off with a road bike. Those who want to ride a mix of on and off-road may want to consider a more versatile bike such as a hybrid, gravel, cyclocross, or adventure bike.
- Who you plan to ride with- If you plan to ride with a group of friends, you may want to choose a bike that is similar to the bikes they ride. This way you can all ride together. If you choose a mountain bike but your friends are road riders, you probably won’t be able to keep up with them. If you choose a road bike and all of your friends ride mountain bikes, you may not be able to ride with them at all. Those who ride alone don’t have to worry about this.
- The distances you plan to ride- The further you plan to ride, the more weight, aerodynamics, and efficiency matter. If you need to commute 20 miles through the city every day, you’ll probably be better off with a lightweight and aerodynamic road bike. If just plan to ride a few miles down a bike path, any bike will do.
- The climate you ride in- If you live in a rainy or snowy climate, you may want to choose a bike that has clearance for wider tires. You may need extra traction while riding in slippery conditions. Maybe you even want to mount studded tires during the winter. In this case, you’ll want a bike with clearance for tires that measure at least 45mm wide.
- Road conditions- Think about the conditions of the road surfaces in your city or country. If road conditions are poor with lots of potholes, cracks, and debris, you might be better off riding a mountain bike even if you plan to spend most of your time riding on the road. If the roads are all smooth and freshly paved, you may be happier riding a road bike.
- Personal preference- Think about your past bikes and what you liked and disliked about them. Do you prefer drop bars or flat bars? If you don’t care for drop bars, you may prefer to ride a flat bar road bike, mountain bike, or a hybrid. Do you prefer an upright ride position or a more aggressive and aerodynamic ride position? If you prefer a more upright position, you may prefer riding a mountain bike. Do you value speed, efficiency, comfort, or traction? You will have to make some compromises when choosing a bike. Consider what you prefer.
- Your budget- If you’re on a tight budget, you may be able to get more bike for your money if you go with a mountain bike. Also, look at the used bike market. Vintage bikes can offer a good value. Of course, low-budget road bikes are also available.
- Why you ride- Are you trying to lose weight or improve your fitness? A road bike may be the best choice. Are you riding for transportation? A hybrid or commuter bike may be preferable. Maybe you’re just riding for recreation with friends and family. In this case, you can ride whatever type of bike you prefer.
- Accessories you want to use- If you want to mount racks and panniers and use your bike for touring, you’ll want to be sure to buy a bike with the proper braze-ons. Maybe you live in a hot climate and need to carry lots of water. You’ll want to choose a bike with plenty of bottle cage mounts. Maybe you like to mount a GPS, lights, a bell, and a cycling computer to your handlebars. You’ll want to choose a bike that has space for all of these accessories.
Who Should Ride a Mountain Bike?
Mountain bikes are ideal for anyone who wants to ride unpaved roads. This could mean riding gravel roads, singletrack, mountain bike trails, or technical downhill runs. The wide, knobby tires offer plenty of traction on dirt, sand, gravel, wet surfaces, and even on snow and ice. Suspension components absorb shocks from bumps, rocks, roots, and holes. The soft tires and suspension improve comfort as well. Mountain bikes offer a smooth ride.
Mountain bikes are also a good choice for anyone who is hard on their bike. In addition, mountain bike wheels and frames are stronger and tougher than comparable road bike parts. The more robust build allows the bike to take a beating and keep on rolling. Mountain bikes are durable.
Mountain bikes are also a good choice for those who are new to cycling as well as kids. The flat handlebars and upright riding position make the bike a bit easier to control. New riders can easily develop technical skills to become stronger cyclists. If you haven’t ridden a bike for many years, you may be better off starting with a mountain bike.
Those who are on a tight budget are usually better off with a mountain bike as well. In most cases, mountain bikes are cheaper than road bikes. The initial purchase price is lower and replacement parts cost less.
Those who can only afford one bike are often better off with a mountain bike as well due to the added versatility. You can ride a mountain bike on road but you can’t ride a road bike off-road. This allows you to use the same bike for commuting, touring, running errands, and mountain biking.
Who Should Ride a Road Bike?
Road bikes are ideal for those who want to ride quickly and efficiently on paved roads. Road bikes are lightweight and offer low rolling resistance thanks to the narrow and hard tires. They are also aerodynamically efficient due to the aggressive ride position. This allows you to cover more ground more quickly while burning less energy. Road bikes are fast and efficient.
Those who live in a hilly area often prefer road bikes due to their superior climbing ability. The handlebars and frame geometry give you excellent leverage for producing power. The light weight makes climbing easier. Road bikes climb quickly and efficiently.
Many riders also prefer road bikes because they feature drop bars. These give you multiple hand positions. You can grip the bars on the brake hoods, on the tops of the bars, or in the drops. You can move your hands to avoid fatigue. Those who enjoy riding long distances often prefer road bikes for this reason.
A road bike is also an excellent choice for someone who lives in a large city. Many people simply don’t have any mountain bike trails near their home. Paved roads are more accessible to many riders. You can walk out your front door and start riding.
Types of Mountain Bikes
There are a wide range of mountain bikes and off-road-oriented bike available. Each type of bike is designed for riding different terrain, distances, and grades. Some are designed to cover long distances on relatively flat trails and unpaved roads. Some are designed to climb well. Others are designed only for descending the most rugged of mountains.
The four main types of mountain bikes include cross country (XC), trail, enduro, and downhill. In this section, I’ll outline each. I’ll also outline a few different types of off-road-oriented bikes that are worth considering.
- Hardtail mountain bike- These bikes feature a rigid frame with a suspension fork. There is no rear suspension. Due to the simple design, hardtails tend to be the most affordable type of mountain bike. Higher end models that are designed for racing are also available. Hardtail mountain bikes are a great choice for those who are just getting into mountain biking and those who just want to ride for fun. They are ideal for trail riding and general off-road riding. For more info, check out my hardtail vs full suspension mountain bike guide.
- Cross country (XC) mountain bike- These mountain bikes are optimized for efficiency. Particularly while climbing. They feature short travel suspension (120 mm or less) and narrow tires. Most models are full suspension but hardtail options are available. XC bikes are also lightweight. The geometry is similar to a road bike. These bikes work great for riding long distance on gravel roads and dirt trails. They climb well.
- Trail mountain bike- These bikes are designed to do it all. They are efficient enough to climb well. At the same time, they have enough suspension travel to handle descents and some drops and jumps. Trail bikes feature mid-range suspension travel (120-150 mm), wide knobby tires, and disc brakes with large rotors for plenty of stopping power. Most models have either 27.5” or 29” wheels. Plus models are also available that can accommodate 3”+ wide tires. Trail bikes are ideal for those who want to do a mix of different types of mountain biking. You could explore backcountry trails and dirt roads one day then ride downhill the next. If you’re looking for a do it all mountain bike, a trail bike is a good choice.
- Enduro/All Mountain bike- These bikes can handle slightly more rugged terrain than trail bikes. They are designed to descend steep and technical trails quickly while still maintaining enough efficiency to climb. They are designed this way because in enduro racing, only descents are timed and scored but riders still need to have the ability to climb. Enduro bikes feature full suspension with 150-180 mm of travel. They can handle hard hits, jumps, and drops. They have powerful disc brakes with large rotors and wide, high-volume tires with aggressive tread. The geometry is optimized for descents. Enduro bikes are ideal for those who love riding downhill but still want to have the ability to climb and ride normal mountain bike trails.
- Downhill and Freeride mountain bikes- These bikes are optimized for riding steep and technical downhill terrain with lots of jumps and drops along the way. They are not built for climbing. Instead of riding uphill, most downhill mountain bike riders take a shuttle, hike, or take a chairlift. They then ride down with the assistance of gravity. For this reason, weight isn’t as important. Downhill mountain bikes are heavy. Most weigh 35-40 lbs. Downhill mountain bikes feature full suspension with long-travel (180-200 mm). This allows the bike to absorb big hits when landing from jumps and drops. These bikes also come with wide, durable wheels and powerful hydraulic disc brakes. The frame geometry gives the bike a low center of gravity. This improves stability and control. Downhill mountain bikes are ideal for those who want to ride fast down steep and technical terrain as well as those who like to jump their bike or ride off drops.
- Gravel/ Adventure bike- These bikes are designed to handle a wide range of surfaces including gravel and dirt roads, gentle singletrack and mountain bike trails, and pavement. Gravel bikes look similar to classic road bikes. They usually feature drop bars and a rigid frame. Some models come with fork suspension. Gravel bikes have clearance for large knobby tires that measure 38-50mm wide. The riding position is more upright than a standard road bike. This improves comfort and allows for more stable handling while riding rough sections. The drop bars are often extra-wide or flared at the bottom. This gives you more leverage for better control while riding off-road. Gravel bikes also feature extra-wide gearing and disc brakes so you can tackle steep climbs and descents on rough surfaces. These bikes also have plenty of mounting points for accessories such as racks, bottle cages, and fenders. Gravel bikes are perfect for those who want to explore off the beaten track while still maintaining enough efficiency to ride at speed on pavement. They also make good off-road touring bikes. For more info, check out my guide to gravel bikes.
- Bikepacking bikes- These bikes are designed to ride long distances over all types of terrain while fully loaded with gear. They are basically touring bikes that are designed for off-road riding. Bikepacking bikes are similar to gravel bikes but are a bit more robust and rugged. Most models feature clearance for 2” tires, extra wide range gearing, a rigid steel frame, and disc brakes. Drop bar and flat bar models are available. The frame is often suspension corrected so you can run a suspension fork if you choose. Bikepacking bikes include mounting points for all of the accessories you need for touring including luggage and fenders. You can mount traditional panniers and racks or use bikepacking bags to haul your gear. These bikes are ideal for those who want to ride hundreds or thousands of miles through a wide range of road and trail conditions while fully loaded.
- Cyclocross bikes- These bikes are designed for the sport of cyclocross where riders navigate short off-road tracks that contain a range of road surfaces including pavement, mud, sand, and dirt as well as various obstacles. Cyclocross bikes are basically gravel bikes that have been stripped down for racing. They feature an aggressive frame geometry with quick steering, fairly narrow but knobby tires, and disc brakes. The gear range is somewhat narrow. Cyclocross bikes also tend to be lightweight because they often need to be carried across obstacles during races. Accessory mounts are usually limited to a couple of bottle cage mounts. Cyclocross bikes make good commuter bikes as well as light bikepacking or touring bikes. These days, cyclocross bikes are becoming increasingly common among recreational riders who want a do-it-all bike.
- Fat bikes- These are mountain bikes with extra-wide tires that measure 3.8-5”+. The tires run at extremely low air pressure of 4-14 psi. The wide and soft tires distribute the weight of the bike and rider over more surface area. This reduces ground pressure, allowing the bike to ‘float’ over soft surfaces than standard mountain bike tires would sink into. For example, a fat bike can ride over deep snow, mud, and sand without sinking in and getting caught up. Fat bikes were invented for riding on deep snow and sand. The soft tires also deform at the contact patch and around obstacles. This increases traction and allows the tires to absorb most bumps. The frame, fork, and wheels on a fat bike are specially designed to accommodate the massive tires. Most models feature a rigid frame, flat handlebars, and disc brakes. Hardtail and full-suspension models are also available. Cruiser fat bikes are also becoming common. These are designed for riding on sandy beaches. A fat bike is an excellent choice for someone who wants to ride in the winter, on the beach, or in desert environments. They also work well for riding off-trail. A fat bike can take you places no other bike can go. For more info, check out my guide to fat bikes.
Types of Road Bikes
Road bikes come in a number of different designs. Some are optimized for aerodynamics. Some are optimized for weight. They are all designed to ride quickly and efficiently on the pavement. In this section, I’ll outline some of the most common types of road bikes.
- Racing bike– Racing bikes are the type of bike that professional road cyclists ride. The bikes ridden in the Tour de France are racing bikes. These bikes are optimized for speed and efficiency while riding on pavement. They climb well and descend fast. Racing bikes feature a lightweight frame and wheelset, usually made from carbon fiber. They have hard, narrow, slick tires that reduce rolling resistance. The frame is rigid and the geometry is aggressive. This allows for agile steering and an aerodynamic riding position. High-end models often come with electronic shifting. A racing bike is a great choice for someone who wants to ride fast on pavement only and possibly ride competitively. Classic road bikes are often referred to as racing bikes.
- Endurance road bike- These bikes are designed for long days in the saddle. They look like a racing bike but are a bit more comfort-oriented. They feature a more upright ride position. This increases comfort by reducing strain on the arms and neck. Endurance road bikes also have clearance for slightly wider tires for extra traction, a wide gear range to help with climbs, and disc brakes for increased stopping power on wet days. Many models feature mounts for fenders. Some endurance bikes have vibration damping technology built into the frame or fork. An endurance bike would be an excellent choice for a casual road rider who wants to maintain a good pace but ride in some comfort at the same time.
- Flat bar road bike- These road bikes are designed to run flat handlebars instead of drop bars. To accommodate for the flat bar hand position, the frame needs to have a slightly different geometry. Usually, the top tube is a bit shorter on flat bar road bikes. This creates a more comfortable upright ride position than racing bikes. This allows for a better view of the road ahead. Flat bar road bikes often feature slightly wider tires than racing bikes and an aluminum frame. These bikes are designed for urban riding. Flat bar road bikes are ideal for those who want to ride a road bike but don’t like drop bars for whatever reason. They work great for commuting, running errands, and recreational riding in urban environments.
- Aero road bike- These bikes are optimized for aerodynamic efficiency. They are designed for racing or time-trial riding. The frame tubes and handlebars are shaped like wings so they can cut through the air and reduce drag. Most models feature a carbon fiber frame and wheelset. The rims are usually extra deep. This reduces air disturbance caused by the wheels. The brake calipers are often placed behind other components to further reduce drag. Aero bikes also have an aggressive and aerodynamic ride position. These bikes are ideal for those who like to ride fast on relatively flat terrain. For climbing, aero bikes are often slower than road bikes because they tend to be heavier. Aerodynamics really start to become important when traveling at speeds above 10mph. While climbing, you may not reach fast enough speeds for aerodynamics to matter.
- Commuter/city bike- These bikes are optimized for durability, reliability, and low maintenance. They need to handle the abuse of everyday riding as well as riding in poor weather conditions and poor road conditions. Commuter bikes usually feature a tough steel frame, durable but affordable mid-range components, and puncture-resistant tires. City bikes often have a step-through frame, making them easier to mount and dismount. Higher-end models may come with an internal gear hub and belt drive to further reduce maintenance. Wide range gearing allows you to tackle hills. City and commuter bikes usually have flat bars and an upright ride position that allows for a clear view of the road ahead. Commuter bikes also feature front and rear rack mounts. Many city riders carry a pannier or two with a change of clothes as well as work or school materials. Some riders prefer to mount a basket on the front to haul gear. Most models come with fenders as well to keep the rider dry on wet days. Higher-end models also often come with a dynamo hub and lights built-in. Commuter bikes are a great choice for those who plan to ride their bike to work or school every day.
- Fixie or track bike- These bikes feature a single speed with no freehub. The gear is fixed in place on the hub. This means you can’t stop pedaling or coast while riding. When the wheels are turning, so are the cranks. Fixies are basically racing bikes that have been stripped down to the bare minimum components. There are no derailleurs or shifters because there is only one speed. Many models don’t even have brakes. To stop, you simply resist the forward motion of the cranks. In some jurisdictions, brakes are required to make the bike legal. Originally, these bikes were designed for riding on a track. These days, fixies are popular among bike messengers, road riders, and urban riders. They are also popular among hipster types in some cities. Fixies are trendy. For more info, check out my guide to fixed gear bikes.
- Touring bike- These bikes are designed to ride long distances while carrying a heavy load. A touring bike can carry you and all of your gear across a continent or around the world. Most bicycle tourists mount racks and panniers to their touring bike. These can accommodate 60-100 liters of food, clothing, and camping equipment. The geometry of a touring bike is slightly different from a standard road bike. The chainstays are usually longer. This increases stability and reduces the likelihood of your heel hitting your rear panniers while pedaling. The riding position is upright and comfortable. Touring bikes are designed to be ridden for 5-8 hours at a time, day after day. Touring bikes are available in flat bar and drop bar options as well as disc brake and rim brake options. Most feature a durable steel or aluminum frame. The wheels are often built with extra spokes to increase strength. 36 spoke wheels are common. Most touring bikes have clearance for wide tires for a bit more traction and comfort. Touring bikes also feature wide-range gearing. Some models use an internal gear hub and belt drive for reduced maintenance. They also have mounting points for fenders, bottle cages, and other accessories. Touring bikes are ideal for those who want to ride long distances on the road while carrying a full load of camping gear, clothing, food, water, etc. For more info, check out my guide: How to Choose a Touring Bike.
- All-Road bike- This new style of bike fits somewhere between a road bike and a gravel bike. All-road bikes are a bit more road-oriented than gravel bikes but more off-road oriented than road bikes. They offer more tire clearance than road bikes. Usually up to 38 mm. The geometry is similar to a classic road bike but slightly more relaxed. An all-road bike would be a good choice for someone who wants to ride mostly road but have the ability to handle the occasional unpaved road. These bikes are sometimes called road-plus or pavement-plus bikes.
- Ultralight road bike- These bikes are optimized for light weight. Ultralight bikes are designed for climbing hills. They are made from the lightest possible materials and components. They feature a carbon frame and wheels and a minimalist design. Most models feature lower gearing to make climbing a bit easier.
- Cruiser- These classically designed bikes are designed for comfortably cruising around down a boardwalk, pier, or around a beach town. Most models feature large frames with swooping tubes, a 1-7 speed drivetrain, wide tires, a wide cushy seat, and high rise handlebars. Cruisers are comfortable but slow and heavy. They work best for those living in relatively flat areas. They don’t climb well.
- Fitness/ comfort bike- These bikes are designed for exercise or recreational riding. Most models feature an upright ride position with a wide padded seat, flat handlebars, and comfortable grips. Fitness bikes tend to be more efficient. They come with a lightweight frame and narrow tires. Comfort bikes come with slightly wider tires and possibly a front suspension system. These are a great choice for someone who just wants a general-purpose bike for riding around town, commuting, exercising, and more.
- Folding bike- Folding bikes feature a hinged frame that allows the bike to pack down small. This makes the bike easy to transport and store in cramped urban environments. Most models feature a small frame with an extra-long seat post and handlebar post. The frame folds in half the handlebar post and seat posts fold or collapse down. Most folding bikes come with 16” or 20” wheels. This allows the bike to fold down smaller. Some models partially disassemble for even smaller packing. Folding bikes are available in a wide range of designs including drop bar, flat bar, multi-speed, disc brakes, etc. They offer surprisingly good performance for their size. They perform best on road due to their small wheel diameter. These bikes are ideal for multi-modal commuters. You can ride the bike to the bus or metro stop, fold it up, and carry it on with you. Folding bikes are also popular among those who live in small spaces because they don’t take up much room to store. You can keep your folding bike in a closet or under a desk. People who live in high crime areas also appreciate folding bikes because you can take the bike with you rather than locking it up. For more info, check out my guide to the pros and cons of folding bikes.
My Choice: Mountain Bike Vs Road Bike
I do a mix of off-road and on-road riding. I use my bikes for transportation around town, exploring nearby trails, as well as some touring and bikepacking. These days, I do most of my riding on unpaved roads and trails because I enjoy exploring nature. I don’t really like enjoy around traffic.
At the same time, I still spend quite a bit of time riding pavement around town while grocery shopping and running errands. Speed and efficiency don’t matter to me as much because I don’t ride competitively. Usually, I ride alone.
I prefer more off-road oriented bikes for my style of riding because they give me the option to ride wherever I want. I really enjoy the gravel/adventure and bikepacking categories of bikes. They offer a nice mix of road and off-road capability. They are also durable and reliable.
Final Thoughts About Riding a Mountain Bike Vs Road Bike
As you can see both mountain bikes and road bikes have their own set of advantages and disadvantages. Every bike is designed for riding different types of terrain and different distances. You’ll have to choose the bike that best fits the type of riding you plan to do. There are always compromises to make.
If you’re still undecided after reading this guide, the best solution is to simply get a bike and start riding. At the end of the day, the most important thing is that you’re getting out there and riding. Whichever type of bike you end up choosing, I hope this guide has helped you in making your decision.
Do you prefer riding a mountain bike or road bike? Share your experience in the comments below!
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Zachary Friedman is an accomplished travel writer and professional blogger. Since 2011, he has traveled to 66 countries and 6 continents. He founded ‘Where The Road Forks’ in 2017 to provide readers with information and incites based on his travel and outdoor recreation experience and expertise. Zachary is also an avid cyclist and hiker. Living as a digital nomad, Zachary balances his professional life with his passions for hiking, camping, cycling, and worldwide exploration. For a deeper dive into his journey and background, visit the About page. For inquiries and collaborations, please reach out through the Contact page. You can also follow him on Facebook.