Should I buy a mountain bike, or a road bike is the age-old question. Both bikes are popular choices for serious and novice bikers. Biking is serious here in Colorado, so it isn’t unusual to see people with mountain bikes commuting to work and people with road bikes hitting the mountain passages.
Bikes are used to commute to work, ride to the bars, and then of course there is the weekend jaunts to the mountains just to get away from it all. So do I have to have a different bike for each excursion? Or can I just get a reliable mountain bike or is a dependable road bike just what I need?
The choice to buy a mountain bike or a road bike depends on what you plan to do and what you can afford. Are you getting a bike for the daily commute to work? Do you need a bike that helps you get away from it all, ride through the mountains, forest trails, the park or back road cycling? Or are you riding for fitness or for fun (although they are not mutually exclusive)?
First remember that road bikes are designed for paved and smooth roads and paths. And while there are different types of road bikes, they all are concerned with performance. Mountain bikes on the other hand are designed for off-road single-track trails, and built for traveling over dirt, gravel and not so smooth paths and roads.
There are different types of road bikes. The four most popular are listed below.
Different Types of Road Bikes
- Aero bike: These bikes are built for speed. Aero road bikes have large tube profiles, deep sections wheels, and component integration. Tube profiles on aero bikes are generally larger than other road bikes to create a more aerodynamic profile and are shaped to reduce drag.
- Endurance bike: Endurance road bikes focus on a stable ride and comfort. They are distinguishable from other road bikes by having a longer wheelbase, longer headtube, relaxed geometry and disc brakes.
- Lightweight bike: The lightweight bikes are high-performance machines focusing on keeping the weight down. They are designed to perform at their best when climbing mountains and attacking the downhill.
- Gravel bike: This is the newest addition to road bikes. This bike is designed to allow the rider access to all types of terrain. This bike is most similar to a mountain bike in its goals.
These are the four most popular types of road bikes. Although they are all geometrical different, they fall under the category “road bike” because their focus is on performance. Their components are designed to have each bike reach its maximum performance.
Here are two terms that are causally knocked around.
Knobbies: Off-road tires that use deep tread to provide more traction on unpaved surfaces such as mud, gravel and loose dirt. They lack studs but have deeper and wider groves meant to help the tread sink into mud or gravel surfaces.
Fork: A bicycle fork is the part of a bicycle that holds the front wheel. A fork usually has two blades which are joined at the top by a fork crown.
Road Bike Benefits
- Lighter bikes designed for speed
- Have higher gears allowing you to go further for one revolution of the pedals
- Thinner tires with higher pressure, the light, tall wheels reduce friction
- You are consistently in a more aerodynamic position, the over the handlebar position transfer power and allows you to remain comfortable
- Riding position allows for the most leg power and cuts through air
- Components have tight tolerances and high polish
- Will be faster on pavement (smooth pavement)
Road Bike Disadvantages
- The more aerodynamic position can also be uncomfortable after long stretches of time
- Thinner tires take a beating when going over potholes and gravel cannot take the punishment like a road bike
- Gear range is high, so slow speed riding is hard
- Not going to be taking it on trail rides
Mountain Bike Benefits
- Bigger frames that can take abuse
- The geometry of the frames helps traction for steep, loose climbs
- Small 26-inch wheels takes the hits on rocks and potholes
- Suspension gives you more control because tires remain intact
- The frame/fork takes the hits protecting your body
- Wide tires provide control and gives traction in loose dirt and mud
Mountain Bike Disadvantages
- Heavier than a road bike, making climbing harder
- Smaller wheels have more “rolling” resistance
- Knobbies have “snow tire” effect on the road
- Suspension takes away some efficiency from pedal stroke
- Slower and requires more effort on roads and paths
Cost of Mountain Bike Versus Road Bike
Mountain Bike Cost
Don’t let the idea of buying a mountain bike scare you from buying a mountain bike. It is relatively easy if you know what you are getting into. Buying a mountain bike isn’t necessarily just buying a bike, there are other items you will need as well. The total cost will encompass not only the bike but all the necessary items that are important to keeping your ride safe.
Bike: You want a bike that won’t cost you a kidney and isn’t so cheap that you are actually putting that kidney on installments in repairs on the bike. So there are several ways you can save on a decent bike and keep your kidneys. The rate nowadays that is under $1000.
- Check out your local bike shop around winter time. Clearance time to make way for new inventory. Sometimes you might find bikes up to 30 percent off.
- Check out Craigslist for deals on lightly used mountain bikes. Make sure you take it to a bike shop for an inspection before you buy.
Helmet: You are going to need your head, protect it. Adventure Sports Network suggests the Giro Quarter MIPS with the patented Multi-Directional Impact Protection System, and they say it looks good too. $60
Riding Shorts: Yes, you want to look good but there are a few things that may be more important. Like the need for bike shorts that are going to keep you from chaffing. And make sure there is padding, so you can avoid saddle sores. You can find a really good pair usually on sale at REI for about $80.
Gloves: You will fall. And when you fall you will put your hands down to brace yourself. Make sure that those hands are covered with bike gloves. $30.
Hydration Pack: Hydrate! You can do this by either carrying a water bottle with a bottle cage or a hydration pack. Clearly by the heading you know my preference. But either way is legit. Water bottle $15 and under, hydration pack $90 and under
Multi -Tool: You don’t need to be McGuyver, but you should acknowledge there will be mishaps sometime that you are going to have to fix. If you have a multi-tool at your disposal, preferably one with a built-in chain, you can certainly fix any minor repairs that pop-up.
High powered mini pump, patch kit, and spare tube: Let’s be realistic, you are riding around on rocks, roots over trees and bouncing off rocks. A tire emergency is bound to happen. So what with your high-powered mini pump, patch kit and spare tube you are prepared.
Road Bike Cost
Since you won’t be riding in the Tour de France anytime soon, it’s okay not to go to too crazy when buying your first road bike. There are multiple types of road bikes and the price is contingent on which road bike you choose, but the consistent factor is all road bikes are built for performance and they are all pretty pricey.
If you google “2019 best affordable road bikes” your results span from Bikesdirect.com, Shimano Claris 24 Speed with Carbon Forks Road Bikes—Motobecane Mirage Pro for $499.95 to Competitivecyclist.com’s, Cervelo S-Series for $5000.
So yes, I guess “affordable” is a relative term.
Just as in your mountain bike cost there are items that are a necessity for your road bike venture that does not include the bike.
Padded shorts: If you are going longer distances than to the office or get a cup of coffee then you need to get you some padded shorts. You butt will thank you.
Cycling Jersey: A cycling specific jersey is made from a fabric that keeps you cool in the heat and dry when you sweat. They also come equipped with three rear pockets for carrying food and other supplies that you might need on longer trips.
Water bottle and bottle cage: Hydrate! Most road bikes have bolts on the frame that allow you to fit a special bottle cage where a cycling bottle can be fitted. There is also the option of getting a hydration pack.
Pump, spare tube, basic tools and chain oil: Even though you are going for a long ride on what you intend to be smooth pavement, accidents happen. Never leave home without a spare inner tube and a pump. It is also important to have basic tool kit in case you need to fix anything, and chain oil will keep you rolling.
Helmet: Protect what is important, and that’s the ole noggin. The helmet should fit your head snug. It should be padded on the inside and crash resistant on the outside. If you feel you need to skip on items to get the bike of your dreams, do not skip on your helmet. Your head will thank you.
The point is depending on what your goals are for your bike will not only determine whether you will get a mountain bike or a road bike, but it will also determine how much you will pay for your bike. And don’t forget to add the costs of your necessities.
Whether it is the mountain bike, or the road bike is the best bike for commuting depends on how far your commute is, what type of landscape you will travel across and of course your personal preference. But that doesn’t stop us from just generally comparing road bikes to mountain bikes:
Road bikes and the Commute:
If your commute is going to be a long distance, road bikes are a good commuter bike. Built for performance if your commute is a distance and across smooth pavement a road bike will get you there quickly, with relative comfort. But if your commute has obstacles, like a rough terrain or potholes it will cause your road bike to deteriorate faster. Also if you live in an area that experiences bad weather regularly, this will also cause your bike to break down quicker.
You may also need to change your tires for your commute. The thin road bike tires are puncture prone and a commute with debris littering the roadways and potholes at every turn will destroy your thin road bike tires.
Mountain Bike and the Commute:
The mountain bike is a standard for commuters. Just a quick note, if you are going to use a mountain bike for commuting invest in a hardtail, single suspension. It is a waste of money to pay extra for a full suspension mountain bike when it is not needed on a commute.
The upright riding position and the ability of the mountain bike to travel all types of terrains make it ideal if your commute can follow an off-road route. If you are traveling on smooth pavement you will feel a drag, a mountain bike is naturally slow on smooth pavement.
There is also the weight of the mountain bike. As it is heavier than a road bike, if you need to dismount and carry your bike (for whatever reason) it will be a chore.
Road bike commute pros: Quick and efficient
Mountain bike commute pros: Very durable and the upright riding position
Road bike commute cons: Not particularly durable
Mountain bike commute cons: Not the most versatile bike, it is heavy and slow on pavement
What bike you decide to invest in for your commute depends on the terrain, the distance and yes once again your personal choice.
Riding for Fitness
Any bike if you enjoy it can be a bike that you ride for fitness purposes. What is better than being on the road, in solitude or with a pack of friends, enjoying nature and getting a workout. No gym membership needed. No loud and yoked trainer to make you feel inadequate while yelling at you that you are inadequate. (is that just me) Riding can be just you, the bike and the road. Getting fit.
But does the mountain bike offer a more complete body workout than the road bike?
We know that we get health benefits just from cycling. According to betterhealth.com these benefits include:
- Increased cardiovascular fitness
- Increased muscle strength and flexibility
- Improved joint mobility
- Decreased stress levels
- Improved posture and coordination
- Strengthened boned
- Decreased body fat levels
- Prevention or management of disease
- Can riding a mountain bike or road bike improve on these health benefits?
Road Bike and Fitness
Road bikes are built for performance and speed. So when you find one that you like, the theory is you will be riding more and consistently in addition to riding for fun and for speed. That’s just good news for your cardiovascular system and your heart.
The long rides you are taking on your road bike will increase your endurance while lowering your body fat levels. And lets just talk about the adjustment to your legs, when pedaling on the road bike you are working your hips, hamstrings, calves, and quadriceps.
Mountain Bike and Fitness
The mountain bike provides the health benefits listed for general cycling it is also something a little different. When you go mountain biking you are negotiating your way around trees, stones and unpredictable surfaces. You are also going downhill and uphill trying to avoid the wipe out. This is a workout more on your upper body and core than you would receive on a road bike.
Cycling is a great way to exercise. If you can manage to get on your road bike or your mountain bike three to five days a week for at least 30-60 minutes you are going to be the beneficiary of improved fitness.
If you choose to buy a road bike that fitness will manifest itself not only with improved endurance, stamina and decreased body fat, but you will find yourself with stronger hips and legs.
If your preference lands itself with a mountain bike you will increase your endurance and stamina, but you will also notice a stronger core. Not to mention your shoulder and arms should become stronger.
Riding for Fun
How do you define your fun? Is it finding that solitary ride with nothing but you, the pavement or off-road terrain in the woods and your thoughts?
Either the mountain bike or the road bike can give you whatever is your definition of fun.
Riding long distance on the pavement with only you and your thoughts may be your ideal of fun. And if so then get on your road bike and get going. But if your idea of fun means riding with friends then there are plenty of riding clubs that you can join. USA Cycling has a list of clubs for almost every location, just tap here.
Mountain biking can also be done in a solitary mode. Just you and the trees and the downhills. Which brings us to another point, solitary biking is good if you are into that kind of thing, but in riding off-road one should either have another rider or your cell phone and a beacon device.
Safety first is important and it is a fact that being alone in off- terrain if something should happen you are away from the beaten path. Let someone know where you are going, or better yet ride with a friend, have your cell phone and if you happen to be riding so far that there is no service have a beacon.
7 reasons to join a cycling club (besides it being fun):
- Find a club that fits your happy place. Some clubs focus just on riding, other focus on racing, and some try to find the best way to do bar crawls on your bicycle. Whatever is your pleasure there is sure to be a club, or members that think like you do.
- Finding new routes, look every member hasn’t taken the same path you have. Joining a club you will find paths and routes that you haven’t even considered until you joined the club.
- Every good club run has to have a stop at a local coffee place. And it is unlikely that you will stop at the same place twice. If you can’t find fun in the bottom of a coffee cup what are you doing here?
- Companionship on those days when you don’t think you can ride because of the weather or a hangover. There will be at least one or two club members who are up for a ride.
- Training for a race or wanting to get into a race, many clubs have training sessions.
- Riding with a club will build skills, bike skills, road skills and maybe even social skills.
- Discounts, perhaps the most important reason for joining a club. Most clubs have at least a passing acquaintance with bike shops. These shops most certainly offer club members discounts.
Cycling clubs are not exclusive to road biking over mountain biking, and that’s the beauty of cycling clubs. You can find something for everyone.
Should I Buy a Mountain Bike or a Road Bike?
Trying to compare mountain bike to a road bike is like comparing Tony Stark to Bruce Wayne. You know on the surface they appear to be similar, but when you delve deep into it you realize they are only similar on the surface.
The same applies to comparing road bike to a mountain bike. When you define your goals, your budget and your personal preference you will notice that they are similar because they are both bicycles. Other than that what you plan to do, where you plan to do it, and how you plan to get it done will illuminate what bike is best for you. Answer a few questions. Take a bike on a trail run. Buy a mountain bike or a road bike but buy a bike.