Road Bike vs. Mountain Bike: Which One Should I Get?

Trying to figure out what type of bike is best for you? Start here with this breakdown from cycling expert Eric Phaneuf.

Photo by DomJ
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When starting your search for a new bike, you can quickly become overwhelmed by the seemingly endless options of bike types! Although we could break it down by every different type of specialty bike out there, such as the gravel bike, fixed gear bike, cyclocross bike, or electric bike, you can generally fit most bikes into one of three different categories: road bike, mountain bike, and hybrid. Below we will take a look at each of the different styles of bicycle and what their strengths and weaknesses are, and hopefully give you the information you need to decide what type of bike is right for you!

Road Bike

A column of cyclists racing through a city street
Many people associate traditional road bikes with races, like the one pictured above. Photo by Pixabay

Road bikes are the original style of bicycle that got it all started over 100 years ago! At its core, the road bike is designed to cover longer distances as quickly and efficiently as possible. Road bikes come in all different materials: aluminum, steel, carbon fiber, and titanium to name the most common ones. Most road bikes will come with drop handlebars and stretched out geometry, which allow the rider to get into a more aerodynamic riding position. They have slick, skinny tires that provide very low rolling resistance on smooth, paved surfaces, but don’t like to venture too far off-road. Some newer styles of road bikes have frame clearance for wider tires in the 35 millimeter width neighborhood. The tires have small knobs or tread patterns on them designed for dirt or gravel roads, paths, or hard-packed gravel. The gearing on road bikes is generally pretty high because it is designed for higher speeds.

Strengths

  • Lightweight components are optimized for speed and agility for on-road use.
  • Wide gearing: taller, high-end gears for faster speeds, and low gearing to help with climbing.
  • Aggressive, aerodynamic riding positions allow for greater efficiency at speed.

Weaknesses

  • Slick, skinny tires don’t do well off smooth pavement, especially in softer dirt.
  • Aggressive geometries can be uncomfortable for some riders, especially during long rides.
  • Not designed to take a lot of abuse.

Mountain Bike

A white mountain bike in a garage
A full-suspension mountain bike, capable of handling anything you throw at it on the trails. Photo by Lars Mai

Mountain bikes were born in the 1970s and 80s as people started modifying their road bikes to be able to handle more off-road terrain. Today, there are a number of different styles of mountain bikes available with a variety of suspension systems,including front and rear suspension, but they all share a few main characteristics: wide, knobby tires; flat handlebars for a more upright riding position; and lower gearing made for tackling challenging terrain at lower speeds. One ongoing evolution in mountain bikes has been the size of the wheels and tires—26, 27.5, 29er, mid-fat, and fat, for example.

Strengths

  • Rugged components are designed to take abuse from mountain biking in rough terrain.
  • Wide, knobby tires provide traction on a variety of surfaces.
  • Different suspension options provide a plush ride and help absorb bumps.
  • The more upright position is usually more comfortable and allows for more control in technical climbing, as well as descending.

Weaknesses

  • Wide, knobby tires have a lot of rolling resistance on the road and smooth surfaces, making them slower and noisier than a slick road tire.
  • Having a lot of suspension on smooth roads or trails reduces pedaling efficiency.
  • Generally heavier due to the more rugged design.

Hybrid Bike

A black hybrid bicycle sits alone on a dirt path in a wooded area
This hybrid bike combines the large diameter, skinny tires of a road bike with the upright position and disc brakes of a mountain bike for a good compromise. Photo by Philipp M

Hybrid bikes were created to blend features of road bikes and mountain bikes for the more casual rider, or for someone who wants to be able to do a little bit of on- and off-road riding with only one bike. There are different sub-categories and names for hybrid bikes—including the fitness bike, cruiser, or comfort bike—but they are all some blend of road and mountain. They feature flat handlebars with a more upright riding position, similar to a mountain bike. Some hybrid bikes will come with a front suspension fork to smooth out the ride when the road or trail gets rough. They have large diameter wheels, similar to a road bike, but are outfitted with wider tires for more stability on- and off-road.

Strengths

  • Moderate width tires that have a tread pattern or small knobs are good on a wide range of surfaces.
  • Upright riding position allows for greater comfort.
  • Wide range gearing is good for reaching maximum speed, as well as climbing hills.
  • Often come with disc brakes, which give improved braking power and perform better in wet conditions.
  • Lighter weight than a mountain bike.

Weaknesses

  • Compromise versus both road and mountain bikes. Not as fast or efficient as a road bike, and not as capable in rough conditions as a mountain bike.

Which is Right for You?

Four people cycle away from the camera on a city street
Commuters getting out and enjoying their bicycles, while getting to where they need to be. Photo by Ahshea Media

There are a couple of things you should consider when trying to decide what type of bike you should go with. If you plan on riding with any friends or family members, it is always a good idea to discuss with them and see what they recommend. You don’t want to go and buy a road bike if you would like to ride with your friend who likes to crush the local trails on his cross-country bike! Similarly, you don't want to get a downhill bike if you are going to be road biking.

If you are going to be riding solo, then you should do a little research on the types of trails in your area, and which ones you think you would be most excited to ride. If there is a nice, local rail trail system that you could ride for 100 miles, you will need to be honest with yourself about what you actually want to get out of your riding. If you just want to exercise and ride 10 miles at a time, then maybe a hybrid is the right choice for you. If you think that you will want to try and hit 50 miles in a day, then a road bike is probably the right choice.

Another thing people often wonder is whether they should get a full-suspension mountain bike to ride a local paved or smooth dirt trail because it will be a plush ride. If you plan on riding longer distances, then this is probably not going to be the best choice for you. The added weight of the bike, the wide, knobby tires, and the more mountain-specific gearing will make the bike less comfortable and enjoyable to ride in the long run. Instead, you could look for a hybrid bike with wider tires that will allow you to ride at a slightly lower pressure. Also, investing in a good pair of cycling shorts with a padded lining will help smooth out all the bumps!

With all of the different types of bikes available on the market right now, you could get the “perfect” bike for any type of riding. But if you are looking to get your first bike, or maybe get back into cycling after time away from the sport, these guidelines should be helpful in choosing the right bike for you. The most important thing in making your decision is that you ultimately get a bike that you will enjoy riding and you will want to keep on taking out to enjoy mile after mile!

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Written By
I was a sales rep for 2 years at my local bike shop, Goodales Bike Shop, which is when I really got into bikes. At that time I raced cyclocross and rode the local trail systems in Souther NH with my coworkers. In college I had a 1 year internship at Dash cycles in Boudler, CO making carbon seats and...

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