Road Bike vs. Mountain Bike: Understanding the Differences
What exactly is the difference between a road and mountain bike? Want to figure out which is best for you? Start here with this breakdown from Cycling Expert Eric Phaneuf.
When starting your search for a new bike, you can quickly become overwhelmed by the seemingly endless options of bike types and manufacturers! Although we could break it down by every different type of specialty bike out there, such as the gravel bike or adventure bike, fixed gear bike or fixies, cyclocross bike, touring bike, bmx bike, or electric bike, you can generally fit most bikes into one of three different bike categories: road bike, mountain (mtb) 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 if a road bike vs. mountain bike vs. hybrid bike is right for you!
Road bikes are the original style of bicycle that got it all started over 100 years ago! At its core, the road bike is for endurance to cover longer distances as quickly and efficiently as possible on, obviously, the road or tarmac. 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 or commonly referred to as just drop bars, brake levers that are positioned on the drop bars, and compact geometry, which allow the road cyclist 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, more commonly called all-road bikes, have a 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 a two-by with a lot of gear options on the chainrings and cassette because it is designed for higher speeds on steep descents or flats, and lower speeds for steep uphills. And generally with road cycling, you want to get clipless pedals (pedals where your cycling shoe will clip to the pedal for better pedaling efficiency).
- 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 aerodynamics allow for greater efficiency at speed.
- Option of rim brakes or disc brakes.
- Multiple hand positions for riding.
- 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 bikes were born in the 1970s and 80s as people started modifying their road bikes to be durable and 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 suspension only (hardtail) or front and rear suspension (full-suspension or lesser known as the softail), but they all share a few main characteristics: wide, knobby tires; flat bars for a more upright riding position; a frame that provides leverage for climbing and descending with a low center of gravity; and one-by gearing made for tackling challenging terrain at various speeds.
There are different types of mountain bikes that can be customized for many types of trail riding, and mountain bikers tend to have a wide range of preferences. One ongoing evolution in mountain bikes has been the size of the wheels and tires—26, 27.5, 29, mid-fat, and fat, for example.
The pedal options are endless for mountain biking, from clipless pedals to flat pedals to a hybrid. It all depends on which trails and what type of riding you choose to tackle (downhill, enduro, xc, single track, all-mountain) and if you like your foot secured or loose, or want to have the option for both.
- Rugged components are designed to take abuse from mountain biking in rough terrain.
- Wide, knobby tires provide traction on a variety of surfaces, even mud.
- Different suspension options provide a plush ride and help absorb bumps.
- The more upright position and frame geometry are usually more comfortable and allow for more control in technical climbing, as well as descending.
- Come with powerful disc brakes for the best stopping power.
- 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, especially if it is full suspension.
Hybrid bikes were created to blend features of road bikes and mountain bikes for more casual riding, the commuter, 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 fitness bikes, cruiser bikes, city bikes, or comfort bikes—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. Similar to the mountain bike, the pedal options for hybrids are endless.
- 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 as opposed to just rim brakes, which give improved braking power and perform better in wet conditions.
- Can be lighter weight than hardtail mountain bikes or full-suspension mountain bikes, but it depends on the material of the bike frame, the components, and the wheels.
- You can accessorize with fenders or racks.
- Compromise versus both road and mountain bikes. Not as fast or efficient as road bikes and not as capable in rough conditions or obstacles as mountain bikes—especially full-suspension bikes.
- Generally not available in carbon frames.
Which Is Right for You?
There are a couple of things you should consider when trying to decide whether to go with a road bike vs a mountain bike vs a hybrid bike. 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 vs. mountain bike if you would like to ride with your friend who likes to crush the local mountain bike 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 or convenient fire roads nearby, 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 or mountain bike 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 on the road or gravel, 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 than road bike tires, and slimmer than mountain bike tires that will allow you to ride at a slightly lower pressure than a road bike for some shock absorption. 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 whether a road bike vs mountain bike vs hybrid is right 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!