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Mountain Bike vs. Cruiser Bike (Explained for Beginners)

Mountain bikes and Cruiser bikes have such an intertwined history.  The initial version of what we now know as mountain bikes were modified cruisers.  Both these bikes offer their own experience for riders.

Which one you decide to purchase will depend on the style and type of riding you expect to be doing, but keep in mind that this is an important decision and an error can be costly!

Mountain bikes are durable; designed for rough off-road terrain. The main features are knobby tires, a suspension fork, and powerful brakes. Cruiser bikes are designed for more leisurely riding. The main features are stability and comfort, a steel frame, wide balloon tires, and hardly any suspension.

Both bicycle types have widely different functions. They are, in many respects, opposites. Depending on your riding goals or preferences, a mountain bike or cruiser bike type offers different benefits. Below we will explore the main advantages of each style of bike 

Mountain Bike vs. Cruiser Bike types

Mountain Bike vs. Cruiser

Mountain bike types can be categorized according to suspension configuration.

  1. Rigid:  A mountain bike with neither front nor rear suspension.
  2. Hardtail:  A rigid frame with a suspension fork for the front wheel. 
  3. Soft tail: Pivots are integrated into the frame to the rear, letting the frame act as a shock absorber.  It’s often paired with a front suspension fork.
  4. Dual sus / Full suspension:  Both the front fork and rear of the bike have suspension. 

Cruiser bike types can be categorized according to functionality.  The lines between true cruisers, comfort bikes, and hybrids can be blurry. The word cruiser is often used to describe any bike that visually reminds us of the original cruiser.   Some bike shops will also display the following categories together, so let’s try to pick apart the main differences.

 CruiserComfort CruiserHybrid Bike
Bike typeThe original casual bike influenced the comfort and the design of the hybrid bike. Mechanically low in maintenance and no-fuss joyful riding experience.Updated cruiser for increased versatility retaining much of the comfort. Mechanically more complex.Combine the best from the road, mountain, and any other bikes for, e.g., comfort and speed.
FrameHeavy steel frame designed for casual ridingThe frame may occasionally be a modified mountain bike frame with an extended headtube to get that upright riding position.  They are designed for more efficient but comfortable pedaling. This category of the bike has only a  slightly upright position. Some take visual design elements from the cruiser.   
SuspensionNoneOption for suspension fork and seat postsOption for suspension fork and seat posts
SaddleWide and plush, with some makes incorporating springs under the saddlePlush, padded saddles, some with spring seats.  Sleek but soft seat  
HandlebarsVery comfortable upright riding position with handlebars often swept backOften seen with angled North Road Style for easy reachHighly adjustable.  Either an upright or more speed orientated position
TiresWide ‘balloon’ tires up to 26” x 2.125”.  High-volume tires provide a plush ride. Sometimes a smaller diameter size is fitted to the rear.26” diameter of various widths. High volume tires  as used on mountain bikes700cx35 Road tire. The width can vary. These are high-pressure tires that roll better.
GearingNone – Single speedIt is equipped with a back derailleur to change gears from three-speed to 21 speed. It can also be single speed.  It is equipped with a back derailleur to change gears.  Consider terrain when choosing a drivetrain.
BrakeCruiser or back pedal brakeRim, disc, or cruiser breaks. (Cruiser breaks can also be called hub breaks)Rim or disc breaks
AccessoriesYes:  for instance, racks, baskets, fenders, handlebar streamers, stickersYes: traditional accessories, e.g., racks and baskets, plus everyday items, e.g., laptop bike bags.Yes: Racks, baskets, fenders, lights, etc
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Mountain Bike vs. Cruiser Frame

Cruiser bike

The two bike frames are distinct from each other in more aspects than the visual design. There is an exception, the Comfort Cruiser.  This should be mentioned as bike shops often sell it as part of their cruiser offering. 

The Comfort Cruiser may be classified as a hybrid between the mountain and cruiser.   The frame is based on modern bikes design, with build components and accessories reminiscent of the cruiser. 

 Mountain BikeCruiser
Frame designFrame geometry defines the type of mountain bike. Cross country, trail, enduro, and downhill disciplines are examples of mountain bikes with different geometry to suit the discipline.The curved design, with an additional tube between top and bottom, ensures excellent stability.
Frame MaterialMainstream options are carbon fiber, aluminum, combination carbon/aluminum, titanium, and occasionally still steel.Cruisers are made of steel frames which can be heavy compared to most other build materials. The advantages are durability and stability.  
AccessoriesSome frames may be suited to adding mudguards and other functional items to suit the riding discipline.Add accessories, e.g., mudguards, baskets, and racks.
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Mountain bike vs. Cruiser bike wheels/rims/tires

Choose mountain bike’s wheels according to riding discipline, weight, rider experience, and budget. 

Cruiser wheels are basic, and most have no place to fit brake pads.  The bike does not stop with the conventional handlebar brake. No fear!  It does come to a stop by backpedaling.  Backpedal breaking action is possible as the riding speed is low. 

Comfort cruisers are 26” or 29” with different widths.  The main differentiators are:

 Mountain bike wheels/rims/tiresCruiser bike wheels/rims/tires
Wheel size26”, 27.5” or 29” wheel sizes16”, 20”, 24” and 26” (largest size usually on adult bikes) Some traditionally styled cruisers may have different front and back wheel sizes on the bike. Cruiser Comfort bikes may go up to 29” or 700C size
Tire typeDependent on environmental conditions, terrain, and riding discipline. Typical characteristics are knobby/deep lugs to provide grip on varied terrain during different weather conditions. Many types can be converted to tubeless, meaning ride-ending punctures are practically a thing of the past.  Wide balloon tires are a common standard issue. They are suitable to ride on different terrain. Choose a tire with tread if your rides take you over beach sand, gritty paths, and rough pavements. Choose slick tires if you primarily ride on paved paths in good condition.    
Tire widthChoose according to ride discipline, from 1.9” for cross country to 2.5” for downhill. Multiple widths are available within disciplines.   Balloon tires specs are 26” x 2.125”.  Comfort cruisers can fit skinnier tires for faster rolling.  
BrakeHydraulic or Mechanical Disc brakes Rim brakes on anything but entry-level bikes mountain bikes are rare.Backpedal aka Coaster brake If multi-geared, rim or disk breaks
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Mountain Bike vs. Cruiser bike Handlebars

Mountain bike-specific handlebars are for precision handling. Choosing different handlebar widths will influence ride feel or responsiveness. They are available in a variety of materials, most commonly carbon, aluminum, steel. Different materials have weight and cost implications. 

A bike fit professional will fit the bar of your choice at the angle most suited to your riding style by selecting from various angled stems of different lengths.  

The characteristic curved handlebar on the cruiser bike shouts retro and comfort. It’s anything but straight and flat.  It’s attached at a forward and upward tilt to an extended stem for an extraordinarily comfortable ride.  No bodyweight is placed on the bar, making the back of the bike even more stable.   

Comfort cruiser bars are less curved to fit gear and brake components and this makes them road safe, with more responsive steering.

Mountain bike vs. Cruiser Saddles

Saddles or ‘the seat’ from a mountain bike and cruiser are like chalk and cheese. 

Mountain bike saddles are developed with efficient riding techniques and weight saving in mind. They are designed in a range of standard widths, covered in material and padding, which reduces chafe as far as possible. A variety of women’s and men’s specific saddles are manufactured.  There is sure to be a comfortable saddle for you. 

Mountain bike saddles are about riding efficiency, while cruiser saddles are about one thing – comfort. Designs are wide, bulky, padded, and occasionally feature springs under the rear of the seat.  Some saddle types may have additional padding and even a gel layer to make the ride easier on your bottom.  

Mountain bike vs. Cruiser Drivetrain

Drivetrains are made up of pedals, crank, chainrings, chain and cassettes, and derailleur. A groupset is a drivetrain plus the parts needed in changing gears and breaking.   

Mountain bikers can choose from ‘one by,’ ‘two by,’ and ‘three by’ groupsets.  The numbers are descriptive of the number of cassettes on the front crank wheel. Riding discipline and terrain can influence the choice.  ‘One-by’ is the latest standard offering. New developments are constantly hitting the market.  

Traditional cruisers are fitted with one gear called single speed, made up of one crank wheel and rear cassette. In conjunction with the cruiser or backpedal brakes, cruisers are uncomplicated and easy to ride and maintain. 

Cruiser models with up to three gears are popular in hilly areas or when using the bike for occasional longer rides. Rim or disc breaks break effectively at higher speeds than cruiser brakes. 

Comfort cruisers are often a twenty-one speed, allowing longer ride distances at a more than leisurely speed. 

Top 3 Advantages of the one-by groupset system for the mountain bike and cruiser rider alike. 

  1. Lower groupset weight:  Fewer shifting components. One less shifter on the handlebar and no front derailleur.
  2. No front derailleur: There are no more issues in wet riding conditions where the derailleur operation can be hampered by grime—no more difficult shifting.
  3. Less chain drop: It’s improbable that the chain will drop either by shifting or, on mountain bikes, when the terrain is harsh or after jumps. 

Mountain bike vs. Cruiser Pedals

MTB pedals

Mountain biking is more complicated than cruising. The pedal options mirror this. Mountain bikers can choose between flat or platform pedals and clipless pedals; cruisers generally are sold standard with flat pedals

Ride a cruiser with any flat-soled shoe.  It’s easy to get on and ride and quick to get the feet on the ground. 

Many mountain bikers new to the sport start with simple flat pedals and migrate to clipless pedals as skills increase.  Some flat pedals are fitted with small studs to improve grip in wet,  muddy, and snow conditions. 

The clipless pedal system comprises a mountain bike-specific shoe with a cleat set into the sole. The cleat attaches to the pedal.  Initially, it takes some getting used to riding with clipless pedals, but it soon becomes second nature.

One can walk short distances on these specifically developed shoes. The sole is of medium stiffness, and the cleat is set deep into the shoe’s sole.  Clipless pedals improve riding efficiency as the pull and push of the pedal stroke are used optimally.

 

Mountain bike vs. Cruiser Fenders

Fenders are not an item every mountain biker will use.  If riding in a constantly wet and muddy environment, it’s a no-brainer.  Not only will you as a rider be cleaner and dryer, but goggles/glasses will also be less grimy, and bike and fork seals are protected. 

Mountain bike fenders are tough and made of nearly unbreakable plastic, so they survive adventurous and enduro rides as well as crashes.  Most have a mechanism to ensure the mud does not clog up under the fender, which is not the case on cruisers.   

For many of us, fenders are synonymous with cruisers; so many different shapes, sizes, and designs to choose from and personalize the bike.   Beautifully curved fenders follow the curve of the tire and cover it about halfway.  The practical application is, of course, to catch any water or mud that would get all over your back or fly into your face. 

Fenders can easily be removed or fitted at home.  They attach to the rear chainstays or the fork.

Comfort cruisers can be fitted with fenders made from various materials in either rounded or straight designs. The bike can look fantastic and still protect you from the wet road grime. 

Mountain bike vs. Cruiser Accessories 

Accessories for a mountain bike are geared towards the practicalities of making the ride safe and being prepared if problems arise. The weight of items plays a role, and there’s always the cost trade-off.  You want to carry as light as possible and be as prepared as possible.  

Items like a spare inner tube, patch kit, or tubeless repair kit. A mini pump or CO2 bomb. Multi-tool and a chain tool.  Water bottles, food or a backpack, wind jammer. Front and backlights, headlamps.  The list is endless.

The first thing to consider is the type of ride you will be going on.  Is it an hour easy ride, a four-hour-long ride, or even a multi-day excursion?  Then think about how far you will be from the roads. Will someone be able to pick you up if something unexpected happens?  Is there mobile service in the area?  Now the choice of accessories can be sensibly derived.

For cruisers, accessories are fun and exciting to choose from. Cruiser bikes evoke a feeling of simpler times. Cruiser fans can customize frames with accessories to evoke a particular style. 

Think leather seats with wooden baskets and cork handlebar grips. Or a brightly colored gel or air-inflated saddle with handlebar streamers and a metal mesh basket.  Fenders and frames can be decorated with stickers.

For cruisers and comfort cruisers, tires are available in colors other than the standard black.  Changing to brown, yellow, whitewall, tan, and red can instantly change your cruiser’s look.

Conclusion

Mountain bikes are fast, durable, and adventure-seeking machines suitable for the roughest short and long nature rides. They adapt well to town riding, especially if the roads or sidewalks are not in the best shape.  It’s a versatile bike that does prioritize riding efficiency over plush comfort.

The cruiser bike is definitely for slow, fun rides, easy on the back and knees due to the upright plush ride.  It’s a slow-paced excursion searching for picnic spots in the park or the best place to enjoy the beach. Accessories like baskets and racks allow you to pack the picnic basket and blankets without a hassle.

Comfort cruisers are more road-ready with a more extensive gear selection as well as disk or rim breaks.  It is an excellent short-distance commuting bike that prioritizes comfort and allows for accessories to transport your gear.

So if you are a bike enthusiast and like to collect bikes, there is a sure argument for having both a mountain bike and a cruiser in your collection.

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I started mountain biking many years ago to improve my overall health state. After my first ride, I fell in love with the sport. Now I spend dozens of hours a week researching and training to compete in local XC and Enduro events.