Congrats! You’ve decided you want to ride! Now you need to pick which bike is best for you! Well, the good news is that you won’t have to do a lot of work as this post will lay it all out for you.
Depending where you live will significantly influence the type of bike you choose and as will your fitness and conditioning goals.
The choice between a mountain or road bike depends primarily on the planned use. Mountain bikes are suitable for use on off-road, rough terrain over comparatively short distances. Road bikes, with their reduced weight and form, are designed for both speed and longer distances on smoother surfaces.
Cleat in, get in gear, and take a ride as we explore the differences between mountain bikes and road bikes below.
Starting with the Obvious – Road or Off-Road Bikes
Your location will vastly influence your choice of bike. If you are a city dweller, choosing a mountain bike when you have to drive 20 miles or more to ride it may not make much sense. If you are looking to use the bike for commuting in traffic while improving your fitness, then the road bike is the way to go.
Conversely, if most of the terrain surrounding you is hills, mountains, and trails, then a road bike won’t do you much good there.
Location is of course not the only consideration when looking at a bike choice, but along with intended use, it is one of the main ones when it comes to a final choice.
All the comparisons below assume the bike will be used in the environment they were designed for.
A fully-kitted mountain bike will weigh in at around 30 lbs while the road bike comes in at a mere 17 lbs! That’s a 13lbs difference, and there is good reason! The mountain bike frame is thicker and tougher as it has to absorb more impact through the frame.
This difference equates to about a one mph advantage in speed for the road bike.
Road bikes are much lighter and usually made from carbon fiber or aircraft-grade aluminum. The lightweight material is ideal for racing and provides a strong solid frame to handle the rider’s weight.
Mountain bike frames are often made from steel as they need additional material strength for support. They often use a mix of steel, titanium, and carbon fiber on the frame, but the core structure is usually steel.
Why is this important?
For starters, I can tell you from experience that I’d much rather push or carry a 17 lb road bike than a 30 lb mountain bike up a steep hill if I’m tired or the bike has broken down.
It also significantly impacts how fast you can go, but we’ll get to that a bit later.
In the weight battle – the road bike wins.
If you are interested to know more about how much mountain bikes weigh, I have written an article where I compare the average mountain bike weight for the ones of the more well-known MTB manufacturers. I encourage you to read it!
Speed – Wich One Is the Fastest
A mountain bike will average between 31 mph and 37 mph, while a road bike will clock between 43mph and 49mph.
Road bikes are built for speed and have the gears set up to go fast! If you’re a speed freak, imagine doing 50mph on a motorcycle flying down a hill! It’s exhilarating, to say the least- just don’t come off. A crash at that speed with little or no protection would cause serious injury – ask Chris Froome.
It’s also a perfect way to appreciate how fast you are moving, as 50mph in a car and 50mph on a bike is a vastly different perspective!
While mountain bikes don’t reach the same speeds as road bikes due to their weight, gear setup, and track type, they can go seriously fast down mountainsides and hills.
If you don’t think a mountain bike can be fast check out Markus Stockl, he broke the world record for a stock mountain bike on gravel, achieving a top speed of over 104 MPH!
Since it’s unlikely you’ll be racing downhill in the Atacama Desert anytime soon, it’s safe to say that on the speed side – the road bike wins.
Climbing or riding uphill was never my favorite, and I think it probably would have been less strenuous if I used a mountain bike.
The mountain bike is designed for climbing, whether it’s on hills or mountains, it has excellent climbing gear ratios that enable you to maintain your riding RPM while not exhausting yourself in the process.
While road bikes have climbing gears, the larger cogs of the mountain bike make this inescapable aspect of riding a lot less demanding task than on a road bike.
Climbing on a road bike demands more from you as the rider to keep your speed and RPMs up, while climbing on a mountain bike would be easier.
In the uphill climbing category, the mountain bike wins.
Riding Posture and Riding Comfort
Having spent hours in the saddle on long road rides, I can tell you that your body starts to take the strain. You’ll begin to get stiff, especially in your back and shoulders, and your rear will need some relief as well the longer you stay in the saddle.
The bent-over posture on the road bike allows you to deliver more power through the crank and generate more speed. The upright, almost sitting riding position on the mountain bike is much more comfortable over longer rides.
Having said that, there are quite a few ways to make this riding position a bit more liveable, like stretching and improving your flexibility.
The road bike saddles are hard, and I mean hard. The irony with the road bike is that the harder the saddle, the better the ride will be as softer saddles, for the most part, can make a life for your sensitive bits seriously uncomfortable.
The prolonged pressure on your pudendal nerve can be excruciatingly painful and can result in some ‘romantic issues’ for both men and women afterward.
This is why regardless of whether you choose mountain or road, go and get properly fitted for your bike and invest in a proper saddle. Don’t skimp on this. Your body and your partner will thank you afterward!
Mountain bike saddles are softer generally and lend comfort to the upright riding style of the mountain bike.
Road bikes don’t have shock absorbers, and this means that you will feel every bump as an impact through your body. You’ll learn quickly how to prepare for bumps in the road, and I can tell you that one of the MOST uncomfortable riding surfaces is a road with a cobblestone-type texture. It is super unpleasant.
Mountain bikes, on the other hand, come standard with shocks even at entry level as the uneven trails and surfaces demand it. This makes the overall riding experience more comfortable.
If ride comfort is a significant consideration, then the mountain bike wins this round.
If you what to read a more in-depth comparison of road bikes and mountain bikes regarding comfort, read this article!
Clothing And Accessories.
While not a direct comparison, the items below are vital to your riding success – discard them at your own risk.
Get the best clothing (especially your shoes and cycling shorts) that you can afford. Like the saddle, your riding shoes are a big part of your comfort and your setup as they directly impact your efficiency in delivering power through the crank. The position of your cleats on your shoes and the way they fit can save you from pain and discomfort in your feet, especially on longer rides.
Good quality cycling shorts are also an absolute must, and if you don’t think the chammy quality is essential, go and do a 20-mile ride in cheap shorts and see how you feel afterward! You’ll never do that again!
Get protective eyewear. Not negotiable. At speed, whether on-road or on the trail, stones, and dust particles can fly into your face, and if you’re not wearing eyewear, they can cause injury.
Nutrition – do some research into optimum nutrition for riding both before and during your ride, and ensure you have enough fluids before, during, and after your ride.
All of these will make your ride a lot easier, smoother, and safer.
The Bike Setup – A Necessary Requirement
As the last word, whatever bike you buy, go and take the time to get set up correctly. This will make A UNIVERSE of difference to your riding experience and comfort. Many people underestimate the importance of having the correct setup done.
This process sets the proper distance from your shoulders to the handlebars, the right height, the position of your saddle, and the right stroke length from hips to knees to feet to pedals. It is a critical factor in providing optimum comfort, reducing the risk of injury, and providing peak performance and power.
And before you ask, no, you can’t do it yourself. The good news is that almost every good bike shop has a specialist that does the setups and may even offer it free if you buy your bike there.
My advice – if you get a free setup, TAKE IT and if you don’t, then pay for it. It will be worth every last cent!
Maintenance and Service
Regardless of where and how it’s ridden, every bike will need servicing at some point. The road bike requires less than the mountain bike as it doesn’t take as much punishment as its off-road counterpart.
Lubrication, cleaning, and derailleur tightening are required to keep a road bike in good working condition. Essential lubrication of the chain and cogs can be done at home, but a qualified bike mechanic should do more advanced service elements.
The mountain bike will require more frequent servicing as the bike and gears pick up mud and moisture through the rides and experience more impact on the wheels and frame.
Although the bike is built to take this punishment, cleaning, and lubrication of the moving parts, brakes and wheels will be required more frequently than on a road bike.
The inherent nature of mountain biking will lead to faster wear and tear, and you may find yourself laying out a bit more cash to replace worn parts depending on how often you ride and how challenging the routes are.
Overall on the services and maintenance side, the road bike is less demanding.
Fitness, Endurance, and Cardio
As a general rule, road bikes are better for losing weight while mountain bikes are better for building an all-around muscular body.
When you ride a road bike, the primary goal is to maintain your cadence and to sustain the effort for long periods of time which will allow your body to use its fat stores as energy, mountain biking requires a lot of short bursts of power to overcome rough terrain and for this reason, your body will mainly use the glycogen stored in your muscles as the main energy source.
This subject is much more complex, if you are interested, I wrote an entire article that will give you a better understanding of which of the two bikes is better for fitness.
Injuries and Risks
Whether you come off a road or mountain bike, injuries can be severe, especially at speed. While the mountain bike is slower, the terrain is often packed with rocks and stones and some high cliffs and drop-offs. If you’ve seen videos of mountain bike riders wiping out, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
The reality is that coming off a mountain bike on a trail, you will lose some skin, and if you hit a rock or a tree, well, that isn’t going to make your day.
Similarly, hitting the asphalt at 40mph or more is going to do some damage, too, and high-speed crashes in road races lead to some severe lacerations as well as broken or fractured bones if you’ve watched the Tour De France and seen those crashes.
But there is one risk with road bikes that you don’t have with mountain bikes: cars. Riding a bike on the roads means you to be HIGHLY visible, and that means hi-visibility clothing, LED Lights flashing front and back, and reflective tape on your bike and shoes.
Too many people I know have been injured or even killed after being struck by cars in the early morning while riding, and while it wasn’t their fault, being cavalier with your visibility on the road could cost you your life.
On a mountain bike trail, it’s improbable you’ll be hit by an SUV doing 35 Mph, but you may find yourself having to dodge a few unsavory critters!
Mountain biking seems more dangerous than it is, I have written an article where I compare the injury rate of mountain biking with other outdoor sports, and I encourage you to check it out!
You can get started for around $500 or less for both road and mountain bikes if your budget is tight, I would recommend saving and investing in something a little higher, but riding is better than not riding.
Well, there you have it. You can now make your choice on whether to get a road bike or a mountain bike.
As highlighted above your decision will be based on where you plan to ride, what form of riding you wish to try, and the preferred use case of the bike you are purchasing.
Regardless of which you choose, the most important thing is to go out and have fun, enjoy the experience and be safe whether you’re on the road or the trail!
You may also like these articles:
- Mountain bike vs. hybrid bike
- Mountain bike vs. cruiser bike
- Mountain bike vs. gravel bike
- Mountain bike vs. fat bike
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.