So you’ve got a desire to be more healthy and a commute to contend with, so you decide to get a bicycle. But what type of bike? An MTB or a road bike?
Well, first, in what conditions are you going to ride regularly?
MTBs stands for mountain bikes., so you’re more likely to see hardtail and full suspension MTBs in the mountains or off-road. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t be used on the road.
In fact, MTBs perform better on the road than road bikes perform off the road. So, if you can only buy ONE bike for all types of road, an MTB purchase makes more sense. Sure, modern road bikes can manage some gravels thanks to their bigger tire clearances, but without proper suspensions don’t expect a comfortable (or safe) off-road ride.
Road bikes are better in the city, but not so substantially that you can rule out MTBs just yet. (Unless you’re road racing, of course). Depending on how you ride, you may find that, despite the performance differences, you prefer the MTB for your daily commute.
We’ll explore a few details of such choices more closely here.
How Much Slower is an MTB on the Road Compared to a Road Bike?
There are two main factors in determining the speed difference between road bikes and MTBs:
- Trail smoothness
- Level of slope
On very bad tarmac, MTBs can be faster. But it’s hard to calculate and you probably won’t ride on such roads anyway, so let’s conveniently ignore the first factor.
The biggest advantage of a road bike is the aerodynamic, so the slower you go (i.e., going uphill) the smaller the speed difference will be. At a 3% grade or higher, MTBs are about 10-15% slower. On flat terrain, they’ll be more than 15% slower.
Despite that number, the real-life difference is somewhat negligible. If you have a 30-minute commute, you’re looking at 5 minutes of difference more or less. That’s a huge difference in Tour de France, but not when you go on a casual ride or a commute.
The bottom line is, there is not a big difference in speed between a road bike and MTB for casual riders. Also, if you ride a bike for a workout, you might like the harder effort you need to exert with an MTB.
The Benefits of Riding MTBs on the Road
So certainly, road bikes are better for speed, but that doesn’t mean they’re your ideal choice in all scenarios. Believe it or not, there are plenty of advantages to using MTBs on the road, such as:
MTBs keep you more upright
MTBs are easier on your back than road bikes.
With a road bike, you’re always going to be pitched forward. This is good for lessening aerodynamic drags, but it can be tiring for your back. If you want to sit up and rest, giving your back a break, you’ll have to balance with your knees while removing your hands from the handlebars, which can be dangerous.
Mountain bikes put you in a more upright position to start with. Endurance-oriented road bikes are more upright than performance-oriented road bikes, but still not as upright as an MTB.
MTBs are easier to control and can be safer
MTBs are designed for rough roads and technical descents, so they have to be easy to control. The flat, wide handlebars combined with short stems make the MTB easier to steer than a road bike.
Also, as we explored earlier, road bikes are 15% faster than MTBs, so you’ve got 15% less time to make a correction if something happens that requires you to think fast. Ultimately, MTBs are safer in the city than road bikes as a result.
We’re not saying that road bikes are dangerous, they certainly are not. But if you know you have a slower reaction speed than other people, MTBs can be safer on the road.
MTBs are designed for durability, road bikes for speed
Have you ever lifted a road bike? They are crazy light, especially the ones made with the highest grade carbon. You can even lift those bikes with one finger.
Being designed for speed means road bikes are lighter and, consequently, less durable. They have thinner tubes with less material to keep the weight low. If you hit a curb head-on at full speed, the fork can actually break and you’ll likely pitch over the handlebars. It’s not uncommon to hear stories about carbon road bikes and wheels cranking when they hit potholes.
MTBs are designed to take heavier hits than potholes. Even at full speed, you might be able to sustain the impact without taking any damage on the bike.
If durability is important to you, MTBs can be a better choice.
If the road surface isn’t ideal, MTBs are more comfortable
These days, road bikes can easily fit 28 mm tires or wider, so you don’t feel road vibrations as much as in the olden days. But, MTBs have robust shock absorbers, road bikes do not.
If you’re on a rough road with a road bike, you’ll still feel road imperfection on your hand, feet, and butt. Meanwhile, on the MTB, it’ll be smooth and comfortable, especially given the ample seat beneath you.
Not just more comfortable, MTB’s tires are also less likely to get flats while riding on a rough road.
How to Make Your MTB Faster on the Road
The main issue with MTBs in reference to road bikes is speed. If you can correct that problem, you’re in good shape. Here are four ways to do that:
Slick tires increase speed
Mountain bikes usually come with knobby tires. Slick tires are designed without the bumpy texture on tires designed for off-road riding. If you’re using your MTB in the city primarily, switch to slick tires and you’ll see more speed.
A larger chainring can help you go faster
MTBs are designed for riding uphills, so they have typically smaller chainrings and bigger cassettes than road bikes so you can climb easier. If you want to go fast on the flat road, you’ll need the opposite: a large chainring and a small cassette. That’s just how the gear ratio works.
With bigger chainrings, you can go farther for each pedal stroke, so you don’t need to spin your legs too quickly. This is better for energy efficiency.
Keep in mind, though, that the increase in speed by using larger chainring isn’t “free”. You still need to exert more energy to gain more speed. You probably don’t need a larger chainring right away if you’re a beginner cyclist.
Lowering the handlebars to get more aerodynamic
To go faster, your biggest enemy is the wind. You often see road bikers ride in a peloton to minimize the effect of wind on riders in the rear.
That’s also the main reason why road bikes have such low handlebars. Air will pull on you when you’re reaching high speed, so if you lower down your body and become more streamlined, you go faster.
On an MTB, lowered handlebars can similarly reposition your body in a way that reduces drag.
Narrower handlebars also help
Same as lowering the height, installing narrower handlebars reduce the resistance you make in the air as you cut through it, allowing you to slip through with less resistance.
Keep in mind, though, that narrow handlebars will also reduce your control.
Lastly, Perhaps Consider a Different Type Bike
MTBs are okay to use on the road in the sense that there’s no danger or any premature wear when you ride them on the tarmac. But if you don’t have a bike yet and thinking of getting one, perhaps it’s not the best option for road cycling.
Here are some alternatives if you want to ride primarily on the road and don’t want a road bike:
Gravel bikes are a fine compromise between road bikes and MTBs.
Gravel bikes have wider tires than road bikes, giving them better grip and stability in rough terrain, and making them more comfortable over uneven ground. They are more upright than a road bike, but they also come equipped with a dropbar, unlike MTBs. This means you still have the option to position your body lower and go faster on them.
Gravel bikes don’t have big suspensions as MTBs do, but some brands have developed neat tricks to reduce road surface vibrations on their gravel bikes.
They’re a good balance between road and MTB. So if you like to go on any type of road without going extreme on either side, a gravel bike might be perfect for you.
Gravel bikes are also good for commuting because of the more upright position compared to a road bike. The dropbar is also more comfortable than a flat bar.
Hybrid bikes are also a mid-way between a mountain bike and a road bike, but unlike gravel bikes, they use a flat handlebar.
But not all hybrids are made the same. Some hybrid bikes are made for workouts and others are better for commuting. Unlike road, mountain, and gravel bikes, there are no criteria that define a hybrid other than flat bars and no suspensions.
If you want to buy a hybrid bike, make sure you know what you’ll be using it for and get the right type of hybrid.
The biggest advantage of a folding bike is that it can fold. So if you need to use public transportation while commuting or if you want to pack it in a small storage, a folding bike might be the best option.
However, they have some disadvantages. First, folding bikes don’t handle as well as other types of bikes, so it’s not ideal for sports where you will ride it at a higher speed. Second, they are heavy. You might think that since they are small, folding bikes are probably lightweight. Nope, folding bikes are heavier than other types of bikes.
Fixie is a type of bicycle with fixed gear. They only have a single-speed configuration, and you can’t change gear if you need to go faster or slower. Instead, you change your cadence.
They also don’t have brakes, so to stop, you need to stop pedaling. Because of that, in some countries, they are illegal to ride on public roads.
The best thing about a fixie is its simplicity. Without so many components in the drivetrain, maintaining a fixie is much easier than a normal bike.