We’ve all heard that road bike vs mountain bike debate, with the corresponding armies throwing pros and cons around, in a fight that’s unlikely to end anytime soon. There are lots of arguments for each type of bike/riding style but, at the end of the day, what’s most important may be only what makes you feel better.
Ok, so we’ve all heard it before: road bikes are the best because you get to see them during Le Tour. They’re also used by the best riders in the world, so there’s no real debate, anyway. Wait, hold on a second: What’s Le Tour? It’s the Tour de France, dummy, one of the oldest and most prestigious professional multiple-stage bicycle races in the world!
Ok, so now that we’ve got that cleared, we know that some of the best-paid and highest-regarded cyclists are professional road cyclists. Road cycling also got quite a head start, since it has a century-old-plus history, while mountain biking is a newcomer to the field.
The first mountain bike is credited to have been built by a guy named Joe Breeze back in 1977. He was asked by his friend Charlie Kelly, a pioneer in the sport, to build a bike that could handle the rugged trails of Mount Tamalpais. After winning the Repack race (a downhill trial) in the same year, he was soon asked to build more bikes similar to the prototype, named ‘Breezer’.
What followed next is history.
Now that we’ve got that age difference cleared, let’s distinguish the main characteristics of each:
A road bike has a lightweight frame, with wheels that are normally 700C (622 mm) in diameter. It’s built for speed, and has an aerodynamic shape, with bent (or dropped) handlebars which allow a rider to keep a low profile and minimize wind resistance while boosting pedaling efficiency. The fork on a road bike is rigid so that it maximizes the transfer of energy from a rider’s legs to the wheels.
Mountain bikes are usually the opposite: they have frames that are built like tanks, with many components that are designed to be sturdy rather than lightweight and large suspension forks with a travel of 100mm+, and some also come with rear shocks.
These are built to soak up all the bumps and holes on the bumpiest of places, yet they rob a rider of some of the energy put into pedaling. The wheels of mountain bikes are also smaller, with a diameter of 26, 27.5 or 29 inches, with two newer standards, 27.5+ and 29+. The rims on these are solid and quite thick, as opposed to those on road bikes, while the tires on them are even thicker.
These are supposed to give the rider enough traction on rugged terrain, hence the increased contact surface.
There are quite a few other differences between road bikes and mountain bikes, but we will stop here for a moment.
Ok, so you understood that road bikes and mountain bikes are different. You might wonder why that is. Well, this next line here is actually the answer to the question in the title of our article: they’re built for different purposes. One is built for speed, the other for handling the craziest mountain trails ever seen.
So trying to proclaim a winner out of these two isn’t like comparing apples to pears, but comparing fruit to meat: they are both made to be eaten, but they serve different roles (and some might say they taste differently).
After this cool analogy, let’s get back to the bikes: these two types are built for different things. With a road bike, you’re mostly bound to paved roads, so the tarmac is your best (and most of the time only) friend. With mountain bikes, the paved roads are the most boring things on Earth, and there’s no adrenaline to be had unless you hit the gravel roads.
Sure, some road bikes eventually do end up off-road, but if you ask the guys who finished the Paris-Roubaix race last year, or at least look at a few pictures of the guys after they’d crossed the finish line, you’ll notice that riding on cobblestones for half a day isn’t exactly a ‘Breeze’ (that’s our dedicated MTB pun).
But then again, if you’re riding your 4-grand mountain bike with a 200mm-travel fork and a 165mm+ rear shock on the tarmac, even an old granny on a city bike might be faster than you.
So (we’re trying not to be too obvious here): if you like paved roads, you go buy yourself the best road bike you can find. Well, actually, these are expensive as heck, but you surely can find a decently priced one to suit your speed cravings.
If you like going on rocky/muddy trails in forests, on hills, or in the mountains, then you’ll have to fork over some money on a mountain bike with some decent specs and suspension system.
The pros and cons of each
We knew that we couldn’t just let this debate fizzle out right in the middle of our article, so we figured we do have to come up with some pros and cons, lest we’d disappoint quite a few folks who’d come here in the hopes of finding out who the clear winner is.
Besides the technical aspects and main purposes for each type of bike, there are also some practical aspects that need to be discussed. With a road bike, all you need to do is gear up, take as few things as possible, and hit the road (actually, that’d be preferred for MTB as well).
You can cover quite long distances in a short period of time, and if you’re lucky to just have to exit the town and be surrounded by rustic fields, just like French folks are, then you can keep pedaling and enjoying the view. The bad part is that you need good tarmac in order to enjoy your ride, and sometimes, the roads can be filled with potholes and bumps that can take away the fun.
Then there’s the traffic aspect: with a road bike, you’ll be forced to share the lanes with countless mad drivers who are the only ones paying their taxes, so they’ll all honk at you just to say hello and tell you that you’re on their road.
That’s one problem you normally don’t have with a mountain bike: unless you have to pedal for hours to hit a remote place, you can take some backroads and reach your favorite spot in no time, and from then on, you’re only going to have to share the forest trails with the birds and the bees, and of course, with all the people who are walking their dogs which leave piles of poop all over your trail.
The real problem with mountain bikes is that, if you don’t really have any remote/wild spots near your city, you’re forced to rely on friends with cars and to plan ahead weekend getaways to mountains and other beautiful places. Or you could just give up forest trails and make the city your private bike park, jumping over all the benches and stairs you can find in your way.
These two bikes are so different, that even people who are riding them are different. Each one has a preconceived notion about the other and would not accept it the other way. They’re sure the bike they’re riding is the best, and they rarely change sides, unless they’re Peter Sagan – a guy who started out as a professional mountain biker, then switched to road bikes and is now earning a meager salary of about 6 million dollars per year as a professional (road) cyclist.
Despite the switch, when he’s not too busy winning most of the green jerseys in the Tour de France, Sagan still enjoys riding his mountain bike and he’s often seen on rugged trails, performing all sorts of antics. So this is a guy who enjoys both types of bikes – we believe he’s onto something.
A bit about risks and rewards
This actually applies more to professionals and not amateurs. In general, professional mountain bikers expose themselves to a lot more risks than road cyclists. That’s not to say road cycling is safe, as every few years, there are a few fatalities on the road, and riders constantly get involved in crashes, with bruises and broken bones being a common sight.
However, disciplines such as DH or freeride mountain biking imply more risks, especially since in these sports, crashes are part of the routine, and the worst part is that, at the end of the day, the guys who are exposing themselves to the highest risks are earning the least amount of money, as professional mountain bikers have a shorter “shelf life” and usually get smaller paychecks, and have to rely on endorsements and sponsorships more.
To put the sad note aside, cycling is a beautiful sport, so no matter what type of bike you have, you can still enjoy a great ride and feel good about yourself. We wish you awesome and safe riding!