I was hanging out in my little town last week and noticed all the bikes lined up at the different shops and restaurants.  It made me want to do some recreational road riding, but I priced road bikes and was shocked at how much they cost.  I wondered, why can’t I just ride my mountain bike on the road?

You can ride your mountain bike on pavement.  Just keep in mind that it will be harder to pedal (i.e. slower), and the pavement is hard on traditional knobby mountain bike tires.

What is the Difference in a Mountain Bike and a Road Bike?

Road bikes are built for speed.  They are lighter and more aerodynamic.  They have thin/smooth tires built to reduce resistance and increase speed. There are some geometric frame differences from mountain bikes like the handlebar position.

Mountain bikes are built to withstand off-road conditions. They need to be sturdy, are heavier, and have knobby tires meant to conquer the features in the woods.

Wheels and weight are the biggest differences because the bikes are designed to do two different things.

Can I Ride My Mountain Bike on the Road/Pavement?

There are times when a mountain biker might want to venture onto the road/pavement.  Weather can impact the trails or you might just be ready for something different.  Not all of us have enough extra money to have extra bikes.  You can ride your mountain bike on the road.

A road bike is going to be a better option if you are going to do a good bit of road riding, but you can outfit your mountain bike in a way to make it pretty comparable. Keep in mind your mountain bike is heavier, so it is a little more difficult to pedal (especially uphill) and will be slower than your typical road bike.

The biggest issue is the tires.  Your mountain bike tires have knobs on them to aid you in getting over rocks and roots in the woods.  This is not ideal for road riding. The road bike tire is smooth and is built for speed.  If you are going to ride a great deal on the road, you need to look at a different tire.  Too much road riding will wear down the knobs and ruin your tires much quicker than riding in the woods.

Mountain Bike Tires on Road
Mountain Bike Tires on Road

As with everything else in biking, ask your biking friends and local bike shop mechanic for advice about how to outfit your mountain bike to maximize your experience riding it on the road.

How Can I Outfit My Mountain Bike for Riding on the Road?

Suspension—That good squishy suspension is nice when you are going over rocks and roots, but it is not ideal for road riding.  Lock your suspension or add air pressure to your suspension to make it more stiff.  Ideally, ride a hard tail for maximum performance.

PRO TIP: The best thing you can do to get the most out of your mountain bike on the road is to get some GOOD tires. WTB sells what I think is the best “conversion tire” on the market. Called the WTB Slick Comp Hybrid/City Bicycle Tire (Link to Amazon for more reviews and price) These tires were a game changer for me.

Wheels and Tires—The give you have in your tires for the mountain bike trails does not work as well on the road.  If you are going to ride a good bit on the road, buy a set of 1.5 inch slick tires to use when you are road riding.  If you don’t have an extra set, put more air in your tires—40 to 50 PSI.

Gears—If you get a new set of tires, you could use a bigger chainring to handle the higher speeds on the road.  This is a pretty advanced switch/update, so talk to your biking friends or local bike shop mechanic to see if this is right for the amount you will ride on the road.

Body/riding Position—A difference between road and mountain bike riding is the handlebar position.  Road riders frequently set their handlebars lower than mountain bike riders.  They are more interested in aerodynamics and speed. 

Of course, the general attack position used in mountain biking is not going to work in road riding.  You will have to get used to the difference in how your body feels and what makes you go faster without lingering pain.

A couple items really improved my comfort riding on the road with my MTB.

  • Hand Grips: getting comfortable grips that supports your hands will help eliminate wrist and hand strain. I’ve been using the ERGON GS1 (Links to Amazon for prices and reviews) I would recommend getting the small size.
  • Bike Stem: Lifting the handlebars up changes your body position just enough to reduce strain on your neck and shoulders. I install the WAKE MTB Stem (Amazon Link for price) and adjusted it up to about 45 degrees to raise my body.

I recently wrote about the best commuter pedals, which further adapts your mountain bike to riding on the road.  Find out what I like in this article – Best pedals for commuting on a mountain bike.

Can I ride my mountain bike in a road race?

Sure!  Lots of mountain bikers want to enter road races occasionally without having to make the commitment of buying a road bike.  There are just a few things to keep in mind.

  1. Use a set of semi-slick tires. It is ideal if you don’t have much tread sticking up.  You could borrow some for race day or buy a cheaper set to use when you do road riding or racing.
  2. You will need more pressure in your tires than you use when you are mountain biking. Fill them to the maximum suggested pressure.  You need your tires to have a little “give” when you are mountain biking in order to get over rocks, roots, etc. without getting a flat.  That is not an issue on the road.  More pressure will give you more speed.
  3. You want to ride a hardtail or lock out your suspension when you race a mountain bike on the road. Lock your suspension if possible.  This will increase speed as well.
  4. Seat height is different on the road vs mountain. Road riders typically have their seats much higher than mountain bikers.  If you are comfortable with it and can still maneuver the bike well, raise your seat.
  5. Road racers utilize the concept of drafting, something we don’t encounter on the mountain bike trail. If you want to maximize your performance, look into the concept of drafting.  You’re probably at a disadvantage because of your bike weight and inexperience in road racing, so draft behind better riders when you can.

Why Should I Consider Riding on the Road Instead of in the Mountains?

Sometimes we mountain bikers tend to only focus on singletrack trails, on getting over those features, finding the best downhill trails, etc.  However, branching out and riding on the road has some benefits and can improve our performance in the woods.

Road riding is ideal for a really good cardio workout. Some trails are not conducive to a good, basic cardio workout.  If you ride on the road, you can use the features of the road or the bike gears to create a solid cardio ride.  Any cardio strength training is going to help you in the woods.

Some experts even say not to consider buying a lighter road bike.  Riding the heavier mountain bike in training is going to make you stronger and add to the cardio training aspect of the ride.  The more you train, the faster you will be, whether that is on the road or in the woods.

Why ride on the road?  It’s always open.  Even if it is raining, you can ride on the road.  There are roads everywhere, whereas mountain bike trails might not be as accessible.  Contact your local bike shop to find out if there are group rides in your area.

It can save you money in terms of maintenance and parts.  You typically don’t have as many mechanical issues if you are riding on the road.

How Much Do I Ride on the Road to Get in a Good Workout?

If you are used to mountain biking, you know how many miles in the woods equals a good ride/workout, but how do you convert that to road riding?  The same number of miles do not equal the same workout.

The typical rule of thumb is to at least double your typical mountain bike mileage to get a good road ride in.  If you ride 10 miles in your weekly ride, try 20 miles on the road to start.  There are many factors that figure into this number:  inclines, road surface, weight of your bike, etc.

So, rain, wind, snow or closed mountain bike trails won’t keep you down.  Get out there and ride!