MTB vs Road Bike for Commuting: Which Should You Choose?


So you’re wondering whether you should choose a mountain bike (MTB) or a road bike for your commutes. Well, you have come to the right place! 

Which is better for commuting: a MTB or a road bike? 

Road bikes and MTBs can both be excellent for commuting.  The suspension(s), the wide knobby tires and the hefty components make MTBs perfect for rough terrain commutes. The light components, the frame design, the drop handlebars and the narrow tires make road bikes outstanding commuters on pavement.

If you are wondering whether you should use a road bike or a MTB for your commute you should primarily consider the terrain you are going to ride on. MTBs are built for off-road riding, road bikes are built for speed and distance. 

We will go over in detail the qualities and features, the pros and cons of both bikes to help you choose.

Mountain Bikes

Durability

Mountain bikes are tough and can take a lot of beating. So if your path to work involves long segments of rough terrain, then your best bet will be a mountain bike. MTBs are ideal for off-road riding.

MTBs have wide wheels and wide thick and knobby tires. This results in superior stability even when taking sharp turns in the forest or going over tree roots or jumping curbs. They perform best on gravel, dirt, and unpaved roads.

Outstanding control on technical terrain

MTBs are designed to be ridden on difficult technical terrain that requires a lot of control over the bike. They have wider handlebars than most of the bikes and that makes even nuanced maneuvering easy. 

When you need to maneuver in the traffic among cars the wide handlebars can become a problem, as you need to be extra careful not to hit the side mirrors of the cars you pass by in a bumper to bumper traffic jam.

The knobby tires provide excellent traction and control over the bike even on loose gravel, off road, but keep in mind that these tires can significantly slow you down on paved roads in the city. Also knobby tires wear out sooner on the tarmac than tires designed for the road.

Some MTBs, especially older ones, have smaller wheels than road bikes (26 inches), which also increases stability when maneuvering.

Comparing the frame geometry of MTBs and road bikes the main difference you will notice is that the front wheel of MTBs is further ahead from the frame. The handlebar is closer to the rider and thus more weight can rest on the rear end of the bike which increases control on fast off road rides.

On a MTB you sit in a more upright position than on a road bike, meaning that your weight rests mainly on the saddle, that helps you be more aware of what’s happening around you. You see further ahead, you can turn your head more freely and have more time to react and maneuver.

An upright position means there is less strain on your hands which eventually means more precise steering as well.

Further increases the control over the bike that most MTBs nowadays come equipped with disc brakes that provide great stopping power also.

Comfort

The comfort of a MTB is different from the comfort a city bike offers. The different parts of MTBs are designed to provide a smoother riding experience on rough terrain.

Compared to road bikes you sit in a much more relaxed and upright riding position that is less demanding on your core muscles, wrist and neck. That definitely makes the ride more comfortable.

The wide tires don’t have to be inflated as hard as the narrower tires of a road bike. That provides some extra cushioning. The softer tires absorb some of the shocks of a bumpy road. 

When it comes to shock absorbing the suspensions make the ride smooth even on really rough terrains. Suspension(s) are designed to absorb the shocks coming from the off road terrain. 

MTBs have at least a front/fork suspension that absorbs the shocks of bumpy roads and some of them have full/dual suspension, that is they have both a front and a rear suspension. 

On some MTBs the suspensions can be adjusted to suit your preference and on many MTBS they can even be locked out if you don’t want to use them, which means that your bike acts as if it was a completely rigid frame.

The wide handlebars offer more room to install gadgets, accessories like phone holders, lights bell, etc than most road bikes.

When it comes to gearing, MTBs fall behind road bikes, because they lack the higher gears for going fast. You will have to pedal at a higher cadence than on a road bike when you want to go fast. On the flip side, MTBs offer a wide range of low gears for climbing steep hills, so even if you have steep gradients on your commute, getting to the top won’t be an issue.

Weight and some other aspects

Having durable components: wide and knobby tires, suspensions means that MTBs are quite heavy and have higher rolling resistance compared to road bikes. Because of this and because of the lack of high gearing it’s harder to reach and maintain high speeds on a MTB than on a road bike.

Another important aspect to consider if you want to choose a MTB for your commute is that they don’t have mounting points, so you can’t mount fenders/mudguards or a rear bike rack (and therefore panniers) on the bike. This results in a very different riding experience, and it can make commuting in all weather conditions uncomfortable. Of course, you can still carry your stuff in a backpack, and there are plenty of purpose made backpacks for cyclists that can hold plenty of gear.

There is a solution to use panniers on hardtail MTBs by using  a seatpost mounted rear rack just like this one I wrote about in another article. You can certainly find some kind of provisional fenders too. They provide some protection from the grime splashing up, although likely not perfect.

On uphill rides a front suspension fork can further slow you down because it absorbs some energy. You notice the energy loss as the front of the bike moves up and down at the pedal strokes. 

The suspension maintenance might be more costly and time consuming, as they require regular maintenance especially if you ride a lot on terrains where grime can penetrate the bearings.

If your commute to work involves long segments of gravel roads, dirt, or slippery cycling paths, then you will be best suited to a mountain bike. You will appreciate the low gears and comfortable riding position.

So summarizing it:

Pros

  • Heftier components and the frame are designed to handle more abuse
  • The relaxed frame geometry handle better downhill rides and maneuvering
  • The wide knobby tires have more traction on mud, loose dirt, or any slippers surface
  • The wide tires and handlebars provide better control over the bike
  • The relaxed frame geometry provides excellent control over the bike
  • Comfortable to ride on rough roads

Cons

  • Heavier than road bikes
  • The flat handlebar and frame geometry makes climbing up hills more difficult
  • More rolling resistance due to wide knobby tires
  • Suspension can take away some of the efficiency from your pedal stroke
  • Slower than a road bike
  • There is no mounting points for mudguards and rear rack

Road Bikes

Speed, Speed and Speed

Road bikes are all about speed, they are built for speed..

If your commute is mainly on paved roadways, then you will probably be happier with a road bike. They are designed specifically for pavement as the name suggests. They are also referred to sometimes as racing bikes.

The riding posture with a road bike is forward and downturned because of the aggressive frame geometry and the drop handlebars. You are in a more aerodynamic position, which means less wind resistance and higher speed for the same energy spent.

It’s at speeds higher than 15 mph where the air drag becomes noticeable, so you need to go faster to enjoy the advantages of the drop handlebars and the aggressive frame geometry. 

If you are an urban commuter keep in mind that in the city you will have to slow down and stop constantly at reds, when maneuvering among pedestrians, etc., so it is hard to maintain a speed faster than 15 mph, and the seconds gained going fast are canceled out by waiting at red lights.

If you have a road bike you will never feel like running out of gears when trying to reach higher speeds. Road bikes have a wide range of high gears.

Since road bikes are all about speed they are usually lighter than other types of bikes.

Narrow, slick tires also mean less friction and less rolling resistance. Again… faster speeds.

If you use a road bike for your commute, then you are choosing the fastest way to cycle to work. But you will be sacrificing some comfort for speed.

Spartan feel

Since road bikes are designed for speed, this often comes at the expense of comfort. 

Road bikes are unforgiving on rough terrain and gravel roads since the narrow tires have to be inflated very hard and don’t provide any cushioning. 25 mm or narrower tires are prone to flats when taken off road.

Comparing the road bike’s frame geometry to that of a MTB you will notice that the front wheel is closer to the frame. The head tube is in a steeper angle and thus the handlebars are slightly further ahead from the rider. All that offers more room to the rider to lean forward onto the drop handlebars and have his upper body in an almost completely horizontal position.

The aero riding position on a road bike means more tension in the core muscles, the neck and wrists; and ultimately less comfort. If you think about it riding and having your upper body in a vertical position can be really uncomfortable on longer rides especially if you are not used to it.

The possible multiple hand positions of the drop handlebars (in the drops, on the hoods or on the bar) offer some relief to your hands and core muscles on long rides.

For more experienced riders

Road bikes have a peculiar design to reach higher speed. That makes them harder to handle. If you don’t have much riding experience I don’t recommend you to start commuting using a road bike. 

Drop handlebars are much narrower than any other handlebars and therefore it is harder to make slight turns and maneuver in a bumper to bumper city traffic. 

The aggressive frame geometry, having the front wheel closer to the frame means also sharper handling. 

The rider has less control over a road bike bike, especially at slower speeds and requires more attention and delicate handling.

The bottom line is if you are an experienced rider and the roads are in good condition with very few obstacles slowing you down a road bike is the best choice for a speedy commute. 

Summarizing it:

Pros

  • Lightweight and very agile
  • Built for speed
  • The riding position is more aerodynamic
  • The light wheels and thin tires mean less friction
  • Plenty of gears to go fast

Cons

  • Not as durable as mountain bikes
  • The high gear range can make slow speed riding difficult
  • The riding posture is less comfortable than a mountain bike
  • You may experience discomfort in the back, neck, and wrists when riding in the city

If you still haven’t found what you’re looking for

There are other types of bikes that could serve your commute perfectly. If you’re still on the fence about what you should get, why not see a more exhaustive list of bikes that you can consider by checking out this other post

A Final Thought

There is a wide range of different types of bikes that will work great for commuting. MTBs and road bikes are probably the two extremes of that range. Figuring out which one will be better for you is mostly a matter of determining your personal factors (terrain, length, cargo, personal fitness and preference). But there are also some essential things that you should factor in.

Two of those deciding factors are how fast you will ride and what the terrain is like on your commute. If you find yourself on one of the extremes and the route is smooth pavement, then you will do best with a road bike. You will also get there much faster with a road bike. 

If you are on the other end of the spectrum and the terrain is rough, then you will be better served with a mountain bike. You’ll also get a much more comfortable ride with an MTB.

Best of luck finding the perfect new bike!

Happy commuting!

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