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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Road Bike vs. Mountain Bike: What are the Differences?

Road Bike vs Mountain Bike

What really makes a road bike a road bike and a mountain bike a mountain bike?  If you are thinking about getting into the sport of cycling and buying a bike you should understand the strengths and weaknesses of each bike.  I will be expanding on this topic in an upcoming post about why to choose a road bike or a mountain bike as your first bike.  Before I get into that I think it is important to learn what makes each bike unique.  This is brief summary where I try to hit some of the basics.  If you want to know more I would suggest you make a trip to your local bike shop.  At the bike shop you will also be able to see the differences in the bikes up close and personal. 

I will also note that the road bike and the mountain bike are two common types of bikes, there are many other kinds of bikes for more specialty usage such as BMX bikes and Triathlon bikes.  There is also a very popular mix of bike that I would refer to as a Hybrid bike.  As the name implies it takes some from the road bike and some from the mountain bike to make a more versatile bike.  If you are out for a leisurely rides this might be the place to start.

Listed below are some key differences  between Road Bike and Mountain Bikes:

  1. Intended Use - Here is the obvious one - Road Bikes are meant for riding on a hard paved surface and mountain bikes are designed for much more rough terrain such as dirt, gravel, and any combination of surfaces.  Either can be ridden on anything but they are not ideally suited.  In general a mountain bike is more versatile because it can be ridden on the road, where as a road bike really can't be ridden in rough terrain (main limitation being it very thin tires).  Although a mountain bike can be ridden on the road, once you ride a road bike on the road you will NOT want to be riding a mountain bike on the road, it feels like you are pedaling a tank down the road compared to a sleek road bike.
  2. Tires - Mountain bikes typically have fatter tires with very nubby tread.  This is to give more traction when you are in the dirt, gravel, and sand.  The wider fatter tires also keep the bike on the surface as opposed to sinking in quickly (think of sand).  Road bikes have very thin tires with a smooth surface.  This is to give the least amount of resistance when you are riding on the road.  Road bike tires are often inflated to very high pressures as well to reduce the rolling resistance.  Think of a race car vs. a monster truck tires.  The race car has "racing slicks" meant for high speeds on dry paved surfaces.  The Monster truck has huge tires with thick treads so it can go anywhere.  Road bikes are built for speed on the road and mountain bikes are built to take you off road through variable conditions.
  3. Rider Position / Geometry - Cycling enthusiasts could go on and on about this topic and all the subtleties but I will try to keep it simple.  Basically a road bike is made to have the rider in an aerodynamic position to reduce the wind resistance and once again increase speed on roads.  To do this the rider is typically meant to be stretched out further over the handlebars and the handle bars themselves have "drops" which go down under the horizontal bar to make the rider even more aerodynamic.  A mountain bike is usually setup to have a more upright position so the rider can better navigate rough terrain.  For many the mountain bike's upright position is much more natural than the bent over aerodynamic road bike position.  There are many different geometries out there for both bikes.  As you get more toward racing bikes the geometries get more "severe" but if you are just getting your first bike you probably won't need a racing bike just yet.
  4. Frame / Shocks - The bike frames on a mountain bike and a road bike are quite different.  Mountain bikes typically have a "beefier" (larger diameter tubing) build to withstand the pounding of off road terrain.  Road bikes on the other hand try to be sleek and aerodynamic.   Another big difference is the shocks/suspension that is typically present on a mountain bike and absent on road bikes.  These shocks are similar to those is your car.  They are used to dampen out the bumps and smooth the ride.  Since a road bike it meant to be ridden on a smooth paved surface there is no need for a a suspension system.  A suspension system would also be detrimental to the power transfer in a road bike.  Road bikes are typically very "stiff" so all the energy you put in through the pedals in transfer into the wheels and propels you ahead.  In a mountain bike, since you are on rough terrain the suspension makes the ride much smoother.
  5. Weight - With both bikes, as you get more high performance bikes they are lighter.  Often time this is accomplished with lighter materials such as carbon fiber.  In general though a road bike will be lighter than a mountain bike.  Reducing weight once again helps with trying to go faster on the road.  As mentioned above, a mountain bike often has a larger frame and heavier components adding to its overall weight.
  6. Components - Components are the different parts of the bike attached to the frame.  These include things like the brakes, shifters, gearing, etc.  All of these are different from road to mountain bike.
    1. Brakes - Typical road bikes have brake calipers that use brake pads on either side of the wheel.  Mountain bikes often time use disk brakes, similar to a car.  In general the disk brakes have more stopping power and stop quicker which is very important on off road terrain.  Road bikes are not really meant to brake quicky so they use a style that is slightly less efficient but lighter.
    2. Handle Bars - Road bikes have "curl" handle bars with a horizontal piece and then the drops that curl down.  These handle bars make a lot of riding positions possible.  Getting in the drops increases your aerodynamic position.  Mountain bike will typically have a wider horizontal handle bar that makes for easier maneuverability in tight spots. 
    3. Gearing - The gears on a bike are what make it comfortable/possible for you to pedal on varying hills and flats.  If you are climbing up a steep hill you want to go to an "easy" gear so you can still pedal although the bike is not moving very fast.  When you are going downhill you want a "harder" gear so you can keep your speed up and pedal without having to spin your legs at 200rpm.  Typically a mountain bike will have more of the "easy" gears that will enable you to ride of very steep grades while as a road bike might not have as "easy" of gear but will have a much larger set of "harder" gears to take advantage of your speed.  Even within road bikes and mountain bikes the gearing will vary widely.  Talk to your bike shop professional about what is best for you.
    4. Shifters -  In order to change those gears you need to have shifters on the handle bars.  On a mountain bike they are typically either a lever or turn style integrated into the horizontal handle bars.  On a road bike the shifters are out in front of the bars and have long  vertical handles so they can be used from multiple positions.  These shifters are also the same levers used to activate the brakes.  Typically you pull back for braking and push the lever to the left or right to shift gears.  On a mountain bike the brake are a separate horizontal lever that activates the brakes.
These are just some of the differences between road bike and mountain bikes.  Hopefully it gives you better insight into why you would use/choose a road bike or a mountain bike.  If you are in the market for a new bike, after you buy your new bike head on over to StoreYourBoard and pickup a bike storage rack for your garage or basement.