Mountain Bikes on the Road: Getting to Your Bikepacking Trip


Many new riders tend to have an old mountain bike lying around in their garage when they first decide to try out bikepacking. This often leads to the question of whether or not you can ride a mountain bike on the road. I for one wondered this exact thing when I started on my cycling journey, and so thought I would try and help to answer the question as well as I can. So, can you ride a mountain bike on the road?

Mountain bikes can be ridden on the road and are one of the most popular bike types used for bikepacking because they are so stable and easy to ride. However, riding a mountain bike on the road causes the tires to wear out more quickly and the bike will be slower than a road bike alternative.

So, we’ve established that riding a mountain bike on the road is an option, but what are the advantages and disadvantages of riding a mountain bike on the road? I take a more detailed look into this, as well as whether or not you can ride a mountain bike on the pavement in the rest of the article.

Can you ride a mountain bike on the road?

A picture of a mountain bike

Mountain bikes are designed for off-road riding, be that through the woods, on single track, or through rough terrain, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t use a mountain bike on the road. Many cyclists have to use their mountain bikes on a road or asphalt surface to get to their bikepacking routes.

While mountain bikes will not be as effective as road bikes when cycling on the tarmac, they are still very capable of this.

Why would you want to ride a mountain bike on the road?

So why might you want to be riding your mountain bike on the road?

The main reason that I personally have had to use a mountain bike on the road, is when I am setting off on a bikepacking trip. I much prefer routes that allow me to leave my front door with my bike (avoiding any trains, planes or cars), so cycling on the road to reach my starting point is quite common for me.

As well as this, some people enjoy road cycling and mountain biking but do not have enough money to buy two bikes. It is much easier to use a mountain bike for road biking than it is to use a road bike for mountain biking.

On top of this, someone who goes mountain biking already may well want to try out road cycling for the first time, without investing lots of money into a new bike.

Mountain bikes also make very common options for bike commuters. They have some great qualities such as being very durable that make them a good option for this, and as you might expect, commuting often involves a lot of road cycling.

What are the advantages of a mountain bike on the road?

Not only do mountain bikes make a suitable option for cycling on the road, but they have quite a few advantages when it comes to road cycling. How important these benefits are to you will most likely depend on the type of cycling you plan to do with the mountain bike on the road.

Very stable
Comfortable riding position
Durable
Able to easily clear curbs or cycle down poorly maintained roads
Less chance of a flat tire
Gives you a more versatile option without having to buy a second bike
Have strong and effective brakes – Very useful when cycling in traffic
Able to take a cycle on routes that have both rough terrain and roads, or cut across parks
Better on your joints
You get more exercise

What are the disadvantages of a mountain bike on the road?

So, we’ve established that there are many advantages to using a mountain bike on the road, but there must be some negatives otherwise no one would be using a road bike at all.

Tires are designed for off-road terrain
Less aerodynamic
Heavy
High drag on the wheels
Slower
Have to work harder to cycle the same distance – You get more sweaty
Poor gear ratio for road riding
Wide handlebars can be awkward in traffic
Suspension causes poor pedalling efficiency

Does riding a mountain bike on the road ruin the tires?

A picture of a mountain bike tire

Mountain bike tires are meant to give you a lot of grip, this is to help you on unstable and slippery ground as you cycle off-road.

This means they are designed to have lots of knobbles on the tire (the little rubber bits sticking out). While these are very good at grabbing onto uneven terrain, they are at risk of being torn off as you cycle on the road, especially if you find yourself braking harshly.

On top of this, the actual tread of the tire will be worn down more quickly on tarmac than off-road. This is because when road cycling, you will likely be covering longer distances than when you are when mountain biking.

Certain types of tires, particularly super-soft compound tires are more prone to this than other types.

However, it is important to realize that in the long run, the effect this will have should be minimal, and the price of replacing your tires more frequently is going to be far less than buying a whole new bike.

Also, you need to take into account the cost you might spend travelling by other means. Even if you are replacing your tires more frequently, driving in a car may cost you more and be worse for the planet.

On top of this, you also have the possibility of buying a second pair of tires for your mountain bike that is more designed to be used on the road. You can then swap these on and off as you need them. This gives you the best of both worlds.

What is the best way to ride a mountain bike on the road?

A picture of someone riding a mountain bike on the road

So, we’ve already established that you might want to get a second set of tires for road cycling with a mountain bike, but are there any other changes you might want to make?

Adjust your suspension

The next best thing you can do with a mountain bike is to lock off the suspension. This turns the mountain bike into more of a “gravel” or “road” bike than when the suspension is on and will help to improve your pedalling efficiency (the suspension absorbs some of your power as you pedal).

If you are riding on a bit of a rougher road, some cyclists suggest locking off the rear suspension (effectively turning it into a hardtail mountain bike), and then reducing the travel on the front suspension to around 4 inches. This will give you some leeway for potholes etc but will also help your speed.

Adjust your handlebars and saddle

The other thing you can look to do when riding a mountain bike on the road is to adjust the handlebar and saddle height to a more comfortable position. Often, mountain bike riders will have these set to a very aggressive mountain biking position that is designed for downhill racing, however when using a mountain bike on the road, changing the position can make the bike much more comfortable.

Is it harder to ride a mountain bike on the road?

A picture of someone riding a mountain bike on the road

Mountain bikes tend to be harder to ride on the road when compared to road bikes. You may even find that a mountain bike seems harder to ride on the road than when you are cycling it off-road.

Heavy and poor aerodynamics

Again this comes down to the fact that the bike has been designed with off-road riding in mind. The strong and durable components selected to survive a crash are very heavy and not at all aerodynamic.

Wide tires

The wide tires on the bike are designed to help with grip, but instead, add even more weight and excess drag to the bike as you cycle on the tarmac.

The negative impact of the suspension

On top of this, the suspension is designed to help improve the comfort of your ride on bumpy terrain. However, when cycling on the road this will only reduce your pedalling efficiency.

All of this together means that you have to work much harder when cycling on a road and this is one of the reasons why road bikes will be around 30% faster than mountain bikes when road cycling.

Can mountain bikes be ridden on the pavement?

A picture of someone riding a mountain bike on the pavement

Technically, you should not be cycling your mountain bike (or any bike for that matter) on the pavement. This is certainly the case in many countries such as the UK, the USA, and Canada. This is because the pavement (sidewalk) has been put in place for walking pedestrians to use, not bikes.

What are the rules in the UK?

The highway code clearly states that “You must not cycle on a pavement” In the UK doing so can earn you a fixed penalty notice (similar to a fine). However, there is a little leeway, the UK government specifically has gone on record about the fixed penalty notices stating that police should use discretion where appropriate.

“The introduction of the fixed penalty is not aimed at responsible cyclists who sometimes feel obliged to use the pavement out of fear of the traffic, and who show consideration to other pavement users.

What are the rules in the US?

Some states do allow bike use on the sidewalk, however, most require the bikes to give way to walking pedestrians and have some form of a bell to alert them to their presence.

In reality, if you are looking to cycle in the US on the sidewalk or pavement then you will need to look up your specific state rulings.

Overall

A picture of a mountain bike on a mountain bike path

As you can see, mountain bikes make a great choice for cycling on the road, provided you are aware that you might be a little slower and need to change the tires more frequently

If you are still unsure about cycling on the road and want to drive to your mountain biking spot, take a look at my article on whether or not your bike will fit in your car which can be found here.

Joe Dalloz

Hi! I'm Joe a 30-year-old doctor, cyclist, and bikepacker who's spent thousands of hours in the saddle and written hundreds of articles about riding bikes!

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