The debate between road bike vs mountain bike will never get resolved because the answer is: it depends. Are you a serious rider? If so, you may own both, and the question of road bike vs mountain bike isn't important. But most riders are forced to choose due to space considerations, funds, or lacking the time to use both bikes. A third alternative, recumbent, is another consideration because bike lovers may own all three, plus an electric bike. But for now, we'll attempt to settle the issue, road bike vs mountain bike: which is better for you?
Which Bike Is Better?
As an all-purpose vehicle, your choice of bicycle highly depends on the environment where you ride. Do you commute on a bike path? If so, a road bike is faster and more comfortable. But some commuters have to cross multiple obstacles every day, like railroad tracks or patches of dirt or unmaintained road. Even short stretches on rough terrain can be hard on the slender road bike tires. Another consideration is hills. Long, gradual hills are best negotiated on a road bike, but short, steep hills—especially if there is any terrain change—are much easier with the right mountain bike.
Road bikes come in a huge range of prices. A simple ten-speed with relatively heavy frame and mid range components can run a few hundred dollars. So price isn't a problem when purchasing any old road bike. Except we know it's worth the money to get a road bike with excellent drivetrain, and it's more than worth it to invest in tire protection and basic accessories such as a seat pouch for tools and a decent pump. This will run upwards of $600 without an extraordinary frame. A good road bike isn't cheap, but regrettably, neither is a decent mountain bike.
Road Bike Terrain
Road bikes are great on smooth streets, and that is the only place they are great. If you live in a city with bike paths, bike shoulders, and long stretches of asphalt or concrete without too many cars, a road bike is ideal. On a bike path like The Loop in Tucson, AZ with its nearly 100 miles of protected path, or even the new Southern Walnut Creek Bike Trail in Austin, TX you'll have miles of well maintained road. But not every city is so lucky and you want to ask yourself if riding in car traffic is a choice you want to make.
Road Bikes and Cities
Road bikes can sometimes work in cities. Long road shoulders and long stretches of road with moderate car traffic are perfect, but the problems occur with (1) breaks in the bike shoulder where the rider is forced to negotiate sudden disappearance of the bike path (2) glass, gravel and trash in the bike lane; (3) heavy truck traffic; and (4) light rail or railroad tracks. All of these realities make commuting or leisure riding problematic in cities. Most riders can get used to cars, but some roads are unsafe because of these obstacles. Riders who are killed are usually the victims of car collisions, but injuries are sometimes due to road surfaces.
Quality mountain bikes are pricey, just like road bikes. You can find a sturdy and relatively comfortable mountain bike for $600 but it will be heavy and may have an iffy suspension system. More money means super lightweight frames and great suspensions in mountain biking and arguably spending a little more is even more critical in a mountain bike purchase.
Mountain Bikes on Flat Terrain
Mountain bike riders are fit, but going for long stretches on flat terrain such as asphalt or cement is too much of a workout on most mountain bikes. The reason for this has to do with the suspension. Built to make jumps, a mountain bike's suspension responds to ruts and make landings bearable. On pavement, the suspension makes for a slower ride that requires more effort.
Mountain bikes can be, and usually are, heavier than road bikes in the lower price range and the tires are thicker. This added contact area slows down riders on flat, paved roads. If use your mountain bike to commute on long, flat stretches, it works better than a road bike on slick rock, but not by much.
Mountain Bikes and Posture
Mountain bikes are built to alternate standing and sitting, not built for long seated rides. Their seats are meant to be super lightweight and are not designed for long periods of sitting. Additionally, the handlebars will make long rides uncomfortable. A mountain biking posture is active, so if you regularly ride for more than five miles or so, you'll need a road bike. A mountain bike is not a good substitute.
If you could only buy one expensive bike, which would you buy first? This again depends on your needs and biking ambitions. For commuting, a mountain bike seems logical. After all, it can handle any obstacle. But if you are commuting for miles mostly across a college campus, a road bike is a much better choice because it is comfortable. On a short commute, you might even choose a fat-tired cruiser. Mountain bikes only work as commuters if it's a ride of moderate distance with a couple of significant terrain changes, such as a steep hill, railroad tracks, dirt, or gravel.
Road Bike vs Mountain Bike on Cost
It's too bad this debate can't be settled on price, but here, it's a wash. Don't buy a cheap bike, whichever one you choose. The only real advantage on cost may be that pawn shops carry far more mountain bikes. Why, we don't know, but if you visit a pawn shop you'll find a long row of mountain bikes of varying quality. This will get you a bargain, but be careful to check out the condition of the components and the frame for use and wear.
Is There a Need for a Mountain Bike and a Road Bike?
If you commute by bicycle, two bikes is not excessive. Bicycles are so much cheaper than cars, especially when considering insurance, maintenance, storage (parking) and car payment interest. Having two bicycles is still a fraction of the cost of a single car. If you have both a mountain bike and a road bike you have back-up. You'll also have an extra bike for a friend or visitor. Riding both types will also give you a feel for which one you prefer, although many riders will say, "it depends."
When Having Both Makes Sense
If you commute by bicycle, enjoy long rides and mountain biking for sport, or have the space and the money, get one of each. It's better to have a mountain bike and a road bike than try to compromise with a hybrid or put beefy tires on your road bike. Road and mountain bikes are specialized for good reason, so don't take shortcuts by getting an all-purpose bike unless you like short commutes, limited choice, and zero style. Hybrid bikes don't save money, either.
How to Choose Between a Mountain Bike and a Road Bike
What is your ideal lifestyle? Would you rather be solitary or hanging out with one pal, and in the woods or riding in a pack on a smooth asphalt? What about the riding conditions where you live? These are important issues in deciding between road bike vs mountain bike. It's not just about what you can do with the bike, but what you want to do.
Decent mountain bikes and road bikes will run upwards of $800. So the road bike vs mountain bike debate can't be settled on cost alone. As we mentioned before, mountain bikes get pawned more, so you might save on the used market.
Is commuting the main reason you have a bike? If so, buy the right bike for your commute but don't assume that's a road bike. You might have a commute that's a lot more fun if you take a cross-country route. Road bikes are better on tracks, so if you live in a city with light rail a mountain bike might save you a fall.
Can You Take It with You?
Is your bike choice going to fit easily on your car? Ask yourself this question because if you can't transport your bicycle you'll either have to buy a special bike rack, change cars, or limit your rides.
Go with Your Gut
Don't let being practical weigh you down too much. Do you love the way mountain bikes look and love the feel of riding one, even though you have a nine mile, flat commute? Buy one for fun, and limit your bicycling commute to three days a week, or find another way to get creative about commuting. Don't let your commuting needs limit your recreation choices.
The road bike vs mountain bike question has no easy answers, which is why we recommend seriously considering your needs and buying the bike you like first. Help save the planet and buy the best bike you can afford, then add to your carbonless and frugal lifestyle with a second bike. Why stop there? You can round out your collection with an electric bicycle, a recumbent, and the list goes on.