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

Mountain bikes are designed to traverse rough terrain.
A mountain bike trail leading towards a mountain range.
All bike tires must be inflated properly.
Mountain bike tires are designed for uneven surfaces.
Road bikes are designed for speed.
Road bikes are better for long distance trips.
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  • Written By: Diana Bocco
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 12 October 2014
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Though there are many different kinds of bicycles, road bikes and mountain bikes are popular for their specialization to their task. As a general rule, those designed for road use will be built to favor speed, while mountain bikes favor stability. These tendencies make sense, considering the purpose of each style of bike. There are four specific areas that will help distinguish the two types.

Shape: Road bikes, having been designed for speed, generally position the rider much closer to the top tube and the pedals. This hunched-over position is more efficient for getting power from the rider's legs, but is also far more taxing on the back than a more upright mountain bike. This design difference is very apparent in the different types of handle bars used for each kind of bike. Those for use on rougher terrain have wide handle bars that allow the rider greater control, as opposed to the bent handle bars of most road models, which are lower and more aerodynamic.

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Weight: Where a heavy frame is a huge burden on speed, it is often a necessity for going down the mountain. Bikes designed for this purpose are heavy out of necessity, with wider tires and extensive suspension systems helping to make the ride down the mountain easier to manage. Good bikes for road use will be designed to eliminate as much excess weight as possible, including using materials such as titanium and carbon fiber to allow strength and flexibility in addition to reducing weight.

Tires: The key with mountain bike tires is traction. They're wider and covered with lots of nubby rubber to increase surface area and friction. These qualities will help the rider retain control of the bicycle as he or she careens down the hill. Road bike tires, on the other hand, are generally very thin and very smooth. They rely on the surface of the rubber and the skill of the rider to maintain friction between the bike and the road.

Suspension: Bikes that are truly built for speed will not have any suspension, though they are often built with materials that will absorb vibrations from unevenly paved roads. On the other hand, front shock absorbers, rear suspension, and even unique hybrids will all be available for bikes that are made to tackle the rough mountain surfaces. Suspension is also the area where it's easiest to identify a hybrid or commuter bike. These will have flat handle bars, thin tires, and may or may not include suspension. Some commuter bikes even come with locking suspension, so the rider can choose if they want the extra cushioning of the road.

In the end, a cheaper bike of either type will generally be available for less than $200 US Dollars (USD). On the other hand, very custom or professional-grade models can cost several thousands of dollars. Anyone shopping for a bike should to choose a design based on his or her anticipated needs, and test ride as many different brands and designs as possible. Generally, it's not a bad idea for a rider to buy a bike that he or she can "grow into," in terms of skill or experience. This way, the person can avoid limiting his or her growth as an athlete, or his or her enjoyment of the new bike.

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anon337211
Post 14

I have had a drop handlebar Miyata 220 road bike for 28 years. I use and like all the riding positions available with this bike but would now like more comfort. I know there are ways to add 'give' to a road bike (suspension seat post, exotic frame materials etc) but they don't do much for me. Why can't I get a road bike with a front suspension?

anon283008
Post 13

I huff and puff to work every day on a mountain bike (road use) an anyone in a 10 speed, or a road bike, blasts past me with ease. If you want to commute on the road, don't buy a mountain bike. They stink.

amypollick
Post 12

@anon261393: I suppose it depends on what you're used to. If you're used to coaster brakes on a bike, then a cruiser would probably be what you're looking for. If you're used to hand brakes, you might want to look for a 10-speed.

If you're looking for more of a comfort ride, I'd recommend wider tires and a wider, cushioned seat, with upright handlebars. I've seen some really sharp Schwinn bikes at Target for about $150, and I got a nice coaster bike at Wal-Mart for about $100. They also sell the little trailers at Target, too.

anon261393
Post 11

I am a senior citizen and need a bike to exercise my recently operated on knee and found that biking was good for rebuilding the muscles. I live only on Social Security so it's not going to be a high dollar purchase. What kind of bike do you recommend?

After I get some muscles I want to get a trailer to put on the bike for my little dogs. By the way, I cannot afford an adult tricycle, although I know that would be perfect. I'm thinking a cruiser bike would be best -- right or wrong? Thank you in advance for your advice.

anon244493
Post 10

When you're buying a bike, it depends on what you need it for. Also, you wouldn't buy a $1,000 dollar bike for a nine year old who would grow out of it in a year, would you?

anon129028
Post 9

@jkd: I am 12 years old. I ride road bikes. I have ridden mountain bikes before. And I discovered their name really suits them. They are purely designed for going downhill and off road. So that doesn't sound like it's for your son. (By the way suspension bikes are mountain bikes.)

Now BMX. Oh, where do I begin? (Uh, how about, no!) This is a terrible buy. Sure, all the other kids have them, but honestly, do you want to buy a terrible cheap bike for your son?

Ahhh, Road bikes. Pure perfection. This would be my first choice if I had a son and I was getting him a bike it would be a road bike for sure. I have a few reasons.

1. I got my first road bike just because I needed something to ride that was lighter than MBK. (MBK= Mountain Bike)

2. It made me able to ride with my parents, which has brought us closer together.

3. If you ever want to do racing ( Just consider the following ) or triathlons a road bike is a must have.

I'll post more tomorrow. I hope I can assist you in helping your son. Sorry but is 10:57 for me here so I'm tired.

~G3

anon80602
Post 7

See what the other children in your area are riding and get him something similar enough to seem ordinary but different enough for him and his friends to know which one is his. This will reduce the chances of his bike being stolen and the chances of his bike being confused with someone else's.

A different color from his friends' bikes and a bell different from the one that came with the bike is usually all the difference you need. Two pieces of different colored sticky tape around random parts of the bike frame may help him distinguish his bike from a similar one as well.

I find in the town I live, children who live closer to the centre of town own BMX bikes and go riding at the skate park and children closer to the edge of town own mountain bikes and go riding around dirt tracks made by other children over the years.

To make the bike a less desirable target for thieves: Don't buy him a bike with grinding pegs, disc brakes, drop handlebars or rear suspension.

Only get him a bike with front suspension if it is a mountain bike and the suspension is the same color as the rest of the bike.

Buy a lock for the bike and show him how to use it properly.

Hopefully this information was helpful.

anon55674
Post 6

Get the kid mountain bike, because they are easier, comfortable and safe for a kid at his age. I bought the same bike for my nine year old and he loves it.

anon51258
Post 5

I have a specialized hardrock frame that I was wanting to convert to a fixed gear road bike. is that possible or am I going to run into some problems? -funguy

anon33882
Post 4

I would go with a BMX. They have that "cool" factor for a young kid and are very versatile.

anon32396
Post 3

I just wanted to say that this was very helpful in pointing out the differences. This will help me to make a better choice when i buy my bike.

Thank you, Rachele

jkd
Post 2

I would like to purchase a new bike for my 8 year old son. I have been told that he needs a 24" wheel bike, but I don't know what style of bike to buy him. There are mountain, road, bmx and suspension bikes and some don't even state what they are for.

He will generally use the bike for going to grandmas, to the shops, riding up and down the garden. What style would you recommend please?

Thank you for your help.

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