This post explains in detail what to expect when transitioning from a mountain bike to a road bike.
The first step to describing the switch from an MTB to a road bike is to outline the technical dissimilarities between the two types of bicycles.
1. Road Bikes Use Thin, Firm, Narrow Tires
Road tires are usually 23-28mm wide and require 80-130 PSI (5.5 bar to 9 bar) of air pressure to perform as intended.
In contrast, mountain bike tires are 2 to 2.4 inches [50.8 to 60.96mm] and operate at a significantly lower air pressure ranging between 22psi (1.5 bar) to 35psi (2.4 bar).
Conclusion: MTB tires are roughly 55% wider than road bike tires and require about 73% lower air pressure.
The thin, narrow and firm tires of road bikes result in the following:
- Harsher ride
The wide, low pressure MTB tires are a lot more forgiving than the rock-hard road tires which transmit even the slightest imperfection of the terrain to your body.
The result is a harsher ride which may stress mountain bikers used to the comfort of wide tires and suspension.
- Low rolling resistance
Road bike tires have a very low rolling resistance in comparison to a typical MTB tire. Consequently, they’re quieter and much faster on smooth asphalt.
- More opportunities for getting a flat
It’s easier to puncture a road tire because it’s not as thick as an MTB one. To minimize the chances of getting a flat, it’s very important to maintain the recommended air pressure.
- More difficult to replace
Some road bike tires are very tight and therefore hard to install and remove. The experience can generate serious frustration when changing a flat, especially when you have to do it in less than ideal circumstances.
The installation difficulty depends on the rim and tire combo. Sometimes the process is as straightforward as expected.
Meanwhile, the installation and removal of mountain bike tires isn’t nearly as problematic. Many MTB models can be fitted even without using a tire lever because the extra surface makes it easier to grab and manipulate the tire.
- More difficult to inflate
Road bike tires operate at a high air pressure. As a result, the inflation requires more effort and time.
- Frequent pumping
The tires of a road bike have to be inflated more often to maintain the necessary air pressure.
- Poor performance on off-road terrain
Road bike tires don’t have knobby treads and thus offer poor grip on gravel and other forms of off-road terrain.
- No shortcuts
The structure of a road bike and its tires tie you to the road. You cannot take shortcuts (e.g., ride through the trail section of a park) as easily as you can with an MTB.
- Narrow tires can get stuck
Another downside of road bike tires is that they can easily fall between the rails of a sewer or a storm drain.
Once the front wheel is trapped, going over the handlebars is almost a certain outcome if the cyclist is moving even at modest speed because there’s no reaction time.
The likelihood of experiencing the same with an MTB tire is very low because the space between the rails is too narrow.
Of course, MTB tires can also get “trapped” if the top of the shaft is broken or missing.
Note: Most Road Bikes Use a Presta Valve
MTBs use a Schrader (car) valve whereas most road inner tubes operate with a Presta valve. If your current pump does not have a Presta valve, you will need a Schrader to Presta adaptor to inflate the tires.
2. No Suspension
Road bikes do not have any form of suspension for the following reasons:
- Smooth terrain
Road bikes are intended for roads with minimal irregularities. This peculiarity alone eliminates the need for a suspension.
- Loss of pedaling effort
Bicycles with suspension are inefficient when ridden on the road because the suspension “eats” a lot of the pedaling effort. Hence why full suspension mountain bikes are some of the slowest bicycles on the road.
- Extra weight
Suspension adds weight to bike. This is a problem because road cyclists often aim at having the lightest possible set-up.
The lack of suspension makes the ride harsher but in exchange offers pedaling efficiency and a more responsive bicycle.
Another bonus is that you won’t have to do suspension maintenance which is a somewhat expensive and time-consuming endeavor.
3. Narrow Bars + Long Stems
Unlike MTBs, road bikes come with narrow handlebars combined with long stems.
Modern MTB bars are usually 720+mm whereas the average length of road drop bars is between 380mm and 440mm. In addition, the stems on up-to-date mountain bikes are as short as possible while road bikes come with long stems varying between 80 and 140mm.
Due to the substantial differences between the two cockpits, people who switch from MTB to road often describe the steering of road bikes as “twitchy” and less precise.
Newcomers have to pass through an adaptation stage before performing more aggressive maneuvers on the road with confidence.
It’s also common to feel a bit “compressed” in the chest when coming from the comfort of wide MTB handlebars. After a while, however, most riders get used to the narrow road bars.
4. Lighter weight
One of the greatest differences between MTBs and road bikes is the weight of the bicycles – road bikes are significantly lighter.
Entry to mid-range road bikes stop the scale between 20-25lbs (9.1-11.36kg). If you go higher and get a carbon frame with better components (e.g., Shimano 105 or up), the weight easily drops to 18lbs/8.1kg.
In contrast, the average hardtail MTB is about 25lbs–28lbs (11.36-12.72kg). Full suspension bikes are a bit heavier – usually about 30-35lbs (13.63-15.9kg).
Some custom cross-country MTBs are very light – under 20lbs/9.1kg. However, most MTB riders own cheaper, heavier models.
In general, basic road bikes are about 4kg/8.8lbs heavier than an average MTB. In the world, of cycling this is a game changing difference.
The light weight of road bikes has the following effects:
- Greater acceleration
A lighter bike is easier to put in motion. This is one of the reasons why road bikes gain speed faster than MTBs on the street.
- Endurance and Efficiency on the Road
The lighter weight of a road bike and its tires with low rolling resistance facilitate longer rides.
One of the first observations that MTB riders make when they hop on a road bike is how much easier it is to cover greater distances.
- More Susceptibility to Wind
A strong wind can affect every bicycle, but the influence is greater on road bikes because they are very light.
- Easy carry
Road bikes are more pleasant to lift and move around than heavy-duty MTBs. The quality is appreciated the most when climbing stairs.
Road bikes are tougher than they look, but that doesn’t change the fact that they have significantly weaker frames, forks, and wheels than an average mountain bike.
If we have to present both as motorized vehicles, a road bike would be an F1 car whereas an MTB could be seen as an off-road truck.
5. Weaker Wheels
Most mountain bikes have 32 spokes on both wheels. In different, a road bicycle designed for racing may have 16 spokes on the front wheel and 20 on the rear.
Road bike manufacturers take advantage of the fact that the front wheel carries less load and put fewer spokes to make it lighter and more aerodynamic.
The rear wheel is reinforced with extra spokes because it supports more weight and receives the power generated by the cyclist. If the number of rear spokes is too low, the rim may begin flexing. Insufficient rim stiffness causes instability and poor power transfer.
Ultimately, the wheels of road bikes are notably weaker than those of MTBs and add to the “sketchy” feeling that mountain bikers often experience when hopping on a road bike.
Note: Most people aren’t racing and use wheels with a greater number of spokes. E.g., 20 front/ 24 back. Moreover, many road cyclists have training wheels that can have as much as 32 spokes. The purpose of those wheels is to minimize the need for truing.
6. No Dropper Posts
Higher-end mountain bikes have dropper posts allowing the rider to quickly raise or lower the seat according to the terrain ahead. Descents favor a low seat post setting whereas ascents benefit from a higher saddle position.
Some roadies have been experimenting with dropper posts as a way to improve their descending efficiency, but droppers are still a rarity on the road as their benefits to road cycling are questionable.
MTB bikers accustomed to changing the position of their seat on the fly may need a bit of time to adapt to an immobile seat post.
7. Poor Braking Performance
Mountain bikes use the most advanced braking systems available on the cycling market. The top models are equipped with hydraulic disc brakes whereas the entry and mid-range lines rely on mechanical discs.
Disc brakes offer efficiency and great stopping power regardless of the weather conditions. The result is reliable braking and extra confidence.
Conversely, the vast majority of road bikes are equipped with caliper rim brakes which cannot match the performance of disc brakes.
When a mountain biker gets on a road bike, they are often unpleasantly surprised to learn that the brakes aren’t quite as powerful as those on an MTB and need longer to stop the bicycle. The effect is the most prominent in wet conditions and during long descents.
This is yet another factor that makes the transition from an MTB to a road bike a little scary and uncomfortable. Buying a road bike with disc brakes eliminates this issue.
8. Higher Gearing
Road bikes have higher gears. A common combination is 50/34 chainrings at the front and an 11-28 cassette at the back. Mountain bikes, on the other hand, offer extra low gearing.
At the moment, 1x drivetrains are the most popular MTB set-up. The chainring in front has 32-36 tooth whereas the cassette is quite big. For example, SRAM Eagle offers 12 speeds and a 50 tooth large cog.
A road bike’s high gearing requires an adaptation period when coming from an MTB background. Some could find the gears insufficient when climbing.
FAQ: Why do road bikes have a higher gear range?
Road bikes are light, designed for smooth terrain, and equipped with narrow slim tires. As a result, pedaling on the street is easier, and the rider has the opportunity to reach greater speeds. Moreover, the extra gearing prevents spinning out during long descents.
9. New Brake and Shifter Position
Modern road bikes come with brake-shifters which make it possible to shift without moving your hands away from the hoods.
Brake-shifters are considered a significant improvement over previous systems (e.g., downtube shifters) because they offer greater comfort and stability.
The deployment of brake-shifters is different than that of flat bar shifters because the wrists are in a more neutral alignment (palms facing each other).
Also, drop bars come with two braking locations – the hoods and the drops. When you are braking from the hoods, the hands are in a more comfortable position, but the fingers have poorer leverage because they’re further away from the lever’s lower end.
When braking from the drops, the opposite phenomenon is observed – the wrists are in a more stressful position, but the fingers have a higher mechanical advantage because they can access the low end of the brake lever. The result is a different feel during braking.
Some mountain bikers may find this difference notable because flat handlebars come with a single shifting and braking position offering unbeatable comfort and stability.
10. Different Pedals
While there are clip-in pedals designed specifically for MTBs, the vast majority of mountain bikers rely on flat pedals as those make it easier to bail out. Moreover, some tricks (e.g., bunny hops) are meant to be done with flat pedals anyway.
Conversely, most roadies gravitate towards pedals with some sort of foot retention meant to improve one’s pedal stroke.
If you are switching from flat/platform pedals to a clip system, you will have to pass through an adaption period. You may even find yourself on the ground a number of times due to lost balance. The fall is usually caused by failure to unclip in time after stopping.
11. Road Bikes = Firm Saddles
Road bikes tend to have firmer saddles than MTBs in order to save weight and improve pedaling efficiency.
For that reason, one of the first observations that mountain bikers make when testing their first road bike is how firm the saddle feels.
The clothing designed for road and mountain biking varies too. For example, road bike shorts are tight, have no pockets, and come with cushioning for the sit bones. Road biking is all about being fast on the road, and the tight dress code helps with that goal as it reduces drag and facilitates pedaling.
To differentiate themselves from roadies, mountain bikers rely on baggier “skater” shorts with a great number of pockets. Honestly, there isn’t a technical need for those pants. The choice is more of a fashion statement than a necessity. One can even argue that wider pants are less than ideal because they can catch on to external objects (e.g., branches) on the trail more easily.
Mountain bikers will probably feel weird when examining the opportunity to wear tight road shorts. I know people who ride road bikes but refuse to accept the dress code that goes with the bike. Others love road gear and consider it invaluable when trying to reach better times and more comfort.
To know where you stand, you’ll have to experiment.
A New Riding Position
On a road bike, the back angle of the cyclist is a lot more horizontal. The goal is to reduce drag and acquire more speed.
The position stretches out the rider and puts extra weight towards the front wheel. Mountain bikes come with the opposite fit – the rider is more upright and has more of their weight on the back wheel. This stance makes it easier to ride on technical terrain and perform the necessary MTB maneuvers.
People new to road bikes often find the aero position a little too demanding and often experience lower back soreness for a couple of weeks.
The hamstrings may also get sore because they insert at the hip and are stretched a bit more when riding a road bike.
Another area of the body that may begin complaining upon “road initiation” is the neck. The more horizontal back angle necessitates a greater degree of neck flexion when riding. The end result are strained neck muscles.
Switching from an MTB to a road bike can have the following effects:
- A feeling of sketchiness due to the weight of the bike and the thin tires;
- Harsher ride;
- More wrist, elbow and shoulder stress;
- More flats;
- No shortcuts;
- Inability to do certain tricks;
- No option of inflating the tires at a gas station without a Presta to Schrader adapter;
- Higher susceptibility to side wind;
- Lower back, neck, and hamstring soreness;
- Higher top and average speed on the road;
- Supreme pedaling efficiency;
- Greater distance coverage;
- Easier transportation of the bicycle;
- More expensive shifters;
- No need for suspension maintenance;