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Many new riders ask about the differences between the road bike and its distant cousin, the mountain bike. It can be confusing, so let’s take a look.
The real question is, are road bikes harder to ride than mountain bikes? The answer is, it all depends. For example, it is much more difficult negotiating rugged terrain than it is a smooth road surface.
But if you turn this idea on its head and ride that same road bike up to Pikes Peak in Colorado, you begin to realize the challenge a road bike can offer, despite its advantages.
So, what are the advantages and diadvantages of a road bike?
1. The weight is much lighter than a mountain bike, at least for now
Higher-end road bikes, such as the Pinarello Dogma F12, use carbon fiber composite frames to make these racing machines weigh next to nothing, which is a vital attribute during the last leg of a long mountain climb.
There is debate within the cycling community whether carbon fiber can hold up as well as standard alloys. Still, science has debunked the myth of its inferiority in recent years.
As a result, more of the top-line manufacturers of mountain bikes are jumping on the bandwagon of carbon fiber technology. The race to make the lightest bike is on, and the gap between the road bike and its rugged mountain counterpart is closing. The fact that the disparity in weight is being relieved by superior technology could eventually result in novice riders opting to go off-road instead of hitting the pavement.
2. Street tires on road bikes are designed for speed
The narrower tires on a road bike have a smaller contact patch, meaning less of the tire contacts the pavement and therefore creates less resistance between the tire and the road. The advantage of this is being able to realize greater speeds, not only downhill, but around corners.
The main disadvantage of the narrower tire is that you have less control, especially at speeds over 27MPH. Many competitive cyclists know the pain of having their bike slide out from under them around a sharp turn at the bottom of a long downhill.
Mountain bikes have less of a problem with handling since the tires are wider and have a larger contact patch. The added grip allows the rider to control the bike more easily down steep hills and around corners.
But if the road cyclist is willing to give up some speed for added control, there is a solution. By increasing the tire width by only a few millimeters, ride comfort and handling are increased, while only sacrificing a minimal amount of potential speed.
3. Road bikes are designed for better aerodynamics (aero)
It is no surprise that bikes built for racing need to have a lower drag coefficient. To get there, most manufacturers will take into consideration designs for lowering wind resistance.
For example, Cannondale’s System Six racing bike attempts to do just that. Their engineers use wind tunnels to get the necessary data in order to create an aerodynamically efficient machine that is designed to beat the competition.
They start off with a unique carbon fiber frame where, instead of using round tubing, a sharp-edged framework is built, designed for better airflow around the bike.
Next, the position of the forks and handlebars plays a huge role with respect to aero design implications. By curving, bending, and hiding these key areas from the “dirty” wind coming off the wheels, a manufacturer can ultimately boast of building a high-speed racing bike.
But it would be unwise to leave out the misunderstood mountain bike when it comes to aero. Some of the top manufacturers are now integrating a wide variety of features that were just recently only available on road bikes.
For example, starting around 2015, top-line mountain bike manufacturers began lending more credence to rider’s concerns about the effects that aerodynamics had on performance. The positioning of the handlebars, the seat, and even the rider, were all adjustments making an enormous impact on the industry as a whole. When it came to aero considerations, the gap between racing bikes and mountain bikes has finally begun to close.
4. Disc brakes
Comfort can be a problem for the cyclist, especially during longer rides. Vibration, saddle soreness, and fatigue are common to riders who spend more than an hour on the road at a time.
By employing disc brakes instead of rim brakes, bike makers provide more clearance for wider tires which have a slightly higher contact patch. More of the tire contacting the road means less vibration and a smoother ride. Handling around sharp turns is also improved.
Another overlooked advantage to disc brakes over traditional calipers: wheel flex. When the wheels are under load, they can flex, causing contact with caliper brake pads. This is less likely to happen with disc brakes due to the rotors being less susceptible to temperature variances.
Mountain bikes are also equipped with disc brakes, at least on the higher-end models. The same advantages enjoyed by road cyclists are offered for those who want to go off-road.
Since road bikes are so well designed, why are they so difficult for a beginner sometimes? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Beginners often have trouble shifting gears
It is a common problem for the inexperienced rider to “cross the chain,” a condition where the chain is over-stretched from selecting the improper lever combinations. This is easily remedied through instruction and experience.
2. Sizing needs to be done before the purchase
If the bike does not fit comfortably for the rider, not only will performance suffer, but overall comfort will be eliminated, decreasing the likelihood of longer rides.
There are three basic variables when sizing a bike for the first time:
a. The height of the rider
b. The length of the rider’s arms (reach)
C. The width of the rider’s shoulders
3. Using improper cadence while riding
The revolutions per minute (RPM) recommended by most professionals for a beginner to start out with is approximately 90RPM. Attempting to pedal faster could expend energy in an inefficient manner. However, the same thing can happen, even if the cadence is slow but the rider selects a gear that is too high.
4. Beginners often use improper body positioning
There are two basic body positions while riding: in the saddle and out of the saddle. New riders often make the mistake of placing their hands on top of the handlebars (bars for short)while out of the saddle and peddling uphill. Not only does this position expend too much energy, but it is also very unstable.
Another problem is not placing the hands on the lower grips (also called the “drops”) at the right times. Placing the hands on the drops allows for more control around corners, and also offers better aerodynamic positioning for the rider during a sprint to the finish line. However, this position is not suitable for cruising long distances.
Comparing apples and oranges
The many technical demands of riding a road bike built for speed cannot be overstated. But there are also obvious challenges to riding a mountain bike off-road:
- It is often difficult to handle the bike in rugged terrain
- Getting through and around obstacles can lead to greater energy expenditure
- Mountain biking often requires split-second thinking in order to avoid danger
So what is the verdict?
In the end, it really comes down to personal preference. Some riders enjoy the thrill of scampering down a rugged trail, dodging rocks and fallen trees as they go.
Still, others want the quiet speed offered by a fine-tuned racer as they scream past an enthusiastic crowd cheering them on.
Both categories of cycling require the equipment, skill, and experience needed to master each one. By taking the time to learn proper body mechanics, resistance technique, cadence, and equipment upkeep, the beginning rider will have a much better experience for many years to come.
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