Can You Ride a Mountain Bike on the Road?

By Rachel Lee
Published on
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Getting the best bang for your buck when it comes to cycling is a natural concern that every rider has on their mind at one time or another. An increase in bike choice each year also comes with increased costs for the average cyclist.

The new generation of mountain bikes is no exception. With some costing over $10,000, it is no wonder cyclists of all levels want to get the most out of their purchases. “Multi-purpose” takes on a whole new meaning when it comes to plunking down your hard-earned cash for a new bike.

With that in mind, is it okay to ride your mountain bike on the road? To answer that question, it is necessary to thoroughly understand mountain bikes and how they operate compared to road bikes.

What is a mountain bike, anyway?

What distinguishes a mountain bike from its road-racing cousin is the overall design. They share similarities, but the mountain bike has different features to enhance durability over rugged terrain. These typically include:

  • Front or full suspension systems
  • Large, knobby tires
  • Stronger wheels
  • More powerful braking systems
  • Lower gear ratios for hill climbing
  • Straight handlebars for better comfort

Mountain bike manufacturers build their bikes with the outdoor adventurer in mind. Most true off-road riders have an independent streak and are often daring enough to challenge even the most brutal landscapes including:

  • Rocks
  • Loose dirt
  • Gravel
  • Tree roots

Some human-made courses offer additional obstacles known as Technical Trail Features (TTF’s) such as:

  • Rock gardens
  • Log piles
  • Specialized jumps
  • Narrow riding surfaces (“skinnies”)
  • Log rides
  • Near-vertical riding surfaces (“wall rides”)

Mountain cyclists not only ride on mountain trails but also on other specialized areas such as fire roads and narrower, singletrack trails.

Because mountain bikes can handle all of these extreme riding conditions, they have been popular for several years with urban riders. Due to their increased durability, navigating over potholes and curbs is no problem for these sturdy workhorses, which leads to another question:

What type of mountain bike should you get?

To answer that question, it is helpful to review the different types of mountain bikes offered:

1. Hardtail

The hardtail mountain bike is just how it sounds. There is no suspension provided on the back and performs well on smoother, less rugged terrain.

The common misconception about hardtails is that they are usually only offered as cheap alternatives, which is not the case. Some can cost into the thousands for a well-built bike.

2. Full suspension

The full suspension mountain bike offers both front and rear suspension. This category breaks down into several other subsets:

  • Cross country
  • Trail
  • Enduro
  • Downhill

Suspension travel is an important specification (spec) for full suspension bikes and refers to the amount of distance the suspension will move before it is fully compressed. The suspension travel is different on each type of bike, depending on what kind of riding you intend to do.

For example, the cross country mountain bike typically has a four-inch travel. On the other side of the spectrum is the downhill bike, which requires more suspension due to fast descents over rugged terrain, and can have as much as seven inches of travel.

Full suspension bikes offer a better variety of riding styles. For example, you can perform radical jumps, shred a steep downhill slope, and ride over jagged rocks all at the same time. The versatility alone is what makes the full suspension mountain bike a favorite for those who can afford the extra cost.

3. Specialty/rare mountain bikes

There are several subcategories in this group:

A. Full. The name of this category refers to the tires being wider than usual, which allows for a more comfortable ride over rough terrain.

B. Fat. Again, referring to the tires, these unusual bikes are mostly for riding on the snow. The huge tires offer better traction and grip over the icy ground.

C. E-Bikes. Using a small electric motor to assist the rider with hill climbing, this type of mountain bike has seen its popularity soar over the last few years, especially with older cyclists.

The problem

With so many features available, the cost of a new mountain bike can seem astronomical. Suppose you are looking for a bike you can ride to work in the city, yet take to the mountains for trail riding on the weekends.
How do you accomplish both goals without breaking the bank?

The solution

If you need a bike you can ride on both the pavement and on mountain trails, and you are not interested in taking out a 30-year loan to pay for it, you have to be willing to make a few compromises. For example:

  • Hardtail instead of dual suspension
  • Smaller tires
  • Aluminum frame instead of carbon fiber

A slight downgrade of the wheels and brakes may give you an enormous break on the price, without making a considerable sacrifice concerning riding performance.

By adjusting some of the key features that add to the cost of your mountain bike, you can design your very own hybrid that possesses the capability of being used on-road and off. Some manufacturers build bikes that already have this dual capacity already built into them. Here are just a few examples:


Diamondback offers an entry-level hardtail for around $500. The standard version comes with 27.5″ wheels, mechanical disc brakes, and a Shimano Acera rear derailleur.

The surprising feature about this bike is that, even though it is well within the budget category, Diamondback throws in double-walled rims at no extra cost. The advantage here is that you get a relatively inexpensive bike without having to replace the wheels right away.

Another excellent choice under $500 is Trek’s Marlin 4 trail bike. Touted by the manufacturer as “the perfect gateway to trail riding,” the Marlin 4 offers some exciting features:

Available with both 27″ and 29″ wheels
Bontrager XR2 comp tires
Mechanical disc brakes
Available in seven different frame sizes

The aesthetic quality and variability of frame sizes make the Marlin 4 a popular choice for both male and female riders.

If you are looking for a carbon fiber mountain bike for around $1000, look no further than the Sava Deck 300. The frame is constructed from Toray T800 carbon fiber, causing the bike weight to drop considerably, yet still maintain the desired stiffness expected with any quality mountain bike.
Other items include:

  • Shimano Deore M6000 3 X 10 groupset
  • SR Suntour fork
  • Shimano MT200 Disc Break System
  • 100mm front suspension travel

If you do not mind paying a little more, the Cannondale Cujo 2 will upgrade you to a premium mountain bike for just under $1400. Aside from having one of the best names in cycling behind it, this bike can offer some quite impressive specs:

  • 120mm front suspension
  • 2.8″ DNA comp tires
  • Shimano MT200 hydraulic disc brakes
  • Shram SX Eagle rear derailleur

From a value standpoint, the Cannondale Cujo 2 offers top-of-the-line quality without the hefty price tag. Although better suited for mountain trail riding, short trips on the pavement should be no problem, which brings up another point:

What about the tires?

Is it okay to ride on paved surfaces using highly-specialized mountain bike tires? The answer is yes, as long as you are willing to replace your tires on a more frequent basis.

The other alternative is to choose a tire that is built for both pavement and dirt. It should have these characteristics at a minimum:

  • Sidewall protection
  • Moderate grip
  • Cornering capability
  • Braking traction
  • Durability

Suspension, brakes, derailleurs, and other components are all critical to the performance of your bike. Equally important are the tires. Factors such as compound materials, volume, and tread patterns all contribute to how your bike functions during all the torturous activities you may put it through.

Rear versus front

Aside from the essential characteristics listed above, it is useful to consider the interaction between the front and rear tires. Advanced riders will distinguish between the front and rear tires when choosing tread patterns, profiles, and widths.

For example, many expert cyclists choose a wider, higher volume tire for the front, which offers a higher contact patch and better overall control. The higher volume acts to decrease shock from jumps and rocky terrain. Also, it is useful to select a tire on the front that has a square profile for increased traction.

The rear tires, on the other hand, provide forward momentum during the downward cycle of the pedal rotation. For this reason, a narrower tire is useful on the back. Not only is this helpful for weight reduction, but it also decreases the contact patch, which allows for higher rolling speed and momentum.

A happy-medium using semi-slicks

Semi-slick tires

Semi-slick tires offer the best of both worlds. They can be used on both pavement and dirt surfaces. With smaller knobs around the outside perimeter and a smooth tread pattern down the center, semi-slicks can be used for street riding and also in the mountains on smoother trails.

Semi-slicks can be found online from manufacturers such as Kenda, Maxxis, Continental, and others. Also, check with your local retail shop to see what they have available to you locally. Quality, features, and pricing vary, so it is best to shop around.

Putting it all together

Now that you have a basic idea of the different components of a mountain bike and what makes each category different, you can begin to design your bike for your unique situation.

For example, suppose you plan on riding your bike to work three times per week. You also love the mountains and commit to trail riding, but you may only be able to venture out every-other-weekend.

Since you will be riding more on the pavement than on the dirt, it would be wise to spend less on things like high-performance tires and dual suspension. On the other hand, if you are riding to work in a city like San Francisco, where there are a lot of hills to climb, investing in a carbon fiber frame may be the better choice.

It all comes down to your particular situation, and everyone is different. By knowing in advance how much time you spend on the pavement and how much you spend on the mountain trails, you can make an informed decision about where the money for your new bike needs to be allocated.

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