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Road Biking for Mountain Bikers

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“I can’t wait to get on the road again.”

Willie Nelson probably wasn’t talking about road riding when he wrote “On The Road Again,” in 1980, but for riders who enjoy smooth pavement and the wind on their faces, it’s a message that hits home.

Road riders and mountain bikers will often poke fun at each other, and many times the observations are spot on. Each version of riding can attract a certain *type* of rider, but neither is better nor worse than the other, and at the end of the day, we’re just people that like riding bikes.

Some riders discover mountain biking after many miles or years on the tarmac, but if you’re a trail rider who’s never really spent much time on the road, let’s talk about why you may (or may not) want to give it a try. After all, it might be an excuse to buy a new bike.

When we talk about road riding, I’m meaning recreational riding, not commuting. Riding on the road to do errands, get to work, or do “stuff,” is great, but may have a totally different approach from heading out for a 20-mile loop solely for exercise or leisure. My personal road riding now almost exclusively involves getting to or from a trailhead, but that’s just me. 

There are plenty of great reasons to ride on the road, including for exercise, to enjoy scenic roads, to participate in club rides or events, and, as Connecticut’s Jeff Winston puts it, “road biking is fun.”

Road Biker on a Quiet Country Road
Road biker on a road to somewhere

As I surveyed my friends and fellow riders, one of the main reasons that they cited as a benefit for road riding was the fitness aspect.

“Eighty-five percent of my training is on the road,” says Ivan Campos, a Florida mountain bike racer who brings home medals from all over the southeast. And he’s not alone, many pro mountain bike racers and other riders train on the road. Ron Salb, a New Hampshire rider, says that “road riding allows you to hold a constant and measured pace.”

“I feel road is better for getting a workout in,” adds Dr. Jeff Soderman, an E.R. physician and rider in Massachusetts, “as intervals, etc., are easier to do on an open road as opposed to a trail with turns and punchy climbs.”

Road biking up a steep hill
Sometimes roads include punchy climbs too

If you are following a training plan, it’s going to require you to do workouts at a certain effort for a certain period of time. This can be as complicated as timed efforts at certain heart rates or power zones, or as unstructured as “medium effort from 4th St to the Walgreens.” Depending on where you live, the road can help eliminate some of the variables that can force you to go too hard or too easy.

I think it’s important to note that even if you do want to follow a training plan and put some miles in on the road, you don’t need a road bike for this to be effective. When it comes to training, your body only recognizes effort and duration, not speed or distance. You’re not going to see any fitness benefits from riding 21 mph on a road bike as opposed to 17 mph on a mountain bike, for the same effort, nor if you go 40 miles on a road bike as opposed to 30 on a mountain bike. You may go faster and farther on a road bike, which ostensibly will be more fun, but fitness gains will be the same. Road riding isn’t easier or harder than mountain biking, just different.

Solo road biker riding near a field of grass

Another reason many mountain bikers use the road for training is simply convenience. Not everyone lives close to trails, but just about everyone lives next to a road. It might not be a great road, but it might be good enough. If you’re short on time, rolling out the front door might be the better option instead of driving to and from the trailhead. And if you’re not short on time, the road can offer some really, really long training options. When Soderman was getting ready for the Leadville 100, he’d bang out more than 130 miles on his road bike, maintaining an average of just a hair under 20mph for more than seven hours. 

Because you can go faster and farther on a road bike, it also opens the world up to exploration which is arguably more fun than training. 

“I ride road for speed and to travel longer distances,” says Massachusetts’ Ben Pike, “I can leave the house and have ridden to the oceanside with incredible views and be back home for a shower in less than 2 hours.”

Road biker in Zion National Park
Exploring Zion National Park by bike

“I like the ability to just go fast and far,” agrees Jason Gonzalez, another Massachusetts rider who prefers the road over trails, “and I like the challenge of long climbs and short rollers with unbroken terrain.”

I’ve got plenty of great memories of great road rides, both local and far from home. When I lived in Florida, I could roll out through west Orlando into rural farmland and be blown away by the smell of orange blossoms, and while in southern California, I could ride up into the Santa Monica Mountains and get amazing views of the Pacific Ocean and the San Fernando Valley (which was sometimes just a yellow-gray haze), and the ride down the twisty mountain roads was epic. I’m lucky now, in that I’ve got a couple of options for longer mountain bike rides near my house, including the Bay Circuit Trail (which I’ve only done a portion of so far), but if I wanted to do something different, I could follow roads through rolling horse country or along classic rocky New England coastlines

Road biker near a scenic view of mountains.
Epic views from the road in Glacier National Park

Most mountain bikers would probably love to travel and explore new trails, but the road gives you more options. For example, mountain biking isn’t allowed in most National Parks, so I’ve also had awesome road rides in Glacier National Park, Everglades National Park and Zion National Park.  And some of my other favorite rides on the road have been in the British Virgin Islands, along Germany’s Romantic Road and on Spain’s Gold Coast.

Jason Fitzgerald, a high-school mountain bike coach in Massachusetts sums it up by saying that road riding is great for taking in the scenery, and “It’s perfect for touring a part of the country/world you’ve never been to before or maybe even enjoying your own backroads.” 

The tourism industry is well aware of this, and you can find some amazing bike tours, from luxury to budget, all over the world.

Road biker in distance along country road
Germany's Romantic Road

The riders I talked with discussed another benefit to road riding, and more than one mentioned a “Zen-like” state that can be achieved.

“If you’ve got a fabulous open country road you can just get into a groove,” says my former University of New England classmates Bonnie Jo Casey, “just cruising for both a great workout and a mental release.”

“The surface on the road, along with the sound of the bike gears and pedaling and the feeling of the air rushing behind me puts me in Zen like state,” adds Gonzalez, “I can’t get this anywhere else.”

Road biker next to a field of yellow flowers
Quiet, peaceful surroundings can help clear your mind

You can find many articles that talk about the mindfulness of cycling, and Salb adds that “road riding allows you to work out problems in your head while enjoying the outdoors and clearing your mind.”

Fitzgerald also says, “it’s much easier to keep your cadence and mentally check out as the miles.”

And David Tufts, calls one of his local Mississippi road rides, “45 miles of peaceful bliss.”

With all the amazing aspects of road riding, from fitness, to travel and exploration, to clearing the mind, why wouldn’t you want to do it? Aside from the obvious awesome features of mountain biking we all know and love, the number one reason that came up against road riding was the danger.

Road bikers on small highway
Awareness of vehicles is a necessary component of road biking

I think it’s kind of ironic, because the media often portrays mountain bikers as “extreme,” with a “send it,” and “shred it,” attitude. And, sure, that’s there, but a distracted, or drunk, or road-raged driver seems to be more dangerous than what most off-road riders can expect to encounter. No form of exercise is safe, nothing really is, but the incidents of serious injuries or death are far higher on the road than off. 

“It’s simply not worth the risk,” says Brion O’Connor, a writer and rider in Massachusetts.

“I feel safer in the woods than I do on the road,” adds Pike.

Other than Casey’s story about crashing on the roads of Boston and drivers actually stopping and waiting when she crashed, “instead of just running me down,” nearly everyone I talked with, quoted here or not, said that the main reason they don’t ride on the road more is the cars. Or, more accurately, the drivers.

Road biker in riding up a hill

Salb’s younger brother, Doug, says he’d rather take responsibility for any injuries he sustains, “if I mess up in the woods it is my own doing rather than being blindsided by a careless driver.”

The younger Salb has another reason for spending his time on the trails, “road riding is boring.”

Despite the dangers of road riding, many people do it, and many places have great infrastructure, whether that’s wide roads with good shoulders, protected bike lanes, dedicated bike paths, or just generally empty roads. And, as we’ve covered, there are many reasons to spend some time pedaling on the road.

So, if you’re thinking about giving it a go, let’s just talk about what you need to get started.

Road biker surrounded by trees on a quiet road

You probably already have everything you need because it includes a bike, bike gear, and a road. The beauty of mountain bikes is that they can be ridden on the road, while road bikes can’t really be ridden on the trails. You really don’t need any special equipment to enjoy everything we’re mentioned as benefits to road riding. You may have noticed that in many of my personal pics and videos, even when I, or my wife, are on the road, we’re on mountain bikes. Other than adding some additional psi to my tires, I’d have no problem heading out for a road adventure on my MTB. In fact, that’s what I usually do.

In the dark ages of mountain biking (26-inch wheels), when we still used tubes (and simple stone tools), it was pretty easy to swap knobby tires for slick tires before longer rides, and I’ve done many many group road rides on a mountain bike with slicks. It was also pretty easy—and inexpensive—in the “before times” to just have a second wheel set ready to go. For the longest time racers would warm up on the road and then swap to the MTB wheels when it was “go” time.

Road biker with road biking gear
You can go all in

I’d never want to deny a person a reason to buy another bike however, and pretty much the sky is the limit when it comes to the amount of money you can spend on a road bike. Road riding also has a certain amount of pomp and circumstance, that *can* induce you buy more stuff, but I’ll the first to tell you it’s all just empty pageantry. For example, while I have owned several road bikes, I’ve never owned road pedals nor road shoes. I also can’t see a reason that I’d need a different helmet, and I’d wear a hydration pack in a heartbeat while many true road riders would cringe at the thought. 

You can go all in, but you don’t need to. 

Group of road bikers along a road
The sky is the limit when it comes to outfitting yourself for road biking

So think about it, and maybe explore some roads near or far from your home. And remember that the dirt will still be there for you.

“While I find myself more often on the road bike, I can never keep my rides to pavement only,” says Christine Vardaros, a professional racer in Belgium, “that urge to hit the dirt wins over every time.”

I know that urge well.

Oh, and you might be asking “what about gravel?”

Bikers on a gravel road
You can ride gravel on road bikes, touring bikes, mountain bikes, etc.

What about gravel indeed. I personally have a hard time with the branding and commodification of the term “gravel,” because it’s really just riding a bike on dirt roads. Do enough “gravel” rides and you’ll see nearly every type of bike used, from fat bikes, to old hybrids, to mountain bikes from the mid-nineties, to unmodified road bikes, to full suspension mountain bikes, to $10K carbon gravel uber bikes. Just like some roads can be smooth and some can be pothole laden rumble patches, and some trails can be smooth flow trails or chunky technical rock gardens, “gravel” can be widely variable. Well maintained gravel and dirt roads can totally be ridden on a regular road bike, and the rougher stuff can be ridden on a touring bike, cyclocross bike, gravel bike, or, like I say above, your all purpose mountain bike. I’ve ridden hundreds of miles in gravel events and for fun, and I do it all on a mountain bike. Let’s face it, modern gravel bikes are about a year from turning into short travel mountain bikes with slightly narrower tires, so I’m really just ahead of the curve.


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