The term cyclist essentially encompasses anyone who rides on a bike, but every person who hops on a bike knows it’s more complicated than that. As a cyclist, you probably identify with a smaller subset within the sport and the two most common are mountain bikers and road cyclists.
Both road cycling and mountain biking revolve around the shared love of riding a bike outdoors, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Almost every other feature, technique, and the terrain is different. So, which is right for you?
Neither road cycling nor mountain biking is ‘harder’ than the other. Hard and easier rides exist in both disciplines. But, the main fact is that each uses different parts of your body, that demand a particular type of fitness.
Road cyclists will need sustained energy over long, smooth, stretches of road and tarmac, with many hill-climbs meaning the rider needs to be able to undergo mile after mile of sustained effort (often very fast, if you are under time pressures). Therefore, road cyclists tend to have better aerobic fitness levels.
Core strength in road cycling is important, but, taking a look at some tour de France athletes, you quickly realise that with their skinny arms and muscular legs, more focus is placed on lower-body power.
Mountain bikers experience the polar opposite. The terrain is rough, has steep gradients, and requires a great focus on handling. Short bursts of high power are favoured over sustained effort in mountain biking. A mountain bike run down a hill-face might only take a few minutes.
Bursts of power are needed to push the bike over large boulders, and steep undulations in the terrain. Using your body in such a way requires good anaerobic fitness levels, and the rapid bursts in movement and handling require good upper-body strength.
Road Cycling vs Mountain Biking: Bike Differences
Mountain bikes are durable, rugged bikes, designed for riding narrow dirt trails on steep descents. They have wide, flat handlebars that provide control and come with two-inch or wider tires with knobbly treads for better traction and grip.
Wide-range drivetrains and hydraulic disc brakes also help with handling and performance and steeper climbs. The wheels are usually 27.5-29 inches in diameter.
Types of mountain bikes:
- Hardtail: Rigid frames, with suspension forks mountain on the front of the bike. Hardtails are usually the most affordable type of mountain bike, due to less suspension components.
- Full-suspension: As the name suggests, full-suspension mountain bikes have front suspension and rear suspension, designed to lower the bike’s center of gravity, and improve performance/efficiency on hill climbs.
- Enduro/Gravity Full-suspension: These mountain bikes have rear suspension that allows for a lot of rear-wheel travel. They also come with more powerful brakes, and aggressive tire treads for maximum control when riding down steep, technical terrain.
Racing bikes or Road bikes are sleek, and the more ‘faster’ looking bike of the two.
They have narrower tyres, and less tread to reduce friction with the road. The handlebars (drop-bars) curve downwards towards the ground, allowing the rider to lean forward in a variety of drag-reducing positions.
Types of road bikes:
- Aero: Sleek tube shapes, wheels, and integrated components designed to create the ultimate wind-cheating profile for maximum speed and performance. You can typically put yourself in more aggressive rider positions on an aero bike, favoring speed over comfort.
- Endurance: Endurance road bikes are the most popular choice among recreational riders. They can still perform at a high level, however, they feature a more upright position, slightly wider tyres, and sometimes shock-absorbing tech that creates a more comfortable ride.
- Touring: Touring road bikes are the comfiest of the 3. They typically have longer wheelbases and stable steering, along with accessory mounts for bags/equipment for long-distance, self-supported rides.
Famous Road & Mountain Biking Locations in The UK
- Lakeland Loop, Lake District: The Lakeland Loop was once voted one of the UK’s best road cycling routes. It’s a tough 65km circuit with many long inclines, hugging Lake Coniston and offering spectacular views of the surrounding landscapes.
- Box Hill Olympic Circuit, Surrey: Spanning over 16.8km of rural roads, you can ride like the pros on the Box Hill Olympic Circuit. With spectacular views overlooking River Mole, and a winding 2.5km ascent that is a challenge for both beginners and seasoned riders.
- The Settle Circular, Yorkshire: The tour de France didn’t pass through Yorkshire for 3 days in 2014 for no reason. Yorkshire holds some of the best cycling routes in the UK. The most notable being the Settle circular with 64.2km of steep climbs and fast-rolling descents.
- Nant yr Arian, Wales: With many trails offering something for everyone, from beginners to seasoned pros. Nant yr Arian is renowned for rugged and remote riding with great single tracks. You have plenty of chances to experience everything it has to offer, especially on the 35km black route, Syfydrin.
- Cannock Chase: Located in the middle of England, Cannock chase is one of the easier MTB trails to get to. The most notable routes are the two red routes, Follow The Dog (10.8km) and The Monkey Trail (22.8km).
- Hamsterley Forest: Located on the edge of the Northern Pennines, Hamersterlet Forest is cut into a steep-sided valley and is a renowned hotspot for mountain bikers. There is something for everyone here, from a steady-paced blue route, a 23.5km red route with numerous jumps and obstacles you will encounter, to a more hardcore 13km black route.
Road Cycling vs Mountain Biking – Which is best for you?
Well, the answer to that really depends. If you are someone who would prefer to ride through a forest, and over rough terrain, MTB is the best choice. And, it’s not all jumps and difficult descents. There is plenty of easier mountain biking trails that cater to a range of experience levels.
If you would rather stress your body over longer distances on smoother terrain and build up your aerobic fitness levels, then road biking is the better choice.
But, there are many benefits to either sport of trying both. Road cyclists will only benefit from undergoing some anaerobic fitness training whilst mountain biking, and vice versa.
Ultimately, you have to go with what you will enjoy the most, and regardless of your choice, if you are outdoors and staying active, that’s what really counts!