Is Road Cycling Or Mountain Biking Better?
Mountain Biking vs Road Cycling: Which is Better for You?
Although inexperienced cyclists may assume that there’s not much difference between mountain biking and road cycling, nothing could be further from the truth. From the gear to the scenery, to the effect on your body, each sport is vastly different.
If you’re looking to take up some form of cycling as a way to get some exercise, you may be wondering which form is best for you. It all depends on what kind of experience you’re looking for and what kind of training you want to do.
To help you decide, we’ve unpacked the key differences between mountain biking and road cycling so that you can make a more informed choice.
The Physiological Aspects
Mountain biking and road cycling require very distinct types of fitness. While road cycling is generally heavier on long, sustained, and aerobic efforts, mountain biking demands more muscular strength and the ability to generate short bursts of intense power.
Road cycling requires you to be able to keep up a steady, fast pace on comparatively flat and smooth surfaces. While you can expect to gain some elevation, it’s fairly safe to say that a road will rarely offer more of an incline than a mountain. The physical demands are therefore more geared towards aerobic fitness.
It may help to think about it in terms of marathon runners vs sprinters or trail runners. The former focuses on pace and stamina while the latter favours power.
Mountain biking involves navigating difficult terrain and steep inclines. The short-term demands on the body are therefore far greater than those of road cycling. While your core and leg muscles are strengthened in road cycling, mountain biking is an intense full-body workout. Your legs are pedaling hard, your core is keeping you stable, and your upper body is needed to navigate safely over and around obstacles.
So, if you’re looking to build muscle, mountain biking is probably your best choice. If you want to build cardiovascular fitness, however, long-distance road cycling is your best bet.
Of course, the settings in which road cycling and mountain biking take place offer divergent experiences. Depending on where you live and the locations you have access to, convenience can play a big role in your decision. Another important factor is what kind of environment you feel most comfortable in.
If you have access to both long stretches of safe highway and popular mountain biking trails, then you’re spoiled for choice. Your decision will then come down to whether you’re after fresh air and nature or long stretches of road where you can just focus on your pace.
Mountain biking is an excellent way to get out of the hustle and bustle of urban living and take in some of the natural wonders in your area. Some mountain bikers even use it as a way to combine hobbies like wildlife photography or birdwatching. Some people find riding on busy roads and highways a bit stressful and mountain biking gets you away from all the noise and traffic.
Road cyclists, on the other hand, learn to feel comfortable sharing a space with heavy vehicles. As long as you’re aware of your surroundings, take safety into consideration, and invest in some high-vis gear, you’ll be totally fine on the road.
Road cycling is also more conducive to “getting in the zone,” where you’re able to channel all your focus on putting in the mileage. Mountain bikers are constantly negotiating treacherous terrain and therefore have to be on the lookout.
While it’s always important to be aware of your surroundings, it’s easier to focus when the road in front of you is paved smooth and relatively straight.
While non-cyclists don’t often bother to differentiate between the different forms of biking, there are big differences not only in the experience but in gear requirements, too.
First, mountain bikes and road bikes are designed for entirely different terrain. Road bikes are sleek, aerodynamic, and light to maximize speed and energy efficiency. Single-speed bikes are also more common on the road, although most of them will have gears to help navigate hilly terrain.
Mountain bikes are bulkier and heavier, and will always have gears and suspension to help the rider deal with steep inclines and rough terrain.
In terms of apparel, road cyclists dress for visibility and speed. Aerodynamics makes a big difference to your overall performance, and being visible on the road is extremely important.
Mountain bikers, however, dress for protection from the elements. They need to think about temperature control and insulation in case of a fall onto a rocky mountain path. Visibility is still important on a mountain bike, but not as much as on the road where you’re sharing space with fast-moving motor vehicles.
At this point, you may be wondering which is more expensive. Generally speaking, mountain bikes end up being cheaper than road bikes because they’re not as specialized. However, it’s still possible to spend thousands of dollars on a high-end mountain bike.
There’s an old formula in biking circles that cyclists live by when purchasing bicycles: “Light, strong, and cheap—pick two.”
Unfortunately, it’s very unlikely to find a bike that checks all three boxes, whether you’re hitting the road or mountain trails. If budget is an important factor, you may want to investigate second-hand options. Serious bikers are often looking to trade in perfectly good used bikes when they want an upgrade.
Leader Of the Pack
At the end of the day, neither mountain biking nor road cycling is “better” than the other. Both sports are great forms of exercise and offer fantastic health benefits. Which one you choose is completely dependent on what kind of experience and exercise you want.
Those who want to train for strength and get out into nature will likely enjoy mountain biking more, while those who want to build up cardio fitness and focus on their pace will probably be more comfortable on the road.
If you’re still unsure, maybe rent or borrow a few different bikes and give each one a go. You never know until you try. Happy biking!