Riding a mountain bike on the road may seem out of place, but it’s actually quite common. For many of us, mountain bikes are less expensive, more durable and feel safer than slick road bikes. Riders convert mountain bikes because it’s their only bike or to try their first GranFondo, road group ride, gravel-grinder or simply to commute.
To make your mountain bike better for riding on the road, you need to reduce the factors that make your bike suitable off-road: Suspension, tires, gearing and position.
Mountain bikes are built to absorb impact from rocks, roots and the terrain. Most mountain bikes today have suspension that is amazing off-road but unnecessary if you are riding on the road. If you have a lockout, an easy adjustment is to use it on your road rides. If you do not have a lockout then you could increase the air pressure in your suspension to stiffen it up. This helps reduce any bobbing while you pedal and stand to climb or sprint. For more permanent or seasonal changes, a rigid fork makes your bike lighter and stiffer for better road riding.
TIRES AND WHEELS
An easy conversion is simply pumping up your mountain bike tires to 40–50 PSI. (You can see what the maximum PSI is on the sidewall before inflating.) This helps the tire roll quicker and feel better when you stand up. For a quicker tire setup, many professional mountain bikers bring slick-tires with them on longer trips so they can do road training. They will either have these tires mounted on a spare set of wheels or install them on their regular off-road wheels. If the pros prioritize this type of training and make their mountain bikes work, so can you!
Look for 1.5-inch slick tires that fit your wheels. With 29er wheels and gravel-riding being so common now, it is not hard to find slick tires to fit. If you have room in your budget and anticipate doing a lot of road training on your mountain bike, consider getting a second set of wheels to help reduce the time required to switch between mountain and road setups. Remember to update your emergency kit so your tools and tubes are appropriate for the new tire size and possibly to remove tires that are tighter and harder.
An advantage of getting a different set of wheels is you can use a different cassette (the rear ‘gears’) to help improve the gearing on your mountain bike. The cassette on roads bikes tends to have more gears in a close range so you can adjust your cadence in smaller increments. Mountain bikes are geared to accommodate steep climbs and slower average speeds, so on the road, you will need to spin quickly once the speed comes up. Many mountain bikes only have a single chainring now, so the possibility of swapping to a larger chainring (or even a different crank-set) to accommodate the higher speeds experienced during road rides is also much easier than it previously was. Ask your local mechanic what your gearing options are for road training on your mountain bike, if you can’t make gearing changes don’t stress, the high cadence work will be a great training stimulus.
READ MORE > IS YOUR CADENCE TOO LOW?
MINOR POSITION CHANGES
Consider dropping your handlebars slightly lower if you are going to do a lot of road riding without much switching between mountain and road setups. Road riders generally use lower handlebars for aerodynamics, while mountain bikers prefer higher bars to assist in handling. Lowering your stem on the steer tube is usually a five-minute job and can help get you out of the wind. Be careful that your body can adapt to this position, though, as it changes how much pressure is on your hands and could cause more saddle pressure as you hinge forward.
A more involved position change is to add a drop handlebar, like the ones on road bikes, to your mountain bike frame to change your bikes purpose permanently or for different seasons. I have seen mountain bikers add drop bars to their bikes to make a capable gravel grinder or adventure bike and even a few dedicated riders switch their bikes over to be permitted in cyclocross events where there are rules about handlebar type and tire size. (This is easier now that disc brakes are allowed and very common on cyclocross bikes.)
It is possible to enjoy road riding on your mountain bike. While it will never do the job as well as the real thing, you can reap much of the benefit and enjoyment by making a few, or all, of these tweaks!