Riding a Mountain Bike on Pavement or Road? Collected Tips
My Simtra BnB. But can it ride on tarmac? Let's see...

Riding a Mountain Bike on Pavement or Road? Collected Tips

Hello to you, and welcome, Dear Reader! So  you’re wondering about riding a mountain bike not off-road but on-road or on pavement? I can think of plenty of valid reasons why you’d wonder that. But valid reasons aside, we just want to know, can we ride our MTB on tarmac? Well, we’re waiting! 😀 What’s the answer?

Answer: I don’t think it makes sense to answer in absolutes. I mean, there aren’t many persuasive reasons why you can’t ride a mountain bicycle wherever you want either off-road or on asphalt. So maybe then there’s a question underpinning this question? Maybe that question at heart here is, “What would be difficult about riding a mountain bike on pavement?” or perhaps even more specifically, “What would be more difficult about riding a MTB on pavement than riding a road bike on pavement?” What do you think?

Let’s look at some of those potential difficulties and some tips to reduce their impact or overcome them. But first, to begin answering the question, I’d wonder…

For what purposes are you riding a mountain bike on the road?

  • Is it for fitness or exercise? Then sure, an MTB will do just fine. There’s no reason that a mountain bike will not improve your fitness as quickly as a road bike. All you need look out for is that you’re not grinding out high gear ratios. For the same power output and cadence rate, you won’t be moving quite as fast as on a lighter bike (road or otherwise). But keep spinning at your 90-95 rpm and your fitness will come just as quickly.
  • Is it for commuting or regular transport? Absolutely, a mountain bike can tackle that task no problem, just make sure if you need to carry panniers that your frame has bosses or sturdy enough chainstays. But the more upright position in general of a mountain bike has the potential at least to make traffic negotiation easier.
  • Is it because the roads are pitted or rough, covered in grit, stones or gravel? In which case the mountain bike will cope just well with that too. The higher volume tires can roll across pot-holes and road debris with less deflection. Suspension can definitely aid comfort as well. I know many times I’d thought of a suspension seatpost when I was trying desperately to cure my road cycling sit-bone saddle pain
  • The only occasion I can think that I’d have to call the mountain bike on tarmac into question might be if your purposes were to train to ride at, or improve your limits of riding speed, distance and / or endurance. In that case, I don’t believe the mountain bike, while perfectly good, would be the most efficient way to do that job. It’s a tool for that job. It’s just not the best tool for that job. That’s your road bike. But even that’s not saying it can’t be done. I’ve done that… See below 🙂
Evolution of my old rigid 29er (’06-’11 RIP) from being a “Big BMX” to singlespeed off-road to 1×10 road / pavement duties 🙂

In that case, there’s really nothing stopping you from riding a mountain bike on the road. So what might be some of the difficulties alluded to at the start, and what are some tips to reduce those difficulties to manageable levels?

Potential Difficulty #1: Mountain bikes are heavier so they’re slow on tarmac

We can argue that a carbon-framed cross-country elite MTB can certainly weigh much less than a budget alloy road bike built using cost-cutting components. However, comparing apples with apples: two bikes, both new, for the same money, that gives truth to this assertion. For example, same money, same year models gets you Specialized Rockhopper Comp FS mountain bike which tips the scales at 13.98Kg vs Specialized Allez E5 road bike in at 9.10Kg. I’m only citing this as it’s what I’m currently riding 🙂

Tips for mitigating the weight…

Bike weight is only one of many others that determine on-road speed. Your level of fitness, your position on the bike and how aerodynamic you plus your bike can be, are all factors. But tips to address the weight penalty on an MTB

  1. How’s your bodyweight? I’m only going by experience of carrying a few pounds extra. So if you have a few pounds to shed might this amount to even more than any weight savings made on your bicycle itself? If so, you might consider my plan to burn belly fat and lose weight
  2. Do you carry a backpack or seatpack/saddlebag on your mountain bike? I know when I rode with a hydration backpack I’d tend to accumulate other extraneous stuff in the pockets in there.
    • Where every gram saved can help, do you need all your keys on a ride or will your front door key do? Two spare inner tubes to be safe, or one and the Park GP-2 Patch kit? Is your multi-tool heavy? Is there a lighter smaller one? Do you even need a multi-tool, a couple choice hex keys maybe? Trivial examples I know, but the grams saved can have cumulative effects. I’ve taken that pared-down approach to my own cycling jersey pocket pouch.
    • Interestingly, I noticed when I swapped from a hydration backpack to a cage/bottle setup, I started drinking less water than I’d have carried in the hydration pack. I don’t feel particularly dehydrated on returning home? I think I take anything up to 1 litre less liquids on rides that are even longer than I used to ride with the hydration pack. That’s a kilo or 2lbs saved off my back with no discernible effects for me personally #justathought.
  3. Do you have a mountain bike already? The chances are you do if you’re reading here. If not, I’d suggest opting to purchase a lighter version of the bike in the first instance. Sometimes it’s preferable, for the same budget, to buy a used or second-hand – and therefore cheaper – light mountain bike than a new, potentially heavier one.
  4. What kind of tires are on your mountain bike? If you already have a mountain bike, swapping an off-road tire for a road-type, commuting or touring tire can save a not inconsiderable amount of grams. At the extreme end, take the wonderful Schwalbe Dirty Dan off-road tire. In steel wired 29er x 2.35″ form, it weighs 1450g according to Schwalbe. Whereas the Schwalbe One road tire for a folding example in 700 x 25c sizing, the weight is 205g according to Schwalbe. Swapping a 29er mountain bike equipped with a pair of Schwalbe wired Dirty Dans for Schwalbe Ones would save 2490g, or approx 2.5Kg (5.5 lbs) on tires alone!
    My old Schwalbe Marathon Evo DD 29er tires, did everything I’d hope riding MTB on asphalt, just HEAVY 1.7Kg a pair!

    Okay so that’s an extreme example, but it’s just to illustrate that not insignificant savings in bike weight can be made without costing the earth. Stock tires on budget mountain bikes can be heavy lumps of rubber so possibly the easiest place I’d suggest to drop some weight on the bike itself if that’s a consideration for you.

  5. How cosy is your mountain bike saddle? Some older stock mountain bikes tend to have heavily padded saddles which, paradoxically often do little for sit-bone saddle pain – something that I’m too familiar with! But stock mountain bike saddles are another cheap-ish place to save a few hundred grams as well.
  6. Weight Saving on other components? Of course, you can swap everything on your mountain bike for lighter components right down to the frame and forks. Suspension forks for example when replaced with rigid carbon forks can save substantial weight. However, these are more expensive changes. Once we’re here, I’m wondering might the question be: would a lighter bike be the better option?

Potential Difficulty #2: Mountain bike tires have tread patterns for offroad only

It’s true, MTB tires are designed to maximize grip on loose gravel, rock or muddy surfaces. And again, while that doesn’t preclude you from riding your knobbly-tired MTB on pavement, naturally it means on-road grip is lessened because less of the carcass of the tyre is in contact with the ground at any one time. Besides the increased weight as mentioned in #1 above, the other difficulty, if that’s what it is, is rolling resistance. A proportion of your pedal energy is dissipated through a higher-volume, lower pressure knobbly tire. While this is true of any tire, it’s less true of higher pressure, slick or relatively tread-less road tire.

Tips for mountain bike tire choice on asphalt…

  1. Choosing a tire that is lighter than a stock MTB tire, as mentioned above, ought not to be too difficult. Ideally for a mountain bike, we don’t necessarily want a pure, slick skinny road tire any more than a MTB mud tire. A good compromise will save us weight over standard MTB tires and will lower our rolling resistance. Both of these factors will lessen the percentage of our pedalling energy that is lost through the tires and isn’t translated into forward motion. That tire will hopefully not look too out of place on the mountain bike with its larger tire clearance at the forks and rear triangle. If you’re familiar with tire sizing read on, otherwise my tire size and type article might give some supplementary tire information 😛
    • In terms of tire widths, I’d say widths around sort of 1.5″ to 2.0″ (corresponding roughly to ISO widths of 40 to 50, or 700c sizes 38c to 50c for clincher tires) should be good. Thinner will look too road-bike. Wider will add unnecessary weight if you’re just riding on roads. But use your own search discretion 🙂
    • My recommendations would be similar to these – go with what’s in your budget and available to you, but hopefully these might be a start point for your search should you decide to change out your MTB tires. Schwalbe G-One Speed is UST tubeless-ready available in a 1.5″ for 27.5″ and 29″ (incidentally, 700c tires will fit a 29″ rim. They’re the same 622mm diameter).
    • Continental have a similar tyre in the Speed Ride available in 700x42c size (about 1.6″)

      Schwalbe G-One Speed and Continental Speed Ride tires
    • Purpose-built for riding MTBs on tarmac is the Continental Double Fighter III. It’s available for 26″, 27.5″ nad 29er rims. The only drawback is that it’s a little heavier.
    • There are so many tire choices and manufacturers it would be difficult to list them all. I’d suggest at the very least, for speed, find a tire with either an unbroken centre tread that runs all the way around the tire such as the Schwalbe Hurricane or Maxxis Detonator, or very tight tread patterns like Vittoria Revolution or Schwalbe Marathon as pictured above.

      Schwalbe Hurricane and Maxxis Detonator, both with unbroken centre tread patterns for maximising rolling efficiency
  2. Tires and inflation pressure. In order to minimise rolling resistance of the tire you have, you’d inflate it to the maximum recommended pressure as embossed on your tire’s sidewall. Paradoxically though, this doesn’t always equate to faster speed for given energy. It would do on a completely glass-smooth surface. But on regular tarmac, a pressure slightly lower than the maximum will allow the tire to roll smoothly over surface imperfections. There’s a trade-off here of course in that lower pressure tyres can be more comfortable on ya butt! #yourdecision 😛

Potential Difficulty #3: The upright MTB position is uncomfortable, and slower, on longer road rides

Why might that be true? What is it about a more upright position on a mountain bike (as different from a lower position on a road bike) that might cause discomfort and slower speeds? Well being more upright puts a greater percentage bodyweight down through the sitbones and less on the shoulders and arms. Riding off-road this would be less of an issue wouldn’t it? Because technical trails require the rider to be out of the saddle and moving around on the saddle too while seated. On a longer road ride, the position is frequently static for longer periods. I know when I’m on asphalt and when riding longer on the flat say, I’d consciously get out of the saddle simply for a change of position.

The slower speed could well be because any aerodynamic advantage of riding with the upper body and head more tucked, for example when riding on the hoods with the elbows bent, or on the drops of the bars, that’s lost on a mountain bike with standard flat bars, right?

Tips for increasing comfort AND adding an aerodynamic advantage…

These are a few of the things I did on the MTB pictured above, and latterly on a flatbar road bike made largely from donated components from that MTB:

  1. Position – Stem length: Since MTBs often have shorter reach stems (or direct-mount stems) to facilitate quick, or immediate responsive steering when on technical trails. The shorter stem though can put the rider backwards in the saddle when riding the MTB on tarmac. Simple solution is to fit a longer stem. This will bring your position forwards more. Tne drawbacks here are that the steering on your bike, if it’s one you’re used to, will be less responsive. Then again, that’s exactly the point on a road-going bike. We like snappy, but not skittish! I changed the 70mm stem above for a 100mm stem. While I’m talking stems, it might also be possible to remove any spacers installed on your fork steerer underneath your stem, swap them around and put them above your stem lowering your stem height. That can have a not unnoticeable effect too.
  2. Position – saddle height: Again when riding off road, we might want the saddle down out of the way. Dropper seatposts facilitate this on-the-fly adjustment too. On pavement though where much of the time is seated in the one position, we ideally want the saddle height sufficiently high that we can just rotate the cranks with our heels on the pedals. That’s not an exact metric, but a reasonable start point. Not too high that your hips rock when riding. This too should have the effect of taking less bodyweight on the sit-bones and more on the shoulders and arms. If you’re unaccustomed to it, it might feel uncomfortable in the beginning. Adjust to suit yourself. If it’s not fun there’s no point, right? 🙂
  3. Position – inboard bar ends? Consider mounting bar ends, but mounting them inboard of the brake / shift levers. This was just something else I did to further enhance that more aero position. I had a set of On-One Fleegle bars that had a nice bend and backsweep so the cheapo eBay-China bar inners that I had fitted right on the bend and allowed a nice compact position.
    I fitted bar ends not at the ends of the bars at all, but inboard of the brake/shift levers. It made for a nice compact ride position. Plus it gives the hands a good change of position from the grips

    Not a recommendation as such, just a suggestion 🙂

  4. Handlebar width: MTB bars are wide for both leverage and control on technical trails. But consider cutting down both ends with a saw or angle grinder cutting disc for riding on pavement. Why? A little for improving aerodynamics, but mostly because it better matches your shoulder width and natural position when riding on asphalt. Flat bars are usually marked at each end exactly for that reason. All that width is perfect for trail riding, but it turns you into a parachute when riding on tarmac, specially in the wind! I cut mine down to about 700mm. The Fleegle bars above I think are 660mm. I found those still quite wide riding on the grips on the windiest winter days (specially compared to my road bike’s 440mm) but 660mm was good enough.

Potential Difficulty #4: Mountain bike gearing is unsuited to road riding

This shouldn’t really make any kind of an issue but I’ve heard it mentioned. Certainly you may not have too much need for a granny ring if you’re running a 3-by setup at the front. But then you’re not saving much weight by removing the inner chainring really. I was coming from the opposite side of things. I’d been running the singlespeed MTB and built a wheel around a 3-speed Sturmey internally geared hub first. And then moved onto a 1 by 10-speed setup.

I think the only time MTB gearing would be a factor when riding your bike on tarmac is when you’re pushing high speeds. My highest gear with the 1×10 setup was only 32T:11T and I only ever spun out at about 28mph / 45Kmh – don’t worry I’m not that fit, that was on descents and probably at 120rpm cadence like a crazy chicken too, lol.

I was only running a tiny 32T up front on this 1×10 setup. I wasn’t much of a climber then. I’m still not too awesome! 😀

If there were any tips to be made here and you find your gearing is just too low for fast riding with your MTB on tarmac, simply get a larger chainring (or outer chainring if you’ve more than one) than you have.  If you’re aiming for a particular top speed and have the legs but don’t feel you have the gearing, this would be my go-to calculator site

Potential Difficulty #5: MTB suspension results in inefficiency on the road

Not all mountain bikes have suspension forks or frames. Hardtail frames can have suspension forks or rigid forks like my old bikes above, both rigid hardtail. Of course your mountain bike may have suspension forks, suspension frame and potentially a suspension seatpost. If so just lock out your forks and rear shock. And if your suspension doesn’t have a lockout facility just set your shocks to maximum firmness however that works for your shocks, maximum pressure maybe with maximum damping. I haven’t run suspension in ages so maybe you can point me to better information! Thank ye, Dear Reader 🙂

One last thing that comes to mind is pedals. Not a potential difficulty as such, I just thought I’d mention. Often stock pedals just aren’t that great. While I wouldn’t suggest clipless pedals unless that’s your preference, as long as you’re using decent shoes and pedals with decent traction then you’ll be great. If you’re not already fixed for pedals and shoes, see my article riding in regular shoes or sneakers. This was centered around road bikes but the principles apply here too 🙂

These recommendations are applicable to riding a mountain bike solely on tarmac. If you’re using your MTB for both on-  and off-road then the happy medium is somewhere on the spectrum between what I’ve suggested here and where you are at the minute. I’d guess it largely depends on whereabouts you’d place yourself on that spectrum. If you’re doing mostly road riding with some off-road on maybe gravel paths or paved but rough cycle paths or cycleways, then the suggestions will hold up pretty good. If you’re doing mostly off-road with only some on-road then you probably won’t have to adjust too much. You can take whatever of the above is of use or suits your preferences and dump the rest 🙂 And on that note, I’d be interested to hear the kind of riding you’re doing and what, if any, changes you’ve made to your bike or your riding style to take your MTB on pavement or roads. And I’m always looking to add in your suggestions or updates or helpful additions to the article.

Meantime, have fun, ride safe on or off road, David.




Leave a Reply