Are Mountain Bikes Good for Commuting? [PROS + CONS]

When all is said and done, any bicycle is good for commuting. We think of the physical health and mental health benefits. We are using sustainable transport to get around. We are part of a growing demographic which is helping to shape the way we all should safely flow through towns and cities.

Travelling by bicycle for your commute is a commitment that you make to yourself, other road users, pedestrians and your employer each day. It should come with as few restrictions or limits to your progress as possible. Mainly in order that you keep at it, come rain or shine. Therefore, it should be fun.

If you only ride one bicycle, choosing the right one is important whether you only use it to commute, or to explore more of the world around you in your free time. Or join a cycling club. Or sign up for free rides with your mates that are hosted by your local bike shop.

Mountain bikes should be a strong consideration if you want a versatile, adaptable machine with an upright riding position and flexibility for recreational use as well as for your commute. And if you have a yearning for adventure. 

What Are Mountain Bikes Good For?

Most activities that you can carry out on a bicycle can be done on a regular mountain bike. They are rugged, dependable, fun and as adventurous as you want them to be within their own limitations. Downhill-specific mountain bikes tend to rely on their own terrain for maximum enjoyment.

The riding position is generally comfortable so you can ride on rough surfaces for longer. They have a flat handlebar to give an upright riding position. There are a very wide range of gear ratios to help you climb hills or pick up speed when you have a following wind. The smallest chainring on the front can be as low as 28 teeth and a rear cog at 42 teeth is commonly used. 

The wheels come in a range of sizes depending upon whether you wish to negotiate kerbs, rocks, or packed in dirt trails. You can ride on most terrains with differing degrees of control and speed. 

Some mountain bikes come with mounts for panniers and racks. Most fenders / mudguards are clipped onto the seat post and protection at the front is less generous than a road bike or hybrid bike. There are models to suit all budgets, endeavours and expectations.

History of Mountain Bikes

We could start in the late 19th Century with traditional single-speed bicycles being adapted by the military to travel across the countryside to transport troops. Then move forward to the early 1950s, to the suburbs of Paris, where Velo Cross Club Parisien (VCCP) converted road bikes using forks from mopeds and altered the gear shifting. Their motives were driven by the tedium they were experiencing with the cyclocross racing scene in France.

We don’t really associate Paris with mountains so we look to the USA where, at the same time, single speed bikes loved by paperboys were being adapted with ‘balloon’ tyres and flat handlebars. Pioneers and outliers – not yet a cottage industry.

Moving forward 25 years and staying in the USA, like-minded kids in northern California were pursuing thrills by taking ramshackled but retro machines and pimping them for one-off descents of local mountains. 

The brakes became too cooked from overuse and the wheels were too brittle for more than one run. But these gangs were racing and having fun. And the ideas and improvements began to collide as much as they did. These bicycles had a name – ‘Klunkers’.

Once organised racing came to pass, the engineering moved from the junkyard to the basements and sheds of these kids who gave us the first bespoke mountain bikes. Road bike manufacturers soon injected their own lightweight materials to the mountain bike stable. It’s delightful to know that some of the names of the trendsetters were attached to companies involved in designing and manufacturing the first retail mountain bikes, designers like Gary Fisher and Tom Ritchey.

Mass-manufacture brought the mountain bike to the world in the 1980s and a genre arrived in the 1990s. The new technology they brought included triple-ring cranksets, gear shifting on the handlebars and smaller wheels than road bikes and single speed bicycles, at 26 inches / 559 mm. The geometry of the frame changed gradually to a position suited to comfort and manoeuvrability. Ground clearance to avoid rocks and spacing to prevent mud from blocking the rotation of the wheels became necessary too.

In subsequent years mountain bike riding diversified into specific areas: cross-country, trail and downhill. With these specific changes designers and manufacturers brought innovations and crossover over from motorsports like the disc brake and hydraulic suspension telescopic forks which dampened the impact of hitting rocks and tree stumps. And they were amongst the first bicycles to go electric.

There are now mountain bikes manufactured for other disciplines too – All Mountain and Enduro. Not all of these are strongly recommended for commuting. You can pay thousands for the same mountain bikes ridden by today’s professionals and buy them from your local bike shop or online. If you just wish to try a local disused railway line, or tackle your toughest local trail, then there are entry-level machines to meet your needs.

There are dealership networks across the world. You will be able to get them serviced and at home DIY / maintenance is no different to road bikes or hybrids unless you have suspension. If you do wish to adventure in a national park or lumpy transcontinental trail, there are forums and websites packed with GPX routes to add to your bicycle computer and advice on where and when to travel safely.

Mountain Bike Specs

Wheel size usually 26”, 27.5” or 29”Disc brakes usually as standard Suspension options to front and rearSteel, aluminium or carbon-fibre frame
Some models use a single ring chainset option (‘one-by’)Chunky tyres mean more gripCheck for mounts for racksDurable frame and components

Can You Commute on a Mountain Bike?

Mountain bikes are designed to handle rougher terrain than found on an average commute. The riding position will be comfortable and reassured as a result. Your ride may be a little awkward and imposing on some of the specialist machines but a trail or cross-country mountain bike will be manageable.

You will be able to soak up potholes and bumps with relative ease. The lower tyre pressure will give you a softer landing. You may not travel as quickly as other commuting bicycles. If you take one off the roads too then your cleaning and maintenance regime should be more frequent if you want a clean, reliable ride on a Monday morning. Collected dust and grit will mix with your lubricants and form an unhelpful paste to eat your components and chain.

You may feel slightly cumbersome when locking and unlocking them and they tend to take up a lot of space on public transport. A specialist downhill mountain bike has a wheelbase (the distance between the centre point of each of the front and rear axles) which is up to 25% longer than a road bike. The knobbly tyres will hum on roads, rolling heavily and wearing more quickly than on the surfaces they are designed for. You can buy slicker tyres for use on the roads as you wish.

Why Are Mountain Bikes so Popular?

Because we all have a little bit of the devil in us, right? Mountain bikes give us the best of all worlds. They can be ridden quickly. Their gearing requires less pedalling effort. They can be a lot of fun. The ride is usually comfortable.

The best environment for mountain bikes is off-road. Their design is made for clearing nature’s obstacles and barriers.

If you are fortunate enough to live within a short ride of the countryside, then new permissive paths and routes open up to you, adding some more value to a weekend in the countryside. Their rugged, durable design provides for year-round riding. They are more adept than gravel bikes when ploughing through wet mud.

Mountain Bike Pros + Cons

PROSCONS
Durable frame and componentsCan be heavy
Comfortable softer rideCan really feel the mass on roads
Can tackle the most expected terrainCleaning and maintenance needed to ensure efficient ride and keep costs down
Design offers some comfort against bumpsSuspension will take away some pedalling efficiency

MTB FAQs

Are MTBs Good for Roads?

There are more effective bicycles than a mountain bike to use when travelling on roads. But still,  they are perfectly adept for doing so and can tackle potholes, towpaths, trails and city centre gridlock with aplomb. If your ride is confined to butter-smooth fresh asphalt it may become a chore.

Are Mountain Bikes Fast?

How fast do you want them to go? They are brilliantly fast and thrilling on the surfaces they are designed for. It’s one reason that racers wear body armour. You’ll smile when you look at any downhill race via the rider’s GoPro. The gearing and weight will limit the top speed on reliable surfaces.

Are Mountain Bikes Harder to Ride?

Whilst they have a comfortable overall riding position, the mass and size of a mountain bike will work your upper body more than other bicycles would for an equivalent ride. A standing start on a heavier bicycle or getting one up hills works the arms as well as the quads and calves. 

Are Mountain BIkes Good for Long Distance?

If you were to ride the shortest possible route between two points on a map, you would do it on a mountain bike. They are reliable, fun, comfortable and get you on and off most terrains. If you were to suggest riding them via clean, dry roads, there will be more efficient bicycles you would use. 

Are Mountain BIkes Good for Going Uphill?

Mountain Bikes are particularly adept at going uphill. Although weighing more on average than other bicycles, they usually have a very wide gear ratio. This makes pedalling much easier. Your cadence will be more rapid. This means you will not have to force your momentum using fewer muscle groups.

Can You Commute on a Mountain Bike?

A mountain bike is an acceptable commuter. Some versions will offer more overall comfort and efficiency when you exclusively use roads. Switching the knobbly tyres to semi slick ones will help you over the tarmac. Check that they have mounts for accessories that help you stay stable and dry. 

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Kevin Glenton

Kevin Glenton

Kevin is a freelance sports journalist. He cycles on towpaths, defunct railway lines, national cycle routes and minor roads in order to explore. His home is Manchester, hemmed in by the Peak District and Pennines. A love for their steep roads remains unrequited. You can read more from Kevin here

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