Can a Mountain Bike Be Used in the City? How is the Ride?

mountain bike riding in the city

Yes, a mountain bike can be used in the city.  The real question is how is the ride, and what can you do to make the ride better and safer.  Is a mountain bike the best commuter bike?

I can easily see how riding a mountain bike around in the city is far easier to get around than using a car.  Traffic is easier to get through (still dangerous though, be careful), and it’s easier to bring a bike inside than park a car.  Much cheaper too, both for parking and for fuel.

There are lots of pros and cons to riding a bike in the city.  Many are obvious but there are some less-obvious reasons that may make the big difference in your decision to ride your mountain bike in the city.

Note that we are talking about riding your bicycle specifically in the city.  If you are more interested in why you would want to ride your bike on the road, see my article Can You Ride Mountain Bikes on the Road right here at MountainBikeExperience.  Suffice to say, there are very many people today riding bicycles to work in the city and enjoying it.  What better way of commuting?

Pros to Riding Your Mountain Bike

Let’s face it, urban riding was made for bikes.  They are smaller, more nimble, and more suited to getting around the city than a car.  That’s all and well at a high-level, but let’s delve down into some of the real gains and best reasons for riding your bike in the city:

  • Bicycles require a very small path to fit through.  If there is traffic, you can ride the bike lane or you can ride between the cars (be really careful if you do attempt this), or even along the sidewalk in a pinch if you are careful of pedestrians.
  • You can often bring your bike inside of the building you are going to so you don’t need to find parking like an automobile.
  • Great exercise!  Think about how many calories you’ll burn while enjoying yourself zipping right around traffic.  It’s a win-win!
  • Faster to get around.  I’m sure you’ve seen the bike delivery services in the city…there’s a reason they use bikes for this.
  • Costs less to get around than paying for fuel in a car.
  • There is always interesting terrain and chances to have fun such as going down stairs and such.
  • Compared to road bikes and some other forms of transportation, with a mountain bike you ride in a very upright position which makes it easier to see things around you.  On a city road mountain bikes are very effective.

Cons to Riding Your Mountain Bike

potholes in city roads

As many pros exist for urban riding, there are many cons as well.

  • Winter riding or riding in inclement weather is not too fun on a bike.
  • Danger of getting hit by a car.  Things can get a little crazy in the city with so much going on so if you choose to ride your bike in the city be aware of your surroundings.
  • Potholes and drain grates.  Roads can be imperfect so you have to watch out for rough parts of the road that could make you crash.  Also if you run parallel to the drain grates you could either get your tire stuck or it could steer you into something.  You can see in the above picture a pothole in the road.
  • Trash and debris.  Quite frequently you are going to see things like broken bottles and trash on the road and sidewalk.  Glass could puncture your tires and some trash could as well.  As with everything else, stay observant on your environment like all other riding.
  • Mountain bikes have suspension which is only partly good in the city.  Suspension will take up imperfections in the road but too much and you waste your energy on bouncing more than using your energy to pedal forwards.  You do want at least medium front suspension to take the brunt of going up onto sidewalks and such, so an XC bike is your best bet.  A trail bike has too much suspension play so it’ll end up being too much work, even if it’s a hardtail.

What You Can Do to Enhance Your Mountain Bike Ride in the City?

The best thing that you can do enhance your ride is to setup your bike for your ride like all other times.

What do I mean by that?  Knowing you’ll have to ride over bumps and drops up to about a foot, you’ll want to have approximately 3-4 inches of front suspension play.  However, ideally you want zero suspension play in the rear-end.  That is so that you spend your energy pushing the bike forward and not dealing with a bouncing rear (either the bikes or yours lol).

Many of the current mountain bikes that do have a rear suspension have a rear suspension lockout.  This means that you can either set how much suspension travel it has, or even better take out all suspension travel.

While you will feel it in the rear of the bike if you hit a pothole, having the limited suspension in the front means that the pothole won’t send you careening off in another direction and having an accident.  A front suspension will absorb the pothole and won’t affect your path.  That is absolutely critical in urban riding.

Looking at wheels, you have some choices.  I would most definitely choose a 29 inch wheel for the bike.  Bigger wheels can handle road issues easier and can roll up over curbs with less effort.

Last but definitely not least, be prepared.  I made a list of the 12 essential mountain bike gear items that you should always have on you so that you can handle situations like flat tires or a mechanical failure.

What Type of Bike is Best in the City?

This is the part where everybody seems to have a different opinion.

In my opinion, the best type of bike in the city is absolutely a cross-country bike with 3-4 inches of front suspension and the rear suspension locked out to zero.

Here is my reasoning.  Like in the above section, you need some front suspension so that it will absorb rough terrain and not affect your path line.  You want zero rear suspension, like a hardtail, so that your pedaling uses all of the energy going forward instead of wasting it when you are bouncing around.

A road bike is a close second but there are many reasons why I would avoid it for most city riding.  These I will detail in the next section.

A hybrid bike is a pretty decent choice too because it has bigger comfy seats.  It really depends if you are looking for comfort or agility and fun more.

Is a Road Bike Good for City Biking?

In my opinion, no in most circumstances.  Cities are still imperfect and quite often you have to ride through potholes, debris, wet leaves, and lots of other things that are not perfect pavement riding.  For those reasons alone, I always recommend a good XC bike in the city.

There are some drawbacks however.  This is a quick mountain bikes vs road bikes for city use:

  • Mountain bikes are heavier than road bikes and have wider tires, so they take more energy to get going.
  • Road bikes have fenders so they keep mud and such off of your more readily.
  • Mountain bikes can handle potholes, trash, sand, leaves, and more with ease due to have knobby tires vs the slicks that road tires in essence use.
  • Mountain bikes can handle getting on and off of the sidewalk easier to avoid runners.
  • If a car comes too close and you have to leave the road and get into the dirt to avoid being hit, the mountain bike won’t wipe out as easily as a road bike.
  • If the road is a little slippery from snow, a mountain bike will handle ok where a road bike will have poor traction.

So really it comes down to what terrain and conditions you will encounter.  While a road bike is easier to pedal and use on great roads, a mountain bike can handle everything you come across.  That is why I recommend a mountain bike over a road bike for city biking.

If you want to read more on mountain bikes vs road bikes, see my article right here on this website.

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