March
11

Top 3 Reasons to Leave the Skinny Tires to the Roadies! part 3

In this three part series I have been exploring if riding a road bike is a good idea for moutnain bike training. If you missed parts one and two you can find them here: Part 1        Part 2

Here is the conclusion to this series plus how it should impact you…

3) It takes skills that MTB riders are not great at –

Riding a road bike takes a different set of skills than mountain biking. We all have seen the stud roadie get on a technically challenging trail and crumble. We’ve also seen mountain bikers that can ride anything on the trail loose focus and control on their road bike and end up a bloody mess.

Being able to negotiate traffic, grates and other road obstacles requires a distinct awareness and skill. Being able to keep your head up while in the lower position a road bike puts you in is also a specific strength endurance possessed by true roadies. Dealing with the speed and handling characteristics of a road bike are skills that must be learned and honed just like the skills you practice on your mountain bike.

This basically puts you at a disadvantage that increases your chance of wrecking. Now, taken by itself this may not be enough of a reason to avoid the road bike. I’ve been known to do things on my mountain bike that “increase my chance of wrecking”.

But when you think about everything I have brought up in this series, it does call the inclusion of a road bike in a mountain biker’s training program into question. Just to recap, here are the 3 reasons to leave the skinny tires to the roadies:

1- May create a competing neural blueprint. The specific kinetic chain needed to pedal a mountain bike is different than the one needed to pedal a road bike. This means that any time spent on a road bike is not helping to ingrain your fitness onto the specific movement patterns needed for mountain biking.

2- May increase risk of overuse injuries. Even though riding a road bike isn’t an exact replica of mountain biking (which is why the nervous system does not benefit) it does cause the same muscular imbalances brought on by mountain biking. The position of having shortened hip flexors, pecs and deltoids with elongated upper back muscles is something that must be controlled and counteracted. The best way to build cardio while avoiding overuse injuries is with training rides on your mountain bike (with slicks on if you need to ride on the road) and with true cross training (basically any activity other than cycling).

3- It requires skills that mountain bikers don’t practice. As I already covered you put yourself into a different position on a different bike that requires different focus and skills. That’s a lot of different stuff to deal with. Perhaps you’d be better off just throwing slicks on your mountain bike if you need to hit the road. You help ingrain the patterns you need on your bike and you are in a more familiar, and safer, position.

So here’s the thing – I am not saying that you should never ride a road bike. If you enjoy doing it then fine, for the most part I would not discourage you from having fun. We train so that we can live life and ride on our terms and if that includes throwing your leg over a road bike then I can respect that.

However, the true definition of the word “training” centers on the acquisition of a skill. If you are a mountain biker who is looking to increase your on trail performance then using the road bike as part of your training program may not be a good idea on a few levels.

And this is where having training rides versus fun rides comes in. Every ride shouldn’t be a training ride but unless you are consciously working on acquiring a specific skill or fitness component needed on the trail then it isn’t a training ride. Learning the difference between the two is important in order to go beyond guessing about what to do and if it will work and knowing what to do and that it will work.

Long story short, if you have fun riding a road bike then go for it, just be aware that you need to keep the volume of miles in check and that you will need to address any imbalances the combination of mountain biking and road biking bring on. However, if you don’t like it then either don’t do it or, if you need to get out on the road, throw some slicks on your mountain bike.

I’d also like to say that I think that the more serious a racer you are the more you should avoid the road bike altogether. Racing is about honing your specific skills and fitness to the highest levels possible. Your bike is your weapon and having everything you do center on the specific skills and fitness needed to effectively wield it in battle should be the essence of your training program.

I do not know why but riding a road bike has just become an accepted, and almost expected, part of our sport. From my perspective I don’t think that the road bike offers anything to us that simply throwing some slicks on our mountain bike can not deliver and may on fact be counterproductive on some levels. Just some points to consider next time you are wondering whether to buy a new road bike or just buy some training slicks for your mountain bike and have some more money for upgrades.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Greg says:

    Hi James; Interesting series of articles. I have two bikes, one FS and one HT with roughly the same geometry. I also have a second set of wheels with road tires mounted which I can swap out on either bike depending on where I’m going to ride. (road or trail) At one time, I kept a set of knobbies at the office and another set at home and used my bikes to commute. I could then ride after work from the office with a friend or head home and do the trails around my neighborhood on the weekends. Given my take on your articles, this was not a bad strategy to have adopted. There is a thousand foot elevation difference between the two locations, so I was often pretty worked by the time I got home, but the down hill ride could be rather exhilarating. (I’ve managed to hit over 50mph for parts of it, glad I have disc breaks!) Cheers Greg

    Reply • March 11 at 2:10 pm
    • bikejames says:

      Yeah, if you can just throwing slicks on your mountain bike is the way to go. The road bike isn’t needed to ride the road.

      James

      Reply • March 12 at 10:14 am
  2. Darryl Cram says:

    Hi, I am starting to see the use of intervals for XC racing but to train for a 100km event I am still chewing the slicks part over. That said I have seen one guy with narrow rims of unknow diameter so he could run 23c tyres for his road commute.

    Reply • March 12 at 11:03 pm
    • bikejames says:

      @ Darryl

      Why would you want to run any bike or tire size than what you race with? Is it to make your ride easier (which a road bike does)? Is making the ride easier really a good training tactic?

      I’m not saying either way, just pointing out some of the questions I ask myself when evaluating both sides of the arguement.

      James

      Reply • March 14 at 7:25 am
  3. getaspin says:

    James,

    interesting take. i don’t necessarily agree that road riding is easier. for my commute to work, the road bike is just plain faster, slicks, gearing, geometry, bike position…but to go faster u do go harder. mtb, is agreed, more intense, intervals. but overall, road biking is just a different avenue, like my trigeeks, they love mtb b/c it different than road riding. agree to disagree?

    Reply • March 14 at 10:02 am
    • bikejames says:

      Hmmm…I can certainly agree to disagree but a lighter bike with better gearing and geometry will allow you to go faster with the same amount of effort which is why optimized position and weight are important.

      Again, I am not saying to never ride your road bike, I am just pointing out that at it’s essence training is about ingraining the very specific types of fitness you need to dominate on the trail. Road bikes simply do not allow you to do that as effectively as a mountain bike with slicks can.

      James

      Reply • March 16 at 10:24 am
  4. Jeff says:

    doing a century on a mtn. bike would be uncomfortable b/c of the more upright position (geometry) and gearing.

    so if i’m correct, you are saying for say a 50mile mtb endurance race, i should train on my mtb for that same distance & riding my road bike would be detrimental or counter-productive?

    Reply • March 17 at 5:32 pm
    • bikejames says:

      Everything in training is based on the good-better-best scale. Riding a road bike to train for a mountain bike race might be good or even better, but it will never be best. I hate to use the terms “detrimental” or “counter productive” because people will take that as me saying you’ll get worse from training on a road bike, while what I am saying is that you won’t benefit as much as you would by training exclusively on a mountain bike.

      James Wilson

      Reply • March 20 at 7:52 am
    • Nolan says:

      Oddly enough I have participated in a century ride on a full suspension mountain bike and can say that with slicks it was more comfortable to be upright in the saddle for 6 hours, being hunched over caused more fatigue. However, your mileage may vary. 😉

      Reply • November 5 at 2:00 pm
  5. Stefan Cihylik says:

    Your position is interesting and I can agree with parts of it, overtraining being the most important point I’ll agree with.

    When you are training on a mt. bike one should focus on that training, aerobic, strength, skills, sessioning something….

    To augment that training, unless one lives in CA or other low rain area, one can certainly add road training (great aerobic-sprinting, strength-hills low cadence.

    One has to think about that training so the brain associates one bike ride from another.

    Plus, big plus, is one can jump on one’s road bike and “make hay” and get a killer training ride in in a short time, between bad & good weather.

    Take that a step further one can & should ride some BMX which will round out skills and increase aerobic fitness for mt biking. We BMX once a week added to our xc training to prepare for the DH season. Some of the best BMX riders have been the top DH pros.

    What about mx? Many of the top world champions and top ten world cup DH racers race mx in the off season or at least train on a mx bike. Sam Hill rides all summer and races.

    I think that one can mix it up more than you think but you are right about that muscle memory. So one trains and thinks about one is doing at that time. Ride and think, what a theory (it is hard especially on a mt. bike, what with all the different challanges of that sport.

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    Reply • April 23 at 11:50 am
    • bikejames says:

      Thanks for the great feedback. Just for the record, I don’t think that you shouldn’t hit the road to train if you need to, only that you would probably be better off just throwing some slicks on your mountain bike. I don’t know why we think that you have to be on skinny tires to use the road as a training tool but that was really my main point. If you are going to “train” then train with the weapon you use in battle.

      Thansk again, hope my articles in Decline gets more people like you poking around my blog.

      James

      Reply • April 24 at 7:55 am
  6. Chris says:

    James,

    Great stuff here.

    If I have the option of
    A) Riding 1.5 hours on my mtb on roads to get home from work or
    B) another cardio excercise for 1 hr
    ,
    What is better to add to my current regimen? I feel like I am out of shape, cardio- wise, right now.

    Currently, I like to do intervals once/ wk, strength training 3 days/ wk and mountain bike (dh and trailride) 2-3 days/ wk.

    Reply • October 13 at 7:05 pm
    • bikejames says:

      Neither. If you want to ride to work then fine but if you’re looking to increase your cardio you don’t need to do something for an hour. I’d recommend doing some intervals or combo drills, there are some sample workouts and ideas on this site. Steady state cardio doesn’t work as well ass intervals for trail fitness.

      Reply • October 14 at 9:04 am
  7. Paul says:

    How come when I hear top cross country mtb racers interviewed they say that they do all of their training on a road bike. It seems like the winners of the races ride their mountain bike on race day and are on a road bike the rest of their training time.

    Reply • May 30 at 11:11 am
  8. CrossStuntry says:

    I agree with much of your training and perspectives…
    I would like to elaborate, via analogies and personal experiences, MY Approach to; Concentration Training, Cross-Training, Horizontal/Vertical/Diagonal/other Training Methods…
    I agree with ‘Honing the Edge’ via focused Training on the ‘Weapon of Choice’ (your Race Bike!)…
    I also believe ‘Training’ (with similar, or very different, bicycles, on similar, or very different, Terrain) can not only help ‘sharpen the Edge’, but also lengthen and strengthen the blade which will help extent it’s reach, depth, and overall usefulness and effectiveness (ideally, without increasing the weight of the blade much)…
    If you cannot understand how Launching my old 54# GT iT1 DownHill Mountain Bike (as well as the SinisterDNA DirtJumper) into the HighlandMountain AirBag or pedalling the GT iT1 for 20+ miles at my local technical trail system (that is NOT Lift-access) can help Me… Well, you might not be at that stage of readiness to improve… I say, “Try It, Anyway!”, you will improve more than you may think possible…
    Now, try a machete after the Broadsword… (even though I started with a Turkey Carver in 1989, a Bianchi Peregrine 😉
    Riding my 23# full-rigid SoulCycles Dillinger SingleSpeed 29er (better) on the same technical trails I used my 43# 7″ Yeti as-X to ‘master’, helped me to realize I have not mastered anything… yet… and never will…
    ‘Mastery’ is an asymptotic ‘Direction’ toward an ever increasing level of ‘Ability’ or Accomplishment, sometimes perceived as a ‘Destination’…
    I will be trying my Gunnar Crosshairs CX bike there, soon! Yet I will still ride the Yeti as-X, SoulCycles Dillinger, Cannondale Raven II, Balfa BB7, Surly Krampus, Carver Trans-Fat, Cannondale SuperV -> ÃœberV, LenzSport ProDescender, as well as others… This is like adding Katana, switchblade, axe, butter knife, sledgehammer, etc. to Jackie Chan’s or Jet Li’s list of potential deadly weapons, right?
    So, a unicycle would be like a pencil?!?
    Anyway, what I am getting at is;
    Different bikes, used in different situations, create different skills…
    Some skills which you may seldom ‘Need’ in your Cycling activity of preference…
    Yet, ‘Having and Not Needing’ is So Much Better than (the infrequent times of) ‘Needing but Not Having’…
    Plus, a variety of bikes in a variety of situations is just So Much FUN!!! Just Sayin’…
    When I was road racing motorcycles, one of my most progressive years was when I raced an FZR400 and a GSXR1100, back-to-back, at the same events/tracks…
    I learned more of the extremes of the different techniques that each motorcycle emphasized (‘Stop’, Point-and-‘Shoot’ on the High-horsepower GSXR… while the FZR awarded smooth brakes, High corner speed…) Yet, maintaining more corner speed benefitted the GSXR during certain situations, and ‘over-braking’ (late apex) the FZR400 in order to get an earlier ‘Drive’ out of a corner into which someone just ‘out-braked’ me, allowed me to regain the position (with additional space) before the next corner…
    Mountain Biking: Being able to bunny-hop a fallen tree, or ‘bounce’ a rock and ‘tabletop’ over a stump that the faster guy (behind you?) will have to slow down to ride around, can net you a gap/position/advantage…
    As to ‘Cross-training’: While motorcycle racing, I also rode MX motorcycles to slide around on the dirt (tracks and trails) and on ice in the winter, for the ‘advanced’ vehicle handling skills and superior fitness demands that they require…
    I also rode RoadBikes and Mountain Bikes for better Legs&Lungs… Cross-Fit, Skiing & RockClimbing, Rollerblades, CrossCountrySkiing, and other stuff to have FUN while supplementing the areas of weaknesses and rounding out my overall fitness… Kite-Surfing, Wind-Surfing, Sailboarding, Kayaking, trail-running, and many other activities are also worthy interests…
    There are more than 123 ways to break a sweat and get fit… as well as Mountain Bike Training Tips and Lessons… I am not sure how many there really are, yet I am fairly sure BikeJames knows most of them… That is why I am here…
    Ju,st Sayin’…

    Reply • October 28 at 5:24 pm
  9. Ezra says:

    Agreed^^^

    It all boils down to ONE thing. Whatever bike you’re on or whatever exercise you choose, pushing yourself harder will only get you better.

    I ride trail and race xc. I’ve been on the fence about getting a road bike. It’s rather irritating knowing the fact that most of the guys in front of me on race day train road. I went through all the reasoning, pros and cons. Quite frankly I’ve spent enough on MTB that I can’t justify investing on a whole separate sport that I personally don’t care too much for. Honestly, I’d rather get eaten by a mountain lion than get hit by a driver talking on his cellphone. The only reason I’d ride road would be to commute more and get my aerobic capabilities up. There is truth to getting more out of a road climb aerobically than you would on a MTB climb aerobically. MTB climbing definitely takes a lot out of you, but it is hard to reach, hold, and push your lactate threshold with all the inconsistencies on the dirt. Just two different beasts.

    When I raced XC at Sea Otter last year, I was able to quickly pick out the roadies from the rest. Those guys were killing it on the flats and fire-road climbs but eating it on the single-track downhill and technical sections.

    Quite frankly, because I only want to invest my time and money in XC and trail riding I am going to defer from road training for now. Ill use my trail bike to do intervals and road climbs around my block on my recovery/rainy days and just push it on all the other days on the trail. Then I’ll have a couple “breather” rides with the group.

    BikeJames is on point in overtraining. Whether you’re cross training on a road bike or running sprints on foot there are other ways to build up your cardio. The ultimate thing is whatever method you decide don’t let any of it take the fun out of what you love to do. For me, if investing in a road bike was only to train for xc racing I better be getting paid to race my MTB. Any time taking away from the trails isn’t fun time spent for me.

    Reply • March 2 at 2:13 pm

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