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Why are road bikes becoming more like mountain bikes?

Stu Bowers
4 May 2020

With each new advance in technology, it seems road bikes are slowly morphing into mountain bikes. Should we be worried?

It started with disc brakes. A few years ago, one or two mainstream brands unveiled road bikes fitted with discs instead of calliper brakes, and the whole industry drew a sharp intake of breath. 

For some, it was a form of sacrilege. The clean, traditional lines of the road bike had been sullied by something that was a common feature of – whisper it – the mountain bike. But it didn’t stop there.

Next we were told that 23mm tyres were too skinny, and we should be riding 25mm. No wait, make that 28mm. Now road bike manufacturers are proudly declaring their frames have clearance for tyres up to 32mm and beyond.

Thanks to the addition of disc brakes, some road bikes such as the Open UP are even able to take 650b wheels, the size traditionally associated with – you guessed it – mountain bikes.

Of course, some of these bikes fall firmly into the 'gravel bike' sector. But when it comes to pure road bikes, the technology has crept across in exactly the same way.

Suspension systems have crept in, for instance. Trek broke new ground by placing a pivot in its Domane road frame to enable more vertical flex in the seat tube for enhanced comfort.

Shock tactics

Pinarello took things a step further by fitting an actual rear shock at the top of the seatstays on its Dogma K8-S, and the principal feature of the 2016 revamp of the Specalized Roubaix was a coil sprung shock absorber beneath the stem. 

One-by (single chainring) groupsets are now entirely feasible on road bikes thanks to the availability of much wider cassette ratios.

Add in thru-axles, tubeless tyres, even dropper seatposts, and it seems the only thing separating some modern road bikes from their mountain bike cousins is a set of flat handlebars.

What’s going on? Is the industry engaged in a secret mission to turn road riders into mountain bikers? It’s time for a talk with those in the know.

It’s called progress

‘I don’t think anyone in the industry wants to turn roadies into mountain bikers, or road bikes into mountain bikes for that matter,’ says Gerard Vroomen, co-founder of Cervélo in 1995 and more recently co-founder of Open Bicycles.

‘I also don’t think the big fight is over who came up with the technology or what comes from where in the industry. At the moment it’s more important to think about how to grow the business, and I think that’s positive because companies are starting to think about how they can make cycling better.’

David Ward, product manager at Giant Bicycles, says, ‘I’m not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg. Brands coming out with ideas and needing the Srams and Shimanos of this world to make the parts to make it feasible, or whether it’s the component manufacturers making new technology available and manufacturers wanting to use it.’ 

This could suggest that these developments are a result of brands looking to drive sales by simply finding something new to offer customers. Cyclist put it to Ron Ritzler, vice-president of components at groupset manufacturer Sram.

‘My view is that for the past 20 years as an industry we’ve just given people very little choice,’ Ritzler says. ‘We’ve basically given people a replica of a WorldTour bike and for most consumers that doesn’t fit with how they ride, where they ride and how they want to ride. It’s the wrong tool.’

Vroomen agrees. ‘Peter Sagan rides a road bike and I ride a road bike, but the way we ride is very, very different. I’m going half the speed and I’m not half as tough as Peter Sagan. I want a bit more comfort, bigger tyres, smaller gears, etc, so I actually want a very different bike.

Wishful thinking

‘But there’s also where we ride. I would love it if they would close roads for me, but that’s never going to happen, so by opening up my options of where I can ride, such as on gravel, I can find freedom and experience cycling traffic-free,' says Ritzler.

‘You’ve got this middle ground where a road bike doesn’t really make sense because it can be pretty harsh and uncomfortable, the tyres are too skinny and your neck hurts, but on a mountain bike you’d be sat up pretty straight, catching a lot of wind and probably not really going that fast. There’s clearly a category in between where there’s got to be something more suitable to ride.’

Ritzler adds, ‘OK there have been some changes made to road bike design based around more relaxed geometries, slightly taller head tubes and more tyre clearance to appeal to a wider market, but the smart product person would have to say there’s got to be a better way to serve what people really want to do on a bike. And mainly that’s about having fun.’

He believes the attitude of the road cyclist has changed, and manufacturers need to reflect this. ‘Ten years ago a group ride would mostly involve beating each other’s brains out, sprinting for stop signs and so on.

‘But people’s attitudes have shifted. They still want to do group rides but they want to encounter new stuff, and that means going on different terrains and going on new adventures. It works both ways, it’s either “build it and they will come”, or it’s recognising the early signs of a trend and saying, “Hey, I need to make something for them.”’

Mongrel bikes

Ritzler suggests the trend towards a more fun, adventurous attitude to cycling requires the development of a new type of multi-terrain bike. Vroomen evidently concurs, saying, ‘Fun is the key. In the big picture racing has always been super, super small compared to the total number of people who ride bikes, right?

‘It’s like a single digit percentage of people riding that actually race. Yet it’s still hard to convince people to think that if that’s not what you’re doing maybe you don’t need a bike like that.

‘Performance is part of having fun on a bike, though, so we still need bikes that you can go fast on because speed is fun and it allows you to cover more ground, especially if it is possible on more types of terrain too. That’s the future.’

Certainly, a glance at the line-ups of the big brands shows that many of them are now producing bikes with a ‘do it all’ propostion – fast and sleek enough for the road, yet rugged and versatile enough to cope with gravel or other surfaces and conditions.

But, as Giant’s Ward attests, there may still be a way to go to convince the consumer. According to sales data, the pure road bike is not dead yet. 

‘We are getting to that SUV kind of bike. I think we will eventually reach a point where one bike will be really capable of doing a lot of different types of riding, but I also think that people will always want to buy specific products for exactly what they want to do.

‘If you take Giant’s range, for example, we’ve got TCX, Defy, Propel and TCR, and you could argue if you just had a Defy [endurance] you could do everything, or the TCX [cyclocross] will do just about everything too, but the reality is the Propel [aero-road] still outsells the whole lot. 

‘It just goes to show that although there’s a big volume of people that want the latest “do everything”, there are seemingly still more that feel they would rather have a super-light, stripped-out, out-and-out race bike.

‘Whether indeed that’s the right thing for them or not, it’s what a lot of people want to buy. A lot of people still just like to mimic what the pro riders are using.’

Ritzler is also quick to point out the dawn of the all-rounder does not necessarily spell the end of the road bike as we know it. ‘One bike can’t do it all,’ he says.

‘You still need a bike that’s super-fast if you want to be serious about going road racing, or you’ll need a cyclocross bike if you want to go and race cross, but if you’re asking me, is there a category of bike emerging somewhere between the two for “most people”? 

‘I would say now, yeah. I think there’s a growing number of choices for riders who want to experience a bit of everything.’ 

‘Sure, people still need convincing at this stage,’ adds Vroomen. ‘It’s very hard to break those old habits. People are often afraid to make a big leap. First the customer just doesn’t quite believe it yet and still wants Peter Sagan’s bike. They still won’t be able to pull a wheelie regardless.

‘But when you put 54mm knobbly tyres on a bike it no longer looks like Peter Sagan’s bike. Plus, it takes a while before the bean counters at the big companies want to make that leap as well. For the past 10 years selling pro-styled race bikes has been big business.’ 

Vroomen is adamant, however, that it’s easy to get people on board once they’ve tried it.

‘When people try the kind of bike that opens up these new possibilities of gravel and maybe even some singletrack and still being able to ride fast, with confidence and not thinking about cars at all, then generally that’s enough to get them interested.

‘Yes, you could say that’s a little bit like mountain biking, but really it’s about building the bike that’s right for the consumer. People are sick of being hit by cars and there’s a definite trend to move away from that and a different bike is a part of that.

‘They can ride like a kid again and not take themselves so seriously. That fits more with the times we live in’, he says.

Everyone’s a winner

But what about those riders who have no intention of straying from the tarmac? Is there really a need for their road bikes to be mountainbikified?

‘The disc brake is probably the best example,’ says Ward. ‘It’s certainly still a big discussion point but the thing is, if you’re getting more reliable braking, and it’s getting much neater and lighter, why wouldn’t you want it on your road bike?’ 

There are those who would argue that disc brakes simply don’t look right on a road bike, but Ward believes that those concerns have already been addressed.

‘The new generations of disc brake products, the Sram eTap Hydro and new Dura-Ace for 2017, have turned a corner from an aesthetics point of view. The days of it being a mountain bike calliper bolted on a road bike are gone.

‘Flat mount is a big part of that and I think that is great for road bikes. It’s just neat and gets rid of the ugly bolts, so aesthetics are becoming less and less of an issue.’

Acceptance of new technology has always been a slow process for the road riding fraternity. Much of it is down to the sport’s rich heritage – we want the benefits that come with improved performance, but we also want a road bike to look like the bikes we remember from the past.

Long-term benefits

Ultimately, however, Ritzler suggests that we will come to appreciate the changes that adapting technology from mountain bikes will have for the road experience.

‘Cycling for many is about achievement, and when you open up new possibilities other than just racing, it’s enlightening for so many riders. If you go and do a 100-mile ride with your buddies and go home and upload it to Strava, then it feels like a hell of an accomplishment.

‘You can choose to race, but you can choose to just have fun too. It isn’t fun to get flat tyres or mechanicals or pull on the brakes and not feel like you’re stopping because stuff isn’t capable of doing what you want to do.

‘That’s why this new type of bike exists, to give something for everyone.’ 

‘This will be bigger than road cycling as we know it,’ Vroomen concludes. ‘I don’t see it as a niche. That’s completely missing the point It’s not a niche – it’s a niche buster. For me a niche is a bike tailored for one very specific purpose.

‘This is a bike that is almost everything from a road bike right through to a rigid mountain bike, so it’s covering a lot of bases. It’s certainly not a niche.

‘If we make riding fun, people will keep riding and they’ll convince their friends to go riding too. We don’t want to be the kind of industry
where the best part of our fitness apparatus ends up under the bed.

‘We want people to use our stuff and encourage others to use it. The whole trend is positive.’

Part of the process

How mountain bike parts found their way onto road bikes...

1. Discs and thru-axles

They’ve proved contentious in the pro peloton, and there is still no agreement on standardisation of disc rotor sizes or thru-axles, but virtually every major brand now has a disc-equipped road bike.

2. Suspension

The likes of the Pinarello K8s (above) and Specialized Roubaix have included shock absorbers on their bikes designed for the cobbled Spring Classics, but there are benefits for all. 

3. Tyres

No sooner had the market accepted 25mm (over 23mm), the goal posts shifted again to 28mm. Where will it stop? Already many manufacturers are creating bikes with room for 32mm and beyond. 

4. One-by (1x)

Sram launched this as an off-road concept, as removing the front derailleur simplified the groupset in an area prone to mud clogging, but with more wide-ratio cassettes available, it has proved equally suitable for hassle-free road riding.

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