4 Reasons Mountain Biking can make you a Better Road Cyclist

By Michelle Valenti

Want to become a better road cyclist? Go mountain biking. A few days on singletrack can teach you more about cycling than several weeks on the road. Simply put, mountain biking is one of the best cross-training activities for cyclists.  

As John Howard, former competitive cyclist and Hawaii Ironman champion says, “you’ll learn things off-road that you’d have more difficulty learning on-road.” With a “wider tire base and a more forgiving set of circumstances,” there are more learning opportunities on dirt.

On a mountain bike, you can push the limits of what you and your bike can do without the same consequences. Cut a corner too close? Skidding out on dirt is a lot less scary than skidding on the road in the middle of a busy intersection.

Not convinced? Here are four more reasons you should cross-train on singletrack:

#1: It Improves Your Bike Handling Skills
Many road cyclists (even the seasoned riders) get nervous about bushes hanging too far into the road or potholes big enough to swallow their front wheels. 

Mountain bikers learn to tackle obstacles—a narrow path between two trees, a thick tree root or a tight corner—out of necessity. “You become more efficient because your margins are less,” Howard says.  

On a mountain bike you learn how to shift your weight to navigate small drops or how to absorb the bumps when approaching a field of rocks. With the wider tires, you can exaggerate your turns and push the capabilities of your bike to see what it can really handle. You are less likely to take those chances on a road bike.

These skills help you feel more connected to your bike; you’ll learn to move and work with it so you don’t have to fight to control it.

#2: It Quickens Your Reaction Time
While there are not as many obstacles on the road as there are on the trails, you still have to be on alert—arguably more alert—and ready for the unexpected: A car backs out of a parking spot and doesn’t see you coming; a rider in front of you goes down; road construction has taken over the bike lane.

Mountain biking helps you develop sharp instincts for those unpredictable situations.

#3: It Builds Endurance and Increases Efficiency
Go for a 40-mile road ride and you’ll be home within a few hours, hit the 15.6-mile Porcupine Rim Trail in Moab, Utah, and you’ll be out all day. Sure you aren’t covering as many miles but you’re extending the amount of time you spend in the saddle, which ultimately helps build endurance.

Also, “you tend to climb more [in mountain biking] which helps build power,” Howard says.

Professional mountain biker, Nina Baum says it’s good for improving your pedal stroke, too. Howard agrees: “Everything is exaggerated off-road…you learn to pedal more smoothly out of necessity.” 

#4: It’s Fun
Mountain bikers always look like they’re having the time of their lives. Listen closely and you’ll probably hear shouts of joy from riders as they jump over dirt mounds or the occasional “yippee” as they go barreling through a forest.

Plus, Baum says mountain biking “gives you the mental freshness that comes from a change in routine, after you get sick of staring at the pavement all day.”

A backdrop of forests, mountains and fields is a nice change of pace if you’re used to cycling through city smog and rush hour.

Michelle Valenti is the cycling and mountain biking editor at Active.com.