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Road Riding vs. Mountain Biking, The Trail To Fitness

March 2012
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When I started riding again seriously, for the first time since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, I began on a mountain bike.  Where I reside, many of the good back roads to ride are dirt so it made sense to go with something that could handle wash board roads, potholes and gravel.  Once I invested in some slicks and aero bars though, I quickly discovered that I like speed.   A lot.  In the first days of September I bought my first road bike and it was “Katie, bar the door” from there.  I have, however, spent some fantastic time on the mountain bike riding with my wife and daughter and hitting the trails with my brother-in-bikes, Tim.   There are also some fantastic advantages to mountain biking to get fit.

First of all, if we’re looking to shed a few pounds (or many), mountain biking is a really good place to start.  As an aside, I won’t get into leisure bikes at all because when it comes to fitness I don’t approach it leisurely.  With mountain bikes, they’re quite a bit tougher and they can handle, straight out of the box, a heavier-set individual.  As an example, Trek advertises in their manual up to 300 lbs.  The set up, or position, on a mountain bike is also more conducive to overweight folks – you’re sitting upright rather than bent forward so the conventional mountain bike will be a lot more comfortable on the upper body.  If you’re more comfortable, you’ll be able to spend more time in the saddle, which leads directly into the second advantage of a mountain bike…

It takes more effort to keep a mountain bike moving forward than a road bike which burns more calories per mile.  For example, I’ll burn about 70 calories per mile on my mountain bike compared to 50 per mile on my road bike.  If I take to the trails, that bumps up to 85 calories per mile even though the pace will necessarily slow considerably.  Speaking of trail riding (paved and gravel rail trails excluded), in addition to being a whale of a lot of fun, there is a lot more impact to the body, something that your body needs.  Also, if we’re following the axiom that suggests we participate in the sport which helps us lose weight the fastest, there is no bicycle better than a mountain bike.  I don’t fully buy into that axiom though – it’s far better to find something you love to do even if it doesn’t burn as many calories per mile or hour because we’ll spend more time doing it rather than looking at the clock (or worse, the TV, from the couch).

Finally, once the weight starts coming off – ladies should especially appreciate this – the correct position atop a mountain bike isolates the tuckus a lot more than the correct position on a road bike will.  In fact, I owe my fabulously taught buttocks to starting out on my mountain bike.  No matter how conditioned I am on my road bike, a couple of hours in the saddle of my mountain bike and I can really feel the workout.  Most of this has to do with the hip angle in relation to the crank and bottom bracket, but we really don’t have to get that technical here.

Now, Trek does suggest that a 275 pound individual should be able to work on a road bike but there are plenty of inherent problems associated with heavier folks riding road bikes including broken spokes, flats and position on the bike.  These are not impossible problems to overcome, though they can be expensive.  One of my best friends, in cycling terms, is a Clydesdale (a tall, heavy fella) and he had huge problems with flats and broken spokes until he picked up a very expensive set of carbon rims and Kevlar tires.  He also happens to be a very flexible individual having once been in hockey which helps him get into the proper position on his road bike.  Now, he happens to be a speed freak like me, so while he has a mountain bike also, he spends the vast majority on his road bike – and he’s dropped some serious poundage doing so because that’s where he’s happiest.  The trick to a comfortable position is raising the handle bars so they’re more even with or even higher than the saddle.   This can sometimes be accomplished with shims and/or a new stem – or possibly a style change in road bike from a race bike to a tri-cross or touring bike.  The problem inherent in that change though, is that as you drop weight and gain flexibility you may want to upgrade to more of a racing bike, which can be expensive.

In the end, this will come down to a very personal choice – unless you can find a way to afford both – in which case; Katie, bar the door.

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Please note the saddle to handle bar on my mountain bike.  It was radically changed – I swapped the stem to a 10 degree and inverted it.  That’s not stock.

 

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