A lot of small, local road bike races include a mountain bike category. This is nice because a lot of recreational riders do not own road bikes, but still want to be able to compete in their hometown race.

My mountain bike buddies and I did quite a few road races on our mountain bikes over the years, and I’d like to share some tips for anyone that plans to race their mountain bike on the road.

Mountain Biking on Pavement – General Theory

The main goal is to make your mountain bike as much like a road bike as possible. That means you want very little rolling resistance, lots of stiffness, and good aerodynamics.

But you have to do so without breaking the rules. Now, there are going to be very few rules on this. Generally the only requirement is that you run 1.5″ or wider tires.

But even if there are no specified rules, I like to keep things in the spirit of mountain biking. That means, you don’t need to run road wheels and 23mm Michelin Pro3Race tires on your 29″ mountain bike. That’s just lame. If you’re going to do something like that, enter the open category and compete against the road bikers.


How to Mountain Bike on Pavement Really Fast

Here are five tips to make your mountain bike into a pavement machine.

1. Run Semi-slick Tires

If you’re an XC racer, you probably have a set of semi-slick tires that are under 2″ wide. Those will work, but if you’re willing to buy another set of tires (which can come in handy for any road riding, not just racing), there is a decent selection of 1.5″ semi-slick tires that do a pretty good job on pavement.

What I would suggest is an ~1.75″ tire that has very little tread sticking up. In some cases, these tires have an “inverted” tread. (The Maxxis Hookworm is a good example of an inverted tread, but not really a good choice because they are super heavy.) Other times, the tire will feature many small, closely-spaced knobs, giving it a fairly smooth profile overall. This means a faster and smoother ride on pavement.

As a last resort, ask around – maybe a relative or neighbor has a hybrid with some smooth tires you can borrow for race day!

2. Use High Pressure in Those Tires

Another thing you want to do is run high pressure in your tires. Quite possibly the “max” pressure listed on the tire. You don’t need the tires to conform to rocks and roots on the course, so fill those tires up!

This will depend on the tire, but generally it could range from 40-85 psi. For any sort of riding/racing on pavement, I’d like at least 50-60 psi in my tires. Normal mountain biking pressures will feel squishy on solid pavement.

3. Go Rigid

You want your bike to be as stiff as possible. If you already ride a rigid bike (no suspension front or rear), great. If you have a hardtail, hopefully you can lock out your fork.

If you don’t have a lockout feature on your fork, I feel your pain! My first real mountain bike with a suspension fork did not have a lockout, and I wasted a lot of energy with that thing bobbing up and down! My advice in this case is to stay seated as much as possible to keep your weight from compressing the fork.

On full suspension? Hopefully you can lock out your fork and rear shock!

4. Use Your Road Seat Height

Most mountain bikers don’t have their seat as high as a road racer would since you need a little extra maneuverability. But in a road race, you can set your seat height to the most efficient position.

Since you’re not dealing with obstacles, you can probably raise your seat 1/4″ or so. (Depending on race course terrain, my mountain bike seat height probably varies around 1″ up or down.)

If you’re not familiar with changing your position though, don’t do it. You might make it worse.

5. Know When to Draft

Racing tactics are important in any race, but even more so when your bike already puts you at a disadvantage.

Unless everyone else is significantly weaker than you, stay in the draft. There’s not much point in a solo attack on a mountain bike (unless you pull it off, in which case you really embarrassed the roadies!)

Anyway, the most important tactic will be knowing when to draft. For example, if you are in your big ring and the speed starts to pick up, that’s a good sign you need to get behind some people. Otherwise you simply won’t be able to propel yourself as fast as the racers on road machines.

The downhills are another place to be careful. Whatever you do, don’t go first! Tuck in behind at least two other guys and stay in the draft as best you can. If you’re caught off the front, and the roadies start to pass you, you might not be able to catch onto their draft when they go by.


If you follow those tips every time you ride your mountain bike in a road race, you’ll stand a good chance of hanging with the road bikers and beating the other mountain bikers.


This article was originally published on April 25, 2012. It was updated to account for the latest bike technology and republished on July 5, 2018.

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  1. Sweet! Thanks for putting this together.

  2. Great advice. Thanks.
    Would you recommend changing handlebars?
    If so to what?

  3. @Dave

    In most cases, no, I wouldn’t.

    Switching to any sort of drop bar (where you’d get the most benefit) is generally against the rules. And if not against the rules, against the spirit of the mountain bike category.

    I guess if you’re running a riser bar, which is becoming more and more common even on some XC racing bikes, going to a flat bar and/or inverting your stem could help somewhat. But it could also hurt you if you’re not used to the new position.

    And the effort of switching to a different style mountain bar just for one race probably isn’t worth it when you figure the best prize is going to be bragging rights!

    Now, if you’ve been looking for an excuse to switch things up and try an H-Bar, this could be the perfect excuse! Quite a few riders seem to like those, and some have a center piece that could help you stretch into a more aero position on the road.

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