City bikes and road bikes are both made primarily for pavement, with a little smooth gravel and dirt thrown in.
They cater to very different riding styles, yet you’ll see plenty of each around town.
But which one makes sense for you?
For new city riders and bike commuters, it’s often hard to tell. Guessing wrong can be expensive, but with all the jargon and marketing spin, where do you even begin?
And in particular, how should you choose between city versus road bikes for commuting?
Road bikes are optimal for fast riding on smooth terrain, so they’re good for commuters who ride more athletically and have reasonably well-maintained streets. Their forward-leaning posture, lightweight parts, and “lively” feel are all optimized for speed. City bikes are more comfortable and convenient, but less efficient. They’re excellent for commuting moderate distances at lower speeds, and can usually handle rough streets very well. Compared to road bikes, city bikes have a more upright riding position, more robust parts, and longer wheelbases for stability. However, many road bikes in the “gravel” and “touring” categories have similar features and make better commuters than traditional racing-style road bikes.
If you’re wondering exactly how city and road bikes compare, and which to get, then read on.
We’ll look at this from the perspective of someone who wants a practical bike for daily life and also wants to have some fun on the weekend.
Without further ado, let’s see how these styles compare on some key points, and more importantly, what that means for you as a shopper and rider.
Handlebars and posture: the definitive difference
At a glance, you’ll notice that road bikes have characteristically “curly” handlebars. They’re called drop bars, and are great for a more aggressive, aerodynamic, forward-leaning posture.
Gravel and touring road bikes also use drop bars. However, their frames have a higher front end for slightly more upright posture than their purebred racing counterparts like the one above.
(There’s also a growing category of flat-bar road bikes, which have the pipe-like handlebars similar to most mountain bikes. Even then, they tend to be as low and forward as possible, quite different from city bikes as we’ll see in a moment.)
City bike handlebars typically do the opposite. Not only do they not drop down, but they usually rise up and sweep back. This lets the rider sit mostly upright, sometimes even completely vertical. They’re also wider, which gives more leverage for precise handling at low speeds.
All this posture and handlebar business affects versatility in a few ways.
First, the more racing-oriented road bikes require a very deep forward bend, which just isn’t comfortable with everyday clothing. That’s no problem when you want to suit up for sport riding, but it can be an obstacle to practical riding.
Second, with upright bars, you can always bend your elbows and lean forward into a more powerful, aerodynamic position for a bit. With drop bars, it’s difficult to sit up more than a little. After all, your elbows only extend so far.
Third, some find it easier to watch their surroundings from a more upright position. I personally get a slightly better field of vision with less neck strain. That’s worth considering if you expecting to ride in a lot of low-speed city traffic.
What this means for you: If your primary goal is to ride in comfort at moderate speeds, then a city bike will suit you. If you’d rather sacrifice some comfort for greater speed and efficiency, then a road bike’s riding position will be a better match. Within the road bike category, a gravel or touring model will be more comfortable for anyone who isn’t actually racing.
Neither one is inherently better. It’s just a question of whether comfort or speed/efficiency is more helpful for most of your riding.
Wheels and tires: usually similar, but durability differs
Road bikes have long used 700c/29″ wheels, with 650b/27.5″ rapidly gaining popularity. Tires are typically in the range of 25mm-40mm (700c) or 38mm-48mm (650b). Racing bikes on the narrower side and always 700c. Gravel, cyclocross, and touring road bikes on the wider side, and usually 700c but sometimes 650b.
City bikes also use 700c or sometimes 650b wheels, and perhaps 26″ on very small sizes. However, their tires tend to be a little wider: around 35mm at a minimum, often up to 50mm. This allows for a smoother ride and better traction, even though it increases the tires’ mass a little bit.
Notably, city bikes use heavier tires that are much more puncture-resistant. Most also have stronger rims with more and thicker spokes. That all adds weight, which makes it a little harder to accelerate but gives you a more reliable bike. All the speed in the world doesn’t help if you’re stuck fixing things!
What this means for you: Not that long ago, even 700c x 28mm was considered “fat” for a road bike tire. But they’ve gotten much wider in recent years, close to the widths you find on city bikes. These days, anything but but the narrowest, lightest racing tires will at least suffice for all-around use. Err on the wider side if your roads are bad.
But wider tires are a must if you’re a larger rider, or planning to carry more than perhaps 15-20 pounds of cargo. So are stronger wheels with at least 32 spokes up front and 36 in the rear. That’s all pretty standard on road touring bikes, and essentially the norm on city bikes. There are robust options in both categories, but bigger riders need to pay extra attention to road bike wheel and tire specs.
Gearing: varies, but similar on average
Lower-priced road bikes typically have 2 or perhaps 3 chainrings (front gears) with an 8- or 9-speed cassette (rear gears). You’ll often see this written as “2×8”, “3×9”, etc. That’s usually a wide enough range for someone of average fitness to climb most paved roads, even with a load, and pedal back down. Touring bikes quite often use 3 chainrings for maximum gear range, since they’re often subject to climbing tens of miles with camping equipment and the like.
Outside the touring niche, higher-end road bikes usually have a 2×10 or 2×11 drivetrain (and 2×12 is possible). More speeds in the back doesn’t necessarily mean a wider gear range, though. It most often means smaller steps within the same range, so racers can maintain an exact pedaling cadence.
Finally, some gravel and cyclocross bikes use just a single chainring with an extra-wide-range, 10- or 11-speed cassette. These sorts of road bikes face rugged off-road terrain as well, so fewer moving parts means fewer things to go wrong (at the expense of less gear range).
As for city bikes, you’ll find all the above. You’ll also see many with 1×7 and 1×8 drivetrains. These use older and far cheaper derailleurs that still work perfectly well. If your city doesn’t have steep hills, then 1×7 is fine for practical cycling.
The one big difference is that some city bikes use internally-geared hubs (IGH). Instead of a derailleur, an IGH uses a system of small cogs and gears inside the rear hub itself. It’s heavier and slightly less mechanically efficient, but practically maintenance-free. Unlike a derailleur, it also shifts when you’re not pedaling. That’s terrific in stop-and-go traffic.
Three-speed IGHs are common, and I quite like them for flat regions and rolling hills. You can readily find 7-8 speeds, too. IGHs with 11+ speeds do exist, but are expensive and generally overkill for everyday use.
What this means for you: If you ride very hilly terrain, then you can find both city and road bikes with adequate gear ranges. For especially steep climbs with a load, make sure the largest rear cog has at least as many teeth as the smallest chainring up front. Alternatively, pick a city bike with an internally-geared hub if hills are moderate and you want to avoid maintenance.
Brakes: rim and disc are widely available for both
It’s debatable whether disc brakes are actually necessary. I believe their benefits are exaggerated for average city riders in average conditions–a topic covered here in detail).
All the same, they’ve become mainstream on just about every type of bike in recent years.
But as with drivetrains, there’s also a totally enclosed brake type that you’ll only find on city bikes. It’s usually called a “roller brake” and is totally enclosed inside the hub. They seal out the weather completely, and last a long time without any maintenance, but are heavier and slightly complicated to service. Older ones were mediocre or downright bad, but Shimano roller brakes got surprisingly powerful and responsive in recent years.
What this means for you: While I’m not crazy about the trend to sell disc brakes to everybody, you certainly won’t have trouble finding them. They’re common, even normal, on both road and city bikes at nearly all price points.
If your bike is stored outdoors in a very harsh climate, then consider a city bike with roller brakes instead. They’re very rare in North America, so Euro imports may be the best option. Check with JC Lind, for starters.
Practicality and versatility: perhaps a tie, but road bikes are getting better
In my book, a practical bike is one that handles useful tasks without unnecessary hassles. This could be getting groceries, going to the office, or whatever else your daily life entails. That sort of use requires just three things:
- A basket or a rack and pannier for light cargo
Read this article for more on why these practical accessories matter and how to choose them.
The popularity of the gravel biking has pushed the whole road bike market in a more practical and versatile direction. Nowadays, they usually have things like fender and rack mounts that city bikes have always have. There are workarounds for bikes without mounts, but as the article above explains, those workarounds can be a little clunky.
The main difference is that many city bikes come with fenders and perhaps a rear rack off the shelf. On road bikes, these are usually aftermarket accessories. The expense and hassle aren’t too bad, but they’re worth noting.
Lighting isn’t a problem, since most lights mount with a rubber strap or simple bracket. Dynamo lighting is a fantastic option I also covered in the article above, but it’s rare on North American city bikes and almost non-existent on stock road bikes.
What this means for you: Virtually all city bikes will do fine with the minimum practical accessories of basket/pannier, fenders, and lights. Most non-racing road bikes can also accept them. If you do plan to carry some cargo, then gravel and touring road bikes will handle it best thanks to long, stable wheelbases and more relaxed (“slack”) angles.
Is a road or city bike better for commuting?
In terms of comfort and convenience, city bikes are hard to beat. After all, that’s what they’re designed for. A city bike makes sense if commuting is you primary use, and you don’t particularly care about speed on recreational rides. Year-round outdoor storage is another reason to get a city bike with an internally-geared hub, roller brakes, dynamo lighting, and so forth.
But you can most definitely commute on a road bike, too.
I used to, and most bike commuters in my area still do. In fact, a road bike is a great choice if you do a lot of higher-speed recreational riding besides your commute. You’ll probably be happiest on a touring or gravel road bike, since they’re fairly comfortable and versatile, yet relatively quick and light.
Quick ways to tell if a road bike is good for commuting
Besides obvious labels (like the word “touring” and “gravel”), there are some other ways to get a sense of what your potential new bike was built for.
Here’s my favorite trick. When browsing in-store, adjust the saddle to your preferred height. If the top of the handlebars is at least as high as the front of the saddle, then you’re likely to find a comfortable all-around fit. But if the bars don’t even come up to the saddle, it’s going to be a deep bend that’s better suited to racing or training than to practical transportation.
You can get some sense of that from the manufacturer’s online photos, too. Naturally, you don’t know the saddle height from a photo, but it does give you a sense of what to expect and whether a particularly model is worth tracking down locally.
Here’s what you do want in a road bike that doubles as a commuter:
And here’s what I’d avoid in a bike that needs to serve practical purposes:
Speaking of browsing online, the manufacturer’s language and images usually give good clues–especially with large brands that spend a small fortune getting all that website stuff just right.
If they talk about “wind-tunnel testing” and “unparalleled strength-to-weight ratios” and “groundbreaking fabrication techniques,” accompanied by a whole lot of Lycra, then you’re barking up the wrong tree.
But if they stress “all-day comfort,” “a supple ride,” and “mounts for everything,” and the people in the photos wouldn’t look ridiculous if they stepped into a grocery store, then you’re probably on the right track.
We’ve covered quite a few finer distinctions between city and road bikes. And the truth is that either one can be a good choice for both commuting and recreational riding.
City bikes can easily accommodate the practical accessories every commuter needs, and are quite comfortable. They just sacrifice some speed and efficiency to do so.
Road bikes are quicker and often more fun if you approach cycling as more of a sport than transportation. Still, they can accommodate the same accessories and can be comfortable, but you’ll need to look more closely at the criteria we’ve seen here.
For a deeper dive into how I personally choose fun and useful city bikes, check out this guide next.