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I'm looking to buy a bike for my commute - 6 miles a day. The commute itself is all on roads, so naturally I'm looking at road bikes. My main worry is that if I invest in such a bike I won't be able to ride off-road at all, for example down a towpath (Towpaths can have very rough surfaces).

Would I be better off investing in a light hybrid bike (with thicker tyres) over the road bike, given that I might want to go off-road some of the time?

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There are tons of answers so I won't bother, but I use a downhill bike with road tires! I can ride all day on the streets, used this to get to work 15 miles away for about a year. Then when I go up into the mountains (pretty aggressive terrain, not the lame dirt roads some are suggesting) I use the same tires! I have never lost any more traction than using knobies. I use the thicker 2.1 tires, not the thin race tires, ones that fit on mountain bikes. Anyone suggesting they cant take the abuse never used them before. –  BillyNair Jul 25 '12 at 8:33
Depending on what you term "off-road" as, you can use a road bike for most anything. Look at the Paris-Roubaix race in which large sections are over cobble stoned roads. There is also the off season favourite cyclocross in which road frames have skinny knobbies put on and they race over some really nasty terrain. That said, go with the bike you feel the most comfortable on and adjust your tires to the terrain. Like BillyNair said, even a downhill bike can get road tires and the same goes the other way for road bikes. –  Chef Flambe Jul 26 '12 at 17:25
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5 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

If you're looking for a general purpose bike for commuting and towpath riding, you probably want to avoid a standard road bike, they are very specialized and have very small tire clearance. Typically supporting tires no larger than 28mm and often lack mud guards or rack/pannier mounts.

However, touring bikes or steel cyclocross bikes (if they have rack and fender mounts), tend to be great choices for those purposes. Both will often have clearance for tires up to 35mm or larger which you can use for off road riding and have a more traditional road geometry versus the more upright hybrid geometry. However, if you prefer the more upright stance and flat bars, then a hybrid may be more well suited to you.

I would make sure that whatever bike you get does have rack/fender mounts if it's going to be used as a commuter. You never know if you'll want to start using a rack and panniers to carry your gear off your back or fenders to keep you drier in the rain.

You can get knobby tires for any of these bikes, but I would stick with high quality, puncture resistant road tires wider than 28mm. Even slick tires that are 35mm should be fine for towpath riding, I wouldn't take them on singletrack though.

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Yes. If you put slightly wider tires then you can do packed earth or even gravel without too much trouble. Even 25 or 28mm tires give a lot of advantage over 18 or 23mm wide tires.

I did Col du Parpaillon on 25's.

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From my trip report:

The hostel owner had said Col du Parpaillon was closed because of ice in the unlit tunnel at the top but we decided to try anyway. It's only about 22 km to the top but the top 10 km is unpaved and steep in places.

It wouldn't be very technical on a mountain bike, but everything is more technical on a loaded road bike. We only had to walk twice -- once trying to sneak up on a groundhog like rodent, and once over water.

The scenery was gorgeous. The path up wound past wildflowers and waterfalls backed by dramatic views of the mountains. The climb itself was cool -- it was overcast most of the day, but occasionally a few rays of sun would peak through to play across the mountainsides, and we saw no one else on the ascent, except for two German bikers about 2 km from the top. There were no houses on the ascent except for 3 hikers' shacks.

The tunnel was closed at the top, and was completely unlit, but I had a battery powered headlamp, so we decided to walk it. The water was a few inches deep in places, and there was ice in places, but we slogged through to find the German motorcyclists waiting for us on the other side. I think they may have taken bets on us, because they waved and left as soon as we exited the tunnel, and we saw them waiting again at the chapel at the bottom where the paved road starts.

I put on my arm and leg warmers for padding in case I got thrown from the bike, and then started descending. The first 5 km was a white knuckled descent over rough gravelly road punctuated with ruts and rocks. I heard thunder on the way down, and so sped up a little but not too much since I saw a few patches of fresh rockfall.

Just be careful of ruts on descents -- the narrower the tire, the more easily a rut will swallow a tire and prevent you from turning. When ascending on narrow tires over gravel and uneven ground, gear down and pedal continuously so that you always have a low level of power to move your front wheel. When there are sandy patches, plan turns so that you can do as much of your turning on packed earth, keep turns over sand as shallow as possible, and if the sand is deep avoid turning altogether.

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Road bike tires aren't suitable for riding off road. Anything rougher that stonedust screenings or light gravel will give you problems, as they aren't designed to be able to control a bike on those types of surfaces. Generally speaking:

  1. they will sink into loose materials far more easily
  2. will be more likely to get flats, but from pinching and from punctures
  3. are more fragile

Go with the hybrid. You can ride a hybrid over some pretty rough terrain. You might also consider a cyclocross bike, which is basically a road bike designed for rough terrain. They're more expensive though.

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+1 for recommending a cyclocross bike. It's basically a road bike with bigger tires that can go off-road. –  amcnabb Jul 24 '12 at 13:15
-1 for recommending a hybrid. You can get knobbier tires on a road bike, without sacrificing everything that switching to a hybrid entails. –  Stephen Touset Jul 24 '12 at 18:53
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Road tyres are suitable for some off-road riding. And it greatly depends on your expertise. You might want to read this Bicycling Magazine article.

Changing the tyres on the road bike can solve your problem if the surface is too rough for slicks. Semi slicks might work.

If you have a friend who has a road bike, try riding it on your commute to see how it handles.

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My only bike is a road bike which has 25mm tyres(Schwalbe Marathon at the back and Armadillo front). I expect that it would be fine on a tow path or most prepared tracks.

I used mine a few weeks ago on a flat and rather muddy offroad track through the woods and fields. I was towing my son on a tag along. I got round, but I did have to get off and push through the really deep mud.

The downside is that the narrow tyres sink further into the mud. The other issue that you may find a problem is that the mudguards will collect the mud more than a mountain bike.

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