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Background: I have spent most of my time riding mountain bikes but I have recently started riding road sometimes too. I really like the position the road bike puts you in and the fact that you have multiple different hand positions. So I want to start riding my road bike more.

I have a retro steel Norco road bike. (Although I am interested in answers regarding aluminum road bikes too).

I am curious how much I need to baby my road bike.

  • Can I drop off curbs on my road bike?
  • What about logging roads and trails are they fair game? Can I do some drops?
  • When I add a rack to my road bike how much gear can I put on it before I do damage to the bike?

I am not interested in whether it is a good idea to ride a road bike down a muddy bumpy trail. What I am asking is will I hurt my bike? Even though my bike was second hand and cost me less than $100 I have a strong relationship with it.

Recognizing Problems: I know that I may damage my wheels doing more agressive riding. It is pretty easy to eye-ball wheels to see if they are ridable. Is this true for the frame as well? If I do structural damage to the frame would it be obvious?

Cross: I think that cyclocross bikes are designed for the kind of riding that I am describing. Is there any difference between my retro road bike and a cyclocross bike?

Question: How cautious do I need to be to avoid damaging my road bike?

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Watch this: youtube.com/watch?v=5z1fSpZNXhU (trials-ish riding with a carbon road bike). It doesn't answer your question, and it doesn't mean road bikes are tanks, but I'm just saying they aren't made out of glass either. –  Vache Dec 2 '10 at 15:39
    
In terms of how much weight you can haul, stay away from specialized touring racks that are rated to carry 50 - 100 lbs unless your bike is rated to handle it. Most steel mountain bike frames can handle these loads well, but I'm not certain about road frames, it depends on the purpose of the frame. Racing? Touring? Cross? –  Neil Fein Dec 2 '10 at 18:17
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1 Answer

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Good question - I went down the same path (MTB -> road bike) and was worried about having to be super gentle. But actually, a road bike is surprisingly strong provided forces are applied in the right direction. Riding off curbs or over bumpy surfaces shouldn't cause a problem, but I wouldn't suggest doing drops. Similarily provided your bike isn't a super lightweight frame (and it sounds like it isn't) fitting a rack will probably be okay (especially if the frame has mounts for them).

A lot of the pros on the Tour de France used their standard road bikes on the cobbled stages just with special tyres, and those stages were very bumpy. And the teams that used dedicated Paris-Roubaix style bikes mainly did so for comfort and speed, not strength.

It's when you start applying forces to the bikes in ways that weren't intended that you are likely to damage it - i.e. riding into things, jumps or crashing. That's where the extra durability of a mountain bike comes in. It also depends on your weight - without being rude, if you're a big rider simple physics means you are going to stress the bike more.

If you do do damage it may not be easy to see. Especially small cracks may be very had to spot, although if they get big they will be pretty obvious. I certainly wouldn't recommend assuming that just because you can't see problems there aren't any there - you really don't want your fork to fail at the crown which could cause a very serious accident.

If you are planning to ride your road bike off road a significant amount you might be better off with a cyclo cross bike. It will be a little bit heavier but stronger and more capable of dealing with crashes, but more importantly it will enable you to fit much wider tyres, and gives much better mud clearance. Many cyclocross bikes have rack mounts on them as well, and the geometry is tweaked to make them more comfortable to ride off road.

It's just my experience but as a mountain biker, I feel much more comfortable riding a cyclo cross bike - either on or off road - than I do a dedicated road bike, probably because the handling is better (for me).

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Without knowing more details about the frame, this answer is probably the best we're going to be able to do. Chris, as a heavy rider myself, you're on-base about the weight of the rider making a difference. (With a steel frame, I'd estimate that this comes into play when you get to riders over 250 pounds.) –  Neil Fein Dec 2 '10 at 18:08
    
Awesome explanation Chris. My road bike actually has surprisingly large clearance for tires. It also has 27 inch wheels. I am thinking about changing these to 700' wheels to get a bit more clearance. Other than tire size do you think there is a lot of difference between a cross and road bike? –  sixtyfootersdude Dec 2 '10 at 18:16
    
I've certainly found that I prefer the way a cyclo cross bike handles and "feels", which apart from the physical differences (don't forget cantilever brakes have a lot more mud clearance than centre pull brakes) is the biggest difference I notice. That's probably due to having spent a lot more time riding mountain bikes off road. A cross bike, which is basically a road bike adapted for off road (including the geometry), just feels more "right". My opinion only, of course. –  Chris Betterton Dec 2 '10 at 18:58
    
Yeah, agreed. I was going to drop an answer in here too, but this is a pretty good answer which covers the bases. You talk about weight-of-the-rider and putting stress in the dimensions that the frame geometry are designed for... the only thing I might add is some commentary on the differences in the way that Al and Steel frames show damage... but this wasn't really the meat of the question being asked. –  DC_CARR Dec 3 '10 at 22:57
    
I might have read that you can hear a crack before you see it. –  ChrisW Apr 11 '11 at 3:40
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