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?

  • 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
    Commented Jul 25, 2012 at 8:33
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    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. Commented Jul 26, 2012 at 17:25
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    It probably depends on skill as well: youtube.com/watch?v=HhabgvIIXik
    – Vorac
    Commented May 30, 2014 at 12:31

8 Answers 8


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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    A couple of points in agreement: Schwalbe road cruiser 35s, Conti comfort-contact 28s (and presumably similar tyres) have little tread and ride nicely over dirt roads/forest trails, but aren't much good in the mud (ouch - and that was commuting). They're also good if you commute on badly paved streets. I'd also be wary about stopping distances on off-road descents. They'd fit a tourer or hybrid (there are always exceptions) but probably not a road bike. I like a hybrid for commuting - but I'm tall and therefore used to looking over the top of stuff, others would say drop bars all the way.
    – Chris H
    Commented May 30, 2014 at 14:05

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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    Your groundhog-like rodent was a marmot. Commented Mar 30, 2019 at 16:00

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.


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
    Commented Jul 24, 2012 at 13:15
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    -1 for recommending a hybrid. You can get knobbier tires on a road bike, without sacrificing everything that switching to a hybrid entails. Commented Jul 24, 2012 at 18:53

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.


Lots of good (& beautiful!) answers already! I think I'm in the same boat as you. I primarily use my bike for commute or short road trips near home but also like to go across the odd field or up the hills.

I love the * hybrid bike frame * type. I wanted a basic frame (nothing too light or expensive) but with quality parts. I have had a hybrid specialized for last 10+ years. On it I had 25mm tyres, then mountain, then very very worn mountain, then 25mm marathon (the kevlar bulletproof ones), now mountain tyres (with front suspension on new bike as old bike was stolen :-7).

* Mountain tyres good on bad surfaces and in wet. * On roads and cycle lanes here (Dublin, Ireland) there are alot of uneven surfaces and I find commute with mountain tyres much more stable going over uneven surface, going up kerbs. Much more grip in wet. Less dangerous as the mountain tyres and suspension do the hard work over cracks and potholes. It __is__ a bit(for large values of bit) harder work pedalling (especially on way home up hill!).

* 25mm road tyres faster on smooth roads* With the bullet-proof marathon tyres with high pressure I could go alot faster on roads. You can feel there is less friction. I could also really feel every crack and ridge and bit of gravel in the road. I really had to focus and concentrate looking ahead alot at the surface I was going over. (But don't ever look down at your front wheel, keep head up and trust front wheel to steer itself like the mountainbikers do). This surface observing does take a bit of attention from looking up and ahead at traffic lights and buses and pedestrians and things.

* Off road and up the hills * I took both types of tyres off road on occasion. I would not take anything narrower than 25mm off road I think unless it was on quite even hard-packed gravel tracks. The 25mm tyres do very nicely on mountain tracks and over short bits of reasonably hard grass or other surface. Not ideal though as ride is bumpier for you and tyres will catch an edge and be more reluctant to just flow over uneven surface. The mountain tyres (and bit of suspension) really makes a difference here and makes going off road more fun.

SO if you are going to be going over nice smooth roads then go for narrower tyres. These do work off-road for occasional use. The mountain tyres are a bit harder work every day in a commute although they pay off with safety and more comfy ride. And of course they work better off road.


If you're mainly cycling for the commute, with the occasional "off-road" pleasure ride (towpaths etc. as opposed to serious trails), your main concern should be getting the correct type of bike. Worry about tyres afterwards. I'd recommend trying out a few road bikes and a few hybrids, and go with whatever feels the most comfortable.

If you prefer road bike geometry, you may have a hard time finding a modern road bike with sufficient clearance for wider off-road tyres. But I suspect a hybrid would suit you better anyway - the riding position will be a bit less aggressive, and you'll have plenty of tyre options. A wide (> 25mm), puncture-resistant tyre will be your priority here. You don't need MTB-style knobblies, just something rugged.

But then again, if you're a confident rider, and you like to have fun riding on the limit, then it's a non-issue. I ride a fixed-gear road bike with skinny (23mm) tyres on everything. Tarmac, towpaths, grass, mud, whatever. I keep my tyres pumped and suffer very few punctures - most if not all are due to road glass slowly working through to the tube. I can't remember the last time I got a gravel puncture.

Obviously it's borderline bike abuse, but there's an awful lot of fun to be had fighting for grip on a slightly muddy towpath, and masses of satisfaction to be had from controlling a front wheel slip. YMMV.


Agree with the accepted answer.

Not sure it they like posting links on SO.
Look up Ashton Road Bike Party on youtube.

Cylcocross is designed for speed and mixed terrain.
I have a cyclocross that I have set up as what I call urban assault.
Went with 35 mm Pilot City.
It rides efficiently and can take the trails.
I use this as my play, workout, and road bike.
The 35 mm is a little over sized for street but it is more comfortable and stable than a 32mm.
The 35 mm to me is a step up on the trail - more traction and at mid speed can bang up roots without banging the rim compared to even a 32mm.
I know it does not seem like much but at 35mm I could start to ride it like my mountain bike.
A cyclocross will (should) have beefier and wider rims compared to a road bike so it will take some banging.
If I am going on a long road ride then I will mount 28 mm touring tires.
Without the knobs I do not ride it in mud (but even with knobs if there was mud I would take my mountain bike).
In hard pack it does fine.
Drop offs are where a mountain bike is better - you can get your weight further back to not go over the handle bars.
I don't take jumps on this bike.
But on the other hand a mountain bike on the road won't touch it.

Most road bikes are limited to 25 mm tires.
Yes you can off road with that but bigger is way better.
Not just a traction thing - also pinch flats

And you get greats deal on used cyclocross as you get racers that get a new bikes and flood the used market.

If you are looking for towpath optimized bike then look at a gravel racers
The name describes it

Not going to put money into tubeless rims on this bike as it does not have disc.
But cyclocross with tubeless would really make a difference as could run at lower pressure.


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