I'm considering getting my first road bike, a departure from the mountain bikes I've ridden in the past. I've heard that road bikes are ideal for asphalt-paved roads and paths, but I'm curious as to how much they're able to withstand. Particularly, I'm wondering if they'll be able to survive kinda badly paved roads where the ground is still flat but there's bits of gravel and dents in the ground, along with the occasional rock (like the C&O Canal trail to DC).

Basically, what's the worst trail that the average road bike should be able to withstand?

  • 1
    Road bikes are a pretty broad category. But, non-racing bikes (e.g. touring bikes) aren't exactly fragile things.
    – Batman
    Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 22:30
  • All depends how good you are. Do you bulldoze through obstacles on your MTBs? or do you unweight appropriately? Bigger tyres will help, so you're probably after something Cyclocross style.
    – Criggie
    Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 23:00
  • 2
    You may look at cyclocross or gravel oriented bikes, sounds like what you are looking for. Sort of the best of both worlds, a happy middle ground.
    – Nate W
    Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 23:13
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    More than you think, and probably more than you: m.youtube.com/watch?v=7ZmJtYaUTa0 but that doesn't make it a good idea.
    – Chris H
    Commented Jul 14, 2017 at 5:53
  • If you weigh less than ~90 kg and have strong wheels and sufficient tire pressure you’ll have a really hard time destroying your bicycle. I’ve taken potholes where I thought my arms and necks would snap and the wheels weren’t even out of true.
    – Michael
    Commented Jul 14, 2017 at 7:10

3 Answers 3


These days there is a range of drop bar 'road' bikes with a spectrum of capabilities. Using some of Specialized's current range to illustrate:

You can ride a 'race' bike such as the Tarmac with narrow, slick 23mm tires on a gravel or poorly paved surface, but it's not much fun, and you risk puncturing of damaging the wheels.

The Diverge with it's 30mm tire does better, but don't expect to crash it over large potholes without consequence.

The Sequoia with 27.5" wheels and 42mm tires is in mountain bike wheel territory and obviously deals with rough surfaces much better.

Basically bigger tires means better rough surface capability, but at the expense of heavier, harder to accelerate wheels.

For the C&O Canal towpath - a trail I'm very familiar with (fairly smooth crushed gravel, a few ruts and potholes) - a tire 28-35mm with some tread will probably work.


I ran my new bike with 28mm slick tires on the Fairfax County Connector Trail which is far rougher than the C&O Canal towpath trail this weekend with no issues. 28mm on the C&O will be fine, although I still recommend a tire with some tread.


The limit isn't so much survivability as handling and comfort.

If you're looking to ride on gravel roads as well as tarmac, but not MTB singletrack, two main options are tourers and cyclocross bikes. The latter will probably be faster and more manoeuvrable but the former can carry more (especially if you have big feet and don't want to kick your panniers). They can take similar sized tyres, at least if you have disc brakes (e.g. my tourer came with 35mm tyres with a bit of tread and could go to at least 40mm without the mudguards). Neither will be quite as fast or as light as a road bike built for racing, but will be more comfortable if you plan to ride all day.

This assumes you want drop bars. Very similar features are available with flat bars as well.

  • Yeah I've heard of those and looked into them a bit, but the main issue is my budget and mechanical capabilities. I've yet to see a cyclocross bike under 500 and wondered if I could get by with a road bike like the Schwinn Volare 1200
    – user33750
    Commented Jul 14, 2017 at 12:15
  • 2
    If I wanted a bike under about 500 (US$ I assume) I'd look hard at second hand options. Modern road bikes can be built for really quite narrow tyres and I reckon you want over 30mm.
    – Chris H
    Commented Jul 14, 2017 at 12:31
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    Agreed on buying second hand. A cheap Schwinn is more likely to have mechanical issues on rough roads than an older bike that's been well maintained. Keep an eye on Craigslist, an 80s steel frame road bike would work for you, for something more recent keep an eye out for "touring", "cyclocross", or "gravel" bikes, you can sometimes get good deals from people upgrading to a newer model.
    – Jamie A
    Commented Jul 14, 2017 at 17:03

I've happily ridden a plain road bike up Rapaki Track - streetview and achieved a great time, my personal best.

The bike had 23mm road tyres and coped okay with all the gravel provided I stayed mostly in the wheel tracks. If I tried to cross sides then it got a bit slippy, and more so if it was on a steep bit.

So gravel is not fun on skinny tyres, but its not impossible.

Separately I managed to cross this road as pictured and missed the ramp on the far side. I saw the kerb at the last second and managed to pull the front wheel up but the back wheel slammed straight into the kerbing.

Upshot was a snake bite puncture with two parallel cuts about 12mm long, two cuts in the tyre in the same place... and the rim had nothing worst than a tiny abrasion. It didn't go out of true in the slightest. I was astonished!

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