Folding Bike Vs. Mountain Bike – 11 Differences


Folding bikes and mountain bikes are among everyone’s top picks.

They each have their own benefits and drawbacks, with folding bikes being road-based compared to the “mountain” bike alternatives.

I’ve ridden mountain bikes pretty much all my life, as well as having done some commuting on a folding bike, and in this article, I’ll take a look at the main 11 differences between the two.

I’ll look at the main features of mountain bikes, the main features of folding bikes, and how the two vary when compared side by side. Hopefully, by the end, you’ll have a clear view of which of these might be the perfect bike for you and your situation.

Folding bike versus mountain bike

What is a Folding Bicycle?

As you can guess, a folding bike is a bike that folds.

A folding bike is designed to benefit commuters and urban riders that have limited space. It can come in numerous variations, all based on the same basic principle i.e., portability. 

If you look into the mechanics of these bikes, you will notice that the back wheel, derailleur, and rear triangles are always the parts that fold.

With their “top tube” portion pivoting at their hinge, the front wheel would swing to sandwich the other wheel.

The design makes it more accessible. The rear wheel is also opposite the derailleur, protecting the rider from moving parts when carrying the bicycle. 

In addition, the handlebar can also fall back onto the rear wheel.

And, in some bikes, a dropped-down saddle can even be utilized as a handle for the compacted bicycle. The process should take a total of 30 seconds to dismantle or set up.

In essence, folding bikes have the allure of accessibility. With variations in shapes and sizes, their unique aspects can attract many.

Whether you’re interested in zooming through the fast lane or in a friendly ride, folding bikes can come in all types. And, they have been embraced by part-time enthusiasts and manufacturers alike. (Source)

What is a Mountain Bicycle?

Unlike their compact and agile counterparts, mountain bikes are built to be rugged riding machines.

Mountain bikes are meant to survive technical terrains with flat handlebars, knobby and wide tires, and durable frames.  

In essence, their technical advantages include a more upright frame, the ability to topple over hurdles, and adaptability.

Often, they can be found with multiple gears, enabling diverse terrains and environments. They are among the more renowned biking options, and premium frames can be made of durable metals like titanium.

11 Differences Between Folding Bikes And Mountain Bikes

I’ve compiled the pros and cons of each bike – denoting direct differences between folding and mountain bikes.

These will help you easily decide between the two.

1. Bike Handling

Though obscurities between some aspects of these bikes can be vague, handling is one of the few places with distinct differences.

In this area, mountain bikes can shine the brightest. With their design made to accommodate various obstacles at high speeds, you can expect the bicycle to comply with you at all times.

Due to this, they often have the best handling amongst various types of bikes. 

On the other hand, folding bikes sacrifice efficiency for portability. With their geometry designed to be folded, occupy small spaces, and be carried with ease, they aren’t capable of withstanding opposing forces when cycling.

As a result, they can be more challenging to handle and a bit uncomfortable to ride. 

A folding bike lying on the grass
Folding bikes are slightly faster than mountain bikes, and ideal for road use and commuting

2. Terrain

Bikes that can transverse any terrain can be hard to come by.

Though most bikes can be ridden on almost every surface, they wouldn’t ensure comfort and efficiency for all kinds of terrain.  

Therefore, you would expect bikes to specialize in one type of path or route. In this case, folding bikes are usually more suited for urban sprawl and smooth roads. In contrast, they are much less durable than mountain bikes that can transverse technical terrains with comfort. 

If you compare the two, mountain bikes would probably be a diverse option.

Though they aren’t necessarily optimized for roads, they can be used on them but may require extra effort. The same can’t be said for folding bikes, as they are restricted by their light and compact design.

Riding them on mountainous paths can be much harder and can even put you in significant danger.

3. Handlebars

Though all kinds of bikes of a particular type don’t have the same handlebar, most mountain bikes tend to have flat handlebars, whereas folding bikes might have a slight curve.

This is because the bottom part of the handlebars is used for sprinting, descending, and racing.

On the other hand, flat handlebars would help maintain stability amongst steep slopes.

As a result, it makes sense that mountain bikes have long flat handlebars. When traveling across dangerous terrain, it would be crucial that riders have as much control and stability as possible.

Likewise, though curved and low handlebars are common, they aren’t exclusive to folding bikes. In most cases, folding bikes aren’t designed for races and are just used for regular commuting.

4. Frame Geometry

This is a pretty clear difference.

Since folding bikes need to “fold,” their frame geometry is a lot more complex than mountain bikes.

In essence, to be compact and aerodynamic, top-notch folding bikes sacrifice rigid designs. 

In contrast, mountain bikes have a more robust design that prioritizes well-being over speed. This is evident by their shorter reach and top tube than conventional bikes, which helps keep the handlebars near the rider, thus improving handling.

Likewise, they are also much better at off-road cycling.

5. Speed

As one would expect, folding bikes are slightly superior in speed. This is due to their lightweight design that reduces drag and makes the bikes have a lower rolling resistance.

In addition, the usual low handlebars would help reduce frontal area, making it much easier to accelerate. Their smaller tires and higher pressure are also evidence for this.

On the other hand, despite having multiple gears, most mountain bikes aren’t exceptional speedsters.

Their large and robust bodies aren’t very agile. Likewise, their wide tires have much more rolling resistance, causing a sizeable decrease in speed, durability, and maneuverability.

However, on the plus side, lower resistance would make it easier to move through tight corners and maintain a high center of gravity.

6. Suspension

Suspensions are often the most unique features of mountain bikes.

In essence, they absorb some energy on impacts, making technical terrain easy to handle. And, unlike folding bike counterparts, exceptional suspensions are always common to mountain bikes. 

They can be available in two types: hardtail and full suspensions.

Hardtail suspensions would include a front suspension found in the fork and are the lighter alternative.

On the other hand, full suspensions are both rear and front suspensions. They are meant to prioritize comfort over speed and are resultantly much heavier. 

Full-suspension bikes are made for downhill cycling, riding, and racing. Furthermore, hardtail bikes work better with cross-country and rough track races.

Meanwhile, folding bikes tend to be more lightweight and sometimes are rigid, which means that they might have no suspension at all.

7. Purpose

It’s easy to guess that folding and mountain bikes don’t serve the same purpose.

Folding bikes are designed for anything involving paved-surface riding.

This could include country lanes, city streets, mountain passes, cycle paths, and more. Their frame geometry is designed to make them fast and portable.

In comparison, mountain bikes only work well on off-road paths.

In many ways, they are the complete opposite of folding bikes. Their thick tires and frames focus on durability.

Therefore, in essence, they are only an ideal option for staying upright on rocky, muddy, and single-track trails; they aren’t very portable or lightweight.

8. Wheels

Mountain bike tires need to be much wider than any type of tires found on folding bikes. This is because they need to handle roots, rocks, and ruts while maintaining a grip on uneven and slippery ground.

These tires must be puncture-resistant, with protected sidewalls and thick thread patterns.

As a result, mountain bike tires are unique in thickness and bulkiness. Their thread patterns tend to vary in specializations.

For example, racing tires can be very different from big mud tires, while cross-country tires can look different from downhill tires.

Meanwhile, folding bikes don’t have much variation.

At least when it comes to thread patterns, road tires exist as only slicks. They don’t have much tread other than the shallow grooves on their sides.

Also, without any obstacles on a paved path, folding bike tires are much narrower.

In contrast, you can expect folding bike tire widths to start at about 21mm, whereas the thinnest mountain bike tire is about two inches.

9. Riding Position

There are some noticeable differences between folding bike cycling and mountain biking positions.

While on a folding bike, you would be stretched upward with a closed hip angle and upright posture, which can be a comfortable position. Although, it can be tiring to sit straight for long distances or races. 

Similarly, mountain bikes tend to encourage an upright position due to their shorter reach.

However, they also have a relaxed geometry, making it more comfortable for longer dirt path rides.

With wide tires and durable suspensions, you wouldn’t expect any disruptions to your comfortable riding position.

A man riding a mountain bike down a grassy hill
Nothing beats a mountain bike for versatility on a range of terrains

10. Pedals

Most, if not all, bicycles have either flat or clip-in pedals.

Flat pedals are those with raised pins on the upper surface. These would grip onto the soles of your shoes when riding across technical terrain.

Often, you can expect folding bikes to have less aggressive shaped pins than mountain bikes, as there isn’t a need for too much grip.

Meanwhile, clip-in pedals are those that encourage cleats to attach to the bottom of your cycling shoes, making your shoes “clip in” to the pedal. They cause much more efficient pedal strokes, but they could be challenging to get used to.

Folding bikes and mountain bikes can have either clip-in or flat pedals; there’s no actual preference for either.

11. Gears

Last but not the least, a crucial difference between folding and mountain bikes is the number of gears in each.

For folding bikes, a reoccurring problem is that they have a limited number of cycling gears.

Moreover, those gears don’t really scale well; the top gear on a folding bike wouldn’t act the same as the top gear on other bikes. Due to their smaller size, folding bike gears have restrictions that limit their abilities. 

Meanwhile, mountain bikes are like polar opposites.

They are better known for their various gear set-ups, the most popular nowadays being the 1 x set-up.

They have only one front chainring, eliminating the need for expensive, beefy, and finicky front derailleurs.  

However, with only one front chainring, mountain bikes tend to tackle the steep terrain they are made for with sizeable rear cassettes. These have a wide gearing range; some are even titled “dinner plates” due to their massive size. 

With recent developments, manufacturers even plan to make 11-speed and 12-speed mountain bike cassettes that include 10t to 50t cogs.

These would ensure a more sizeable gearing range for steep single-tracks and quick descents, despite a 1x set-up. (Source)

Folding Bike vs. Mountain Bike – The Final Verdict 

With all that being said, the bike that works for you would always depend on your preference.

A folding bike is ideal for the crowded streets and smooth roads of an urban area. You could use them to commute to work or school and then fold it for convenience before cycling back at the end of the day.

You could also just use it for a friendly stroll across the town, encouraging a sustainable and minimalistic lifestyle.  

Likewise, if you’re the adventurous type, you’d have fun cycling across rough terrains on a mountain bike. Their suspensions, wheels, and geometry are designed to be as sturdy as possible, ensuring stability and comfort.

You could enjoy riding along scenic paths and even jumping off small cliffs with ease. The bikes’ beefy tires are incredible for shock absorption, therefore protecting you from potentially dangerous terrains. 

Martin Williams

Martin has been tearing up all sorts of trails on a range of bikes ever since he was young. He once cycled across France, and once fell into a canal on a hybrid. He writes about everything to do with cycling on our site. You can find out more about him at bicycle2work.com/about-martin-williams/

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