Convert Your MTB to a Road Ready Commuter

Thinking of buying a commuter bike? Have a mountain bike in the garage but don’t think its suitable for cycling to work? Then think again, because with just a few easy modifications any old mountain bike can be resurrected as a lighter faster commuter vehicle saving you a lot of money in the process.13 - 1

Replace Your Tires

The very first thing to do is get rid of those big, heavy, off road tires because while they’re essential on the dirt, on the road they just add weight, drag and slow you down.  Replace them with a the narrowest slick or semi slick tire you can fit on your rim. Believe me you’ll notice a immediate difference in the weight, speed and feel of your bicycle by taking this simple step alone.

I have two mountain bikes set up for city riding, one is a GIANT MCMone with 26×1.25 Specialized Fat Boy slick tires. The other is an Cannondale F300 which I recently fitted with semi-slick 26×1.25 Schwalbe GreenGuard tires. Despite being the same size the Marathon tires are heavier and slower than the Fat Boys, primarily due to the fact that they’re virtually indestructible. If you’re commuting on a daily basis and don’t want to constantly worried about puncturing your tubes I’d highly recommend trading some speed and weight for the security of a tougher tire.

When fitting narrower tires you’ll most likely have to use a different sized tube, so take this opportunity to switch to a pair of puncture resistant tubes. When it comes time to put air in your new tires be sure to pump them up hard, really hard, this will make a huge difference in reducing the rolling resistance of your bike.

If you’re not confident on a thinner tire or aren’t willing to give up the comfort of a wide tire, even a fat tire with less tread will result in an immediate improvement in speed on the roads.

I can not stress enough what a difference narrow, slick tires will make to you ride.  Just a small investment in tires will breathe new life into any mountain bike. Try it, you’ll be surprised.

Fenders (Mud guards)

Despite the fact mountain bikes are designed to be used in the mud and dirt, few come equipped with fenders, the primary reason being that mud will quickly lodge itself between the fender and your tire and before you know it your wheel will no longer turn. As an urban bicycle commuter getting your bicycle clogged up with mud shouldn’t be an issue. (If it is, you have an awesome commute to work!)

The simple addition front and rear fenders to your mountain bike will stop water and grime from the road splattering your clothing ensuring that you arrive at work clean and dry. While considered unsexy by some, fenders are considered essential equipment among regular bicycle commuters, or at least among those who like to arrive at work clean and dry

Racks, Panniers and Baskets

As a bicycle commuter chances are you’ll be carrying some luggage, be it a change of clothes, your lunch or your laptop, but riding with a backpack in the summer leaves you with a wet and sweaty back.

Fitting a rear rack to your bicycle gives you with a number of options for carrying your luggage. You can simply tie down your bag to the rack with an elastic strap, but this can be time consuming, awkward, and leave you dirty. Some bicycle commuters opt to use pannier bags, the type you see long distance bicycle tourists using. Despite modern attachment mechanisms, putting pannier bags on and off the bike can be a chore, and once you’ve got them off you have to lug them about which is why I’ve chosen to fit a folding basket to the side of my year rack.

With a basket I can cycle to work with any bag, backpack, brief case, or even a shopping bag, all I have to do is fold out the basket and dump it in. When it comes time to park I remove my luggage and fold the basket away so it doesn’t take up valuable space in the bicycle parking lot. I find the basket a lot more versatile and convenient than panniers, but that’s a personal choice.

A final, often overlooked, option for carrying luggage is the simple front, handlebar mounted, basket. These can be easily fitted and has ample space for whatever a bicycle commuter will need through out the day.


A bright pair of lights are a must for any bicycle commuter who finds themselves out after dark, and sticking to convention most bicycle commuters install a red rear facing light and a white front facing one. When it comes to bicycle lights options abound, battery operated, USB rechargeable and those with generators, from small flashing lights to ones more powerful than a car’s headlight.

As the streets of Tokyo are generally well lit bicycle lights aren’t required to see the road ahead, but rather to alert motorists of your presence on the road. Given this I have installed nothing but two small flashing LED lights from the local Y100 store to my handlebars. They’re bright, have a good battery life, and cheap enough that I can leave them attached to the bike at all times without fear of theft. So cheap in fact that I carry a spare around in my backpack in case one is stolen or runs out of batteries in the ride home.

In contrast to my minuscule front lights I have quite a chunky rear facing light. As I can’t see behind me to take evasive action I’m reliant on getting the motorists attention, therefore my tail light ranks right up their with those of a fire engine for brightness.

In Japan riding with a headlight at night is not only a good idea, it is required by law.

Reflective Tape and Stickers

Controversial, as many cyclists are religiously against high viz, but reflective tape is a great way to improve your visibility on the road at night for minimal cost. Such tape can be purchased at your local Y100 store, and I tend to place it on areas of my bike where it will not attract too much attention during the day, but shine brightly at night. I like to place some tabs of reflective tape on my cranks, as reflective items moving in ways a motorist isn’t expecting are more likely to attract their attention.

If it doesn’t offend your fashion sensibilities, I recommend some strategically placed reflective tape on any commuter bicycle.

Bicycle makers will try and sell you a bicycle for every purpose, road bikes, mountain bikes, cross bikes, fat bikes, commuter bikes and now even gravel bikes are a thing. Don’t fall for it. For much, much, less money the simple addition of narrow slick tires, fenders, a rack and some lights will turn your old mountain bike into a fresh new ride, perfect for commuting in the city. 

About Byron Kidd

Byron has been cycling the streets of Tokyo and around Japan since 1996 and is the editor of the insanely popular Tokyo By Bike blog.
Working locally with volunteer organizations and NPO's to promote cycling and cycling infrastructure improvements in Japan, Byron also considers it his mission to teach the world about Japan's unique cycling culture, where literally everyone rides a bike, in the hope that countries around the world can learn from and emulate Japan's success. Tokyo, it's better by bike! Connect: Blog | Twitter | Google+


  1. This is absolutely great advice, it’s how I got started. There’s plenty of good 26″ slick choices now, too… wasn’t like that 5 years ago. They make great urban assault vehicles.

    • Nelson Strasser says

      First, I would say, it depends. I am 73 and, for me, comfort trumps speed. So, I commute on my hardtail with a backpack. I sold my road bike and my car. Again, live in Phoenix. It does not rain that often, but, I have rain clothes and I wear my waterproof boots. I have switched back to standard pedals. Also, feel flats are too much of a burden, so I use tubeless tires. I have gone three thousand miles without a flat. I do not use slicks, because I sometimes use my mountain bike for the trails. When possible, which is almost all of the time, I riide on the sidewalk for safety sake. I wear a yellow windbreaker and keep a flashing front and rear light on even in daylight. I want to give myself every chance to be seen. Riding on the sidewalk is bumpy, so I am thinking of a seat post shock. Considering my age, my commute, my safety, and my aesthetics, this is ideal for me, but i don’t claim it to be categorically the best method of commuting.

  2. This is great advice indeed. As an added bonus, if your frame is a completely rigid frame, you might be able to upgrade it further and outfit it as a solid commuter/tourer bike with drop bars even. That’s what I’ve done. The Trek 830 I tricked out replaces a stolen Surly LHT I used to have. That said, the bike fits like a glove. The slick 2″ rubber rolls fast and smooth, and the bike can go just about anywhere. The geometry on a lot of early 1990s rigid MTBs is actually not that different from modern touring bikes with 26″ wheels. And I was able to pick up my bike, (which came as just frame, fork, and headset) for $50 on Craigslist.

    I thought my commuter/tourer MTB conversion would just tide me over until I could get another Surly. Now, 1.5 years and 4000+ miles later, I think I will probably keep this bike as long as I can.

    • My first commuter was similarly humble – a department store Schwinn hybrid. Within a year or so all that was left from the original bike was the frame, seatpost, headset, and bottom bracket. Everything else either fell apart within 3000 miles or was so crappy I had to replace and upgrade.

      BTW, love the butterfly bars. I have special place in my heart for them, and had them on all of my bikes (Schwinn, Surly, and now converted Trek MTB) at one point or another. I still have the bars around in case I ever get around to putting together an Xtracycle cargo/kid carrier bike and want a different riding posture than I have come to prefer on my current do everything bike with drop bars.

  3. Asher Taylor says

    Great write-up!

    I’d just like to add that for folks with 29ers that they’d like to use as commuters, the array of commute-friendly tires is enormous. The 29″ rim size is equivalent to 700c, so anything in that class that’s wide enough to fit your rims is fair game. Right now, my MTB/commuter runs a pair of 700×32 Specialized Armadillo tires that came with my Tricross (which is running roadie 700x23s in Randonneur mode at the moment :D).

    I kind of hated the Armadillos on the Tricross, but on the MTB (a GT Karakoram), they do quite nicely as rubber for the commute.

    • Asher Taylor says

      Oops, they’re actually Specialized Borough Armadillo Elites. So slightly different than the standard Armadillo, but the rest remains the same.

  4. Great article. I have just done this for a client, but i have gone a bit further. Many people find the forward leaning position of a MTB uncomfortable. I fitted a cruiser bike handle bar and handle bar shaft with a closer clasp. WIll send you a pictrures. New steel black painteed cruiser nadle bars are availabel at about 5 euros.

    Kindest Regards

    Dawid Botha
    South Africa