Bike manufacturers aren’t happy with gravel bikes.
Well there was once a time they could offer a different bike for different surfaces, user profiles, and distances. They could offer one bike for off-roaders, another for road riding, and yet another for daily commuting.
Profits (and life) were good!
Gravel bicycles have hurt their bottom line by meeting all the users’ cycling needs. These bikes are as useful for frequent off-roading as they are for commuting and road riding. Which is why you’re as likely to see them on the street as you are off-roading.
Want to know the reason? Read on to find out what a gravel bike is and how it differs from mountain, touring, and hybrid bikes. We’ve also explained what makes a good gravel bike to help you select the best gravel bicycle for your requirements.
So let’s get right to it!
Gravel Bike: What is it?
Gravel bikes are stronger than road bikes and much faster than mountain bikes. They are basically road bikes that can carry additional gear, handle a variety of surfaces, and come in handy on off-road terrains. Gravel bicycles also have space for wider tires and an increased gear range.
Their versatility makes gravel bikes suitable for all but the quickest road riding, while the increased gear range and ultra-wide tires help them manage fire roads, gravel, and off-roads. These bicycles can also carry additional luggage, coming in handy for touring adventures or for those long-distance commutes.
Gravel bicycles might look similar to cyclocross bikes, but there are differences between both. Cyclocross bicycles have shorter chainstays, a lower stack height, and a higher bottom bracket than gravel bikes. And they offer fewer storage solutions (racks and fenders) because they aren’t meant to last as long.
What is Special about a Gravel Bike?
Here are the features that make gravel bikes so special:
- Bare bones design: Gravel bikes don’t have many components that can break down or go wrong during one of those off-road rides where each upcoming turn is turning out to be more challenging than the previous one. This reduces their maintenance costs.
- More clearance for wider tires: Most road bikes you see on the road can accommodate 35c tires at most. Gravel bikes, however, have clearance for up to 45c tires, making them more useful for off-roading and riding on rough trails.
- Added stability on rough roads: Gravel bikes have a slacker headtube angle, lower bottom bracket, and a longer wheelbase – three features that join their forces to make them more stable on rough roads.
- Powerful and predictable braking: Since they are designed for off-roaders, most gravel bikes are equipped with disc brakes. You can therefore count on them to provide reliable and predictable stopping power, even on slippery terrains.
- Mounts for extra stuff: Every gravel bike worth its price tag offers mounts for fenders, racks, and multiple water bottles. This allows you to load them with all the gear you think you might need during those backcountry adventures.
- Unlimited gear options: Unless you’re planning something ultra-specific, like a long-distance race or a twenty-mile time trial, gravel-style gearing will help you get yourself through just about everything and anything.
- Multiple riding positions: Gravel bike geometry typically strikes the perfect balance between the aggressiveness of a mountain bike and the forgiving nature of a road bike. This obviously means it offers multiple riding positions.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions regarding gravel bikes.
Is gravel bike just a hybrid?
The short answer is no. There are subtle differences between gravel bikes and hybrid bikes.
Gravel bicycles’ design is much closer to that of a mountain bike while hybrid bikes are a mix of road bikes and mountain bikes. Gravel bikes also have a bent handlebar, whereas hybrid bicycles have straight handlebars.
Aside from that, due to their more relaxed sitting position, hybrid bicycles are mainly used for commuting purposes. That isn’t the case with gravel bikes, whose comfortable and stable design makes them a good option for on-road and off-road riding. Both these bikes differ in terms of speed too.
Gravel bikes’ slightly inclined handlebar puts their riders in a crouched position while riding, minimizing the air drag on their face and helping these bikes stay fast on all terrains. Hybrid bikes, however, have a flat handlebar that puts their rider in an upright position and makes them faster on paved roads.
Are gravel bikes slower than road bikes?
Gravel bikes are marginally slower than road bikes, though the difference is so small you might not be able to notice it unless you’re measuring both the speeds of both bikes in a wind tunnel. Here are a few things that can make gravel bikes slower than road bikes:
- Aerodynamics of the bike: Since gravel bikes have wider tires than road bicycles, they catch a bit more wind coming from the opposite direction. The increased wind resistance is enough to slow them down vis-à-vis road bicycles rolling at the same speed.
- Rider’s sitting position: When compared with road bikes, most gravel bicycles offer a more upright riding position. In theory, this makes them less aerodynamic. Though newer gravel bikes are addressing this issue by offering the same riding position as a racing bike.
- Tires’ rolling resistance: You might already know that gravel bike tires are wider than road bicycle tires to absorb more energy and transmit less shock to the rider. Their tires’ added width is the reason why gravel bikes are slower than road bicycles.
What makes a good gravel bike?
A good gravel bike is one that is capable of meeting all your requirements. Most people won’t be satisfied with this answer because they might not be sure of what their requirements are. That’s why we have identified the features that help a gravel bike meet (or exceed) your desires:
Aluminum and carbon are the most common frame materials for gravel bikes.
Aluminum gravel bikes are cheap, reasonably lightweight and corrosion-resistant, making them a better option for budget-minded users. They aren’t extensively durable, however, with a typical aluminum frame possessing a life expectancy of 5 to 10 years.
Carbon gravel bikes are lighter than their aluminum counterparts. They also let you adjust their stiffness based on your needs, ensuring that most of the pedaling energy goes into turning the wheels. That’s what makes them more efficient than aluminum frames on paved roads.
To save you from drowning in technicalities, we’ll (try to) keep this simple.
The most important thing you need to look for in a gravel bike’s geometry chart is its trail – which is the combination of head angle and fork offset. The smaller the tail, the more the bike will feel like a road bike. Smaller tail figures make a bike less stable at high speed, though.
Larger trail figures generally offer handling similar to a mountain bike: extremely stable at high speeds, but with poor handling. Most mountain bikes have trail figures in the 80 to 100 mm range. Modern road bikes are in the 55 to 61 range.
You have two options when it comes to drivetrain: 1x and 2x.
Mountain bikers prefer 1x systems mainly because they are simple. Very few things could go wrong and need fixing with them. They also appreciate that 1x systems allow them to make large (and frequent) changes in speed. Also, these systems come with a clutched rear derailleur that keeps the chains on.
However, if you’re mostly going to ride your gravel bike on paved roads or smooth gravel, then a 2x drivetrain is probably a better bet for you. Its double-front chain-ring setup will provide an extended gear range, while also ensuring smoother transition between gears.
Picked up your 1x or 2x? Now shift your attention to tires.
Going to ride your gravel bike at breathtaking speeds on the dry tarmac? <35mm tires are your best friend. Hoping to find a good balance of comfort and speed? Go for 38mm to 42mm tires. Going to ride your way into the wilderness or similar rough terrains? Opt for >45mm tires.
Regardless of the tire size you opt for, make sure the tire itself is tubeless. Tubeless tires eliminate the risk of pinch flats by taking inner tubes out of the equation. Also, they come with a built-in sealant that automatically takes care of tiny punctures.
When it comes to gravel bike wheels, you mostly have two choices.
650b wheels are equivalent in size to 27.5-inch mountain bike wheels. This allows you to fit ultra-wide tires in your frame, and that too with greater volume. That, in turn, enables the tires to make your rides comfortable, while also providing added grip on off-road terrains.
That isn’t something you can expect from 700c wheels. Since they have a larger diameter, these wheels roll over rocks, branches, potholes and other obstacles on dry tarmac more easily and quickly. This means you can cover more distance in less time with 700c wheels.
What is the difference between a gravel bike and a mountain bike?
Gravel bikes have more aggressive gearing, steeper head angles, smaller wheelbases, and shorter reach values than mountain bikes. Also, while gravel bikes have drop handlebars, mountain bikes have a riser bar whose ends rise above the center stem.
Here’s what these differences result in real life. Gravel bikes’ steep head angles make it difficult for the rider to keep themselves centrally balanced when descending steep terrains, which is something you won’t have to worry about with mountain bikes, thanks to their slacker head angles.
Also, while mountain bikes’ larger reach values make them more stable at speed, especially when the terrain is unkind to the tires, gravel bikes might become unstable at high speeds. That is partly out of choice, as gravel bikes prioritize efficiency over stability.
Provided a substantial portion of your training miles is on dry tarmac, lighter gravel, or flat-off road terrain, we see no reason why you should go for the greater weight, poor aerodynamics, and huge rolling resistance of a mountain bike. What you need, in our opinion, is a gravel bike.
What is the difference between a gravel bike and a touring bike?
Gravel bikes are designed with off-road terrains in mind, whereas most modern touring bikes you see on the road are designed around tarmac. That’s why touring bikes do not offer as much clearance for mud build-up as gravel bicycles.
Furthermore, touring bike users often complain that they feel stiff until you load them up with your gear. These bikes also give a bouncy feel until you put weight on them. Both these complaints are something you won’t hear from gravel bike users.
You might have deduced by now that gravel bikes are incredibly versatile. They offer the comfort and control of mountain bikes and the high-speed agility and low rolling resistance of road bikes. Gravel bikes borrow elements from cyclocross and hybrid bikes too.
That means that if you are one of those people who want a single bike in their shed – but want that bike to accompany you on the tarmac, gravel, street, and rough terrains – then a gravel bike might be worthy of your investment.
Alex Mwangi is the creator of Outdoor Right and an outdoor enthusiast. During his free time he enjoys riding his road bike or traveling the world looking for his next adventure.