If there is one bike that you should buy, let it be a gravel bike. What is a gravel bike? And why should you choose it over other types of bikes? We will try to answer those questions and more in this article.
Gravel bikes, also known as the adventure bikes, are really fun to ride. They are stable and can handle different terrains, from light unpaved roads to unpredictable dirt trails. So, for those who do a lot of off-road riding, gravel bikes would make a great general-purpose bike.
We have just scratched the surface on gravel bikes. So, before you rush into buying one of these bikes, reading the next sections of this article would be a good idea.
Table of Contents
- 1 What is a Gravel Bike?
- 2 Benefits of a Gravel Bike
- 3 The Anatomy of a Gravel Bike
- 4 Comparison with Other Types of Bikes
What is a Gravel Bike?
A gravel bike is known by different names, including all-road bike and adventure bike. Simply put, it is designed to allow you to ride on a variety of road surfaces:
- Gravel roads
- Dirt roads
- Fire trails
- Forest tracks
Gravel cycling has been around for more than 15 years. However, it was only in 2012 that companies started to manufacture bicycles specifically for gravel cycling.
Salsa Cycles was one of the first companies that created a gravel cycling bicycle—the Warbird. Salsa designed the Warbird specifically for gravel endurance cycling. It has the geometry of a traditional road bike, but with extra tire clearance, slightly slacker head angle, and a lower bottom bracket—all of which make the bike more stable at speed.
Who is it for?
A gravel bike is a great option for people who mostly travel on a light, off-road terrain. It is a not a good investment for people who need a bike for flat, paved surfaces. Because of the larger tires and improvements in suspension technology, it might benefit those with compound injuries of the hands and wrists.
Benefits of a Gravel Bike
Why are gravel bikes so popular? Should you consider getting one? To answer these questions, let us discuss some of the features that make a gravel bike great.
Go Anywhere in Any Season
Being versatile is one of the key benefits of gravel bikes. Compared to cyclocross bikes and hardtail mountain bikes, they have better gearing range and options for carrying gear.
Gravel bikes are designed to be more durable than road bikes, so they are more than capable on a rough terrain. Except for technical mountain bike trails, most of them can handle modest terrains (gravel roads, fire roads, singletrack-style forest trails, etc.).
Most of these bikes have carbon or steel frames that are stretched to provide better stability on loose surfaces. Because of the larger, wider tires, they make you feel more comfortable when riding on bumpy trails than traditional road bikes.
Accommodates Different Tires Sizes and Types
The real upside of getting a gravel bike is you have plenty of choices for tires and wheels. The typical tire sizes for this bike are 35mm, 40mm, 42mm, and 45mm.
Here is a general guide for choosing the right gravel tire size: If you mostly travel on tarmac roads, with occasional gravel roads, choose 28mm to 32mm gravel tires. If it is mostly on rough roads, you will do well with 36mm (or wider) tires.
In terms of wheels, most of the latest gravel bikes allow you to switch between two different sizes:
- For some people, they may prefer 700c wheels for commuting on paved surfaces or riding on “hero dirt” (known for its excellent traction).
- Or, you could try a 650b wheel. It provides better traction when ascending and descending dirt trails and good shock absorption for rougher terrains.
Built for Outdoor Adventures
Adventure is in the DNA of a gravel bike. From its frame down to its tires, everything about it is built to take in all roads. It is really a great match for people who love going on weekend cycling adventures, without feeling constrained by the terrain.
One reason a gravel bike is fun to ride is because it is more comfortable than a traditional bike. The wider tires with lower pressure helps cushion bumpy terrain. You will also get better stability, grip, and cornering ability.
Good for Long-Distance Commuting
If the roads in your area are relatively in good condition, a road bike would be enough. If you mostly commute on rough roads, especially if the distance is longer, you are better off with a gravel bike.
This is one of the best things about a gravel bike. You do not need to use other types of bikes because they are good for commuting to medium to long distances on any road or trail, regardless of the season.
Gravel bikes have multiple mounting points for fenders and racks. Most of the gravel bikes on the market use a more specialized drop bar for off-road, which is wider and has outward flared drops, to create a more natural position, control, and stability.
Gives You Many Gear Options
We think gravel bikes give the most options when it comes to gears. When choosing the right gearing, think about these questions:
- Do you want a gravel bike that works more like a road bike or a mountain bike?
- How will you actually use the bike?
- What terrain will you ride the most?
Choose a 2x drivetrain if you are going to spend a lot of time on relatively smooth, unpaved roads surfaced with gravel or climbing and descending hills. If you mostly ride on trails and rough roads, then a simpler 1x drivetrain might be right for you.
Comfortable Riding Position
The geometry of most gravel bikes is usually less aggressive than those of road bikes. They have a longer head tube, shorter reach, and taller stack height. This makes it easier for you to assume a more comfortable upright riding posture and shift your weight backward or forward to effectively tackle off-road obstacles.
Compared to cyclocross bikes, gravel bikes feature a longer wheelbase, lower bottom bracket, and slacker head tube angle (probably around 69 degrees). This results in a more predictable handling and comfortable and sustainable riding posture.
The Anatomy of a Gravel Bike
It is quite easy to confuse a gravel bike with a road bike or a mountain bike since they share a few design features. So, if you are planning to get into gravel riding, you will greatly benefit from knowing the components and key design features of a gravel bike.
In general, manufacturers design frames for gravel riding with comfort and stability in mind. Most gravel bikes have a considerably longer wheelbase, a bottom bracket that’s closer to the ground, and a head tube with a slacker angle. Manufacturers also shape the frame tubes, specifically the rear triangle, to provide the best shock absorption.
Note: We keep mentioning geometry in this article. So, just to be clear, geometry refers to the crucial areas of the frame’s tubes that ensure your bike fits you properly and give you the ride characteristics that you want.
Tires and Wheels
There are currently two popular wheel sizes for gravel bikes: 700c and 650b. As expected, each has its own pros and cons. That is why it is important to determine what kind of gravel riding you plan on doing.
If you are looking for efficiency and speed, then the 700c wheels are for you. Gravel bikes with 700c wheels are the ideal choices if you are going to ride 50/50 on rocky roads and smooth dirt roads.
Many prefer 650b wheels because they can fit wider tires, which offer better traction and cushion over technical terrain.
“Gravel” tires contain the positive features of tires for road and trail. They usually have a higher volume, which provides extra traction and forgiveness. The pattern and lugs of the tread offer a good grip on off-road surfaces (except deeply muddy roads), without impacting rolling resistance.
Gravel bikes usually come with traditional road handlebars. However, some riders would normally switch these handlebars for a more specialized flared drop bar.
So, why use flared drop bars?
The consensus is wider drop bars offer more control than drop bars for standard road cycling. They also let you place your hands at different spots when riding. For instance, you can place your hands on top to distribute your weight. When cycling downhill, you can wrap your hands around the curved parts of the bars (the hooks).
Gravel bikes give you a good range of gears. But the increasing trend in gravel bikes nowadays is to use lower gearing. In fact, it’s fairly common for some models to have a 1:1 gear ratio.
What is so good about a low gear?
This setup is good for riding uphill because it is easier to pedal. Without the added resistance, your leg muscles would not fatigue easily whenever you ride.
Comparison with Other Types of Bikes
What if you can afford only one bike? Should you choose a gravel bike over another type of bike?
There is no single best answer. It really depends on what you want out of a bike. Below, we are going to discuss some of the differences and similarities between gravel bikes and other styles of racing and off-road bikes, specifically road bikes and mountain bikes.
Gravel Bikes vs Road Bikes
Their names are a dead giveaway of their purpose. Road bikes are for casual riding on mostly—but not limited to—paved surfaces. Meanwhile, gravel bikes can handle a wide variety of terrains, from gravel paths to mountain bike trails.
Note: It does not mean you can not use a road bike for off-road riding. Pro-level road bikes, specifically those that are used for racing, can venture on light gravel roads. However, as you can probably guess, it has a well-defined limit.
When it comes to tires, both road and gravel bikes use different tire sizes that have different pressures. Gravel tires (700c) are usually 30- to 40-millimeter wide at 40 PSI, while road tires are 23- or 25-millimeter wide at 90 to 100 PSI.
Since it is designed to handle rough terrains, gravel bikes are designed to be tougher than road bikes. They are heavier, too, in order to prevent premature wear and tear caused by constant use and exposure to weather elements and rough road conditions.
Gravel Bikes vs Mountain Bikes
Although both are off-road bikes, gravel bikes and mountain bikes are intended for very different riders. We will share a few differences between the two.
First, let us talk about their handlebars. Mountain bikes use flat handlebars because they provide more control and stability than standard drop bars. On the other hand, drop bars are best for gravel bikes because they give riders control at high speeds on smooth or loose terrains.
When it comes to tires, mountain bikes offer a wider selection of tread patterns and are more resistant to sharp road debris. Their larger tire size produces reliable braking performance and better grip for cornering, especially when riding over loose and rocky terrain.
Still confused about whether to get a mountain bike or a gravel bike? If yes, just remember these:
- Choose a mountain bike if you regularly encounter steep off-road paths, with probably a hint of technicality (e.g. many tight turns and steep climbs with lots of obstacles).
- Choose a gravel bike if you are riding for miles on tarmac, light gravel roads, fire roads, and flat dirt trails. If you can not pick between a road bike and a mountain bike, a gravel bike is a good middle ground.
If you only need one bike in your shed, a gravel bike should be on top of your list. It is clear to see that it is worth the investment—it is fun, practical, and versatile. Even if you do not go off-roading that much, you can still benefit from its ability to flawlessly jump between gravel roads, paved surfaces, and dirt trails.
Of course, like other types of bikes, it has its limitations. So, before you get one, think of the type of terrain you intend to ride on most of the time, as well as your off-road skill level.