What is a gravel bike?

Durand Coldicott | Wed 8th Apr 2020 10:32

The gravel bike category has been growing in popularity in recent times, but what exactly does gravel mean and why would you need yet another bike? Is it just the bike industry's way of selling more stuff, or is there a valid reason for why the category is growing so rapidly? We’re here to talk you through everything you need to know about gravel bikes and what sets them apart.

Gravel bikes are one of the fastest-growing categories of bikes, having risen from relative obscurity to become commonplace in stores in a very short time. To the untrained eye they look similar to a traditional road or touring bike but the differences, while subtle, are important when it comes to riding effectively, efficiently and comfortably across mixed terrain.

'Gravel' in essence means the freedom to ride wherever you want. . These bikes take you beyond the pavement to cycle trails, dirt paths, fire roads and backcountry roads. They're ideal for adventuring and perform well as a day-to-day ride. You’re probably thinking this doesn’t sound specific enough to be its own category right? When it comes to gravel, that’s kinda the point – they’re designed for versatility not specificity. Let us explain...

What is a gravel bike?

At heart, gravel bikes are designed for versatile riding. They’re a jack-of-all-trades, with the efficiency of their road cousins, the mounts of a touring bike and light off-road capability nearing that of a mountain bike.

Common features of a gravel bike:
  • Designed for riding on mixed terrain
  • Tyre clearance for up to 40-50c
  • Clearance for shedding mud and dirt
  • Mounts for bottles, mudguards and racks
  • Wide or flared handlebars for control
  • Disc brakes for extra stopping power
  • Relaxed geometry compared to road or CX bikes
  • Clutch rear derailleurs and chain guides for chain security
  • Can feature frame protection guards
Plenty of tyre clearance for all terrain tyres and mud shedding.
Chain guides can help prevent dropped chains on rough terrain.
Frame guards can help protect exposed areas of the bike.
Mounts, mounts and more mounts.
Where can you ride on a gravel bike?

Aside from the obvious answer of ‘gravel’, these bikes are versatile enough to ride anywhere from the pavement to easy singletrack, and often the combination of more than one surface in a single outing. They excel on fire roads and gravel roads, but are also well suited to city cycle trails and easy singletrack. Plus, if your intended ride is a backcountry gravel road but you need to cover 10km of smooth road to get there, a gravel bike doesn’t slow you down too much on the way to your adventure. They’re fast enough on pavement, but perform best when the road gets rough.

Who are gravel bikes for?

There are a few answers to this question given the inherent versatility of gravel bikes. As with any category, there is a spectrum of designs to cater to different riders and applications. But in general, gravel bikes are designed to cover mixed terrain or uneven surfaces without compromising speed. So if you want the efficiency of a road bike but still want to be able to ride comfortably on light, off-road terrain, then a gravel bike is a great option.

How do gravel bikes differ from road bikes?

Gravel bikes are more durable than road bikes and much faster than mountain bikes. Sure, you could often ride your road bike on that loose gravel, but you’ll put more stress on your headset, damage your wheels and have punctures more than you’d like. Plus, when it comes to ride quality, a road bike won’t feel anywhere near as comfortable as a gravel bike, nor will it perform as well on rougher surfaces.

There are a few major design and component differences that set them apart. Firstly, gravel bikes have a more relaxed geometry than road bikes, providing comfort and stability on rougher terrain. Think taller head tubes, slacker head angles,longer wheelbases and they feature increased tyre clearance for if you want to use wider, all-terrain tyres. These versatile bikes often have extra frame mounts for bottle cages, racks or guards.

When it comes to componentry, gravel and road share a lot in common, but gravel bikes tend to have more robust parts and gearing combinations suited to slower top speeds, and they often feature 1x drivetrains for simplicity and durability. Fewer moving parts means less can go wrong!

Gravel bike perform best when the road gets rough.
As the name suggests, road bikes ride best on sealed roads.
How do gravel bikes differ from cyclocross (CX) bikes?

Cyclocross is a racing discipline and CX bikes are designed to be snappy, agile and lightweight. Gravel bikes in comparison are comfortable and efficient over longer distances, and stable at higher speeds. To provide that stability, gravel bike frames tend to have a longer reach, wheelbase and chainstay numbers than a CX bike. The other main difference you’ll find is CX bikes have a less compact main triangle for ease of carrying during a race and they don’t offer the mount options you’ll find on a gravel bike.

How do gravel bikes differ to ‘adventure or touring’ bikes?

In many ways, gravel bikes are just a subset of the adventure bike category. The key difference between a touring bike and a gravel bike is that touring bikes can carry a lot more weight and tend to be built tougher with more space for racks and panniers. They are designed to ride best under load whereas gravel bikes will ride well with lighter loads.

Gravel bike set up with a light load for a short adventure
Touring bike set up with panniers for a multi-day adventure

Gravel bikes borrow elements from the road, cyclocross and even mountain bikes. They are a do-it-all option for people who only want one bike in the garage. They’re for the roadie looking to venture past the pavement or the mountain biker reluctant to don lycra and call themself a road cyclist...

Gravel bikes are fast, yet comfortable. They’re lightweight yet reliable. And most importantly, they open up a world of new riding possibilities.

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