How Gravel Bikes are Different
Anyone who spends time on a bike trail or a bike shop knows that gravel bikes are exploding in popularity. But what exactly sets gravel bikes apart from other types of bikes?
I often have to answer this question for people, and the conversation usually goes like this.
“So are they a mountain bike?”
“No, not a mountain bike. They look like a road bike but are more rugged.”
“Oh. So are they a cyclocross bike?”
“Kind of. Probably closer to that than anything else, but they are really their own thing.”
Gravel bikes are designed for riding on unpaved roads, making them ideal for exploring way more terrain than a road bike can handle. They are similar to road bikes in terms of their general geometry, but they have wider tires and a more relaxed frame that provides greater stability on rough terrain. The frame is often slightly different to accommodate the wider tires. Gravel bikes almost always have disc brakes, which provide better stopping power in wet or muddy conditions.
As for use, that is really where I think gravel bikes are superior to other types of bikes. They can handle a wide range of terrain, from smooth pavement to rocky trails, which makes them ideal for riders who want to connect various types of routes together. Gravel bikes are also comfortable to ride for long distances, thanks to their relaxed geometry and wider tires, making them perfect for endurance rides or bikepacking trips.
Understanding how Gravel Bikes are Different
As for the bikes themselves, there are a few main things that make gravel bikes fundamentally different than mountain, road, time trial or other types of bikes.
This is a subtle one. You can look at a gravel bike and a road bike, and they might look pretty identical from the side. But when you look more closely, you see some important differences.
On a gravel bike, the frame is designed to be more durable and versatile than traditional road bikes. The frames are design so the bike can handle a wider tire without it rubbing on anything. That might sound simple, but it actually requires that the entire bike be redesigned. The geometry of the frame is often different, with a longer wheelbase and slacker head tube angle for added stability on rough terrain.
As for materials, you might find that your gravel bike options tend to have heavier, tougher materials. Many are made in carbon fiber, but you will also see titanium, alloy, and stainless steel options. The latter options often make the bike tougher on those real rough roads, and absorb some of the vibration compared to a carbon fiber gravel bike.
One of the most significant differences between gravel bikes and other types of bikes is the tires. Gravel bike tires are wider and often have a more aggressive tread pattern than road bike tires, making them better suited for off-road riding. The wider tires also provide more stability and cushioning on rough terrain, which is essential for longer rides.
To put it in perspective, most road bikes use a 23mm tire, maybe up to 25mm. My favorite gravel bike tires, on the other hand, are usually in the 38mm to 48mm range. This not only allows for a much wider rider surface and tread, but perhaps even more importantly, it means you can ride at a much lower PSI. This makes the ride on gravel smoother, and makes for much better handling if you encounter true off road conditions.
Gravel bikes typically have a lower range of gears than road bikes, because you will more often find yourself on rough surfaces and climbs than on a flat, paved straightaway. It is pretty common for a gravel bike to have a single chainring (front crank), and one that might be relatively small, like a 42 tooth ring.
Suspension (not on all bikes)
Some gravel bikes come with suspension, which can help absorb shock and provide a smoother ride on rough terrain. However, not all gravel bikes have suspension, as it can add weight and complexity to the bike. Suspension is more common on gravel bikes designed for more technical off-road riding, while gravel bikes designed for more traditional road riding may not have suspension.
Gravel Bikes vs Road Bikes
I’ve spent more time than I care to admit riding both road and gravel bikes. There are a few main differences I’d point out. I could get pretty technical, but will try to keep it higher-level.
One of the biggest differences between gravel bikes and road bikes is their terrain versatility. Road bikes are designed to be ridden on smooth, paved roads, while gravel bikes are designed to handle a variety of terrains, including gravel, dirt, and uneven surfaces.
Gravel bikes have wider tires than road bikes, which allows them to provide better traction on loose surfaces, and to be ridden at a much lower tire pressure. They also have a more relaxed geometry, which makes them more stable and easier to handle on rough terrain.
Another key difference between gravel bikes and road bikes is their riding comfort. Road bikes are designed to be fast and efficient, but the narrow, high-pressure tires mean that you will feel every little bump. Your body will be the only place where the shock is absorbed.
Gravel bikes, on the other hand, are designed to be more comfortable to ride for longer distances. They might have a more relaxed geometry, which puts the rider in a more upright position and reduces strain on the neck, back, and wrists. But the real benefit is in the wider tires which you can ride at lower PSI, which provide way more cushioning and absorb shock better than the narrow and super-hard road bike tires.
Speed and Efficiency
When it comes to speed and efficiency, road bikes are the clear winner. Even a well-fitting beginner road bike has speed advantages over most gravel bikes. They are designed to be fast and efficient on smooth, paved roads, and their narrow tires and aggressive geometry allow them to achieve higher speeds with less effort. Road bikes optimize for weight, making sure you are riding the lightest package possible.
Gravel bikes, on the other hand, are usually not as fast or efficient as road bikes on smooth, paved roads. Their wider tires and more relaxed geometry create more rolling resistance, which means they require more effort to achieve the same speed as a road bike. However, on rough terrain, gravel bikes can be just as fast and efficient as road bikes, if not more so, thanks to their better traction and stability.
I like gravel bikes over road bikes nowadays, because the speed I lose on a paved surface is often more than made up by not having to slow down as much when I get on a trail or gravel road.
Gravel Bikes vs Mountain Bikes
Gravel bikes and mountain bikes look fundamentally different, so comparing them is a little easier.
Design and Build
A mountain bike is typically designed with an relatively upright frame geometry and a flat bar across the front. This gives the rider maximum control when on a technical, windy trail, but it really compromises speed when you are on a nice, hard surface.
Many feel that mountain bikes are more comfortable to ride, but in my opinion that is only if you have not gotten a proper fitting on your gravel bike.
One of the most noticeable differences between gravel bikes and mountain bikes is weight. Generally speaking, gravel bikes are lighter than mountain bikes. They are closer to a road bike in build, designed for speed and efficiency on a variety of surfaces, including pavement, gravel, and dirt. Mountain bikes, on the other hand, are built to handle rough terrain and obstacles, which requires a more durable build, thicker tubes and a heavier frame.
The weight difference between the two types of bikes can be significant. A high-end gravel bike may weigh as little as 18 pounds, while a high-end mountain bike can weigh 30 pounds or more. This difference in weight can have a big impact on your ability to climb hills and maintain speed, especially over long distances. Not to mention, pushing that much weight around just requires more energy exertion.
Handling and Control
Having ridden both mountain bikes and gravel bikes on singletrack bike trails, I can attest there is a pretty major difference in how the two handle in a technical situation. Gravel bikes are designed to be fast and versatile, with a more aggressive geometry that puts the rider in a more aerodynamic position. The handlebars, of course, have bullhorns and drops to help in the cyclist’s posture. This can make them more difficult to handle on winding trails or on technical terrain.
Mountain bikes, on the other hand, are built for stability and control on rough terrain. They typically have a more relaxed geometry that puts the rider in a more upright position, which can make them easier to handle on steep descents and technical trails. They are really made for those trails where you will likely find yourself in a sticky, tight situation.
The differences in handling and control between the two types of bikes can be significant, and it’s important to choose the right bike for your riding style and the terrain you’ll be riding on. I like riding my gravel bike on some flowing single track trails, but if that is your primary riding, you should get a mountain bike.
Why Ride a Gravel Bike?
Why have gravel bikes exploded in popularity? I can think of a few reasons, having put several thousand miles on mine.
More Route Options
With a gravel bike, the number of route options increases by seemingly tenfold. I can explore a wider range of terrain than I could with a traditional road bike. Gravel bikes are designed to handle rougher surfaces, so I can ride on unpaved roads, dirt paths, and even singletrack trails. This opens up a whole new world of adventure and exploration.
Chance to Have Just 1 Bike (Instead of Many)
If you have the budget or space for just one bike, a gravel bike might well be the answer. You can ride on the road, tackle some light off-road terrain, hit gravel roads all day long, and even do some bikepacking. This means I can have just one bike that can handle it all.
Exploding Number of Gravel Bike Races
If you like to race or sign up for cycling events, you have probably noticed that more and more of those races are designed for gravel riders. Gravel bike races are becoming very popular, and for good reason. They offer a unique challenge and a chance to explore new terrain. Plus, they often have a great sense of community and camaraderie. With a gravel bike, I can participate in these races and push myself to new limits on some beautiful backroads.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the advantages of using a gravel bike over a road bike?
Generally speaking, gravel bikes offer several advantages over road bikes. First, gravel bikes have wider tires that provide better traction and stability on uneven terrain. This makes them ideal for off-road or backroad adventures. You can connect two roads with an off-road trail, or tackle loops that are 1/2 gravel and 1/2 pavement.
If all of your riding will be on paved roads, road bikes are still the better option. In most other situations, I prefer gravel bikes nowadays.
Can a gravel bike handle both on-road and off-road terrain equally well?
Gravel bikes are designed to handle both on-road and off-road terrain equally well. They are versatile and can handle a wide range of conditions. However, it’s worth noting that gravel bikes are not as fast as road bikes on smooth tarmac. On the other hand, they are more comfortable and stable on rough terrain. So, if you plan to ride on both on-road and off-road terrain, a gravel bike is a great choice.
One option I see often, and that I use myself, is to have a gravel bike with two different wheelsets. One wheelset has durable 50mm tires, and the other has faster 35mm tires. Both wheelsets have brake rotors and identical cassettes, so I can swap them out in about 5 mins based on the type of ride I’m about to do. If you have the budget for this, I recommend it.
Can you take a gravel bike on a singletrack trail?
Yes, if it is a forgiving and flowing trail. Gravel bikes are not designed for highly-technical singletrack trails, which are typically narrower and more technical than gravel roads. Your riding posture will be too forward-leaning to be responsive enough. However, on the more relaxed trails, I find it is a lot of fun to take my gravel bike for a careful cruise.
Jim is an accomplished triathlete and endurance cyclist, and has raced in more than 3 dozen USAT-certified races. He is also an avid trail runner and gravel bike rider.
His areas of expertise are in endurance training, cycling, triathlon technique, race direction, and training plans. In addition to writing extensively about the endurance world, he has managed gyms and fitness centers in the US. Jim is a longtime writer for Complete Tri, Compression Design, and his work can be found on the resource pages of many triathlon and cycling clubs in North America.