In recent years there’s been a boom in the sale of gravel bikes, but what exactly are gravel bikes? Or is this just a marketing ploy or passing fad? In this article we’ll take a look at what gravel bikes offer and the type of rider they’re designed for.
What is a gravel bike?
Gravel bikes are a variation on the broader concept of so-called adventure bikes. Sales have boomed in the US, and they are quickly gaining popularity in Europe too. Adventure bikes are designed for exploration, freedom of movement and long journeys, as opposed to pure performance.
Gravel bikes were inspired by Cyclocross / Cross-Country (XC) bikes, the first all-terrain bikes way before even mountain bikes came along. Both are based on road bikes, offering the possibility of going from asphalt to dirt paths and gravel roads. However, gravel bikes have some notable differences in their geometry along with options for mounting racks, bags and other accessories, making them more versatile and comfortable for most users and a viable option for long distances.
Not all gravel users are into adventure cycling, though. Some users look for a faster alternative to a mountain bike or a more stable ride than a standard road bike.
Gravel Bike Geometry
Unlike XC bikes, gravel bikes aren’t designed for competition. They’re designed for long distances over a mix of tarmac, dirt paths and gravel roads that aren’t overly technical. The geometry of gravel bikes is designed to maximize comfort and stability , with a low bottom bracket, a longer wheelbase and head tube and shorter reach, resulting in a more upright riding position than a standard road bike. They also come with specially designed flared drop bars for increased control in descents and technical terrain.
Weight is less of a priority for a gravel bike than for a road or XC bike. The frame needs to be sturdy enough to hold
racks, mud guards and other bikepacking accessories they’re designed for.
Using an analogy from road bikes, the geometry of XC bikes would be racing models and gravel bikes would be endurance models.
Gravel Bike Components
In addition to the frame and handlebars, we’re going to take a look at the characteristics of some of the other components used for gravel bikes.
Usually road groupsets are used, with XC-style setups. The most typical configurations are: compact or sub-compact double chain rings with 11/34 cassettes, or 38-42 teeth single chainrings with 11v. or 11/42 cassettes. There are also models that use MTB builds. However, Shimano has now developed the GRX groupset specifically for gravel , with three options:
✔ 10 ten-speed with two front chain rings (48/31 or 46-30)
✔ 11 speed (from 11/25 up to 11/46) with two double or single chainrings (40 or 42).
Disc brakes are the standard for gravel bikes, providing superior braking power in extreme all-terrain conditions and downhills, including with your hands in hood position.
Scott Addict Gravel
Wheels and Tires
Gravel bikes have a wider clearance both on the frame and the fork to allow for wider tires with more aggressive tread. Choice of tire is the element that makes the biggest difference in the performance of these bikes, and you’ll need to choose tires based on what you’ll be doing – more road o more technical terrain, dry or muddy, etc. The frames are generally compatible with widths of up to 42 mm, though gravel bikes are usually equipped with tires between 38-40 mm.
For comfort and safety, gravel bikes use mountain bike pedals.
Generally gravel bikes don’t have suspension. However, in an attempt to improve versatility, comfort and safety, bike manufacturers have started to include suspension systems into gravel bikes for off-road use. For example Specialized was one of the first, with their integrated headset suspension system called Future Shockused in the Diverge model and introduced previously in the revolutionary endurance road-focused Roubaix model. Specialized is now in its second generation of its integrated headset suspension technology. Combined with the S-Works seat post and moderate tire pressure, a surprising reduction in bumps and vibrations can be achieved. By playing around with these elements, you can expand the range of use on a gravel bike significantly and ride over short sections of technical terrain with relative ease. Other bike manufacturers have jumped on board with gravel suspension solutions (some more successfully than others), and some even incorporate MTB-style fork suspension.
Specialized Diverge with Future Shock 2.0
Who are gravel bikes for?
Riders come to gravel from many different backgrounds and with different expectations. However, gravel isn’t always the best option. We’re going to try to make a list of what type of rider will get the most out of a gravel bike and what riders should probably choose a different option.
- A gravel bike’s main advantage is versatility over a range of different terrain types. Being able to go from paths and single-tracks to asphalt without sacrificing too much performance on any of these terrains is what makes a gravel bike an attractive option. And with the ability to carry plenty of gear and lots of different bikepacking setup options, gravel bikes are a good option for riders with experience in touring and adventure cycling and who want to go fast (if speed isn’t a priority, a mountain bike or trekking bike might be better options).
- Other riders come to gravel bikes come from road cycling, looking for options to go off road or for increased safety and stability , without giving up the feel of a road bike. One interesting option is to pick up a second set of wheels with road tires you can use when not going off road, basically having two bikes in one.
- A third group are mountain bikers who generally ride on paths that aren’t too technically challenging. This group has found two big advantages with gravel bikes: they can ride these routes much faster than with a mountain bike, and these routes suddenly become more fun and challenging when done with a bike with no suspension and thinner tires.
However, a gravel bike isn’t always the best option, and choosing one just to go along with the latest fad can be a letdown. Let’s take a look at the two most common mistakes:
- Gravel bikes aren’t a good choice for beginners, who are going to be more comfortable and stable on other types of bikes. Gravel bikes are a good option for experienced riders who are going to take advantage of their versatility much more than a beginner.
- A gravel bike isn’t a substitute for a mountain bike on steep downhills and technical terrain.
If you’re unsure, we recommend you contact our customer service team for help. Whether at one of our many stores or online at mammothbikes.com/en/we’re more than happy to help you choose among the widest range of gravel bikes in the market, including electric models.
Specialized Diverge con bikepacking Burra Burra