An Introduction to Gravel Bikes
If you’re in the market for a new bike and have been wondering what the difference between a gravel bike and a cyclocross bike is, you’ve come to the right place.
Throughout this short article, I’ll compare gravel bikes and their features to several similar types of bike.
I’ll also let you know who gravel bikes are suitable for as well as loads of other helpful gravel bike-related information.
I promise to answer all of your questions in this article, and if I fail to do so, leave me a response at the bottom of this post and I’ll get back to you right away.
Let’s get into it!
Gravel Bikes Explained
Gravel bikes are a newly emerging subtype of hybrid bikes. These drop-bar bikes provide a much better off-road experience than a road bike, whilst travelling considerably faster on-road than a mountain bike.
One of the most defining aspects of a gravel bike is its user versatility. As gravel bicycles lie somewhere between a road bike and a mountain bike, they’re useful for achieving both road bike and mountain bike feats.
In general, gravel bikes have a level of durability and resilience that withstands more intense riding experiences and adventures, without compromising on comfort.
One of the defining features of a gravel bike that make it stand out against the crowd is their tyres. Gravel bikes will have tyres that are at least 35mm wide, although the majority of gravel bikes use 38mm+ tyres.
These larger tyres allow cyclists to navigate fire roads, power line trails and farm tracks with ease, as well as more extreme environments.
Re-cap: What Is a Gravel Bike?
Gravel bikes, otherwise referred to as adventure bikes are a hybrid bicycle subtype.
Gravel bikes are suitable for tackling a range of terrains, whilst being geared towards off-roading thanks to their larger tyres which typically measure 35-40mm in width.
The geometry of a gravel bike sits somewhere between a road bike and a mountain bike, essentially, hitting two birds with one stone!
What Is a Gravel Bike Used For?
The gravel bike is frequently called the “adventure bike,” which is a good description of their role in the biking world.
Due to their durability and stable nature, gravel bikes can be used in a variety of exciting settings and terrains to support the most adventurous of riders. Name an environment, and a gravel bicycle can probably handle it.
They can be used on paved roads while also taking on rocky gravel roads, off-roading trails, fire roads, and mountainous terrains like champs.
Since they also do well with long-distance rides, they are great vehicles for enjoying rural and scenic environments to take in the beauty of natural landscapes.
Similarly to hybrid bikes, gravel bikes are a jack-of-all-trades approach to cycling. However, gravel bikes are slightly more geared to off-road trail riding with their wider tyres, but also aimed at travelling as fast as possible with drop bars.
History of Gravel Bikes
It might come as a surprise given their rapidfire popularity, but gravel bikes are actually one of the newest models of bike to make its way into the cycling marketplace. In fact, it was only a few years ago when the first gravel bike came into existence.
The first company to design a gravel bike was the Minnesota-based Salsa Cycles. Their team created the ‘Warbird bike’ in 2012 as response to their realization that cyclocross bikes and road bikes just weren’t enough for gravel racing.
They wanted to put a bike on the market that truly did it all, and could encompass all of the features that gravel racing necessitates.
And so with the creation of the Warbird bike, gravel bikes were born and have since gone on to become a fiercely popular subtype of bike across the cycling community and the fastest growing in popularity for years.
How Have Gravel Bikes Progressed Over the Years?
Since their invention in 2012, gravel bikes have carved a unique niche in the biking marketplace.
As already covered, gravel bikes are a relatively new bike compared to their more traditional counterparts.
While this style of bicycle hasn’t seen a measurable difference in design since its inception, gravel bike manufacturers continue to grow and adapt, offering more tyre and gear options all the time.
How Do Gravel Bikes Compare to Similar Types of Bike?
Whilst cyclocross bikes may appear to be very similar to gravel bikes, there are several differences that you may not realise.
One of the real differences when it comes to gravel vs cyclocross is that these bikes are designed with different goals in mind.
The UCI currently hosts the Cyclocross World Championships and World Cup, but is yet to introduce the same for gravel bikes, although they’ve hinted that it’s on the horizon.
Because Cyclocross bikes are now used competitively at world level, they are regulated by the UCI and can only have tyres up to a maximum of 33mm wide. Gravel bikes remain unregulated and will do so until further notice, despite there already being gravel biking tournaments held around the world.
When comparing the overall geometry of these two bike types, cyclocross bikes are designed for off-road speed, whilst gravel bikes target off-road comfort making them more suitable for longer duration rides.
Finally, gears. Gravel bikes tend to have a wider gear ratio which allows their riders to cope with undulating, challenging terrain.
If approaching a steep, loose dirt hill on a gravel bike you’d be sensible to change down to a lower gear and tackle the ascent slowly. Compare this to cyclocross and you’d see many riders dismount their bike and run up the hill, which is faster and happens mostly during competitions.
Because cyclocross bikes aren’t ridden up steep hills in competitions, riders have no need for such a wide gear ratio and normally you’ll find a 1x setup on cyclocross bikes.
Gravel bikes fill a gap in which road bikes can’t. As we’ve established a gravel bike can easily deal with off-roading, even on much more extreme terrain.
If you were to take a road bike, with its thin, slick tyres, into the forest and started to plough down hills at great speed, the results could be painful.
The thinner 23-30mm tyres of a road bike provide much less traction than the 35mm+ tyres of a gravel bike. Riding bumpy trails, with heavy impacts that a gravel bike eats up, the wheels of a road bike could easily be bent.
A gravel bike is quite simply, a bicycle suitable for a plethora of riding styles, whereas a road bike is what is says on the tin! A bike purposely designed for road riding.
Gravel bike vs mountain bike is a similar situation to gravel vs road. Mountain bikes are bicycles designed for a specific purpose, comfort and performance off-road.
Whilst a mountain bike is fully capable of travelling on paved surfaces in urban areas, they’re not designed to cater to these man-made environments.
Their thicker 2.2-2.6″ tyres provide increased traction and handling, whilst riding off-road. But when taken onto paved surfaces, mountain bike tyres are heavier and slower rolling.
Another obvious difference between these two styles of bike is suspension. Mountain bikes come in both hardtail and full-suspension setups (as well as older rigid frames), and whilst suspension provides increased comfort for riding off-road, it saps more of your energy when pedalling.
If you’re having a tough time deciding between these two styles of bike, think about where you see yourself riding the most.
If you only see yourself hitting trails with jumps, bumps and rock gardens, a mountain bike will be the better choice.
Whereas if you require a bike for your daily commute, but also see yourself getting out of the urban jungle and riding some gravel paths and dirt tracks, a gravel bike is the option for you!
The Characteristics of a Gravel Bike
The frame of a gravel bike may appear similar to a cyclocross or road bike, but there are several subtle differences that can easily go unnoticed.
Firstly, as I’ve already touched on, a gravel bike rider has a more upright posture whilst cycling, thanks to the lengthened head tube combined with a shallow head angle.
The shallow head tube angle means that the wheelbase of a gravel bike is longer than your standard road bike. A longer wheelbase leads to increased steering control and comfort whilst riding on difficult terrain.
Like most bicycles, aluminium and carbon are the two most common materials used to construct the frame of a gravel bike.
Aluminium is found on most budget and mid-range gravel bikes as it’s cheaper than carbon, but it’s also lightweight and provides a relatively smooth ride.
Carbon is the choice of many gravel bike riders who are looking for a great strength to weight ratio from their frame. Carbon is lighter than aluminium, steel and titanium, making it a great choice.
On top of this, carbon’s lower density means it absorbs impacts and vibrations better than rigid metal frames that tend to transmit vibrations from the terrain you’re riding.
Who Should Use a Gravel Bike?
It is hard to describe your typical gravel bike cyclist, for this type of bike lends itself to a variety of cyclists with different abilities and needs.
As mentioned earlier, versatility is a defining quality of these bike, thus, the riders of gravel bikes can be quite versatile as well.
For cyclists that don’t want to feel locked into a bike purchase, gravel bikes are most definitely the way to go. Since these bikes handle a plethora of environments with ease, they make it easy to dip your toes into many different types of biking events.
If you’re a beginner looking to try both off-road and traditional road biking, this is the bike for you.
Individuals who enjoy bikepacking and multi-day biking adventures love gravel bikes. This is because riders can take these bikes on any road environment without the stress of damaging or wearing down the tyres.
Commuters who live in tightly packed cities can also benefit from having a gravel bike at their disposal. Where space in cities is scarce, it’s super convenient to have one bike that’s capable of handling a wide variety of terrains
Who Shouldn't Use a Gravel Bike?
Since the primary goal of gravel bikes is to traverse multifaceted terrains, they aren’t as suitable for riders with one riding goal in mind.
If you are a leisurely rider who wants the simplest of bikes for a commute on paved roads, your best bet is getting a road bike instead. Road bikes are cheaper than a gravel bike, so it is not worth purchasing one if you won’t use all of its capabilities.
That being said, if you’d like a bike purely for riding in urban environments, but want a sturdier ride that can cope with extreme weather conditions, a gravel bike would be a great choice. That’s if you have the budget to afford one!
What Competitions/Events are Gravel Bikes Used In?
Despite not yet being hosted by the UCI, Gravel bikes are used often in the competitive biking world. A popular type of gravel biking competition and race that began in the United States is referred to as ‘gravel grinders.’
These races take advantage of gravel bike’s adaptive capabilities, as the race occurs over a wide range of terrains.
Though fun and adventurous challenges, grinder races are not for beginners looking to enter their first racing competition. This is because riders will normally race from 50 – 150 miles per race. Riders are also required to navigate difficult and gruelling trails.
For those looking to race at the Olympic level, there are currently no gravel bikes races found in Olympic competitions.
Benefits of Gravel Bikes
For most riders, the benefits of gravel bikes outweigh any of the negatives as a whole. However, it is important to be mindful of both the pros and cons of this design of bike.
Some of the top pros found with gravel bikes include:
- Clearance to adapt tyre size
- Strong rigid frames
- Great for bikepacking
Cyclists who ride gravel bikes love that they are able to adapt to many different types of trails, so you can go from pavement to gravel to mountains, all in the same ride.
Risks Associated with Gravel Bikes
One cons to be aware of is the price tag, the upfront cost of a new gravel bike can be fairly steep.
That being said, their versatility makes them great for individuals who want just one bike rather than purchasing multiple specialised bikes, which could save money in the long run.
Other risks include typical safety concerns, especially because of the terrain that gravel bikes can be used on.
Always make sure to wear your helmet when you ride your gravel bike.
Also if you’re planning to head out on a long trail, make sure you tell someone where you’re going and when they can expect you back. This way if you get injured or are stranded on your journey, someone will know roughly where you are.
Environmental Impact of Using a Gravel Bike
Riding a bike is an environmentally friendly alternative to automobiles, reducing pollution from exhausts and the manufacturing process.
Many green-centric people are choosing to ride a bicycle over driving, especially in crowded cities where smog is a health concern.
You may also find you arrive at your destination faster by bike than by car in a congested city!
If you’re riding a gravel bike off-road, it will help nature to thrive if you stick to the designated trails and avoid tearing up the ground elsewhere.
Does a Gravel Bike Require Anything to Keep Functioning?
To keep a gravel bike functioning at the best of its ability, regularly checking and maintaining tyre pressure is key. Since withstanding a plethora of terrains can take a toll on them over time you should also keep an eye on the tread of your tyres.
A general rule of thumb is the softer or more difficult the terrain is, the lower your tyre pressure should be.
Apart from this, you should make sure to have your gravel bicycle serviced every once in a while and make sure that you clean it after riding.
Does a Gravel Bike Require a Designated Area to Be Ridden?
Gravel bikes are suited to riding in rougher terrain, such as in rocky, bumpy back roads or through mountain paths.
With their thick, durable tyres, gravel bikes can tackle the majority of terrains and are suitable for competitive and casual cyclists alike.
Gravel bikes are essentially a faster, more adaptable version of a hybrid bike, which are more suited towards commuting and gentle off-road riding.
What to Wear When Riding a Gravel Bike
When picking out an outfit for riding a gravel bike, the most important aspect to remember is that safety and comfort always come first.
This is because you will most likely be on the saddle for hours at a time. Whether it’s a loose-fitting jersey or tighter cycling lycra, whatever is the most comfortable to you is the way to go.
Knee pads and gloves are great for some extra protection for those really difficult trails. Similarly, if you’re riding on dusty trails with loose gravel, get yourself some protective cycling glasses.
Not only will these prevent dirt and particles entering your eye, but they’ll stop your eyes from watering when you need to focus your attention on the upcoming course.
Don’t forget your helmet.
What Accessories are Recommended When Using a Gravel Bike?
Since gravel bikes are the perfect companion for adventure-seeking rides, there are a few helpful accessories to purchase for making your travels as seamless as possible.
This could include, but is not limited to, a GPS, bottle cage and lights, along with the fundamentals of a helmet, lock, and tyre pump.
If you’re planning on going cycle touring or bikepacking with your gravel bike, a couple of waterproof frame bags will keep your luggage dry, whilst keeping the weight off your body.
What Is a Gravel Bike? - Conclusion
So there you have it. If you were thinking to yourself “what is a gravel bike” hopefully you now have the answer to your question.
Like I said at the beginning of the article, if I missed anything or you have an unanswered question, comment below and ill get back to you as soon as possible!
As mentioned above, due to the higher price of gravel bikes, It’s important that you secure your bike when it’s not in use. Get yourself a good quality bike lock that will take care of your bike whilst you’re away from it.
Otherwise, if you’re interested why not check out my articles covering hybrid bikes or BMX bikes for a completely different cycling discipline!
As always, lock it or lose it.
Ciao for now!
Image credit: 8bar-bikes