Are you confused about the differences between gravel and road bikes?
Don’t worry; you’re not alone. I didn’t know the difference much either and was always confused by the Trek gravels that had many similarities to my road bike, only with gnarly gravel tires and a rack mount.
It also didn’t help that some bike experts classified gravels as a sub-category of road bikes.
I wasn’t wrong, but there was more.
See, the key difference between gravel and road bikes is the wheelbase.
Road bikes typically have a shorter wheelbase and steeper head angles for a nimble ride experience and lively handling. Conversely, gravel bikes have a longer wheelbase, with a slacker head angle for more ride stability and better navigation on the loose descents.
Unless you’re an experienced rider, these differences are so subtle that it’s hard to pass a roadie for gravel.
Fortunately, I’ve had a fair bit of experience with road and gravel bikes, and in the road bike vs. gravel guide below, I’ll detail the differences between these two bike categories.
Hopefully, it’ll be much easier to determine the right bike for your riding needs by the end of our guide.
Gravels refer to bikes that allow smooth tarmac-loving roadies to discover the joys of off-roading.
It’s a more capable road bike, which isn’t limited to paved trails. Instead, it appeals with its general applicability and is ideal for off-road riding on gravel paths, dirt roads, fire trails, and singletracks.
The gravel bikes tend to have much wider applicability on different terrains. It’ll happily plod on the tarmac and paved trails and feel at home in the muddy and off-road rugged terrains.
Along with versatility, gravel also has unique features from the traditional road bike, including an option of adding fenders and bike racks for casual gravel riding and touring.
Features Separating a Gravel Bike from a Road Bike (Gravel Bike Vs. Road Bike)
The sitting position is one of the differentiating features between gravel and a road bike.
But spotting the difference between these two is challenging unless the bikes are placed right next to each other.
While both a road and gravel bike have flared drop bars, gravel bikes have a less aero position than road bikes, mainly because of the flared/wide “flat” bars and a slacker head angle.
Now, if you’re new to cycling or with a medical back issue, I’d recommend staying away from a road bike’s hardcore aero position instead go with gravel.
The gravel bike frame and flared and wider bars provide a relaxed stance compared to the stretched-out roadie geometry. They also help with stability.
But something to keep in mind is that some gravel bikes come in a race geometry, so they’re not all relaxed. Take the Salsa Warbird, for example.
Either way, if you don’t plan on racing but enjoy a relaxed and casual ride or general touring around the local trails, you’ll be fine with the gravel’s relaxed geometry.
All-Terrain Bike; Versatile
I love my road bike, and a bit of speed also. But I also like venturing off the tracks, and a road bike can’t allow it.
Gravel bikes, however, are all about taking the bike off the tarmac and can do it pretty well.
In my opinion, the gravel bikes are your do-it-all bike and pretty good at most things outside the hardcore mountain biking and racing.
For most everyday cyclists, a gravel bike has more practical usefulness than a roadie, even if you stick on the tarmac.
Gravel Tyres Wheels
One of the striking visual differences between gravel and a roadie is the wheel size.
Gravel bikes have a wider tire clearance that can fit up to 50mm+ wheels, while roadie scan only accommodates a max of 32mm.
Wider and bigger gravel tyres allow low pressure, creating a wider contact patch for added grip and comfort.
Of course, that also means greater rolling resistance, but unless your ultimate goal is speed, they come in handy on the off-road, rough terrain, and loose gravel roads.
See, most city roads have lots of gotchas here and there, and you’ll appreciate the slightly thicker tires that won’t disappoint you as the skinner road bike tires would.
A gravel bike’s versatility goes beyond the applicability of the terrain but also to the mounting options.
They’ve more mounting options for mudguards and bicycle racks. Also, more rivets for bottle cage mounting.
The munt extension may seem trivial, but I like having a rack for my bag to hold my food and tools. Also, when I cycle on the limestone trails or muddy terrains in my neighborhood, I love having guards to keep the line, mud, water, and mud off me for longer distances.
Something to keep in mind is there’re a couple of “road” bikes with fender mounts, but they’re mostly listed as endurance geometry bikes. Think of the likes of the Cannondale Synapse, Specialized Allez, and Trek Domane.
Gravel bikes aren’t sluggish, but in comparison with a roadie, it’s indeed slower.
It’s reasonably fast, especially on crappy tarmac but won’t attain and sustain the high speeds as much as the road bikes.
The more relaxed geometry in the roadie hampers the ability of your body to get into an aerodynamic position and may limit your top speed when pedaling down steep descents.
It’s also a bit heavier; it slows you down on climbs.
But, unless you race, compete or race with groups as much, I don’t think the weight and speed difference would matter a lot.
If your idea of cycling is going at your own pace and you need to take some detours for off-road riding, I advise you to get gravel.
Again, if you’re a big fan of the big cross rids, you can always fit your gravel with the slick tyres, and you shouldn’t have a problem keeping up with the pack.
The handling between these two bike categories is different.
Gravel bikes have longer wheelbases, which are awesome for the longer gravel rides. Conversely, road bikes have a shorter wheelbase and steeper angle for better handling and nimble ride quality.
Unfortunately, the longer wheelbase on the gravel bike can be a handicap when going fast. Your ride will feel more sluggish.
Gearing and Brakes
The gearing between gravel and a roadie is also different. For example, the lower and easier gears for gravel make hill climbing a breeze, but at the expense of speed.
On the other hand, road bikes have higher gears, which provide more speed and faster acceleration, but at the expense of hill climbing.
Road bikes, also known as roadies, are all about riding on the tarmac and paved roads, so narrow tires and aero position.
The road bikes will also appeal to experienced riders looking for speed and racking up miles in the most effortless, aerodynamic sitting position.
The two popular categorizations of road bikes are:
1) Race bikes
2) Endurance road bikes
Race bikes are dedicated road bikes and are typical in road races & road riding.
They push the absolute limits of road cycling, have an aggressive riding position, and ultra-light
The endurance road bikes have a less aerodynamic sitting position and are upright.
These adventure bikes offer better comfort than their race counterparts, and some even include mounts for racks and fenders.
Features Separating a Gravel Bike from a Roadie (Road Bike vs. Road Bike)
I’ll voice the unpopular opinion here; gravel bikes can’t be a substitute for road bikes. At least, most of them are not.
If you plan to navigate the gravel tracks, dirt tracks, off-road trails, and beaten paths, get a gravel bike by all means. It’s because gravel is clunky and sluggish on paved roads and tarmac.
But if most of your riding is on the paved trails and tarmacked roads, then a roadie, preferably an endurance roadie, is what you’ll need.
Narrow Tires and Road Wheels
Having slightly wider tires for a wide contact patch is great for most cycling applications unless you need a bit of extra speed.
Now, if you’re like my better half that rides a bike like they drive a car, as fast as they could do, get a roadie.
The road bikes have a max tire clearance of 32mm, with a slightly narrower and sloping top tube. The road tyres speed you up immensely and are far better than the super heavy and slow gravel or mountain bike tires.
Having narrower slicks (road tires) grants you massive gains, especially during road racing or a fast group ride.
All things equal, a road bike will be much faster than gravel and mountain bikes.
See, wind resistance grows exponentially as you ride faster. With the relaxed geometry of a gravel bike, your body will act like a windsock, create more drag, and ultimately reduce your speed.
Conversely, the tucked-in aerodynamic position of a roadie has massive benefits over the upright position of a mountain bike, gravel bike, or touring bike, especially past the 15mph mark.
The aerodynamic position eliminates friction and drag and will allow your body to “slice” through the air with greater efficiency.
Again, everything is equal; it’s easier to ride for long distances and further with a roadie using the same energy as gravels or mountain bikes.
First, road bikes are generally lighter and won’t fatigue you as much cycling over long distances as gravel bikes.
The road bikes also have less rolling resistance from the narrow and skinnier tires. The tires make less surface contact with the ground, so there’s less friction and more room to gain speed.
In particular, the lower resistance makes quite a difference when doing 100+ miles or ding plenty of elevation changes.
If you plan to do a long weekend ride or head out with friends, I’d recommend a road bike.
Many gravel bikes are bulkier than road bikes within the same category.
The presence of bottle cages, flat kits, fenders, and other accessories adds to the overall weight of a gravel bike.
Conversely, road bikes shed a couple of grams by missing on these extras, so they come in ultra-light.
They’re perfect for long-distance rides because they hardly fatigue road riders and are easier to handle.
Most gravel bikes use hydraulic disc brakes, which are superior to the rim brakes in almost every category.
The disc brakes are reliable and offer incredible modulation in all weather conditions. They’re particularly great for wet conditions.
They’re also aptly suited for gravel riding because of the demanding conditions and terrains gravel bikes go through.
On the other hand, road bikes are also equipped with disc brakes, though they’re a couple of models with rim brakes.
Rim brakes are a step-down to the disc brakes, but they still have their place. The brakes are lighter and easier to service than most disc brakes.
When to Get a Gravel Bike
Gravel bikes are generally all-road bikes and will appeal to users looking for extra cycling versatility.
These bikes can navigate a range of terrain, starting from the tarmac, gravel, paved roads, dirt trails, and rough terrain to hills.
The gravel bike will appeal to riders that don’t want to be limited on a single type of terrain or live in an area with mixed surface terrains.
However, the gravel bikes aren’t as good as the dedicated bikes in any aspect and tend to be kinda generalist.
For example, a gravel bike can and will never substitute a roadie. The gravel bike won’t match the speed and efficiency of a road bike on the tarmac or paved road surface. They’re sluggish compared to road bikes.
In the same breath, a gravel bike can’t equally navigate the rugged off-road terrain with as much reliability as a mountain bike or provide much comfort as the comfort bikes.
Gravel bikes act as the middle ground for the different bike categories and riding conditions.
When to Get a Road Bike
A road bike is all about speed, efficiency, and aerodynamics.
These bikes are speed demons, ideal for those looking to push their speed limits. They’re ideal for road racing and group rides.
Typical road bikes come with an aerodynamic geometry, allowing you to tuck and lay low for less wind drag and resistance.
Along with the higher speeds, a road bike also allows riders to rack up miles without getting fatigued.
The drop bars will allow you to change your hand positions, while the tucked sitting position provides the most comfortable position for long-distance riding.
Road bikes nowadays are equally ultra-light and hardly fatigue users over long-distance.
Unfortunately, roadies will only do roads, tarmac, and paved surfaces. Out of these terrains, the usefulness of the road bike is pretty much zero.
Do I Need a Gravel Bike if I’ve Endurance Road Bikes?
The differences between an endurance and gravel bike are subtle, with both having a fairly upright sitting position, comfortable geometry, and wide tire clearance.
And this begs the question, do I need both.
It depends on where you plan to navigate, which typically comes down to tire size and tread.
For example, if your idea of cycling is riding off-road and navigating the harder-packed gravel in dry conditions, an endurance road bike is an awesome choice.
Most endurance road bikes include a generous clearance for wider tyres, so they can easily take on the fairly patchy terrains.
But once your riding terrains start becoming more grueling; rockier, more technical terrain and with plenty of roots, a gravel bike becomes handy.
It may not have a true mountain bike’s strengths, but it can take on the off-road rugged surface terrains much better than any other road bike.
It’s a multi-terrain bike that will tame the different demanding navigational conditions. The wider tires and knobby tires have better grip and more surface contact.
Is a Gravel Bike ideal for the road?
Yes, gravel bikes are useful on the road, but their handiness will depend on your end goal.
If you’re just taking your bike for casual rides or cycling leisurely for comfort, a comfort bike makes a great option.
The less aerodynamic geometry and more relaxed sitting position mean you enjoy your leisure rides even more.
However, ditch the gravel bike for the road bike if your end goal is racking up miles and beating your competitors.
See, roadies are optimized for speed and tarmac performance. They’ll help you keep up with the group rides and even allow you to rack up more miles.
It may seem ironic, but past the 10 miles, the comfort elements of a gravel bike start getting troublesome.
On the other hand, the aerodynamic position and narrower saddle optimize your comfort, allowing you to go miles without fatigue.
Are Gravel Bikes Good Winter Road Bike?
Yes, gravel bikes can also double up as the ideal winter roadies.
Of course, they may never substitute the fat bikes, but unless the snow is stacked up as much, their chunky and knobby tires will do fine on snow.
Most gravels are specced with disc brakes, which generally excel in wet conditions. They offer amazing braking performance and are easy to operate even when your hands are cold.
Finally, the gravel bike is fitted with mudguards, racks, and fenders, so they’ll keep you from getting all dirty from riding.
This marks the end of our comparison of the road bike vs. gravel.
The ideal or rather right bike will depend on your riding needs.
A gravel bike will serve you better if you need an all-around road bike to take on different terrains. On the other hand, if you need a dedicated bike for tarmac and road racing, I’d recommend a road bike.
Personally, I’m a big fan of the gravel bikes, and unless you’re strictly riding on the tarmac, go the gravel.
Something to keep in mind is you’ve the option of investing in different wheelsets, which you can always switch on your gravel bike.
For example, you can switch to the slicks on your gravel when you need to participate in group rides or races. Conversely, you can switch to wider and knobby tires when you need to take on demanding situations.
Either way, ensure you’ve a gravel bike with the right geometry to allow the switch.