Thinking of getting a gravel bike, but not sure whether it’s the right bike for you?
A while back, I was in the same boat and would recommend gravel if your region has mixed road surfaces.
See, a gravel bike is a class of drop-bar bikes designed to navigate different terrains. The drop-bar handle and sporty geometry allow effortless navigation on-road, whereas the wider & knobby tires, and lower gearing, plod off-road with confidence.
Personally, I got a Jamis Renegade gravel bike, and it hasn’t disappointed me. It’s all I would have wanted in an all-road bike that allows me to effortlessly navigate paved roads, tarmac dirt trails, muddy trails, hills, and mountains.
Plus, with its all-around performance, I’m enjoying the overlap in features with a couple of other bikes in my garage. For example, I’m pleased with the aerodynamic drop bars like those in my road bikes.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve all-around applicability or even the right bike for your cycling needs.
In the guide below, I’ll share every detail you need to know about gravel bikes to help you determine whether it’s the right bike choice.
Purpose of a Gravel Bike (What is a Gravel Bike)
A lot of nice routes in my neighborhood are on quiet country roads, and most of them involve forest tracks, bridleways, towpaths, and patchy terrains.
In other words, my cycling paths are awful for the standard road bikes but too much work for the MTBs, and hence the gravel bikes.
See, before I switched to a gravel bike, I had a road bike and was always sick of having to fight for my life in the dangerous off-road dirt trails.
I didn’t want to stop cycling either, and I wasn’t ready to take on the grueling demands of the mountain bikes, so I chose a gravel bike.
A gravel bike is a perfect compromise between different cycling categories.
It appeals to cyclists who enjoy speed and the ability to ride the packed gravel roads, rough surfaces, and flat surfaces. While gravel is a little sluggish on the pavement than a dedicated road bike, it allows me to ride in way more places locally.
The gravel is also an ideal class of bike for cyclists who aren’t limited to a single terrain or don’t want to be boxed in a single cycling category.
In my opinion, the gravel bikes are a reminisce of the 80s “sports touring” bicycles. They were road bikes for the average cyclists, who didn’t fancy road racing.
Now, the modern-day gravel bikes bring all that and add more. And even if you’re not a big fan of gravel riding, these bikes also double up as awesome recreational or casual road bikes. They encompass everything and are ideal for those who need just one bike.
For example, the all-purpose gravel bike will work as a commuter bike and for long distances and at the same time serve you during the harsh winter.
Features of a Gravel Bike
The section below will go through the features that identify a gravel bike and what makes it unique from other bike categories.
Keep in mind that gravel bikes are all-around bikes, so they’re likely to have a couple of features overlapping with other bike designs.
Generally speaking, many gravel bikes have a less aero sitting position, and their frames are pretty slack.
Of course, there’re exceptions, such as endurance road bikes (class of gravel bikes), but most have a relaxed sitting position.
Understand that gravel bikes, as with the traditional road bikes, have drop bars, which are associated with aerodynamic bikes.
However, the drop bars on a gravel bike aren’t as pronounced as those on a road bike. The gravel bar doesn’t keep you in an aggressive or tucked position, so it might be a good fit for beginners or cyclists with back medical issues.
At the same time, however, the bars aren’t as flat as those of a hybrid; you’ll hardly feel pain or fatigue after an hour into the ride.
Instead, the gravel bike provides a relaxed stance with the flared, wider handlebars.
Nevertheless, it’s still hard to pass the gravel for a road bike in terms of geometry, but the former has massive stability gains when doing off-road.
The longer wheelbase, longer head tube, and slacker head angle provide a more upright stance and the stability to shrug off obstacles and for off-roading.
Handling a gravel bike is much easier and doesn’t have much give or play as a typical road bike. For example it’s not nimble but will keep you in control, allowing you to ride even with no hands.
In addition, I appreciate how the gravel frames are shaped to cushion your ride and extend the in-saddle comfort.
But as I mentioned earlier, your off-road riding terrain will most likely influence the geometry level on your gravel bike.
For example, suppose your idea of cycling is primarily navigating the road and paved surfaces and may be mixing things a bit on a dirt trail and beaten track. In that case, I’d recommend the gravels with the endurance bike geometry.
The endurance bike geometry is more forgiving and less aero. It’ll keep you in a more upright and relaxed position.
However, if your idea of cycling is navigating the technical off-road sections and doing lots of mountain biking, you’ll probably want gravel with a mountain bike geometry.
As with any other bike, gravel bikes come in a range of frame materials.
But two of the popular frame materials from gravel are aluminum and carbon. Both materials are ultra-light while providing much-needed strength.
Aluminum, however, is affordable and a standard frame material in most gravel bikes.
On the other hand, carbon frames are reserved for the more expensive bikes. The carbon frame is lighter than aluminum while remaining strong.
Either way, your choice of gravel frame material should be robust, considering the gravel bikes have to deal with different demanding environments a road or cruiser bike won’t have to deal with.
The tire size is a noticeable visual difference between a gravel bike and a road bike. Most road bikes tire at 32mm, while gravel bikes can go as high as 40mm.
The wider gravel bike tires have greater versatility than the skinnier tires. Yes, I love my road bike and road riding in general, but the skinny tires usually take a beating on the crappy bitumen, especially on the long rides.
And now that I do most of my commuting and outdoor training over the gravel and dirt trails, I’ve grown to like the big, cushy, and knobby gravel tires.
The wider tyres roll over bad tarmac, obstacles, loose surfaces, and other debris like a champ.
However, on the weekends, you’ll realize that road bike tires, with their limited contact patch on the ground, roll and handle faster than gravel bikes.
I’m not convinced that the gravel bike is sluggish, only that they’re relatively slower (slower speeds) than a road bike tire.
In any case, depending on your fitness level and terrain, you may find it easy to keep up with your road bike buddies during the group bikes.
After all, if you think of the shape of the gravel tyres, you’ll realize the actual contact patch and the rolling resistance on the ground isn’t any different at all.
Of course, I can’t say I prefer one tire over the other, but it’s more like which is the right bike for the ride. A roadie will always be faster, while gravel can take on different terrains with slower rolling.
But, if I had to pick one, I’d go with the gravel bike tire because of its unmatched versatility and multi-functionality.
Along with the wider tyres, something else to keep in mind is most gravel bikes tend to run on tubeless tires.
A tubeless tires setup lets you maintain lower tyre pressure, create a wide contact patch, and avoid pinch flats.
A key feature of a gravel bike is the plenty of wheel clearance, which provides the opportunity to run significantly bigger tires.
The suspension fork tire clearance on a gravel bike creates room for bigger tires.
But generally, gravel bikes come with the 650b and 700c wheels as standard. The bigger and wider 700c is, however, more popular.
Typical gravel bikes feature hydraulic disc brakes.
The disc brakes are ubiquitous on most new bikes anyways, but they’re crucial for a gravel bike because they distance the brakes further away from the dirt for effortless braking.
In addition, the gravel bike wheels for the disc are stronger regarding rims and spoke pattern, so they can take on the demanding needs of gravel riding.
The consistency and reliability of disc brakes are handy, especially in wet conditions, which is crucial for gravel bikes.
It also leaves room for the wider gravel bike tyres for off-road cycling.
However, the low-end gravel bikes are fitted with mechanical disc brakes and cheaper rim brakes.
Gearing is key for a gravel setup.
It’s mainly important when going off- road and doing lots of hill climbs.
Generally, gravel bikes come with a slightly lower set of gears, handy for navigating the technical terrain and sustaining the steep prolonged lower limbs.
Of course, you can still use your saddle power, but it’s of little to no help on lower traction, and this is where the low gears come into play.
You can’t really get anything out of the saddle, especially when the conditions are loose and on a climb, so you need the low gears to spin the hill and avoid wheel slip.
Some popular gearing systems for gravel bikes are Shimano GRX, Campagnolo Ekar, and SRAM XPLR.
But the key decision when choosing a gravel bike gearing is what setup to use. The two popular setups for most bikes are:
Most compact chainsets have 2x gravel cranksets, which drops the chainring sizes.
The 2x crankset is ideal for taking your gravel bike off-road and navigating the hills. Simply put, I’d recommend this crankset for hill climbing.
On the other hand, the 1x crankset with just one chainring. It involves getting rid of the front derailleur.
It’s a much simpler yet reliable system. While it doesn’t offer the hill-climbing reliability of the 2x crankset, it allows you to rack up miles with the least effort.
In addition, it keeps your chainring running smoothly and avoids slippage when your gravel racing gets a bit bumpy.
Generally, gravel bikes are light but not as light as road bikes.
But unless you’re a weight Winnie, it doesn’t make much of a difference.
Personally, I’m not worried about the weight, actually, and a few grams here and there don’t really change my handling or ride quality.
However, if you still insist on getting an ultra-light gravel bike, be ready to dig deep into your pockets.
The Santa Cruz Stigmata, for example, is a great choice. It’s a really low-weight gravel bike, and depending on the frame material, it could go as low as 17 pounds.
I’ve one, and while it’s a bit expensive, I’m pleased to have an ultra-light bike for the gravel road that is also capable of gravel.
I can also fit the Stigmata with the nice wide tires for ultra-comfort, and still enjoy the reliability on the gravel, something most lightweight bikes can’t.
A gravel bike should appeal if you always find yourself carrying stuff with you that doesn’t fit inside a bike backpack or is too heavy to strap on your shoulder while off-road riding.
Besides the all-road wide tire, a low gearing range, and relaxed geometry, gravel bikes have proper mounting points for accessories and luggage.
The mounting points include panniers, racks, fenders, and mudguards.
I’m particularly a big fan of the mudguards because I usually cycle through the limestone-trodden paths and rough stuff. The mudguards keep the lime, mud, and water from splashing on my body.
Pannier rack mounts also come in handy when commuting to work, providing an ideal location to store my luggage.
A typical mounting set also includes bolts on the down tube for holding water bottles. It’s a nifty feature that comes in handy for long-distance bike rides where it’s challenging to top up on water reserves. The water bottle cage also doubles as a tool keg, keeping your pockets free.
Gravel bikes typically come with wide bars and drop bars that flare out.
The wider and flared bars add to the bike’s overall stability and make handling the gravel bike on the technical off-road terrain much easier.
The bars offer extra controllability to the bike when dealing with obstacles and off-road ruggedness.
And the good thing with the bars is they shallow-drop, and not as much as the standard road bike drop bars. It means they keep you in a relatively tucked-in position for effortless wind cuts, but not so much that you strain your back muscles.
However, understand there’re other classes of gravel bikes with a dropper seat post. They’re more common in the high-end gravels and those designed to navigate the gnarlier off-road surfaces.
The dropper bar is adjustable using levers on the bar to raise or lower the saddle.
Electric Gravel Bikes
Electric bikes, popularly known as e-bikes, are increasingly growing in popularity. Today, it’s normal to see e-bikes, even on adventure bikes such as mountain bikes and gravel bikes.
The greatest benefit of e-bikes is pedaling assistance. The electrical motor helps with pedaling, allowing for an effortless ride. It comes in handy, especially when doing long stretches of gravel road, navigating steep hills, or detouring on the beaten paths.
Of course, the pedaling assistance you’ll get depends on the electric motor use. There’re also a couple of other factors that will determine the power efficiency and delivery, such as battery size and terrain.
Comparing Gravel Bikes and Other Bike Categories
Gravel bikes are an all-around bike class, perfect for use on mixed cycling terrains.
But how do they really compare against other bike classes?
The section below will compare and contrast their performance against other dedicated and general-class bike categories.
Gravel Bike vs. Road Bike
We’ve extensively compared gravel vs. road bikes in the above section; we’ll briefly recap.
One of the striking differences between these bikes is their geometry.
Adventure road bikes generally have a more aerodynamic and aggressive sitting position. It’s meant to offer comfort for long distances while reducing drag and wind resistance.
However, the geometry might not be particularly great for beginners or cyclists with back problems.
On the other hand, a gravel bike has a more relaxed position than a gravel road bike. It’s ideal for casual or leisure cycling over short distances.
The other difference is the purpose. Gravel bikes are more versatile and will navigate a range of terrain, starting from gravel and tarmac to hills.
Conversely, road bikes are more dedicated and will only take on the tarmacked and paved surface trails. The road bikes are also well-suited for road racing, with the narrow, skinner, and slick tires eliminating the drag and friction on the road.
So, if you’re really interested in a bike to participate in group rides, a road bike is an awesome choice. Equally, if your end goal is reaching maximum speed, and competing in road races, go for a road bike.
However, if your idea of cycling is navigating the different terrains, I’d recommend a gravel bike.
Gravel Bike Vs. Cyclocross Bikes (CX bikes)
A cyclocross bike isn’t any different from a road bike. It comes with slicker tires and more aggressive geometry, so a great choice for cyclocross racing.
However, cyclocross bikes have an element of endurance bikes because cyclocross races are also demanding. Not as much as mountain climbing, but the cyclocross bike race can also take on a variety of terrains.
So, along with the aerodynamic geometry, cyclocross bikes can take on grueling terrains.
Gravel Bike vs. Mountain Bike
Gravel bikes can take on any terrain, including rugged and off-road surfaces, but are not as good as mountain bikes.
The mountain bikes are dedicated adventure bikes for mountain and hill climbing. These adventure bikes have really gnarly and wider tires to work through the mud, roots, and everything you might encounter in the wilderness.
MTB’s geometry is more relaxed and oriented towards stability and better control.
Unfortunately, they’re not as agile or light as the gravel bikes. They’re also quite slugging on the tarmac, and their uses are pretty much limited on the gnarly, off-road rugged roads.
Gravel Bike vs. Hybrid Bike
There’s not so much distinction between the gravel and hybrid adventure bikes. Gravel bikes share many similarities with hybrid bikes in that both are all-around adventure bikes that can take on different terrains.
However, hybrids are geared towards more road use and cycle commuting. They’ve less aggressive tread patterns and geometry than a gravel bike.
This marks the end of our “what is a gravel bike” guide.
Hopefully, it’s everything you’ve wanted to learn about gravel bikes.
If you think we’ve left anything or might want to share a personal experience with gravel bikes, feel free to share in the comment section below.