What exactly is a gravel bike?
Updated: May 23, 2022
Last month we shared an article that explained the main types of bike that are now available. This month we are going to look at one specific genre of bikes, gravel bikes. Currently, all you hear about in the cycling world is gravel bikes and riding gravel. So what’s the fuss about and what exactly is a gravel bike?
Well to be honest it’s a bit of a hybrid, not to be confused with a hybrid bike of course! You take a cyclo-cross (CX) bike, a mountain bike (MTB), and a road bike (no acronym for road bikes for some unknown reason!), smash them all together and you get a gravel bike. Some people have argued there isn’t a great deal of difference between a CX bike and a gravel bike, and to be honest I use my CX bike for gravel. But there are subtle differences, mainly around the geometry of the frame (frame geometry is an area we plan to cover in a later post) and most obviously the wheels and tyres. These differences focus on the handling characteristics of the bike. CX bikes are for racing with tight corners, power down through the corner and lots of start stops. Gravel riding is more longer straight tracks without tight bends, and a bit more leisurely. For gravel riding a more relaxed and stable frame geometry is the aim. There isn't a massive difference with CX and gravel bikes as they share a lot of the same DNA, it's just slight differences that make gravel bikes more suitable for gravel riding. Think of it as agility for CX versus stability for gravel. Modern-day gravel bikes are designed for a wide range of off-road riding, everything from soft sand to chunky gravel and footpaths to farm tracks. The emphasis is on comfort and stability, thanks to wide tyres and relaxed geometry.
When you talk to people who ride gravel bikes, the one thing they all love is linking up tracks and roads, and that is what makes gravel bikes great, their versatility.
They are built to do almost everything. But every gravel bike is unique, some manufacturers focus more on speed others have models that are focussed more on adventure. The two things that have the biggest impact on the riding characteristics of a gravel bike are the frame and the wheels / tyres. There are other areas and we will also talk about them too but the frame, wheels and tyres are the key.
As I described above, a typical gravel bike tends to be stable and comfortable. To achieve this, gravel frames tend to have a number of common characteristics. They tend to be a bit heavier than road frames, this makes them more durable and able to take more knocks and bumps. As with road bikes you can have steel, aluminium and carbon frames, and as with road bikes each has its good and bad points. Overall most people ride aluminium or steel gravel bikes. In fact, gravel has seen a resurgence in the popularity of steel frames as these are comfortable and very durable.
Whichever material you opt for, make sure it suits your style of riding. For speed and performance, the frame needs to be stiff and lightweight, think about carbon. For comfort and loading up and lugging your belongings over long distances, you might be willing to compromise on weight and prefer a heavier but more supple steel frame to carry larger loads and soak up the bumps.
The other major characteristic of gravel frames is their shape. Gravel bikes tend to have a longer wheelbase, with a more relaxed geometry giving the rider a more upright position on the bike. The more upright position can also make the bike more comfortable on longer rides or more comfortable for older people with dodgy backs (like me)! Gravel frames provide more space for wide tyres plus often have mounting points for mud guards. Those frames that are designed for bike-packing typically have mount points for racks, bags and luggage.
The next headline trait of a gravel bike comes in the form of the tyres and obviously linked to this, the wheels. The name of the game here is variety. Variety in widths and variety in tread patterns. Most gravel tires are around 40mm wide but can range from 28 up to a massive 50mm. Tyres like this make gravel bikes an ideal choice for going tubeless, which also gives them better puncture protection when riding off road. There are so many treads available that it can seem like a difficult choice, but your choice needs to be based on the typical riding you will be doing; tarmac and light gravel, to muddy trails and wet descents.
Gravel bikes were an early adopter of disc brakes and you will be hard pushed to find any that don’t use them. Off-road, disc brakes are ideal especially if you're going through a lot of water and mud, although they can squeal a bit.
The final area to consider, and probably the most complex is the gears. There seems to be a big move with gravel bikes to 1 x gearing, that is only having a single ring at the front, rather than the typical road bike setup of 2 x gearing (two rings at the front). This makes bikes simpler and there's less to go wrong when caked in mud and dirt. 1 x also appeals to many gravel riders who want to get back to the basics of riding and forget all the tech and gizmos. The downside is that you have less gears to choose from and bigger ‘gaps’ between each gear, but does that matter if you just want to enjoy the ride? To make up for this all major manufacturers like Shimano and Campagnolo have developed gravel specific groupsets with 12 and 13 speed cassettes at the back. These can go up to 42 teeth on the largest sprocket and look like dinner plates compared to road bike cassettes. Gearing is probably one of the areas where it is good to try before you buy if you can and see what suits your style of riding.
In the end, gravel bikes are all about giving the rider the ability to ride on a variety of on and off-road surfaces. They are the ultimate in versatility and fun.
Drop by the shop if you're interested in a gravel bike but don't know what would suit your riding style. We can talk about your needs and give you some options. We have several pre-built bikes or you could also consider getting a custom build based on your own individual specs, we have a number of examples of bikes we have built on our website. We are also planning to have a small fleet of gravel bikes for hire, so if you want to just have a go to see what the fuss is about then drop us a message.
Also, if you would like to join a gravel ride we will be running gravel rides from the shop. The first is on the 10th April and if there is enough interest then we hope to run a gravel ride the second Sunday of every month. Details of all our rides are on our Facebook events page.
Have fun in the dirt, cheers Keith.