Last updated: November 13th, 2022
Gravel bikes have sold like hotcakes since circa 2014, but the discipline has arguably been “a thing” since well before the first Unbound race (formerly Dirty Kanza) back in 2006.
I’ve owned a couple over the years: a Norco Search and previously a Charge Plug (back before Charge went all in on e-bikes), both of which saw some hilariously fun and muddy miles in the wooded hills around Seattle.
But it’s a much older tradition than I’d realized. Strictly speaking, the earliest Tours de France were gravel races! It’s not like the French countryside was covered with asphalt back in 1903…
Then there’s the “dirt drop” phenomenon—that is, drop bars on a MTB—which dates back to the late 1980s and arguably peaked after the legendary John Tomac’s configuration at the 1990s UCI Worlds.
All that to say, gravel bikes’ roots run deeper than you might think. Plus que ça change…
So, in light of the traditionally fuzzy line between cycling disciplines, and today’s jumble of marketing jargon, why should everyday riders like us actually consider a gravel bike?
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Here’s why to get a gravel bike
Get a gravel bike if you want something almost as quick as a road bike, but with a smoother and more comfortable ride. Gravel bikes are slightly slower on pavement, but better suited to unpaved routes (including gentle trails), commuting, touring, and light bikepacking. They can serve commuter duty during the week, then rip up trails and backroads for some weekend underbiking fun.
If you can only have one bike (say it ain’t so!), and you ride often but not solely on pavement, then gravel bikes might be just the ticket.
Here are 4 of the best reasons a gravel bike belongs in your fleet…and might even replace the rest.
1. Leave MTBs in the dust
If your trail riders don’t involve rocks, roots, or jumps/drops, then you’ll be much faster on a gravel bike.
MTBs are obviously more trail-worthy thanks to giant tires and (generally) suspension, but they’re a huge drag—literally—on most other terrain. When you’re not on choppy or chewed-up ground, those ride-smoothing qualities are for nought.
Likewise, the drop bars on most gravel bikes will keep you in a more aerodynamic position.
2. Smooth, forgiving feel when the going gets rough
Most gravel bikes feature longer chainstays, more relaxed head and seat tube angles, and a lower bottom bracket compared to road bikes. That all adds up to stabler handling, perfect for faster rides on chopped-up pavement and gravel alike.
If that’s unfamiliar terminology, then have a look at this bike geometry primer.
Extra tire width plays an equally central role in the smooth ride. The ability to fit 700x35c tires—and often much wider in 650b—allows for lower pressures that dampen vibrations and are less easily deflected off rocks or cracks. No single psi is perfect for everyone, so here’s how to find the right pressure for your ride.
Lastly, wider (and often flared) handlebars give better leverage and control than standard road drop bars. They’re not quite as aerodynamic as the latter, but the control and comfort are more than worth it.
3. One bike for work and play
If you like a sportier feel on your commute, then a gravel bike is a great fit.
With rack and fender mounts, wide tires, and comfortable posture (by road bike standards), they’re well suited to fast-paced urban commutes and weekend backroad rambling alike.
Pro tip: racks and fenders are annoying when you’re bouncing around rough roads. They can even be a safety hazard if there’s a lot of brush. If your gravel bike does double duty, then consider SKS Raceblades fenders (ideally the “Long” version, if it fits) and a Thule Pack ‘n Pedal Tour Rack, both of which install tool-free. They’re not quite quick-release, but installation/removal as painless as it gets.
4. They’re much tougher than you’d think
Gravel bikes can handle the same terrain as a XC MTB, especially if you add a dropper post. They require more careful line choice, but can also help you find new interest and fun in the same old trails, since simply plowing through obstacles isn’t an option.
It obviously won’t feel silky smooth without suspension and 2.4″ tires, but a capable rider can do a lot on a gravel bike.
How much, exactly?
Well, your smoothness as a rider makes a huge difference. Picking bad lines and “casing” a landing will take a toll on any bike—gravel or otherwise.
You’ve also got to watch for toe overlap, since gravel bikes have much shorter wheelbases than MTBs. Trails are replete with slow, twisty sections where toe-tire contact is really irritating.
But with some skill? Here’s a great example that makes me want to buy another gravel bike right now:
2 reasons to think twice about a gravel bike
1. You’ll push the limits off-road
Despite their off-road capability, gravel bikes aren’t ideal if you want to push your limits on jumps, drops, and/or extremely rugged lines. That’s less of a strength issue than a geometry one.
For risky sections, like a steep drop-in with boulders at the bottom, it’s good to have the extra forgiveness of trail or enduro MTB geometry. Of course that’s relative to your skill, but you’ll inevitably have to walk more sections if you bring a gravel bike.
Drop bars are also less trail-friendly than straight ones. The hooks are the widest part, so you’ll need to use them for maximal control on rugged descents (and for better brake leverage).
However, the hooks also keep your body down and forward. They make it harder to shift your weight back over the rear wheel (compared to flat bars), so those steeps feel even sketchier. Again, skill and comfort level are big factors, but a gravel bike may get old if your trails are full of those parts.
2. You’ll rarely venture off of pavement
On the other end of the spectrum, you won’t get much out of a gravel bike if you ride basically all asphalt, all the time.
If you favor speed, an “endurance” or “all-road” bike will have similar posture, reasonably wide tires, and similar accessory mounts…but usually come in a couple pounds lighter. At the very least, you might enjoy a second, lighter wheelset with ~28c tires for pavement-only days, and then a burlier 650b set for gravel and singletrack outings. (Just pay attention to bottom bracket height, since skinnier tires might lower the bike enough to create pedal clearance issues. It’s well worth a little research or a quick message to your gravel bike’s manufacturer.)
If you favor comfort and utility, then a hybrid or (especially) city bike will put you more upright for relaxed, heads-up riding around town. You don’t need a full-on, 50-lb Dutch bike (although they’re great for urban use!), but something more in that direction will be supremely practical. And surprisingly not too slow, given all the traffic lights we’ll still have to wait at.
Why are gravel bikes so popular?
Gravel bikes are popular because they fill a gap between race-oriented road bikes, overbuilt touring bikes, and slow mountain bikes. That’s valuable because many cyclists enjoy rides that blend pavement, smooth dirt/gravel roads, and gentle singletrack.
Traditionally, road bikes have reflected racers’ needs and preferences. That generally means ultra-light weight, an aggressively forward-leaning posture (which generally feels cramped), narrow tires (with extremely high pressure), and few/no mounts for racks and fenders.
That’s all well and good when you’re racing, or training to race. But for the rest of us, the marginal speed isn’t worth the lost comfort and practicality.
Touring bikes have also been around for some time, but they’re typically much heavier in order to support luggage. Their bottom brackets tend to be extremely low—mostly for stability under a load—which can prevent you from pedaling over obstacles. Most also have triple cranksets and sometimes rim brakes, which are objectively fine, but long since out of favor.
Are gravel bikes a fad, or here to stay?
Market trends and anecdotal observation suggest gravel bikes are here to stay. We’ve recently seen 144% year-on-year sales growth, new gravel-oriented components and apparel from large brands, and an uptick in gravel cycling events worldwide. Nobody knows how long this will last, but it seems to reflect a deep, almost structural change in what cyclists prefer and cycling brands emphasize.
Electric gravel bikes are one of the newest and fastest-growing categories. Their range and power may increase the appeal of gravel riding in general. Their motors also make off-road-friendly bikes—both gravel and MTB—more useful for city/road riding.
Are gravel bikes good for commuting?
Gravel bikes are excellent for commuting, especially longer distances or on rougher roads. They’re nearly as quick as a conventional road bike, but more comfortable thanks to wider tires and slightly relaxed posture. Most gravel bikes also have the rack and fender mounts that some road bikes lack.
However, if you want to commute with truly relaxed and upright posture, then gravel bikes are still a poor choice due to their drop handlebars. Various feature-packed city bikes or one of these excellent hybrids will be more practical and comfortable for the short, stop-and-go riding of many urban commutes.
(All the above basically applies to commuting on a cyclocross bike, too. Aside from dedicated gravel or CX race models, the line between them is faint and squiggly.)
Can I take a gravel bike on singletrack trails?
Yes, gravel bikes can withstand singletrack riding, but it’s best to avoid jumps and drops. Most are actually strong enough, but they’ll feel sketchy due to steep geometry, relatively narrow tires, and significant toe overlap.
As a rule of thumb, anything you can ride on a XC mountain bike will be possible—but a bit harder—on a gravel bike. Then, when the path smooths out and turns to doubletrack, maintained dirt, or even asphalt, a gravel bike will feel faster and more nimble than a MTB.
(Unsurprisingly, if you’d need a full-blown enduro or downhill bike for the route in question, then I wouldn’t even think of attempting it on a gravel bike!)
All in all, gravel bikes generally perform well on trails. They’re especially suited to doubletrack (like mountain access roads) and country paths, where a mountain bike is overkill.
Are gravel bikes fast on the road?
Compared to road bikes, gravel bikes are slightly slower on the road due to more tire tread and less aerodynamic posture. It’s hard to quantify how much slower gravel bikes are, but the difference is far less than that between a road and mountain bike.
Tire differences that impact speed
Gravel tire width itself (often 38mm or more) doesn’t make an enormous speed difference, but tire tread and weight can.
To get traction during off-road corning and climbing, gravel tires may have knobs along either side (which only contact the ground during corners or in soft dirt/mud) and some degree of tread in the center. The latter, running down the middle, creates more resistance on pavement. Deeper center tread means slower riding but also better traction.
Here are two popular tires—one moderately knobby gravel model and one nearly slick road model.
The first set (WTB Riddler) not only add rolling resistance, but weigh about 70g more per tire. The weight comes partly from width (the narrowest Riddler is 37mm; the widest Zaffiro Pro at 32mm) and partly from the additional rubber that tread requires.
More rolling resistance and more rotating weight decrease speed and acceleration. That’s a perfectly fine trade when you’re going off-road, but can be annoying on pavement. Some gravel bike owners keep a second set of wheels for exactly that reason.
(Wider tires are theoretically less aerodynamic, too, but I’d be astonished if anyone could tell the difference in practice.)
Posture differences that impact speed
Gravel bikes keep the rider slightly more upright for comfort and control. That increases wind resistance a little bit, but then again, nothing stops you from simply tucking down more in a headwind.
Handlebars and stems are part of the posture difference, but they’re relatively easy to change. The best comparison is to look at frame stand and reach. (Here’s a geometry introduction if those are unfamiliar terms.)
This varies, of course, but we’ll use the Specialized Tarmac as a road bike example and the Specialized Diverge as a gravel example. They’re both representative of their style, and neither pushes the boundaries of conventional design right now.
- 54cm Tarmac: 384mm reach and 544mm stack
- 54cm Diverge: 383mm reach and 592mm stack
All else being equal, the Diverge gravel bike puts the riders’ hands 48mm (just shy of 2″) higher up. Again, that’s just one example, but most manufacturers take a similar approach between road race-oriented and gravel-oriented frames.
That might sound small, but it’s a huge difference in comfort. However, the slight uprightness also creates a little more wind resistance. That can matter in a racing scenario, but it’s unlikely to make a practical difference for casual riding—least of all on rough terrain (where high speeds are impossible) or amid city traffic and stoplights.
Why are gravel bikes so expensive?
Contrary to popular belief, gravel bikes are not particularly expensive. They cost about the same amount as other road/cyclocross bikes with similar components. A brand’s cheapest gravel bike may cost more than its cheapest road bike, but the former will have disc brakes and perhaps other upgrades that increase its cost. A comparably equipped road bike would cost about the same.
For instance, let’s look again a pair of high-end models from the two Specialized lines I mentioned above: the $3200 Tarmac SL6 Sport and $3300 Diverge Sport Carbon.
The latter does cost $100 more, but it includes a slight drivetrain upgrade (GRX vs. 105) and the Future Shock—basically an elastomer “suspension” block inside the stem. Other parts, like each model’s hydraulic disc brakes, are comparable but not identical.
Bottom line? The price difference is trivial, and it corresponds to subtly better parts. Yes, the gravel bike (Diverge) is expensive…but so is the Tarmac! Comparable technology means comparable prices, at least within this manufacturer’s range.
There’s a bigger difference at the entry level, but the main difference isn’t inherent to the bikes. It’s that nearly all gravel riders demand disc brakes; good ones add significant cost to otherwise similar bikes. For instance, Specialized’s base Diverge E5 costs $1300 whereas the base Allez costs just $1000. They use the same Claris drivetrain…but the Diverge includes mechanical discs, which explains at least most of the price difference.
I’ve cherry-picked examples from Specialized just to keep this section brief, but you’ll find similar examples elsewhere. For most brands, their entry-level gravel bike costs more than their entry-level road bike, but the former has pricier parts. The baseline for gravel bikes is higher, but price differences shrink or vanish as you step up from the baseline.
What’s the difference between gravel vs. cyclocross bikes?
Gravel and cyclocross bikes are more similar than different. However, cyclocross bikes tend to have a more aggressive (forward-leaning) riding position, higher bottom bracket for obstacle clearance, slightly less tire clearance, and few if any accessory mounts.
Those differences are fairly subtle—often just noticeable on paper—so they can be very hard to distinguish at a glance. Cyclocross bikes have been around for longer, so early gravel racers often used cyclocross bikes as more robust, capable alternatives to the road bikes of the day.
Gravel bikes are a little more comfortable, and have better geometry and mounts for carrying luggage. They’re the better all-around choice if you’re not actually racing cyclocross.
Can I use a gravel bike for touring?
Yes! Gravel bikes and touring bikes are extremely similar these days, and both can work well for touring. Gravel bikes are especially good if you pack light, and plan to incorporate some trails for a bikepacking style of tour.
Note that some gravel bikes are designed for racing, with relatively aggressive geometry and minimal mounts. These aren’t ideal for touring.
Instead, choose a gravel bike with the longest, lowest, slackest geometry in your size—plus relative high “stack” for an upright cockpit that’ll be comfortable all day.
Two cases where you would want an actual touring bike include:
- If you want a triple crankset for heavily loaded climbs up extremely steep hills. Gravel bikes often have 1x or 2x drivetrains, with more than enough range for most purposes, but a true “granny gear” is rare these days.
- If you prefer 26″ wheels (rare even on touring bikes, but still optional on the Surly Long Haul Trucker, off the top of my head).
Can I ride a road bike on gravel?
Yes, road bikes can work reasonably well on gravel provided you have clearance for roughly 32c tires or larger.
Most road bikes are far stronger than you’d think. While I absolutely do not recommend riding outside the manufacturer’s guidelines, here’s what a (highly) capable rider can do with one: