What Is A Gravel Bike? Everything you Need To Know

By now, most cyclists have heard the phrase “gravel bike”. These bikes are becoming more and more popular as a versatile type of bicycle that can be used for a variety of cycling purposes.

If you’re curious about the gravel/adventure/all-road movement or would like to share your story with others about how riding a gravel bike has affected your life, read on. For those looking to find out what is a gravel bike, keep reading!

What Is A Gravel Bike?

A gravel bike is essentially a “hybrid” between road and mountain bikes. To understand what makes this type of bicycle special, let’s take a look at these two types of bicycles in turn.

Road Bikes

Road bikes are known for their smooth efficiency, lightweight design and speed. They are built for racing on flat surfaces with paved roads at very high speeds under good conditions.

A traditional road bike is generally made up of the following key features:

1) A Lighter frame (generally less than 9 kg / 20 lbs)

2) Lighter wheels (less weight to accelerate)

3) Shorter handlebars (allows quick forward/backward movements while maintaining an aerodynamic position)

4) Thinner tires (lower rolling resistance, faster acceleration & better handling in low traction areas)

5) Drop or bullhorn handlebars (aerodynamic positioning when cycling forward, upright position when slowing or braking)

6) Gears to cover a wide range of low-high speeds

7) High-quality brakes

8) Smooth-shifting ability between gears (no resistance and fast shifts)

Traditionally, road bikes were built for and by professional cyclists. The prices of these bicycles reflect this: a high-quality road bike can easily cost upwards of $2500.

Mountain Bikes

On the other hand, mountain bikes are designed to take on rugged terrain such as dirt roads, grassy hillsides, trails etc.

Their frames are often made with sturdy steel or aluminum alloy materials that are not only resistant to rusting but also help to absorb some shock from bumps in the surface that you might encounter when riding off-road.

Mountain bikes usually have full-suspension systems that helps to cushion the rider when cycling over uneven surfaces at high speeds. They are also built with very durable wheels in order to handle the higher forces exerted on them by the durable frame.

Mountain bikes have clearance for wider tires, which help you to maintain control when cycling through loose gravel or sand/dirt.

The geometry of a mountain bike reflects its intended use: they are generally designed so that riders can remain seated while pedaling, instead of standing up like road bicycles often require you to do.

This is because sitting down provides greater balance and control while cycling off-road. Shifters normally consist of simple “twist” type shifters instead of trigger style switches that are on road bikes (not only are these more difficult to use when standing, they can also get jammed with mud or dirt).

Brakes tend to be tough and durable V-Brakes or Disc brakes. These are both popular on mountain bikes because they need less maintenance than hydraulics on all-terrain surfaces while being resistant to rusting from water/salt exposure. Mountain bikes usually cost between $500 -$1,000 depending on their quality and features.

As you can see, there is a very big difference in the design of road and mountain bicycles, even if both types of bicycles share some similarities (e.g. handlebars, gearing). The question then becomes: what makes a gravel bike different from these two types?

Distinguishing Features Of A Gravel Bike?

At its core, there are two main features that make a gravel bike different from road and mountain bikes: 1) its wheelset (in particular, the tire widths), and 2) geometry. So let’s take a look at each feature separately.

Wheelset

One of the biggest changes you will notice on a gravel bike is the wheelset (whichever company you decide to go with should provide an adequate description of what size wheels their bicycle uses).

The tires on these bikes tend to be much wider than those of traditional road bicycles, ranging anywhere from 32mm – 50mm in width depending on model and brand.

Generally speaking, the more “gravel” or “off-road” cycling you do (how much dirt or gravel roads you ride as opposed to pavement), the wider tires you would want on your bicycle.

Assuming that you are riding primarily over smooth paths, a narrower tire (closer to 32mm – 40mm) is preferred so that it can still maintain adequate traction while not weighing down the frame excessively.

On the other hand, if you plan on taking your cycling adventures off-road quite frequently then consider investing in a set of fatter tires (40mm – 50mm+). The added width will provide more cushioning and stability when riding over uneven ground at high speeds.

The shape of the tire itself is also different than what you may expect from traditional road bikes. Again, depending on how often one uses their machine, the tire treads on gravel bikes are either V-shaped or U-shaped.

This is to help provide adequate traction for both ascending and descending over off-road terrain. The side knobs of the tires are usually angled so that they can dig deep into loose ground if needed, which provides more control when biking downhill at high speeds.

Geometry

Tire width isn’t the only factor related to how a bicycle rides, geometry also plays an important role in this respect.

If you take a road bike and put ridiculously wide tires on it then obviously it will not ride as well as intended – this is due to its geometry being designed based on specific wheel sizes (700c).

However, with gravel bikes, the story is different because they are designed to handle a wide range of tire sizes. The majority will accommodate tires that are 700c, 650b, and 29er (the last one is becoming more common for gravel bikes).

This is achieved by using what’s called “trail” geometry, which helps with the handling of the bicycle when riding off-road over rough terrain at higher speeds.

Trail can be described as the intersection between two lines – one starting from where the rider sits on their bicycle and extending vertically upward through the head tube, and another segment beginning at where the front wheel attaches to the fork (or legs) and extending horizontally forward into space.

It is basically how much space there is between these two lines; this will determine what steering characteristics your bike will have. On a road bicycle, the trail is usually negative (a lot of space between those two lines) whereas gravel bike’s will have an average amount of space somewhere in the 0-10cm range.

As you can see there are many differences between a modern gravel bike and a traditional road or mountain bicycle. If you’re considering getting into this type of cycling then definitely consider checking out one or more models that fit within these guidelines!

The benefits of owning a gravel bike

The benefits are endless, but what is a gravel bike? Let’s take a look at the benefits of owning one.

1) They are extremely versatile.

A gravel bike can be used on any type of terrain imaginable. You could do all sorts of road biking with it, or use the drop bars to go off-road for some mountain biking. It can also be used as a day-to-day commuter for city riding. The possibilities are almost limitless!

2) The tires allow you to travel over more types of terrain safely than you normally couldn’t with traditional road bikes or mountain bikes because they have wider tires and lower tire pressures.

This means that their tires actually absorb small rocks which makes them ideal for hitting rocky trails where your average bicycle wouldn’t be able to handle.

3) They are great for speed and comfort. The frame on a gravel bike has more relaxed geometry which helps with producing the ideal ride quality for off-road riding by increasing your range of motion, but also enables you to sit in an upright position.

This is less strenuous on the body than you would get with traditional road bikes or mountain bikes (which normally lean more forward). 

4) Gravel bikes make it easier to transport over long distances because they allow you the option of swapping between drop bars and flat bars depending if you want to go off-road or stay on paved roads.

This means that you can find one bike that does both without having to buy two different bicycles (i.e. a road bike and a mountain bike).

5) They are nimble and quick on the roads. If you’re someone who likes to ride on pavement but also on some dirt or gravel trails, then owning a gravel bike is perfect for you because it has the speed of a traditional road bike with the durability of a mountain bike.

Depending on the terrain, you could be riding with an upright posture or using drop bars so fast isn’t out of the question.

6) They are perfect commuter bikes because they have the speed and durability of a road bike but also allow you to go on some off-road rides if needed. With wider tires, it’s possible to hit more types surfaces without worrying about flats and with a lower center of gravity you can travel at higher speeds.

How to choose the right gravel bike for you

Now that you’re familiar with the benefits of owning a gravel bike, how do you find the perfect one for your needs? What do you need to consider when buying a gravel bike?

1) What type of terrain will you use the bike for?

If you just want something that can handle all types of trails and roads then look for a gravel bike with drop bars, but if you’re looking for something more specific like just dirt trails or just paved roads, then you should look for one with flat bars.

2) What type of riding you want to do?

If you’re looking for a gravel bike that can be used as a commuter then find one that has eyelets for fenders and racks, which means it’s compatible with accessories that allow you to take cargo with you when commuting to work or school. It should also have standard road gearing if you plan on using it mainly in the city, but it is nice to have the versatility of being able to use drop bars when going off-road by swapping them out.

3) How much are you willing to spend?

Gravel bikes are usually more expensive than traditional road bikes because they are made from higher quality materials in order to keep them more lightweight and they are made with the added convenience of using drop bars (which is like getting two bikes in one). The most expensive gravel bikes will sell for around $1,000 USD while the cheapest ones will sell for under $400.

4) What size frame do you need?

To make sure that you get a bike that fits you well, it’s important to have an idea of what size frame you need. For measurements, divide your height by 2.5 and use this number as a guide when finding a bicycle online to see if it will fit your needs. If your answer falls between two numbers, go for the smaller one since gravel bikes have relaxed geometry which makes the bicycles themselves slightly taller. The smallest size frame that a gravel bike will sell in is about 48cm, while the largest size frame will be 60cm.

5) Where can you find one?

In addition to finding a great online bicycle shop, there are also some brick and mortar shops that stock gravel bikes. Some of them even have test rides so you can see what it’s like to ride one before you buy. Depending on where you live, a gravel bike might be a brand new concept so having a bicycle shop that is able to answer questions about them is very useful.

6) Will you use the bike for racing?

If your goal is to have one bike that can do it all then you don’t need to worry about stiffness because a gravel bike will work fine for racing, but if you want one specifically for racing then look for one that has pro geometry. Pro geometry means the frame is stiffer so when riding over rough surfaces it’s not as harsh on your body.

Conclusion

Now that you know how to choose the right gravel bike for your needs, test out some models to see which ones fit well and feel good to ride. Once you find one that fits your budget and preferences, start having fun!

Check out our guide to the best gravel bikes under 1000$.

Last Updated on February 22, 2022