You can now have a different bike for every surface, profile, distance ... heck, virtually for every day of the week. Bucking this trend is a new category known as 'gravel' or 'adventure road' bikes that aim to meet all your cycling needs regardless of whether you are commuting, road riding or going off-road. Built for the growing trend of gravel grinding, read on for a concise description of what a gravel bike is, what it is used for and how it differs from other bikes.
What is a Gravel Bike?
So what exactly is a gravel bike? Gravel bikes, sometimes also referred to as adventure bikes, are essentially road bikes designed to tackle a variety of surfaces, carry additional gear and are suitable for all-day riding on roads less travelled. They are made to be more durable and robust than a standard road bike, along with having an increased gear range and space for far wider tyres. They bare a striking resemblance to cyclocross bikes, but there are some subtle differences to note.
What is it used for?
The versatility of gravel bikes makes them a great option for multiple cycling pursuits. They are suitable for all but the fastest of road riding, while the wider tyres and wider-range gearing make off-road trails, gravel and fire roads manageable. They are robust, comfortable and often can carry luggage making them ideal for light touring adventures or for those longer and faster commutes. However, the true purpose of gravel bikes sit with a new cycling discipline called gravel grinding, this effectively sees road-type riding taken away from traffic and off the sealed road.
The features unique to gravel bikes
To start with the geometry of a gravel bike is targeted at creating stability and comfort. A long wheelbase helps provide stability on loose surfaces and over long distances. The headtube is considered 'tall' or 'long', and in association with a shorter top tube, puts the rider in a more upright position for improved comfort on touring adventures and better vision when commuting. The headtube angle is 'slack', which performs better at slow speeds and doesn't give a 'twitchy' feeling like some performance road bikes.
The frame is heavier than a road bike to enhance durability and make it resilient enough to accept any extra load from frame bags if you plan on doing any light touring. There are also commonly eyelets for mudguards.
Gravel bikes use large tyres in excess of 30mm, and often up to 42mm to improve comfort, grip, and stability. In order to accommodate these tyres, the frame needs to have considerable clearance, which, is assisted by the use of disc brakes. Not only do disc brakes remove the need for rim-brake calipers from the frame, thereby creating greater tyre clearance, they also provide better modulation (control) and performance in all weather conditions.
Gear selection is targeted at slower speeds with greater range, sacrificing some top-end ratios to provide more options for conquering steep and loose climbs.
How do gravel bikes differ from cyclocross bikes?
Cyclocross bikes have the most in common with gravel bikes but there are some subtle differences. Cyclocross bikes are built for short, intense racing, so in basic terms, they are a more aggressive form of a gravel bike. Both bikes are versatile, adaptable and durable, but gravel bikes promote greater comfort and adventure.
Cyclocross bikes have a shorter wheelbase, more aggressive geometry, and higher bottom bracket height than gravel bikes. The higher bottom bracket height is to provide greater ground clearance to overcome obstacles like steps, rocks and tree roots. Both bikes have large tyres but due to the UCI regulations (the sports governing body), cyclocross bikes are limited to a 33mm tyre width, whereas gravel bike tyres can be much larger. Both bikes primarily opt for disc brakes because of the additional tyre clearance and consistent performance in all weather conditions. To learn more about cyclocross bikes read our ultimate guide to buying a cyclocross bike article.
How do gravel bikes differ from road bikes?
Road bikes too are versatile but have a narrower focus than gravel bikes. As we explained in our road bikes comparison feature, there are typically three types of road bikes that focus on either aerodynamics, versatility or comfort. Of those, endurance road bikes are closest to gravel bikes with relaxed geometry, disc brakes and low-end gear ratios, but are not as well equipped to tackle off-road surfaces. To learn more about road bikes read our ultimate guide to buying a road bike article.
How do gravel bikes differ from adventure bikes?
Despite some referring to gravel and adventure bikes as the same thing, many others believe there are some subtle differences between the two. The main sticking point seemingly the enhanced performance elements of gravel bikes when compared to adventure bikes.
Gravel bikes are typically lighter than adventure bikes that are commonly built from steel with greater capacity for racks to transport luggage. Geometry is another key differential with the wheelbase, chainstays and headtube of adventure bikes longer than the equivalent creating more stability for long journeys. On the bike spectrum, gravel bikes are closer to racier cyclocross bikes, whereas adventure bikes are closer to touring bikes.
It's clear to see that gravel bikes are extremely versatile, borrowing elements from road, mountain and cyclocross bikes to create an all-encompassing option for people that just want one bike in the shed. If you enjoyed this article, here's another one that gets straight to the point of a commonly asked question - can I fit disc brakes to a road bike?.
Hero image provided by Tim Bardsley-Smith.