What Is a Gravel Bike: Choosing the Best Bike for Your Needs

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Cycling is a great way to get fit, stay healthy, and get you from point A to point B without being stuck in heavy traffic or paying for gas.

If you’re thinking of investing in a new bike for the summer, you may be feeling overwhelmed when it comes to the sheer amount of choice available.

The first thing you’ll need to do is decide what type of bike will suit you best.

Many people have heard of road bikes and mountain bikes, but you may be wondering, “What is a gravel bike?”, so keep reading to find out.

What Is a Gravel Bike?

Unlike a road bike or mountain bike, a gravel bike is specifically designed for multi-terrain excursions.

You may hear experts describe it as a cross between a cyclocross bike and a touring bike, both of which are suitable for off-roading.

A cyclocross bike has been specially designed for racing, whereas a touring bike is more comfortable to ride and suitable for covering longer distances.

Depending on your needs, a gravel bike can be slightly better suited for speed and roads, distances, or off-roading.

What Is a Gravel Bike Good For?

A gravel bike is a fantastic all-rounder when cycling on a variety of terrains, making it very popular for adventuring and bike-packing.

It handles well on tarmac and paved surfaces for when you’re cycling on roads.

It can also hold its own when it comes to gravel paths and forest trails.

Gravel bikes are known best for offering smooth transitions between all terrains.

So if you’re ever out on a bike ride wondering what adventures await down a gravel path, then a gravel bike will appeal to that explorer in you.

It won’t necessarily offer you the best performance on any of the surfaces mentioned above.

But unless you’re road racing or facing particularly tricky terrain when you’re off-roading, then you probably don’t need it.

What Makes a Bike a Gravel Bike?

You can distinguish a gravel bike from other types of bike for its drop-bar design, wide tires, longer wheelbase, and lower gearing.

Drop-Bar Design

The drop-bar design on a gravel bike may make it look like a racing bike to the untrained eye.

That is because this design has been seen on road bikes for over 130 years.

It is sometimes even referred to as a road-bar design.

The purpose of a drop handlebar is to streamline the rider as it requires the rider to lean forward in their seat to grip onto the lower bar.

There is less wind resistance when riding in this position, meaning you can go a lot faster.

Over the years, this style of handlebar evolved to incorporate brakes and offer multiple riding positions.

  • Five Riding Positions

The tops and the shoulders of the handlebars offer the most relaxed positions and are often used when the rider needs to take a break from another position.

If you’re riding through a sheltered, scenic area, for example, you might switch to your top handlebars to sit back and take in the view.

They also offer you the most powerful steering options, so you may also want to switch to this position when riding on a particularly windy or rocky path.

The hoods are slightly forward of the shoulders, located right at the top of the curve, offering quick and easy access to your brakes.

Riding the hooks offers the most braking control, making this position great for the downhill sections of your ride.

Finally, you have the drops which put you at that original drop-bar position, at the bottom of the curved drop in the handlebar.

what is a gravel bike

Wide Tires

You can spot the difference between a gravel bike from a road bike immediately by looking at the tires.

The tires on a gravel bike are noticeably wider than the tires on a road bike, typically around 40mm in width.

The larger volume of the tires means you can run lower pressures, 40 PSI or less, adding more comfort and traction on bumpy surfaces.

Gravel bikes are usually designed to be run without an inner tube to reduce the risk of punctures when you’re riding with lower pressures.

Instead, the tires will contain sealant to cope with small punctures from thorns and splints.

This sealant will seal around the small cuts before you lose too much air pressure.

Most gravel bike tires will also feature tread patterns to offer grip on loose surfaces.

The amount of tread you need will depend on whether you mostly find yourself cycling through muddy forest tracks or on dry trails.

You will need heavier bike treads for wet mud, whereas lighter treads will work great on dryer paths and trails.

A heavier tread will offer less rolling efficiency, but it’s worth it if you’re tackling very slippery terrains.

Longer Wheelbase

A gravel bike’s front wheel is usually placed further forward than on a road bike.

However, you will sit in a more upright position than on a road bike due to slacker angles in the frame, enabling a shorter reach.

This longer wheelbase and shorter reach offer greater stability and better handling to the rider on off-road terrains.

This design makes it easier for the rider to switch positions, shift their weight around for complicated descents, and tackle obstacles.

It also provides a more comfortable ride.

Lower Gearing

Another factor that makes your standard gravel bike stand out from a road bike is that it typically has lower gearing with a wide-range cassette.

Lower gear is essential for steeper hill climbs and more challenging terrains.

Is a Gravel Bike as Fast as a Road Bike?

With the wider tires, with or without heavy tread, and lower gearing, gravel bikes usually won’t be as fast as road bikes.

Still, some gravel bikes are faster than others. So if you are looking for a faster bike suitable for all-terrain use, choose a bike that features a slightly shorter wheelbase than the others.

You can also opt for lighter frame materials and look for tires that have a lighter tread.

But remember that what you gain in speed, you’ll most likely lose in handling and stability.

What Is the Difference Between a Gravel Bike and a Mountain Bike?

Once upon a time, if you wanted to go off-roading on your bike, then you’d buy a mountain bike.

Those days are long gone, and gravel bikes have been taking front and center stage for several years now.

The most noticeable or visible difference between mountain bikes and gravel bikes is in the handlebars.

Mountain bikes often feature straight handlebars, whereas gravel bikes usually have drop bars, as described above.

The differences go way beyond the handlebars, making mountain bikes more suitable for technical and challenging terrain.

For starters, mountain bikes usually have better suspension and even longer wheelbases for greater comfort and stability.

Gravel bikes are usually lighter and faster.

Is a Gravel Bike Right for You?

If you still can’t decide which bike is right for you, let us summarize the main points for you.

If you estimate you’d be spending over half your time traversing technical terrain and steep inclines, then you should probably opt for a mountain bike.

On the contrary, if you think you’ll spend more than half your time on the tarmac, light gravel, and flat off-road terrain, a gravel bike will be more suitable.

A gravel bike features many great qualities from both road and mountain bikes that allow you to adapt more easily to any road surface you encounter.

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