Are gravel bikes any good?

Is the Pope a Catholic? Yes, in case you were wondering. Gravel bikes are a new niche of bike somewhere between a tourer, road bike, cyclocross and mountain bike. The gravel bike or adventure bike as some call it tries to take the best of all the different types of bikes, without any of the downsides. Does it succeed? Let’s find out…

Gravel bike VS the rest

The purpose of a gravel bike is to provide a bike that can replace all of your different bikes combined. Let’s be honest, if you’re into cycling you probably have more than one bike because each bike has its own usage and style. For example your extreme full carbon race bike might be great for your next triathlon but on your daily commute to and from work it’s less than ideal. Weaving between bumps and potholes, feeling every tiny imperfection on the road, trying to mount a pathway (eh hem, you’d never do that). What if the worst happened on your commute and you took a tumble, an itty, bitty, tiny little crack on your carbon frame might not show itself until you’re at your next road race on that mega hill climb and more than your race results will shatter! Oh and not to mention the fact that you’d spend 8 hours every day fretting and worrying about your pride and joy locked up with all the rough and tough commuter bikes. Your pride and joy carbon wonder might be too much for the common bike thief to resist. So you leave your carbon monster at home and you take a faithful road or touring bike to work because it can handle itself and is able for the rough stuff but still gets you there on time.

So now you might be thinking, well then all I need is a half decent road bike and all will be well… Eh, not so fast! Even your road bike will find the commute a little tough at time when you’re curb crawling. On the weekend you decide to go for a ride with your buddies (I imagine that’s what normal people do) and all is going well until they say, let’s take this ‘shortcut’ down what seems to be a back (side) road. Now you wish you’d brought your mountain bike because your road bike is cutting into the gravel rather than gliding over it and you’re putting in extra work just to keep making average progress. But anyway, if you brought your mountain bike you’d be strangled on the good road you just left with your massive fat tires!

What you need is something that can handle the road and the rough stuff…

A gravel bike is the solution to all of these problems. It’s more comfortable than a road bike because of a slightly more laid back geometry, this also allows for more control and yet it’s much more raked than a mountain bike so you still have the aero and stability of the road bike.

Race bike drop bars

With a gravel bike you have drop bars (drops) for those long cycles with the option of using the hoods (the post that the break lever hinges on) and the flat bar. That’s three positions compared to a straight bar normally found on an average commuter or mountain bike. We all know that being able to change hand positions during a long ride can help with fatigue.

Disc brakes

Because of the possibility of off-roading, gravel bikes come with disc brakes. Disc brakes have been proven to stop just as fast or faster than callipers and work way better in the wet. You can’t be unhappy with greater and more reliable stopping power!

Mountain bike gears ++

Because of the complicated terrain that mountain bikes face (you can see I have a soft spot for mountain bikes), they have a much greater range of gears than road bikes. Gravel bikes take advantage of this which means more gears but still the ability to reach the same cog sizes of road bikes. So if you’re good with the gears you can get away from the lights quicker and still keep up with road bikes at the top end.

Touring bike versatility

Gravel bikes are often used for a lot of touring so with this fact in mind they have the same kinds of mounting points as touring bikes. That way you can bring your entire house and the cat along with you on your adventures. The gravel bike saddles are very often closer to touring bike saddles because of the fact that gravel bikes can face off-road or mile munching adventures.

Cyclocross wheels/tyres

Let’s face facts, cyclocross is just a bunch of guys and gals racing through fields and forests. So for this a mountain bike would be too slow because some of the course could be very flat with a good surface not all jumps and mud where the mountain bike is happiest. So cyclocross bikes need tires with good grip and good clearance but not full on toothed fat mountain bike tyres. Gravel bikes are the same and steal this idea from cyclocross. That way you can have mountain bike like tyres, full on race tyres or something in the middle which is what most gravel bikes have. You can in fact just keep two sets of wheels, one with road and one with mountain bike tyres. For the average Joe (me) a middle of the road tire is perfect but if you’re serious about road racing or cyclocross then you might rather keep two sets of wheels.

So isn’t a gravel bike just a cyclocross I hear you mutter in a hushed tone? Well, no. While the two do have a lot in common the cyclocross bike is made for a very specific type of race. In that race taking really tight corners is very common so cyclocross bikes have been developed to have a high crank casing so that the cyclist can continue to cycle while taking a tight corner. This has a negative impact of pushing the center of gravity higher which makes for a less stable bike. That’s not a negative in the rough and read cyclocross world but it’s not something you want on a fast hill decent on high speed tarmac.

Here’s comes the negative part

As you can see the gravel bike is a great all-rounder and tries to take the best from all bicycle types and combine them. I’m not a professional cyclist, I’m not a purist looking for every half second I can shave off my cycle. If I was, then a gravel bike isn’t as good as a road bike, it isn’t as good as a mountain bike and it isn’t as good as a cyclocross BUT you would have to be a serious competitor to notice that.

Who is a gravel bike for?

If you’re not entering into competitions and you want a bike that will look and be fast at your Sunday cycling group, but still allow you to hit the rough stuff on a forest track or across the fields, and be your weekly commuter…

A gravel bike is for you!

Check out our ultimate guide to getting started with gravel bikes.