What Is a Gravel Bike?

Let’s face it; ‘gravel bike’ is a terrible name. I mean, how much of your regular ride is actually on gravel? If a lot, then you likely already have a cyclocross bike anyway, right?

If you have dismissed gravel bikes because of the label, however, then it may be time to think again. What if they were called ‘road-cross bikes,’ or ‘off-road touring bikes,’ or even (as they sometimes now are) ‘adventure bikes?’ Then you might be interested.

Gravel Bikes: What Are They?

In actuality, these terms might be more descriptive for what these bikes are designed to do. Gravel bikes aim to take the comfort and practicality of a touring or endurance bike and mix it with the rugged toughness of an off-roader.

Giving you a bike that you can take properly off-piste, ride all day, and even use for the daily commute. They may appear aesthetically similar to a cyclocross machine but there are subtle differences that enable them to be far more functional on the tarmac as well.

As gravel bikes are still evolving and being refined, it can be difficult to make sweeping generalizations about their constituent parts. However, here is a brief look at what makes gravel bikes unique, and why they may be what you are looking for.


Frame and Geometry

The first difference you will notice from a traditional cyclocross bike is that the head tube on a gravel bike is taller. This, mixed with a more relaxed head angle, makes for a more comfortable ride than you will find on most off-roaders.

COTIC Escapade Steel Disc Road Gravel Bike

If you look closer you will also notice that the bottom bracket is lower and the wheelbase longer than you might expect. These tweaks to the cyclocross design are engineered for stability over any type of ground, and also create a more sustainable riding position on those long jaunts.

Although you will find a variety available, the general thought is still having a frame that can deal with difficult terrain, but just dialing back some of the aggression of a pure cyclocross.


Wheels and Tires

Most gravel bikes will fit the standard road bike wheel size, 700c. They come into their own, however, with the tire. Due to the frame design, most gravel bikes will be able to fit 40mm tires, as opposed to the common 32mm on endurance bikes, and 28mm on road bikes. The standard tires also try and find a compromise in the tread. The idea being they are smooth enough for long road rides but grippy enough for mud (or yes… gravel).

gravel bike wheel

Apart from some concern taking the bikes into the deep mud, the multi-purpose tires are the real driving force behind gravel bikes surge in popularity.


Drillings

Nearly all gravel bikes come with fittings for mudguards, water bottle holders and racks. This practically added to the all-terrain concept is where the term ‘adventure bike’ has sprung from.

It makes gravel bikes perfect for riding off into the wilderness with all the equipment for an overnight camp. If you’re more like me, however, it also makes them usable commuter bikes during the week but still fun off-roaders at the weekend.


Brakes

In the mid to high range bracket then you will find gravel bikes with hydraulic disc brakes. Much like high-end mountain bikes. Also akin to mountain bikes the lower, or entry-level, gravel bikes will be fitted with cable discs. This is on-trend with disc brakes becoming increasingly popular, even on road bikes, in recent years. Mainly due to their proficiency in wet conditions and durability, especially important for off-road cycling.


Gearing

Although there is a large variety, the majority of gravel bikes have a gearing set up similar to an endurance bike. Generally, you’ll find lower gears than a standard cyclocross but not as low as you would expect to find on a mountain bike. An X1 groupset with a single chainring is increasingly common on gravel bikes. This low gearing does mean that riding in traffic or on urban roads becomes easier.

gravel bike gearing

With the range of gearing available on gravel bikes, it is important to consider the types of terrain you will be riding most often and make your decision accordingly. Consider also, if you are planning to use your bike for overnight adventures which require lots of kits, then that extra weight should be factored into the gear choice you make.


Handlebars

Many gravel bikes come with road drop handlebars as standard. These are a good fit for a multi-purpose bike but if you find yourself needing more control on steep descents then these can be swapped out for flared drop bars instead. Flared drop bars are also worth considering if you will be chewing up the miles on the road. The variety of hand positions available can be more comfortable on those long rides.

zipp gravel bike handle bar

If the bike is going to be used as a commuter during the week then it is worth thinking about flat bars. The better visibility from a more upright position is safer when in traffic. Most gravel bikes will have interchangeable bars, but it is worth checking on the specific model before committing.


Final Thoughts

It is easy to see why gravel bikes are becoming increasingly popular. If you need one, go-anywhere, bike for all occasions then the combination of elements makes them perfect candidates.

They cater for two ends of the cycling market. Those who wish their mountain or cyclocross bikes were easier to handle and more comfortable on the road. Also, those who wish their endurance or road bikes could be taken into the wild.

With the multiple options currently available in frames, gears and tires it is worth doing the research to find the set-up that will most benefit your specific needs. Although you are making sacrifices to the specialized bikes on each surface, the jack-of-all-trades approach taken in the design of gravel bikes makes them a great option.

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What Is a Gravel Bike? Things You Should Know — Bike Hacks