What is a gravel bike good for?

Gravel bikes are trending. When I first heard people talking about gravel bikes I imagined some kind of track with deep gravel that you grinded your way through, a bit like riding on the beach. I have since learnt that gravel riding can cover a lot of different surfaces. There are of course gravel bike races and if you do a little bit of searching you can see many photos of people cycling across muddy fields. For me, a gravel bike is a fast road bike or racing bike if you will, typically with drop handle bars, that you can also take off road onto very bumpy farm tracks, single trails, forest roads, grassy fields, mud and even snow.

The gravel bike is considerably lighter than a mountain bike and so you can lift it easily over passages that are difficult, such as a wall or up and down stairs. It’s really much faster than a mountain bike and you can cover distances quickly.

lifting a gravel bike
Lifting a gravel bike over a rocky outcrop (aka a wall!)

The gravel bike usually has a sturdier frame, larger clearances in the wheel arches to take wider tyres (from 25mm up to 40mm) and has disc brakes. This means you can kit it out with racing tyres and run it just on paved road and you will be only slightly heavier than a dedicated road bike. I have found that disc brakes are so much more effective when the going is wet, or when it’s very muddy or snowy. A typical road bike with calliper brakes will almost immediately clog up with mud or snow, and the brakes will almost certainly not be effective.

Gravel bike single trail
Gravel bike single trail

But be aware of its limitations. The gravel bike is not a mountain bike. You can take it on a bumpy, stony single trail, and most likely the bike will come to no harm. But you will feel every bump and the vibrations are in no way dampened. To some extent you can cater for this with wide, low pressure tyres, but it is no substitute for suspension.

If you are looking for a gravel bike, then ensure it has disc brakes and wide wheel arches for tyre clearances. You might want to check if there are pannier rack mounts in case you want to go touring with it. If weight is a real concern, there are carbon fibre frames that are now inexpensive.

Is a gravel bike for me? If you answer yes to the following questions, then it is worth looking into:

  • I want to ride on many different surfaces
  • I want flexibility so that a ride can cover a forest track at one moment, and paved road the next
  • I want to be fast (relative to a mountain bike)
  • I want to be lightweight yet able to be on many different surfaces
  • I accept that there will be vibration (sometimes significantly so) when I go over stony tracks. (If you don’t accept this but want to go on stony trails, then probably a mountain bike is more your thing).
  • I accept that I will be (slightly) slower than a dedicated racing bike (this is also dependent on the type of tyres you put on)

Are you somebody that already has a gravel bike? What do you use it for?

Written by Oli

Oli enjoys climbing mountains throughout the year on his various bicycles, camping in Summer and definitely to be seen skiing in winter.