What is a Gravel Bike Anyway?
The term “gravel bike” refers to a wide spectrum of bikes that starts right after “road bikes” and stops just before “mountain bikes”. It’s a relatively vague category that you might also find under the name “adventure bikes” or “country bikes”. They usually look similar to a road bike, with drop handlebars and a forward riding position, but have wider, and often knobbier tires.
Whatever you want to call them, gravel bikes have become increasingly popular in the last few years, and for good reason.
Gravel bikes are the swiss-army knife solution that fit the needs of just about every rider: the roady who always wondered about that little dirt trail off the bike path, the mountain biker looking for something to keep them busy during mud season, the commuter, the camper, and everyone in between. Offering more capability and comfort on mixed surfaces than road bikes, but more efficiency than a mountain bike, if you’re looking for a one-bike-army, a gravel bike is likely the way to go.
Although gravel bikes are versatile, some do certain things better than others. You’ll want to consider a few things, like what bikes you already own, what sort of riding you’ll do (or hope to do), and what your budget might be.
The first thing to consider is what terrain you’ll most often be riding:
Around Town/Bike Path
If you’ll usually be riding around town but want the option for occasionally venturing out onto gravel bike trails for short rides, you can make just about any gravel bike work. Consider a bike with a more upright and comfortable riding position, maybe even opting for flat bars instead of drop bars. The goal here is to enjoy the ride.
Pro tip: Don’t forget to check for mounting points to add a rack for your groceries, or some fenders for rainy days and winter commuting. Bikes like the Breezer Radar Cafe and Fuji Absolute fit the bill nicely here.
Maybe you’re looking for something to absolutely crush miles riding Vermont’s extensive gravel roads on the weekends — opt for a bike with a more aggressive (forward) riding position, lighter frame materials, and drop handlebars for aerodynamics and variable hand positions. For serious gravel grinders, checkout the BMC Unrestricted and Marin Headlands.
Let’s say you want to take a few weeks to ride the Super 8, the Cross Vermont Trail, or the Tour Divide fully loaded down with your camping gear. Choosing a bike with lots of mounting points, and a durable frame material is the way to go. For multi-day bikepacking rides, take a look at the Marin Nicasio + and the Niner RLT Steel.
Class 4 Roads and Single Track
If you’re keen to really get off the beaten path and explore class 4 roads, old logging roads, or dabble in rocky and rooty Vermont single-track, you’ll need something that can really take a beating. Some gravel bikes offer suspension and a select few even with full-suspension like the Niner MCR.
Pro tip: Check out this article by OGE’s resident bike mechanic, Aaron, about his Vermont bikepacking trip from a few summers back. He gives some great tips!
Frame geometry is one of the most important aspects to consider when purchasing a bike: the frame is the one part of your bike that you can’t swap out or upgrade. or first-time buyers, geometry charts can be overwhelming. If you want to do a deep dive into comparing geometry, geometrygeeks.bike is a great resource, but for a quick guide to geometry, here are some of the values worth paying attention to:
- Reach: The horizontal distance from the center of the bottom bracket to the middle of the head tube.
- Stack: The vertical distance from the center of the bottom bracket to the central point at the top of the head tube.
- Together, reach and stack will determine how the bike fits. Having a greater reach value will make the bike feel longer, and having a greater stack value will make the bike feel taller.
- Trail: The horizontal distance between the point where the steering axis of the front wheel intersects the ground and the point where the front tire contacts the ground. Bikes with a higher trail value will turn slower, becoming more stable, and bikes with lower trail value will turn faster, becoming more snappy and responsive.
- Wheelbase: The distance between the centers of the two wheels.
Compared to a traditional road bike, gravel bikes will generally have a shorter reach and a higher stack height to give the bike a more upright, relaxed riding position that is less aerodynamic, and greater trail and wheelbase values to increase stability. Keep in mind that there are also “low-trail” bikes designed to steer better with a front load.
A bike’s gearing ratios will determine how it feels to pedal, and is most obvious when climbing or descending steep hills. Just like with frame geometry, gravel bike gearings can vary widely, and fit somewhere on the road-mountain continuum. Gravel bikes with larger chainrings (46-48T for example) in the front will result in higher gear ratios, making it easier to accelerate down hills. Bikes with smaller chainrings in the front (31-34T) will make it easier to climb steep hills, but will spin-out more quickly while descending.
Traditionally, bikes have oriented shifting in the front and rear, with 2-3 chainrings in the front and 6-10 gears on the sprocket in the rear. Within the last decade, advancements in manufacturing have allowed for narrower chains and cassettes and higher quality derailleurs. Now, bikes with only one chainring, or “1x” drivetrains can have just as wide of a gearing range as their 2x and 3x counterparts.
1x drivetrains are most common in the mountain biking world and usually are geared for more efficient climbing. A single chainring can offer many benefits, including user-friendliness, ease of installation and maintenance, and lighter weight. Having one chainring upfront rather than two or three means one less derailleur, one less shifter, and more room for wide tires. 1x drivetrains often come stocked with clutch derailleurs, which have better tension and offer a quieter ride.
Bikes with double or triple chainrings will offer more options for gearing ratios, albeit with some redundancy) and allow for increased pedaling efficiency while descending.
Bikes come in a wide variety of materials including aluminum, steel, carbon fiber, titanium, and recently magnesium. The first three are the most common, so we’ll stick with those for brevity.
Light, stiff, and price-point friendly, aluminum has a great strength to weight ratio, and won’t break the bank. The stiffness that aluminum provides makes for an efficient, albeit slightly less comfortable ride compared to other frame materials. Aluminum also tends to have a shorter lifespan than other metals like steel and titanium.
Not all steels are made equal, and different alloys can have significant differences. The two main types are carbon steel and chromoly steel. Carbon steel is equally as strong as chromoly, but noticeably heavier, and available at a lower price point. Chromoly is a more modern, and “high-tech” steel alloy which offers a higher strength-to-weight ratio, but you pay for it. Steel generally tends to be the softest and most flexible of the common frame materials and provides a more comfortable ride for long days in the saddle.
Carbon fiber is lighter than both steel and aluminum and can be shaped into any form desired, allowing for unique designs. Like steel, there are many different ways to manufacture carbon fiber, and carbon frames can vary in price and quality. In the early days of carbon, frames had high rates of failure but they have come a long way. That being said, like aluminum, carbon simply isn’t as durable in the long-run when compared to steel and aggressive riding and improper care can result in shorter lifespans for frames.
Generally speaking, steel bikes are durable, oftentimes quite affordable, but weigh more than aluminum and carbon. If durability or price are your biggest concerns, steel frames might be your best option. If efficiency and weight savings are what you’re looking for, aluminum and carbon frames are hard to beat.
Features, Upgrades, and Accessories
Now that we’ve got a good idea of what sort of terrain we’ll be riding, which gearing will be most appropriate, and what to look for in a frame, there are a few other features to consider when choosing a gravel bike.
Whether you’re planning a big bikepacking trip, or just want room for a big grocery haul, if you want to ride your bike with cargo, check for mounting points.
Many bikes will have mounting points on the fork in the front, or the seat stays in the back for racks and/or fenders. More and more bikes are adding additional mounting points on the bottom of the down tube, on the top tube, or either side of the fork for additional water storage, frame pumps, or even small bags.
Some gravel bikes are being sold stock with dropper posts. Even if your bike doesn’t come with a dropper post, it might be worth considering the upgrade. Being able to quickly adjust your riding position without stopping makes it much easier to navigate steep descents, or to simply change your posture on long rides to prevent muscles from cramping up.
Wide and Flared Handlebars
Gravel bikes, with a more upright and comfortable riding position than road bikes, often feature wider handlebars. Wider bars can help to make your ride more comfortable, offer more space up front for bags and accessory mounts like lights and electronics, and allow for better control when navigating technical terrain. Some handlebars even feature bars that are flared out at the end, to diversify your options for riding positions, and open up your posture even more.
Tubeless tires just might be one of the best innovations of the bike industry in the last few years. A wheel that’s set up tubeless is lighter, less prone to getting a flat, allows for lower tire pressure, and downright feels better than a tire with a tube in it.
Long-distance riders, performance-oriented riders, and even the commuter who just can’t bear the idea of changing a flat when it’s below freezing and dark out on the ride home should all have tubeless wheels on their radar. Although the benefits of tubeless wheels are numerous, not all rims and tires are tubeless compatible. If going tubeless is a deal-breaker for you or you’d at least like the option, be sure to double-check that the stock wheels on your new gravel bike can be set up tubeless to avoid having to buy a separate wheelset later.
Upgrading your stock wheelset to a pair of custom, hand-built wheels isn’t cheap, but can solve a number of different problems depending on the scenario, and significantly change the way that your bike feels. Folks looking for an upgraded wheelset might include riders looking to save weight, have stronger, more durable wheels or get a dynamo installed to generate electricity and power lights and/or charge navigation devices. Some gravel bikes will even accommodate two different wheel platforms, so you could theoretically have one 700c wheelset with smaller, smoother tires when you need to go fast, and a 650b wheelset with knobby tires to swap in when you’re going to get lost deep in the woods, and want a little extra support.
Go For a Test Ride!
Navigating online geometry charts and inconsistencies in sizing between brands can be a headache. You don’t want your hours of bike research to result in having a bike shipped to your house only to find out that after weeks of waiting for it to arrive — it doesn’t fit. The best way to know which gravel bike is right for you is to head down to your local bike shop and take a test ride.
More than just being able to physically try the bike out, the staff at your local bike shop will be able to fit the bike specifically to you. This might include swapping out stems, changing the saddle height, or dialing in the reach on your brake levers. On top of providing advice for fit, local riders will be able to assist you with any future service needed and provide recommendations on local routes and trails. Many shops also offer discounts on bike service and accessories when you purchase a bike through their shop. (plug OGE bike purchase benefits)
At the End of the Day…
Gravel bikes are great options for people looking to ride a wide variety of terrains efficiently, and are versatile enough to use for utility or recreation, or anything in between. Figuring out what type of riding you’re doing — or want to do — will help you decide which end of the road-to-mountain spectrum you fall closer to, or if you’re right in the middle and want a do-it-all setup.
With every bike, there are pros and cons, and sacrifices to be made, but the best way to know what’s right is to get out on test rides to see for yourself. Don’t get too bogged down in the details though. Perfection is often the enemy of good enough, and the flexibility of gravel frames allows room for many upgrades and fine-tuning. At the end of the day, it’s all about riding bikes and having fun.