Gravel Bikes

Gravel Bikes are the Smoothies of the Industry

After I turned 16 I barely even looked at a bike.  It wasn’t until my late twenty’s that I started riding again.  I started with a Schwinn mountain bike that my folks gave me, then my brother-in-law gifted me a Fuji Nevada mountain bike.  I later bought a used Trek road bike from a co-worker.  I had to plan specific routes and switched between my two bikes depending on what surface I was going to be riding on. 

My old bikes in all their glory

My old bikes in all their glory

My dissatisfaction with the bikes began when I realized there are no mountains where I live, a rural area where in a single ride I can encounter asphalt, limestone, dirt, and gravel.  The final nail in the coffin was when I participated in the RoughRoad100.  The RoughRoad100 is a 100k race across multiple surfaces.  

I had to make a tough decision: road or mountain bike.  The mountain bike was horrible on the road and my road bike was horrible off the road.  The heavy mountain bike exhausted me on long rides but I had a few close calls on the road bike due to loose gravel and wet grass.  Neither bike seemed ideal for this race.  I choose the mountain bike and barely finished the race and injured my hamstring.

This was taken the day I bought it right outside the bike shop.

This was taken the day I bought it right outside the bike shop.

Shortly after that race I heard about something called a gravel bike.  My first question was, “What is a gravel bike?”  It sounded like someone put a road, cyclo-cross, and touring bike in a blender and made a bike smoothie. The idea of owning one bike that could handle all the types of riding I did was incredible, but is it a gimmick or an innovation?  I also wondered what really makes a gravel bike different from any other bike.  I answered those questions, sold both of my bikes, and purchased a Trek Checkpoint.

Read on to see the answers to the questions that led me to go gravel.

What is a Gravel Bike?

Drop handlebars are common on gravel bikes

Drop handlebars are common on gravel bikes

For every cycling sport and niche hobby there is a bike built for it.  A gravel bike is built for longer rides across different surfaces.  It’s not as fast as a road bike and it can’t handle the rough terrain as well as a mountain bike.  It is however perfect for causal riding across asphalt, dirt, limestone, and, of course, gravel.

The features of a gravel bike will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, but over all they do have a few things in common.  Gravel bikes have disc brakes, drop handlebars, and clearance for wider tires.  They also have eyelets for attaching bottle cages, fenders, and racks.  The geometry of the bike is such to promote stability and comfort while not sacrificing too much speed.

Gimmick or Innovation

Bike variants have been showing up for years.  In the 60’s children’s bikes were modified to handle rough terrain; these became BMX bikes.  In the 70’s off-road cyclists created “klunkers” to transverse mountain trails; those eventual became mountain bikes.  In the 80’s custom “Icycle Bikes” were being made with balloon tires; those went on to become fat tire bikes.  Customizing bikes to fit the riders’ needs has always existed and eventually bike manufactures notice it.

Gravel bikes is the current trend in this process.  Although they have been around in some form or another for years it’s hard to not notice their current popularity.  With popularity comes an industry response to create new bikes.  Likewise, popularity tends to bring out the skeptics.  They call gravel bikes a gimmick to dupe customers into buying a bike they don’t.

A gravel bike is a blend of features from road, cyclo-cross, and touring bikes.  The similarities with those bikes is what fuels the critics.  A person could add racks to a cyclo-cross bike, find more aggressive tires for a road bike, smaller tires on a mountain bike, or knobbier tires on a touring bike but that will not make it the same thing as a gravel bike. Gravel bikes are different enough from all other bikes to warrant its own category.

I don’t think a gravel bike is a gimmick or an innovation.  It can’t be a gimmick if it actual fulfills the needs of a cyclist.  Still, there is nothing particularly ground breaking about the bike to claim that it is an innovation.  A gravel bike is a nice all-purpose bike built for people looking for a comfortable ride over long distances and across varied terrain.  It’s great for moderately paced road rides as well as long bike camping trips.

What makes it different from a…

Fork trail

Fork trail

…cyclo-cross bike?  Gravel bikes most commonly get confused for cyclo-cross bikes.  It’s true that the bikes look very similar.  The differences are mostly with the geometry.  Cyclo-cross bikes are built for racing over comfort.  Gravel bikes tend to have a more relaxed head angle, weigh more, and have more gearing options than a cyclo-cross bike.  The effort it takes to steer translates to the quickness of steering.  One of the factors that determines that is head angle; the steeper the angle the less effort need to turn; cyclo-cross bikes turn quicker.  One major difference is the bottom bracket.  Cyclo-cross bottom brackets are higher to prevent the cyclist from slamming a pedal into the mud.  Gravel bikes can accommodate up to 40mm tires, while the UCI restricts cyclo-cross tires of no wider than 33mm.  In general cyclo-cross bikes do not have eyelets for mounting rakes.  It is possible, though, to get a cyclo-cross bike with wider tires and eyelets. 

Gearing: mountain in the rear and road in the front

Gearing: mountain in the rear and road in the front

...road bike?  The riding position and the tires are the most obvious differences between a road bike and gravel bike.  Gravel bikes have a more upright position due to its head angle and handlebar height.  Fork trail, a measurement using the center axis of the wheel and the head angle, can change the quickness of turning.  A lower fork trail and steeper head angle gives road bikes quicker steering.  Gravel bikes also have a longer wheel base for stability, longer chainstay that gives the heel more room (particularly when riding with panniers), and rear cassette like a mountain bike that helps more with climbing than speed.  Narrow tires with semi-aggressive tread do exist if one wanted to take their road bike off the road.  Gravel bikes often share the same chainring as a road bike.

Not really designed for racing but that doesn’t stop me.

Not really designed for racing but that doesn’t stop me.

…touring bike?  If cyclo-cross bikes are the race versions of gravel bikes, then gravel bikes are the race version of touring bikes.  Touring bikes have a more relaxed head angle, longer wheel base, higher bottom bracket, higher handle bars, weigh more, and offer a wider range of gearing.  Gravel bikes are made for long trips but touring bikes are made for even longer ones. 

Final Thoughts

I would love to own multiple bikes each purposed for specific disciplines. Unfortunately, I do not have the money or space for that.  Maybe if I started with a touring bike I’d be happy, but I don’t see myself going on short casual rides with one.  For the type of riding I do a gravel bike is exactly what I need.  Whether my ride is short or long, asphalt or dirt, my Trek Checkpoint has proven its worth.