Gravel bikes are designed to solve these problems and more.
You’ve got diverse interests, shouldn’t your bike answer to them?
Problem solvers, that’s what gravel bikes are. This rapidly growing cycling trend knocks down many of the obstacles that get in the way of riding a bike. Also labelled “beyond road”, “drop-bar-multi-surface”, “adventure”, and even “monster road”, gravel bikes are basically designed to accommodate wider tires, disc brakes, and drop handlebars. Additional features, like rack mounts, are often an expression of the bike’s intended use, which so far seems limitless. Sturdier than featherweight road bikes but slimmer than beefy mountain bikes, what gravel bikes do is give the rider the freedom to ride both on and off-road, thus solving problems like traffic and the need for highly-developed mountain bike skills.
Wide tyres – A critical design feature for any bicycle frame is tyre clearance, which — in simple terms, is the space between the tyre and the frame and brakes. Gravel bike frames are designed with a wide tyre clearance for tyres up to 2.1” in width. A subcategory called “monster gravel” can fit even wider tyres.
Different wheel options – 700c wheels are considered the standard size for road wheels, but slightly smaller 650b wheels have a loyal following as well, which is why many dedicated gravel bike frames can accommodate both wheel options. The size differences between the two can be overcome through tyre selection and pressure, however for someone who has chosen a gravel bike as their only bike for road and gravel, investing in a spare set of wheels will extend their ride options even more.
Disc brakes – While it’s becoming harder to find any bike intended to be ridden on or off-road without disc brakes, all it takes is riding in the rain down a muddy bridlepath to remind you that — no matter how skilled you are, disc brakes deserve a quiet “thanks” every now and then for keeping you upright.
Drop handlebars – This style offers gravel riders a few different hand positions plus improved aerodynamics but in the lateral transfer from road to gravel, drop handlebars lacked something. Wider, more ergonomically comfortable, and more stable emerged as the main objectives and now, gravel bike handlebars have become acutely tuned to the needs of gravel riders.
Gravel-specific components – Since riding surfaces vary tremendously around the world, gravel bike manufacturers often gamble on getting the components right. Fortunately enterprising components manufacturers have come to the rescue with components that are perfect for the native demands of gravel riding.
- Gearing – Proper gearing ultimately depends on where the bike will be ridden. For example, road gearing on a dirt road with a 17-24 per cent grade is at best, laughable, at worst, self-defeating. Compact or direct mount cranks allow for smaller chainrings, which lessen the suffering on steep climbs.
- Wheels – Purpose-built wheels made headlines in 2018 when two of the most high tech wheel brands launched gravel-specific wheels. The underlying goal for each brand’s proprietary wheel design was to avoid flatting. Sharp gravel and high impact contact with the ground posed the biggest threats, so with those as the enemy, gravel wheels were built to do battle.
- Tyres – Early versions of gravel bikes featured questionable tyre selections, like smooth tyres. Imagine trying to ride the damp slip ‘n slide paths of Wales without any traction and you’ll easily understand why knobby, sub-2” gravel tyres were celebrated by gravel riders everywhere.
- Suspension – It literally doesn’t hurt to have a little bounce to smooth over outsized gravel particles, or to even out the road over long distances. A small handful of suspension manufacturers have taken a chance on this growing trend to design suspension forks with 20-30 mm of travel, which is ideal for gravel.
Gravel bikes have gone way outside of rigid definitions for “road riding” and “mountain biking” to appeal to new cyclists with diverse interests. Called “the Swiss Army Knife of bikes” for its versatility, a gravel bike can be your multipurpose bike for all types of riding.
A road bike to gravel bike conversion borrows a bit of what’s above. A mountain bike is arguably gravel-ready so unless you want to go really fast, you can lock your suspension and swap in some skinnier tyres for a quick mountain bike-to-gravel conversion. To turn your road bike into a gravel bike, go as wide as you can with your tyres — up to 40 mm if possible. If your gravel roads turn sharply skyward, you may want to downsize your chainrings to make climbing easier. Be kind to yourself and get more cush for your tush and your hands with a padded saddle and handlebar tape. Lastly, to protect your bike’s paint job, apply thick, clear vinyl tape to the right chainstay and underneath the down tube. Another area that gets pretty beat up is the pedal end of your cranks. Fitted bumpers are available to shield this area, or you could DIY by trimming an old inner tube to fit around the crank ends.
Gravel riding is finding new riders with diverse interests that go beyond road riding or mountain biking. The result has been gravel bikes that are just as versatile as the people riding them.