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Is a Gravel Bike the Answer to Your Cycling Prayers?

By Megan Flottorp

Gravel bikes have been a big trend in the world of cycling for a few years now. Hated by some, loved by many, and dismissed by a few as pure marketing, it’s becoming increasingly hard to argue that this new breed of bike doesn’t offer something unique. Is a gravel bike the perfect bike? Let’s find out.

A growing community

In fact, over the last few years, while some reports show that the number of road bikes sales is falling overall, shipments and purchases of gravel bikes continue to grow. Going from niche market to a large division of most major manufacturers, it looks like gravel bikes and are here to stay. Not to mention, for those looking for a new cycling challenge, there are tons of new multi terrain events popping up around the globe each year that cover paved roads, fire roads, dirt tracks and rougher terrain.

The birthplace of this craze can lead to some debate, but if looking at gravel event calendar alone, the motherland seems to be the United States. Its wide open spaces are the perfect setting for gravel fondo events such as the Dirty Kanza or the Belgian Waffle Ride that helped launch the entire movement.

While the UCI recently announced the addition of an official sanctioned gravel series and a World Championships, rest assured that the laid back gravel attitude reigns and the non-competitive spirit that attracted to many to the gravel community is safe and sound. Ride for win or just for fun, it’s up to you!

A Specialized Diverge gravel bike that is white with red accents
2018 Specialized Diverge


What makes this one bike so special? Versatility. Although there’s always room for diversion in the cycling industry, gravel bike geometry is designed for longer rides and tends to be more relaxed than road and cyclocross bikes. Take them on technical off road terrain normally reserved for mountain bikes, or get a speed rush on the local bike path or hard packed dirt trails, car-free of course!

Gravel bikes feature hydraulic disc brakes, big tyre clearance and have been honed to excel on the road and off. You would be surprised just where you can take them, with the right tyre size. Wondering if it might be right for you? There are definitely a few cases in which a gravel bike might be just the quintessential set of wheels you’ve been looking for. Follows are a few perfect examples of the many advantages of owning a gravel bike and why it may be the answer to your cycling prayers.

Get out of town

Been dreaming of a multi-day off road bikepacking trip? Most gravel bikes offer more stable handling thanks to their wider tyres, and you have the option of multiple mounting points to add packs, racks, mudguards and fat tyres. Check out the local parks and public land around you. You’d be surprised to find out how many trails and point to point routes dedicated to gravel there are, regardless of your riding style.

Gravel bikes are the next generation of traditional long distance cycle touring bikes, the sort of bicycle that is becoming the go to choice for long distance bikepacking. Aggressive tread patterns on wider tyres are designed to tackle any sort of technical off road terrain you might encounter along the way and their comfortable upright riding position is definitely a big bonus on multi-day treks that can take you over some rugged terrain.

A gravel rider on a path in the great outdoors with mountains in the background.

Daily use

If getting around the urban city is more your concern, and you might also care to know that these robust machines are ideal for your daily commute, shopping, or whatever. While mountain bike tyres just slow you down, purchase a second set of wheels for your gravel and throw some slick tyres on them when looking for a touch more speed. A second set of wheels is cheaper than another bike!

Chilled-out gravel geometry is great for providing stability when loaded with a day’s shopping or panniers filled with work shoes and a computer. Gravel bikes offer a comfortable ride and disc brakes improve stopping power, even in wet conditions, which is a huge advantage whether you are descending off road, or riding in traffic. With eyelets for fitting racks, more bottle cages and mudguards, you can easily build up the perfect winter road bike or commuter with a few minor accessories.

A riding commuting to somewhere in London, just in front of a double decker red bus
Cyclists on morning commute through central London, England, U.K.Profimedia, Alamy

Push those boundaries

Are you into road riding events but looking to ditch the pavement and try a different kind of a cycling challenge? Though the scene is still definitely developing, there are more gravel bike races, challenges and sportives getting their start each season. Many of them have already established themselves as fun, well-organised, and unique as they aim to combine elements of gravel riding and enduro racing, with time stages on forest roads, foot and gravel paths alike.

In addition, the gravel version of the gran fondo is quickly becoming one of the most popular new adventure bike activities on the cycling calendar. And for those a bit weary of the super-competitive mentality of road racing, you’ll also be glad to know that thanks to its grassroots heritage, the gravel racing scene has tried to maintain a low-key attitude. You’ll find many small-scale events with no entry fees and a laidback atmosphere.


A person bikepacking on a bike through the mountains of Kazakhstan with a beautiful blue sky as a backdrop.
Bikepacking through Kazakhstan. © Profimedia, iDNES.cz

Gears galore

Let’s talk about gravel gearing. The subject technically falls under the versatility umbrella, but it is important to recognise that a lot of gear choice boils down to individual taste, and gravel bikes provide more options when it comes to what works best for you.

A subcompact crank paired with an 11/34 can get you through pretty much anything. Or pare it down and opt for a 1x (just a single chainring up-front) groupset with a larger cassette. Change your gears as easily as your shoes when you want to take on a specific steep climbs with loose surfaces, or enter gravel events, time trails, road races and even ultra distance races, the sky is the proverbial limit. Now that you’ve got the proper tyres and gearing, push your boundaries.

Varied riding positions

Most gravel bikes come with drop handlebars, like the ones you see on road bikes. However, gravel riders can achieve a more upright riding position, or the one that fits their riding style thanks to a smorgasbord of handlebar and stem options.

Do you want flared bars, suspension hover bars, or even flat bars? It’s possible. Combine them with your favourite stem length and rise, and your riding position is dialed to tackle anything. Granted, you can do the same for any other bike you own, but the aftermarket handlebar options in the gravel universe is quite extensive and varied.

Family fun

If you’re not looking to do anything too serious on a bike but just want to be able to enjoy some family time on the weekend riding two wheels with your kids or a significant other, a gravel bike can also be a great option in place of a mountain, hybrid, or any other kind of bike.

A typical gravel bike gives you ultimate flexibility and helps keep you off the increasingly motor-traffic-filled paved roads when riding with less experienced riders, not to mention your own personal safety. At the end of the day, these bikes are all about having fun and giving you the freedom to explore whatever terrain surrounds you.

A green and black Genesis Datum gravel bike.
Genesis Datum

Going your own way

What do most people say their favourite thing about a gravel bike is? The pure freedom of being able to ride gravel roads where you want, whenever you want. You can go off road riding pretty much whenever you like, which can be particularly useful if you need to make a shortcut over technical terrain or if Strava plots a bridle path for you. However, remember it’s only proper cycling etiquette to stay off private or posted no trespassing land.

So, whether you’re dealing with mud, roots, potholed trails or all of the above, trust that you can do it all with just one bike which copes as well off the beaten track as it does on the road. This gives you the flexibility to mix things up and hide from the wind. If you want a machine that will allow you to be adventurous and go just about anywhere, with a gravel bike—you’re likely to have found a friend.