Gravel Bike Vs Mountain Bike: Essential Differences Explained

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Gravel bikes and mountain bikes are two very different types of bikes, but they’re both intended to be used off-road.

Mountain bikes are the classic off-road beasts and couldn’t be further from their efficient asphalt-going cousins: road bikes. However, cycling’s newest discipline, gravel biking, has exploded in popularity, particularly with roadies keen to give some off-roading a try.

Gravel bikes find a middle ground between road bikes and mountain bikes – but they are intended for mostly off-road use.

So if they’re both off-road specialist bikes, what’s the difference? Can a gravel bike do everything a mountain bike can? Which one should you buy?

Don’t worry! We’re here to give you the ultimate off-road showdown: gravel bike vs mountain bike. To get you up to speed, we’ll be covering:

  • What Is A Gravel Bike?
  • What Is A Mountain Bike?
  • Gravel Bike Vs Mountain Bike: The Differences
  • Gravel Bike Vs MTB: Which Should You Buy?

Ready for the gravel bike vs mountain bike lowdown?

Keep reading!

Gravel Bike Vs Mountain Bike: Title Image

What Is a gravel bike?

Cycling’s new kid on the block, gravel bikes, are everywhere these days. They have burst onto the cycling scene with ferocity, and gravel biking is one of the fastest-growing disciplines in cycling.

But what niche do they fill?

Well, the first thing to know about gravel bikes is that gravel is a misnomer. By no means is a gravel bike solely intended for use on actual gravel. Don’t get us wrong, they do excel here, but they also perform extremely well on a number of different terrains.

A gravel bike is quite difficult to define.

They can be quite similar to road bikes: a streamlined geometry with drop handlebars, but wider, grippier tires designed to traverse relatively compact off-road trails.

Some might call this light gravel – something you *could* ride on a road bike (but would be extremely uncomfortable, and possibly slightly dangerous).

A burgundy gravel bike drifting on a loose dirt trail.

However, at the other end of the spectrum, a gravel bike can bare more resemblance to its other cousin: the mountain bike.

Wide, knobbly tires are accompanied by sturdier geometry and sometimes even suspension.

These can arguably take on anything from a smooth asphalt road to a mountain bike trail. But they won’t be quite as efficient on the road given the wider tires and less aerodynamic design.

These differences are exemplified by comparing the Canyon Grizl vs Grail, for example.

Despite the huge variety in gravel bikes, they do typically have one defining feature in common: they are drop-handlebar bikes, well suited to off-road terrain.

One of the major reasons that gravel bikes have exploded in popularity is that they are are the perfect gateway bike for a roadie looking to leave the traffic behind and give some trails a go.

With a similar position for the rider, they will instantly feel familiar to a road bike purist, even in unfamiliar territory away from the asphalt.

A full suspension mountain bike stands on a grassy clearing in a forest.

What Is a Mountain Bike?

Mountain bikes, on the other hand, are a little easier to pin down.

They are off-road machines, designed exclusively with rough mountain bike trails and singletrack in mind. They are optimized to be as efficient and comfortable as possible over the gnarliest terrain.

They typically have flat handlebars, wide tires, a huge gear range, and a fairly upright position.

Although they can handle some of the wildest terrain possible on two wheels, they’re not exactly speedy on the roads – the position and the tire width don’t exactly minimize rolling resistance or aerodynamic drag, the two main forms of resistance on asphalt.

That said, there is still a huge amount of variability in mountain bikes.

One of the biggest differences is between a hardtail and a full-suspension mountain bike. A hardtail mountain bike still has front suspension but retains a rigid frame at the rear.

Gravel Bike Vs Mountain Bike: Essential Differences Explained 1Gravel Bike Vs Mountain Bike: Essential Differences Explained 2

A full-suspension mountain bike has extra travel in the frame, allowing it to tackle even tougher terrain.

A hardtail might be better suited to certain manicured MTB trails or light singletrack, whereas a full-supension beast is more at home on a completely unkempt or off-piste type trail.

There are also different disciplines within the mountain biking world. Two of the most popular are cross-country (XC) and downhill mountain biking.

Cross-country is exactly as it sounds. It takes you between two points in the countryside through hiking paths, trails, gravel roads, and everything in between.

Downhill mountain biking is also fairly self-explanatory. It’s where you ride a long, downhill line that can be on- or off-trail. They usually use full-suspension MTBs since it’s essential to be able to absorb certain smaller obstacles so as to not lose momentum (or worse, control).

A cyclist dressed in black holds a gravel bike on the edge of a forest.

Gravel Bike Vs Mountain Bike: The Difference

Gravel Bike Vs Mountain bike: How do they differ in design?

Although these bikes are both intended to be used (at least somewhat) off-road, they are wildly different in their appearance and feel.

The first and probably the most obvious difference is the handlebars. A mountain bike generally has wide, flat handlebars that allow for a super upright position and excellent handling.

This is certainly safer when you’re taking on some questionable terrain, being more upright allows you to comfortably keep your eyes on the trail and easily shift your weight when necessary.

A gravel bike, on the other hand, usually has drop handlebars. This comes with its own set of advantages: it’s more aerodynamic on smoother terrain, offers more comfortable for those used to road biking.

The reason that many find drops more enjoyable is due to the fact that it’s just not quite as easy to go over trails that a mountain bike would eat for breakfast.

It forces you to concentrate on the trail and really use your handling abilities to ensure you get to the other side in one piece. This can be likened to mountain biking in the ’90s, before the MTB tech got so advanced that many trails are light work for a modern machine.

Close-up of the rear suspension on a modern mountain bike.

Another key difference is the geometry. This does definitely vary within both gravel bikes and mountain bikes, but there are still some very obvious differences between them.

A gravel bike has a geometry that is (in general) far more similar to that of a road bike. It has a bigger, less angular “triangle” (top tube, seat tube, and down tube) and is optimized for use with drop handlebars.

Modern mountain bikes, however, are wildly different. The extremely angular scalene geometry and sloping top tube assist with fitting in tall suspension forks, and most of all allow for those rapid unexpected dismounts that might occur on a dangerous trail.

In a full-suspension mountain bike, this also allows you to angle the travel of the rear suspension so that a large component of it is perpendicular to the ground.

Speaking of suspension, that’s another area in which gravel bike vs mountain bikes differ.

Although some gravel bikes do have some travel (there are even some full-suspension gravel bikes now), they usually only have around 30 mm, compared with 100 mm or more on a mountain bike. Most gravel bikes do not have any suspension at all.

The tires are also often quite different. A mountain bike’s tires are normally wider than 2 inches. Whereas on a gravel bike, 50 mm (just under two inches) would be extremely wide, and some stick to around 32 mm tires (although if using 650b tires, they do tend to be a bit wider).

A cyclist rides a white gravel bike on the road.

Gravel Vs Mountain Bikes: How do they differ in their function?

Both being off-road machines, there is a lot of overlap in their function. However, there are definitely some things that one bike does better than the other.

So that begs the question, can a gravel bike do everything a mountain bike can?

The short answer is yes – but not as well in some cases.

If you have a “rough gravel” gravel bike, then it can handle basically most terrains. Whether you’re riding across a beach, a farmer’s field, mountain bike trails, or even a hiking path, a gravel bike is certainly capable (though not without difficulty).

Some of these terrains, although possible, will be a challenge to ride on a gravel bike. Although it’s definitely not impossible to stay on the bike, it’s guaranteed to be uncomfortable if you’re riding a hiking path on a gravel bike.

However, where they do excel is in the slightly less-extreme cases. A beach, a gravel road, or even a well-kept MTB trail should be relatively comfortable (and extremely fun) on a gravel bike.

A mountain biker descends a rough trail with snow-capped peaks in the background.

A mountain bike, on the other hand, is much better suited to the extremes than a gravel bike. Although it still won’t be a piece of cake, a hiking trail will be much more comfortable on a full-suspension mountain bike with 120+ mm of travel.

The downside though, is that if you fancy taking your bike on a spin across a variety of terrains, connecting your favorite singletrack, mountain bike trails, and country lanes in a single ride, it’s not going to be the most efficient choice.

This is the main advantage of a gravel bike. They excel in a varied ride since they remain pretty nippy and efficient on a road but can handle singletrack and trails without too much difficulty.

A mountain bike really isn’t intended for use on smooth asphalt, whereas a gravel bike isn’t really that much slower than a roadie in this case.

Overall, the differences in function between gravel bike vs mountain bike come down to versatility. A gravel bike is far more versatile, able to tackle a larger variety of different terrains with relative efficiency.

A mountain bike excels at the rough stuff, but won’t be able to keep up with a gravel bike on the roads or light trails.

Two gravel bikers race around a dirt trail.

Mountain Bike Vs Gravel Bike: Which should you buy?

So you’re looking to give some off-roading a go, or maybe you’re new to riding and you’re not too keen on traffic. The question is, should you get a gravel bike or a mountain bike?

If you’re a roadie looking to trade asphalt for singletrack, then it’s fairly likely you’ll feel more at home on a gravel bike. The geometry, position, and handling of the bike will just feel significantly more familiar.

On the other hand, say you’re new to riding, and you can’t stand the idea of sharing the road with cars (and lorries!), then you’re probably going to stick to off-roading, in which case a mountain bike is probably a better option.

In general, if you think you want to ride the bike pretty much exclusively off-road and want to be able to access more technical trails, it’s probably better to go for a mountain bike.

So essentially, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. It depends on what you’re going to use the bike for. But whichever option you decide on, you’re bound to have fun zooming around the countryside on your off-road bike!

Found this gravel bike vs mountain bike guide helpful? Check out more from the BikeTips experts below!

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Jack is an experienced cycling writer based in San Diego, California. Though he loves group rides on a road bike, his true passion is backcountry bikepacking trips. His greatest adventure so far has been cycling the length of the Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia, and the next bucket-list trip is already in the works. Jack has a collection of vintage steel racing bikes that he rides and painstakingly restores. The jewel in the crown is his Colnago Master X-Light.

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