Gravel Bike Vs Road Bike: Essential Differences Explained

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Unlike mountain or cyclocross bikes, which are designed quite differently, gravel bikes and road bikes have a lot in common.

It’s even fairly easy to convert one into the other with a few minor changes.

So what are the differences when it comes to gravel bike vs road bike? And why are they designed in this way?

Read on, because in this article we’ll be covering:

  • How Is Gravel Biking Different To Road Biking?
  • 6 Key Differences Between Gravel Bikes Vs Road Bikes
  • Gravel Vs Road Bike: Is It Easy To Switch Over?

Let’s dive in!

Gravel Bike Vs Road Bike: Title Image

How Is Gravel Biking Different To Road Biking

Because roads are flat and even, road bikes are primarily designed for low rolling resistance and aerodynamics, without prioritizing the ability to handle rough terrain.

Gravel bikes are a little different.

Gravel cycling involves cycling off-road on unpaved trails, whether that’s gravel, singletrack, or something else.

Gravel cycling is popular for biking in the great outdoors, off of the road, without the extreme terrain tackled in full-blown mountain biking.

Gravel biking is not dissimilar from the foundations of cyclocross, which is reflected in the similarities in their designs.

Like mountain biking and cyclocross, you need a specialized bike to take on gravel.

A road bike isn’t well suited to gravel, which is more uncomfortable, as we’ll go into. And road bike tires will quickly puncture on gravel.

So gravel bikes are different from road bikes, but the differences are more subtle, unlike mountain bikes and cyclocross bikes.

So what are the differences between road bikes and gravel bikes?

A cyclist climbs a hill on an orange road bike.

6 Key Differences Between Gravel Bikes Vs Road Bikes

#1. Wheels And Tires

Typically, road bikes run 700c wheelsets with tires between 23 and 28 mm in width.

Road bike tires are light and thin, with low rolling resistance: good for keeping up speed on the road.

The downside is that these tires are fairly puncture-prone: debris on the road can pierce the thin treads, and “snake bite” punctures are also common. On gravel, the puncture protection needs to be hardier.

Gravel bikes commonly use 700c or 650b wheelsets, wider tires (32 mm upwards), and more aggressive tread patterns.

Though many road cyclists choose to run tubeless too, the additional puncture protection and ability to run lower tire pressures are even more vital for gravel bikes.

This means gravel vs road bike wheel clearance is a little different. Gravel bike frames have wider forks and longer and wider chainstays to accommodate larger tires.

#2. Geometry

A cyclist turns on a paved road riding a black road bike.

Road and gravel bike geometry is also slightly different in two main ways.

Where road bikes are set up for tight turning and control on even terrain, gravel bikes make a couple of small adjustments to make the geometry suitable for gravel.

Road bikes have shorter wheelbases, which is the distance between the front and back wheels.

This creates a more responsive frame, but with less flex, compromising the bike’s ability to absorb impacts. This is better for maneuvering the bike while cycling on even roads.

Gravel bikes on the other hand have longer wheelbases.

This makes gravel bikes a little more stable on uneven terrain and gives them more flex.

The head angle is the angle of the bike’s front fork against the flat line of the wheelbase.

A red gravel bike stands in an autumnal forest.

Road bikes have steep head angles, typically around 73 degrees. This makes the front wheel snappier when turning, but twitchy over bumps.

Gravel bikes have a slacker head angle, normally just below 70 degrees, meaning the front wheel sits a little further in front of the handlebars.

This creates more “trail“, which makes the bike more stable on pitched terrain, though you lose some steering responsiveness.

The differences in gravel bike vs road bike frame geometry are fairly small, though. You might not even notice at first when comparing them side by side.

#3. Drivetrain

Most road bikes have 2x drivetrains, meaning they have two chainrings (or three for bikes with a triple chainset).

This means they have twice (or 3x) the number of gears available than they do sprockets on the cassette. This allows them to achieve a wide range of gear ratios, without needing large intervals between them.

Therefore, you can fine-tune the gear ratio for a given patch of road.

However, the terrain faced by gravel bikes tends to vary more rapidly, meaning there’s less of a need to fine-tune the gear selection as you flick between them more often.

This makes 1x drivetrains (with a single chainring) a more viable option for gravel bikes.

To achieve the necessary gear range with just one chainring, the cassette’s sprockets need to vary widely – as extreme as 10-44t available with SRAM‘s XPLR range.

However, with just one chainring, a 1x gravel bike drivetrain compromises by having large intervals between gears, which can be frustrating if you can’t quite find the right cadence for a sustained period.

You can also get gravel bikes with a 2x drivetrain, bringing them a little closer to a typical road bike setup. In any case, gravel bikes are likely to have more forgiving gear ratios than road bikes to help them tackle challenging terrain.

#4. Handlebars

Flared drop handlebars on a gravel bike.

Compares to other types of bikes, road bike handlebars are fairly narrow and flat, with a longer stem.

This is good for maintaining an aerodynamic riding position and making turns on the road.

At first glance, gravel bike handlebars are similar to those of a road bike – and one of the most obvious ways they differ from other off-roaders – because they typically use drop handlebars.

However, gravel bike drop handlebars tend to be wider than on a road bike, and the drops sometimes flare outwards too.

Though slightly less aerodynamic, wider handlebars allow for more control. Because turning is harder on gravel, wider handlebars give you more leverage to push the front wheel into a turn.

Gravel bikes also often have a shorter stem, which will again make you less aerodynamic but a little more upright and balanced on pitched terrain.

#5. Pedals

SPD cleats on a white background.

For road bikes, there are a few options for pedals and cleats, each with pros and cons.

Three-bolt cleats, including Shimano’s SPD-SLs and Look’s range, are the most popular for casual cyclists.

Whilst these cleats are easy to find and replace, and good on the road, there’s a pretty important reason that gravel bikers tend not to use them.

Instead, most riders go for SPD two-bolt cleats to tackle gravel.

This is primarily because SPD two-bolt cleats are easier to walk in, and dismounting is more common in gravel biking.

SPD-SLs and Look’s three-bolt leats have plastic soles which are soft and would quickly be worn down by rough surfaces underfoot.

The SPD two-bolt, instead, is a little more reliable for stepping off the bike and onto rough ground from time to time.

#6. Saddle

A cyclist rides a gravel trail through a forest.

The last point of difference on our list is the saddle.

On the road, the pressure exerted on your groin by narrow bike seats gets uncomfortable over time.

This is exacerbated by gravel, which makes for bumpier riding, creating a double punch of more friction and vibrational impacts in the saddle.

Some gravel cyclists use a padded seat post or suspension seat to mitigate this.

Gravel Bike Vs Road Bike: Is It Easy To Switch Over?

A cyclist on a maroon gravel bike skids on some shingle.

Taking your road biking experience onto gravel is fairly straightforward.

Losing some of the speed may be frustrating at first, but it’s a brilliant way to see more of your local outdoors without relying on paved roads to get around.

Plus, fewer issues with traffic!

Transitioning from gravel biking to road biking will mean more attention to your surroundings, and also cycling at a higher speed!

Like any sport, time and experience on the bike will be hugely rewarding.

Enjoyed this gravel bike vs road bike guide? Check out more from the BikeTips experts below!

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One of BikeTips' experienced cycling writers, Riley spends most of his time in the saddle of a sturdy old Genesis Croix De Fer 20, battling the hills of the Chilterns or winds of North Cornwall. Off the bike you're likely to find him with his nose in a book.

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