What Is A Gravel Bike? All You Need To Know

You’ve probably heard of gravel riding before. After all, it’s the hottest and fastest-growing riding discipline right now.

While ditching the road for new surfaces is hardly a totally new idea, what has changed is the wave of specially adapted bikes, events, and equipment dedicated to helping you do it.

This is what we’re talking about when we discuss gravel biking.

But what is a gravel bike? And why are more and more people deciding to take the plunge and start using them?

In this article, we’ll answer those questions, focusing on these key areas:

  • What Is A Gravel Bike?
  • Key Features Of A Gravel Bike
  • Why Has Gravel Bike Riding Become So Popular?
  • Reasons To Buy A Gravel Bike
  • Which Gravel Bike Should I Buy?

Ready for the lowdown on one of cycling’s fastest-growing disciplines?

Time to get started!

What Is A Gravel Bike: Title Image

What Is A Gravel Bike?

Let’s start with a simple definition.

A gravel bike is a drop handlebar bicycle that’s made for riding on unpaved surfaces.

Gravel riding is a term that encompasses various different cycling styles. You could be off-roading it through a forest, weaving around green country lanes, or racing over a muddy track.

Gravel riding can refer to just “mucking about” in your local area, but it can also apply to intense cross-country races like the 200-mile Unbound Gravel race.

Basically, it’s anything other than road riding. Terrain can vary massively, as can a cyclist’s individual purposes and needs. The term “gravel riding” is a nice easy definition that wraps all this activity into one.

In order to understand what gravel riding is all about, it’s important to take a look at the main features of a typical bike. In the next section of this article, that’s what we’ll be focusing on.

A rider dressed in black drifts on a gravel bike against an autumnal background.

Key Features Of A Gravel Bike

Generally speaking, any drop handlebar bike with fairly wide and grippy tires can be used as a gravel bike. If it’s comfortable with off-roading, it’s likely to work.

That reflects the fact that gravel biking is a hugely broad spectrum, with features varying massively between different models.

However, there are a few unifying elements that lots of gravel bikes have in common. Below, you’ll find a guide to the main features of a gravel bike.

#1. Wider Tires

To ensure better off-road capability, all gravel bikes will be fitted with wider, more grippy tires compared to a road bike.

#2. Wide Drop Handlebars

Usually, gravel bikes will have wider handlebars for added control, and the drops of the bars are often flared outward, too. This gives riders greater confidence on technical terrain.

#3. Disc Brakes

While it’s not a blanket rule, it’s pretty much universal for gravel bikes to use disc brakes. This is because of the reliability, power, and added clearance they provide.

#4. Relaxed Geometry

The geometry of gravel bikes will tend to be more relaxed than on a road bike, in order to offer stability on loose surfaces. Gearing is often easier due to the expectation of slightly lower speeds and heavier terrain.

#5. Light Frames

The types of material used for frames will vary, with higher-end frames being made of carbon fiber, and more affordable models using aluminum frames. However, most manufacturers will be striving for light weight.

There are plenty of other features to be found on a gravel bike, but as we’ve mentioned, things can vary a lot.

So what is it about this form of cycling that has led to a recent explosion in popularity?

A rider in black cycling shorts rides a white gravel bike on a tarmac road.

Why Has Gravel Bike Riding Become So Popular?

The continual evolution of gravel-specific technology proves that gravel riding isn’t just a fad – it’s here to stay.

We could point to a few key factors that have led to the rise of gravel riding.

Probably the most important thing to note is the sense of empowerment and freedom that comes with having a bike that can work across multiple types of terrain.

And manufacturing innovation has taken advantage of the keenness of cyclists to try out different terrains using a gravel bike. Here are some of the key developments that have allowed gravel riding to become so popular:

#1. Better Tubeless Tires

While tubeless tires have become more common within road cycling, they’re an absolute necessity in gravel riding, where rough terrain increases the risk of puncture. The durability of gravel bike tires has certainly contributed to their popularity.

#2. A New Approach To Drop Handlebars

In a pretty short time, gravel biking has reshaped the drop handlebar concept. The wider handlebars of gravel bikes offer more comfort, better steering leverage, plus extra room for lights, head units, and bikepacking bags. These practical advantages are crucial.

#3. Gravel Gear

The rise of gravel biking has been accompanied by a rider gear revolution, with gravel-specific biking shoes becoming particularly popular. This special gear makes the whole off-roading process easier and more comfortable.

#4. The All-Rounder

Perhaps the most important factor of all for the rise of the gravel bike is its versatility. These days, when we make investments, we like them to be useful in a number of situations. Gravel bikes certainly are.

With rugged tires that are suited to the daily commute as well as the off-road dirt track experience, and frame geometry that fits a broader range of riders, gravel bicycles are believed by many to be the perfect all-rounders.

But how do they compare to more traditional off-road bikes?

A rider pauses on a grassy trail with his burgundy gravel bike.

Gravel Biking Vs Mountain Biking

Now that we’ve taken you through the main features of a gravel bike and explained the benefits they can provide, it’s time for a little comparison.

Mountain biking is a hugely popular activity practiced by people all over the world.

For many, the escapism and thrill it provides make it the ideal cycling format. But how does mountain biking compare to gravel biking?

It’s likely that you’re already aware of the fact that gravel bikes borrow many features from mountain bikes. At the end of the day, they’re built for many of the same things.

A frame built for stability, wide tubeless tires, wide-range gearing, and quality suspension features are some of the key similarities between the spec of a mountain bike and a gravel bike.

But there are some differences, too. Rather than being focused completely on heavy off-roading, gravel bikes are also designed to handle tarmac surfaces and less technical off-road terrain, thanks to their drop bars and more aggressive gearing.

However, you get more width and grip on mountain bike tires, and the suspension will be better than most gravel bikes.

Essentially, the choice between gravel and mountain bike comes down to the kind of terrain you’re typically going to operate in.

For lighter off-road terrain, a gravel bike will be lighter and just as effective, but mountain bikes are the better choice when you get onto more technical trails.

A red gravel bike stands on a pebbled coastline at sunset.

Which Gravel Bike Should I Buy?

Choosing a gravel bike can be tough, especially with so many on the market these days.

As we mentioned, this is a broad spectrum, with some models straying closer to road bikes, and others looking pretty similar to a typical mountain bike.

When picking a gravel bike, you want to be asking yourself a few key questions:

#1. What terrain will you be riding most?

Be honest here. Will you really be riding intense 100-mile off-road trails on a regular basis, or is it much more likely that you’ll be using a mix of pavement and dirt roads?

Think about where you’ll do most of your riding and place yourself somewhere on the spectrum between roadie and off-road fanatic.

#2. What Kind Of Spec Do You Want?

This is important. Do you want your bike to behave more like a mountain bike or more like a road bike? Picking a component spec means choosing 1x or 2x drivetrains, thinking about what size tires you want, and so on.

#3. make sure you go on a test ride!

This is arguably the most crucial bit of advice we could give you when it comes to picking the right gravel bike for you. Trust your gut; if it doesn’t feel right when you ride it, don’t go for it.

Bear these points in mind, and you shouldn’t have a problem picking an amazing gravel bike capable of handling whatever situation you plan on throwing at it.

And once you’ve got your gravel bike, there are tons of exciting things you can do with it. Why not load up your gravel bike with some camping kit and head off on a multi-day bikepacking trip?

Found this “What Is A Gravel Bike” article helpful? Check out more from the BikeTips experts below!

Fred Garratt-Stanley

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