‘Why buy a gravel bike?’ ranks among the internet’s most asked questions, so this gravel bike buying guide should clear things up.
The reason is simple: gravel bikes, also known as adventure bikes or occasionally mixed terrain cycles, fill in the gap between road bikes and mountain bikes.
Because of their highly-specialist designs, mountain bikes are just as useless on the road as road bikes are on the trail, so if you want a bike that can handle both terrains, well friends, you need a gravel bike.
The advantage of adventure bikes
Go anywhere. That’s the major advantage of the gravel or adventure bike. No need to hoist your MTB on the car roof until you get to the trail, while your road bike’s tarmacked limits are a thing of the past.
Take the road to the beach, then ride on the beach. Sail through the forest and ride up the fire road, then head home through the city.
Gravel bikes are versatile, resilient, and incredibly fun to ride. If you can see it, you can ride through it, and turn every journey into an adventure without limits.
Another big advantage of the adventure bike is the relative cost. Because they are relatively simple machines, foregoing the precision engineering of a full-sus enduro bike or the weight-saving materials of a carbon fibre road beast, adventure bikes are considerably cheaper than a high-spec road or trail thoroughbred.
This makes it an excellent second bike for regular riders, or as a versatile all-rounder for the leisure cyclist.
The anatomy of a gravel bike
Like the griffin of legend, gravel bikes are a hybrid of both road and mountain bike design. They combine MTB wheels, tyres, and frame clearance and forks with a robust climbing bike-style frame and drop handlebars.
As it’s not built for flat out sprinting, an adventure bike’s frameset is compact, with a more relaxed geometry than the standard road bike. Indeed, the frameset will be slacker still than a regular endurance or sportive bike, making them incredible accessible and easy to ride.
To cope with big climbs and relatively low speeds, mountain bike groupsets are usually employed to handle the grunt work, with their more rugged construction giving them the edge over road bike componentry. This includes disc brakes, which are almost universally fitted to adventure-style bikes.
What tyres for a gravel bike?
To cope with the mix of terrains, adventure road bikes are usually fitted with wide, semi-slick tyres, but depending on where you’re planning on spending most of your time, you might consider going for either more lugs or a slicker profile.
Frames and forks are generally generous in terms of clearance to fit even the most bloated tyres, while fixtures for mudguards will also commonly feature.
Will I need a different size when buying a gravel bike?
While the frame geometry might not be what you’re used to, especially if you’re a pure MTB or road bike rider, getting the right frame size shouldn’t be a hassle.
A detailed sizing chart is provided on each of the product pages on Chain Reaction Cycles.
All you need is a few simple measurements and you’ll be able to find the perfect frame size for you.
Hang on – what do I wear on a gravel bike? Baggies or bibs?
Given the growing popularity of the discipline, gravel-specific wear is just starting to emerge onto the market in small quantities.
A few brands are testing ‘explore’ wear, but at present it’s really up to the individual rider whether they don baggies or bibs, road or peaked helmets, jerseys or t-shirts.
Our advice is that anything other than a full-face helmet and you’re probably going to be alright. Wear whatever makes you feel comfortable and biased toward whichever terrain you’re going to see more of.
Wait – what about shoes?
Oh yeah… well, if clipping in, are you going SPD-SL or MTB style SPDs? Because you’re not looking for the slim wattage advantages provided by road cycling pedal systems, our advice is to go for SPDs when clipping in.
This will ensure you can get the foot down on an off-road switchback while still giving you some upward pulling power when out on the asphalt.
What that means is, you’re more likely to be pulling on the MTB shoes, which might change some of your decisions about attire elsewhere. Or it may not; that’s really up to you.
Look, just wait a minute. Saddles, what about saddles?
Oh right, saddles. Well, again, we’re talking about a more comfortable riding position and a more versatile and less technical riding style. The logical decision is therefore a more comfortable saddle, such as an endurance saddle or an MTB style seat.
But again, there are no hard and fast rules. When riding for adventure, you’re only competing against yourself. There are no wattage output expectations, no lap times, no mileage requirements, no 100-mile barriers, no tricks, no drops, and no best lines.
There’s just you, a bike, and the planet.
What’s with the flared bars?
With less focus on aerodynamics, gravel and adventure bikes can better accommodate the need for more control. Just like the wide bars of modern mountain bikes, wider drops give you more precision on technical descents. By increasing the distance the bar has to turn to make small adjustments, you have more room for error, which is great when navigating a rocky path.
Which gravel bike is right for me?
Will you be commuting, touring, or exploring? Will you be spending most of your time on the road or in the mud? Is it for short spins or all day epics? All these questions will influence your gravel bike choice.