Ask The Pedalist: What is the difference between Gravel and Road Bikes?


Hi Pedalist, I am looking for a new bike, something I can ride around my house to maintain an active lifestyle. While searching for road bikes I came across a new type of bike I didn’t know about called gravel bike.  This seems similar to a road bike, but with thicker tires and and overall bigger frame. Can you explain why this new class of cycles, when mountain and road bikes already exists for road use and trail use, respectively?

– Restarting Cycling

Dear Restarting Cycling,

Your question led me down memory lane when I was facing a similar conundrum – what is a gravel bike? Is it for me? I remember researching this new breed of bikes which everyone was raving about. a few years ago Every manufacturer was putting out new models and gravel cycles was what all everyone in the cycling circles was talking about .

To put it plainly, gravel bikes are road bikes with thicker tires. Or it is a mountain bike with road-bike bars. One of these would answer most of the questions a novice might have. But if you dig deeper you come to learn of nuances and what sets it a apart from a road bike or a mountain bike.

First, the frames are a little more robust. This is because gravel bikes are designed to go on non-paved surfaces. So the frame has to be strong to put up with the rattles and “shocks” of riding on gravels,rocks, stones, roots, etc. So thicker down-tubes, head-tubes, and chain- stays provide this needed support and cushion.

Another differentiation is the provisions to attach bags and other travel essentials to the bike. Gravel bikes have been used for bike-packing trips. So storage for longer trips is essential. So you see grommets on the fork, the down-tube, and seat-stays to attach panniers and bags.

Because of the above two reasons, thicker tires are preferred for traction on loose terrain and for comfort on longer rides. A road bike, by design, is aimed for speed and lightness. Adding stiffer grommets and thicker tires makes it slower. A gravel rider, on the other hand, is not looking for speed. Some people have a gravel bike and use a separate set of wheels with road bike tires, which they change out depending on where they want to ride, thereby enabling them to ride on both paved and non-paved roads. There are other differences, with gravel bikes having a single front chain ring and a bigger rear gear range, but this is specific to the rider and the gearing he or she wants. 

As to how this differs from mountain bikes, it is not very different. Mountain bikes have flat handle bars. on long rides a single position is not ideal or comfortable. So a road bike handlebar, with its various positions (in the drops, on the hoods, on the top) gives the rider more arm placement options and comfort.

So I suggest you take a test ride on both a road bike and gravel bike. If you get a gravel bike, you can ride on both, but a road bike might limit your riding options.

Happy riding!

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