Gravel bikes – What’s the point?

Hi folks. Firstly, let me apologise for the radio silence over the last couple of weeks. I blame a combination of high workload (yeah, turns out the final year of a degree is very hard) and procrastination. There’s not much to write about regarding training at the moment, entirely due to that fact that I haven’t really done any. Three weeks into the off-season and I’m getting the hang of it; eating what I want, only doing short rides when I feel like it and having some truly spectacular lie-ins. For that reason I’m going to go with an opinion post. As always feel free to disagree with me in the comments.

Gravel bikes are very much in fashion at the moment, for anyone who doesn’t know these essentially bridge the gap between road and mountain bikes. To give an example, here’s mine. For more on this bike read this post. It’s got drop handlebars, disc brakes, a 1x drivetrain and 650b wheels coupled with 33c gravel tyres. I’ve seen a lot of machines that fall under the gravel term – everything from an aerodynamic pinarello  to a full suspension offering.   Mine probably sits roughly in the middle of the spectrum.

Now, let’s address the elephant in the room – doesn’t this sound very similar to a Cyclocross bike? Well, yes. But there are a few subtle differences. CX Bikes are designed for racing, they tend to have aggressive geometry and ordinarily won’t come with mounts for racks or mudguards. Gravel bikes on the other hand are normally made with longer days in the saddle in mind. My answer to the question of whether or not it’s just a fancy marketing term used by the bike industry is therefore a firm no.

These bikes have come out of the US where I’m told (correct me if I’m wrong) they have a lot of unpaved roads, not suitable for Road Bikes but not quite MTB territory either. That’s not the case in the UK but speaking from extensive personal experience I can say that a lot of roads over here aren’t kept in good condition. Years of experience have conditioned me to dread the Winter which consists of riding muddy lanes covered in debris from farm vehicles, very often they haven’t been resurfaced in years and sport potholes that can easily ruin a good wheel.

Why not just use a Mountain Bike in the winter then? Anyone who rides both road and MTB should know the answer to this question – it’s boring. If you’re lucky enough to have a trail centre within easy reach then it’s probably a viable option but that’s not the case for most of us. On the road my 13kg MTB is extremely cumbersome, even the worst road conditions I’ve faced don’t demand suspension and a dropper seat post. I do accept however that this might be different with a higher end carbon XC hardtail.

I hope that you can now see why a gravel bike could come in very useful. These machines are light enough to handle decently on the road but have a bit of additional capability that means they can handle the rough stuff if required. So, what’s it been like to ride one for the past couple of weeks?

Bloody brilliant. I’d go as far as to say that it’s the most fun I’ve had on any bike in a good long while. Familiar road routes have taken on a whole new appeal simply because riding them is now a lot easier. Disc brakes are far superior to the rim variety especially in the wet and the larger tyres do a brilliant job of smoothing out the ride when the surface turns rough. Better still I can mix and match, breaking up a road ride with a couple of off-road sections. Fire roads and bridleways that are easy on an MTB become more technically challenging and therefore interesting to tackle on the gravel machine. Another thing, it’s very nice to be-able to switch off and get away from the traffic from time to time.

Now, with that said there are a few drawbacks. This bike is considerably heavier than the carbon road bikes I’m used to and can be very hard work on the climbs, though from a training point of view that’s no bad thing. The smaller wheels accelerate very well but aren’t quite as fast rolling, I certainly couldn’t keep up on a fast group ride on this bike. As for the gearing the 1x drivetrain (38t up front paired with an 11-42 cassette) is perfect off-road but a bit lacking on road descents or even flat sections with a tailwind. I will point out that all of these are issues with my particular bike, it’s perfectly possible to get lighter models with 700c wheels and 2x drivetrains that will be more suited to the road.

To summarise, if you ask me then gravel bikes are definitely worth considering. If you want one bike that can do it all then look no further, with such a wide range to choose from I’d go as far as to say that theres one out there to suit just about everyone. Above all else, they have a serious amount of fun factor. Haven’t you always wondered where that track that you’ve ridden past hundreds of times on your way home actually goes?

Thanks for reading.

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