WHAT THE HECK IS GRAVEL BIKING, ANYWAY?
Gravel and all-road bikes are the fastest-growing segment of the cycling industry, and you can take your pick from a long list of reasons why. Gravel bikes offer an escape from the dangers and stresses of riding in heavily trafficked areas. They still ride smoothly and nearly as fast on pavement—especially pavement with cracks or potholes. They’re often more rugged and less finicky than their racing-inspired counterparts. And they’re certainly better-suited to venturing off the beaten path safely and comfortably.
More practical reasons aside, perhaps the biggest reason so many people love gravel and all-road bikes is the unbridled freedom they represent. There’s something inexplicably satisfying about a ride that encompasses streets, bike paths, gravel roads, and even the occasional section of singletrack. The willingness to take unplanned detours for no other reason other than “huh, I wonder where this goes” will open you up to all kinds of new experiences you wouldn’t have on a more rigid training ride.
It kind of feels like riding bikes when you were a kid—cruising around the neighborhood wherever your curious heart took you, with nary a high-tech gadget or nutritional supplement in sight (other than maybe a few half-melted Starburst in your pocket.) As long as you were home for dinner, that was all that really mattered. The same philosophy applies to riding gravel bikes. Except now you have to figure out the post-ride meal on your own.
What even is a gravel bike?
Gravel bikes can come in a lot of different configurations, from sleek speed machines to apocalypse-proof bikepacking rigs. But broadly speaking, gravel and all-road bikes are usually drop-bar bikes, with fatter, knobbier, cushier tires that are better-suited to mixed-surface riding than your usual 28-32mm road skinnies. While some gravel and all-road bikes use the same 700c wheel size you’ll find on traditional road bikes, many others use 650b wheels, which are the same diameter as a 27.5” mountain bike wheel. This allows running even bigger tires (and lower tire pressures) which keeps the ride much more comfortable and controllable in rough or washboarded sections—whether that means remote dirt roads or just pothole-riddled city streets. Generally, the bigger the tire, the better suited the bike is for rougher terrain, with the tradeoffs being on-road speed and agility.
Gravel and all-road bikes tend to have less aggressive geometry than traditional road bikes, offering a less twitchy, more predictable ride, as well as improved comfort for around-town pleasure cruises or long days in the saddle. Other common differences include disc brakes and wider-range drivetrains to help you tackle steep climbs and descents on occasionally loose surfaces. Drop bars on gravel bikes usually have at least some flare, to put your hands in a wider, more stable position for navigating rough terrain.
Can’t I just ride a mountain bike instead?
Absolutely you can! Plenty of people have a grand old time riding their mountain bikes on gravel roads, bike paths, and even around town. But a gravel bike’s more pedal-friendly geometry will let you put in a lot more miles a lot faster, especially if you like the idea of rides which include both dirt and pavement. Even if you’re not a Strava nerd or speed demon, it’s still nice to get the most mileage out of your efforts. Plus, drop bars let you switch up your hand positions regularly, which helps to avoid fatigue on longer rides.
On top of all that, there’s something inherently entertaining about intentionally riding less bike, particularly off-road. Especially if you’ve gotten accustomed to full-suspension mountain bikes, you might be surprised what a rigid, skinnier-tire bike is capable of. It’s a big part of why cyclocross racing has remained popular, despite the invention of “better” off-road bike tech (big shout out to ‘cross riders for pioneering drop bars on dirt before the rest of us were ready to get on board.)
You can call it Type 2 fun, or maybe just being a bit of a hipster. But at some point on any good gravel adventure, you’ll wish you were riding something else, even if for just a few minutes. It’s part of what adds to the satisfaction of getting to the end of a ride and reflecting on all the shenanigans that went down over the previous few hours, all on the same reliable steed.
Passing fad, or here to stay?
Some cynics claim that gravel and all-road bikes are just reskinned versions of cyclocross bikes or early 90s MTB designs, dreamed up by industry brass in a nefarious plot to sell more bikes. And they’re not entirely wrong. However, for the vast majority of riders, gravel bikes offer a versatile, fun, and comfortable ride that’s often much more enjoyable in the saddle than a traditional road bike, and much more pedalable than your average mountain bike. In fact, even if you have zero interest in actual “gravel” riding, many people find all-road bikes to be the best choice when ride quality is more important than flat-out speed. Put another way, if you’re only gonna own one bike, a gravel bike might just be the way to go.
Gravel bikes aren’t going anywhere. Quite the opposite—they’ll be showing up in more and more places all over the world. After all, that’s kind of the whole point of riding one.
TJ Parsons is a semi-reformed snowboard bum who now has a semi-adult career as a professional writer and creative. He's a self-proclaimed perpetual intermediate who thinks the outdoors are for everyone, and who wants to help dismantle gatekeeping and elitism in outdoor sports. When he's not squeezing brain juice into a keyboard, you'll find him riding boards or bikes throughout the Intermountain West.
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