Gravel bikes — hot or not?

If you're riding long distances off road there's more than just gravel bikes out there

A few months ago I would have described myself as a gravel evangelist, firmly convinced about the merits of taking what are essentially road bikes to inappropriate places. Recently, though, I’ve been churning out long distances on an XC hardtail, and may be turning into a mountain bike convert. So, do we even need gravel bikes?

I increasingly feel that gravel bikes fit into a decreasingly-sized niche, somewhere between mountain and road bikes, where they purport to be able to do everything, but in fact do nothing fantastically.

On the road I miss the go fast feeling of narrow tyres, and when the off-road gets rough I miss the control and comfort of big tyres and suspension.

The terrain has to be just so in order for a gravel bike to really make sense. Long, stretched out fire roads or smooth singletrack are undoubtedly where they feel most at home. Add in roots or mud or even tarmac and the compromises quickly rear their head.

At some point you have to wonder whether it isn't just easier to ride a mountain bike
At some point you have to wonder whether it isn't just easier to ride a mountain bike

Unavoidably, the more time I spend off-road, the further I want to push it and the harder I want to go. Now, unless you’re an absolute glutton for punishment gravel bikes are going to be more difficult, scarier and slower to ride on challenging terrain.

On a mountain bike, big tyres and suspension improve control and traction, a huge gear range gets me up everything I want, I have wide bars for better control and I finish a day’s riding feeling less bruised and battered than I would on a fully rigid bike.

Much as you might want it to be, a gravel bike will never be a mountain bike. With the trend towards creating “monstercross” bikes, you have to ask at which point you’re just better served by a dedicated mountain bike.

The perfect gravel roads?
The perfect gravel roads?

So does that mean gravel bikes are just a conspiracy to sell us more bikes? I don’t think so. Specialist bikes are always going to feel more at home in their own terrain. By the very nature of being a jack of all trades, gravel bikes must have inevitable compromises.

Where they shine is in their versatility and being able to configure them to your needs. If you want a one bike solution, a gravel bike and two sets of tyres for on- and off-road is likely it.

Gravel bikes are undoubtedly brilliant machines for long distance riding and going on multi-day adventures
Gravel bikes are undoubtedly brilliant machines for long distance riding and going on multi-day adventures

It’s just that I realised that I'd forgotten how capable mountain bikes are. I can’t help but feel that if your riding is split more towards off-road, then you may be better served by a faster, more comfortable and more capable XC bike.

What kind of terrain do you ride your gravel, mountain or road bike on? Where do you see the limits of each? What would you prefer to ride?

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