5 reasons to choose a gravel bike

Richard Barrett
By Richard Barrett
8 minute read

Suitable for cycling on both tarmac and muddy trails, gravel bikes are versatile and fantastic for off and on-road routes. Here are five reasons why Richard Barrett, a long-time road bike enthusiast, believes your next bike should be a gravel bike.

Gravel bike parked up at Penmon Point on Anglesey during a mixed tarmac/trail ride
Gravel bike parked up at Penmon Point on Anglesey during a mixed tarmac/trail ride

Recent heavy rain had left stretches of muddy water that were unable to drain away into the ill-maintained ditches. Elsewhere mammoth tractors that were too wide for the lane had picked up mud from the verges and deposited it along the tarmac or what was left of it, their weight having broken the surface leaving potholes that were occasionally the depth of a washing-up bowl.

At the next junction we stopped and smiled at our good fortune of having cycled the lane without getting a wet foot or falling off. Then my partner made a life-changing decision. ‘You know we were talking about gravel bikes’, she said. ‘Let’s do it!

Two weeks later and a couple of thousand pounds poorer, we did the final assembly of two carbon gravel bikes that had arrived by courier earlier in the day. Initially we thought we would ride our gravel bikes through the winter then switch back to our road bikes in the spring.

But that’s not happened. Every time we ride now, which is typically two or three times a week, rain or shine, we automatically reach for our gravel bikes leaving our road bikes to gather cobwebs in the garage. Bikes that were once our pride and joy have suddenly become our less favourite children. Let me explain why.

What is a gravel bike?

Some would have you believe gravel bikes are nothing but marketing hype and they’ve been around for half a century ever since the Rough Stuff Fellowship doctored their road bikes and took to the hills. But the booming popularity of gravel bikes suggests manufacturers have identified a real need and riders really do want bikes that allow them to get off-road on the trails and tracks without compromising performance too much on the tarmac.

A 38c wide gravel tyre suitable for mixed road and trail use
A 38c wide gravel tyre suitable for mixed road and trail use
The adjustable elastomers in a suspension stem absorb shocks and suppress road rumble
The adjustable elastomers in a suspension stem absorb shocks and suppress road rumble
42 tooth single chain-ring on a gravel bike
42 tooth single chain-ring on a gravel bike

Gravel bikes typically come with drop handlebars and look much like road bikes, albeit with disc brakes, clearance for wider tyres, easier gearing and more stable handling needed for riding off-road. That said there is a considerable variety of gravel bikes available with some designed and equipped for speed while others are more akin to adventure bikes with chunkier tyres and better luggage carrying capacity.

Most gravel bikes have a longer wheelbase and slacker geometry than an out-and-out road bike to give better handling for riding off-road and sometimes come equipped with flared handlebars designed to give more confident handling over rough ground.

However, unless you retrofit a shock-absorbing stem and seat post yourself, the only suspension comes from the design features such as curved seat stays that provide some flex. But with tyres that are typically 38mm (38c) or wider, which run at a much lower pressures than narrower road tyres, ride comfort is way better than on a road bike. And if that’s not good enough for the type of terrain you wish to ride, most frames allow you to switch out the 700c wheels for smaller 650b wheels that will accommodate tyres up to 50mm wide. At the same time you could always switch to tubeless tyres that can be run as low as 40psi (pounds per square inch) which is less than half the pressure of conventional tyres on a road bike.

The only other major consideration in selecting a gravel bike is gearing. Riding steep off-road climbs and looser surfaces where you need to sit tight in the saddle to prevent wheel-slip, calls easy and very forgiving gearing. As a result gravel bikes typically come with something like a 46/34 tooth double chain-set with a wide-range 11-34 tooth rear cassette or alternatively a single 42 tooth chain-ring with an ultra-wide range 11-42 tooth rear cassette which gives much the same range as a double chain-set but with slightly larger jumps between the gears.

I personally run a single chain-ring on my gravel bike, can climb just as easily as on my triple-ring touring bike - the one that’s gathering cobwebs in the garage - and miss nothing other than a bit of top-end speed.

Depending on the type of riding you want to do, there is a gravel bike out there for you with a choice of frame materials, components and subsequently price points. If all you want to do is get away from the traffic and the tarmac and ride some well-surfaced trails once in a while, you won’t be too concerned with wider tyres and load carrying capabilities.

But if you’re intent on multi-day, self-supported trips into the back of beyond you certainly will and your choice of frame material, gearing and tread pattern will differ accordingly. After just a few months my partner and I are firm converts and if we could only own one bike, it’d have to be a gravel bike.

5 reasons to choose a gravel bike

1. They are more comfortable on our increasingly poorly maintained roads

Most cyclists avoid riding alongside fast-moving traffic and end up spending most of the time on back roads and country lanes that are increasingly poorly maintained. With council budgets under pressure, the state of these roads is likely to be get worse, rather than better, so riding them on a gravel bike with wider tyres that are run at lower pressures gives a more comfortable ride over poor quality surfaces.

Choose a model with some flex built into the frame, fit the widest tyres it will accommodate, double wrap the handlebars and perhaps fit a shock-absorbing stem and you’ll have a bike that is a lot more forgiving to ride on tarmac than an endurance bike or a touring bike. This is ideal for those who suffer problems with their hands and wrists - and in my book is good enough reason to switch in itself.

Forgiving gearing makes easy work climbing ‘The Shelf’ - a notorious climb in the Clwydian Hills in North East Wales
Forgiving gearing makes easy work climbing ‘The Shelf’ - a notorious climb in the Clwydian Hills in North East Wales

2. They give you confidence

Passing over rough surfaces without excessive road noise or being thrown about all the time definitely improves confidence and if anything you tend to ride faster along back lanes than you would on a road bike fitted with narrower 25c or 28c tyres. This is an improvement that my partner finds quite noticeable and whereas I used to wait for her at the next junction while she tentatively made her way around the potholes and over the loose gravel, these days when we’re out riding on our gravel bikes, she usually arrives at junctions at exactly the same time, if not before.

3. They open up new off-road opportunities on your local patch

Gravel bikes bring new freedoms. Instead of sticking to your local tarmac that you’ve ridden a thousand times before, now you can swing off along a bridle way that you’ve previously ignored and enjoy riding over totally different types of terrain. You don’t have to go that far from home to discover a whole new range of places to ride and explore even in cities. Just check out your local bridle ways and permissive routes on an Ordnance Survey map or take a look at the off-road routes available on your favourite route planning app. Once you’ve ridden them a few times, you might want to venture further afield, riding some of the easier loops at mountain bike trail centres or perhaps getting totally off the beaten track, miles away from the nearest road. If you’re looking for inspiration, take a look at the routes in Cicerone’s collection of mountain biking guidebooks, which are ideal for riding on a gravel bike.

Parked up on the tracks over the Horseshoe Pass in North Wales
Parked up on the tracks over the Horseshoe Pass in North Wales

4. They help you develop new riding skills

One of the best parts of riding off-road as a beginner is developing a whole new set of skills, such as riding out of the saddle to allow the bike the flow better over rough ground or shifting your centre of gravity over the back wheel to improve stability on steep descents. Initially such skills may not come naturally but if you stick with it, you’ll soon find yourself clearing obstacles that caused you problems a few rides back and you’ll soon be pushing yourself to ride that steeper bank or maintain your speed over gnarly trees roots. As a sixty something, the buzz I get from achieving something new is a fantastic feeling.

5. They could be your do-it-all bike

Although off-the shelf gravel bikes are designed for riding a mix on tarmac and off-road tracks and trails, they can be easily and fairly cheaply adapted to a number of different uses. Switch to slicker tyres that are narrower with less pronounced tread and suddenly you’ve got something much more akin to a road or commuter bike. Add some knobbly tyres and easier gearing to cut through stick mud and you wouldn’t look amiss in an amateur cyclocross race. Fit mudguards and you’ve got a very capable bike for winter training. And if you’re limited on storage space or budget and can only have one bike, you could opt for a gravel bike and a couple of different wheelsets that can quickly switch out giving two very different rides. It’s very cost-effective too.

As yet, I’m still riding on the tyres that came with my gravel bike and find them more than adequate for clubs rides and the drier trails and tracks near home. And as the frame is reinforced and has mounts for a pannier rack, I’m looking forward to testing them out on a mixed terrain short tour anytime soon.

If you’ve read this far, I hope that you’re convinced gravel bikes are worth investigating. You might just be looking to try something new, another bike that will broaden your horizons or a first bike that gives you scope to do lots of different things with. Either way, it’s hard to argue against getting a gravel bike. I just wish I’d done it earlier.

The author on the fire tracks in the local forest
The author on the fire tracks in the local forest

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