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September 1, 2022

Gravel Bikes: Where Are They Headed?

Ever since their debut on the market a decade or so ago, gravel bikes have rapidly become one of the fastest growing bike categories among cyclists.

Remember that, historically, cyclists were either wholehearted roadies or hardcore MTB’ers (fine… there were cyclocross’ers, bmx’ers, and cruisers in the mix, too, but we’re trying to present a simple argument here). Now, there’s this in-between, catch-all category of gravel riders (groad’ers?), too.

What explains their meteoric rise? What could be behind this growing trend?

We don’t have a crystal ball, but we have a hunch.

Most of the first gravel bikes to hit the market were predominantly beefed up road bikes or re-badged cyclocross bikes (some might argue they still are). Gravel bikes were considered to be a kind of hybrid of road and MTB bikes, or something reminiscent of those epic hard-tailed machines of the late 1990s before full suspension meaningfully advanced and took over the MTB scene. Now, we think the gravel phenomenon is signaling the growth of a broader movement of people that, put simply, love the pure joy of riding a bike—whenever, wherever—which demands a ride that fits in just about anywhere.

Nowadays, the classic polarized ‘road versus mountain’ debate feels a bit passé: Why choose between a road bike and a mountain bike if you don’t have to? So, what could this mean for the future of gravel bikes? Could they usher in a unifying force between road bikes and MTB, or could they potentially widen the gap by coaxing each major category to craft the perfect weapon for their more singular raison d’être?

What is a Gravel Bike?

Wilier Rave SLR geometry chart

Wilier Rave SLR Gravel Bike Geometry Highlights

You probably already know what a gravel bike is—maybe you are even among the cyclists that have made the jump to gravel. But what are the distinguishing features of a gravel bike that could explain why more and more cyclists are opting for them?

A gravel bike sits somewhere in between a road bike and a mountain bike. Its drop handlebar design makes you feel a bit like you’re cruising along on a road machine except that, when you abruptly reach the edge of the pavement, you don’t hesitate—you just keep on riding. In a nutshell, the drop bar design and geometry of the bike mean you can ride on the road without getting dropped by the roadies, while the wider tires, lower gearing, and more relaxed position mean you can venture off-road, too.

Functionality

Most of the appeal of gravel bikes is that they are versatile.

On the one hand, road bikes are characteristically rigid: Every ounce of power fuels forward momentum, and lack of compliance on rough terrain can result in a ride that is fatiguing to downright unsafe. Mountain bikes, on the other hand, offer up as much bump-eliminating suspension travel and low pressure grip as you can muster, which—while comforting—can feel a wee bit overdone (although the industry has made tremendous strides to keep weight and efficiency paramount) for those less daring trails in your neighbourhood, or that local hill climb.

Enter: Gravel bikes! They give you the flexibility to go further afield, such as more casual bikepacking trips that could lead you along well-worn paths and the road less traveled. With a gravel bike, you can go virtually anywhere—on and off road—and that can be liberating when you’re chasing a spontaneous adventure.

Frame Design

Generally, a gravel bike is similar to a road bike, but is designed with subtle geometric differences that equip the bike for off-road riding.

In particular, compared to road bikes, gravel bikes have a longer wheelbase (that’s the distance between the center of both the front and rear axle of the bike) for greater compliance and stability, and a slacker head tube angle (that’s the angle between the frame and the fork of the bike) to provide more stability and controlled handling (when you decide to slow down a bit and brave that local single track), and to accommodate more space for larger tires.

When you’re in the saddle of a gravel bike, you will likely be in a more comfortable, upright riding position than a road bike. If aero is your objective, then a road bike may be a more suitable option (but that’s a whole other debate—should a gravel bike seek aero efficiency?—that we can explore in a future blog post).

Additionally, because gravel bikes are more suitable for bikepacking adventures, they typically feature more mounting/storage options along the surface of the bike to allow riders to pack on more.

Like most bikes, gravel bikes are typically designed with aluminum or carbon frames. But, these ‘do anything’ beasts that don’t overemphasize any specific capability are ripe for titanium or good old-fashioned steel, too.

Components

While gravel bikes typically feature a drop handlebar, they could function just as well with a straight bar (like a mountain bike).

Over the years, the drop bars have ushered in intriguing designs, such as flared bars (to enable a wider stance) and double bars. Some bikes, such as the WILIER Rave SLR—the ultimate all-road/gravel bike with a racing pedigree—even provide the option of two handlebar designs: Road and gravel.

Wilier Rave SLR J Bar front end

Wilier Rave SLR Gravel Bike Showcasing a J Bar

It’s hard to tackle components without acknowledging the dedicated gravel groupsets (yes, dedicated gravel groupsets). The mere fact that there are gravel-specific groupsets (for example, Shimano GRX, SRAM XPLR, Campagnolo EKAR) seems to validate the rise of gravel and how it is coming into its own.

Suspension is beginning to make an appearance, too, much like it did for mountain bikes in the 1990s. Here again, this begs the question: In which direction are gravel bikes headed? More mountain, less road?

Last but not least, virtually all gravel bikes use disc brakes (although disc brakes are becoming ubiquitous just about everywhere, including road bikes). Disc brakes enable you to stop faster and are more reliable when riding in different weather conditions.

Wheels & Tires

Gravel bikes commonly feature 700c or 650b wheels that can accommodate a wide range of tire sizes. Many even offer compatibility for both wheel sizes, which could mean a more dedicated road set up and a more dedicated off-road set up.

Given the distinctive features of gravel bikes we described above, you won’t be shocked to learn that gravel bikes have wider tires than road bikes, which are designed to power those off-road escapades. Typically, gravel bike tires range from 35mm to 40mm in width and can often go even wider, particularly with the smaller 650b hoop. The extra volume of gravel bike tires means lower tire pressures and enhanced improvement in ride comfort. Moreover, wider tires and lower pressures provide more traction on rough terrain, keeping your knuckles free of that pasty whiteness.

While it isn’t absolutely necessary, gravel bike wheels typically run tubeless tires, which allows for those lower pressures that drive more traction and increased comfort without having to fear those pinch flats (we know, we know… most of you know how to change a flat, but you may be grateful for a reduced risk of flats when venturing into the backroads and wilderness on your next bikepacking adventure anyway).

Gearing

Gravel bikes typically have a wider gear range. Again, gravel bikes fall somewhere between road and mountain bikes with requirements for gear ranges that allow for steep pitches on off-road tracts and something bigger that you can get on top of when back on tarmac.

Most gravel bikes are now equipped with gravel-specific gearing, and the most choice you have to sort out is 1X or 2X, meaning one chainring or two. With the major component manufacturers constantly trying to one-up each other on cassette speeds (lucky 13 on the EKAR) and ever smaller ‘small’ cogs, suddenly that extra chainring doesn’t seem quite as necessary. Not a fan of the front derailleur? Maybe 1X is for you.

What is the Future of Gravel Bikes?

What is fascinating about the evolution of gravel bikes over the past decade is the shift from more versatile, all-round gravel bikes to increasing specialization—a trend that is likely the outcome of the growing scale of gravel riders out there who are becoming more particular about what they want in their bike set ups. This means that, if you’re in the market for a gravel bike, there is a heavier burden (fine, fine… shopping for bikes isn’t really a burden) to understand what type of gravel rider you are (based on the type of riding you do) to determine what gravel bike is right for you.

If you’re already riding (or plan on riding) drop bar bikes off pavement, you may—like us—be wondering: Where are gravel bikes headed? Well, hopefully, where there is something for all of us. So, the real question is: What type of gravel rider are you?

Here are a handful of the most common gravel rider archetypes to get you started:

The ‘safety-conscious roadie’…

Been riding on the road all your life? Maybe you were (and/or are) attracted to the sport by those epic battles at one of the grand tours? You might even describe yourself as a roadie. Group rides are a fine choice when you can find the time, but—sometimes—you just need to head out the door solo because life gets in the way.

Here’s the problem: Some of your go-to quiet routes have been developed, the roads nearby are getting more and more congested, and you’re just a wee bit more cautious as you get older. If only you could take a spin down the connecting gravel road, or cut through the park. You’re not ready to slow down—on the contrary, you want to speed up on those gravel sections that previously left you cringing about whether you should really be taking this bike on that road.

In this way, among the benefits of gravel riding are safety. If you’re a roadie, but prefer quieter roads, then a gravel bike could be for you. Consider a bike that mimics the position and geometry of your road bike. It might even feel like your road bike, but you won’t be as restricted from running wider tires, making full use of a more dedicated gravel groupset—disc brakes, more versatile gearing, and perhaps a derailleur clutch. Seamlessly traversing from tarmac to dirt roads will almost certainly extend your riding experience (oh, the places you’ll go!) and your riding season.

Wilier Rave SLR front angle black grey

The ‘trail-less mountain biker’…

Okay, so you aren’t all that interested in the roads, but you love carving up that single-track and bombing down roller coaster descents. Drop you off at a mountain bike park and catch you next week? Heck, maybe we can drop you from a helicopter mountain top and you can just find your own way back. Your problem isn’t finding safety, your problem is finding something dangerous enough to put a scare in you. Not everyone is lucky enough to live near epic riding and many of us are left daydreaming of trips we’ve seen in magazines and counting our vacation days for the next opportunity to get away. Enter the gravel bike.

A gravel bike may play a role for you as well. Okay, it may not be a trip to Park City, Utah, but in can bring new adventure to the tamer stuff right in your backyard. In the opposite way that gravel bikes can give roadies a thrill, they can make an otherwise tame single-track route just squirrely enough to put a charge into a seasoned mountain biker as well. Consider a bike that will allow you to tackle some really technical trails—think long wheelbase, slack head angle, flared bars, and maybe even a little bit of suspension so you don’t feel too out of place.

The ‘consummate bikepacker’…

Ah! The joys of escaping your family… er… we mean the day-to-day hustle and overbearing boss… A magic ride to you is wandering off into the abyss, a modern-day explorer seeking an adventure. You are quite content to live in the wild, emerging only to stock up on easily packable foods. You can’t help but look at every piece of gear you own and wonder if it comes in a smaller, lighter, more compact package that might fit in your handlebar pack ,or tuck into a top tube bag. You’ve been known to jerry-rig all kinds of apparatus in the name of a bikepacking adventure, and it always seemed like the bike manufacturers just didn’t understand your needs. Until the gravel bike came to be.

In addition to a comfortable, more upright position, you need a bike that packs a lot of storage. Your goal isn’t to move fast, but to get there with the belongings you need to camp and live away from it all. Look for mounts on the top tube, under the down tube, on the forks, behind the seat, and just about anywhere else you once fastened the ever versatile zip tie. We see you. Finally, we see you.

The ‘I don’t care what you call it—I just want to ride’ cyclist…

Maybe all of this talk about what type of rider you are just doesn’t resonate with you. All you know is that you love being out on two wheels with the wind rushing through your helmet vents (we certainly hope you wear a helmet!). What resonates for you is versatility—not because your research suggests you could benefit from versatility, but (frankly) because you’ve never really thought about it. Planning routes? Nah. You just go wherever you want to go.

There are days when you push yourself, but you’re not riding to race—and that gnarly downhill run is for crazy people. Perhaps you used to care, but now you feel it’s all just talk.

This archetype fits the all-rounder—the ‘something in between road and mountain’ gravel bike. If this is you, you will benefit from a slightly relaxed riding position, wider low-profile tires with bump-absorbing comfort, and a bike that can go almost anywhere. Access to eyelets and mounts for fenders or extra storage are a plus should you decide to take an impromptu bikepacking adventure, but they may not be as critical as bikepacking isn’t a primary purpose. The advantage of this archetype? You’re not overly concerned so you can simply choose a bike that you just like—it doesn’t matter why—or a bike that you find an irresistible deal on.

So, What Now?

If you’re on the fence about going gravel, start by considering the type of terrain you plan to ride on. Generally, if you want to be tucked into aero position on your rides, like the pros, then you might be more of a roadie. Alternatively, if the daring backroads are your destination of choice, a mountain bike might be up your alley. But, if any of the archetypes above (a safety-conscious roadie, a trail-less mountain biker, a consummate bikepacker, an all-rounder) resonate with you, then it could suggest that a gravel bike is the right fit for you.

If that’s the case, rest assured that there are plenty of options out there for every kind of gravel rider. Maybe you net out with one less bike, or maybe you net out with one more—it’s all up to you.

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