This Surly Karate Monkey single-speed is my go-to rain whip.

We grew up on rural gravel roads, riding whatever bike had enough air left in the tires.

It was late summer in the Selkirk mountains of Priest Lake, Idaho, and mosquitos streamed from the cabin’s septic tank cover that served as their rightful mothership. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s latest tune blared through the shade of native western red cedar, bouncing off their towering trunks, taller than all of us ratty river-kids combined, and older than our greatest-grandparents.

An early memory of balancing between two wheels sits atop my grandma Gladys’s brown mixte, on a graveled county road outside that cabin. The generator light on grandma’s bike likely had more heft than the frame of its modern equivalent. I was pedaling with all of the kid-angst and excitement I could muster, to lock up the rear tire and whip-skid into the driveway in front of my sister or cousin who were waiting for their turn on the bike. I try to remember that kid and to have that kind of fun playing in the dirt today.

Those first whip-skids led to a lifetime of playing on bikes that I feel fortunate to continue. I went on to race cyclocross, road, and mountain bikes, and joined a supportive community of people who are equally infatuated with the rush of balance and traction. Most of the bike racers and riders I know have their own narrative of riding gravel-packed roads. Some folks grew up in rural areas, where gravel streets were far better than the dirt and mud roads that preceded them. The size-specific stones in the road help the surface drain and keep dust and mud in check. The bits of broken tarmac highway served as a spine for their broader gravel rib cage, but that smoother spine was too dangerous to pedal along.

The quiet place for base miles.

The advent of “gravel bike” marketing over the past several seasons has made me giggle on a regular basis. I imagine someone at a bike company that makes fine cyclocross frames proposing to their marketing team, “we all love epic dirt-road rides, so why don’t we repaint our cyclocross bikes and sell them as gravel bikes. Who knows, It might just become the new and cool genre of cycling.” This someone was rightly laughed out of the room, then eventually the idea was given further consideration, and now we have a burgeoning industry segment of cyclocross bikes with slightly lower bottom brackets and wider tires, ready to ride where no one has ridden before. On gravel roads.

photo: Jeff Barber

The reasons why mountain bikers and road cyclists enjoy riding gravel are many and good. You can still ride while the singletrack dries out, there is often less traffic when you leave the pavement, the auditory feedback from tires on slightly shifting stones is fantastic, you have a reason to use larger and cozier tires on a road ride, you get to geek out on different gear, and all of the other benefits of cycling are sprinkled on top of this lovely gravel cupcake.

Do we need specific bikes that bear the “gravel” moniker for rolling over the same smashed stones we have always pedaled on mountain bikes, ‘cross bikes, or road bikes? There are plenty of cycling genres that require purpose-built machines to improve the riding and racing experience, but the gravel scene hasn’t made a strong case for its gear. Until convinced otherwise, I am going to chalk the gravel-hype up to exceptionally adept marketing, and continue to have a laugh at the “latest gravel tech” news.

On rainy days, when the trails are too wet to respectfully shred, I ride my trusty hardtail or cyclocross race bikes on dirt and gravel roads to maintain fitness. I also ride my long travel mountain bike on gravel roads, sometimes climbing for 3-4 consecutive hours to reach some of the best trails available. So, are all of my bikes gravel bikes? When I ride them on gravel — I suppose they are.

Get your vitamin-G on whatever bike has enough air in the tires and makes you stoked to ride it.

# Comments

  • rhut

    All bikes are gravel bikes, just as all bikes are mountain bikes, all bikes are road bikes, and all bikes are commuter bikes. Where you are riding determines what that bike is at that specific time. Sure, some are better than others at a specific task, but who cares when you’re out riding and having fun? I have a gravel bike, a rigid mountain bike, and a full sus mountain bike. When I go out for a ride, it’s usually a tough decision of which one I take out and only sometimes does the terrain choose the bike for me.

  • Plusbike Nerd

    I think Gravelbikes are perfectly legit. My old Roadbike with 700×25 slick tires sails on pavement but really is no fun on gravel unless you’re a masochist. On the other hand, my long-travel full-suspension Mountainbike with 29×2.8 heavily knobbed tires is way to much bike for gravel roads for the same reasons it’s to much bike for paved roads. Of course, I do ride my Mountainbike on paved and gravel roads but that’s just something I tolerate on the way to singletrack.

    There has always been a gap between between the fast-rolling skinny slick Road tire and the big-traction wide knobby Mountain tire. But, what if we design a tire that rolls fast on pavement but also hooks up on dirt? So, in my mind, a Gravelbike is all about the Gravel tire. Any bike that has tires that roll fast on pavement but also hook up on dirt is a Gravelbike and it doesn’t matter what geometry it has, whether it has flatbars or dropbars, or whether it’s full-rigid, or full-suspension.

    When Gravelbikes first came out, I was a bit dubious. However, I had an old hardtail on which I mounted a set of 700×45 Gravel tires and the bike is a total blast to ride on both pavement and gravel. In fact, I like my hardtail Gravelbike so much that I gave my old Roadbike to charity because I didn’t ride it anymore.

    When more people discover how much fun Gravelbikes are, I don’t think many people will buy Roadbikes. Don’t get me wrong! Mountain biking on singletrack is still my favorite sport but Gravel biking is a close second and is so much more fun than Road biking. On top of that, I think Gravelbikes also make a great Touring/Bikepacking bikes. Scoff at Gravelbikes if you want but if you love cycling, you’ll own a Gravelbike some day.

    My only complaint about Gravelbikes is that the current paradigm for a Gravelbike is a dropbar Roadbike with Gravel tires. I think that a flatbar Mountainbike with Gravel tires is also a legitimate paradigm for a Gravelbike. Sure enough, bike manufacturers are just starting to make Gravelbikes with relaxed geometries, flatbars, and suspension.

  • Matt Miller

    Fun read, Gerow! I agree, the difference between cyclocross bikes and gravel bikes are pretty hard to spot, but I do appreciate the the new genre of off-road ready road bikes. My roadie is a little sketchy on anything off-road, and the mountain bike is too much. It’s great to see another form of bike develop to fill that spot.

  • Greg Heil

    While yes, the differences between gravel bikes and cyclocross bikes are small/insignificant… have you spent much time on a gravel bike yet? They are pretty friggin’ spectacular in my opinion. My “gravel” bike that I bought about a year ago has been an absolute blast to ride, and not on gravel alone–pavement, singletrack, you name it.

    Personally, if the main problem here is the label “gravel”, then I like the new-er label that some brands are beginning to use: “all road.” To me, this sums it up perfectly and shows why I bought this bike. Standard road bikes are way too limiting in places of the world where only the main road arteries are paved. All road bikes, on the other hand, let you ride ALL the roads in a given area 🙂

    • Brad Beadles

      down here in georgia we say yall-road

    • Brian Gerow

      Thanks for adding to the discussion y’all! There are some good points and great perspectives in these comments.

      Greg, I dig the all-road moves. The “all-road” style of riding is exactly why I keep two XC hardtails and a cyclocross bike in my basement. They let me ride everything but the steeper and more technical trails, while those trails dry out. I can explore nearly anywhere on them, and mount up whatever tire suits the day. I totally agree.

      The conundrum, for me, is with gravel bikes that are nothing more than slightly altered cyclocross bikes, market to coax folks into the N+1 mess. They are uber popular where I live. I personally am a big fan of having the right tool, but one tool that can cover a lot of purposes is far better a hyper-specialized version that collects dust in the shed.

  • granvillegravel

    I totally get your point — you certainly don’t “need” a gravel bike to ride gravel roads. Mountain bike (especially hardtails) and cyclocross bikes make great gravel bikes. You can fully enjoy the experience without dropping several $ on a gravel specific bike.

    Where I disagree, though, is that I do think there is a significant difference in the design of a gravel bike over a cross bike. The two are definitely not the same; spending hours on rugged gravel roads of all varieties will make that distinction come to light pretty quickly. The newer gravel bikes (sure a lot is just marketing) are getting even better at gravel specific cycling. So if your love is to race/ride gravel, then opting for a gravel specific bike makes a lot of sense. My two cents.

    • Brian Gerow

      Thanks for adding your experience and perspective, granvillegravel.

      For our readers who are researching new bikes to ride on dirt roads, can you share some of the significant differences that you appreciate between cyclocross and gravel bikes?
      We have mentioned wider tire clearance, and a lower bottom bracket. What are some of your favorite elements of those new gravel-specific bikes?

  • frontmanpb101

    In my experience most bikes can ride gravel but that doesn’t make them “gravel bikes” in the same way that you can race nearly anything with wheels but that doesn’t make it a race car/moto/bike/etc. My Cervelo is an example of a not-gravel bike, I shudder to think about the noises that would arise from trying to ride it on anything but pavement, heck even leaves and road grit get into the area between the rear tire and frame on a damp day. (Reference picture from the internet, not my bike – http://oi61.tinypic.com/2073hjp.jpg ) There’s a lot of hype for gravel bikes these days, personally I’d rather see people buying “gravel bikes” than e-bikes 🙂

  • triton189

    The mere fact that we have debate over what to call “gravel” bikes just means that our sport is growing. And that is awesome!

  • Amanda Resch

    “The conundrum, for me, is with gravel bikes that are nothing more than slightly altered cyclocross bikes, market to coax folks into the N+1 mess… I personally am a big fan of having the right tool, but one tool that can cover a lot of purposes is far better a hyper-specialized version that collects dust in the shed.”

    I find gravel bikes to be the opposite. Most people I sell them to are looking for one bike to do everything. Gravel bikes (especially the high end ones) do happen to be the “right tool” for one specific thing, gravel racing, but they also happen to be the perfect choice for a person looking for one bike to do most everything. I still think the 29’er hardtail is the best choice for “one bike to rule them all” and if I was forced to own only one bike it would be that. But if you don’t care about riding technical singletrack, gravel is the way to go for a new bike purchaser.

    Compared to cyclocross bikes, gravel bikes not only have lower bottom brackets, they have longer, more stable wheel bases, slacker, more comfortable head tube angles, loads of water bottle and accessory braze ons, and wider stock gearing ranges. All of these features make them a better choice for the average consumer over a cyclocross bike. Most manufacturers are axing entry level cross bikes from their line ups, and replacing them with gravel bikes. So they aren’t N+1, so much as an evolution of the utility cyclocross bike.

    The one thing that is disappointing to me about this is that I’m worried cyclocross as a race discipline will suffer. Yes, you can race a gravel bike in a cross race, but they aren’t as fun- without the steep head angle you’ll be turning into the tape more often than you’d like. But the average person who purchases an entry level cross bike, will never race cross. They will be much happier without the twitchy handling of a true cross bike on long descents. Also, gravel bikes handle a load much better than cross bikes do. A real cross bike doesn’t even have water bottle mounts, let alone rack and fender mounts! To me the only bad thing to come out of the gravel movement is the barrier to entry to cross racing just got a little higher, but thinking back I did my first cross race on a single speed converted univega sport tourer from the 80’s. Cross has always been, and will always be, run what you brung in the beginner categories.

    Think of the entry level gravel bike as the evolution of the entry level cross bike. They are truly a better choice for the average consumer. Think of the race cross bike as a specialized tool for racers, and the race gravel bike as the same. If you race at a high level, hyper specialization is a necessity.

    • Plusbike Nerd

      There is a cure for N+1! Imagine a Gravelbike with i29 rims, frame/fork clearance for up to a 2.8 tire, and a just right bottom bracket height for a 45mm tire. Put on 45mm tires and you have a light fast Gravelbike for day rides or commuting. Put on 2.2 tires for a fast Gravel touring bike and race the “Tour Divide”. Put on aggressive 2.8 tires and go Mountain biking. Salsa makes a dropbar version of this bike and it’s called the Fargo (which I credit for being the “first” Gravelbike). Now if someone would make a light-weight flatbar version of this bike, I would buy it. For all around use, I think flatbars are best.

  • Greg Heil

    Gerow, I think you hit the nail on the head with this comment:
    “I personally am a big fan of having the right tool, but one tool that can cover a lot of purposes is far better a hyper-specialized version that collects dust in the shed.”

    The irony of the situation is that cyclocross bikes are, historically speaking, hyper-specialized and LESS capable bikes, because they have to conform to antiquated rules and regulations for cyclocross racing. Those rules and regs are changing slowly, but people specifically designing all-road bikes are able to better optimize these machines for versatility, without conforming to those regulations.

    I think it also helps to think about this question: if you don’t already own a cyclocross bike or an all-road bike, and you don’t plan to race ‘cross competitively, which would you rather purchase?

    At least, that’s my reading of the situation 😉

  • Plusbike Nerd

    Keep in mind that Gravelbikes are in the early stages of evolution and expect the current form to change or have variations for specific purposes. Just like with Mountainbikes which have different types, XC, Trail, Enduro, Downhill, etc., I think Gravelbikes will also have different types. I expect every thing from a dropbar Crossbike to a short-travel full-suspension flatbar XC Mountainbike to fall into the Gravel spectrum. Already, there are significant differences between “Racing” Gravelbikes and “Touring” Gravelbikes. We’re seeing Gravelbikes with suspension forks, full-suspension, soft-tail suspension, Lauf forks, and tires and rims keep getting wider. A Gravelbike with 2.2in tires on i30mm rims at 20psi is going to ride and feel totally different than a Gravelbike with 38mm tires on i20mm rims at 50 psi. Gravelbikes are definitely here to stay and I expect Roadbikes to lose popularity. It’s going to be fun to watch and see where it all shakes out!

  • Brian Gerow

    Thanks for the thoughts, info, and feedback, y’all!
    It’s clear that there are a lot of passionate readers enjoying some gravel roads out there.
    This is the most active response thread that any of my articles have received without the word “ebike” slipped someplace in the text.
    As I have written before, some articles exist to inspire, enrich, or inform, and others serve only to ignite conversation.

    Tailwinds to all!

  • john_solomito

    Great bit of writing. I have a [now, after many years as a flat bar] drop bar 29er that does everything well enough that it’s my go too on nearly every ride.

  • Dave Lash

    The name of the game is versatility. Gravel bikes have a slacker and more comfortable geometry than a Cyclocross bike and ideally, more mounts for cages, racks, fenders, etc. My wife and I have FS Mountain bikes for the real dirt and I have a Cannondale Synapse that I’ve “Gravelfied” with 28 mm knobbies on it for everything else. When it came time to upgrade my wife’s road bike, we went with the Trek Checkpoint Gravel bike because we ride plenty of road but also plenty of dirt path and fire roads. We rode the GAP and C&O Pathway from Pittsburgh to DC last year and rented flat bar gravel bikes. A road bike would have been eaten up and a mountain bike would have been too heavy. I’m looking forward to doing the Katy Trail this year on our own bikes that are perfectly fit for us and our needs!

  • Walker Ericsson

    I’d like to offer a variant on the old “never gets easier” remark: they never get gravelier, some just go faster. Just… not much.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.