Why a full-sus XC Mountainbike might be a better GravelBike?

Forums Mountain Bike Forum Why a full-sus XC Mountainbike might be a better GravelBike?

Viewing 23 reply threads
  • Author
    • #264955

      First, a bit about Gravel tires.  Unlike a Road tire that is designed to roll fast on pavement or a Mountain tire that is designed to get maximum traction on dirt, a great Gravel tire tries to do both well—roll fast on pavement and hook up on dirt.  And really, it’s the Gravel tire that defines the Gravelbike.  Currently,  modern Gravelbikes are essentially just wide tire Roadbikes.  However, I think that there is room for another type of Gravelbike which I think of as a narrow tire Mountainbike or an XC bike with Gravel tires.

      Essentially, I’m a Mountain biker at heart.  I like Trailbikes with flat bars, progessive geomety, 2.6-2.8 Plus tires, 1×12 wide range drivetrains, and full-suspension.  I’ve owned Roadbikes and Crossbikes and I’ve found them sketchy, twitchy, stiff, uncomfortable, and I absolutely hate dropbars.  However, I think a bike that rolls fast on pavement but is still capable on dirt roads and singletrack makes a lot of sense.  But, I couldn’t see buying a Roadbike like Gravelbike.   So, I started experimenting.

      First, I mounted up a set of 50mm(2.0in) Gravel tires onto an old 29er Hardtail and I road that bike for a few months.  It was a hoot!   So much faster than my full-sus Plus Trailbike on dirt and paved roads.  However, being a Hardtail, the rear end could still give you a beating.

      Next, I mounted those same Gravel tires on to my old full-sus 29er XC bike with 100mm front/rear travel and I’ve been testing that for a while.  I had to make a few tweeks to the XC bike by shortening the handlebars to 26in and stiffening the suspension by increasing compression, rebound, and shock/fork pressure to get the right fit and feel for Gravel riding.   The bikes a rocket on pavement and gravel while still sucking up broken pavement, washboard, and technical singletrack, it pedals very efficiently and it’s also quite comfortable.  I’ve found my “XC Gravelbike” nirvana—a Gravelbike for a Mountain biker?  Who’d a thunk that a full-sus XC bike with Gravel tires would make such a great Gravelbike.   I like it so much that I am actually considering buying a new full-sus XC bike and mounting Gravel tires.  My current “XC Gravelbike” is 12 years old, totally worn out, outdated, and needs a lot of work.  The newer XC bikes pedal so much more effeciently and are so much tighter.  Before you buy a traditonal, (Roadbike like) Gravelbike, maybe you should consider an XC bike with Gravel tires.

      Have you tried putting Gravel tires on your Mountainbike?

      Would you consider buying an “XC Gravelbike”?

      I would love to hear your opinions?


    • #264964

      Seems like you are on to something.  Tires really do make a huge difference. I decided to get better tires for my bike going from essentially a gravel tire that came with it to a trail tire. I found a good deal on On-One Chunky Monkeys and the picture looked like they would be a step in the right direction. They have way bigger knobs than I anticipated.

      I didn’t really buy the whole slower tire thing. How much difference could it really make? As far as i can tell it makes a huge difference. I feel so slow this season and I think I am in as good of shape as last year. At least I am uninjured. They do look cool though.

      • #265025

        I’ve noticed that I ride 1 or 2 gears higher using the 50mm gravel tires over using 2.2in XC tires.  Of course, this means I’m going faster.  The 50mm gravel tires are narrower, lighter,  have less tread and are therefore, faster.  Makes me wonder what a 42mm gravel tire would be like?

    • #264965

      I generally agree with your findings. I currently ride a FS XC bike with 2.3 tires and can transition between road, gravel and hard pack trails with minimal loss of capabilities. I have been using this set up in the summer, when it is dry here, for the last 3 years and it works for me and the terrain I ride in.

    • #264970

      I’ve wondered about the practical difference between a gravel bike and an xc bike with fast tires for a little while now (other than the drop bars of course). Last week I saw and ad for a full -suspension gravel bike and now I’m questioning everything…

      Is it just me or does it seem like gravel bikes are slowly morphing from the “less racing inspired, more comfort oriented road bikes capable of being ridden on dirt roads” toward traditional cross country bikes with drop bars? I mean, all of this feels oddly familiar…

    • #264972

      Niner is thinking along these lines with its NINER MCR 9

      Niner MCR 9 RDO Full-Suspension Gravel Bike

      For me my “gravel” riding usually includes 40-50% asphalt. And the gravel sections are usually jeep trails or fire access roads so FS is not a huge issue.

      My new Warbird seems well suited for this environment, but of course, a moderate or large pothole or divot on gravel (or asphalt) is to be avoided.

      I thought about using my XC bike as a gravel grinder but confess I never put gravel tires on her. ….though it is hard to imagine she’d be a “rocket” on asphalt, that simply is not her strong suit. Then again, I ain’t racing so being a “rocket” is not a priority.

      Check out the MCR 9

      • #264982

        Robert Dobbs; thats the one I saw! To each their own and Niner obviously sees a potential market, but my first thought was of Tomac’s drop bar race bikes from the early 90’s.

      • #265031

        If and when the MCR9 comes out, I would sure like to take it for a test ride.  However, I would prefer my version to come with flatbars.  But wait, isn’t that an XC bike!

      • #265094

        I know! It’s almost like watching the evolution of old-school XC bike’s all over again…   Did everyone forget that XC bikes used to have 23 mm rims and sub 2” tires used to be the norm?

    • #264983

      vapidoscar, tires make a MASSIVE difference. For instance, I did the Love Valley Roubaix (49mi mostly gravel back country NC mountain/logging road) race two years in a row. First year, I did it on my 29er hardtail (carbon, 21 pounds) with 2.1″ tires. Finished just above five hours. Year 2, I did it on 38c gravel tires, and finished in just UNDER four hours, similar conditions to the first round.

      I agree with OP, that just putting skinnier tires on a MTB and using that for gravel is all well and good….but I’ve found that riding 50 miles, I want to be able to shift around a little bit and remain in control (hand positioning), which is something that flat bars can’t really do, and converting a MTB to drop bars COULD be just as expensive as getting a cheap gravel bike. (Converting means you’re screwing with the fit dimensions, buying tons of extra components, etc…).

      Don’t get me wrong, a hardtail is great for long distance, but the issue with gravel/road riding is you’re in the saddle  almost 100% of the time, whereas on the trail my buttocks are an inch or two above my saddle as I’m going over bumpy sections or cornering, or over the back wheel when descending. I physically move my positioning a lot more, whereas that doesn’t really happen on gravel track.

      • #265035

        Lael Wilcox (who holds the womens record for the Tour Divide) rides a Specialized Sequoia Gravelbike with a flatbar.  Her flatbar has barends inside of the grips and the inside of the bar has bar tape.  This gives her 3 different hand positions.  Check out her bike out at TheRadivist.com.  It doesn’t take much to give a flatbar more hand positions.  I’ve been thinking of doing the same to my XC-Gravelbike.

      • #265044

        Oops!  Brain fart!  I should have said Sarah Swallows Specialized Sequoia at TheRadavist.com.

      • #277870

        The problem with flat bars is that you can only break from one position. Sure you can put one of those old school “mountain bike drops” that we used to put on our mountain bikes on the ends of handle bars or those “arm rests”that people put closer to the stem but the problem with that is you can’t use them on the fast section because you wont be able to reach your breaks  from them. When using the drops your index fingers are always on the break leavers and you are much more air dynamic then on the flats so that’s why most road-gravel riders prefer riding with drop bars. Sarah swallows bike wasn’t built for full on gravel ride. I am pretty sure she road alot of singletrack.

    • #265046

      Depends on how I feel, if I know I’m going to be on the roads at all before and/or after I get to gravel I take my Niner BSB 9 RDO out.  I have Continental Grad Prix 4 Seasons in 32mm width on them and I LOVE them.  I find that bike is comfortable to ride and is FAST.  I’m hoping Continental releases an updated 4 season in a tubeless version since they have been updating the Grand Prix line.


      If I’m going to be off the roads entirely, I may take my Niner Air 9 RDO XC bike. It is more comfortable in the sense that it has larger tires (2.4″ Ardents) and front suspension.  I’m planning on putting faster and less aggressive Rekon Race tires on it soon. But in many ways, I find my drop bars so much better for long term comfort…


      Unless I expect the “gravel” to get rough, I would almost ALWAYS reach for my BSB 9.  It’s just faster and I find it to be more comfortable when I’m just grinding out miles and not moving around or in and out of the saddle a lot.  I get the appeal of more aggressive tires than my 4 Seasons when the going gets tough, but I just find the 4 Seasons to be SO MUCH faster and handle better on stretches of road and fairly descent gravel roads that I just don’t want to put them on.

    • #277874

      My old knees and back constantly tell me FS is better for any kind of riding.

    • #279792

      Cannondale dropbar  gravelbike for road and gravel get the long rides in. Trek  midfat hardtail gets the roughest of trails and climbs in. Two completely different bikes that can do both types of riding. The tiny gravel bike tires really make ya think and make sure line choice is  perfect on trails.The change up on type of bikes keeps it interesting and the skills sharp. After riding these types of bikes ya learn to be very light on the bike. Full sus someday will be like riding on a cloud.

    • #289803


      When I was a kid every bike was a gravel bike.

      There is nothing more comfy than a XC bike with smooth tires for a gravel bike.  However, the guys that race the 100 milers ride the dedicated gravel bikes.  I assume they know what they’re doing.  As Vapidoscar said above, pretty much everything I ever said “doesn’t matter” turned out to make a difference the more experience I got.  The gravel bike puts the rider in a more aero position.  Most accommodate luggage better than XC bikes.  Probably starts to matter about mile 40.  For me, I’ll still go with full suspension ride and two sets of tires, cuz nothing beats comfort.

    • #289830

      Since I started this forum, I’ve gotten more and more into Gravel biking.  I now use my XC-Gravelbike almost as much as I use my Mountainbike.  I’m now using 700×43 Panaracer Gravel King SK tires.   My full-sus 29+ Trailbike is still the king of technical singletrack.  But for everything else, pavement, gravel, and easy singletrack the XC-Gravelbike rules.   For me, this makes for the perfect two bike stable.

      I whole-heartedly endorse riding Gravelbikes.   However, it doesn’t have to be a typical Gravelbike.  Short-travel full-sus Mountainbikes and Hardtails with Gravel tires also make great Gravelbikes.

    • #289835

      I took an entry level FS frame and built a gravel/mud/XC bike with 2.1 aggressive tires, single chainring/10 speed drive train, hydraulic disk brakes, firm front and rear long range suspension and, longer riser handlebars with a shorter stem. I happen to love it for gravel and mud if that is your fit. So, I totally agree that an FS bike is a better gravel bike that what is current being marketed, if you are will to build it since they do not exit otherwise.

    • #289884

      All depends what kind of roads you have in your area. Where I live it’s mostly pretty smooth gravel roads and singletrack is also smooth. Not much rocks or roots at all. So I ride my Salsa Warbird on 42s and it feels really smooth. There is really no need for suspension. Less weight, more efficiency and less things to go wrong during the ride. Sometimes you just want to ride a simple rigid bike if the roads are smooth and have a break from full suspension.

      • #289885

        If you’re OK with dropbars and the gravel you ride could be described as flat, smooth, firm, and well maintained, then the typical full-rigid Gravelbike might be right for you.  However, I live in the Mountain-Desert West.  The gravel I ride would best be descibed as steep, rough, loose, and poorly maintained.  Many of the my gravel roads become 4WD roads the higher you go and the further you get from civilization.   In addition, I’m a pig for comfort.   I don’t enjoy the constant pounding when riding a full-rigid bike or even a hardtail.    If I didn’t have flatbars and full-sus I probably wouldn’t ride gravel at all.  However, I’m not saying that my full-sus XC-Gravelbike is the only way or even the best way to ride gravel.   Everyone needs to decide what’s best for their own conditions and their own comfort.   Dropbars or flatbars—Full-rigid, hardtail, or full-sus—It’s all a valid way to ride gravel.  Step outside of the box that Gravelbikes must have dropbars and be full-rigid.   Don’t let the mass marketing bike industry decide what bike is right for you.  Ride what you like and like what you ride.

      • #289907

        <p style=”text-align: left;”>I usually do around 1500 to 2000m in vertical elevation in a 100km ride on about ninty percent gravel  double track and the rest is mixture of tarmac and jeep roads. I dont think it would be possible to ride such a distance on flat bars because my hands would get numb after 50km. Also drop bars are alot more efficient when it comes to road riding especially on windy days. With my rigid drop bars Warbird I usually average between 24 to 26km/ h. With flat bars I would be loosing alot of speed especially on the downhills. For those who mostly ride road and more then 50km I think drop bars is the way to go. Three hand positions against one. Drop bars are much easier in the hands. I do agree that for reallly rough terrain like in Arizona or Utah gravel bike with a suspension is a must.</p>

    • #425370

      Revisiting this thread since I am thinking about the potential of expanding the use of my XC bike for my son (FS 100mm front/back).   At this point he’s riding more pavement/gravel.  Thinking about getting  another set of wheels for a mix of pavement & (fine) gravel.  Any recommendations on wheel size (internal width) and tire width?  How narrow is too narrow?

    • #425371

      Bike Nerd, I can always let the air outta my Nobby Nic 3.0’s and air up my G-One 2.8’s and the Wildcat will be a Fleetwood Brougham on two wheels! I typically use the G-Ones for street on my singlespeed to preserve the dirt tires for dirtin’ but could do the gravel grind on em.

    • #426147

      For a 40mm tires, rim width is (inner width) i18-25mm – 45mm tire/ i18-30 rim – 50mm tire/i18-35mm.   I use 700×43 Panaracer Gravel King SK tires (on i18 rims) which are considered to be one of the best Gravel tires you can get even though they are quite affordable.  I bought the 43’s online for about $32 each.  They are very fast on pavement and gravel while still being surprisingly capable on singletrack and they wear well.   I’ve also used 700×50 Gravel King SK tires which are nearly as fast as the 43’s and even more capable on singletrack but also heavier.  I even tried some even wider Gravel tires but I didn’t like them.

      40-50mm width seems to be the sweet spot for gravel tires.  Narrower 40mm tires are faster on pavement but wider 50mm tires are more capable on singletrack and rougher looser gravel.  Avoid Gravel tires that look like Mountainbike tires.  You want a Gravel tire that has a fast-rolling center section but still has a bit of tread on the side.  The best Gravel tires roll fast on pavement while not being useless on singletrack.

      I’m guessing that the rims on your XC bike are i18-25.  So you could use anything from a 40-50mm tire with no problems. You probably don’t need another wheelset.   My i18 rims work just fine with 43mm and 50mm tires.  I’ve used i35 rims with 50mm tires and surprisingly, they worked fine.  I’ve also used i15 rims with 35mm tires on a Crossbike and also just fine.  Being a weight weenie, I prefer the narrower and therefore lighter rims.  For Gravel tires, it’s pretty hard to screw up rim width as long as the rims aren’t too wide.

    • #426486

      Sorry, I rambled on and didn’t answer your question.  For 38-50mm Gravel tires, I would use i18-25mm rims.

    • #433242


      Appreciate the insights.   Actually riding on i30’s since I had been using that bike for for aggressive riding and on more technical terrain before getting a trail bike.  I would have thought that 50mm tires would have been too narrow on i30 rims so I was pretty intrigued by your experience on i35 rims. Your post prompted me to do a little research and I came across the following chart which I found pretty interesting – and consistent with your experience:


      Curious whether you feel any meaningful differences with the wider rims.  (Thinking more in terms of pavement & gravel).   Also, were you riding them tubeless?  I don’t mind picking up an inexpensive set of narrower wheels as I actually find it easier to swap out the wheels than swapping out tubeless tires.

    • #434105

      A few years ago when Gravelbikes really started going mainstream, I got Gravel curious.  However,  the closest thing I had to a Gravel bike was a 29+ Hardtail with i35 rims.   Being worried about my rims being too wide for Gravel tires, I bought 2.2 xc tires, mounted them up, and I was shocked that 2.2 tires actually worked quite well with i35 rims.  The XC tires were fun on dirt but not very fast on pavement.  So I got some 50mm Gravel tires and they worked quite well with i35 rims but unlike the XC tires, they were rockets on pavement and I was hooked.  Then I remembered I had an old full-sus XC bike with i18 rims in my basement and I put the 50’s on the XC bike and having full-sus just made Gravel riding that much better.  And soon, I was putting all these different rides together involving pavement, gravel, doubletrack, and singletrack.  Places that would be slow and boring on my modern Trailbike were now fast and fun on my XC-Gravelbike.  I’m now using 43mm tires which are even faster on pavement but slightly less capable on singletrack than the 50’s.

      I think that the narrowest reasonable Gravel tire on any given rim width should be about 15mm wider than the inner width of the rim.  For an i30 rim, that would be a 45mm tire.  But, you could get away with a 43mm tire on an i30 rim.  When you put a 43mm tire on such a wide rim it is going to puff up to be about 45mm.

      The current trend in Gravelbikes is wider rims and wider tires.   A few years ago, 35-40mm tires on i18-20 rims were the norm.  But now, there are more Gravelbikes coming with 43-50mm tires on i23-27 rims.  When riding a typical full-rigid Gravelbike, using wider rims and tires at lower pressure makes for a much more comfortable ride.  However, if you’re riding a full-sus Gravelbike, I don’t think you need wider rims or tires because the suspension makes the ride more comfortable.  My i18 rims with 43mm tires are working quite well.  I used to run 2.4 tires on those rims so you can’t say they are too narrow for Gravel tires.  There is something quite wonderful about riding a 450gm rim with 450gm tire.  That wheel just winds up so fast.

      If I was building up wheels for a full-rigid Gravelbike, I would use i25-27 rims.  If I was building up wheels for a full-sus gravel Gravelbike, I would use i18-20 rims.  When it comes to tires for recreational use, I think 43-47mm is the sweet spot.  I want a tire that is lightweight and fast-rolling on pavement and hardpack while not being to narrow for singletrack and rough loose gravel.

    • #436976

      Great info.  Thx!  Are you running them with or without tubes?

    • #437506

      I did 150 miles of the green mountain gravel growler trail in Vermont on my Giant Anthem X29er XC bike.

      Locked out the back shock 90% of the ride and 1/2 locked the front. Tires were already warn down somewhat so didn’t bother changing out the treads. Still had good traction on the road, gravel, and MTB trails. Over all was very happy with its performance, though it might have been nice if it was a little slackier, head tube a little higher.

      I do like this idea of a better gravel bike. The Trek DS I have for doing rail trails (dirt and paved) with the kids just does not feel as good.

    • #438532


      I use tubes.  I seldom get flats where I live and I don’t think going tubeless is worth the expense, mess,  and hassle.  However, if I got more frequent flats, I would switch to tubeless.

    • #438631


      Instead of locking out, try increasing the air pressure, compression damping, and rebound damping.  Doing that reduces bobbing while still allowing your suspension to react to bigger bumps.

      If you put on a narrower fast-rolling Gravel tire, your bike will be faster.

      I put a shorter riser stem on my bike that bought for $20 online at ModernBike.com. That got me up and back and into a more comfortable position.

    • #483801

      Good ideas. Really thinking of getting some gravel tires. Want to easy swap out, that probably means whole need set of cogs.

Viewing 23 reply threads

You must be logged in to reply to this topic.