The Great Gravel Debate: An Argument FOR Dedicated Gravel Bikes

Gravel bikes are far from necessary, but probably one of the best additions to the bike industry in a long time.

Photo: Matt Miller

Editor’s note: This is one side of a two-part opinion piece about gravel bikes. Be sure to read the other half here.

Summer passed by as quickly as it always does, and with the trails softening under rain or disappearing under snow, we quickly began losing our minds. Gerow and I found ourselves debating the nuances of different bike categories including, most notably, gravel bikes. 

Gravel bikes are supposedly the fastest-growing segment in the bike industry — at least according to the NPD group, although that seems to leap frog with e-bikes. Either way, if you pay attention to the mountain or road bike world, you probably already understand that gravel bikes have picked up a lot of momentum in the past few years.

Every year there are more and more brands releasing gravel bikes. Even the most core mountain bike brands, like Evil, have released their take on the genre, and it’s safe to say that almost every other large mountain bike brand has had one for a few years.

There are more gravel events and gravel races every year. What started as somewhat of a sub-culture-esque happening in states like Oklahoma and Kansas, has turned into sold out events with pro road teams and amateurs alike vying to get in and grind gravel until it’s powder. 

While this seems like a new phenomenon, and technically it is, it seems more like a shift from both mountain and road biking. Many road riders have tired of being buzzed by cars, passing inches away, or even worse. It’s safe to say that a lot of road enthusiasts have been lured to ruttier roads with less traffic, because of the gravel bike. 

Mountain bikers (like myself) have become interested in gravel bikes as another way to build endurance, and ride with friends, on a new platform, while keeping the spirt of adventure nice and dirty. When it comes to the image of road cycling, it’s always been seen by some as elitist, with athletes who ride too much and eat too little, looking a little too good when they are stuffed into a sausage suit. 

Thus far, the image of the gravel bike (and gravel culture?) is far more relatable than road biking, where average guys and girls can wear baggies, jorts, or performance button-ups and fit right in on a group ride. This is especially beneficial for the entire image of “cycling” when it comes to mainstream America, whose perception is usually derived from snippets of the Tour de France or Red Bull Rampage, showcasing the extreme and polar ends of the two-wheeled world. The bike industry can always benefit from a more average discipline, with affordable bikes, and an easy-going attitude. 

So far, it looks like it’s working, and there has been a lot of life pumped into the industry with the advent of gravel bikes. While most of us like to blame marketing execs, whom we think are stuffed into locked meeting rooms until they can think of anything, gimmicky or revolutionary, to keep the industry afloat, the bike industry is fat and happy right now and we can all agree that’s a good thing. 

When it comes to the necessity of a dedicated gravel bike to use on gravel roads, like all things bicycle-related, we can argue that they are or aren’t necessary. 

I recently sold my 15-year-old road bike, in order to buy a gravel bike, and I think my case is particularly applicable in this argument. My old road bike could fit a maximum width tire of 28mm in the front and 25mm in the rear. The geometry was a little outdated, but otherwise, there weren’t a whole lot of advancements made in the road bike world that made me yearn for a different road bike. 

Photo: Matt Miller

On rides where I ended up on dirt, the stiffness of the bike, lack of knobs, and lack of ability to have knobs made my palms sweaty, even down smooth dirt roads. My wrists were jarred, as were my nerves. If you have ever ridden a hard-tail down a technical black diamond, or a trail bike down a downhill course, then you know the feeling. It wasn’t enough bike. Now, this isn’t to say it’s impossible, or that a gravel bike is 100% necessary, because it isn’t — just like it isn’t necessary to have a downhill bike for a downhill course, or an XC bike for a flat trail.

When it comes down to it, it’s all about having the right tool for the right job, and if you can afford it, then what’s the problem? After getting my own gravel bike dialed in, and taking it on the roads and trails I took other bikes on, the bike’s strengths and weaknesses have all surfaced. It’s not as snappy or as quick as my road bike, but really, who cares? It’s obviously not as capable as a hardtail, but there are still a lot of surfaces — like mild trails and dirt roads — that a hardtail would be too much bike for. Turns out, it feels just right on smooth singletrack, or pockmarked dirt roads. 

While Gerow may argue that if you have an old cyclocross bike, or a hardtail, or a road bike, then you don’t need a gravel bike, I’d argue that if you have a gravel bike, then you can replace all three. 

The inflating amount of gravel bike options, gravel bike components, gravel bike apparel, and gravel bike events doesn’t just speak to the fact that it’s something that all of the industry wants in on; it speaks to rider demand. 

As Trek says in a section of its website about gravel riding that is remarkably void of pressurized marketing speak, “At its core, gravel riding is like riding on the road: you can technically do it on anything. But you’ll be a lot more comfortable and efficient on an actual gravel bike because they’re built specifically to handle more demanding surfaces.”

Gravel bikes are far from necessary, but probably one of the best additions to the bike industry in a long time. If it helps bridge the gap between mountain bikers and roadies, appeals to more future riders, and pumps life into the bike industry, while at the same time giving consumers more options to find their perfect bike for the right terrain, well, then I don’t know why anyone would be against them.