I wrote about road bike and CX bike comparison about two years ago. I wrote also about comparison CX bike and mountain bike. In my opinion, CX bike can be good alternative for both of them. After these two years, my opinion is the same. I have some additional observations: gravel bikes are better. And it’s probably the best bike in the world, most universal, the best for most of the users. Especially for cyclist from my country, from Poland, when “MTB is the king”. But things change, and it seems that gravels will be the most popular bike type. Read to see why.
What is gravel bike?
First, what is gravel bike? It looks like road bike, but it isn’t road bike. Idea of that bike is young and was born in the USA – many people wanted to ride on long, gravel paths, but a lot of them had road bikes. They tried to make them better on such terrain by using wider tires, bike packing, some changes with handlebars. Manufactures reacted quickly and now many companies offer gravel bikes: more comfortable version of road bikes, with modified geometry, much wider tires, disc brakes, changes in cranksets and accessories. You can ask: but why? There is already MTB. Yep, but not everyone wants to ride on MTB. This type of bike is also slower and heavier (except very light models with carbon-based frames and sometimes also carbon forks). Gravels have a lot of advantages.
Gravels are fast
Gravel bikes are fast. Of course, everything depends on our strength, but with narrower tires, without any forks and with drop bars, they are much faster than MTB in the most cases. It is important not only for races, but also when you prepare for some long ride – faster, lighter bike provides you better ride. It’s the reason, that it can be used for mixed-terrain trips: maybe not perfect speed on more difficult terrain, but average is more than enough.
On roads, gravel bike can as fast as road bike, because both are very similar. Of course, everything depends on your legs, on your strength, but it’s very close. If you want, you can use standard road tires in gravel bike without any issues. I can say more: you can use wider tires than on most of road bikes and provide much better comfort. It’s important and can improve your speed. You can also use two or more wheelsets for different situations. Swapping with disc brakes are fast, so you can have two bikes in one. Or even more.
Bikepacking and travels
Many popular bike types are now very “specialized”. For example, most of MTBs aren’t comfortable for long rides and have place only for one bottle. Mudguards? Yes, but only very simply and far, far from perfect. It’s a big issue if you want to have bike “almost for everything” and sometimes ride fast, sometimes make big trip with some packages. On gravels, it isn’t problem. The most of these bikes has a lot of mounting points and you can add trunk, mudguards and two or three bottles cages without any problems. Bikepacking? No problem, just buy some bags and add into your bike, and then go for your life travel.
Gravels are fast. Yes, I’ve already written about this, but gravels are fast not only on roads, but also on… gravel, on light terrain and forests paths. These bikes have been created to drive on gravels, for very long distances. How long and with what speed? Look at Dirty Kanza results. It’s a 200 miles gravel race (!) and best participants are above 30 km/h. It’s amazing, I think. Yep, they are very strong, but still, they use gravel bikes, not MTB. With mountains bikes, it will be not possible on such distance, or much, much less comfortable.
Of course, gravel bikes can be also slow. Very slow on harder terrain. It isn’t bike for mountains paths, for downhills, for enduro trails, it’s isn’t also for mountains singletracks. Of course, it’s possible to ride these examples using gravel bike, but it will be not nice experience, I promise. I tried few times, I also started on MTB races using such bike and can say – it wasn’t for that. You can be very fast on flat segments, but you will have a lot of problems on more difficult uphill’s (because of gears ratio), and also descents… it may be terrific. You have brakes, but you don’t have suspension fork, also narrow handlebar (in comparison to MTB handlebars) may be a problem. You can ride such paths, but slowly, not for racing. It’s your choice, if you don’t want to race, it’s still great choice.
A lot of comfort
The biggest advantage of gravel bikes are in my opinion handlebars. It isn’t flat like on MTB bike, but very similar or even identical as on road bikes. That type of handlebar is very comfortable and offers a lot of possible positions. If you haven’t tried yet, you can’t understand this – many people say, that road bikes handlebars are strange, uncomfortable etc. but they didn’t try them anytime. I tried a lot, have ability to compare with flat and must say: there is only one choice, road handlebar. Very comfortable on long rides, very practical during climbing and also “fast” when we ride into the wind, because aero position. There is additional advantage – road bikes shifters. It’s like poetry, amazing feeling when you click them.
Many companies offer gravels with standard road handlebars – with 2-3 sizes and typical, compact shape. Some also offers different handlebars, wider and also with additional “flare” on drops. It may look strange, but it’s very nice during riding, especially on forests paths, because provides more comfort and stability. I didn’t try very big flare yet (about 20-30 degrees), but on smaller (10-18 degrees) it’s very nice and I can recommend it. Of course, you must also change your shifters position, but it’s ok, because you will have better access to brakes.
Lighter and better than MTB
Gravel bikes are also lighter than MTB or trekking bikes. It’s because they don’t need suspension fork and use narrower, much lighter tires. Average weight of gravel bike is about 9,5 – 10,5 kg. Average weight of standard MTB bike is about 13-15 kg. Is the difference big? Maybe not for everyone, also, it’s much better option to lose our weight, than try to lose bike weight (because of very big costs), but it’s important when you ride next and next uphill with some bags. On road, you can lose gravel bike very quickly using narrower tires. For most of the users, this light bike is very big advantage.
I think gravel bike is the best bike type. It’s just universal. It doesn’t need a lot of maintenance, so it’s good for minimalists like me; it’s light, very fast, and “doesn’t use road bike style and road bike codex” – it’s something like completely free ride, with only fun and exploring a lot of new areas. Also provides quick way to convert into road bike, very fast machine for races. If I had to choose only one bike, MTB or gravel, I would definitely choose gravel. It’s better.