Gravel is certainly a buzzword in cycling these days, with many tarmac-loving roadies discovering the joys of off-route riding. Amidst those who haven’t nonetheless succumbed, however, there are some opinions existence aired that gravel bikes are just route bikes with slightly wider tyres. Nosotros’re here to deflate that assumption and clear upwards the differences. And so if you lot’re scratching your head over the road cycle vs gravel bike conundrum, ponder no more.
In the same manner that a cross-country mountain bike differs from a trail or enduro bike, the best gravel bikes and the all-time road bikes exhibit a wide variety of design elements which let each to excel in a specific arena.
Road bike vs gravel bike: What are they supposed to do?
Every bit y’all tin can probably work out from the name, route bikes are designed to be ridden on routes with a tarmac bias, while gravel bikes can exist taken off-road, on gravel paths, clay roads, burn trails, and even singletrack.
That’s not to say that road bikes can’t be used for some gravel riding — heck, every year, the pro racers take their race bikes onto the white gravel roads around Siena, Italy for Strade Bianche. Road bikes are considerably more capable than nosotros often give them credit for, but they do accept a well-defined limit, one which you will quickly establish one time you venture onto loose gravel roads.
Road bikes ultimately fall into two camps, race bikes, and endurance bikes. Race bikes are what you encounter the pros pushing to the absolute limit and feature ambitious angles, low weights, and tube shapes and components designed to reduce aerodynamic drag. Endurance bikes are a bit more upright, feature more stable handling, put a premium on comfort, and may have born storage and mounts for racks and fenders.
Gravel bikes, on the other hand, are designed to exist more capable and tackle a wider multifariousness of terrain. They can happily plod along on the tarmac or jump onto the back of a grouping ride, but if you plan to pin on a number for a Tuesday night crit, you will find yourself under-gunned on even the all-time gravel bikes. Nosotros don’t officially accept the same race and endurance categories of gravel bikes (yet), but some are designed more than for racing, like the Specialized Crux, while others are congenital with more of an adventure focus, every bit we found out in our Merida Silex 8000-E review. They volition usually have mounts galore for bottles, luggage, and fenders and volition unremarkably be a scrap heavier than their tarmac faring relatives.
This weight is higher, too, considering the frame will be reinforced to deflect airborne droppings and withstand the crude and tumble terrain found once y’all exit the tarmac, but the boosted grams also help with stability. Ultra-lightweight bikes tin get bound around when the terrain gets spicy, while something slightly heavier will remain more composed.
Wheels and tyres
The most visually hit difference between a route and gravel bicycle volition be the wheels and tyres. Road bikes will usually take an absolute max tyre clearance around 33-35mm depending on the category, with near erring on the side of slightly narrower rubber. These days, most race bikes will come stock with 25mm tyres, with room for 28mm, while endurance bikes will accept wider safety. Wider tyres allow for lower pressures, which creates a wider contact patch for more grip and comfort. Lab testing has established that fatter tyres tin can likewise brand for less rolling resistance.
However, wider tyres are heavier, and depending on the rim, may mess with the aerodynamic mojo of your wheelset — today’s best road cycle wheels are designed to spread a 25c or 28c casing to sit flush with the rim, likewise wide, and the tyre will balloon out over the side and grade a lightbulb-similar shape.
On the other hand, gravel bikes will have clearance for 33mm tyres all the manner up to casings that are measured in inches, and gravel frames may even be compatible with both 700c wheels and smaller 650b (27.5in) wheels and tyres. Like with road tyres, the broader contact patch, lower tyre pressures make for improved comfort and grip, and the additional width will also make negotiating uneven surfaces a bit less technical.
The tread pattern is a much bigger consideration on gravel bikes than information technology is on route bikes. Tread on the all-time road bike tyres doesn’t add much in the way of grip, hence why they’re more or less smooth.
Gravel bikes are designed to venture onto softer surfaces, and as such, they feature tread and knobs that can dig into off-road surfaces. At that place is a massive range of tread patterns available for the best gravel tyres, and which is correct for yous depends on the weather, where you plan to ride and what the terrain looks like.
Many gravel bikes volition also take the ability to exist used with a 650b (27.5in) bike and tyre philharmonic. This smaller cycle allows for a wider tyre, in the ballpark of 2 inches, allowing for lower tyre pressure level and more comfort and grip. This is possible because a 700×28-30mm tyre is approximately the same bore equally a 27.5×1.6in-1.8in tyre, which means that information technology won’t change the head angle or trail effigy, and should not take a drastic effect on handling characteristics. To maximise clearances for such wide tyres, and the mud and debris that will eventually build up on the frame, gravel bikes volition occasionally feature a dropped drive-side chainstay or machined yoke behind the bottom subclass — these same features are also used to improve chainring clearance.
The other thing to annotation virtually gravel and route tyres is the proliferation of tubeless. As the all-time tubeless road tyres continue to go better with each iteration, the technology is becoming more and more prevalent on the road, however, off-road where punctures are much more than commonplace, pretty much all of the all-time gravel tyres are tubeless by default.
You lot likely won’t exist able to spot the geometry differences between a road bike and a gravel bike unless you take one of each right side by side to one another; the nuanced differences and a few millimetres hither or half a degree there, but will have a drastic effect on the way a bike behaves.
Road bikes will typically have a short wheelbase and steeper angles for nimble ride quality and lively treatment. Gravel bikes have a longer wheelbase and slacker head angle to add stability and slow downward the handling for negotiating technical obstacles and loose descents.
For example, a Specialized Roubaix endurance route bike has a head-angle of 72.75-degrees and a wheelbase of 988mm in size 54; meanwhile, a Specialized Diverge gravel bike has a slacker 71.75-degree head-angle and 1032mm wheelbase in the same size.
Road bikes volition also have a longer attain, and shorter frame stack and head tube to facilitate a longer, lower, more than aero position, while gravel bikes are shorter and more than upright.
If we compare Trek’s Emonda race bike and Checkpoint gravel bike; the Emonda has a frame reach of 386mm, a fame stack of 541mm, and a 121mm head tube in size 54, while the Checkpoint sees a 383mm reach, 547mm stack, and 125mm headtube.
Suspension has been a mainstay of mountain biking for quite some time; withal, various forms of suspension are available beyond both route and gravel bikes — the breadth of which across both categories is surprising.
Specialized uses a damped coil shock, dubbed the Time to come Shock, on the forepart terminate of both the Roubaix endurance road bike and the Diverge, as shown in more detail in our Specialized Diverge review. Trek and Cannondale both take their own accept on pin based flex suspension for the rear; the IsoSpeed decoupler institute on the Domane endurance road bicycle, Madone aero race wheel, and Checkpoint gravel bike, and the Kingpin thru-axle pivot on the Topstone Carbon gravel bike.
Gravel bikes, still, are the just lot to see air-sprung forks, with Cannondale offer its 30mm Lefty Oliver on specific models of the Topstone – shown in our recent Cannondale Topstone Lefty 3 review, Trick offering its 32 AX (Chance Cantankerous) gravel fork, and Rockshox offer the Rudy XPLR gravel fork.
Technically, both route and gravel bikes come in ‘full intermission’ varieties, admitting in very different forms. Trek’s Domane has IsoSpeed decouplers front and rear, which technically qualifies as suspension. It’southward a far weep from Niner’s Magic Carpet Ride (MCR), which comes complete with the Fox 23 AX fork and rear linkage that offers 50mm of travel, thanks to the X-fusion Microlite shock.
Most of the components found on a gravel bike will be compatible with a road cycle and visa-versa; however, in that location are key differences that prevent a gravel wheel from falling to pieces when the going gets rough or help a route bike to trip the light fantastic toe up the slopes of Mont Ventoux.
Road bikes are still hit and miss with disc brakes (though the all-time road bike groupsets are trending into the direction of rotors and hydraulic calipers); every gravel bike will come equipped with discs. Rim brakes are lighter and work merely fine riding on tarmac, only discs provide superior power, modulation, and control, and consistently perform across all weather weather condition. You will appreciate this added control when you are picking your way downward a technical descent on your gravel bike, peculiarly in the wet.
Both road and gravel bikes will sport 1x and 2x drivetrains. Road bikes tend towards ii front chainrings, every bit the jumps between gears are smaller, meaning it’s easier to find a comfortable cadence at any speed.
Gravel bikes have both 1x and 2x drivetrains with a slight bias towards 1x. With only a single front end chainring, 1x drivetrains are all the same capable of achieving the same gear range as 2x, though to do this in 11 or 12 gears instead of 22 or 24 means the gaps betwixt each ratio volition be more meaning. Eliminating the need to shift at the front has allowed drivetrain manufacturers to employ narrow-wide chainrings, which feature alternating teeth profiles that grip the inner and outer concatenation links to foreclose information technology from billowy off over rough terrain.
Bikes equipped with Shimano gravel groupsets typically feature a rear derailleur with some definition of a clutch. Whether it’s of the roller bearing or fluid damper diverseness, the master part is to pull the chain taut to prevent concatenation slap or it bouncing off the front chainring. These are usually a few grams heavier than their non-clutched compatriots and require a bit more gusto to button the chain up the cassette, but the difference in chain retention is dark and day.
Cockpit and seat mail service
Many of the best gravel handlebars will be flared, and oftentimes they’ll exist paired with shorter stems than cockpits yous’ll find on road bikes, while drop confined on road bikes will typically have a deeper drop and a slightly longer achieve than those usually plant on gravel bikes.
Flared drib bars place your hands in a broader position, allowing clearance for your wrists and added command when navigating your way through loose corners or up and over obstacles. The flare also makes it easier to attain the restriction levers from the drops.
The last and most controversial component departure you’ll find on gravel bikes is a dropper mail service. These are seen as a must-have for mountain bikers and have even made an appearance on Mavic neutral support bikes to assistance riders dial in their saddle top on the wing, but that’southward not their intended purpose. The idea behind a dropper mail is to move the saddle out of the way on steep descents so you lot can get your weight back to prevent being ejected over the handlebars.
On a paved road, yous’re unlikely to come across a slope steep plenty or a road surface that’s then cleaved that yous will need to become backside the saddle, but it’s non uncommon to find burn roads that are enough steep and rough plenty to warrant dropping your saddle out of the way.