For those who obsessively monitor the cycling industry, it feels like a new gravel bike is being launched every other week, each reinterpreting what an ‘all-terrain’ frameset actually is.
Cannondale has redefined the term ‘maximum gravel’ with its dual-suspension Topstone. You can even have a Topstone Neo, an e-gravel bike with electric assistance.
Niner’s MCR 9 RDO has taken the dual-suspension gravel bike theme even further with a proper rear linkage and shock, boasting 50mm of travel. 3T is evolving its gravel bike aero obsession and lightweight all-terrain tyres are proliferating.
There appears to be no stalling the design momentum powering gravel bikes into a position of prominence, whenever riders muse the ‘new bike’ issue. But do you really need one?
Drop bar all-terrain bikes are not a new trend. Cyclo-cross bikes are dedicated racing machines with unapologetically aggressive geometry. Touring bikes are designed to roll huge mileages in great comfort, whilst balancing the burden of bike packing. The gravel bike is somewhere between these two drop-bar off-road capable designs.
Taking in all the roads
Most cyclists have experienced that sense of curiosity when a great road ride reaches its turnaround point. Looking beyond the tarmac, deeper into the valley, and wondering: where do all those gravel roads go?
With a gravel bike, riders have the ability to take in all roads. You can ride tarmac - sacrificing some rolling efficiency - and then transition onto gravel roads or even flowing singletrack forest trails. The broad theme with gravel bikes is that of adventure riding, unconstrained by terrain.
Gravel bikes have reinforced frames and forks, which are a touch heavier, to cope with the high-frequency terrain buzz, roots and rocks they encounter on an off-road route. Mud clearance is generous too, which can mean oversized forks and rear triangles, with less than ideal aero – although the 3T Exploro and Exploro Racemax addresses this with its oversized tube shapes.
As with any cycling segment, gravel bikes have been enabled with a surge in rim and tyre development. Wider wheelsets and specific gravel tyre casings, with treads unlike anything you’d ever encounter on a road bike, have made gravel bikes more confidence-inspiring to ride - the Specialized Diverge is a case in point.
Gravel geometry might also be a few millimetres and degrees different from what you are used to. These bikes feature stretched frames for superior high-speed stability on looser surfaces, with slacker head angles. Most road bike frames are between 1- and 2-degrees steeper than an equivalent size and specification gravel bike.
For riders who are accustomed to the compact geometry and immediate steering responses of a road bike, with its steeper head angle and shorter fork offset, gravel bikes might feel slow-steering at first. They run a longer fork offset, balancing design outcomes of having a lengthier reach and slacker head angle, which calms the steering on fast descents over looser, stone and shale surfaces.
Do you really need one?
Those who seek the escapism of that huge weekend ride, away from any vehicle traffic, will discover that gravel bikes serve a definite purpose, but gravel bike ownership comes with a significant caveat: location.
Gravel bikes are great on mild off-road terrain, but they remain compromised as pure road bikes. If you don’t live in close proximity to a notable gravel road network or some flowing forest pathways open to cycling, a gravel bike is going to become superfluous. The dreaded dream bike that you never properly bond with.
Location and land access will be the greatest influences on your gravel bike ownership decision. Those who live in riding range of gravel roads and manicured off-road trails can justify a gravel bike but if you don’t have the land access, it is pointless.
Gravel bikes can perhaps be an interesting alternative for riders who are suffering from compound injuries, especially in the hands and wrists. These riders might benefit from the larger tyres and suspension technologies available on gravel bikes. The clearance for mudguards could even make a gravel bike the viable option for your commuter bike or the sturdy winter-ready road bike.
Even if you aren’t going to roll it much off-road, many gravel bike designs could make for a comfortable general-purpose bicycle. Certain gravel bikes, with their flex chainstays and suspension forks, might be a lot more forgiving to ride on tarmac, than an endurance road frame or a touring bike.
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