Should Your Next Mountain Bike Be a Gravel Bike?
To maximize your off-road experience, the drop-bar option makes increasingly good sense
There is no doubt that for a certain subset of MBA readers, this sentiment might be as unsettling as the idea of e-bikes. But, with off-road technology continuing to expand to all the different segments (i.e., cross-country, enduro, free-ride, down mountain and downhill), gravel bikes might be a justifiable addition.
Trust me, as the editor of MBA’s sister zine Road Bike Action, no amount of flat-bar backlash would surprise me, as I’ve been fighting an uphill battle with the legions of roadies who are adamant that the only type of drop-bar experience there is to enjoy is one dedicated to pounding the pavement on skinny, slick tires.
But, just as e-bike sales are eclipsing those of non-assist bikes in many mountain bike markets, so, too, have gravel bikes begun to outshine the sales and popularity of their slick-tire predecessors. In short, adding gravel bikes to any discussion about off-road cycling should be no more an affront than if e-bikes were included.
THE LINES ARE BLURRED
For as long as the modern-day gravel bike market has been gaining steam, the most oft-repeated question has been whether to call them mountain bikes with drop bars or road bikes with fat tires. They’re actually neither. In short, it doesn’t matter (#itsjustabike).
Of course, for many mountain bikers, the thought of riding drop bars in the dirt began with John Tomac in the summer of 1990 when (as a contracted rider for the 7-Eleven road team) he returned to the NORBA National circuit with some Cinelli “curly bars” bolted onto his Yeti XC bike. While many observers shook their heads in disbelief, certainly no one openly mocked the superstar rider for doing it.
In the decades since those halcyon days on the NORBA National circuit, the earliest concepts of what defined a mountain bike have long been forgotten. Back then, it was an aluminum hardtail rolling on 26-inch wheels and steered by a now-unthinkable long-stem/narrow-handlebar combo.
Of course, beyond the evolution of technology, all the previous categories of rider experience have also fundamentally broadened.
THE NEW AGE
To the pavement-prone zealots who’ve taken offense to the notion of riding a road bike off-road, I’ve been quick to remind them that, in addition to gravel sections being included in today’s ProTour races, the very origins of the sport, in monstrous stages of the Tour de France, took place on gnarly dirt roads.
Just as frequently as I tell my road bike amigos not to get so uptight about what kind of tire I’m rolling on when I show up for a group ride with knobby tires, I ask my mountain bike friends not to get so uptight about what kind of handlebar I’m riding with.
To me, there’s simply no reason to exclude fellow cyclists by virtue of what bike they choose to ride. At the end of the day, having more people riding bicycles, and especially off-road bicycles, is a benefit for all of us.
SO, WHAT ABOUT THE GRAVEL BIKE?
When people ask why I prefer gravel bikes for my off-road pursuits, to me, it comes down to two elements: a desire for enhanced performance and challenge. This was probably best illustrated for me when I used a gravel bike to ride the White Rim trail with Western Spirit Tours a few years ago.
Popular as a mountain bike destination, the 100-mile-long White Rim trail is a remote stretch of fire road in the Utah desert, and I was initially told that due to the rugged conditions, a gravel bike couldn’t be used. I persisted, and, along with my gravel bike riding partner Nick Martin, proceeded to ride away from the mountain bikes on the trip, thanks to our bikes weighing close to 10 pounds less, rolling on smaller 42mm tires, and having the advantage of more performance-based gearing and positioning.
Sure, lacking any suspension beyond our tubeless tires meant we had to take things slower when it came to rocky and rough sections, but having to consider what line to take versus just barreling through and letting the suspension do all the work only benefited my bike handling skills. Being able to go faster on the flats and climbs also helped minimize the tourist mode that clunky, wide-handlebared mountain bikes only seem to encourage.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Just as every major mountain and road bike brand has had to make the move to e-bikes, so, too, have they all jumped on the gravel bike wagon. And, just as mountain biking has fragmented into a variety of different categories, so, too, has the original concept of a gravel bike begun to splinter with designs that cater to both racing and touring.
Although mixed-wheel models have yet to show up, from mullet drivetrains to dropper posts, most current mountain bike technology can be found in the gravel marketplace. In fact, by the time you’re reading this, both Fox and RockShox will have introduced gravel-specific suspension forks—send it!
In many eyes, the gravel bike is simply a pedal version of the dual-sport/adventure motorcycle (think BMW’s GS 1250 and Honda’s Africa Twin) that proved a sales phenomenon and blew up the traditional road/dirt bike divide. And, since gravel bikes can double as road bikes, another plus is that you can leave your car at home, slip into some Lycra (gasp!), clip into your pedals and actually ride to the ride. In fact, one of my favorite rides consists of 40 miles of pavement to enjoy about 10 miles of dirt. Talk about a twofer of fun and fitness!