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Gravel Bike Vs Mountain Bike. Great Bike Options For You

gravel bike vs mountain bike

Gravel bike vs mountain bike? Which is the better bike for you? Gravel bikes are a new type of bike that has arrived on the scene in the past few years.

What are gravel bikes and what makes them unique? Why would you choose a gravel bike rather than a mountain bike for riding dirt roads and trails? Why not just get a road bike for that matter? There are so many types of bikes now that it can difficult to find the perfect bike for what you want to do.

Let’s look at gravel bikes and what advantages they have over mountain bikes. Why you would want to get a gravel bike over the other kinds of bikes available.

Gravel Bike Vs Mountain Bike vs Hybrid vs Road Bike.

There are so many types of bikes out there today. Road bike, mountain bike, gravel bike, cyclocross bike. Add in track bikes, all the subcategories of mountain bikes (Enduro, Trail, XC, downhill) and it gets even more overwhelming.

  • Road bikes are designed for speed and duration on pavement.
  • Mountain bikes are designed for offroad use. They can be made more for downhill or uphill riding.
  • Gravel bikes are meant for speed and duration on unpaved roads.
  • Cyclocross bikes are designed for a specific type of racing involving biking and obstacles. Racers will get off their bikes and carry them over obstacles. They have strict limits on tire width.
  • Hybrid bikes are a cross between a mountain bike and road bike and usually edge a little closer to a mountain bike.

What is a gravel bike?

Gravel bikes look similar to road bikes in appearance. They have drop handlebars. Their main difference is clearance for wider tires and more upright geometry. Some popular examples are the Specialized Diverge, Trek Checkpoint, and Salsa Warbird Apex.

specialized chisel mountain bike
Specialized Diverge Gravel Bike. Photo courtesy Specialized Bikes

Most road bikes are designed for tire widths between 23mm and 28mm or slightly over an inch. Gravel bike tires run from 38 to 50mm or 1.5 to 2inches. Some expanding towards 2.2inches. Larger tire widths give a gravel bike a much cushier, smoother more stable ride than a road bike tire. Gravel bike tires have more knobs and features than road bike tires.

A gravel bike will have geometry allowing a more upright seating position. The reach (how far the handlebar is from the seat) will be less. They are a more comfortable feeling riding position compared to a road bike.

Many gravel bikes have 1X drivelines. They only have a single chainring. Almost all road bikes have a 2X driveline.

Differences between gravel and mountain bikes

mountain bike and gravel bike
Specialized Diverge and Chisel. Photo courtesy Specialized Bikes

Drop handlebars

The biggest difference between a gravel bike and a mountain bike will be the handlebar. Almost all mountain bikes have straight handlebars. Almost all gravel bikes have drop bars. Drop bars allow for more variety in hand positions on long rides. This helps with hand and wrist fatigue. They also allow for a more aerodynamic riding position.

Straight handlebars are wider and allow for a more stable and in control feeling. Wider handlebars are better for maneuvering your bike through tight technical terrain.

No suspension

Most mountain bikes have at least a front suspension fork. Most gravel bikes have a rigid fork. There are a few gravel bike specific forks now with very low travel. 30-40mm. Most of these bikes have a rigid fork. A gravel bike will not be full suspension. Mountain bikes commonly have suspension on both front and rear wheels.

Taller gearing

Gravel bikes will have taller gearing. They will have larger chainrings and cassettes with lower spread. A 1X mountain bike cassette might be 10-50 tooth. Gravel bike cassettes are more commonly 10-36.

Mountain bikes with 1x drivelines have cranks with 32-36 teeth. Gravel bikes will have 40-42 tooth chainrings. You may encounter very steep rocky technical climbs on a mountain bike where you need the low gear. Gravel bikes are designed for the type of climb you will find on a dirt road. Gravel bikes have gearing allowing them to pedal to higher speeds where a mountain bike may spin out.

Upright geometry

Gravel bikes have similar upright geometries as mountain bikes. They share the same more comfortable more upright seating position. The drop handlebars on the gravel bike still allow for a more aerodynamic position when needed.

Tires

Gravel bike tires go up to 2 to 2.2 inches in width. Common mountain bike tires today are 2.2 to 2.6 width or wider. Mountain bike tires will be much more knobby. Gravel tires will look more like a cross between a knobby tire and a slick pavement tire.

Gravel bike vs old school mountain bike

Mountain bikes from the 1980s and early 1990s had much different geometry and tires than today’s mountain bikes. They had rigid forks and no rear suspension. They had 2 inch tires widths like gravel bikes do today. They had 3x drivelines using 3 chainrings with a wide range of gearing. Most of them would make an okay gravel road bikes today.

I have a 1987 Specialized Rockerhopper that I ride occasionally. It was a state of the art trail bike back in 1987. Today feels pretty horrible to ride compared to anything modern on trails.

I wouldn’t go out searching for an old mountain bike to use for gravel road riding. I would not pay money for one of these to use for actual riding.

Gravel bike vs hybrid bike

Hybrid bikes are another cross between a road bike and a mountain bike. Hybrid bikes lean a little closer to mountain bikes than a gravel bike.
Hybrid bikes have straight handlebars rather than drop bars. Many of them have front suspension forks in the neighborhood of 50 to 100mm of travel.

The below video has a very good comparison between a gravel bike and a cross country mountain bike.

Why do I need a gravel bike?

Why do you need any bike? Because you want one. There is always a desire for N +1 and why not a gravel bike.

If you enjoy riding paved and dirt roads but do not ride on mountain bike trails, a gravel bike might be perfect for you. If you do not like riding with drop bars you might still prefer a hardtail cross country mountain bike. An XC bike with more pavement friendly tires makes a pretty efficient road bike.

Gravel bike vs Mountain Bike FAQ

Q: Which is better for bikepacking – Gravel or Mountain bike?

Both bike types can work well for bike packing. It depends on what terrain you plan on biking over. If it’s pavement or roads a gravel bike could be better. It also depends on what handlebar style you prefer.

Q: Can I use a gravel bike on mtb trails?

You can take a gravel bike out on a mountain bike trail. You should start with something less technical and work your way up. You need to ride in the drop position on technical downhills so you can brake and hold the bars. It won’t be as comfortable as a mountain bike with wider tires and suspension. That is part of the fun and adventure.

Q: Can I use a mountain bike for gravel grinder races?

You can ride a mountain bike for a gravel grinder race. People have been doing it for years. A cross country bike with gravel tires will not give up much to a gravel bike. You can be successful with both types of bikes. Give a gravel grinder a try if one is near you whether you have a dedicated gravel bike or now.

Q: Can road bikes go on gravel?

You can ride a road bike on gravel. You can try to ride it on a mountain bike trail as well. You see plenty of people riding road bikes on the neighborhood rails to trails paths. Many of these are crushed concrete/dirt surface. They do okay with road bikes on these. It helps to put the widest tire you can on your road bike. This will give you more cushion and traction on the rough dirt surface. A gravel bike can accommodate much larger tires making them more suitable for this.

Q: Are gravel bikes as fast as road bikes?

On the correct surface, a gravel bike can be faster than a road bike. A gravel bike with good gravel tires will be controllable at much higher speeds than a road bike. A road bike will be faster on pavement due to it’s smaller tire size and more aerodynamic riding position. Both of those factors make the road bike less comfortable too.

Q: Why are gravel bikes so expensive?

Gravel bikes are a new category of bikes. If their popularity continues they will spawn low cost versions in the $300 to $500 dollar range. Right now they are a niche market bike catering to the mid range and up bike crowd.

Q: Are gravel bikes a fad?

Gravel bikes are probably not a fad. There miles and miles of dirt roads and unpaved rails to trails paths around the country. Gravel bikes are the perfect bike for all of these. Gravel bikes are also a more comfortable alternative to a road bike for riding roads. With their more upright geometry and cushier tires, they are a bit easier on the back and body to ride.

They will influence the design of non-racing road bikes to accommodate wider tires and more upright positions. They still have narrow drop handlebars which many casual bike riders don’t like. They won’t replace mountain bikes or hybrids for many people. For people looking for a faster bike to ride on dirt roads they are an option.

Q: Which bike brand is best?

There is no best answer to which bike brand is best for gravel bikes or any kind of bike. There are many good bike builders out there. Brands such as Specialized, Giant, Trek, Santa Cruz, and Salsa all make excellent bikes across many categories. There are many more good bike brands to choose from.

grey colored gravel bike

Final Words

In the battle of gravel bike vs mountain bike, the winner depends on what and where you want to ride. If you want to explore dirt roads and paths and like riding in an aero drop position than a gravel bike may be for you. If your main interest is road riding but your not interested in racing a gravel bike could be for you. The extra tire cushion and more relaxed geometry make gravel bikes more comfortable.

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About the author

My name is Doug Ryan. I am an adventure sports fan and an avid skier, sailor, mountain biker who also enjoys paddle boarding, kayaking, wakeboarding, waterskiing, and travel. I take any chance I can get to get out in the snow or water.  I actively run an adventure sports meetup where I get asked many questions.  I decided to start Gear Craver as a way to share my knowledge and enthusiasm for adventure sports their gear.

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