The gravel world has seen a huge amount of growth and development in recent years, not entirely unlike the original mountain bike boom, with brands developing things like suspension forks, suspension stems, dropper seatposts, etc, so much in fact that the lines between gravel and mountain bikes are closer than ever. And much like the early MTB scene, a lot of the early development has come from the North American market, where the vast array of smoother trail surfaces make the gravel bike the perfect choice.
So what is a gravel bike? Well, here's everything you need to know about gravel biking. The key takeaway is that they are drop bar bicycles with clearance for bigger tires and more relaxed geometry designed for comfort on rough surfaces whilst still sharing the speed and efficiency of a standard road bike. They handily often include plenty of mounts to carry luggage from too which opens up a whole world of bikepacking adventure.
A gravel bike, by design, is a machine designed for compromise, a Swiss army knife of bikes, if you will. This leads me to ask if many new riders would be better off with a 29er hardtail? Or is there another option?
Personally, I love the wide range of riding my gravel bike opens up and the ability to load it up for bikepacking adventures, but I have to be honest, I find quite a big portion of my time off-road on it would be much more fun on an actual mountain bike. On anything other than smooth gravel, I soon find it easy to reach the limit of what the tires and rigid fork can handle.
As a rider, the main thing you need to do is think about the terrain and type of riding you most enjoy, and whether or not the trade off between fun and efficiency is a worthwhile one. If you ride longer distances, generally have pretty smooth trail surfaces and usually avoid technical trails then a gravel bike would be perfect. But if you find you spend most of your time riding rocky trails and find yourself hanging on for dear life or wishing you had more control then maybe you should go for a hardtail MTB.
So what would be a better option? There's a huge range of 29er hardtails out there, but why would one be better than a gravel bike? Well, the main one is they are designed for riding off-road and have had over 30 years of development; whether it be a super light race bike like the Scott Scale or a more trail-orientated hardtail like Santa Cruz Chameleon, there's a huge choice, and all much more capable than the terrifying steep-angled XC bikes of old.
Mountain bikes usually feature the following:
- Suspension. We are starting to see suspension creeping into the gravel world, but it's still rare and only around 50-60mm of travel, any more than that really upsets the geometry of the bike. Suspension on a hardtail will be anything from 100mm to 150mm and will perform much better.
- More suitable rubber. Gravel tire options, much like the rest of the genre, have improved hugely; however, they are still no match for more robust XC tires out there, especially if where you ride is rocky.
- Geometry. Although some gravel bikes are getting ever closer to mountain bikes in terms of geometry, when the going gets rough, a mountain bike is hard to beat. Modern mountain bikes are now longer in terms of reach and wheelbase, with slacker head angles which make the bikes much more stable over technical terrain
- A wide flat or riser handlebar. This gives you much more control than even the widest flared bars seen on gravel bikes when off-road. You can ride a surprising amount of technical terrain on drop bars, but they lack the control and ability to change direction quickly offered by a good wide handlebar.
- Dropper posts. We are starting to see dropper seatposts on some gravel bikes, like the YT Szepter, but much like suspension forks they are still a rare sight. A dropper post can really transform your bike, by moving the seat out of the way you have a lot more room to move and lower your center of gravity. They are largely standard now on mountain bikes above the 1k mark and are a must-have for a lot of riders.
All of the features above add up to one main thing, fun. In my experience a hardtail on the same piece of trail can be significantly more enjoyable and opens up even more options of places to ride.
There are some brands that are now starting to bridge the gap and muddy the waters with bikes that are in-between, such as the Cotic Cascade, which are essentially mountain bikes with drop handlebars that were born from the issues standard gravel bikes face on technical terrain, but still with the bikepacking and longer distance comforts of a drop bar bike. The Cascade was developed in the Peak District in the UK, which is predominately rocky and can be a challenge on standard gravel machines.
So basically, whether or not you should ride a gravel bike or a mountain bike is entirely dictated by your riding conditions and what you like to do, but the most important thing is to not discount a hardtail mountain bike. They can be faster and, most importantly, considerably more fun than the drop bar alternatives and that's what we all ride bikes for, right?