If you're someone who's torn between the sleek speed of road biking and the exhilaration of mountain biking that we all seek, we've got your answer: Gravel bikes – the previous underdogs of the cycling world. Let's dive into the nitty-gritty of why gravel bikes are the perfect in-between for those who crave a bit of everything.
Traction Where You Need It
One of the defining features of a gravel bike is its versatility, and it all starts with the rubber beneath you. We're talking about tires, and not just any tires – we're talking about the Goldilocks of the biking world.
For those long stretches of uneven and janky pavement with a mix of hard-packed dirt, a tire size around 32-40mm strikes the perfect balance between the speed of reduced contact patch and the trust of added grip. It sails over loose gravel while still providing enough traction to keep you confidently in control.
Now, if you're looking to push the boundaries into more technical terrain, consider a wider tire in the 40-50mm range. This provides the extra grip needed to tackle some light off-road trails without compromising too much on the speed factor. Wider tires in this range will greatly benefit you in some unruly terrain with its extra cushion, deeper lugs, and bigger contact patch. This sounds amazing, right? Until you find yourself on long stretches of pavement watching roadies pass you as each kilometer ticks by. Remember, it’s a balance of knowing what you’re going to ride and preparing for unforeseen trail conditions you may come across.
Bikepacking, Touring, or Going Fast?
Now, let's talk frames – the backbone of your gravel beast. Different activities demand different frame setups, and lucky for you, the options are as diverse as the landscapes you'll be conquering.
If your adventures involve strapping on bags and hitting the backcountry trails, opt for a gravel frame with ample mounts. Look for eyelets for racks and fenders, ensuring you can carry all your gear without sacrificing stability. Something with a good amount of tire clearance to get you to that perfect camp spot your friend's uncle once mentioned. Set-ups for bikepacking require a balance of lightweight frame and components to counterweight the packed-full bags that you will lug around. Carbon and aluminum frames are prime choices for those looking to spend their time bikepacking. Again, This largely depends on the terrain you’re trekking through, but geometry specs such as headtube angle, and seatpost angle will greatly affect your ascending and descending experience. Look for something that suits your specific needs.
Are you more of a long-haul cyclist, ready to tackle epic off-road journeys? In that case, prioritize reliability. In touring, weight is a given, so in your case why not go steel? Steel frames are like your grandpa's 1973 Cutlass, old-school - but still making rounds to the grocery store. When you’re two weeks deep in a trip, in the middle of nowhere Argentina, you’re going to want to ensure that your frame can keep up with thousands of kilometers of bumps. Though in this case, the frame isn’t the only thing that will have to keep up. Components such as your wheelset and drivetrain also have to keep up. For a real burly set-up you will start to look into 650b wheelsets, and belt driven drivetrains.. But that’s a story for another day.
For those who crave speed and agility, focus on aerodynamics and a race-inspired geometry. You will be looking at a lightweight carbon frame with steep angles to keep you pushing for maximum efficiency. You may think, might as well get a road bike? Close, road bike frames are meant to perfectly fit thin road tires for smooth roads. A road-inspired gravel bike will provide you some extra tire clearance with a little extra give in the frame stiffness to clear up a bit of that hardpack chatter.
Drivetrains that Deliver
When it comes to gearing, gravel bikes offer a spectrum of options to cater to your riding style. If you're leaning towards a more off-road experience, a 1x drivetrain simplifies your setup, reducing maintenance while still providing a wide range of gears to tackle any technical climb or forest service road descent.
On the flip side, if your gravel adventures lean more towards the road, a 2x drivetrain might be your ticket. The dual chainring setup provides more gear ratios, allowing you to fine-tune your cadence for those fast-paced, smooth stretches.
But what if your gravel ambitions extend beyond the weekend escapades? Fear not – the gravel bike is also the ultimate urban warrior. With the rise of mixed-surface commuting, gravel bikes have become the go-to choice for those navigating the concrete jungle and beyond. The versatility that makes them kings of the gravel trails also translates seamlessly to city streets. A slightly narrower tire, around 35mm, provides the efficiency needed for a quick commute while still handling unexpected bumps and potholes with ease. Add a set of fenders and a rack, and your gravel bike transforms into the perfect commuting companion, effortlessly blending the speed of road biking with the adaptability of a mountain bike. So whether you're dodging traffic or exploring hidden shortcuts, your gravel bike is ready to make every commute an adventure.
Looking to pick up your next bike from Smith Creek Cycle? We’ve got options that you can’t turn down: Looking for an aggressive, mountain bike inspired gravel bike? Check out the Pipedream A.L.I.C.E. This gravel bike is meant to stand up to the toughest trails. Basically a drop bar mountain bike, this unit can mount up to 29” x 2.4” wheels, while featuring a steel frame, and a carbon fork with various mounting points. If you want to be aggressive, this is our first choice.
Looking for something a little lighter weight but still up for the challenge? We bring you the IBIS Hakka MX. A light weight carbon gravel bike that features clearance for 700x40 or 650b x 2.1” tires. This frame is a push into the future with modern geometry specs and up to date components. This beast is a bikepackers right-hand man, while also being a road biker's back-up.
But what if you want to go fast, and I mean fast. Check out Cannondale’s Topstone Carbon 1 RLE. This full carbon piece of art is built to break PR’s and leave mountain bikers in the dust. Providing clearance of up to 700x45 and 650b x 2.1”, you can ensure the swap between your road tires and your heavy duty gravel tires is seamless. Featuring Cannondale’s Kingpin suspension, and numerous mounts, this bike is not only a speed demon, but also incredibly comfortable. This frame's geometry is the perfect addition to a mountain biker or road biker's quiver as it pushes you into a more road-style body position, but with slight tuning of the cockpit, the slackness of the headtube plays nice when you’re getting rowdy.