A blog-friend of mine asked yesterday, after I commented on a post of his in which he contemplated giving gravel bike riding a go, if I ride dirt roads on a “gravel bike”.
I have both a gravel bike and a mountain bike and I ride both, though I favor the gravel bike. My mountain bike is a 2014 Specialized Rockhopper Sport Disc 29’er. My gravel bike is a 2017 Diverge Sport A1 – and it’s a true gravel bike, not some hodgepodge road bike with fat tires on it.
Gravel bikes started popping up shortly after the cyclo-cross craze swept the cycling world. Once the drop-bar bike was ridden on a dirt road, it was all over but the shoutin’. Nowadays, everything is “gravel bike” this and “adventure bike” that, and I believe with good reason.
Any roadie who’s gone for a dirt road ride will likely tell you that, not only is traffic thinner on the back roads, motorists are infinitely nicer. Friends, the difference in attitudes is so astounding, I still have a tough time believing it’s even possible, let alone quantifying it.
Drivers of diesel pickup trucks actually waive, and not with just their middle finger extended, as they drive by. It seems to me, at least in my neck of the woods, motorists have ceded dirt roads to cyclists. They let us be us on the back roads.
And that’s the allure of road bikes on dirt roads.
Advantages over mountain bikes
For the longest time I thought purchasing a dedicated gravel bike would be a waste of money. After all, my mountain bike was awesome and it matched my road bike(s). We were out for a dirt road ride, my wife, my buddy Mike, our friend Diane, and I, and it started to rain. The weather station had shown we should have been good but that simply wasn’t the case. We started pushing for home. My wife, Mike and I were on mountain bikes. Diane had a cyclo-cross bike (racing gravel bike). Now, Diane is no slouch, but I’m a whole mess of a lot faster than she is and I couldn’t hardly hold her wheel. I was absolutely hammering the pedals and she’d easily walk away from us. It was riding down the (paved) road, eating her rooster tail trying to keep up, that I started thinking about getting a gravel bike.
Then, our buddy Chuck bought a gravel bike… and the rest of our group (my wife, Mike, the other Chuck, Phill and I) all had a gravel bike within two weeks. 80% of the Tuesday night A & B groups have gravel bikes now. The craze swept us up just like it did the rest of cycling. That fast.
The advantages of gravel bikes over dedicated mountain bikes are price, weight and speed.
Price is a little tricky because mountain bikes tend to be the most affordable of the serious bikes (read “not leisure bikes”), but they’re heavy at the affordable end. A $700 mountain bike (29’er) is going to weigh 28-ish pounds while an entry-level gravel bike ($900-ish) will be a few pounds lighter. My $1,150 retail Diverge is 24 pounds. The price/weight paradigm changes as the mountain bikes get lighter, though. An 18 pound mountain bike will run you $10,000 or more while a 18 pound gravel bike will run half that.
Pound for pound and dollar for dollar, a gravel bike wins the weight war.
Finally, speed is the biggest advantage in choosing a gravel bike. Most riders on an entry-level gravel bike will be faster than they would be on a mid-range to upper-echelon mountain bike. Differences in geometry, posture and parts make a gravel bike vastly more aerodynamic. Take away a few additional pounds and improve the riding posture and it’s easy to pick up a couple of free miles per hour.
Meanwhile, you’ve often got the roads all to yourself. Whether riding with friends or all by myself, I feel vastly more comfortable when I diverge from the asphalt. I’d never give up paved roads, but after a long season of angry motorists, it’s nice to enjoy a little peace and quiet.
Even if it means cleaning the bike more often.