Are Gravel Bikes a Marketing Ploy?
Maybe, but our Creative Content Lead, Chris, thinks it doesn’t really matter. Read on to find out why he thinks gravel bikes might just make the best bikepacking bikes.
Gravel bikes face a lot of criticism for not being as good as a mountain bike off-road or as good as a road bike on-road. “They’re 90’s mountain bikes” and “you’d be better off buying a modern hardtail”. There’s probably quite a bit of truth to this, but it also misses the point.
For starters, there’s not really such thing as a ‘standard’ gravel bike. There are road bikes with a bit of extra tyre clearance, mountain bikes with drop handlebars, and just about every possibility in between. The one thing all gravel bikes have in common is versatility. You can ride gravel on a road bike and you can ride asphalt on a mountain bike, but not without serious compromise. Gravel bikes flatten out those compromises. Yes, they’re less capable off-road and a little slower on-road, but they’re better off-road than a road bike and better on-road than a mountain bike.
Depending on the gravel bike, a simple switch of wheels and tyres can further reduce the compromise on your chosen terrain. If you want to ride fast on roads and smooth gravel, a 700C wheel with a smooth tyre will be fast and efficient, whereas a 650b wheel with a chunky tread will provide better grip and comfort on trails.
Outside of the extremes, most gravel tyres are designed to work well across asphalt and dirt, so open up possibilities you might not have been able to consider on your road or mountain bike. I’ve always enjoyed taking my road bike off road and pushing the limits of what 28mm slicks can handle, but going bikepacking on a road bike does generally mean sticking to roads 90 per cent of the time. With a gravel bike, that restriction isn’t there and you no longer have to choose between the bucket list road climb and the dream singletrack trail back down to the valley. It’s the best of both worlds.
All of my recent bikepacking trips have become nearer a 50-50 mix of on and off road at the minimum and they’re better for it. Bikepacking has always been about freedom and exploration and gravel bikes dial that up to eleven. Sure, riding my gravel bike up the Passo Giau wasn’t as easy or pleasant as riding my road bike would have been and accidentally taking a downhill mountain bike run on the Italian/French border was an ‘experience’, but the point is that both extremes were entirely possible because of the bike I was riding.
Your moving speed may not be as fast as it could be, but the freedom to change your plans at the last minute or completely throw the plan out of the window is extremely liberating. In Italy last summer, half of the gravel diversions I had planned were closed for forestry works. On my gravel, bike, detouring on the road wasn’t a chore and I didn’t feel like I’d missed anything out – I simply swapped Giro d’Italia climbs in place of secluded forest trails. In Scotland, my girlfriend and I were able to escape busy roads, join the Cape Wrath Fellowship and replan our route every night on the fly without having to think about the terrain. On road bikes, we’d have been stuck pulling in for Caravans every couple of minutes for the entire week.
Another easily overlooked aspect of gravel bikes is their carrying ability. With many gravel bikes being designed for ‘adventure’ and bikepacking, manufacturers are building in more storage options and handy features for bikepackers. Top tube and fork mounts for bags are common, alongside mudguard mounts, internal dynamo wiring and other clever features. Wider handlebars generally mean there’s more space for handlebar bags and the raised position adds to comfort while reducing the chance of bags rubbing on the front wheel. This doesn’t mean you have to carry more, but it does make it much easier to balance the load evenly across your bike.
So, marketing ploy or not, my bikepacking bike of choice will continue to be a gravel bike. I’ve not quite bought into the ‘quiver killer’ ideal and still have my road bike for more spirited, asphalt-bound rides, but for everything else I have a gravel bike and a choice of 700c or 650b wheels.