Over the past few years, gravel bikes have become increasingly popular. Now, many riders can be found discussing wheel sizes, flared drop bars, tire width, and tire treads with varying opinions. Those just starting their cycling journey, however, may not even realize the differences between gravel bikes vs road bikes. After all, they both have drop bars, two triangles and can have similar wheels and tires. Below are the main differences between gravel and road bikes.
As you can work out from the names, road bikes are designed for road use., or blacktop surfaces, whereas, gravel bikes are designed for gravel, dirt, and other off-road surfaces. Now, just because you have a road bike, that doesn’t mean you can’t occasionally ride on gravel, but they do have a limit. Often road bikes will feel unstable on rougher paths, as they are made for smooth tarmac. Gravel bikes however are much more capable on rough terrain as they are heavier, thus more stable. But, due to this, they will not be as fast as a road bike on smooth surfaces.
Often road bikes are light, with minimal mounts and extras. Even the tires are as light as possible. However, a gravel bike is reinforced and will often have mounts for bottles, fenders, luggage, and more. The added weight from the reinforced frame is what makes the gravel bike sturdier on rougher surfaces.
The wheels are often the biggest visual difference when it comes to gravel bikes vs road bikes. To start with, road bikes have a maximum tire clearance of 33-35mm, whereas the gravel bikes’ maximum clearance is 45-50mm. Most road bikes will come with stock 25mm tires, with room for 28mm, though this may be slightly wider on endurance models. Wider tires allow for lower pressure, creating a wider contact point for grip. Gravel bikes often use 33mm tires or larger, into casing measured in inches. The wider tire allows for better grip and helps with stability on uneven surfaces.
The tread pattern is much more important for gravel bikes than road bikes. As users venture onto softer surfaces using a gravel bike, the tires need a tread with knobs that can dig into the surface. For road bikes, the tread is usually as smooth as possible.
Unless you have a road bike and gravel bike right next to each other, it is very difficult to see the difference in the frames. Road bikes typically have a shorter wheelbase, with a slightly steeper head angle, whereas a gravel bike has a longer wheelbase, leading to a less steep head angle. These are not visually noticeable, with the wheelbases usually being only 50mm different, and the head angles being 1 degree different. But, these small changes to the frame, definitely have an effect on how the bike performs. With the road bike, you have a longer reach for a more aerodynamic position, whereas you are more upright on a gravel bike.
Most components on a gravel bike will be compatible with a road bike and visa-versa. But, there are some crucial differences. For starters road bikes primarily use rim brakes whereas gravel bikes use disc brakes. Rim brakes are fine for tarmac and are much lighter, however don’t always perform best in wet weather. On the other hand, disc brakes provide control and work consistently in all weather conditions.
Both gravel bikes and road bikes support 1x and 2x drivetrains. Often road bikes will have two front chainrings, allowing a smaller jump between gears. Gravel bikes often have a single front chainring, making the jumps between gears larger, and less smooth.
The final difference is the drop bars. On gravel bikes, the drop bars are typically flared with shorter stems. This places the rider's hands in a broader position, allowing for wrist clearance and additional control. This is crucial when riding over rough terrain. The flared drop bars also make it easier for riders to reach the brake levers. On-road bikes, however, the drop bars are deeper and have a longer reach. This helps with aerodynamics and body positioning.
The above are some of the biggest differences when it comes to gravel bikes vs road bikes. Now that you know the difference, you can decide which bike type is best for you, or see if a mountain bike may be better suited. Just ensure that you do your research to find the best model for your needs. However, some road bikes may be closer to a gravel bike than others, and visa-versa, so it is possible to find a middle ground if you need to.