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At first glance, gravel bikes and road bikes look pretty similar. But on closer inspection, these bikes have important differences that will affect the kind of ride you have. If you’re thinking about a new bike for your commute, you’ll need to know what these are.
When choosing a bike for your trip to work, you need to think about the kind of journey you’ll be doing (or already have). Road surface, distance, how much weight you’re carrying, are all important factors to consider.
Also, what kind of rider are you? Do you want to get to work as fast as possible? Or perhaps your riding style is more leisurely. Your body type and weight may also affect which bike is suitable.
Difference Between a Gravel Bike and a Road Bike
Road bikes, with their aerodynamic design, are built for speed and use on predominantly smoother roads. Gravel bikes are designed for durability and stability over multi-terrains, such as gravel roads and dirt tracks, as well as ordinary road use.
In spite of being similar looking, the main differences between these two bike types are to do with geometry, wheels, tyres and weight. Different brands and models of each bike do vary in terms of how adept they are on road and off, but we’ll have a look at the typical differences below.
Gravel bikes, falling somewhere between a mountain bike and a road bike, generally have a longer wheelbase and headtube. The angles of the headtube and frame are slacker, allowing for a more upright position which provides more comfort and control for off-road use.
Road bikes generally have a shorter wheelbase and steeper angles which places the rider in a lower, more streamlined position with a longer reach.
Tyres and Wheels
Road bikes almost always come with 700c wheels with a tyre clearance of around 28mm to 33mm (for the most part), but in some cases up to 35mm. Most road bikes will run on 23mm – 25mm slick tyres, the standard for swift movement on tarmac.
Gravel bikes are designed for use with 700c or 650B wheels. The smaller 650B are often preferred by riders for off-road use, allowing for thicker tyres that can be run with lower psi, offering more grip and shock absorption along with faster acceleration. The tyre clearance on a 700c wheel can be up to 45mm, and up to 50mm on a 650B. This allows for a huge amount of adaptability for different terrains.
Tyre tread is also a factor. Road bike tyres are far smoother than the array of different tread patterns favoured by gravel bike riders.
A lighter body equates to more speed, and most road bikes nowadays are built with a carbon fibre frame. Not all – some do come with aluminum or steel frames, but the common consensus is that carbon fibre offers the lightest and most compliant ride on the road.
Gravel bikes also come with carbon fibre frames, but these are heavier and more durable than road bikes. They’re lighter than the aluminum frames, but many gravel bike riders opt for aluminum as it’s essentially more affordable. But there are also some really tough (and not-so-cheap) aluminum options available, such as the Mason Bokeh GRX with triple-butted performance Aluminum frame.
Most gravel bikes have a 1×11 (or 1×10) drivetrain, which means a single front chainring. For lay people like me, this means 10 or 11 gears in total. It doesn’t ‘sound’ a lot, but the range is substantial. Favoured also by mountain-bikers, the single chainring offers more simplicity and less weight. It also keeps the chain more secure, which is ideal for bumpy rides.
A 2×11 drivetrain is, shall we say, sometimes frowned upon in gravel bike circles. But whatever your opinion, double the amount of gears does give a wider range and is often preferred by gravel bike users who stick to roads for much of the time.
And this is exactly why most road bikes have two chainrings. On the road, a greater gear range has advantages in terms of steep hill climbs and fast descents. Naturally, it makes big gear jumps easier, too.
Is a Gravel Bike Good for Road Riding?
Gravel bikes, unlike mountain bikes, are far more suited to riding on road, especially those with a double front derailleur. Different models tend to be designed more for on-road or off-road use, but they can also be adapted for better road riding by choosing appropriate wheel and tyre sizes.
Is a Gravel Bike as Fast as a Road Bike?
Generally, no. The highest gears on a gravel bike are not typically as high as those on a road bike. This, combined with the geometry, results in limitations on speed, giving road bikes the advantage.
But some would also say, depending on the bike, there isn’t that much in it. Different models of gravel bike do vary and some have a more aerodynamic design than others.
My ex boss once told me, “You’re only as fast as your legs.” He had a point. And though technically the road bike is the faster option, it may not be the most practical one if you want your bike to be versatile and take you off road.
Road Bike vs Gravel Bike: Speed
The table below is a guide to the contributing design factors that give road bikes the edge when it comes to speed.
|Gravel Bike||Road Bike|
|Geometry||More relaxed with slacker angles, keeping the rider more upright||Steeper angles place the rider in a more aerodynamic position|
|Frame||Heavier, even with carbon fibre||Lighter carbon fibre|
|Handlebars||Flared with a wider reach for off-road stability||Deeper drop with a narrower, longer reach|
|Tyres||Wider with more tread||Narrower and smoother|
|Gears||Less range, often with 1x drivetrain||Higher range with 2x drivetrain|
However, when putting gravel and road bikes to the test and through their paces on the same stretches of road, the difference isn’t as extreme as you might think. When a gravel bike is fitted with road tyres, the difference in speed is fairly minimal on a flat and downhill. The noticeable difference is found when climbing uphill, where the road bike is significantly faster.
Gravel Bike vs Road Bike for Commuting
A gravel bike is an excellent option for commuting as it’s all-purpose, robust and can handle heavy weights if you have a lot to carry. Roads can be treacherously uneven and, particularly out of urban areas, you can often encounter loose gravel or mud. With gravel bike tyres this isn’t a problem.
A road bike may not be the best option for urban commuting, given the constant stopping at traffic lights and junctions, which they’re not essentially designed for. But if your commute consists of long stretches of smooth roads and hills, they do have an advantage if speed is your priority.