Touring rigs. Cyclocross. Monstercross. All-road. Rugged road. Dirt Drops. Drop bar mountain bikes. All of the sudden, it seems like there’s an infinite number of different bikes you can buy. Most of these terms have coalesced into a category known simply as gravel bikes. Since gravel has caught on, most of the hip, with-it bike brands have been quick to point out that, hey, we were doing this before it was cool. After all, dirt touring has been a thing for a while, and brands like Rivendell and Surly have always catered to it. Meanwhile, the big players in the game have embraced the gravel hype with open arms, and are quick to point out that their all-new, carbon gravel rigs are, like, totally not just cyclocross bikes with an extra 5mm of tire clearance.
So, what to make of all the hype? Beats me. But a while ago I did get a sweet new gravel/touring/monstercross creation known as the Soma Wolverine, which has helped me to clarify a few thoughts in this big, confusing world of bike nomenclature. Here they are.
Gravel bikes are basically road bikes
The entire bike industry might be united against this statement, but I think it’s basically true. Gravel bikes are many things, but in their most basic form, they are drop-bar road bikes with bigger tires. Yes, road bikes have twitchier steering, stiffer frames and (usually) a more aggressive riding position. But gravel bikes are still twitchy, stiff and aggressive. Just a little bit less so. If you like to ride road bikes, chances are you’ll like a gravel bike, too. If you’re coming from a mountain bike, a gravel bike will be a big change.
But gravel bikes are also… not road bikes at all
About ten years ago, there were pretty much three kinds of bikes you could buy with drop bars:
- Road bikes
- Cyclocross bikes
- Touring bikes
Back then, each of these were fairly distinct, in terms of geometry and specs. There was little cross-pollination between the categories. Today, you can buy a stock bike with options you couldn’t have gotten on even a custom bike twenty years ago. Maybe you want a touring machine with infinite options for mounting racks and accessories. You can have it. Maybe you want a titanium rig with room for 3″ tires. Sure, why not. Hey, why doesn’t Cannondale put their famous lefty fork on a gravel bike? They already do.
It’s easy to write off all these niche offerings and incremental changes as gimmicky and unnecessary, and sure, some of them are. But it’s also really cool that we can buy non-custom bikes with things like internal routing for Dynamo wiring, or 2.2 inch slicks. For me, buying a gravel bike made me learn a lot about geometry, and think a lot about how I wanted to ride the thing, because there were just so many options to consider. And that was a huge benefit in my evolution as a bike rider.
A gravel bike will never replace a good mountain bike — at least not for me
Yes, you can ride trails on a gravel bike. But it’s pretty slow. The fact is, if you are into single track, a gravel bike is no replacement for something squishy. Sure, Instagram is full of shots of people railing berms with their hands in the drops, but I’m convinced these folks are either incredibly talented or riding a lot slower than it looks like they are. For me, the confidence a full-suspension bike gives me to hit jumps, float over loose trails and just generally ride fast is totally irreplaceable (sidenote: this is why when gravel bikes are called “quiver killers” I just laugh. I only have two bikes at the moment, but if I had to choose between my full-sus and my gravel, I’d say goodbye to the Wolverine in a heartbeat and ride trails full-time)
They’re super fun
The beauty of the gravel bike is its flexibility. Lately I’ve been setting off on the Wolverine with no route in mind. From my front door here in Boise, I can hit epic paved climbs, sandy singletrack, or rocky fire roads within a few miles. I love picking a direction, and just going for it. Depending on what I find, the Wolverine might not be the perfect bike for every ride, but I know it’ll get me back home.