Whether you’re a seasoned cyclist or new to the sport, if you’re in the market for a new bike sometimes the range of options currently offered can be overwhelming. The wide spectrum of bike categories to choose from is certainly not a bad thing, but with so many types of bikes built for different cycling disciplines, things can get a bit confusing. In this post we have a look at three broad categories of bikes: road, mountain and gravel, explaining the main differences between them and how to decide on one versus the others for the type of riding you intend to do.
Before we dive into the details of each type of bike, it is worth noting that there is a significant degree of overlap between those categories. For example, many modern road bikes can pull double duty on smooth gravel roads. A good starting point would be to think about the type of riding you do or intend to do most often, and the kind of terrain your local area has to offer. This will help you narrow down your choice to a particular category and accordingly focus on the offerings within it.
As the name implies, road bikes are designed to go fast on smooth paved road surfaces. Generally speaking, road bike design prioritizes low weight, aerodynamic efficiency and have narrower wheels and tires with low rolling resistance. Road bikes come with drop handlebars which allow for multiple riding positions (often called the hoods, the tops and the drops) which is important on long road rides and to lessen arm fatigue minimize aerodynamic drag, which results in a better average speed.
On the whole, road bikes come in two varieties: endurance bikes and race bikes. Endurance bike have a more upright (i.e. more comfortable) geometry for riding long distances, have a longer wheelbase for better stability and many even come with accessory mounts, like rack and fender attachment points. Race bikes are lighter, have a more aggressive geometry and frames that prioritize efficient aerodynamics. Most casual riders would find endurance road bikes better suited to their style of riding due to the more relaxed riding position and tamer handling characteristics. Modern road bikes will accommodate tires between 25mm up to 32mm (check the actual frame spec of your bike of interest before purchasing!)
Pick a road bike if:
- You live in a place where it is generally safe to ride on the roads
- You prefer riding on smoother, well-paved road surfaces
In recent years, gravel cycling has garnered increasing attention. While the term “gravel bike” is seemingly self-explanatory, there is often much confusion around what gravel riding actually means because unpaved roads look different in various parts of the world. Additionally, gravel bikes look confusingly similar to their older siblings: road bikes. So, what exactly are the main differences between gravel bikes and road bikes?
The most conspicuous difference between gravel bikes and road bikes are the wheels and tires. Gravel bike frames are designed to accommodate larger tires, with some approaching mountain bike tire sizes. Most gravel bikes will accommodate tires between 32mm up to 51mm, or will even be compatible with 650b (27.5in) wheels which allow for even larger tire clearance.
Gravel bike geometry is similar to endurance mountain bikes, focused on comfort and stability. Many come with a plethora of accessory mounts for riders with bikepacking and adventure ride plans. Recently, subcategories of gravel bikes have emerged to cater to the increasing interest in this type of cycling. Many companies offer bikes designed specifically for gravel racing, which come with racing-optimized geometry and lightweight componentry, others focus on bikes built for long-distance adventure riding, which feature a more relaxed geometry and mounts for bags, fenders and racks.
Pick a gravel bike if:
- You want to do mixed-terrain rides without worrying about road conditions
- You are interested in adventure riding and bikepacking
If your riding is strictly on the off-road side of things, then you will certainly be best served with a mountain bike. Modern mountain bikes come in many flavors, from the light and sprightly XC racers to the burley freeride and downhill sleds that are designed for gravity-assisted fun. Despite the significant variations among the various categories of mountain bikes, they generally share a few common characteristics: high-volume tires with aggressive, terrain-biting tread, suspension (either front-only on hardtails, or front and rear on full-suspension bikes), powerful disc brakes and wide-range single or double chainring drivetrains.
If your local trails are mainly groomed singletrack without much technical challenge, a hardtail mountain bike will probably be the optimal choice. Hardtails are reliable, easy to maintain and – due to the lack of rear suspension – help you work on deficiencies in your off-road handling skills like picking cleaner lines on the trail and maneuvering by shifting your weight over the bike.
Pick a mountain bike if:
- You live in a place with a good mountain biking trail network
- You enjoy riding singletrack and off-road trails with technical features
Now that we have presented the case for buying a road, gravel or mountain bike, the next question might be: Why not all three? While many of us cycling enthusiasts would certainly like to own a bike for each type of riding, issues of budget and storage space may not always be permissive. This article is meant to be a guide on the type of bike to buy if you were to only pick one. Keep in mind that, as we have discussed, there are often variations within each category and that as riding styles and disciplines continue to evolve, there will be further segmentation within each category of bikes. To recap: road bikes will be faster and lighter on smooth roads, mountain bikes will allow you to tackle aggressive terrain with confidence and gravel bikes are super versatile for going on routes with varied terrain and long-distance adventures. Unless you are specifically focused on a single category of cycling, we say don’t dwell on choices too much! Pick the bike that most suits your local terrain, make sure you’re kitted up with the right gear for your local weather, and go have fun cycling!