What's gravel biking and why is it so hot now?

7/18/2023 – Danny Holman

What's gravel biking and why is it so hot now?

In recent years, a new trend has taken the cycling world by storm - the surge in popularity of gravel bikes. They have rapidly gained traction among cyclists seeking new challenges and different kinds of adventures beyond the confines of traditional road cycling. This article looks into the history of gravel bikes, compares them with other types, and explores the reasons behind their current appeal.

The evolution of gravel bikes

The roots of gravel biking can be traced back to the early 2000s, when riders began exploring unpaved roads and trails on traditional road bikes. It evolved out of the mountain bike boom of the 80's, which started in Northern California, when cyclists adapted their bikes and began exploring rougher terrain. As cyclists sought greater freedom to tackle the wide range of terrains, bike manufacturers recognized the need for more specialized equipment. So gravel bikes emerged as a category of their own, combining the agility and speed of road bikes with the ruggedness and durability required for off-road adventures.

What is a gravel bike?

So basically gravel bikes sit between road bikes and mountain bikes, combining the characteristics of both while offering unique advantages.

Let's look at the comparison:

  • Gravel bikes typically feature wider tyres from 35-50mm, while road bikes are usually

  • 30mm max. Gravel bikes also have greater tyre clearance.

  • In general, gravel bikes have drop-handlebars as opposed to the flat-bars of mountain bikes.

  • Gravel bikes have a more relaxed geometry, allowing riders to comfortably navigate rough terrain, absorb vibrations, and maintain control on loose surfaces.

  • Gravel bikes almost always come equipped with disc brakes for reliable stopping power in various conditions. Nowadays they also have their own dedicated group-sets so you can shift gear more easily in steep climbs on unpaved roads.

While mountain bikes excel in extreme off-road environments, they can be overkill for less physically-demanding gravel paths. Gravel bikes strike a good balance by offering efficiency and speed on smooth surfaces, agility on trails, and the versatility to handle a variety of riding styles. This flexibility has contributed to their popularity among cyclists seeking a cycling experience that combines diversity and speed, from long-distance endurance rides to exploring remote countryside routes. This is especially true for bike-packing which is also currently en vogue and for which the gravel bike is the perfect option.

Gravel bikes have also become a popular choice among urban cyclists who want speed and dexterity on city roads and pathways. They're like the more expensive and elegant cousin of flat-bar hybrid bikes. There's also a safety benefit as gravel bikes avoid the traffic dangers of main roads as well as the dreaded peloton pile-up.

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Advantages of gravel bikes

The desire for adventure and exploration: Gravel bikes open up a world of possibilities for cyclists eager to venture off the beaten path. They offer the freedom to explore gravel roads, fire trails, and scenic backcountry routes that were previously inaccessible with traditional road bikes.

Versatility and adaptability: They are built to handle a wide range of terrains, making them incredibly versatile. Whether it's cruising on smooth pavement, tackling rough gravel paths, or venturing onto mild singletrack trails, gravel bikes can handle it all. This versatility eliminates the need for multiple specialized bikes and appeals to riders looking for a one-bike-for-all solution.

Comfort and endurance: The relaxed geometry and wider tires of gravel bikes provide enhanced comfort over long distances. The ability to absorb shocks and vibrations on unpaved surfaces means less fatigue and soreness, enabling cyclists to tackle extended rides with greater ease.

Social cred: The rise of gravel riding has attracted and fostered a vibrant community. Gravel events and races, such as Gravel Grinders, have gained popularity worldwide, bringing together riders of all abilities and backgrounds. These events promote camaraderie, friendly competition, and a shared passion for adventure.

Gravel biking has always promoted a more punk and rebellious spirit, positioning itself outside the mainstream. The same strict rules of attire that accompany road riding don't apply, and there's a healthy lack of the snobbery of what you can and can't wear. Like the landscape itself, this form of riding is a bit more wild and rough and this makes it more appealing to free-spirited riders.


Gravel Racing

The growing popularity of gravel riding as a pastime has also led, inevitably, to the growth of the format as a competitive sport with popular events like Unbound. The main growth area is in the US, strongly fueled by the opportunity to build a reputation outside of the shadow of the big Grand Tours of Europe. As the scene continues to establish itself, new stars are emerging. The dynamic nature of the format has allowed a new generation of social-media-savvy riders to capture the spirit of the sport with a combination of compelling narratives and visuals.

Gravel racing is more user-friendly but still physically demanding. This makes it more relatable so audiences can connect with it more. For cyclists who find road racing a bit elitist, gravel is more accessible.

At races, pros line up alongside aspiring amateurs and riders often compete as individuals rather than the elitist teams of road racing. Gravel events draw a more laid-back community. People enter for the joy of it, to meet the challenge, not just to win.

Riders can combine a sense of fun and competitiveness and this has led to many pro-road riders rediscovering their love for cycling through gravel. It's also why advertisers are drawn to it gravel - aesthetically and spiritually. It's a perfect match of spirit, coolness and beautiful scenery. It has to be said however, it's still not a bonafide spectator or TV-friendly sport. The remote locations, and spread out nature of the riders doesn't make it truly compelling for audiences.

But maybe that will change as the success of Netflix's Tour de France has shown. Certainly the first World Gravel Championship in 2022 was a big deal and a huge leap forward in the legitimacy of the sport.


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Gravel bike routes on ROUVY

ROUVY has always been committed to providing a wide range and variety of routes around the world for riders to try, and the rise of gravel bikes popularity has seen a rise in demand for gravel and off-road routes. We have plenty to choose from but some of our favourites are the Sani Gravel Climb in South Africa, the Schultz Pass Road in Arizona and the Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. They'll give you a flavour of gravel rides and offer a different experience than classic roads. More gravel routes will be coming later in the year.

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Gravel biking represents an exciting blend of road cycling and off-road exploration, attracting cyclists with its versatility, adaptability, and unique spirit. Gravel bikes have quickly become the go-to choice for riders seeking new challenges and memorable experiences that asphalt might not be able to provide. A huge part of their appeal is what gravel biking represents - freedom and attitude. It's clear that this exciting cycling discipline is here to stay, inspiring riders to embark on some very special off-road adventures. If you haven't already, give it a try some time.

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