To ride a gravel bike is the current fashion for muscle cycling, i.e. non-assisted bikes. A lot could be written about the triggering factors of this new trend – the escape from increasingly dangerous roads; the desire to reconcile with nature; the passion for travel; abandoning competition… in short, there are so many reasons to switch to gravel. Everyone has his or her own motivation, and we won’t discuss the various causes here. Today we just want to clarify the actual ride of a gravel bike, its limits and its strengths. To understand if a gravel bike may be the right choice for a particular cyclist or if it has been misevaluated.
What gravel actually means
Gravel is small stones. Quite simply. This alone should be enough to make people understand the right use of the gravel bike: easy dirt roads, well-groomed, where even cars could drive if they wanted to. This is the ideal environment for gravel biking. The rest are adapted zones. Gravel is very malleable. Of course, a gravel bike can also be ridden on asphalt. But this is not its terrain: don’t expect to get the same smoothness as a racing bike. A gravel bike can also go into the woods and tackle a single track. But don’t expect to have the same handling as an mtb.
History and technique of gravel bikes
Gravel bikes have always been around. Not as we see them today, because the technology and the purpose of use were different. The bikes of the pre- WWII years were gravel bikes in essence. They were indeed called racing bikes, but they competed on dirt roads, so they had large section tires and were very robust. Cyclocross bikes are sisters of gravel bikes, almost identical. The difference lies only in the intended use: the cyclocross is expressly designed for competition, and therefore extreme in both technique and geometry. Gravel is more relaxed. Mountain bikes are bikes that can transform into gravel bikes. In the 90s, mountain bikes with drop handlebars were quite common. But many are still intimidated by a drop handlebar handling, and they prefer to use an mtb with smooth tyres.
The technological breakthrough
What allowed the advent of modern gravel bikes? It wasn’t someone’s brilliant idea or a revolutionary new product. Instead, it was a technological evolution that led to the development of gravel bikes.
- Disc Brakes. They allow wider tyres. Classic racing bike brakes – called calipers – cannot work with tires wider than 28 mm. Once there were the cantilever brakes, common on cyclocross bikes, which were able to accommodate tires up to 40mm, but with poor braking power. Disc brakes on the other hand retained the brake power of a caliper brake with a much wider tire.
- The gear ratio. Racing bikes up until the 2000s had the classic 39/53 chainrings on the crankset, which were impossible to push off-road. Mountain bikes used to have ugly triple cranksets. The invention of compact cranksets and rear derailleur arms capable of hosting 42, 46 or even 50 teeth cassettes changed the cycling world forever.
- Compact drop handlebar and shifting/brake levers ergonomics. During the last 10 years our approach to the handlebar has been revolutionized. Handlebars are shorter but wider. The shift/brake levers offer comfortable ergonomics. Riding an off-road bike with 20-year-old handlebars was definitely more challenging than it is now.
- Tire technology. Tires are not only wider, but are qualitatively much superior than some years ago. We have a wide choice of surfaces – if we think about the 90s, how limited the variety of cyclocross and racing bike tires was. The appearance of tubeless has played another fundamental role.
- Cyclist mentality. Cyclists have evolved, putting aside all preconceptions about the non-rolling of oversized tires. The search for extreme lightness. Extreme competitions. They have turned all this into a desire for freedom, and today there is less exasperation and more wanderlust.
The limits when you ride a gravel bike
We said that the gravel bike’s ideal terrain is a dirt or slightly gravel road. Now let’s see where NOT to go with a gravel bike, or at least not to go there regularly.
- Super stony paths. Most gravel bikes come with 40mm wide tires. Some are equipped with 44 mm, but they still have too small surfaces to cushion big stones. If a stony path is an exception, just moderate your speed. If it’s the rule, consider a Monster Bike or a Mountain Bike equipped with 50 – 58 mm wide tires.
- Too demanding downhills. We still have a drop handlebar in our hand, lower than the saddle. A rigid fork, or in the best case a suspension fork with a minimum travel – from 3 to 5 cm. The weight balance is central, but definitely not set back like you can shift the weight with an mtb. So if a technical downhill is an exception, proceed with caution. If it’s a rule, maybe you should ride with a front suspended mtb.
- Too steep climbs. Yes, bike shifters have changed a lot in recent years. The cassettes are bigger, the cranksets smaller. But they still have a longer ratio compared to mountain bikes, which are usually equipped with a 32-teeth chainring. So if you come across an impossible climb by chance, you can push the bike on foot for once. But if you live in an area with plenty of impossible climbs, consider an mtb or gravel bike with appropriate modifications.
- Sand, mud, snow. Let’s go back to point 1. The tires are 40 mm wide. Perfect for smooth surfaces. Also ideal for mud. Definitely not suitable for sand, thick scree or snow. On these surfaces you will need to float. So you will absolutely need larger tires. Like those of a Monster Bike and a Mountain bike.
Who should ride a gravel bike?
The perfect cyclist for gravelling takes cycling for recreation and fun, with his bike as a faithful travel companion. The routes to choose should be 60% easy dirt, 35% asphalt and only 5% technical dirt, with big stones or demanding single tracks. The non-competitive approach leaves time to slow down and not risk damaging the bike when encountering unsuitable terrain. The asphalt sections are sorts of transfers, junctions between one dirt road and another. If asphalt represents 100% of your journey, you should ride a racing bike, for better performance on this terrain.
It is also quite fashionable among gravel cyclists to tackle long distances. Passion for travels and long journeys are part of the soul of gravelling, but it’s not a rule and mustn’t scare the beginner. One hour / one hour and a half is always something very rewarding for many gravel grinders.
Which is the best gravel bike to ride
Obviously, taste is subjective and we don’t want to impose one style over another. We have designed our gravel bikes keeping in mind what we have outlined in this article. In this way we designed Alterego and Aurelia, almost identical, differing from each other only in the welds. These are sturdy bikes, faithful travel companions for those who don’t care too much about lightness but want safety, reliability and comfort. The pure steel gravel with soft and relaxed geometries. A steel fork able to absorb vibrations at best.
Borea Gravel, on the other hand was designed to be light. The tubes are thinner and the fork is made of carbon. As a result, Borea Gravel does not fall into the competition but meets the needs of those who have to load luggage, and therefore aims to contain the weight from all points of view. Driveability is similar Alterego and Aurelia, but it remains a little more responsive.
Romea is a bike with a modern, light design. The choice for those who use gravel for different purposes. It’s not just for a trip and it’s not just for a training ride. It’s not just about commuting and it’s not just about a smooth single track ridden at full throttle. It’s a bike that can be all of those things, in different ways. Less specific, more fun.
Annibale is an evolution designed to meet those who ride on very bumpy routes. With its 470 mm high carbon fork, it is also perfect for tackling steep downhills in safety. Furthermore, the possibility of equipping this bike with mtb gear groupsets also makes it suitable for tackling very tough climbs.
A gravel is a multipurpose bike. It’s excellent for those who want to start out and understand their favourite terrain, but also for those who are more experienced and are looking for something more relaxed and fun. However, a gravel bike should not be confused as a substitute for more specialized bikes. If our routes are extremely rough and we want to tackle them at full throttle, a mountain bike is the answer. If, on the other hand, we pedal almost exclusively on asphalt, the racing bike will give us more satisfaction. For everything else, there are gravel bikes!