Updated: Mar 23, 2019
To follow is a short account of my recent gravel bike purchase and a newbie's point of view on the experience of riding a gravel bike vs. a mountain bike.
My decision to purchase a gravel bike was born from adventure and years of bikepacking on predominantly back country gravel roads of which there are plenty here in South Africa.
As an addition bike to my bike stable and something that I plan to use only for gravel riding the gravel bike had to have an affordable price point.
The Merida's Silex, Silverback's GR and the Specialized Sequoia made it onto my short list of bikes. They all shared the option to go wider on tires and all had mechanical disk brakes. Gearing came in the shape of 2 x systems with the Silverback in the lead with a 105 group set.
I had all but made my decision when there was a dramatic drop in the Sequoia's price that sealed the deal for me. What I learned later was that there was an error in the listed price and I ended up paying less than cost price for my first gravel bike :)
That weekend with gravel bike in hand I joined a group of mountain bikers for a 130 km gravel group ride.
I have ridden this particular route a few times before with my mountain bike and I was curious to make comparisons between the two types of bikes.
As seen in this video flat bars are for mountain bikes and dropper bars are for road bikes so (comparison test) it was interesting to learn what drop bars would feel like on gravel and even the odd jeep/single track.
During my 130 km gravel bike ride I spent most of the time in the upright position on the drop bars mainly because this is what I'm used to as a mountain biker. So I can not conclude if dropper bars made for a faster ride on gravel compared to flat MTB bars.
My first impressions was that of shock and that I might have made a mistake in purchasing a gravel bike.
The bars felt way too small and unstable.
This initial feeling passed after a few hundred kilometers in the saddle.
Many new gravel bike owners experience this initial feeling. Before selling too quick, my advice is to give it some time. You might also come to the conclusion that a gravel bike is great at gravel riding.
Positioning is key when using drop bars. Upright feels similar to when riding a mountain bike and is best suited for smooth level surfaces. When venturing onto mild and loose gravel the hubs will give you enough control with hands close enough to the brake levers to stop.
On rough gravel, single track and on almost any downhill it is best to go into the drop bar position. The reason being that this is really the only position where you have enough leverage on the brake levers.
There is a level of pre-planning required when moving between handlebar positions. From what I have experienced it is best to pick the right position before hand as it is out right scary to try and switch hand positions when you're at speed on a rough downhill section. Believe me things shake a lot on a bike with limited suspension!
Over the 130 km gravel ride I was faster compared to my Mountain Bike, I had a much easier ride and killed it on the up hill sections. I had the same experience on other gravel bike rides, so I must conclude that a gravel bike is great for gravel riding. In my opinion the gearing is what makes this possible.
More common place on bikepacking orientated bikes are 2 x gearing. My Sequoia comes standard with a Shimano Alivio group set. At the rear is a 12-36T 9-speed CASSETTE and a 48/32T CHAINRINGS doing duty at the front.
On more racing focused gravel rigs 1 x systems are becoming common place at the expense of 2 x system versatility.
Modern gravel bikes are fitted with 700c (29er) tires and are most likely compatible with 650B tires. Some even sport mountain bike tires in plus sizes. Standard gears on the Sequoia is 700cx42 but can be fitted with 29x2.1 tires.
I am very surprised with the performance and how tough the standard tires on the Sequoia is, but did feel them slipping in very wet muddy conditions as they have no knobs for traction.
On my second ride I sort of jumped a ditch on jeep track and burped the rear tire. Higher tire pressure fixed future problems but did make the ride much harsher on rough sections.
Picking the right lines is easy because of the low tire profile and the low rolling resistance means a fast ride over most types of gravel, another reason why gravel bikes are faster than mountain bikes on gravel surfaces.
Here is an interesting clip on tire choice for gravel bikes:
I ride mostly rigid mountain bikes and the transition to a rigid gravel bike was easy with the comfort being less on the gravel bike due to the higher tire pressures. The Sequoia comes in steel and carbon option, and my choice of steel made for a harsh ride.
Carbon and aluminium bikes with carbon forks are now common place and they are great at soaking up bumps.
Gravel bikes are perfect for gravel roads, jeep tracks and smooth single tracks. There however is a period of transition and a few hundred kilometers should convince most skeptics that gravel bikes have a space in the cycling world.
If you are someone looking for adventure without the need to conquer technical terrain then a gravel might be perfect for you. Its low entry price point and lower maintenance makes for an attractive offering for most people.