Over the past decade, gravel bikes have become an increasingly popular alternative to mountain bikes. They are fast, efficient, and versatile. At the same time, they do have some limitations. In this guide, I’ll outline the differences between gravel bikes and mountain bikes. I’ll also list the pros and cons of riding a gravel bike vs mountain bike to help you determine which is best for you.
In this guide, we’ll cover gearing, frame geometry, suspension, tires, the ride position, handlebars, efficiency, and more. We’ll also compare gravel bikes to some different types of mountain bikes including including cross country mountain bikes, downhill mountain bikes, trail mountain bikes, and more.
I started riding a gravel bike about 5 years ago when I first got into bikepacking. I’ve also been riding mountain bikes for most of my life. In this guide, I’ll share my experience with these bikes.
Gravel bikes are a cross between a road bike and a mountain bike. They feature drop bars, a rigid frame, wide tires, wide-range gearing, an upright geometry, and disc brakes.
Gravel bikes are ideal for those who ride mixed terrain, long-distance riders, bikepackers, and road cyclists who want to ride off-road.
Mountain bikes Mountain bikes are designed for off-road riding. They feature a heavy-duty frame and wheels, suspension, flat handlebars, an upright geometry, wide knobby tires, and low gearing.
Mountain bikes are ideal for those who ride rough terrain and technical trails, those who value comfort, adrenaline junkies, downhill and enduro enthusiasts, and beginner cyclists.
What are the Differences Between a Gravel Bike and a Mountain Bike?
Gravel bikes and mountain bikes share a similar design with a few key differences.
One of the most significant differences is the handlebars. Gravel bikes have drop handlebars while mountain bikes have flat handlebars.
Suspension is another major difference. Gravel bikes usually have a rigid frame and fork. Mountain bikes have suspension. Some mountain bikes have dual suspension. Some have front suspension only.
Another key difference is the tires. Gravel tires typically measure 38-45mm wide. Most mountain bike tires measure 2.1-2.4” (53-61mm) wide. Mountain bike frames have wider clearance to accommodate the wider tires.
The geometry and seating position is also different. Gravel bikes usually have a more aggressive geometry with a forward leaning seating position while mountain bikes have a more relaxed geometry with an upright seating position.
The weight is also different. Mountain bikes usually weigh 3-5 pounds more than gravel bikes. They frame and wheels on mountain bikes are a bit more heavy-duty.
The gearing is another difference. Gravel bike gearing is higher than mountain bike gearing. Most gravel bikes use a 40-46t chainring with a 10-42t to 10-52t cassette. Gravel bikes tend to have more gears as well. Some models use 2X or 3X gearing or a road bike groupset. Some gravel bikes use a gravel-specific groupset. Mountain bikes usually use 1X gearing with a 30-36t chainring with a 10-50t or 10-52t cassette.
The surfaces that both bikes are meant to be ridden on are also different. Gravel bikes are designed to be ridden both on-road and off-road. They perform best on smooth unpaved surfaces such as hard-packed gravel roads, dirt roads, fire roads, and forestry roads. They can also handle some gentle singletrack trails.
Gravel bikes also perform well on pavement. A gravel bike can roll almost as fast as a road bike. This is possible thanks to the light and agile frame, road bike geometry, and drop bars.
Mountain bikes, on the other hand, are designed specifically to be ridden off-road. They can handle a much wider variety of terrain than gravel bikes thanks to their wider tires, suspension, stable geometry, and flat bars.
A number of different types of mountain bikes are available. The five most common include hardtail, trail, cross country (XC), enduro, and downhill mountain bikes. Different mountain bikes are suited for different types of terrain. They have different levels of suspension travel.
There are also several different types of gravel bikes available including adventure bikes, drop bar gravel bikes, and bikepacking bikes.
Gravel Bike Vs Mountain Bike
Probably the biggest difference between gravel bikes and mountain bike is the suspension (or lack of suspension). Most gravel bikes don’t have any suspension. The frame and fork are completely rigid, just like a road bike. This design improves efficiency. A completely rigid gravel frame efficiently transmits power from the pedals to the rear wheel.
If you want suspension on your gravel bike, you can install an aftermarket suspension fork. A handful of companies offer gravel-specific suspension forks with low travel. Some examples include the FOX AX fork, Lauf Grit fork, MRP Baxter fork, and RockShox Rudy.
Some gravel bikes come with front suspension. These are becoming a bit more common. For example, the Specialized Diverge uses a Future Shock 2.0 headset. The BMC URS LT comes with a coil-sprung front shock.
When a gravel bike comes with suspension, it will be a minimalist suspension fork with much shorter travel than a typical mountain bike. Most gravel suspension forks offer 20-40mm of travel compared to 100+mm on mountain bikes. Some models only offer a few millimeters of suspension.
A suspension fork can help to smooth out bumps and vibrations while riding on rough gravel roads. The drawback is that suspension reduces efficiency. Every time the suspension compresses, energy is used. Sometimes the suspension compresses unnecessarily. This wastes energy that could have been used to drive you forward. To improve efficiency, gravel suspension tends to be pretty firm. The suspension only activates during a hard hit.
It is also common for gravel bikes to come with a suspension seatpost. These offer a built in shock absorber that dampens road vibrations and reduces shocks from bigger impacts. This greatly improves comfort while riding rough surfaces.
All modern mountain bikes have suspension. There are two different categories of mountain bike: hardtail and full suspension.
Hardtail mountain bikes only have front suspension. Most hardtail mountain bikes offer 120-140mm of suspension travel.
Full suspension mountain bikes have both front and rear suspension. They can have anywhere from 140-200+mm of suspension travel depending on the terrain that the bike is designed to handle.
Hardtail mountain bikes work well for casual mountain biking. These bikes are affordable, lightweight, and easy to maintain. They can handle a wide range of terrain including mountain trails, fire roads, and singletrack as well as some jumps and drops. If you need a bike with a little bit more off-road capability than a gravel bike but still want to have the ability to ride somewhat efficiently on pavement, a hardtail mountain bike is a good alternative.
Full suspension mountain bikes are much heavier and more expensive than hardtail mountain bikes. They are also more complex to maintain. Full suspension greatly improves traction, handling, and comfort while riding on rough terrain. The rear suspension holds the tires on the ground while you ride. The suspension allows the tires to roll over obstacles while maintaining contact with the ground. The tires don’t bounce around. This improves traction, allowing you to better control the bike while riding on extremely rough terrain. The suspension also absorbs bumps before they can travel into your body.
Full suspension mountain bikes are suitable for all types of mountain biking including downhill, trail riding, enduro, and CX. They work best for riding difficult trails with lots of rocks, roots, and drops.
These bikes are not efficient to ride on smooth roads and trails. The suspension tends to and rebound as you pedal. Every time you compress the suspension unnecessarily, you’re wasting energy. For this reason, full suspension mountain bikes are not designed for long-distance riding.
There are two different types of bike suspension systems available. These are air suspension and coil suspension. Air suspension uses compressed air to provide resistance. Coil suspension uses a wound steel or titanium spring to provide resistance. Both systems have their own set of benefits and drawbacks. For more in-depth info on both systems, check out my guides: Air Vs Coil Forks and Air Vs Coil Rear Shocks.
One of the most noticeable differences between gravel bikes and mountain bikes is the handlebars they use. Gravel bikes use drop bars while mountain bikes use flat bars or riser bars. The handlebars play a major role in your ride position and comfort as well as the handling and efficiency of the bike.
The drop bars used on gravel bikes are slightly different from the drop bars used on road bikes. They have the same general shape. The ends curve down and back toward you. The difference is that gravel drop bars are flared out at the ends. This makes the bars wider than standard drop bars. Most gravel drop bars measure 460-520mm wide. To compare, road drops measure 400-440mm wide. Gravel drop bars also tend to have a shallower drop than road drop bars.
Mountain bikes use much wider flat bars. These are simply long flat tubes. Most flat handlebars measure 580-600mm wide. Riser bars are also common on mountain bikes. Riser bars are flat bars that curve up from the clamp and raise the bars a couple of inches. They are wider than flat bars. They measure 685-700mm+ wide.
Gravel bikes are usually ridden at higher speeds and over longer distances than mountain bikes. Drop bars make sense for this type of riding. There are a couple of reasons for this.
First, drop bars offer three distinct hand positions. You can grip the bars on the hoods, on the tops of the bars, or on the drops. Having multiple hand positions allows you to adjust your hands and vary your grip. This improves comfort and reduces fatigue, allowing you to ride longer and further without your hands tiring out and going numb.
Drop bars also increase your efficiency while riding at high speeds by improving aerodynamics. You can crouch down in the drops and reduce the surface area that is facing into the wind. This reduces drag. The improved aerodynamics allows you to ride further while burning less energy.
Gravel riders tend to spend the majority of the time gripping the bars on the hoods. This position allows you to easily access the brakes and shifters. The drops offer an aerodynamic ride position that is great for sprinting, descending hills, and riding into headwinds. While gripping the flared drops, you have good leverage for steering and easy access to the brake levers. Gripping the tops of the bars puts you in a comfortable upright ride position.
There are some drawbacks to drop bars. Sometimes you have to move your hands to brake or shift. Drop bars also don’t offer quite as much leverage as flat bars. This makes steering in tight areas at slow speeds difficult. Drop bar components are also a bit more expensive than falt bar components. There also isn’t as much space for mounting accessories. You also have to re-tape the bars periodically.
Mountain bikes are usually ridden on more rugged terrain than gravel bikes. They are also ridden shorter distances and at lower speeds. For this type of riding, flat bars are ideal.
Flat bars are much wider than drop bars. Wider bars give you more leverage and allow you to steer more quickly and precisely. This is important while riding technical terrain. You need to be able to turn the handlebars easily to navigate obstacles and keep the bike balanced while riding at low speeds. Wide handlebars are also helpful while landing from jumps and drops because it’s easier to hold the wheel in place. The grip position also places you in an upright ride position with your hands placed far apart. This is comfortable. It’s also easy to grab the brakes quickly with flat bars. This improves braking performance.
The main drawback to flat bars is that they only offer one grip position. During a long day of riding, your hands can get tired because you’re always gripping in the same spot. The ride position also offers poor aerodynamics. Mountain bikes are less efficient while riding at high speeds for this reason. It is possible to grip the center of the drops and crouch down briefly to reduce drag but this position is difficult to maintain.
There are exceptions when it comes to handlebar type. Flat bar gravel bikes and drop bar mountain bikes exist but they are a bit less common. It is also possible to swap out the handlebars to a different style if you don’t like a particular type of handlebar.
For more in-depth info on handlebars, check out my guides:
Most gravel bikes come with 700c wheels, just like road bikes. 650B wheels are also becoming common these days. 650B wheels are 38mm or about 1.5” smaller in diameter than 700c wheels.
Most mountain bikes come with 29” wheels (also called 29er). This wheel size has the same diameter as 700c wheels. They are both ISO size 622mm. 27.5” wheels are also becoming common. These are the same diameter as 650B wheels. They are both ISO size 584mm. For whatever reason, mountain bike wheels and tires are usually measured in inches while gravel tires are usually measured in millimeters.
In the past, 26” wheels were standard on mountain bikes. These days, 26” wheels are pretty much obsolete. They have been replaced by large 27.7 or 29 inch wheels.
Generally, smaller diameter wheels are preferable for smaller frames and larger diameter wheels are better for larger frames. If you run 700c wheels on a small frame, your toe can rub the tire when you turn. This is called toe overlap. Large wheels on a small frame can also throw off the geometry.
One major benefit of using smaller wheels is that you can fit wider tires. This can increase traction. Smaller wheels offer more tire clearance because the stays and fork arms widen as they approach the hubs. For example, a 650B gravel bike may be able to accommodate 50mm tires. The same frame with 700c wheels may only be able to handle 40mm tires.
For more info on tire size, check out my guide: 700c Vs 650B wheels.
Gravel bikes and mountain bikes use different types of tires. The tires play a major role in how the bike rides and how it handles different types of terrain.
When choosing tires, you’ll want to consider the width and tread pattern. There are some compromises you’ll need to make.
Gravel-specific tires perform better on smoother and faster terrain. This is because the tires are narrower and have lighter tread than mountain bike tires.
The most common gravel bike tire widths include 35mm, 40mm, 42mm, and 45mm. Most gravel-specific tires have a light file or diamond tread design. This works well for dry trails and pavement.
Gravel tires are also designed to be run at higher pressures than mountain bike tires. They are usually run at 20-50 psi, depending on the terrain.
Mountain bike tires perform better while riding at low speeds on rough terrain or slippery terrain such as rocks, roots, ruts, mud, sand, etc. This is because the tires are wider, more voluminous, and have a more aggressive tread pattern.
Some common mountain bike tires widths include 2”, 2.25”, and 2.4”. Mountain bike tires usually feature deep knobby tread with side lugs for extra traction on slippery and loose surfaces. Some mountain bike riders install different tire sizes on the front and rear. They may choose a wide and grippy front tire to maximize grip and a slightly narrower rear tire for some extra speed.
Mountain bike tires are usually run at lower pressures. 15-20 psi is common, depending on the terrain.
Narrow gravel tires with minimal tread and higher pressure have less rolling resistance. This allows you to ride faster and more efficiently on flat and smooth terrain. Gravel tires also offer enough traction to handle dry loose surfaces such as gravel and dirt. If you want to ride in muddy or winter conditions with your gravel bike, you may consider installing wider tires with a more aggressive tread pattern for extra traction. You could even install mountain bike tires, as long as your frame has enough clearance. For riding on snow and ice, consider installing studded tires.
Wider mountain bike tires have a larger contact patch with the ground. The lower air pressure allows the tire to deform at the contact patch so even more of the tire touches the ground. This improves traction because the tires create more friction with the ground. The knobby tread also improves grip. The wider, lower pressure tires can also deform around obstacles and absorb some bumps and vibrations. This improves comfort. You can ride over more rugged terrain with a mountain bike.
These days, most gravel and mountain bikers run tubeless tires. The main reason is that flat tires are much less common. Tubeless tires are filled with a sealant that automatically patches small punctures. If you run over a thorn and puncture a tire, you can just keep on riding. You won’t even notice it. You can also run your tires at lower pressure while riding tubeless because pinch flats are not possible. This increases traction. If you ride in an area where flats are common, such as the desert, tubeless tires are a great choice for either type of bike. Generally, mountain bikers benefit more from going tubeless. The main drawback of tubeless tires is that they are slightly harder to set up and maintain than tubes.
Some riders still prefer tubed tires because they’re simple to setup. They’re also easy to repair on the side of the road. These days, most bikes come with tubes installed but are tubeless ready. For more info, check out my guide to tube vs tubeless tires.
Most mountain bike tires and gravel tires also have some puncture protection built-in. This could be a sealant that fills punctures or a strip of hard material built into the tire that resists punctures.
Gravel bike frames are designed to fit much wider tires than road bikes or cyclocross bikes. Most gravel bikes can accommodate tires that measure 38-45mm wide. Some more off-road-oriented gravel bikes can accommodate tires up to 50mm (around 2”) wide.
Tire clearance seems to be trending up on newer gravel frames. This wide tire clearance allows you to mount a variety of tires to your gravel bike including road slicks, knobby mountain bike tires, and everything in between.
Mountain bikes have even more tire clearance than gravel bikes. Most cross-country mountain bikes are designed to accommodate tires that measure 2.1-2.4” (53-61mm) wide. Downhill mountain bikes usually have 2.5” tires. For comparison, 50mm gravel tires are about 1.97” wide. Some mountain bikes are designed to accommodate plus sized tires that measure 2.8-3” wide. Fat bikes have enough clearance for 3.7-5” wide tires.
When choosing tires for your bike, it’s important to consider frame clearance. Ideally, the tire should have at least 3mm of clearance between the tire and the closest part of the frame.
It’s important to note that advertised tire sizes are not really accurate. A 50mm tire from one brand could be a couple of millimeters larger than a 50mm tire from another brand.
If your tires are too wide for your frame, they can rub. You can also have trouble with debris getting stuck between the tires and frame if there isn’t enough clearance.
Before buying tires, it’s a good idea to measure your frame clearance.
Mountain bikes and gravel bikes use very similar gearing. In the early days, gravel bikes used more road components in the drivetrain. In fact, they just used standard road groupsets.
These days, most gravel bikes use more mountain bike specific drivetrain components including 1X drivetrains and wide-range cassettes. The components are very similar but the gear ratios are different. There are also gravel-specific drivetrains available.
Generally, gravel bikes have slightly higher (harder) gearing than mountain bikes and lower gearing than road bikes. This higher gearing allows you to ride at higher speeds on flat and smooth terrain. The gearing also needs to be low enough for you to pedal up loose gravel grades without your wheel spinning out.
Mountain bikes tend to have slightly lower (easier) gearing. This allows you to power up steep hills and pedal through technical sections of trail. Mountain bikes don’t need as high of top speed.
For an example of common gearing, a gravel bike may use a 42t chainring and a 10t-44t cassette. To compare, a mountain bike may use a 32t chainring and a 10t-50t cassette. The larger chainring on the gravel bike makes the gearing higher.
In this example, the highest gear on the gravel bike is 42t-10t. This gives you a gear ratio of 4.2. The highest gear of the mountain bike is 32t-10t. This gives you a gear ratio of 3.2t. The gear ratio represents the number of times that the rear wheel turns for each revolution of the cranks. The gravel bike has a much higher top gear in this example. This higher gear allows you to cruise at higher speeds and reach a higher top speed with a gravel bike than you could on a mountain bike. You won’t run out of gears or ‘spin out’ while riding at speeds above 25mph.
The lowest gear on the gravel bike is 42t-44t. The gear ratio is 0.95. The lowest gear on the mountain bike is 32t-50t. The gear ratio is 0.64. This means that for every revolution of the cranks, the rear wheel makes 95% or 64% of a revolution respectively. In this case, the mountain bike has a lower low gear. This low gear will allow you to pedal a mountain bike up steeper hills than you could handle on a gravel bike. The gravel bike gearing is still low enough for climbing steep grades.
These days, all of the major bicycle groupset manufacturers offer gravel-specific drivetrains. Shimano’s gravel range is called GRX. Sram’s gravel range is called XPLR. Campagnolo’s gravel range is the Ekar. They offer the first 13 speed gravel groupset.
Shimano and Sram also offer an entire range of mountain bike specific gearing options. There are far more options in the mountain range. For example, Shimano offers the Deore, XT, and XTR ranges. Sram offers the XX1 Eagle, X01 Eagle, GX Eagle, and more. Both brands offer entry level options as well. You can also choose from mechanical and electronic gravel and mountain groupsets.
The most important decision you’ll have to make when choosing a mountain bike or gravel bike is whether you want to go with 1x or 2x gearing. 1X gearing means there is a single chainring. 2X gearing means there are two chainrings.
Most modern mountain bikes come with 1X gearing. Gravel bikes have either 1X or 2X gearing. There are benefits and drawbacks to both setups.
1X gearing eliminates the front derailleur and shifter. This simplifies your shifting. You only have one shifter to think about. You just shift up or down. There are also fewer parts to maintain. Less can go wrong. Modern 1X drivetrains offer almost as much gear range as 2X drivetrains.
There are several drawbacks to 1X gearing. The steps between gears are larger because there are fewer gears. Most 1X drivetrains have 11 or 12 speeds. 2X drivetrains have 20-24 speeds.
The chain also runs at a greater angle while you’re using the lowest and highest gears with a 1X groupset. This reduces efficiency because the chain creates more friction while running at an extreme angle. Most models use a chainring with alternating wide and narrow teeth and a clutched derailleur to keep the chain in place.
2X gearing also gives you more gears and a wider gear range. There are also smaller steps between gears.
Most 2X groupsets these days use super-compact chainsets. These offer extra low gearing. For example, Shimano uses 48/31t or 46/30t chainrings and an 11-32t or 11-34t cassette. This 2X setup gives you low gearing. This works well if you plan to ride your gravel bike on steep terrain or if you plan to carry heavy bikepacking bags or panniers.
Both gravel bikes and mountain bikes both have wide gear ranges. The gear range is the difference between the largest and smallest gear. A wide gear range means there is a large difference between the lowest and highest gear.
A modern wide range 1×12 speed groupset can give you over 500% of gear range. This is possible thanks to the extra large ‘dinner plate’ cassette cog that is common on most 12 speed cassettes. This wide gearing allows you to ride on a wide range of grades.
You may also want to consider the steps between gears when choosing a gravel bike drivetrain. This is the percentage change from one gear to the next. The gear steps are determined by the number of teeth on the cassette cogs. Gravel bikes with 2x gearing tend to have smaller steps between gears than mountain bikes with 1x gearing.
For example, a gravel bike might have a 12% change between gears while a mountain bike may have a 15% change between gears. Tighter gearing is preferable because it makes it easier to maintain your cadence while shifting through the gear range. Your cadence doesn’t slow down as much when you shift. You remain in your optimal cadence longer. This is helpful while riding at high speeds. Road bikes have tight gearing for this reason. The gear steps don’t matter as much on mountain bikes because riders tend to start and stop pedaling frequently while riding uneven surfaces.
If you’re not happy with your gravel bike gearing, you can customize it. In most cases, gravel bikes can run mountain bike and gravel bike drivetrain components. Sometimes you can mix and match. For example, Sram allows you to run a 10-50t mountain cassette on their gravel groupset. They call this a ‘mullet’ setup. This extra low gearing may be desirable if you regularly climb steep grades, technical terrain, or carry heavy bikepacking gear on your gravel bike. Some road bike components may also be compatible.
Mountain bikes usually are not compatible with gravel or road components. There often isn’t enough clearance to fit larger chainrings. It is also not practical to ride a mountain bike at higher speeds because they are less efficient.
Gravel Bike Vs Mountain Bike Weight
Gravel bikes are usually lighter than mountain bikes. A gravel bike weighs 18-25 lbs. To compare, mountain bikes usually weigh somewhere between 20-30 lbs. On average, a gravel bike is 2-5 pounds lighter than a mountain bike of comparable quality.
Mountain bikes are heavier because they have heavy suspension components. The wider tires also add some weight. Mountain bikes also tend to have slightly beefier frames and wheels that also add weight.
A heavier bike takes more energy to ride. It takes more work to move the extra mass around. This reduces efficiency. You can really feel the extra weight while climbing hills.
The frame geometry of gravel bikes and mountain bikes is different. Bike frame geometry refers to the dimensions and angles of a bike’s frame that influence the bike’s handling, ride quality, and fit.
Gravel bikes have a blend of road and mountain bike geometry. They are tailored for off-road riding with some of the comfort and efficiency of a road bike. Mountain bikes are designed for riding technical terrain with tight turns, steep descents, and rough textures. They need to be stable and maneuverable in order to efficiently navigate these types of terrain.
- Wheelbase: Gravel bikes have a longer wheelbase than road bikes but a shorter wheelbase than mountain bikes. The wheelbase is the distance between the front and rear axles. The shorter wheelbase of gravel bikes strikes a balance between stability and responsive handling. The longer wheelbase of mountain bikes makes them more maneuverable at low speeds.
- Head angle: Gravel bikes also have a steeper head angle than mountain bikes. The head angle is the angle that the fork sits relative to the head tube. It can also be defined as the angle that the fork sits relative to a horizontal line between the front and rear axle. The steeper head angle makes the bike more responsive and maneuverable while riding less technical terrain. The head angle on mountain bikes is slacker. The slack head angle of mountain bikes improves stability while riding over rough terrain by keeping the rider’s center of gravity balanced. This is confidence-inspiring while descending fast and steep hills.
- Chainstay length: Mountain bikes often have shorter chainstays than gravel bikes. This design choice improves maneuverability, particularly on technical trails. It might sacrifice a bit of straight-line stability compared to gravel bikes.
- Bottom bracket height: The bottom bracket height of mountain bikes is typically lower than gravel bikes. This lowers the rider’s center of gravity, which improves stability and balance. Particularly over rough and technical terrain.
- Fork Rake/Offset: Mountain bikes typically have less fork offset, resulting in more trail. This creates more stable handling at high speeds and on steep descents. Gravel bikes usually have more fork offset for quicker steering and more agile handling on less technical terrain.
- Top Tube Length: The top tube on a gravel bike is typically longer than on a mountain bike, which allows the rider to stretch out more for comfort over long distances. Mountain bikes often have shorter top tubes to provide more control in technical terrain.
- Reach: Mountain bikes have a longer reach than gravel bikes. Reach is the horizontal distance from the center of the bottom bracket to the center of the head tube. The reach on mountain bikes is usually around 430-485mm compared to 370-425mm on gravel bikes. This longer reach helps to improve stability.
- Stem length: Mountain bikes also have a shorter stem than gravel bikes. The shorter stem makes the steering quicker and more responsive. Mountain bikes also have wider handlebars than gravel bikes. This gives you plenty of leverage to turn the handlebars quickly and easily, making mountain bikes better for riding tight technical trails with lots of turns.
- Frame flex: Some gravel bike frames are designed to provide cushioning and vibration absorption. On these frames, the seat stays and chain stays are made from flattened or thinner tubes that offer a bit of flex. The seat post may also offer some type of built in shock absorption. These features really help to smooth out the ride.
- Tire clearance: Mountain bike frames also offer more tire clearance than gravel frames. This allows you to mount wider tires without worrying about the tire rubbing on the frame. Most mountain bikes can accommodate tires over 2.1-2.5” wide. Gravel bikes usually have a tire clearance of 35-50mm (1.3-2 inches).
- Wheel size: Bike frames are also optimized for a particular wheel size. For larger frames 29” or 700c wheels are ideal. For smaller frames, 27.5” or 650B wheels may fit better. If your wheels are too big for your frame, you may experience toe overlap. This happens when your toes rub on your front wheel while turning. Swapping between different wheel sizes can throw off your bike’s geometry by raising or lowering the bottom bracket height.
In terms of the ride position, gravel bikes offer kind of a middle ground between road bikes and mountain bikes. Gravel bikes seat the rider in a more upright and relaxed position than road bikes. This is because they have a longer head tube and shorter reach. This upright ride position improves stability, comfort, and control.
The ride position of a gravel bike is slightly more aggressive and aerodynamic than the ride position of a mountain bike. This improves speed and efficiency by reducing drag. While seated in a forward-facing position leaning over the handlebars, you can provide more power to the pedals.
You can also change your ride position on a drop bar gravel bike by gripping different parts of the handlebars. While riding on the tops of the handlebars, you’ll be seated in a more upright ride position. While riding in the drops, you’ll be seated in a more aggressive and aerodynamic ride position. Riding on the hoods puts you somewhere in between. Most riders spend the majority of their time riding on the hoods.
Mountain bikes place the rider in a more upright ride position than gravel bikes. This allows you to look straight ahead while you ride. You’re not leaning over the handlebars with your neck bent up. This position also removes weight from your arms and shoulders. Most of your body weight rests on the seat. Many riders find this to be more comfortable. It can also make steering a bit easier.
These days, all gravel bikes and mountain bikes come with disc brakes. They are even becoming common on road bikes. Road disc brakes designed for drop bars really paved the way for gravel bikes.
For off-road riding, disc brakes are preferred over rim brakes because the braking surface (the rotor) is raised up out of the way of dirt and grime. Even if your rim gets coated in mud, you can still stop reliably.
Disc brakes also provide more stopping power than rim brakes. They also perform well in wet conditions. They’re a bit easier to modulate as well. You also don’t have to worry about tire clearance when you run disc brakes. They are all around better. For more info, check out my guide to disc vs rim brakes.
There are two types of disc brakes available: hydraulic and mechanical. Most lower-end to mid-range gravel bikes and mountain bikes come with mechanical disc brakes. Higher-end models come with hydraulic disc brakes. Both systems have their benefits and drawbacks. Your brake choice really depends on how and where you ride.
Hydraulic disc brakes use fluid to transmit braking force from the levers to the calipers. They offer more stopping power because the hydraulic system gives a greater mechanical advantage. They are also easier to actuate and modulate. You can brake precisely with hydraulic brakes. For these reasons, hydraulic disc brakes are ideal for technical mountain biking.
Maintaining hydraulic disc brakes is a bit trickier than mechanical disc brakes. You need to bleed them every couple of years and replace the fluid.
Mechanical disc brakes use a cable to transmit force from the levers to the calipers. They are easy to maintain and repair. You can easily replace a cable or adjust the brakes on the side of the road. This makes them ideal for long-distance gravel riding, bikepacking, and riding in remote areas. You’re less likely to get stranded.
Mechanical disc brakes do require more frequent adjustment. They can be a bit touchy. If they’re not adjusted properly, they can rub the rotor.
For more info, check out my guide to mechanical vs hydraulic disc brakes.
Speed, Efficiency, and Aerodynamics
Gravel bikes are much faster than mountain bikes on smooth surfaces, including pavement, gravel, and dirt roads. They are also more efficient. You can cover more ground in less time while burning less energy while riding a gravel bike. There are several reasons for this.
Most importantly, gravel bikes offer better aerodynamics than mountain bikes because they have drop bars. Drop bars allow you to crouch down into an aero position. This reduces air resistance, allowing you to ride faster and more efficiently. Mountain bikes seat you in an upright position. Your chest and arms act as a sail and create drag.
The faster you cycle, the more aerodynamics matter. At speeds over 15 km/h mph (around 9 mph), air resistance becomes the main force acting against you. At 30 mph (48 km/h), 90% of your energy goes toward overcoming air resistance. Aerodynamics are less important at lower speeds.
Gravel bike frames are also more efficient because they are rigid. Rigid frames efficiently transmit power from the pedals to the rear wheel. More of your energy goes toward driving the bike forward. On a mountain bike, part of your pedaling force is lost compressing the suspension. This is known as pedal bob. This reduces efficiency.
Gravel bikes also tend to be lighter than mountain bikes. This is mostly due to the lack of heavy suspension components. Lighter bikes take less energy to ride. You can accelerate and climb faster and maintain a higher average speed when you’re moving less mass around.
Mountain bikes are faster on mountain bike terrain, such as technical singletrack trails and downhills. This is mostly due to the suspension system. Suspension improves traction by keeping your tires in contact with the ground. This allows you to corner harder on slippery or loose terrain. Suspension also allows you to ride much faster over rough terrain that is covered in rocks, roots, and other obstacles. You can keep pedaling along comfortably while the suspension absorbs all of the bumps. On a gravel bike, you’ll have to slow down when the terrain gets too rough.
Gravel bikes usually have more mounting points for luggage and accessories than mountain bikes. For example, there may be mounting points on the frame and fork for front and rear racks. You can mount panniers if you choose. You might find mounting points on the fork blades for extra water bottle holders or more luggage. Some models have mounting points on the top tube for a top tube bag. These bags are popular among long-distance gravel riders.
Most gravel bikes also include mounting points for mudguards (fenders). Some models have a mounting point for a dynamo-powered headlight on the fork crown. You might also find mountain points for a pump or spare spokes on gravel bikes. Of course, there are also standard water bottle mounts in the frame. The luggage and accessory mounts make gravel bikes a great choice for mixed-terrain bicycle touring and bikepacking.
Mountain bikes have far fewer mounting points. Usually, you’ll only find a water bottle mount. The suspension makes it impossible to mount racks and panniers. If you want to haul luggage on a mountain bike, you’ll have to use bikepacking bags or a cargo trailer. It is possible to mount a rear rack to most hardtail mountain bikes.
Gravel and Mountain Bike Frame Materials
Both gravel bikes and mountain bikes come in a number of different frame materials. The most common options are aluminum and carbon fiber. Steel and titanium models are also available. The ideal frame material depends on the type of riding you do, your budget, and your personal preference.
Aluminum is probably the most popular frame material for gravel bikes and mountain bikes. Aluminum frames are lightweight and stiff. These frames offer excellent performance. Particularly for the price. They are fast and efficient Aluminum frames also tend to be more affordable because they can be easily mass-produced. Aluminum also doesn’t corrode.
The main drawback of aluminum is that the ride quality can feel a bit harsh because aluminum frames are extremely rigid. Bumps and vibrations transmit through the frame and into your body. Aluminum is also difficult to repair. It can’t be welded easily if it crack. Aluminum may not be as long lasting as other materials. It can fatigue with time. For the majority of riders, aluminum is the best frame material for gravel and mountain bikes.
Carbon fiber is another popular frame material option for gravel bikes and mountain bikes. Carbon fiber frames are the lightest bike frames available. They also offers the best performance out of all frame materials. This is because the material is extremely customizable. Manufacturers can optimize a carbon frame for any type of riding. A carbon frame can be optimized for handling, comfort, efficiency, aerodynamics, and more. For example, a carbon frame can be made laterally stiff so it handles responsively and rides efficiently. Carbon tubes can be made somewhat flexible so they absorb vibrations. Carbon fiber tubes can also be molded into aerodynamic shapes to reduce drag. Aero gravel bikes are available.
The biggest drawback to carbon fiber is the cost. Carbon fiber frames are expensive because they require expensive custom molds and lots of manpower to produce. They can also be fragile. Carbon fiber is brittle. It can crack in the event of a crash.
If you’re a competitive rider looking for a high-performance gravel bike or mountain bike, carbon fiber is the best option. For more info, check out my guide: Carbon Fiber Vs Aluminum Bike Frames.
Steel is another popular material for gravel bikes and mountain bikes. The biggest benefits of a steel frame are durability and longevity. Steel can take a beating and keep going for decades. If a steel frame cracks, it can be easily welded back together. This ease of repair makes steel the ideal frame material for bikepacking. Steel frames also offer excellent ride characteristics. Steel frames offer a good compromise between stiffness and flex. They’re comfortable as well.
The main drawback of steel frames is the weight. Steel is the heaviest material used to build bikes. This extra weight can make steel frames slow and inefficient. Steel can also corrode. It’s not the best material for those who ride on salted roads during the winter or those who ride near the sea.
If you’re looking for a reliable gravel bike or mountain bike for recreational riding, a steel frame is a great choice. For more info, check out my guide: Steel vs Aluminum Bike Frames.
If you’re in the market for a premium custom-made gravel or mountain bike, you might consider a titanium frame. Titanium frames are extremely durable and comfortable, like steel. They also offer excellent ride characteristics, like carbon. In addition, they don’t corrode.
The main drawback of titanium frames is the cost. Titanium frames are expensive. If you’re looking for a high-end frame that will last a lifetime, titanium is a good option. For more info, check out my guide: Titanium Vs Carbon Fiber Bike Frames and Titanium Vs Steel Bike Frames.
On gravel bikes, the tires work to smooth out the ride. Gravel tires are much higher volume and run at lower pressures than road tires. Most measure 38-45mm wide and are run at 25-50psi depending on the conditions. The extra volume and lower pressure allows the tires to absorb most bumps and vibrations.
Depending on the material, the frame can also help to absorb some bumps. Steel, carbon fiber, and titanium frames offer some vertical flex that can help to smooth out the ride. Gravel bikes do a great job of absorbing small bumps and vibrations like you would encounter on typical gravel roads.
Because the frame is completely rigid, larger bumps will be transmitted through the frame and into your body. This can lead to a harsh and uncomfortable ride while traveling on rough surfaces. To smooth out larger bumps, some gravel bikes come with a suspension fork or suspension seat post.
For extremely rough conditions, a mountain bike will offer more comfort. The wider tires can be run at even lower air pressures down to around 20 psi. Softer tires can absorb larger bumps. Mountain bikes also have suspension that helps to absorb larger bumps. You can comfortably ride a mountain bike over a rough rocky surface without getting shaken too hard. The frame stays in place while the suspension moves.
The ride position also plays a role in comfort. Gravel bikes have a more aggressive ride position than mountain bikes. For most riders, this is fairly comfortable. For those with limited flexibility or back or shoulder issues, the more upright ride position of a mountain bike may be preferable.
Gravel bikes are some of the most versatile bikes on the market. With a gravel bike, you can ride both off-road and on-road. You can load the bike up with bikepacking bags or panniers and go touring. You use a gravel bike to commute to work or school. Gravel bikes also make great recreational bikes. You can ride around your neighborhood, on bike trails, on boardwalks, on pothole-filled streets, and even explore some gravel roads and mountain bike paths. You can also install some racks and luggage and use your gravel bike as a grocery-getter. Gravel bikes can also make good training and exercise bikes. You could also race on your gravel bike if you’re a competitive cyclist. The versatility is one of the main things that drew me to gravel bikes initially.
Gravel bikes are also compatible with a wide range of components. If you want to make your gravel bike more road-oriented, you can install skinnier tires and higher gearing. If you want to make your gravel bike more off-road oriented, you can install wider tires, lower the gearing, and install a suspension fork. They are customizable. This versatility makes gravel bikes ideal for those who can only own one bike.
Mountain bikes are a bit less versatile than gravel bikes. They are really only suited for off-road riding. You can ride a mountain bike on the pavement but you probably wouldn’t want to ride too far due to the lack of efficiency. Mountain bikes aren’t ideal for commuting, bikepacking, urban cycling, etc.
Mountain bikes can handle a wider range of surfaces than gravel bikes. For example, you can ride dirt, mud, sand, gravel, rocks, snow, roots, jumps, drops, and more with a mountain bike. They can also handle extremely steep uphill and downhill grades due to the low gearing and powerful brakes. For off-road riding, mountain bikes are more versatile. They can take you places that a gravel bike can’t go. Mountain bikes can also be raced in a number of events including cross-country, enduro, downhill, and more. If you want to get into competitive cycling, a mountain bike is a great choice.
Off-Road and On-Road Capability
Mountain bikes are much more capable off-road than gravel bike. The flat handlebars allow you to steer easily and precisely. The suspension and wide tires improve traction and absorb large bumps. The mountain bike frame geometry gives the bike plenty of stability and control while traveling on technical trails. This all gives you confidence while riding off-road. With a mountain bike, can ride over rocky and root-covered single-track trails. You can ride down steep downhill paths. You can even tackle jumps and drops.
Mountain bikes are slow and inefficient on pavement. The wide and soft tires create a lot of rolling resistance. The suspension system also wastes energy by compressing unnecessarily. This slows you down and costs energy.
Gravel bikes are much more capable on-road. The drop bars greatly improve aerodynamics. The narrower and harder tires produce less rolling resistance. The rigid frame efficiently transmits power. The higher gearing allows the bike to ride faster. A gravel bike is almost as capable on-road as a road bike. They are fast and efficient on pavement.
Gravel bikes can also be surprisingly capable off-road. A skilled rider can handle some pretty rough and technical terrain with skinny gravel tires. When the trail gets too rough, a gravel bike won’t be able to keep up with a mountain bike.
Bike and Component Options
You’ll have far more options to choose from if you ride a mountain bike. There are dozens and dozens of models available. If you walk into a bike shop, you’ll see rows of mountain bikes. You might only see a few gravel bikes. Every major bicycle manufacturer offers an entire range of mountain bikes. They may only offer a couple of gravel bikes. It’s much easier to find exactly what you’re looking for if you ride a mountain bike. Whatever size, color, or configuration you want, you can find it.
There are also more mountain bike component options. If you ride a mountain bike, you’ll have hundreds of tires, wheels, suspension components, and gearing options to choose from. You can customize your bike to meet your exact specifications.
Gravel bike parts are a bit more limited. For example, there are only a few gravel-specific groupset options at this time. Gravel-specific tire options are also a bit more limited.
Parts availability is generally better for mountain bikes as well. Because mountain bikes are so common, you can find spare parts at any bike shop. Particularly if you ride an older mountain bike with an 8 or 9 speed groupset.
Some gravel components are harder to find. For example, drop bar brake and shifter levers for gravel groupsets are a bit less common. Modern 12 speed components can be hard to come by in some parts of the world.
Mountain bikes and gravel bikes are available at similar price points. At the low end, mountain bikes are cheaper than gravel bikes. You can buy an entry-level mountain bike for under $400. Mid-range models go for around $1200-$2000. Higher-end models start at around $2500. You could also pick up a used mountain bike for under $200. Used mountain bikes are extremely common.
Gravel bikes tend to be slightly more expensive. A mid-range model costs around $1800-$2500. You can buy an entry-level gravel bike for around $500. Higher end models start at around $3000. Used gravel bikes are available but they aren’t as common as mountain bikes because they haven’t been around as long. They are also more expensive because they are all newer.
If you’re on a tight budget, you’re better off going with a mountain bike.
Seat Posts: Dropper Posts and Suspension Seat Posts
Most modern mid-range and higher-end mountain bikes come with a dropper post. This allows you to quickly and easily move the seat out of the way and raise it back up into place. This is helpful during technical descents. Dropper seat posts are usually actuated with a lever mounted to the handlebars.
Gravel riders can also benefit from a dropper seat post. Gravel bikes usually don’t include this feature. You would have to install it aftermarket. Most gravel bikes are compatible with 27.2mm dropper seat posts. On a gravel bike, the seat won’t drop quite as far due to the frame geometry. It still can be useful if you ride rougher terrain or ride lots of steep descents.
There are some drawbacks to using a dropper seat post. They add a significant amount of weight (around 600 grams). They can also have some play. The saddle may move around slightly as you pedal. This can be annoying on a gravel bike because you tend to spend more time seated while riding. On a mountain bike you stand up more so the saddle play is less of an issue.
Another popular seat post option for gravel bikes is the suspension seat post. These help to smooth out some bumps and vibrations. They are particularly useful due to the lack of suspension. Most gravel bikes don’t come with a suspension seat post. You’ll have to install one aftermarket.
Who Should Ride a Gravel Bike?
- Long-Distance Riders: Those who enjoy embarking on long-distance rides, bikepacking trips, or endurance cycling may find a gravel bike more suited to their needs. With a geometry closer to a road bike, gravel bikes are designed for efficiency over long distances, even when those distances include off-road terrain.
- Mixed-Terrain Cyclists: If your cycling routes often include a mixture of paved roads, dirt trails, and gravel paths, a gravel bike would be ideal. With wider tires than a road bike and a more comfortable riding position, gravel bikes are versatile.
- Riders Limited by Storage or Budget: If you only have space or budget for one bike but want to enjoy both on-road and off-road riding, a gravel bike can be the perfect choice. It’s an all-in-one solution, suitable for daily commuting, road touring, and off-road exploring.
- Cyclists Seeking Comfort: Gravel bikes often provide a more upright riding position compared to road bikes. They also offer drop bars with multiple hand positions. This can lead to increased comfort during long rides.
- Those who ride for exercise: Gravel biking offers an excellent workout, combining endurance from long rides and strength from tackling diverse terrains.
- Road cyclists who want to ride off-road: If you’re a road cyclist looking to explore local trails or gravel paths, a gravel bike is a natural transition. You can maintain the feel of a road bike while gaining the ability to conquer more rugged terrain.
Who Should Ride a Mountain Bike?
- Those who ride rugged terrain and technical trails: With a mountain bike, you can tackle steep rocky descents, rutted trails, mud, sand, drops, and more. This is possible thanks to the wide grippy tires, suspension system, hydraulic disc brakes, and stable frame geometry.
- Those who value comfort: The wide tires and suspension system absorb bumps and vibrations. The ride feels smooth. The upright riding position allows you to sit up straight and look out ahead. You don’t have to lean over and bend your neck.
- Adrenaline Junkies: For those who love the thrill of fast descents, big jumps, and technical trails, a mountain bike can offer the adrenaline rush they seek. Mountain biking can be a thrilling extreme sport.
- Downhill and Enduro Enthusiasts: If you participate in or plan to take up downhill or enduro mountain biking, a mountain bike is a necessity. These bikes are designed to absorb large impacts, navigate steep descents, and handle jumps and drops.
- Beginner Cyclists: Beginner cyclists can benefit from the stability and control that mountain bikes provide, especially when learning to navigate uneven terrain and handle various obstacles.
- Fitness Focused Riders: For those looking for a whole-body workout, mountain biking can provide an intense fitness regime. Navigating diverse terrains requires not only leg strength, but also core and upper-body engagement.
- Those who plan to get into competitive cycling: There are more competitions that you can enter with a mountain bike. Most cities also have mountain biking clubs that you can join. There is a whole mountain biking culture that you can involve yourself with.
For my purposes, I prefer a gravel bike. I really value the versatility that these bikes offer. I can use the same bike for riding around town, getting groceries, and light touring. If I wanted, I could commute on my bike. When I feel like taking a longer ride, I can. My gravel bike is also pretty off-road capable. If I take it slow, I can tackle some pretty technical trails.
I used to ride mountain bikes more in the past. I always had a mountain bike when I was a kid. Where I lived, there were lots of forested areas with trails that I could ride. These days, I live in the city and do most of my riding there. If I were to ride more rugged terrain more frequently, a mountain bike would make more sense.
Gravel bikes and mountain bikes are both designed for off-road riding but they are made for very different types of riders and terrain. Gravel riders prefer riding fast on smoother terrain such as gravel and dirt roads. Mountain bikers prefer exploring rugged single-track, downhills, and mountain trails.
Both bikes are great for exploring your surroundings. Both bikes have their own advantages and disadvantages. There are compromises to make when choosing between a gravel and a mountain bike. The choice between a gravel bike and a mountain bike really comes down to the terrain and distances you ride as well as your personal preference.
If you’re still undecided after reading this guide, the best solution is to simply get a bike and start riding. At the end of the day, the most important thing is that you’re getting out there and riding.
You can ride gravel roads with a mountain bike. Gravel bikes can handle some pretty rough off-road terrain. Mountain bikes can also be used for on-road riding, if you’re riding shorter distances.
Do you ride a gravel bike or a mountain bike? Share your experience in the comments below!
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Zachary Friedman is an accomplished travel writer and professional blogger. Since 2011, he has traveled to 66 countries and 6 continents. He founded ‘Where The Road Forks’ in 2017 to provide readers with information and insights based on his travel and outdoor recreation experience and expertise. Zachary is also an avid cyclist and hiker. Living as a digital nomad, Zachary balances his professional life with his passions for hiking, camping, cycling, and worldwide exploration. For a deeper dive into his journey and background, visit the About page. For inquiries and collaborations, please reach out through the Contact page. You can also follow him on Facebook.