Selecting the right bike type can be complicated! But still, this is the most important thing you need to get right because the two types of bikes compared in this article are suited for different riding styles.
The cycling sport continuously evolves, often driven by the riding community who constantly explore the boundaries of their unique environment. How does the gravel bike fit in?
Mountain bikes are durable, specifically designed for taking on serious off-road terrain. With their drop handlebars, gravel bikes look a bit like road bikes but give a fast-paced, controlled riding experience from tarmac to dirt roads to medium rough offroad terrain.
Both these bikes provide the means for adventuring in nature and expanding personal riding goals. Consider similarities and differences between these two bikes before deciding which one is the right one for you.
Differences Between Mountain Bikes And Gravel Bikes
Despite its name, a mountain bike is made for more than just mountainous terrain. With flat handlebars, suspension systems, disc brakes, knobby tires, and long-range drive trains, mountain bikes evolved to conquer most off-road terrain in both wet and dry conditions.
With confidence, attempt terrain from mountain paths and single tracks with embedded rocks, roots, steep inclines, fast downhills, and more.
Mountain bikes are immediately associated with adventurous riding experiences, but did you know that gravel bikes are also called by another name?
Gravel bikes are likewise known as adventure bikes.
A gravel bike has much to offer in terms of speed on gentler off-road terrain than its hardy, technically proficient off-road cousin.
Due to lightly treaded tires, a lighter frame, and a more aerodynamic position (thanks to the drop handlebar), nothing is stopping a gravel bike to transition from the tarmac, gravel roads, lightly rocky mountain paths, and fire tracks back to tarmac.
The absence of complicated suspension systems points towards a ‘harder’ feeling but more efficient pedal power ride.
They aim to ride as fast as possible on mild off-road with tires narrower than mountain bike tires and drop bars while keeping a pace just somewhat off the road bike on the tarmac.
Gravel bikes can be fitted for bike packing and kitted out according to expected terrain. Let the adventures begin!
What Is A Mountain Bike?
Mountain bikes are manufactured to be more durable than other types of bikes. Stresses from variable terrain can take their toll on components and frames alike.
Strong wheels, knobby tires, adjustable suspension, sturdy frames, powerful brakes, and a straight handlebar are some elements that facilitate durability.
Certain mountain bike types are more suited to rougher terrain than others, but similarities revolve around providing traction, shock absorption, and comfort while riding.
A mountain bike can be classified according to suspension type:
- Rigid (no suspension)
- Hardtail (suspension fork)
- Full suspension (suspension fork and rear suspension)
Characteristics Of A Mountain Bike
Mountain bikes are heavy compared to gravel bikes as numerous elements to enhance durability are added to the frame.
Mountain biking can further be divided into different niche sports. For instance, Cross country, Trail, Enduro, Downhill, and even fat bikes fall under the mountain bike collective.
Mountain Bikes At A Glance
Most mountain bikes will have commonalities:
|General characteristics||Mountain bike|
|Frame||– Built rugged|
– Shape and design can vary significantly
– Upright geometry
– Straight handlebar
|Suspension types||– Rigid (no suspension) or|
– Hardtail (suspension fork) or
– Full suspension (rear and suspension fork)
|Tires||– Thicker tread tire with an option for protected sidewall |
– Different widths (commonly 2.1 to 2.8”) and choice of tread pattern tubeless / tube
|Wheel||Predominantly 29” 27.5” and 27.5” Plus|
|Gearing system||– 1 x drive train with wide range cassette. |
– Enough gears for slow uphill grinds and relatively fast riding on flatter terrain.
|Braking system||Hydraulic Disc Brakes|
|Types of bikes||Cross country, Trail, Enduro, Downhill, Fat bikes are some examples.|
More About Mountain Bike Features
A mountain bike frame is built rugged to withstand plenty of abuse. The shape can vary significantly between mountain bike disciplines and manufacturers producing the same category of bikes.
The common denominator is frame geometry. It encourages a more upright riding position which provides control and comfort and assists with uphill climbing and navigating obstacles. The frame geometry of a downhill-specific bike is differently optimized.
The most common frame materials are aluminum, carbon fiber, titanium, and steel. (More reading on frame materials later in the article.
Wheels / Tires / Rims
Wheels are a significant component of mountain bike design as they are the only thing between the rider and the ground.
Tire tread on front and back wheels is usually different. The front tires have an angled tread to assist with steering and the back a horizontal tread to help dig in for more traction.
Many mountain bikes use a standard tube format but are shipped tubeless-ready. The rider can decide the best option.
The tubeless tire variety is becoming increasingly popular as it prevents pinch punctures and generally lets you ride without worrying about punctures. The sealant plugs holes that would deflate a tube immediately. All this while you are rolling on. Tubeless can be pumped to a lower psi, should the terrain demand it.
Mountain bikes today are offered in one of two sizes:
- 29” wheel size, also known as ‘twenty niner.’ The advantage of this wheel size allows for more air volume, increasing the ride’s smoothness. Tires can be pumped at lower psi to increase traction over, e.g., sandy terrain.
- 27.5” wheel size. It may have slightly better maneuverability than larger wheel sizes.
- 27.5 Plus wheel size indicates an extra-wide wheel and tire, usually 2.8 to 3” wide. Plus wheel sizes do provide more shock absorption and less rolling resistance than the narrower version.
Newer model mountain bikes are fitted with a 1x system, pronounced ‘one-by. That is one chainring only at the front. Commonly bikes are 12 speed – so they have a max of 12 blades on the back end of the drive train. The choice of the groupset is determined by the riding type generally engaged in, for instance, the speed vs. climbing ability.
Mountain bike handlebars are flat. They may have some indentations or curves in the middle where they are attached to the stem. Handlebars are made wide but can be cut shorter if required.
Seat / Saddle
Mountain bike seats are commonly broader and more padded than those found on gravel bikes.
Disc brakes are a standard feature on mountain bikes. Different ride disciplines may have added technical specs, particularly on the size of the disc. They are reliable in all weather conditions, easy to control, and don’t strain the brake fingers that much.
Pedal type is a personal preference. Most mountain bike riders prefer the clipless type. These pedals require a mountain biking shoe with a cleat mechanism.
Clipless pedals give the rider additional control over the bike and may even increase pedal efficiency.
In a discipline like downhill, riders prefer flat pedals.
Items like water bottle cages, bike computers, and lights are just examples of accessories that can improve a ride.
What Is A Gravel Bike?
A gravel bike has much to offer if you are looking to mix up road riding with some milder off-roading without losing too much performance on the road. Link tarmac, gravel roads, rocky, bumpy back roads, and mountain paths to explore those paths you have always been curious about.
Gravel bikes may look like road bikes but do borrow from mountain bike design:
- geometry theory for stability
- wide tubeless tires for traction
- wide-range gearing to cover variable terrain.
The drop bars make fast-cycling more comfortable for on-road and mildly rough off-road tracks. It assists in positioning the body to activate more significant muscle groups needed to ride at speed.
Gravel bikes can be fitted with accessories to become great touring or bike packing machines.
Bike packers are usually on the road for a few days to weeks at a time. They carry everything needed, including food, water, clothing, sleeping gear, camping equipment, tools, etc.
Characteristics of a Gravel Bike
Although gravel bikes are faster than most mountain bikes on specific off-road terrain, the tradeoff is slower on the road/tarmac.
A saving on weight due to no / basic suspension, plus a thin frame design, makes gravel bikes a lot lighter, thereby faster, than mountain bikes on a flat or gentle incline.
Gravel Bikes At A Glance
Commonalities across gravel bikes:
|General Characteristic||Gravel Bike|
|Frame||– Built lightweight|
– Based on classic road bike design
– Comfortable more aerodynamic position
– Relaxed geometry
– Drop handlebar
|Suspension types||– Rigid (no suspension) or|
– Hardtail (front suspension) – occasionally
|Tires||– Wide tire clearance – can therefore fit 1.5 to 1.9″ range widths |
– Suitable for slicks, file tread, or knobby tread pattern
– Tubeless / Tube
|Gearing system||– 1x or 2x drivetrainWide range cassette|
– With gear choice sensible for terrain, i.e., flat rides or hilly.
|Braking system||– Hydraulic Disc Brakes|
|Types of bikes||– Can be used for touring / backpacking by adding accessories|
|Note||– Suitable for the daily commute, road bike training, off-road fun|
More About Gravel Bike Frame Features
The rider sits more upright when compared to a road bike, thanks to the lengthened head tube combined with a slack angle.
The result is a lengthened wheelbase that makes for a more stable and comfortable ride and increases steering control.
Frames are constructed from aluminum or carbon fiber. (More about Frame material later in the article)
Budget and mid-range bikes are primarily manufactured from aluminum. Higher-end carbon fiber models are often the material of choice for riders who are serious about power-to-weight ratios. Carbon also tends to absorb surface vibrations more than metal frames making it a smoother ride.
Most gravel bikes come with 700C / 29” wheels and allow you to choose different tire widths.
Tubeless compatible mountain bike tires are a choice. It not only means fewer ride-stopping punctures but tire pressure can be run low to increase traction and smooth riding.
The range of tire widths for gravel bikes spans 35 to 40mm. The wider the tires, the easier it will be to ride off-road sections. The thinner the tire, the faster you’ll cover the flatter surfaces.
Bikes focused on more technical off-roading are sometimes shipped with 650B wheel size. The frame is compatible with larger diameter sizes, so swapping out as needed is a quick job.
Gravel bikes have a wide range of gears on a one-by system that allows for riding at speed on flat and slightly inclined terrain without spinning out. The speed will never reach road bike speeds but will be faster than a mountain bike can get.
Most gravel bikes run disc brakes. They are effective in all weather conditions and respond fast when needed.
Mounting points and racks:
A mountain bike would have one or two positions to mount water bottle cages, a gravel bike up to four positions for cages, racks, and panniers.
Mountain Bikes Vs. Gravel Bikes ( Comparison )
These are two of the most popular bicycle types. While both have a rugged look, the ride over different terrain is significantly different.
|Mountain bike||Gravel bike|
|Frame weight||Heavier than a gravel bike due to the components and robust frame||Lighter than a mountain bike|
|Frame geometry & handlebar||1. The upright riding position is more comfortable and helps take the weight off the front wheel to clear obstacles easier. |
2. Due to a straight handlebar, the position can become tiring when riding long stretches.
|1. A ‘stretched-out frame geometry with slacker head tube angles for superior high-speed and stability on looser surfaces,|
2. The drop handlebar facilitates an aerodynamic profile that significantly reduces drag on a faster ride. Three different hand positions on the handlebar reduce fatigue on the long stretches.
|Gearing||Good all-around capable gearing ratios, including climbing and technical terrain, but spins out on gravel at speed.||Two terrain-specific options: |
1. Geared for speed. Fast when riding up to midlevel technical terrain – challenging to climb up steep ascents.
2. Geared for climbing steep loose tracks but may also end up losing top-end gears for speed and spin out on faster sections.
|Suspension||Great shock absorption for when road surface becomes rutted, has a lot of roots or rocks.||Can be a hard ride over more uneven terrain, even with front suspension and low tire pressure|
|Tires||Wide, heavily ridged tires have better grip esp. in adverse weather conditions and rougher terrain but have a higher rolling resistance on light gravel.||Lightly treaded profile optimal for gravel roads. Tires types can be swapped out for different riding conditions.|
|Notes||Versatile – can go from tarmac to rugged single track without hassle.||It prefers any road/trail with a relatively good to the slightly rough road surface – not rugged singletrack. Recommended for bike packing and similar long-range activities.|
Can Mountain Bikes Be Modified To Suit Gravel Riding And Vice Versa?
If one were given the choice of only having a single bike, which must be as multipurpose as possible, i.e., ride both road and off-road. What would you choose?
A scenario for modification could look like this:
The most suitable bike might well be a hardtail 29er. A dual sus will add weight, and cost, for something that would be over-specked for gravel riding but not a necessity for off-roading.
- Add a 2x drivetrain for a greater gear selection covering speed and hill-climbing requirements to a reasonable extent.
- Swap the tires out for something narrower with less tread for less rolling resistance.
- Using a narrower handlebar will let you achieve a more aerodynamic position and last, but not least, installing bar ends will add options for hand position to limit fatigue.
Converting a rigid gravel bike, even one with 30mm suspension, into a mountain bike may be very difficult as the bike’s geometry, although borrowing from mountain-bike geometry, is based more on that of a road bike.
The rider’s weight is positioned to be on top of the front wheel, promoting pedaling efficiency. Mountain bike geometry places the rider more upright and behind the handlebar. This position allows the front wheel to be lifted over obstacles with a slight shift of weight, which would be challenging with a gravel bike.
A serious discussion with a good bike fit professional may be needed to ascertain if indeed the gravel bike to mountain bike adjustments would be advisable.
Pros and Cons Of Generally Used Frame Materials – Overview
Mountain and gravel bike frame materials can vary; between makes of bikes of a certain manufacturer and between models. Four options are available:
The most widespread bike frame material is aluminum. Not only is it corrosion resistant, reasonably light, with a high strength to weight ratio, it’s also budget-friendly.
A tradeoff is a level of stiffness not ideal for bikes ridden on harsh dirt roads and long distances where comfort is a factor.
2. Carbon Fiber:
Carbon Fiber is the often used material for higher-end mountain and gravel bikes. Its primary feature is that, at a specific stiffness, it weighs the least of the four materials. Better at absorbing road buzz and vibrations, it’s a more comfortable ride.
Manufacturers can shape carbon fiber into designs not possible with other materials. It’s possible to ‘reinforce’ high-stress areas with additional fibers.
This design flexibility comes with the tradeoff: when fractured, it becomes fragile and unsuitable for riding. Plus, it comes at a high cost (which has been coming down over time).
Steel frames are heavy, costly to produce, and are prone to corrosion, therefore not popular for high-end or racing bikes. They are durable, resistant to fatigue, and can be easily repaired.
Some riding disciplines do make use of steel frames, e.g., criterium bikes. Custom bike builders also value it.
Titanium is just about indestructible with near insignificant wear and tear or corrosion.
The material is suited for bike builds as it’s light and extremely strong. It has an inherent bump-absorption quality which makes for a smoother ride.
The tradeoff with titanium is that it is an expensive material, the skill needed to work it into a bike is expensive, and repairs can be challenging.
When choosing a frame material, depending on budget and use, an option could be found for most requirements. Each material comes with pros and cons. Consider that there is no perfect frame material. Each type does something very well but has some tradeoffs.
Going into a fair bit of detail about mountain biking and gravel riding, it’s clear that there is a whole lot they are good at and not so good at. Deciding which is the better bike is totally up to every individual and their riding style.
If you want a bike where you can take jumps, hairpin turns, and quickly go through the rugged forest, a mountain bike is entirely up to the challenge. A gravel bike not. However, if riding conditions are less extreme, long stretches of mid-level technical terrain are involved, which can be navigated at quite a speed, a gravel bike may be up to the challenge -more than a mountain bike.
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I started mountain biking many years ago to improve my overall health state. After my first ride, I fell in love with the sport. Now I spend dozens of hours a week researching and training to compete in local XC and Enduro events.