Road bike with gravel tyres vs gravel bike: what's the difference?

With most modern road bikes able to accept over 30mm tyres, are you better off sticking with a road bike?

Clock09:00, Wednesday 6th December 2023

We love gravel bikes, but with most modern road bikes now coming with room for tyres of 30mm or more, do you really need one? In this guide we’ll go through the differences between a gravel bike and a road bike with gravel tyres fitted.

We'll look at the differences in geometry, gearing, durability and more, so you can decide which setup is best for you: a gravel bike, or a road bike with gravel tyres.

Geometry

Road bikes and gravel bikes put the rider in fairly similar riding positions, and on some gravel bikes, it’s possible to precisely replicate your road bike’s position. Generally though, road bike frames are a little longer, and the front end is a little lower. Additionally, road bikes tend to have narrower handlebars. All together, these factors means that in most cases, your body position will be less aerodynamic on a gravel bike.

Having said that, if you do a lot of riding off road, control and stability will be more important than aerodynamics. The more upright position on a gravel bike, as well as the wider bars, will give you a lot more control on technical terrain. Plus, over the course of a long gravel ride, it’ll be more comfortable.

Geometry isn’t just about rider position. It influences the handling of the bike too. Generally, gravel bikes will have longer wheelbases, more relaxed head tube and seat tube angles, and more ‘rake’ on the fork. Off-road, that means the bike will be stable and confidence-inspiring.

Road bikes, meanwhile, are designed to be nimble and twitchy. To achieve it, road bikes have short wheelbases and steep head angles and seat angles. It means that on tarmac, they’re agile and responsive. On technical terrain however, it makes them unstable and difficult to control.

Gearing

Gravel bikes are fitted with gravel-specific groupsets that are designed with a different set of requirements than road groupsets. It’s worth noting that you can fit gravel groupsets to a road bike and vice versa, but in most cases, road bikes use road groupsets, and gravel bikes use gravel groupsets. So what’s the difference?

In most cases, gravel bikes are fitted with 1x groupsets, which have just one chainring on the front, and use a large wide-range cassette on the back wheel. A 1x groupset is simpler, making it easier to operate on technical terrain, and there are fewer parts to break. Also, with a 1x groupset, the left shifter is freed up, allowing you to use it for a dropper post, a common choice on gravel bikes.

Road bikes tend to use 2x groupsets, which have two chainrings up front and use a close-range cassette at the back. A road 2x groupset usually offers a similar range of gearing to a 1x gravel groupset, but the gaps between each gear are smaller. If you want to pedal at exactly the right cadence for you, that’s great. However, that extra complexity leaves more to go wrong off-road.

But there’s more that sets apart gravel and road groupsets than just the number of chainrings. Gravel groupsets are designed to be tough and resilient, whereas road groupsets are designed to be lightweight. Secondly, gravel groupsets use a clutch on the derailleur, which holds the chain tight. It means that you don’t drop the chain on rough terrain, and you don’t have to hear that annoying sound of your chain slapping against your chainstay. Finally, gravel groupsets are designed to be used at lower speeds, so they’ll feature lower ratio gears so you can keep pedalling on steep climbs. The downside is that you might find you run out of gears when riding fast on the tarmac.

Durability

Gravel bikes are designed for hard usage. Clattering over rocks and roots puts a lot of stress through the frame, but gravel bikes are designed with this kind of thing in mind. Gravel bike frames are usually a few hundred grams heavier than an equivalent spec road bike for exactly that reason: they have more material in them, meaning they’re stronger.

That’s not to say that road bikes must be treated like eggshells, but the fact is that road bike frames are designed to be stiff and light, not necessarily strong.

Mud clearance

Maxing out the tyre clearance capacity of a road bike is absolutely fine if you’re riding in dry conditions, but if the ground is wet and muddy, you might run into problems. Gravel bikes are designed to have extra mud clearance – with room for the mud that inevitably clings to the tyre. Road bikes don’t have this luxury, and mud that sticks to the tyre can quickly block up the frame and fork, rubbing away at your paint and seriously slowing you down.

So which should you choose?

With all that in mind, should you simply buy some knobbly tyres for your road bike, or go all out and get another bike, a gravel bike? Ultimately, it all comes down to what kind of terrain you ride. If you’re a road rider who sometimes strays onto the ‘lighter’ end of the gravel spectrum, a road bike with gravel tyres is a good option. If you want to spend most of your time off road, then we’d suggest a gravel bike. It will serve you well on the road, although it might be a little less aerodynamic.

Related Content

Link to Van Rysel to launch new endurance and gravel bikes, TT bike on sale soon
Van Rysel are based in Lille, Belgium. The name translates to 'from Lille' in the local dialect

Van Rysel to launch new endurance and gravel bikes, TT bike on sale soon

Decathlon’s in-house brand has eight bikes to deliver between this year and next, with XCR time trial bike priced under £6,000

Clock
Link to Radical new saddle from ataraxyBSC rotates forwards as you pedal
The vabsRider is designed to remove pressure from the sit bones by rotating forwards as a rider pedals

Radical new saddle from ataraxyBSC rotates forwards as you pedal

Each side of the saddle sits on a separate axis that moves in motion with the pedal stroke to relieve pressure on the sit bones

Clock
Link to Brompton unveils 'world's first' 100% recycled aluminium wheel rims
The new rims will feature on a special-edition bike created for the Brompton World Championships

Brompton unveils 'world's first' 100% recycled aluminium wheel rims

The rims have been created in partnership with Norsk Hydro and will debut on a special-edition Brompton World Championships bike

Clock
Link to Specialized releases new Crux DSW, a sub-10kg alloy gravel bike
The Crux DSW shares a great deal of similarities with its carbon fibre relative

Specialized releases new Crux DSW, a sub-10kg alloy gravel bike

Smartweld technology claims to make this the lightest alloy gravel bike available

Clock
Subscribe to the GCN Newsletter

Get the latest, most entertaining and best informed news, reviews, challenges, insights, analysis, competitions and offers - straight to your inbox