Are gravel bikes good for commuting?


Gravel bikes, also known as adventure road bikes, have become very popular in recent years. More and more manufacturers offer them nowadays as part of their portfolio. They are a very popular choice among cyclists and they are available for a reasonable amount of money. If you’re in the market for a new commuter bike they are a very interesting option indeed.

Are gravel bikes good for commuting?

The versatility of gravel bikes makes them excellent for commuting. They are comfortable on long, hilly rides, even on rough terrains. They combine the speed of road bikes with the ruggedness of MTBs and the comfort of hybrid bikes. They have a wide range of gears, drop handlebars and disc brakes.

Advantages of a gravel bike as a commuter

  • Comfortable geometry
  • Wide tires absorb bumps and are less likely to have to pinch flats (can be used with inner tubes or tubeless)
  • Mounting points for fenders and rack (in case you prefer an easily removable rack for your panniers, read this)
  • Wide gear range makes it easy to ride uphills and fast on flat roads (read this to learn how to shift properly)
  • Drop bars offer several hand positions and are easy on the hands (read this if you’re undecided about handlebars or this if you’re trying to decide between drop and flat handlebars)

What is a gravel bike?

A gravel bike is a bike that combines the advantages of a road bike (fast), off-road bike (capable on gravel and muddy roads) and a touring bike (capable of carrying lots of weight on the racks mounted on it). In geometry, it resembles a road bike, but its parts are slightly modified and optimized so it can handle rough terrain and it can carry bags.

Do gravel bikes have a suspension?

Most gravel bikes come with a rigid fork, although some high-end avant-guard gravel bikes have a suspension. Two such examples are Lauf, a manufacturer located in Iceland, who manufacture their bikes with an odd-looking front suspension, and the Niner MCR comes with full-suspension. 

What kind of commutes are gravel bikes best for?

Gravel bikes are best for medium to long-distance urban commutes, and they are very good for those who need to ride on gravel or off-road sections. Their wheels can be up to 50 mm wide, which efficiently absorb shocks coming from road imperfections, crossing tram or train tracks, etc. Wider tires are also known to be less susceptible to pinch flats.

They’re good for commuting all year round.  They have mounting points for fenders as well as rear racks. They are quite fast and nimble just like road bikes, and they don’t weigh too much more. If you need to carry your stuff to work, but you don’t want to carry a backpack, you can mount a rear rack on a gravel bike and you can use it with panniers. 

How much do gravel bikes weigh?

Gravel bikes usually weigh 20 – 26 lbs (9 – 12 kg). Because they are more robust than road bikes they are slightly heavier too. The additional weight comes mostly from wider and heavier tires. Despite the extra weight, the speed of the bike is on par with road bikes as far as cycling to work is concerned. You may lose a couple of seconds, but it’s barely noticeable.

Is a gravel bike good for a big rider?

Yes, it is. Gravel bikes can take a lot of beating and they can be used by heavy riders. Some have published weight limits, while others don’t. The weight limit on all of them is 285 lbs (130kg) or above.

How fast are gravel bikes?

It’s hard to predict how fast you will be on your gravel bike, because it depends on so many variables, such as your weight, fitness level, terrain, load just to name a few. However, it’s fair to say that all things being equal, gravel bikes are among the fastest bikes after road bikes, because they allow you to get into an aerodynamically favorable position with ease. A fit rider can easily reach and maintain 17-22 mph (27-35 km/h) speed on a flat surface without a headwind. 

How to make a gravel bike ready to cycle to work?

If you want to bike commute on a newly purchased gravel bike, you need to factor in some extra costs on top of the bike itself, which is sold bare-bones most of the time. Here are some essentials you will need:

Pedals

Most gravel bikes come without pedals so you can mount those that are most fitting your ride. For a commuter, the two best options are platform pedals or dual function pedals that allow you to ride with regular shoes or with clipless MTB shoes.

Fenders 

Fenders are essential if you plan to bike commute year-round. They keep the water from splashing on your rear side or on your belly. They also keep some of the water away from your panniers. The nastiest water isn’t that falling from the sky, but that splashing up from the ground. 

Lights

You will definitely need a good set of lights that indicate your presence to other road users and also allow you to see on dark road segments on short winter days. After having purchased several different lights I have found the Cateye Volt 800 to be the perfect balance of price, weight, light quality, battery life. For rear lights, I recommend the Cateye Rapid X2.

If you think it’s too dangerous to ride the bike at night, you may want to read this other article I wrote.

Bike rack

You will need a reliable bike rack to mount your panniers on if you want to avoid the discomfort of back sweat. I recommend having a rear-mounted rack as opposed to a front rack, just because of how a front rack changes the steering. Gravel bikes have mounting holes for racks, so you can put it on permanently. You can also use racks with a quick release, which offers the benefit of converting your bike into a weekend spinner. Quick-release racks can still take a lot of weight and are very sturdy (I wrote about them here). 

Pump

A bike pump will be necessary to keep the tires running at the correct pressure. I recommend at least a foot pump with a gauge so you can check it regularly. The tire pressure depends on the tire size, rider weight, and preference and road type, but gravel bikes usually run at pressures of 30-40 psi (2.1 – 2.8 bar). 

Panniers

A good waterproof pannier is a trusty companion of a bike commuter, especially if he needs to carry a laptop or other things that shouldn’t get wet. When it comes to waterproof bags, there are many options, but the gold standard are always the Ortlieb bags. They are neither the cheapest nor the prettiest, but they always come out as the most durable and reliable option.

What size gravel bike do I need?

Gravel bikes resemble road bikes a great deal, and their sizing is similar also. You can follow a sizing chart for road bikes, such as the one included below, and find out which is the size that you need. 

Gravel bike size chart

Rider height in inchesRider height in cmBike frame size in cmBike size
4’10” – 5’2”147 – 15747 – 48 cmXXS
5’2” – 5’6”157 – 16749 – 50 cmXS
5’3” – 5’6”160 – 16851 – 53 cmS
5’6” – 5’9”167 – 17554 – 55 cmM
5’9” – 6’0”175 – 18256 – 58 cmL
6’0” – 6’3”182 – 19058 – 60 cmXL
6’3” – 6’6”190 – 19861 – 63 cmXXL

When buying a new bike (this goes for every bike, especially if it’s your first bike purchase ever) it is best to try it out personally at a local bike shop before making the purchase. Trying it out will give you the confidence that you’re getting a bike that you really like and that fits you perfectly.

How much do gravel bikes cost?

Gravel bikes start at around 500 dollars and can cost up to 9000 dollars. The price is determined by the material and components used, as well as how prestigious the brand is. At the lower end of the spectrum, you will find aluminum frames and entry-level road bike components. I have done a research and saw that some gravel bikes sold on Amazon come with a Shimano Tourney drivetrain, and many people complained about their durability.

At the high end, you find carbon or titanium frames with Ultegra components with electronic shifting. 

For commuting purposes, I would advise to stay away from the 500-700 dollar gravel bikes and move up a little. You can find some solid gravel bike options in the 800-1200 dollars price range.

Shimano Tourney, Claris, Ultegra in simple terms

Shimano is the largest manufacturer of bike components. 

Claris, Sora, 105 are the models of components (cranks, derailleurs, cassettes, shifters etc). The difference between them is that as you move up, more thought and effort goes into research, selection of materials, manufacturing process, which results in lighter, more durable and precise products, which also come at a higher price-point. 

This is the progression of Shimano components used on gravel bikes: Tourney (lowest end, usually used on department store bikes. Tourney comes from the mountain biking world) – Claris – Sora – Tiagra – 105 – Ultegra – Ultegra Di2.

If you see higher-end components in a bike at a more affordable price, it usually means that you’re getting good value for money.

If you want to learn how much you should spend on a commuter bike, I recommend reading this article on Bike Commuter Hero.

Recommended gravel bikes for commuting under 1200 dollars

Mongoose Selous Sport Gravel Road Bike – 830 dollars. This bike has a sturdy double-butted aluminum frame with an alloy fork and decent wheels, and it comes equipped with more than just the entry-level components.

Gravel Riding Bike Triban RC 520 – 999 dollars. Decathlon bikes are usually among the best in terms of value for money ratio. For a thousand dollars the frame is of outstanding quality and it comes equipped with Shimano 105 components, which are very durable and reliable.

Giant Toughroad SLR GX – 1100 dollars. Giant’s entry-level gravel bike has an aluminum frame, carbon fork and disc brakes and it’s biggest advantage over its competitors is that it can accommodate up to 50 mm wide tires. It comes with Shimano Claris shifting.

Trek Checkpoint AL 3 – 1200 dollars. This is Trek’s entry-level gravel bike, but it is packed with features that make it a great commuter for any new and experienced rider. The shifting and drivetrain is the mid-range Shimano Sora, and it comes with mechanical disc brakes.

Salsa Journeyman Sora 700 – 1200 dollars. Salsa is a beautiful, classic-looking bike with a Shimano Sora drivetrain and mechanical disc brakes. It’s one of the nicer looking bikes in my opinion too.

Oh, and one more thing…

Is a gravel bike the same as a cyclocross bike?

Although both gravel bikes and cyclocross bikes resemble a road bike, and have off-road capabilities, they are not the same. Cyclocross bikes are built for short distance, tactical races with a lot of mud, where the emphasis is on agility as opposed to speed, while gravel bikes are built for longer distances at faster speeds in less tactical conditions.

A gravel bike suits a commuter’s needs better than a cyclocross bike, because it has a more ample gear range and a more comfortable geometry on longer rides.

See Clint Gibbs’s excellent comparison video of gravel and cyclocross bikes…

Conclusion

Gravel bikes, or adventure road bikes, can be excellent commuters offering their rider plenty of comfort. They are made to endure harsh conditions, which gives you the peace of mind that they will last for a long time.

Happy riding!

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