I know what you mean. It’s hard to know whether to bring a road bike or a mountain bike on some rides.
In one of the big annual events in town here, you have to inch up a dirt road that seems to reach up to the sky, gaining 1,000 feet of elevation in less than a mile. When I brought my mountain bike, I used the lowest gear and thumbed my noses at the breathless road bikers who had to tack from side to side just to make any headway. The mountain bike also handled potholes and washboard on the way down. But then, over the rest of the 60-mile trek, I noticed road bikers getting the last laugh: their smaller tires and better posture made the flats a lot faster and easier.
It turns out, bike makers are now developing rigs that excel on dusty, unimproved roads. “Up until last year, we were modifying cyclo-cross bikes for dirt roads. You put on a mountain bike cassette for supergearing up the hills and a small chainring up front,” says David Robb, manager of the West Hill Shop in Putney, Vermont. “But now brands are pushing a bike specific to dirt road adventure riding.” Some brands, like Salsa, are leading the charge, while others, like Giant, are just testing the waters.
The bikes are usually called “gravel” models, but they cover a wide range of surfaces where no gravel is seen—networks of overgrown fire roads for camping adventures, Sunday rides over hard-packed country roads, and competitive races over backroads and rutted pavement. They are often built with a frame shaped for a more comfortable ride on the long haul. Another key feature is disc brakes, which are usually only found on mountain bikes. “Discs have four times the stopping power as cantilever brakes. When you’re doing 40 on a gravel road, it gets so sketchy, you’ll definitely want them,” says Robb.
When picking out a gravel bike, decide whether you want it for racing, adventure, or commuting through mud. Racing models are stripped down and designed for speed over comfort. Adventure frames offer a gazillion braze-ons for lugging gear and supplies. A gravel bike pitched toward commuters favors a comfortable frame over maneuverability on trails. Over the next few pages, we pick the best of each flavor for 2013.