Gravel Bike vs Mountain Bike – Best For Off Road Riding?

The N+1 principle means I’m always looking out for another bike…you too?

Earlier this year I couldn’t make my mind up between a gravel bike and a mountain bike and which one would be most suitable for me. Aren’t gravel bikes what mountain bikes used to be anyway?

Turns out there’s more to it than that…want to know what? 

I’ll tell you!

What Is A Gravel Bike?

If you were to cross a road bike with a mountain bike, a gravel bike is what you’d get. Consider the gravel bike to be the love child!

The concept of this increasingly popular type of bike is that it’s faster than a mountain bike and stronger than a road bike. Essentially taking the good points of both bikes.

Gravel bikes are good to go on tarmac, mud, and pretty much anything in between and that’s one of their appeals.

It may not surprise you that this concept came from America, where there are literally ‘000’s of miles of gravel tracks. These roads aren’t suitable for a road bike but they’re crying out to be explored on a gravel bike!

Interested in a gravel bike under $1,000?

Gravel Bike On Gravel Road

Pros Of A Gravel Bike

Accessories

In so many ways, a gravel bike works perfectly as a commuter bike and a bike for the weekend. 

Accessories can be added with ease – and I’d argue that they add to the look of a gravel bike! Pop on some mudguards and a saddlebag and you’re good to go for commuting and riding all year round. 

One serious advantage of gravel bikes is that the tires can be easily switched out so when you want/need larger/more grippy wheels, your bike is capable of accommodating that.

Two Bikes In One

In many ways owning a gravel bike is like owning two bikes but without the cost. 

Fancy spending some time on the road? No problem, just put some road tires on the bike and unlike a mountain bike, it’ll be capable of keeping up with a road bike. This not only saves you money, but it can also save you storage space. A big win!

Nowhere Is Off Limits

Perhaps a slight exaggeration on my part…but you get my point. A gravel bike can go where road bikes can’t and they can handle rough terrain, as well as a mountain bike does. 

Don’t believe me? Check out this video from GMBN!

Take It Easy

A gravel bike encourages you to just enjoy the ride without the anxiety of worrying about damage or punctures on your expensive (but quite fragile) road bike.

Many mountain bikes have dropper posts or full suspension. Whilst there are a growing number of gravel bikes that are being sold with dropper posts and front suspensions, it isn’t the majority. 

Because most gravel bikes don’t have these ‘extras’, it will make you slow down on the trails and generally take things more gently. Why is that good? More skill is required by you to navigate the trails, making you a better rider overall!

Simplicity

I’ll be the first to admit that I like a gadget or two every now and then but occasionally it’s nice to dial things down, don’t you think?

Gravel bikes give you the perfect excuse to do that. The number of components are generally fewer than on a mountain bike, meaning there is less to go wrong. This means you can just get on and enjoy the ride! It’s the simple things in life, after all!

Gravel Bike Rider Taking a Break

Cons Of A Gravel Bike

It’s not all a bed of roses with gravel bikes and I’d be kidding if I was trying to tell you there are no cons to one. So let’s look at what they could be.

Slower

When it comes to seriously technical trails, a mountain bike is going to be quicker. It’s designed to thrive in that sort of setting. 

Sure on the flatter terrain, a gravel bike will win but the narrower tires can’t get the traction and the lack of suspension means you can’t take the humps and bumps at the same speed as you can on a, say, a hardtail mountain bike. 

Cost

At the moment, gravel bikes definitely come at a bit of a price premium. They’re in demand and the new kid on the block.

I think over time this will balance out but currently, this is the way the market is.

Neither Fish Nor Fowl?

Gravel bikes take some of the features of both the road and mountain biking worlds. 

Yet, they don’t really excel. Gravel bikes are slower than road bikes and they can’t do everything off-road a mountain bike can. Although they have tremendous appeal! 

Is a gravel bike the only bike you need? Find out here:

What Is A Mountain Bike?

Mountain bikes are rugged and durable, they’re made for tricky technical dirt trails and can take lots of abuse.

The handlebars on mountain bikes tend to be wide and flat, this gives you a great amount of control. Tires are wider than a gravel bike too, usually around 2 inches wide or more and they come with knobbly treads to increase traction. 

When buying a mountain bike, you get a great range of drivetrains, given the fact that you’re likely to be dealing with some steep climbing and descents, this is very welcome! 

There are generally 3 wheel sizes but the reality is, it’s more like 2; 29” and 27.5”. 26” is still around and works well for a dedicated downhill mountain bike but you don’t see many around these days. 

For female mountain bikers, you can get women-specific mountain bikes. The frames have a lower top tube and the saddles are usually different. In addition to this, the handlebars tend to be narrower and you get a shorter crank arm. A female-specific MTB is likely to have 27.5” wheels rather than 29” wheels.

Fancy a new hardtail mountain bike?

Mountain Biker Jumping

Pros Of Mountain Bikes

Climb Any Hill

If you’re a fan of KOM’ing off-road (‘Hills for thrills’ right?!), then a mountain bike is going to be the best climbing machine you could ask for. 

A mountain bike usually comes with lower gears allowing you to dig deep and get up hills. I don’t want to say more easily but you can usually take on steeper climbs than if you were on a gravel bike.

Comfortable Ride & Less Fatigue

The majority of mountain bikes come with a front suspension or a full suspension. When you’re off the beaten track, this can make your ride way more comfortable. 

It also means that you can be less fatigued too. Ever found yourself gripping onto the bars trying to brace the bumps but also keep the bike under control…? I know I have! It gets tiring after a while and you also feel it in your neck and arms. 

An MTB can help to take that away by having suspension and provides the ability to run your tires at lower pressures.

More Robust

MTBs and their frames are made to be used on much more technical terrains and treated more harshly (I’m not advocating this by the way) therefore they are built to last and able to cope with this style of riding.

Cons Of Mountain Bikes

Weighty

Due to their hefty frames and generally more components, MTBs will usually weigh more than gravel bikes. 

Hard Work On The Road

Thicker tires and low pressure means that when you do venture on the road, it can be pretty hard work and take it out of you…yes, I am speaking from experience!

Black And Red MTB leaning on fence

Gravel Bike vs Mountain Bike – What Are The Differences?

Riding Terrain

Where you like to ride is going to be your biggest factor in choosing what type of bike you want.

A gravel bike is going to thrive on dirt roads and gravel tracks, throw in a few paved roads and you’re in complete gravel bike territory! 

Although if you want to truly go off-road and explore rocky tracks, up really steep climbs, then a mountain bike will perform better

Even though a mountain bike doesn’t perform as efficiently on a road due to its larger tires, suspension, and their increased weight, they’re still very much capable so a stretch of ‘normal’ road for an MTB isn’t always a bad thing.

A mountain bike will allow you to go places no other bike can, so if that’s the type of 2-wheel adventure you want, then I’d recommend exploring the world of MTBs!

Gears

This is going to be a sweeping statement so stay with me! Gravel bikes have “harder” gearing – this means that riders can achieve greater speeds as they’re able to keep pedaling where mountain bikers may not be able to. In contrast, mountain bikes have “easier” gearing, this works especially well on more technical extreme stuff. 

Modern cassettes actually mean that both gravel and mountain bikes have a wide range of gears. The gear combinations will be different as ultimately, they are designed for different purposes. 

A gravel bike will be geared so that you don’t spin out or quickly run out of gears when you want to travel at higher speeds. Mountain bikes have lower gearing as climbing up those uber- steep hills is something that they’re designed to do. 

When you’re deciding between gravel or a mountain bike, it comes down to how you expect to ride. At higher speeds or up steep tricky climbs? Gravel bike for the high speeds, MTB for the climbing!

Suspension

Suspension is there to take the edge off the bumps and give you a bit of comfort when you’re off-road (and sometimes on the road if the surface is poor).

Most mountain bikes come with a front suspension fork as a minimum. On the other side of the coin, most gravel bikes are a rigid design, with no suspension – this obviously alters the ride!

The immediate downside to having a suspension system is the increase in weight and you lose some efficiency. Did you know that MTB suspension forks can add 2-3 lbs of extra weight when compared to a rigid fork?

You also lose efficiency from pedaling too as some of that energy is lost to the bobbing (‘vertical motion’ for the technically minded amongst us 😅) of the suspension.  

Of course, many suspension systems do now come with the option to lock them out and this helps to maximize the efficiency when you need to.

All black MTB with rider

Comfort

Comfort is a personal thing and you can usually get comfortable on any bike that fits you with some adjustments. 

A gravel bike ought to give you a comfortable, flexible riding position. Having said that, a mountain bike sits you in a more upright position so you could find that even more comfortable, depending on your preferences! 

A lot of comfort comes from tires. If you’re mainly riding on gravel roads, then you should find that a gravel bike will be comfortable enough. 

If you anticipate spending a lot of time on rough gravel or challenging terrain, then larger tires that are found on mountain bikes could be the answer to get a more comfortable ride! 

Other Key Differences

If you were asked to pick a visual difference between the two types of bikes, handlebars may be an obvious option. 

Gravel bikes have drop handlebars and mountain bikes have flat bars. Ok, this isn’t a hard and fast rule as there have been some crossovers but it’s most likely going to be this setup.

Drop handlebars are used on gravel bikes because they are intended to be ridden at higher speeds on less challenging roads over longer periods of time. This setup allows you to remain comfortable and get your hands into different positions, which is important for long rides as it reduces fatigue.

Being a fan of all things aero, drop bars also mean you can achieve a more aerodynamic position too – ideal for when you want to put the hammer down!

Whereas a mountain bike will get more control on off-road terrain with flat bars. They’re wider and give you that stability. All of this means that when you’re on technical trails, you will find it easy to maneuver.

When using flat bars, you end up in a more upright position than when using drop handlebars. It means you can get a better view of the track or trail ahead of you!

Gravel Road Terrain

Frequently Asked Questions

Can a gravel bike be used as a mountain bike?

Yes and no…a gravel bike can go most places a mountain bike can go but there are some limitations.

Gravel bikes rarely come with suspensions so seriously rough terrain is likely to be more difficult and uncomfortable unless you are an experienced and skilled rider. You also won’t have the same amount of traction from the tires as on a gravel bike, they are narrower compared to a MTB. 

Are gravel bikes more upright?

No! 

Gravel bikes are less upright than mountain bikes, allowing you to get into a more aerodynamic position and achieve higher speeds. 

Is it harder to ride a mountain bike on the road?

Yes!

Mountain bikes have thicker tires and this increases their rolling resistance so they require more effort when pedaling on the road. Due to the fact, MTBs need to be more durable to handle jumps and rougher terrain, they are usually heavier too so this increases the effort needed from you.

Hi, I'm Harry, the owner of this site! A 30-something MAMIL - a middle-aged man in lycra. An avid cyclist who is looking to maintain a baseline level of fitness to be able to enjoy the great outdoors on weekend rides with his mates!

Leave a Comment