It’s the question that never goes away: “What kind of bike should I buy?”

The answer is always: buy a gravel bike.

Why gravel bikes are the answer

I’m not saying that everyone needs a gravel bike. It’s one of those “if you have to ask” situations. If you have to ask, get a gravel bike.

See, the people having a tough time trying to figure out what type of bike to buy are usually looking for a bike that can do everything. They want to go fast on the road, but they also want to ride safely on dirt roads and crushed gravel trails. They want a more relaxed position than a racing bike, but they don’t want a beach cruiser.

They essentially want something that can do it all. And these days, there’s a bike for that. Yep, that’s right, a gravel bike.

I’m so happy I can recommend gravel bikes nowadays. It’s so much simpler than it was ten years ago.

To illustrate my point, here’s a conversation I had with a friend many years ago:

Picking out a bike, before gravel bikes existed

It began when my good friend Pat, a runner, was talking to me about training indoors. If you live in New England, you know what I’m talking about! This winter has been brutal! Anyway, to break up the monotony of running on a treadmill, Pat did some work on a spinning bike… and he liked it!

Now imagine how much fun Pat will have out on the open road or trails! But he doesn’t have a bike yet. That’s where I come in. Pat knows I’m pretty good with bikes, so he enlisted me to find the right bike for him.

Pat:

“…I was thinking about purchasing a bike and riding outside during the spring and summer. I have no idea where to begin however. Any advice? I’m looking for something that I can take on trails as well as the road. Is there any type of hybrid or do I specifically need a mountain bike for off-road riding? Is a road bike what I’m looking for? I don’t need some professional, high end model, but I do want to get a quality bike.”

So I decided to see what kind of hybrids were out there. I was leaning more toward a road bike than a mountain bike, figuring Pat will be on the road mostly. However, I wanted to make sure he could have fun off-road, too! I rode a century on my mountain bike before, and with semi-slick tires it wasn’t too bad, so I had all kinds of bikes in mind.

Then once I saw all the current models, the number of bikes on my list nearly doubled! It seems like “hybrid” has just as many models as “road” or “mountain.” I found bikes like the Trek X500, Trek 7500 FX, Gary Fisher 29ers, and many more cool bikes and oddities.

Hmm…. Time to talk to Pat.

Levi:

1. Do you see yourself riding on the road most of the time? (And possibly doing some long rides some day, maybe charity events like the MS 150 or Pan Mass Challenge?; Or maybe riding somewhere, camping overnight, and then riding back – or just anything that would require hauling extra gear?)

2. Is your off-roading going to be mostly bike paths and fire roads (hard packed dirt, crushed gravel, a few rocks and roots) or technical singletrack (possible loose soil and mud, lots of rocks and roots, etc.?)

(Technical singletrack could also be termed “rough, bumpy trails where you will ride fairly slow and it is likely that you’ll fall over because there are so many obstacles.”)

3. Do you like an upright riding position (like a mountain bike) or a fairly stretched out position (like a road bike)?

The upright position is better for navigating obstacles, but the stretched out position is more comfortable on longer rides (and triathlons if you decide to go that route).

4. Would you prefer a decent bike around $300-500 or more like $700-800?

Pat:

(1) Yes, I plan on riding on the road most of the time. Also, I can definitely see myself doing some long rides, like a charity event.

(2) My off-roading will mostly be bike paths and fire roads.

(3) I don’t really have much of a preference between a fairly upright position or an outstretched position.

(4) As for price, I’m willing to pay up to about $1,000. I want something that is pretty durable and can last several years. However, I don’t think I really need some really fancy model with all the gadgets and gizmos.

So back to the bikes. As cool as some of these bikes are, I put myself in Pat’s situation. For one thing, he’s a racer, so he’ll want to go fast whether he’s running or riding. A regular road bike would be fastest, but not quite sturdy enough for off-road use. But a mountain bike or even a flat-bar road bike just didn’t seem right…

Cyclocross to the rescue! If I could only have one bike, it would be a cyclocross bike for sure. Basically, a heavy-duty road bike that can handle some off-road jaunts. Much faster on the road than a mountain bike, maybe even a little more comfortable than a road racing bike if you’re doing long rides.

Fortunately, Pat was willing to spend $1000 or so, which was good because cyclocross bikes have a pretty narrow price range. You won’t find an entry-level cyclocross bike. Not many options, however, I found the Kona Jake for about $750. I knew that would be for sale around Massachusetts.

Now it’s up to Pat to buy the bike… and ride it!

How that would have went today

Pat: “I was thinking about purchasing a bike and riding outside but I have no idea where to begin. Any advice? I’m looking for something that I can take on trails as well as the road. Is there any type of hybrid or do I specifically need a mountain bike for off-road riding? Is a road bike what I’m looking for? I don’t need some professional, high end model, but I do want to get a quality bike.”

Levi: “Get a gravel bike. It will be fast on the pavement, plenty capable on dirt roads, comfortable for long days in the saddle, and lots of fun. There are plenty to choose from so you can certainly find one in your size and within your budget.”

 

This article was originally published on March 22, 2005 recommending a cyclocross bike. It was updated and republished August 1, 2020.

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