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Cycling for RVers: What bike should I buy? Part 3, Gravel bikes

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This is the third in a series of articles on buying bicycles, and which ones are best suited for RVers. Part 1 focused on road bikes, and Part 2 looked at mountain bikes. This week, we look at a very interesting, and growing, segment of the bicycle market: gravel bikes.

Gravel bikes are a new-ish category of bikes. They’ve been on the scene for about a decade, but in the last four or five years, they’ve become extremely popular. They’re essentially a combination of mountain bikes and road bikes, taking features from both and offering a unique experience.

These bikes are meant primarily for riding off-road: on gravel, through fields, and even some light mountain bike-level paths. They will work pretty well on paved roads, too, but that’s not their natural habitat. They’re most at home on the rough stuff, but not stuff that’s too rough.

Gravel bike characteristics

  • Drop bars. They have traditional road bike-style drop (i.e., curly) handlebars. This differentiates them from the flat handlebar style of mountain bikes. These bars provide a lower, more hunched-over position for riding, but typically not as low as a road bike. This means in real-world usage that you get most of the speed of a road bike, but aren’t folded over as much (with the accompanying discomfort).
  • Wide tires with varying levels of knobiness. This is a primary differentiator from road bikes. Gravel bike tires usually sit in the middle width between skinny road tires and fat mountain bike tires. They have protrusions that smooth road tires don’t have, but aren’t as studded as mountain bike tires. This helps them roll over gravel, small- and medium-sized rocks, small branches, grass, etc. It also makes them slower, by a good bit, on pavement.
  • More “relaxed” geometry. In layman’s terms, this means that a gravel bike is more stretched out, i.e., longer from front to back, than a road bike. But it’s not as long as a mountain bike. This makes gravel bikes more stable and predictable than road bikes, but still less stable than mountain bikes. See the trend here? It’s a blend of two different types of bikes, but doesn’t go as far in either direction.

Lately, gravel bikes have been adopting more mountain bike technology, like seatpost droppers and (limited) suspension, usually on the front wheel. (You can read about those in the mountain bike column.) This has caused some to wonder if they’re more mountain bike than road bike. I’d say the trend is in that direction, but they’re still 100 percent better on roads than a mountain bike.

Gravel bikes are made chiefly of steel and carbon fiber, although there are a number of titanium models out there (including my own). They usually have hardier components, to take the beating that gravel and other off-road surfaces dish out (components are things like the shifters, brakes, cassette, chainrings, derailleur, etc.) Note also that there are plenty of ebike versions of gravel bikes.

Should you buy a gravel bike for your RV travels?

This is a tougher call than the previous two types. Gravel bikes offer better speed and the ability to handle off-road riding of the type that most RVers will want to do. If you’re more of an adventurist who wants to do long rides in the wild, but the terrain won’t be too harsh, then a gravel bike is your best bet.

For the majority, though, a gravel bike still misses the mark—only by a bit, however. It does more than you’ll need your bike to do, and will generally cost more than you want to pay. The hunched-over riding style will put many off, as well, as will the curly drop handlebars.

Next week we get to the type of bike that I recommend for most RVers. Happy riding!

Keith Ward, a veteran journalist, writes about cycling, health, and the intersection of the two at thediabeticcyclist.substack.com. His newsletter is all about helping you improve your life through improved diet and exercise.

##RVT1079

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Glenn a
14 days ago

I’m a little late to the party, but with the number of recumbent trikes I’ve seen in campgrounds lately, perhaps recumbent bikes and trike should be considered.

Bob Forgrave
18 days ago

Good series, Keith. I agree that the full-size bike secondary transportation needs of RVers are distinctive enough to warrant their own review. Thanks for looking into that.

I do wonder, however, if a key element isn’t being missed. If you carry a bike—of any style–on the outside of an RV for long enough, it will get wet, road-gritty, rusted, and maybe even stolen. But put it inside, it gets in the way of EVERYTHING. Full-size bikes are that huge.

Ultimately… RVers have a built-in need for a full-size folding bike, that is big when you need to run errands and have adventures, and small when you need to secure it in a cubbyhole. This is not wishful thinking; Here’s an example from some overlanders on YouTube. 

Is this something worth investigating on rvtravel.com? There’s a folding gravel bike too, although it looks like you may be steering away from gravel bikes.