"Gravel bikes are just 90s MTBs"

Isn’t that the whole idea? I don’t get it when people say “gravel bikes are just 90s mountain bikes” in a disparaging context. Anyone tried to buy a decent second hand 90s MTB lately? They’re harder to find (at reasonable prices) than chains and cassettes!

Just listened to another great episode of Nerd Alert, but again there’s a lot of talk about how gravel bikes should all be like Cervelo Asperos. I think it’s great those bikes exist of course; but to me they are clearly ‘all road’ bikes and have little appeal to people who want one bike to do most things.

Maybe I’m just being a grumpy old-skool MTB rider that completely doesn’t ‘get it’, but nearly every ride I do tends to be about one third gravel, one third bitumen, and one third rough double / singletrack. To me (where I live in rural Australia) that’s just completely normal, and I’m hardly the Lone Ranger. More of ‘us’ riders than roadies in fact. I simply cannot afford multiple bikes. I also have zero interest in driving 45 minutes to be able to pull out a trail bike and go for an hour ride. That’s kinda against every reason I love cycling. I’ll ride to the park, do the B-lines instead, and be perfectly happy.

I wonder if we should categorise bikes as road / all road / adventure and MTB instead? If I am riding on smooth gravel roads then that’s a ‘road ride’ in my head. I could do that on a modern road bike with 32mm tires. An adventure bike to me would be drop or flat bar with tire clearance of between 45mm and 2.1" tires and used for nearly everything including commuting, gravel, road, real adventuring/exploring and bikepacking.

Anyway, I’m an old mountain biker and probably just being retro, but I love the ‘adventure’ of cycling. My ‘gravel’ bike is my first ever drop bar bike, and I really like it. I enjoy long road rides on it also even if I’m not fast enough to keep up with the roadies.

For those who seem to hate the bikes in the ‘adventure’ category… I get your POV, but not everyone can afford three bikes. Just seems ludicrous to me. The biggest barrier to cycling is absolutely cost of entry. Especially now. Let’s embrace the ‘adventure bike’ for what it is; it’s not just a fun, frivolous toy as the Nerd Alert crew seem to think it is. My 2c :slight_smile:


I think the people complaining that gravel bikes are just old mountain bikes are more annoyed by the marketing than anything. It sometimes comes across as something old being renamed to make it new again. Given how different modern mountain bikes and mountain biking are from the 90s, I think it makes sense to switch the name.

For me, “adventure bike” conjures up the image of something built for long backpacking trips rather than something ridden for your use case. I don’t have a better name though. :slight_smile:

But I’m with you that the type of bike you described opens up all sorts of riding options since you can handle anything from pavement to easy singletrack on the same ride. A gravel bike made much more sense for me when I started thinking in those terms. I don’t have many “traditional” smooth gravel roads, but there are easy mountain bike trails that are too far to ride a mountain bike to and lots of urban trails or short connections that make some interesting rides possible.


I think it’s that in the 90s, those MTBs with rigid frames and 45mm tires were the peak of the then-young science of off-road bicycle technology. In the quarter century since then, off-road bicycle tech has taken off so much, that it has actually left a gaping hole in the market where a rigid frame bike with 45mm tires used to be… so somebody “invented” rigid frame bikes with 45mm tires.


I go to Boulder a few times a year and every time I take a gravel bike. Most of my rides there are probably 40% path/road, 40% gravel, and 20% singletrack. All in one ride. I love those rides and would love to be able to ride them daily! I think 40mm+ gravel bikes were totally made for those conditions and I don’t understand why the CT team seem to always laugh at their expense and act like you’d be better off on a 40 year old flat bar aluminum rattle trap. They’re in gravel bike heaven!!

I admit this is my soapbox though, so maybe I’m in the minority. My pet peeve is roadies laughing at mtb’ers laughing at roadies laughing at gravel laughing at ebikes laughing at…I think we should all share the stoke and be thankful for all these amazing bikes and the people who love and ride them!


Thanks for all great comments and couldn’t agree more. I think I get a little (over?) sensitive when people validate a type of bike based on their personal experience only. Certainly over the last couple of years, CT staff have consistently been poking fun and deriding the gravel+ / adventure bike. Don’t get me wrong - I think the CT staff are excellent journalists and ambassadors for cycling, but sometimes they lose objectivity. I understand speaking from experience is a good starting point, but to be a great reviewer, you need to look beyond your own personal use case. The fact that some of these gravel bikes are 90s MTBs is an absolutely fantastic thing! I love all kinds of bikes, and am glad we have such diverse choice in 2022 (well not right at this moment but that’s another issue!) I certainly ain’t going to be doing a day’s ride over mixed terrain on a trail bike. Not my kind of fun.

I also don’t like that ‘road bikes’ are somehow serious bikes whilst gravel bikes are just ‘fun toys’. If you’re really honest, you could make the case for the exact opposite. Nothing against road bikes, but in terms of versatility, they’re pretty pointless unless you’re a racer. We still put so much emphasis on road as the pinnacle of all things cycling… to the detriment of cycling IMO. I absolutely love cycling and bikes in general, but I absolutely have zero interest in road racing, Tour de France etc. Each to their own, but watching road racing is watching paint dry for me. I guess I probably subscribe to the wrong website - lol :slight_smile: But I value the great articles (on the non-racing stuff) and like the community.

Didn’t two of them name gravel bikes as their favorite bikes of the year?

Disagree with that 100%.

Me too :slight_smile:

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Yeah the Crux and Asperos are great ‘all-road’ bikes. Agree.

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Highly depends on the use case; I think that approach comes from people who do “serious” training on a road bike and then the gravel bike is for “fun rides”. Gravel bikes are really versatile, perhaps more so then a road bike.

That said, I find a road bike to be really versatile and not at all pointless outside of being a racer. The same bike which is perfectly suited for racing - aero race bike, carbon wheels and 25mm race tires - can do really long road rides for fun, travelling by bike, I’ve commuted on it when my other bike was being serviced, ridden it through forest trails (gingerly, admittedly) with the kids because I was on holidays and could only bring one bike due to limited rack space, gotten lost on gravel (slow going, though), rode it in the snow… While it isn’t ideally suited for everything - you do have to ride it fairly gingerly offroad - a road bike is super versatile. If I could keep just one bike, I’d ditch the gravel and the TT bike and keep it.

It’s a matter of what the bike is optimized for and whether that aligns with what you do most. Just because it is built for eating up the miles on our (rather good) roads quickly, doesn’t mean you can’t do other stuff, but if riding on the road is overwhelmingly the majority of what you do, then you accept that the 1% offroad you will just take it easy and carefully, and 1% of tertiary roads in a sorry state you’ll unweigh the saddle a bit. From a “practicality” point of view, though, I have to go out of my way to ride to gravel or offroad. Everywhere I actually need to go for practical purposes is connected by road.

The allroad stuff makes sense for people who still mostly ride road, but are willing to trade some of that road performance for giving up much less offroad compared to a road race bike. They seem highly popular in places with deteriorating infrastructure. Less attractive on sunny, and (mostly) smooth southern European tarmac.

However if a quarter of what you ride is singletrack then, yeah, you want something which goes more in the way of a MTB with drop bars. I don’t think it’s as much more versatile or practical as it is more aligned with what you like to do.


I’m a roadie and do the majority of my riding on the roads, sometimes by myself or sometimes with others. It’s great fun but I suppose it does feel a little more restrained due to being on roads with traffic. I have been known to race and the road is where I’ll do my training if possible.

Gravel riding is what I do when I want to chill, it is definitely more ‘fun’. You’re not looking at your average speed or stuff, just enjoying the ride and messing around a bit by doing stuff such as more gentle MTB trails.

Also, road bikes are plenty versatile. Round here for a lot of the year the trails need a MTB as there’s too much mud so you’re forced to stick on the roads anyway so you may as well do it on a machine more optimised for them.

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As someone put it above, in a superficial way the wheel has kind of gone full circle - rigid frames with 40mm tyres - back to 90s mtbs. Of course, that comment doesn’t stand up to any kind of close technical scrutiny, and it’s usually used in a dismissive/‘look at this marketing BS’ kind of way.

Personally, I think gravel bikes are great. To get on my own soapbox, it should be no surprise that when you give people more relaxed geometry, wider tyres, and make the bike more versatile, they feel more comfortable and confident. Anything that gets more people riding and enjoying it is a win in my opinion. Hopefully in the fullness of time that will translate to less car use (and a less car-centric culture), less pollution, and better health.

Are gravel bikes less serious? Well, that depends who you ask. A national standard tt-er who has a gravel bike for occasional weekends away and the odd commute may say yes, but I doubt Ted King would give you the same answer.

And to answer the question that wasn’t asked, ebikes are excellent as well. :slight_smile:


Most bikes are capables of much more than what their primary intended use is.

I’ve used a road bike with vintage deep shamal wheels and 22mm tires tubulars on gravel roads. I took my cyclocross bike on marathon MTB race and single trails. I often use my fat bike in the streets, without a single pedal stroke down in the dirt, just because alongside my fs trail bike it is the bike I own with the most relaxed position and I don’t need a faster bike to ride with my kids and gf.

On all those rides my bike was perfectly capable. It may not have been the most efficient bike for the job but it didn’t explode either.

I recently ditched my road bike because I quit racing and it was too redundant with my gravel bike. That is the beauty of it. The gravel bike is perfect in nearly zero situation but it does the job decently in almost all lf them bar pure MTB bikepark/downhill. I guess in that sense the rigid MTBs of the 90’s were similar. This is the reason they were so popular accross many kind lf riders. That is not a bad thing.

Still, if I had to keep only one bike out of necessity I would certainly keep the 27.5+ fat bike, add some aero extensions, convert it to double and build some wheels for 45/50mm semi-slick tires to make it a bit faster for road rides. Because this is the bike that can do everything from smooth roads to sand and snow with rough and challenging trails in between.


This is why it’s my soapbox. It bugs the shit out of me that my favorite cycling publication likes to use the term in this way.

Bingo. Ride bikes. Have fun. Let others have fun.

(My default is “let that boy cook” but it’s a regional colloquialism saying "let people do what makes them happy.)

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I disagree that the “90s mtb” comparison is in any way superficial. Modern gravel bikes are essentially what the MTB would have evolved into at this point if suspension (particularly rear) had never been invented.

Also, I think the transition from a car-dominant to a more bike-friendly society will depend on a lot more than just “funner bikes.”


You think that if suspension had never been invented we would be on mtbs with skinny (let’s say 42mm) tires and drop bars? I couldn’t disagree more.

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Gravel bikes usually come stock with 40mm-ish tires, but they’re frequently built to accommodate 50+ and some go up to 3”. And the drop vs flat bar difference IS superficial; several brands offer flat and drop bar versions of the same model.

I don’t think the CT attitude towards gravel is dismissive at all, the writers here all frequently comment on how much they love riding gravel, and pick gravel bikes as their favorites of the year etc. I find that the attitude is mainly directed at the bike companies who market Their bikes and act like gravel riding is this new thing that never happened before 2015.

I really liked the comparison video that James and Caley did last year between a real 90s rigid mtb and a modern flat bar gravel bike; there were imrprovements in geometry and hydraulic brakes and a 1x drivetrain, but ultimately the 2 bikes could be clearly seen to be of a similar background.

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There’s lots to disagree with here, but let’s start with the logic. You’re arguing a hypothetical line of evolution (that didn’t happen) based on something else not happening (that did happen)??

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That’s funny. I got the exact opposite from that video. Caley went over the bars trying to ride an ancient bike on singletrack while trying to pretend it was a gravel bike.

The vast majority of people riding gravel bikes are riding 35-45mm tires on a drop bar bike on gravel. Just because marketers are saying it’s possible to push that wider (on 650b) or one or two high end companies have a flat bar gravel bike doesn’t mean that’s what most people are (or should be) riding.

I don’t know if you follow Pink Bike, but it’s like trying to say most XC riders are riding the Grim Donut and would be better off on it than on your average gravel bike (let’s say a Topstone). The difference is that Pink Bike makes it clear the GD is a fun experiment, not what most people should be buying. To the contrary, it feels like every CT conversation briefly mentions bikes like that but then spends a ton of time pushing people towards either a road bike with wide tires (Aspero) or a 1990 hardtail. It’s this “I’m smarter than you and you’re stupid for riding a gravel bike when you could be riding a bike you got at a pawn shop for $75” attitude that is incredibly grating. And it’s been going on for a couple of years now.

Also, I don’t know anyone who rides a flat bar gravel bike.

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