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What Is The Difference Between A Gravel Bike And A Mountain Bike?

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September 21, 2020

compare a gravel versus mountain bike

If you’re just getting into mountain bike riding, you would be excused for thinking that a mountain bike is a mountain bike! As you start to learn more you start to realise that nothing could be further from the truth. There is a plethora intricacies and nuance of the style, build and features of different bikes. Then it goes even deeper when you bring gravel bikes, cyclocross bikes, hard tail, soft tail, and a number of other setups.

In this article we are looking at the different between a standard mountain bike and a gravel bike. Firstly let’s look at what the purpose of each is.

Purpose Of A Mountain Bike

Mountain bike are obviously designed for use off roar, but can also be used on gravel and road. They are the most versatile of all bikes and there is no real limit of what you can do. In contrast to a road bike, you’re going to have a hard time trying to ride a road bike in even the mildest off road conditions. It’s one of the reasons that mountain bikes are the most popular style all over the world. It’s very easy to change out the treaded tyres and use slicker tyres that will make it more usable on the street.

Generally they are also the most robust, with a setup that in many cases they seem unbreakable.

Purpose Of A Gravel Bike

Gravel bikes have not been around as long as mountain bikes. Gravel bikes are essentially part of the evolution and hybrid between a mountain bike and road bike. Gravel bikes are designed for greater speed, as you can travel faster on gravel that you can on steep trails or tracks. Therefore the design has been modified to all for greater performance on gravel while still maintaining the robustness that is required.

Terrain & Speed

On the of the major differences between the purpose of a gravel bike and a mountain bike is the terrain and speed. On gravel you can obviously travel much faster than you normally would on trails or tracks. The opinion of most experts that this is the core reason for the evolution and development of the gravel bike.

There certainly is a market for this type of bike. For example, many groups of riders will head out on the weekend on rural roads (many that are gravel), and comfortably travel at around 20km per hour. However if you’re heading out into the hilly and muddy tracks and trails, it’s unlikely that you’d ride at this pace, at least not for very long. While you can certainly ride on gravel on a mountain bike all day long, and be comfortable and ride at a comfortable speed, why not do it even better with a gravel bike?

So how does this effect the design?

Gravel Bike Versus Mountain Bike Design

One of the major differences in the rider position. A mountain bike is designed for maximum maneuverability over terrain. Essentially it gives you the best position on the bike to be able to move the wheel. For example the higher front end and more weight distributed to the back end of the bike, means it’s easier to pick up the front wheel when hoping over obstacles such as logs or humps. The flat handle bars also allow greater control when steering is compromised. You can read reviews about some of our recommended Marin Bikes.

mtb flat handle bars

In contrast the design of a gravel bike assumes the wheels will travel more easily over the ground with limited obstacles. Therefore the design allows for maximum pedalling efficiency. The rider position on a gravel bike is therefore different, where your hips are rotated, and more efficient power is channeled to pedalling. This means you should be able to pedal at greater efficiency with less energy spent.

The rider on a gravel bike is also extended further further, reducing wind drag, and the drop handle bars allow for multiple hand positions.


One thing we’ve read a lot about recently is that modern mountain bikes only have 1 front chain ring. That maybe is in countries other that Australia, as most mountain bikes on the the market here in Australia. such as the Polygon Cascade 4.0, seem to have at least 2, if not 3 front chain rings. The Trek Marlin 7 for example, as 2 rings. Thes reason for 1 chain ring is no doubt to reduce weight and also mean one less thing to break on the bike.

Gravel bikes on the other hand tend to have 2 or 3 front chain rings, giving the rider a much broader range of gears, making down hill at high speeds more organised and essentially faster.


This is probably the area that most people attribute the difference between these two styles of bikes, and it’s for good reason. Most reasonable quality mountain bikes are going to offer at least 100mm of suspension travel. It obviously makes plenty of sense to have much more suspension travel on a mountain bike compared to a gravel bike, due to the extra control needed over rough ground, and the need to maneuver quickly and safely. A gravel bike on the other hand does not need that amount of travel.

It’s also one of the factors that helps make gravel bikes more efficient when pedalling and putting power to the ground.

best gravel bikes

Are All These Considerations Hard & Fast?

As with everything there are always exceptions to the rule. For example, in early 2020 Sofiane Sehili won one the worlds toughest gravel bike races, the Atlas Mountain Race, on a mountain bike. This goes to show that it really is also determined by the rider. What I can say though is that I’ve never heard of a gravel bike winning one of the worlds hardest mountain bike races, nor have I heard anyone entering on one. This goes to show that really the most versatile of the two is certainly the humble mountain bike.

You may also be interested in our article on the difference between a mountain bike and hybrid bike.

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About the author 

Beastie Bikes Pete

Hi I'm Pete. I'm a passionate mountain biker in Australia. I enjoy writing about biking as much as doing it......almost!

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