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If you have a sense of adventure, you might love gravel biking.
I was utterly amazed when I got my first gravel bike. Sure, it could ride on the road, but it could also head off the beaten path to gravel-covered streets, dirt pack, trails and do it all with ease.
But like me, you might be wondering more about what makes a gravel bike, a gravel bike. And do gravel bikes have gears?
Gravel bikes have gears to help you maintain a comfortable pedaling cadence no matter what terrain you are on. Some gravel bikes have a standard two-chainring set up to give you lots of gears for climbing, while other gravel bikes have a single chainring to make the bike easier to manage.
In this article, I’ll take a look at everything you need to know about gravel bikes and their gears. I’ll talk about 1x gearing as well as more traditional two-chainring gearing.
What Is a Gravel Bike?
In order to understand gravel bike gears, you need to know a little bit about what a gravel bike is.
A gravel bike is sometimes referred to as a go-anywhere bike.
A gravel bike generally has drop bars like you would find on a road bike, a lightweight frame, and some knobby tires to cover almost any terrain. (Source)
Of course, a gravel bike won’t be as fast on the tarmac as a road bike, and it won’t be able to cover gnarly terrain like a mountain bike, but it can do anything and everything in between.
Gravel Bike Gearing
The gears on a bike help you maintain a comfortable pedaling cadence whether you are going up lots of steep hills, riding on easy flat roads, are zipping down descents. Your cadence is how many times per minute you turn the pedals.
Since a comfortable and efficient cadence is typically around 90 RPMs, you’ll want to have enough gearing to keep you in that zone as much as possible. (Source)
How to Shift Gears On a Gravel Bike?
A gravel bike shifts just like any other bike.
Imagine you are pedaling along at a very comfortable 90RPMs. If you start going up a hill, it is going to get harder to pedal. You’ll find yourself pedaling slower and pushing down on the pedals harder.
Before it gets too hard to pedal, you need to shift your gears into an easier gear so you can maintain that comfortable cadence.
Once the terrain levels out, you may find you need to shift to a harder gear because your legs are spinning too quickly and too easily.
However, when you leave the road and start hitting some gravel or dirt pack, you might need to adjust your gear.
Loose gravel and soft dirt absorb more energy, so it takes more effort to ride through those types of terrain.
As a result, you might find yourself needing an easier gear that moves you along a little bit more slowly, or you might find yourself needing a harder gear to get a little extra torque to get through a tough patch.
Over time, you’ll learn what works best for you.
Gravel Bikes and Their Drive Trains
Most gravel bikes will either have 1 or 2 chainrings in the front and a selection of cogs, collectively known as the cassette, at the back.
The chainring and cassette are connected by your bike train, and together, along with a few other working parts, they make up your bike’s drivetrain.
When you shift, you’ll use the levers or buttons on your handlebars to make the gears change.
When going uphill, you’ll shift to an easier gear, and when heading downhill, you’ll shift to a harder gear. A derailleur moves the chain to the correct chainring and cog when you shift.
A gravel bike with one chainring is known as a 1x drivetrain, and a bike with two chainrings is called a 2x.
The gearing you choose for your gravel bike will really depend on the type of terrain you plan on using it for. There are benefits to both a 1x and a 2x setup, so you can put the one that suits your type of riding.
1x Gearing on Gravel Bikes
1x gears are well-known to mountain bikers, cyclocross, and more recently to gravel. There are many benefits to a 1x setup.
Benefits to a 1x Drivetrain
- Lightweight. For example, a 1x setup is a little bit lighter weight than a 2x. So if you are racing, you might want to save weight and go for a 1x.
- Simplified shifting. Shifting is much simpler on a 1x drivetrain. Since you only have one front chainring, you only need to shift up or down.
- There is much less chance of dropping your chain.
- There are less moving parts, so you don’t have to worry about mud piling up on the front derailleur and jamming it up so that it won’t shift.
- You’ll have less chain friction and smoother, more even shifting.
Drawbacks to a 1x Drivetrain
- You’ll have fewer gears to choose from, so you may have more trouble climbing hills and speeding down descents
- Larger steps between gears make it harder to find the optimum cadence.
- It might be hard to keep up with your riding mates if they have 2x gears.
2x Gearing On Gravel Bikes
2x Gearing means there are two chainrings in the front, giving you more gear options.
Benefits of a 2x Drivetrain
- You’ll have more gears to choose from.
- A wider range of gears means you can have both climbing gears and gears for flats.
- Smaller steps between gears mean you can fine tune your cadence better.
Drawbacks to a 2x Drivetrain
- Some gears are duplicated and need to be avoided.
- Shifting is a little more complicated.
- Mud can build up in the front derailleur and make it hard to shift.
- The drivetrain adds weight to the bike.
Which Gravel Bike Gearing Is Best for You?
There are plenty of pros and cons for both types of gearing. So which should you choose for your gravel bike?
If you do a lot of climbing, you’ll want to choose a 2x drivetrain for your gravel bike, so you have more gears for the ups and downs.
You’ll probably want a 2x if you are coming from a roadie background, as well, since you’ll be used to having smaller steps between gears.
You might want to choose a 1x setup if you come from a mountain biking background since you’ll already be used to it.
If you are riding in bad weather or muddy conditions, then a 1x will have fewer moving parts to get jammed up with mud.
If bike weight is more important than climbing, you’ll want to choose a 1x, and if you just love simplicity, then a 1x is where it’s at.
The Difference Between a Gravel Bike and a Mountain Bike
Gravel bikes typically don’t have super wide tires like a mountain bike since they aren’t designed to go over rock gardens and tree trunks.
They don’t have suspension, either, because the terrain you ride on isn’t that difficult. Mountain bikes usually have broad, flat bars for leverage, while grave bikes have drop bars to give you more hand positions and greater control when riding fast.
Mountain bikes generally have a 1x drivetrain.
The Difference Between a Gravel Bike and a Road Bike
However, a gravel bike will have wider tires than a typical road bike.
They’ll have some extra grip, too, to give you traction on looser gravel. And they tend to have a longer, more stable geometry, so you feel secure and comfortable on long rides and bumpy roads.
Road bikes usually have 2x drivetrains.
The Difference Between a Gravel Bike and a Cyclocross Bike
Technically, you can also use a cyclocross bike as a gravel bike because it has wider tire clearance and knobbier tires than a road bike.
But a cyclocross bike has a more race-oriented geometry, and a gravel bike is designed for comfort.
So if you’ll be racing gravel or hitting a wide variety of terrain, you might want to use a cyclocross bike for your gravel bike.
Cyclocross bikes often come in 1x and 2x drivetrains.
Regardless, a gravel bike is a bike with drop bars, wider tires with good tread, and flexible gearing. Gravel bikes definitely need gears, but you have some choices there, as well.