Mountain bikes are just one option for riding on gravel roads.
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Gravel roads are an excellent option for bike riding, especially for those wishing to explore more remote places or avoid heavy traffic. However, the surface of these roads can be tricky with a bike designed for pavement. The tires on road bikes are often too skinny to travel smoothly over loose gravel, so you may need a more durable bike, such as a mountain bike, a cyclo-cross bike or a gravel-specific bike.
If you already own a mountain bike, it is a viable option for riding on gravel roads. The wider tires on a mountain bike make traveling over the loose rock on gravel roads much easier. Mountain bikes often have suspension, which is an added benefit when traveling over the washboards or potholes common on less-maintained gravel roads. Mountain bikes also typically have brakes with greater stopping power than other bikes. If your mountain bike has wide, knobby tires designed for trails, you can ask your local bike shop to recommend a tire that would perform better on gravel. Most tire companies make a mountain bike tire with less tread and a narrower profile, which will allow you to travel faster but still stay upright on the gravel.
Another option for traveling on gravel roads is a cyclo-cross bike. These bikes are typically used for cyclo-cross races, in which participants race across dirt, grass, pavement mud and sometimes snow. The frame looks similar to a road bike, with drop handlebars instead of the upright bars on mountain bikes. Cyclo-cross bikes have skinnier tires than a mountain bike, but wider, knobbier tires than a road bike. The skinnier tires and drop handlebars may help you travel faster on the gravel, but you may lose some of the comfort you would have with the suspension and upright bars of a mountain bike.
In recent years, gravel road racing has become popular. In response, bicycle manufacturers have begun to sell gravel-specific bikes. If you know you're going to spend most of your time on gravel, these bikes may be your best option. These bikes take the best of both mountain and cyclo-cross bikes and combines them for the best ride on gravel. For example, a gravel-specific bike will often have the faster-stopping brakes more common on mountain bikes, but the faster wheels common on cyclo-cross bikes.
Tips and Precautions
Riding a bike that fits is essential to enjoying your ride. Buy from a shop that helps you choose the bike that fits your body type and your riding goals. As always when riding, don't forget to wear your helmet and follow all of the rules of the road.