Gravel Bike vs Mountain Bike: Beginners Guide

Gravel Bike vs Mountain Bike: Beginners Guide

If you’re just getting into riding, deciding between a gravel bike vs a mountain bike can be tough.

But have no fear – this beginner’s guide will break down all the key differences to help you choose.

Whether you want to hit local trails or start bikepacking, understanding the strengths of each bike style is important.

I’ve been there myself, agonizing over which type would suit my riding.

In this detailed comparison, I’ll cover everything from frame materials and gearing to suspension and handling.

We’ll also look at converting between the two. So let’s drop in!

What Are The Key Differences Between MTB and Gravel Bike?

At first glance, gravel bikes and mountain bikes may appear quite similar – both are designed for off-road riding, have drop handlebars, and can take wider tires.

But when you dig into the details, there are some clear differences that optimize each bike for their intended terrain and riding style.

The differences mainly come down to factors like frame geometry, tire size, gearing range, suspension, and overall weight.

It can get confusing with so much crossover capability these days!

In the sections below, I’ll break down the key elements that set gravel and mountain bikes apart, so you can better understand the strengths of each for making the right choice.

1. Frame Geometry and Materials

One major difference is frame construction and geometry.

Mountain bikes use tougher alloy or carbon frames to handle rugged terrain.

Geometry is optimized for technical handling with a very upright riding position.

Shorter top tubes, taller stacks, and slack headtube angles (around 66-68 degrees) give precision steering on uneven ground.

Higher bottom brackets (12-14cm) prevent pedal strikes on rocks and roots.

Gravel bikes opt for lighter butted or carbon fiber frames similar to road bikes.

The geometry is closer to a road bike for aerodynamic speed, with a lower position over the bars.

Slightly longer top tubes, lower stack heights, and steeper headtube angles (70-72 degrees) add straight-line riding stability.

Lower BBs (7-9cm) improve cornering clearance with drop bars.

Within each category, you’ll find a range of frame materials from aluminum to high-end carbon offering different price points.

But the overall geometry goals stay the same.

2. Suspension

Suspension is a game-changing difference between the two bikes:

Mountain bikes place heavy emphasis on suspension – both front and sometimes rear.

Fork travel typically ranges from 80mm up to 200mm for downhill bikes.

Rear suspension provides 100-150mm of travel.

This smooths out impacts over rocks, roots, and drops.

It also allows running lower tire pressure for more traction without rattling your teeth!

Gravel bikes forego suspension entirely. Larger volume tires at lower pressures provide some shock absorption.

Some bikes add engineered flex with special carbon layups or seatposts.

But true suspension is not the norm.

3. Tires

mountain bike vs gravel bike tires

Tires are another obvious difference making each bike suited to its environment.

Mountain bike tires are wide, knobby, and designed for traction.

Standard tire sizes are around 27.5 x 2.25-2.4” or 29 x 2.2-2.5”.

Plus-sized tires are also popular recently, going up to 27.5 x 2.8” or 29 x 3.0”.

The large, widely spaced knobs and soft rubber compounds grip loose terrain.

Casing plies vary from lightweight XC tires to heavier downhill tires.

Gravel bikes run much skinnier tire sizes similar to road bikes. 700c wheels with 28-45mm tires are standard.

Some newer bikes accommodate 650b wheels and wider tires too.

Treads are smooth with an inverted center ridge to limit rolling resistance on pavement.

Lightweight casings and minimal tread keep weight down.

Wider tires with some tread at lower pressures can handle light trails remarkably well.

But they don’t compare to real knobby mountain bike tires for technical terrain.

4. Gearing

The gearing also reflects the different riding styles.

Mountain bikes often use a 3x crankset with chainrings from 24/36/48t.

Paired with wide-range cassettes like 11-50t, this gives ample low gears for steep climbs.

Gravel bikes opt for lighter 1x or 2x gearing similar to road bikes.

A typical gravel setup is 40/42t chainring with 11-42 cassette, sometimes even 11-36t.

Lower gearing is available but not as common.

While gravel gearing offers a decent range for mixed terrain, true mountain bike gearing goes much lower for scaling steep grades.

5. Brakes

Strong braking control is crucial for both bikes – but achieved differently.

Mountain bikes now universally use hydraulic disc brakes for their all-weather stopping power.

Huge 203mm or larger rotors provide tremendous braking force for steep descents.

Gravel bikes typically have mechanical disc brakes, with 160-180mm rotors.

Some still use rim brakes, but discs have dominated as they’ve become lighter.

Hydraulic discs are less common but offer better modulation.

6. Weight

In terms of heft, these two ride very differently:

Mountain bikes are built burly to handle big hits, with reinforced frames, suspension, wide rims and tires.

Weights range from 27-35 lbs depending on materials and intended use.

Downhill bikes approach 40 lbs.

Gravel bikes shed weight with skinny tubing and minimalist parts.

High-end gravel race bikes dip below 18 lbs.

Many popular models are 19-22 lbs – much lighter for covering distance quickly.

7. Handling

The handling and feel on the trail also sets them apart:

Mountain bikes are made for slow-speed technical riding.

The upright position, short wheelbase, and slack geometry give precise steering and maneuverability.

You’ll feel planted and secure blasting down rocky trails.

Gravel bikes handle much like road bikes – optimized for stability at higher speeds.

The longer wheelbase and front-end geometry smooth out handling and allow riding in the drops.

High-speed control takes priority over nimble maneuvering.

So in summary, mountain bikes place priority on capability and control for conquering technical terrain.

Gravel bikes embrace elements from road bikes for covering varied ground quickly across changing surfaces.

Here is a summary table of the key differences between gravel and mountain bikes we have seen:

FeatureGravel BikeMTB
Frame GeometrySlow-speed technical handling for trailsLonger, lower, and more relaxed like a road bike
SuspensionNo suspensionFront and sometimes rear suspension from 80-200mm travel
TiresSkinny, smooth 28-45mm tires similar to road bikesWide, knobby 2.25-2.5″ tires for traction
Gearing1x or 2x similar to road bikes, like 40/42t x 11-42tWide range 3x cranks 24/36/48t with 11-50t cassettes
BrakesMechanical or hydraulic disc brakes, some rim brakesAlways hydraulic disc brakes, 203mm+ rotors
WeightLighter like a road bike, 18-22 lbsHeavier and overbuilt, 27-40 lbs
HandlingStable at high speeds like a road bikeSlow speed technical handling for trails

Now let’s look at converting these bikes to the “other side”…

Can I Convert My Gravel Bike to an MTB?

A common question is whether you can make a gravel bike perform anything like a mountain bike.

The short answer is: kind of, but not really.

Here are some things you can try:

  • Swap to wider and knobbier MTB tires. But many gravel frames won’t fit true 2.3-2.4″ rubber.
    And the geometry remains the same.
  • Add a dropper seat post for getting the saddle out of the way on descents.
    This is useful for gravel riding too though.
  • Switch to a shorter stem and wider bars for more upright steering.
    But this may quicken handling too much for high speeds.
  • Change the gearing to something like a 24/36/48t crankset with 11-50 cassette.
    But the rear derailleur may not have capacity for such a wide range.
  • Improve tire clearance with a mountain bike specific fork.
    But the frame and geometry remains gravel focused.

Some gravel bikes marketed as “monster cross” blur the lines a bit with the above tweaks.

But in general, converting a gravel bike to really ride and feel like a mountain bike is limited.

You lose the true geometry, suspension, and handling that makes a dedicated trail bike.

For the odd gravel trail ride, a converted drop bar bike is fun.

But for technical terrain and real mountain biking, get a real MTB!

Can I Convert my MTB to a Gravel Bike?

What about going the other direction – converting a mountain bike for gravel riding?

This is more doable, but still not perfect.

Here are some tips:

  • Swap the knobby tires for 700c or 650b gravel tires in 30-45mm width.
    Smooth center tread rolls fast on pavement.
  • Install rigid cross or gravel fork. Ditching suspension gives a more direct feel on mixed terrain.
  • Put on a 1x or 2x gravel crankset like 46/30t or 42/28t rings.
    Paired with an 11-36 cassette, this provides enough range.
  • Add gravel style handlebars for getting into the drop riding position.
    You’ll likely need new shifters and brake levers to match.
  • Mechanical or hydraulic disc brakes can transfer over in most cases.
    Rim brakes also work with proper brake calipers.
  • Consider a new lighter wheelset to drop some weight.
    But if you have nice 29″ wheels, they may work fine.
  • Upgrade the seatpost, saddle, and other components to lighten things up.
    Remove any unneeded mounts.

This will get you reasonably close to a gravel bike.

But the geometry, handling, and weight will still feel more like a mountain bike, especially at higher speeds.

For casual gravel paths it’s great – but may lack the high-speed stability for true mixed terrain rides over 40-50+ miles.

If your budget is limited though, it’s a fun way to expand your MTB’s capabilities.

Throw on some road tires and you’ve got a “gravel” bike for minimal cost!

Which One is Best for Me?

So now that you understand the differences, how do you decide?

Here are some scenarios to consider:

If you primarily ride rooty, rocky, technical singletrack, a mountain bike is the way to go.

A gravel bike won’t cut it on legit mountain bike trails. Suspension, geometry, and tire traction are must-haves. Don’t handicap yourself with the wrong tool.

If you want to go fast and far across pavement, gravel, and dirt, choose a gravel bike.

Gravel bikes shine for covering ground quickly on changing terrain.

Fast rolling tires and an aero position are built for speed over distance.

If you live in a flatter area, a gravel bike opens up your options.

Mountain bikes are great where you need traction and low gears for real elevation changes.

For casual trails in flat areas, a gravel bike can probably handle it fine.

If you want to bikepack remote backcountry, a mountain bike is a good pick.

The durability, suspension, and traction help tackle unmaintained trails in the wilderness.

Plus the upright position is efficient for long days.

If you want one fun bike for fitness, recreation and commuting, a gravel bike is hard to beat.

Capable on pavement but also providing a taste of trails, gravel bikes are fast and versatile for day-to-day riding.

If you love mastering technical handling skills, a mountain bike is extremely rewarding.

The precision required to cleanly ride tough obstacles makes mountain biking a lifelong learning skill.

If you plan to race, choose the bike suited to your target events.

For gravel races, gran fondos, etc. you’ll want a gravel bike without question.

For enduros, XC, and downhill races, a proper MTB is required.

Think hard about your local terrain and the type of riding you plan to do most weekends.

Be realistic about what you need rather than just want.

A gravel bike may open more doors for adventures on a budget.

But don’t deprive yourself of a mountain bike if you truly need one!

No matter which you choose, getting out and enjoying the ride on two wheels is what it’s all about.

Pedal forth and have fun! Let me know if you have any other questions.

Final Thoughts

Well there you have it – A to Z on how gravel bikes and mountain bikes differ and when each excels.

While you can try converting between them, the results are always compromised compared to choosing the right tool built for the job.

For the record, I own both! Gravel for long days in the saddle, mountain for technical skills.

Eventually, you may end up with a full quiver of bikes like many cycling fanatics.

Or you may find that carefully choosing just one suits the majority of your riding.

Either way, hopefully this guide provides ideas and insight so you can make the best choice as you venture into the world of gravel and mountain bike adventures!

Let the good times roll, my friends.

Ride happy and we’ll see you out there!

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Joey B. Ramsey
Passionate cyclist, father, and blogger.
I've been riding bikes since childhood and enjoy sharing my knowledge with fellow cycling enthusiasts.
My diverse bike collection allows me to write reviews and advice based on personal experience with various bikes and accessories.
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