You can use most types of bikes for commuting, and most of them are easy to tell apart.
With road bikes, gravel bikes, and cyclocross (CX) bikes, this isn’t so easy to do at first glance. All three usually have drop handlebars and superficially look the same.
In this article, we’ll look at the possibility of using a gravel bike for commuting. What can this bike offer you that a road or cyclocross bike can’t?
Can You Use A Gravel Bike For Commuting?
Yes, you can certainly use a gravel bike for commuting.
It’s a great bike for traversing gravel and dirt paths, forest trails, and the tarmac or asphalt of a road. For reasons we’ll get into, this is a comfortable bike over any smooth or mildly bumpy terrain.
While a gravel bike may look like a road or CX bike, all three of these bikes excel in different areas. The one you’ll choose for your route into work may depend on the terrain you ride on, distance, and your preferred style of riding.
Video: Using A Gravel Bike As A Road Bike
Reasons Why Gravel Bikes Are Suited To Daily Commutes
Since it closely resembles a road bike, it comes as no surprise that a gravel bike can theoretically be used for a commute. But what benefits does it offer over road bikes or any other bikes?
A gravel bike is designed for comfort on moderately rough surfaces over long distances. That’s why it’s often called an “adventure bike”. That comfort transfers to the road, and to a degree is controllable by you with the bike parts you choose to fit (e.g., tires).
While a gravel bike is more comfortable than comparable bikes, the comfort isn’t going to reach fat-bike proportions. So, you also have to factor in its potential for speed, too.
Any comparison in speed among bikes is always relative. A gravel bike is slower on a road than a road bike but faster than an MTB. If you go off-road on your commute, you’ll be going faster than almost anything on a semi-rough surface.
One thing that makes gravel bikes greatly suited to commutes is their ability to go off-road with ease (within reason). If you take a mixed-terrain route into work, it’d be hard to find a quicker bike than a gravel bike.
The speed of a bike and its ability to handle different terrain is largely contingent on gearing. A gravel bike may have 1x or 2x chainring(s). In other words, there is either a single chainring or two chainrings. You might find three on cheaper bikes.
Where there are two chainrings on a gravel bike, these will often be 50/34t in size. This “compact” chainset is familiar to many road-bike riders. However, many gravel bikes have a single front ring at a size of around 42t.
Part of a gravel bike’s remit is to be able to climb up long, steep hills on surfaces that might be loose or semi-compact. Therefore, the typically very wide gear range may exceed even the range of an MTB cassette.
Expanding on the topic of gears a little, what do gravel bikes offer in the way of groupsets? Some of the technology in gravel groupsets benefits bike commutes.
You can find gravel bikes fitted with groupsets from most tiers of the Shimano hierarchy, including Tourney, Claris, Tiagra, 105, Ultegra and even Dura-Ace (rare).
On high-quality gravel bikes, Ultegra is a nice groupset to aim for, because the components are better-finished than the tiers below (hence gear shifts are smoother) and historically more durable than Dura-Ace.
A notable groupset for gravel bikes is the Shimano GRX, launched in 2019.
The GRX groupset includes several gravel-specific enhancements, like better brake lever and hood ergonomics, wider gear ranges, capacity for 17-tooth front ring differences (e.g., 48/31t rings), offset chainrings and clutch derailleurs.
A clutch-equipped derailleur maintains chain tension when riding over rough surfaces.
There is a 3-tier hierarchy in the GRX range:
- RX800 – Ultegra equivalent with mechanical or Di2 2×11 or 1×11 drivetrains.
- RX600 – 105 equivalent with 2×11 or 1×11 drivetrains.
- RX400 – Tiagra equivalent with 2×10 drivetrain.
Video: Shimano GRX Groupsets
Gravel bikes equipped with SRAM usually incorporate a 1x single chainring version of SRAM Red, Force, Rival or Apex groupsets.
Some high-end gravel bikes are also outfitted with the SRAM eTap AXS wireless groupset for dependable, quiet shifting on any terrain. This groupset uses SRAM’s Orbit fluid damper to manage chain tension rather than a clutch.
Other Gravel Groupsets
Other gravel groupsets include the low-priced Microshift Advent X and the 1×13 clutch-equipped Campagnolo Ekar groupset (advertised as the lightest on the market).
Gravel Bikes vs Road Bikes vs Cyclocross Bikes
If you looked at a gravel bike, a CX bike or a road bike in isolation, you’d have to be knowledgeable to identify it. All three bikes look similar, especially with their characteristic drop handlebars at the front.
Read more: Best handlebars for commuter cyclists
It’s largely the geometry that sets these bikes apart, in addition to the way they’re equipped in terms of gearing and tires. Let’s take a quick look at the three bikes individually.
Though their designs vary significantly, road bikes will normally have a geometry that places a rider in a lower, more aggressive position than either a CX or gravel bike.
Areas of bike geometry that achieve this low riding position include a low stack height, long reach, steep head tube angle, short head tube, short wheelbase and short chainstay.
All of the above is calmed down in an “endurance bike”, which is solely designed for comfort over long distances while still qualifying as a road bike.
Compared to a gravel bike, the road bike will have more responsive steering. The agile control this allows can tip over into being squirrely, which is patently less desirable.
Read more: Riding a road bike to work
A cyclocross bike is a kind of halfway house between road and gravel. It has fast handling almost on a par with a race-ready road bike, but certain parts of its anatomy put the rider in a fractionally more upright, relaxed position.
This bike will have a headtube angle that is almost as steep as a road bike, a fairly long wheelbase (longer than a road bike, shorter than gravel), and a short bottom-bracket drop to allow clearance for obstructions on rocky or stumpy terrain.
The CX bike is often considered the all-rounder of the three bikes. Significant differences to gravel bikes include a little less tire clearance, a narrower gear range, faster handling, less stability.
One downside is that CX bikes are harder to find than the other two in their purest form. The lines are often blurred between cyclocross and gravel, so you can end up with a hybrid CX/gravel machine (not a bad thing for commuting purposes).
A gravel bike is designed to travel quickly over moderately rough terrain, which ironically is what will slow it down a tad on the road. It’ll be a little less aero than road bikes on smooth surfaces, and wide tires are slower than narrow ones beyond a certain point.
In terms of its geometry, a gravel bike will have a slacker head tube angle and a longer wheelbase than either a road or CX bike. Stack height will be higher and reach will be shorter.
All of the above makes the gravel bike a more relaxed, less frenetic ride, but not necessarily a slow one.
The longer wheelbase will also help make a gravel frame more compliant, so you’ll likely feel less of the road than you would with the other two bikes. There’s a lot of overlap in design, so this isn’t a given.
There aren’t many downsides to commuting on a gravel bike unless you’re keen to achieve your fastest possible speed on asphalt. Road bikes at the budget end of the market are easier to acquire, but gravel bikes needn’t cost a fortune.
Top 3 Best Gravel Bikes For Commuting
Now, we’ll prevent you with three great choices in commuter gravel bikes.
1. Niner RLT 9 RDO 2X 4-STAR BIKE 2021 (Money Is No Object)
- Frame Material: Carbon
- Groupset: Mixed Shimano GRX800, Ultegra, Easton (2 x 11-speed)
- Weight: Approx. 18.8 lb. (8.53 kg)
If you’re spending a significant sum on a gravel bike, the Niner RLT 9 RDO 2X 4-STAR BIKE 2021 is worthy of your attention. This bike is built around a lightweight carbon frame that can accommodate wide 700c x 50mm or 650b x 2” tires.
The Niner RLT 9 RDO sports Shimano’s gravel-specific GRX800 shifting and hydraulic disc brakes, mixed with an Ultegra front derailleur and cassette. For gears, you have twin 47/32t chainrings at the front and an 11-34t range at the rear.
The lowest gear that falls beneath the 1:1 ratio coupled with a lightweight frame makes this bike a real hill-killer. Handy for commuting are the integrated rack and fender mounts.
What We Like
- Carbon – lightweight frame on a par with many road bikes.
- Shifting – quiet and reliable off-road shifting with GRX800 parts.
- Tires – substantial clearance gives you plenty of tire choices.
- Wheels – good-looking and durable DT Swiss wheelset.
What We Don’t Like
- Security – you’ll need to lock this bike up well or keep it indoors at work.
2. Co-op Cycles ADV 2.2 Bike (Average Price)
- Frame Material: Aluminum (Carbon Fork)
- Groupset: Shimano GRX 600 & 400 (2 x 10-speed)
- Weight: 23.4 lb. (10.61 kg)
Offering great value at less than half the price of the Niner is the Co-op Cycles ADV 2.2 Bike. This bike has Shimano GRX 600 and 400 components, which are tuned for quiet, reliable shifting on gravel and include the “Shadow Plus” clutched rear derailleur.
As is typical of gravel bikes, the Co-op ADV 2.2 errs on the side of low climbing gears in its range. The front GRX 600 chainrings offer a 46/30t combination, which drive an 11-36t cassette at the rear. You still have potential for fast riding on flat roads.
A 12° flared handlebar on the ADV 2.2 (common on gravel bikes) adds further to steering control and comfort. For commuting purposes, there are mounts on this bike for a rear rack.
What We Like
- Shimano – GRX Shadow Plus tech makes shifting reliable on rougher surfaces.
- Gears – solid choice of gears with 503.6% range.
- Flare – flared handlebars for wrist-clearance and extra control.
- Lightweight – aluminum frame and carbon fork keep weight down.
What We Don’t Like
- Brakes – hydraulic disc brakes are generally preferred over mechanical.
3. Tommaso Sentiero Gravel Adventure Bike (best budget)
- Frame Material: 6061 Aluminum
- Groupset: Shimano Claris (3 x 8-speed)
- Weight: Approx. 25.9 lb. (11.74 kg) – small size
Though it’s possible to buy cheaper gravel bikes than the Tommaso Sentiero Gravel Adventure Bike, you’ll struggle to find one kitted out with a Shimano Claris groupset. This bike promises a reliable performance.
The lowest gear on this bike isn’t as low as you’d find on a high-end gravel bike, but this could be a plus point for commuting. A 12-25t Claris cassette is driven by triple 30/39/50t chainrings, and that’s a good range for road riding.
Shimano Claris uses the same dual-control gear and brake levers found in upper-tier groupsets. Avid BB5 mechanical disc brakes are the only non-Shimano part on this bike, but they are well known for efficiency.
Other features of the Tommaso Sentiero include 700c x 40mm tires, rack and fender eyelets, and a compact handlebar for easy changes in hand position.
What We Like
- Groupset – Shimano Claris groupset for reliability.
- Gears – may be better for commuting than many gravel bikes.
- Strong – robust aluminum frame.
- Versatile – wide tire clearance and relaxed geometry give you off-road options.
What We Don’t Like
- Wheels – stock wheels and tires offer upgrade potential.
We hope you enjoyed this article and invite you to share it with family and friends if you found it useful. Please feel free to leave your comments, too.
One thing you should’ve gleaned is that gravel bikes are ideally suited to commuting. More expensive models are loaded with the latest tech, but even cheaper gravel bikes make good commuters over varied terrain.
The heady blend of comfort and speed they offer could even have you taking longer routes into work!