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mountain bike vs gravel bike

Do I need a mountain bike or a gravel bike?

Get the right bike for the job.


More than just two limbs of the same sport, mountain biking and gravel riding give you more chances to experience success than any other cycling discipline. Learn how to solve challenges on the fly, how to manage fear, and how to overcome obstacles in more ways than one. Off-road riding, which includes mountain biking and gravel riding, is quite simply a means to master some of life’s greatest skills through physical activity. To access these riches of personal growth, you’ll need the right bike for the job, here’s how to know if you need a mountain bike or a gravel bike.

Ritchey Ascent Gravel Bike Action

Gravel bike vs. mountain bike

Gravel loyalists might defend gravel as in a league of its own, and they’d be mostly right because of some obvious differences in riding surfaces, tire sizes, and where to ride (not on singletrack, thanks). Yet is it so crazy to put a flared drop handlebar on a mountain bike? Some mountain bikers would embrace the upgrade — especially on steep, sandy trails, or on all-day rides in the mountains. Or to swap in wider, tubeless tires on a gravel bike, let out some air pressure and get a bit more ambitious with your route selection?

mountain bike or gravel bike?

What divides mountain biking and gravel riding?

Both mountain biking and gravel riding have outgrown their rigid identities of what they are, and, while the definitions of each keep evolving, they agree about what they are not: road cycling. What’s underneath the wheels certainly has a defining influence on bike design, but good design does not change. The flawless alignment between bike and rider to experience off-road riding is the hallmark of both a well-designed cross-country and gravel bike.

If you tend toward narrow, twisty and technical trails that require dexterity, then a cross-country mountain bike will fulfill your aspirations. If you want to access new kinds of adventure, new expressions of athleticism, and simply new ways to enjoy riding a bike without having to deal with traffic or possess special skills, a gravel bike will grant you access.

What to consider when searching for a mountain or gravel bike

Something you should know about your skills and abilities when riding off-road: technique is one thing, but it can’t compensate for a purpose-built bike. Starting with the frame, your bike has built-in ride characteristics suited to the type of riding it was designed for. To achieve that feeling of being effortlessly in tune with your bike, here are some things to consider:

frame geometry diagram

Bike frame geometry

Frame geometry is responsible for how a bike looks, rides, and handles. Key measurements to pay attention to are stack and reach, head tube angle and length, fork rake, and seat tube angle.

  • Stack is the vertical distance (Y axis) between the center of the bottom bracket to the top edge of the head tube. A higher stack value, the more upright the rider’s position on the bike.
  • Reach is the horizontal distance (X axis) from the center of the bottom bracket to the center of the head tube. A greater reach value, the more extended the rider will be above the top tube, and the more the front wheel will be in front of the rider.
  • Head tube angle is the angle in degrees from the ground. Head tube angle is often described as “slack” or “steep.”
  • Head tube length is measured from the bottom to the top of the head tube. The longer the head tube, the more upright the rider, the shorter the head tube, the lower the rider is to the bike.
  • Fork rake is the distance measured in millimeters from an imaginary vertical straight line of the steerer. Equally as important, trail is a combination of the head tube angle plus fork rake and can be regarded as the tire’s contact point trailing behind the steering axis.
  • Seat tube angle refers to the angle of the seat tube in relation to the ground.

ritchey p-29er geometry

Mountain bike frame geometry 

Ritchey mountain bike frame geometries have been conceived to work uniquely with proprietary butted steel tubing. The benefit to this is not only a more comfortable, more compliant, “live-lier” bike, but also a bike that obediently responds to both input from the rider above, as well as from the riding surface below. A Ritchey mountain bike is not for beginners but rather for riders who want to earn their skills as opposed to buy them.

Ritchey Outback Geometry

Gravel bike frame geometry

Daring bicycle brands that took chances in gravel’s early days designed bikes in line with what they knew (road or off-road). Manufacturers like Ritchey had the creative freedom to define the concept on their own terms, yet Ritchey’s unwavering loyalty to design excellence would only allow for the best expression of a gravel bike. Ritchey’s gravel bike frame geometries welcome new riders and veterans alike to go far and wide or explore closer to home on bikes that are built from experience.

Bike size

Getting the right bike size from the start can make the difference between loving the meditative flow of off-road riding, or angrily chucking your bike after too many fatigue-causing micro adjustments.

You could get the best mountain bike or gravel bike for your money, but if it’s the wrong size, it doesn’t matter how state-of-the-art it is. The reason to pinpoint a precise frame size is to gain sheer riding comfort and enjoyment because you’ll be a lot happier on a bike that’s a perfect fit.

Mountain bike sizing

The right mountain bike size instantly gives you more control and leads to more comfort and more confidence on your rides. A mountain bicycle that’s too big can make cornering tough; a bike that’s too small has a mind of its own on technical trails. The wrong size can also cause many physical issues, including muscle pain, inability to ride for long periods of time, and increased chance of injury. The following mountain bike size chart is what Ritchey recommends for riders based on height.

mountain bike frame size guide

Gravel bike sizing

Gravel riding combines elements of both road and off-road riding on unpaved surfaces. No one needs shaved legs; the word “gnar” goes unspoken; and one need not be fast or fit to go gravel biking. One does need to be comfortable however and, while gravel bike sizing has a lot in common with mountain bike sizing (see above), it’s important to note that once you’ve chosen the proper frame size, you can personalize your mountain or gravel bike through component selection.

In addition to the ideal frame size, what makes a good gravel bike generally features these characteristics:

  • Drop bars, flared in some instances
  • Wide tire clearance, up to 66 mm
  • Multiple mounts for gear, fenders, extra water bottles etc.

Ritchey mountain bike action

When you need a mountain bike

You go out of your way in search of singletrack and when you find it, you don’t just ride the trail, you study it, attempt the obstacles, fail some, so you go back and try them again until you clean them. Your mountain bike is your intimate partner and your most ardent supporter as mountain biking is an endless pursuit of skill-building and fine-tuning your technique. Yet they aren’t without their pros and cons:

Mountain bike pros

Can access places that other bikes can’t

Can be customized to the terrain by swapping out components

A steel, hardtail mountain bike can transform almost any old trail into a new experience

Mountain bike cons

One-trick pony that’s not suitable for much else beyond its intended purpose

Some models can be over-engineered and expensive, leading to “overbiking”

Ritchey gravel bike action

When you need a gravel bike

Faster than mountain bikes on the road and better than a road bike at handling varying terrain off-road, gravel bikes inhabit all the clichés: “the Swiss army knife of bikes, jack of all trades, two-wheeled multitool” etc. and while this may be becoming less true as gravel bikes find their niches in racing and touring, they have more versatility than road and mountain bikes combined. Same as with mountain bikes, gravel bikes have their pros and cons:

Gravel bike pros

Versatile, go-anywhere bikes

Get many bikes in one with a few simple component swaps

Perfect bikes for someone who prefers non-technical riding away from traffic

Relatively uncomplex bikes, making them easier and cheaper to maintain

Gravel bike cons

Lack the agility of a mountain bike on certain surfaces

Slower and heavier than a road bike

Get a gravel bike if you want to ride outside the limits…of town, city, and road networks. If you need inspiration to make routine routes new again, get a mountain bike (a hardtail with a rigid fork will do that beautifully).

Ritchey creates gravel bikes for enjoying the thousands of kilometers, miles, leagues etc. of unpaved roads meant for farming, logging, rural transit, or unmotorized access, which can be found lacing the continents worldwide. Ritchey’s mountain bikes continue to help define the sport of mountain biking for those riders who still like to climb, learn new skills, rip descents, and “send it” on singletrack.

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