Gravel bikes and hybrid bikes are two separate bike categories that are built to offer a comfortable ride with occasional off-road experience.
Both bikes are similar to road bikes with a few mountain bike capabilities built for cyclists who are looking for something that can handle day to day rides on paved roads and rough terrain.
So, what’s the difference between a gravel bike and a hybrid bike and which one is better?
If you’re deciding between either a gravel or hybrid bike, simply looking at these adventure bikes will make it more confusing. It’s better to take a detailed look at both, as their final purpose serves different types of people.
Hybrid bikes are similar to road bikes, but their design isn’t focused on speed or aerodynamics, but rather comfort. They are a popular option for new cyclists and use flat bars that most people are already used to. Think of a hybrid bike as a mix between a road bike and a mountain bike.
Road bikes tend to stretch out the rider in a lowered position for even distribution of weight, but on a hybrid bike, the rider sits in an upright position with the majority of the weight centered on the seat, similar to a mountain bike.
Most hybrid bikes are intended to be used on the road, but a change of tires can allow them to handle dirt and loose gravel.
Gravel bikes tend to feature a geometry that is aggressively similar to a road bike, but components that are designed to handle rough terrain like mountain bikes.
These bikes have drop handlebars and the rider sits in a slightly lowered position. They can handle trail riding, bikepacking, and longer tours that involve roads and stretches of unpaved paths and gravel.
They feature lightweight frames that can endure climbs and be more agile on downhill trails. A gravel bike can handle most trails, but trails with harsh jumps and rocks are off limits on these bikes.
With the no-brainers out of the way, let’s talk about the key differences that can shape your ride experience and help you decide which bike suits you.
The geometry of the bike is what affects your reach, handling and fit. A drop bar on a gravel bike complements the longer wheelbase for stability on long dirt roads. Gravel bikes need to have that weight distribution for better steering impacts on loose soil, pebbles and stones.
The idea of a surprise change in terrain requires these bikes to have a slacker steering to stop the front tire from sliding or defecting.
On typical road bikes, steering is more responsive and riders are able to make quick corrections on bumpy surfaces.
On a gravel bike, the slower response ensures riders have enough time to correct their steering but it also means they need to ride more cautiously in rocky and muddy terrain.
The blueprint design of a hybrid bike makes it a cross between mountain bikes and road bikes.
Hybrid bikes feature a lighter frame, but wider tires than a road bike. There’s also more cushioning on the seat and the flat handlebar makes the rider sit in an upright position.
The compact frame easily takes a win in the comfort space and the straight handlebars allow for easier steering.
The relaxed geometry makes them ideal for leisure riding, and the fenders and cargo racks are another reason they are called commuter bikes that can handle day to day rides and a little off road excursion.
Drop bars are a staple of gravel bikes. Drop bars are ideal for competitive cycling. When racing, a more aerodynamic position is important for getting ahead of others. The convenience of adjusting your hand position allows for more aggressive riding on gravel and trails.
Drop handlebars on a gravel bike make it easier to ride longer distances with a smaller cargo carrying capacity.
Hybrid bikes feature flat bars, aka the straight handlebar.
These offer a more comfortable riding position for new riders who are already used to the upright riding position. The flat handlebars are a feature that comes from mountain bikes, with the brakes and gears in their normal position within the reach of your thumb and palms.
Everyday riders often go for the straight handlebar on a hybrid bike as it offers better cargo handling and comfort on paved roads. A gravel bike’s aggressive riding is better suited for people just starting out on trails and gravel riding.
After the flat bar, the next thing that will directly impact your riding style is the gearing. Hybrid and gravel bikes have separate gearing speeds for the different terrains they are used on.
Hybrid bikes have much simpler gearing and this is partially the reason their starting price is cheaper than gravel bikes. Lesser gears on a hybrid bike means you’ll be limited to paved surfaces.
Hybrid bikes gearing can be a single speed or cross the 14 speed setting, depending on your requirements.
Their competitor, gravel bikes feature at least eight gears and this is important for the flexibility to ride on gravel trails, gravel roads and handling steep climbs on mountain trails. This complexity in gearing is not cheap, but it is well worth it.
The lower gears are great for climbing and the higher gears offer greater speed in competitive riding.
Gravel bikes are made to handle all types of rough terrain with their gearing and components, but the tires are by far the most important thing that can change your off road experience in the gravel bike vs hybrid comparison.
Gravel bike wheels are mostly 700c while some are 650b. This isn’t really a big deal as long as you have the right tires.
Both gravel bikes and hybrid bikes feature wide tires. This is important for riding on roads with loose gravel and rocks. Gravel bikes have the advantage of accommodating thicker tires with most frames and forks designed to allow tires up to 50 mm wide.
Riding off road on a gravel bike gives you the luxury of low tire pressure and a wider grip to tackle mountain biking conditions. Tire clearance isn’t an issue on gravel bikes, with most off road-ready tires.
Hybrid bikes use a 700c wheel or in simpler terms, a 26” wheel.
A hybrid bike offers tires of different tread with light off road terrain handling. Wider external tread tires are made for hybrid bikes, but most use a simpler tread for comfort and weight reduction. The tires for hybrid bikes are made for paved paths and their main focus is reducing rolling resistance, while gravel bike tires are designed for better grip.
They come in a little generic all-weather, off road and smooth treads which can handle light gravel. Hybrid bikes’ wheels are better adapted for daily commutes with puncture protection for city tours.
Hybrid bikes and gravel bikes share the same braking system. Unless you buy the cheapest hybrid bike, most bikes will feature hydraulic disc brakes.
A road bike uses the traditional v-brake, which can be easily swapped for better brakes. If you have previously used a cyclocross bike, the disc brakes on hybrid and gravel bikes provide more reliable and responsive braking compared to any rim brakes on a cyclocross bike.
The disc brakes on a gravel bike are mostly hydraulic. This isn’t really a step up compared to hybrid bikes, rather a necessity to tackle downhill riding and slow down the gravel bike efficiently.
Depending on the price of the hybrid or gravel bike, you can get cable operated disc brakes which are a cheaper component, but have marginally delayed braking compared to hydraulic disc brakes.
A gravel vs hybrid bike comparison would not be complete without talking about the most obvious difference between these fitness bikes and gravel bikes.
A hybrid bike has no suspension and is mostly used for daily commuting. They are built to absorb any bumps they might come across while on the road through their tires.
On paved roads, you hardly need forks or rear suspension. These not only add to the price of the hybrid bike, but also make a hybrid bike much heavier.
For shorter rides around the city, a speedy and lightweight bike is easier to handle and takes less effort to pedal.
Gravel bikes on the other hand, need suspension to help with the rigorous movements during off road riding. Gravel bike wheels come in different treads designed to handle mud, sand and silt.
While the tires provide grip on trails, the suspensions provide comfort, shock absorbance, and even out the constant vibrations.
Mountain bikers looking for a gravel bike will have no trouble adjusting to drop bars as most of the gearing and suspension is similar to a mountain bike.
A high end gravel bike might come with a headset suspension providing a little travel in the head tube to remove vibrations from reaching your hands and giving you the advantage of rocking higher tire pressures.
Almost all gravel bikes have suspension forks. For long distance riding, the short travel front suspension is great for a gravel bike and it can handle most mountain biking conditions.
This turns your gravel bike into a hardtail mountain bike and makes it more capable of handling trickier terrain.
Hybrid and gravel bikes are bike categories capable of handling various bike paths that include paved surfaces and off road trails. Both bikes share a common purpose with gravel bikes taking the upper hand in off road riding.
On paved roads, a hybrid bike is a great alternative to a road bike with the comfort of an upright riding position.
When comparing a gravel bike vs hybrid, you can easily tell a hybrid bike from its straight handlebars and lack of suspension.
A gravel bike relies heavily on front suspension and in some expensive models a rear travel suspension or elastomers in others.
For new riders looking for something that can do it all, the drop bar on a gravel bike can be a deal breaker, as it takes time to get used to them. For mountain bikers looking for an entry point into gravel racing, the drop bar is an essential bike style.
The wider tires on a gravel bike give a more comfortable riding experience in challenging cycling conditions and the geometry of hybrid bikes leaves less room for wide tires.
Another thing that you should consider is gearing. A good gearing system can considerably up the price of your bike.
Hybrid bikes are a great option, if multiple gears aren’t your thing and you prefer riding in a single speed. For trail blazers, the more gears, the more trails you can ride your gravel bike on.
Steep climbs, fast descents and the ability to adjust your speed on an adventure bike is unmatched with the gears on a hybrid bike.
Should I Buy a Hybrid Bike Or a Gravel Bike?
If you prefer comfort and practicality, a hybrid bike is a great option instead of a road bike.
While there are a few drawbacks to making that choice, gravel bikes are undoubtedly the better choice for trails and unpaved paths.
Choosing between a hybrid bike or a gravel bike comes down to your budget and where you want to ride.
Hybrid bikes range from a few hundred dollars to a couple thousand. There isn’t a lot of component complexity in a hybrid bike which keeps the cost low. Depending on your frame material and low to mid level specs, these bikes can be expensive or fairly cheap.
Adventure bikes for gravel racing and long off road tours do not come in a cheap package. A good gravel bike’s starting price can set you back a thousand dollars.
Gravel bike frames are the most expensive component. Carbon fiber frames can easily add a few thousand dollars on the higher specced models. Lightweight and robust components are another pricey addition to a gravel bike.
If you’re just starting out with gravel racing, you can opt for an entry-level bike to adjust to the bike style and riding position.
Gravel bikes and hybrids are both multifunctional.
A hybrid bike is optimal for cruising, free riding, and the flat handlebars with cushioned seats provide better comfort than a gravel bike.
Hybrid bikes are an all purpose investment. With the ability to carry bags and luggage attachments, these bikes are great for reliable riding in all weather conditions. The flat bar is ideal for paved surfaces and the reachability of a flat bar is always a big plus.
One area where the hybrid bike lacks in terms of capability is dirt and uneven paths. Gravel bikes are ideal for such surfaces with unmatched downhill speeds. On a gravel bike, the flat bar is replaced with a drop bar and this gives the aerodynamics necessary for gravel racing.
The gears and suspension on this bike make it a tough contender in comfort, but the pricier tag is also worth noting.
Whatever style of bike you choose, be sure to enjoy cruising around and exploring the outdoors.