How to choose between mountain, gravel, and road bikes

When I first got into the bike business in 1971, there were basically “10 speeds,” and that was what we called road bikes. They started at about $100 and once in a while we sold a $1000 model. These were road bikes, but I used mine everywhere—pavement, gravel and even singletrack. Pavement, however, was the preferred surface.

Today we have a multitude of types of bikes—road, mountain, gravel, and even subcategories within in those, like hardtail, all mountain, racing, comfort, touring, light gravel, adventure—the list goes on. It’s all daunting to a new bike buyer.

Road Bike Vs. Gravel Bike Vs. Mountain Bike - How Do You Choose?

My way of figuring all of this out is to simplify the formula. 1) Where do you ride, and 2) What kind of surface do you prefer? Fortunately new bike are more capable today than they were in the past. This is due to two main advancements: Disc brakes on road bikes, and improved suspension designs on mountain bikes.

Disc brakes allow for wider tires on a road bike because the brake caliper no longer impedes the tire width. Ten years ago a road bike could handle 28c tires at most. Today, even a road race models with disc brakes can take 32c tires, and some will even take a 38c. Though many gravel enthusiasts like tires up to 45c width, I feel the 35 to 38 is perfect for most people. This means you could come in and buy a “standard” disc road bike that would do everything from road racing, to comfort, to serious gravel riding—no reason to pick and choose. On the other hand if you only ride gravel, and adventure riding is in your future, get a true gravel bike. 

Mountain bikes have been improved with more efficient suspension designs. Ten years ago you had to pick a bike that descended well, but didn’t climb so well, or visa versa. Today bikes with 150 or 160mm travel also climb well. No need to wonder as much about where you ride your bike—The new bikes can do it all. 

Heres what I do: I have a Trek Domane combination road/gravel bike. I have two sets of wheels, one with 28c tires and one with 36c tires. I can ride all of the gravel I like and also have a lightweight road bike when I choose.

I have an Ibis Ripmo full suspension mountain bike. It climbs very efficiently with 160mm of travel on the front. This bike wins enduro races but climbs well enough not to feel awkward.

I have a hard tail mountain bike. I use this for the easier trails we have around Bend and for the deeper more difficult gravel routes. I could also use it for bikepacking, but the days of sleeping on the ground are over for me. 

This was not meant to be the definitive buyer’s guide, but rather an explanation of how capable new bikes are, and how to use that information when you are deciding what type of bike to buy. Also remember that you can stop by Sunnyside Sports, your bike shop in Bend, Oregon to rent mountain bikes, road bikes, and gravel bikes, so you can try before you buy.

Thanks for reading. 



Lawler Trail , Oakridge.

Lawler Trail , Oakridge.

Highway 27, Oregon’s only unpaved State Highway

Highway 27, Oregon’s only unpaved State Highway

Iconic Sa Calobra, Mallorca Spain

Iconic Sa Calobra, Mallorca Spain

Don Leet