“Why don’t you just get a mountain bike?”-some guy in a Fox shirt
Mountain bikes started out as much different machines than they are today. In fact, if you place a 1990 GT Zaskar next to a 2021 Giant Trance, they don’t even look like they’re meant for the same sport… and that’s because, well, they aren’t.
Modern mountain bikes have evolved into such highly specialized machines that they are only really good at doing one thing- riding down mountains, and as the bikes have evolved, so to have the trails. Modern technical singletrack doesn’t even remotely resemble what most people rode mountain bikes on in the 90s.
When I was younger, you could ride on pavement to a friend’s house, taking all of the dirt shortcuts that you could find, and take a lap around the gravel “trails” that some high schoolers had made, and you could do all of this on the same bike… and that’s all that gravel bikes are.
Riding gravel isn’t new, and technically, neither are gravel bikes. Thirty years ago, both Specialized and Bridgestone had models that look strikingly similar to a modern gravel bike with the Rockcombo and XO series respectively. Riding the same bike on pavement and gravel/dirt isn’t a new invention or fad, it’s how most people grew up riding bikes.
Old mountain bikes were rad because you could pretty much ride them anywhere, but like all things in the bike industry, money can’t be made if you have one bike that does everything you want. Therefore, bikes have to get more and more specific until they reach a point where they are only capable of doing one thing.
*If you don’t believe me, try taking an aero road bike with carbon wheels and 25mm tires through a tree root infested trail and down a rock garden. No? Okay, ride a full suspension enduro bike with 2.6″ tires for forty miles on pavement. Both would be equally miserable.
So as mountain bikes and trails kept progressing, and road bikes got stiffer and more aerodynamic, a lot of folks just wanted a bike that was just as much fun around town as it was on a forest road.
Thus, the industry blessed us with the modern gravel bike (which as previously mentioned, sort of already existed at one point), and, believe it or not, its already morphed into multiple sub-genres.
Bike shops are awash in all-road bikes, gravel bikes, gravel race bikes, bikepacking bikes, full suspension gravel bikes, and more. And while this may all seem overwhelming, the real differences in these bikes are small- mainly coming down to tire clearance, mounting points, and tiny differences in frame geometry.
Do you need a gravel-specific bike to ride on a gravel forest road or rail trail?
No. You can ride any bike that has a large enough tire for the terrain that you will be on.
Do you need drop bars?
Nope. Ride what makes you happy, Lots of folks like flat bars, or Jones bars, or Mustache bars, or dirt drops, or whatever.
Do you need gravel-specific shoes?
Does a modern gravel-specific bike perform better than a hybrid with big tires or an old steel tourer?
Yes. But we’re talking about marginal differences and whether or not you have the skill, will, and power to find the limits of whatever bike you’re on.
Essentially, the bike that you already own could be a more than capable gravel bike. It really depends on your own riding style, and the terrain that you want to cover. Modern bikes may have technologies that make them handle better at high speeds, but I’ve bombed the same forest roads on a steel bike with cantilever brakes, skewers, and a straight steer tube, as I have on a carbon bike with hydraulic discs, thru-axles, and a tapered steerer.
The difference is miniscule in the big picture (except the part about the brakes, hydraulic discs are AMAZING).
Anyway, my point is that what you’re riding is not that important, as long as you are riding. You’ll find the limitations of any equipment you have, and then you can upgrade accordingly.
Just go ride your bike. Ride your bike like you did as a kid. Take it where ever you want, and make sure you smile while you’re doing it.