Gravel bikes for the UK: Just get a hardtail

If you’re interested in off road cycling you may well have ‘gravel bikes’ being marketed at you. They can supposedly ‘do it all,’ because all it takes to tame the UK’s off road terrain is some wide knobbly tyres, flared bars and some hydraulic disc brakes. I was persuaded by this and persevered with trying to make a Surly Midnight Special a ‘do it all’ bike for more than a year, and learned the hard way that life is too short to try hammering square pegs through round holes. This is a short article about how I ended up trading it in for a cheap 2nd hand hardtail and why I think you’d likely be best served by opting for the same.

Firstly we should establish some facts: most people don’t have much room for many bikes. Some of my dearest friends have a great many bikes (at one point one of them slept in a bunk bed with the bottom bunk removed so they could house their stable in their bedroom). But I just don’t have the room for an expansive fleet. I live in a north London flatshare, with the enormous fortune to have a single space in an on-street cycle hangar, which anyone who lives in this town can tell you are rarer than rocking horse doo-doo, with years long waiting lists. Getting bikes up to my 2nd floor room is impossible, and since Grenfell bicycles (and anything else) have been banned from being stored in the shared hallway. And a bike wash area? Forget it. I have a ‘town bike’ which lives under a plastic tarp chained to a railing and can only own one ‘nice bike’ of my own where I can be fairly confident it won’t be nicked.

The Midnight Special that tried to be an MTB but couldn’t hack it.

I think this is a pretty normal situation for most people my age in London. The reality, for us, is that ‘a bike for every occasion’ isn’t attainable. You won’t get to survey trail conditions and pick between a gravel bike, a hardtail or a full sus enduro bike. You just have to lump it with what you have, at the most being able to change tyres for the seasons.

And that’s the nub of it. For a lot of off road cycling a gravel bike in the UK *can* suffice; but with the darkening of the skies and intensifying of the rain, they just become less and less viable to the point where you’d be limited to all but the most well drained paths. For instance when trying to do a mixed terrain ride with my dad on our cross/gravel bikes in 2021, we found that ‘bridleways’ in our holiday neighbourhood were completely impassable on our machines. It wasn’t just that the tyres were too skinny, the way that our weight was much more front-loaded than on an MTB resulted in spinning wheels, and the narrow bars meant we couldn’t get effective leverage to get through the muck. Maybe if your surname is Van Der Poel this is passable but there was no doubt that our ‘do it all’ bikes were in fact more like ‘do some of it but you have to push the rest.’

A bridleway in Yorkshire, October 2021.

Even when the going is dry, there’s some specific points where gravel bikes really struggle: technical climbs and descents. While gravel bikes tend to have flared bars for more control, they can only go so far, and when you’re trying to haul yourself up a steep, narrow, rooty incline are just no substitute for a 780mm riser bar. Further, on the climb you want to be able to keep weight well distributed over both wheels, which a mountain bike’s geometry excels at. A gravel bike? Not nearly so much. While a gravel bike can doubtless be used to get up steep climbs, it isn’t nearly so optimised for steering around techy obstacles while so doing. The wide handlebars on mountain bikes aren’t there just because they look cool, they serve a really vital function that makes the hardest parts of your ride vastly more enjoyable and under control.

In this group, our mountain biker used their wide bars to get better climbing leverage and could better steer over the roots, while us gravel cyclists had to get off and push. Both the cyclists in this picture are accomplished mountain bikers but like me, had to get off at this technical climb in Purbeck.

It was after rides like these that I began thinking harder about whether I was really enjoying riding the Surly. It had cost me a bruising £1,600 on the cycle to work scheme but I was just finding that far from ‘doing it all,’ it was just always like riding a bike that wasn’t up to the specific task I was doing. It was heavy on the road, the SRAM 1x gearing was really too limited for big tours laden with bags (I was pushed to my limits at points on the Caledonian Way), and I could never shake the feeling that I was hamstringing myself for anything but the most mild and dry off-road cycling.

This is where the Voodoo Bizango 29er came in. I found it on Facebook Marketplace (from a genuine seller, who could prove the purchase history) for £500 including a Brand X dropper post. I hadn’t actually ridden a mountain bike for going on several years, and the most up to date one I’d ever tried was my dad’s 2010s Cannondale 26er hardtail. It’s a complete night and day difference. The dropper post and very sloped top tube make technical descending hugely enjoyable, with the top tube and saddle well out of the way of my groin allowing me to really bring my legs in to the equation as shock absorbers.

Are there specific parts of some off road rides where I’m now a little slower? Yes, especially when it’s dry. But aided by the suspension (which can be locked out) and the dropper, I’ve got more energy to give on these sections because I’m not bruising from having white-knuckled a descent where I’ve felt like an over-the-bars could be in the offing. Maybe this stuff would matter to me if I were doing UCI certified gravel racing. But I’m not, and neither are most people.

The £500 facebook hardtail with dropper.

I sold the Surly and have been having a terrific time with the MTB ever since. Obviously there will still be impassable trails at some times of year even on an MTB, but it’s opened so many more doors to relaxing car-free cycling than the Surly did. I would highly highly recommend looking at a hardtail instead of a ‘gravel bike’ for your off roading needs in the UK, I don’t think you’ll regret it in the sightest. Your money can go so far with even the most entry level modern MTB when it’s got a dropper on.

Especially with mudguards, even winter weekday mornings can yield fantastic riding.

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