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Is a gravel bike the ultimate winter bike? Why you should make the switch to gravel from the classic winter road bike

If you can budget for it, a second bike to handle harsh conditions is preferable to beating up your best bike year-round. Here's why my new winter steed is a gravel bike, rather than a road bike modified for winter

Riding a bike outside during the winter months in the northern hemisphere can be challenging, mostly due to unpleasant weather conditions. It can dampen your motivation and quickly turn your pride and joy into a creaking mess. Here's why I've chosen not to buy a dedicated winter road bike and spend my money on a gravel bike instead. 

Seven Serpents - 8 First Wet Climb.jpeg

My summer bike is a Specialized Tarmac SL6. Even though it has disc brakes, I'm hesitant to expose it to the salted winter roads. I want to keep the more expensive parts lasting longer, yet I'm not keen on spending the whole winter locked up on the turbo. Therefore, I've been on the lookout for a suitable alternative bike that can handle the winter conditions. 

Many people invest in a cheap bike that they don't mind abusing over the winter months, but I've gone down an alternative route and picked up a 2018 Specialized Diverge Comp with SRAM Force 1 from Facebook Marketplace instead. 

2018 Specialized Diverge Comp

Specialized first introduced its Diverge in 2014, and for the 2018 model year it gave the Diverge a complete overhaul. The bike is designed for road and off-road riding, featuring Future Shock suspension which provides 20mm of basic suspension. It also has tyre clearance for tyres up to 42mm and 'Open Road' geometry, which was an attempt to move away from traditional cyclocross geometry to differentiate the gravel and 'cross genres. 

> Best gravel bike tyres

The best winter bike for you is one that makes you want to go out riding in the winter months, of course - but let's take a look into why I think a gravel bike, like my second-hand Specialized Diverge, is the ultimate winter bike. 

1. You can ride it during the summer as well 

Specialized Diverge Comp 2018

Unlike buying a cheap winter bike that may only withstand a few months of use before parts start wearing out, a gravel bike can be ridden all year round. I'll actually want to ride the Diverge in the summer as well as in the winter, too!

Gravel bikes are great for more than just riding on actual gravel, proving to be capable on almost all surfaces except very technical mountain bike trails. 

If you can budget for it, opting for two wheelsets will give you even more versatility, as you'll have the flexibility to have one with road tyres and one with gravel tyres on. For example, I have a pair of wheels set up with an 11-32 cassette for dry, fast rides, and another pair with an 11-42 cassette on for slower, solo rides. 

2. 1x gives enough gears for winter and easier maintenance

2022 Sram Force Wide 43/30T crankset allroad bike

> Should you run a 1x set-up on your road bike?

As mentioned, my Diverge is set up with SRAM Force 1. I like that the 1x drivetrain gives me enough gears to get up steep, technical climbs, as well as reducing drivetrain maintenance. 

Gravel bikes typically have lower gearing than road bikes, which is achieved through the use of wider-range cassettes and often a 1x drivetrain. Gearing on a gravel bike is very rarely limiting. For most people, it will get you up just about everything, with a bit of sacrifice at the top end on fast descents. 

1x drivetrains also contribute to simplifying maintenance with fewer moving parts. This means they are less prone to issues caused by winter weather, such as debris build-up and snapped cables. 

3. Wider tyre clearance 

3T Exploro - rear tyre clearance.jpg

Gravel bikes have generous tyre clearance, meaning there's room for fatter knobbly tyres as well as slicks. While it varies a lot, most recently released gravel bikes will take at least 40mm tyres. The Lauf Seigla, for example, can take whopping 57mm tyres!

Many cheap road bikes, especially on the second-hand market, still have rim brakes, meaning they are limited to 28mm tyres at the most. Personally, I prefer to train with wider tyres and have the flexibility to use even wider ones with mudguards. 

You can experience the best of both worlds by equipping your gravel bike with slick 28mm tyres for a road bike-like feel. Alternatively, switching to wider, knobbly tyres means you'll still be able to ride even when ice and snow make riding on the roads dangerous. 

4. You can mix up your rides

gravel worlds hero

> How to increase your cycling motivation in winter

Repeating the same routes on your road bike can become monotonous, especially when trying to stay motivated during the winter months. That's where the versatility of a gravel bike makes it a great option, as it opens up lots of new places that you can ride and explore. 

You aren't confined to gritted main roads to avoid muddy lanes and ice. Instead, you can plot more interesting routes incorporating road and off-road sections, which helps to keep things interesting by providing a refreshing change in scenery. 

The adaptability of a gravel bike also means that you can change your plans mid-ride to adjust to the changing weather or light conditions.

5. It has mudguard mounts 

Specialized Diverge Expert Carbon Road Bike 2016 , Disc Brakes, 52cm 2016 - Mudguards

> 6 reasons to get mudguards this winter

With simple adjustments, you can make a gravel bike the perfect winter bike. For example, my Specialized Diverge, like many gravel bikes, has mudguard mounts, which are very useful for protecting you and your bike from the inevitable slush and road spray that accompany the colder months. 

Some gravel bikes can also be fitted with panniers, making them handy for multi-day adventures too.  

6. Gravel components are designed to be robust and durable

2022 Campagnolo Levante gravel wheelset.jpg

Gravel components are made with an emphasis on robustness and durability, distinguishing them from their road counterparts as they need to survive the realities of off-road riding.

Gravel bike frames are designed to withstand vibrations and impacts from varied terrain encountered in gravel riding. Usually, a gravel bike will have a bit more frame material to ward off any lively rocks and particularly bumpy terrain. Wheelsets often have sturdier rims and additional spoke counts to their equivalent road wheels to better cope with uneven road surfaces. 

However, the trade-off for this durability is a slight increase in weight compared to components designed for road cycling. 

7. Winter rides are slower anyway 

winter riding - Steve Thomas

> Can you get fit by cramming all of your riding into the weekend?

Winter riding tends to be at a slower pace, so long, steady rides on the gravel bike can still be good training sessions to boost your cardiovascular fitness. The geometry of gravel bikes also leans towards a more relaxed riding position, which is advantageous for remaining comfortable on longer rides. 

Rides aren't as much about intervals in the winter, and there's less expectation on performance. This means you can go out and enjoy riding your bike, which is what cycling is all about after all. 

8. They have disc brakes 

2023 Yoeleo G21 DB PRO Gravel Bike - fork.jpg

> Here's why the British National Hill Climb champion has switched to disc brakes

There are numerous positives to disc brakes, and winter is the time of year when they are particularly useful. The vast, vast majority of gravel bikes have disc brakes nowadays, which provide better stopping power in wet and muddy conditions. They also won't wear out your wheel rims, because there's no brake calliper biting against the rim. 

Another major reason why gravel bikes are equipped with disc brakes is because they don't limit tyre size, allowing you to tailor your setup to different terrains. 

9. Gravel rides can even be warmer 

Specialized Diverge Comp 2018

> How should you dress for winter cycling? 

Motivating yourself to brave the cold and wind to ride outdoors can be difficult in the winter, so gravel riding can be a warmer and more inviting alternative. 

Despite the temperature being the same whether you head out on the road or on a gravel ride, riding off-road is often more sheltered, minimising wind exposure and reducing wind chill as a result. 

10. Gravel bikes don't need to cost a fortune

2023 Marin Nicasio+ road.cc kit riding shot gravel 2

> Budget gravel bike vs premium gravel bike vs mountain bike: Does the bike make any difference?

Gravel bikes don't need to be expensive. You can find some pretty good deals on second-hand gravel bikes like I did with the Diverge. Alternatively, you can check out some of the best gravel bikes under £1,000 if you can budget for buying new. 

Cheap road bikes are often limited in both tyre clearance and modern tech, and because wide tyres and tubeless technology have been much more widely accepted for longer in the world of gravel, you can generally pick up this tech for less than it would set you back on its road counterparts. For example, my second hand Diverge is almost six years old, yet the standard wheels came tubeless-ready. Just add sealant, pump the tyres up and you're away, with some extra puncture protection compared to most inner-tubed tyre options. 

Specialized Diverge Comp 2018

If you're looking to buy a new bike to ride on gravel, it's worth buying one with a frame that you can upgrade over time, as it's far easier to upgrade components than it is a frame. Tyre choice is also more important than bike choice. Getting the right tread pattern and volume for the type of riding you'll be doing will make a huge difference to your speed, handling and riding enjoyment. 

What's your perfect winter bike set-up? Let us know in the comments section below.

Emily is our track and road racing specialist, having represented Great Britain at the World and European Track Championships. With a National Title up her sleeve, Emily has just completed her Master’s in Sports Psychology at Loughborough University where she raced for Elite Development Team, Loughborough Lightning.

Emily is our go-to for all things training and when not riding or racing bikes, you can find her online shopping or booking flights…the rest of the office is now considering painting their nails to see if that’s the secret to going fast…

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28 comments

Avatar
Oldfatgit | 2 months ago
1 like

My winter bike is the same as my road bike and commuter bike.

It's a Basso Vega and a few minutes with an Allen key or two makes the transformation.

In winter, the fast rolling road tyres come off one set of rims, and Schwalbe Winters go on.
A second set of rims see Marathon Plus go on - these are the commuters - along with a pannier rack that comes and goes depending on the ride.
A third set has the gravel tyres on.

I used to fight with tyres every Friday night to get the road/commute tyres off and the gravel ones on... only to have to do it all again on the Saturday afternoon for the Sunday ride.

More wheelsets - brought over a couple of years - eased that pain and is totally worth it.

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SarahFeeMatthews | 3 months ago
2 likes

I did just that 4 years ago - I bought an Orro Terra C with 2 sets of wheels. Slick for roads and gravel tyres ostensibly for trails but with all the early winter storms depositing debris and floods on our lanes I've found the gravel tyres are safer on the roads. Mudguards have made riding so much more enjoyable. Yes it's heavy compared to my road an TT bikes but as I want to build leg strength during the winter it's fine. Train heavy - race light.

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Keesvant | 3 months ago
1 like

🤣🤣 been using cyclo cross bikes for my commute for years !
Conti grandprix 4-season tires and keep going through the muc
My route is pure backroads and polder as i live in the netherlands
I used to do the sunday morning club rides on one aswel, but through the years the speed of the group went up so bought a aero race bike for that.. cheers !

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PTC | 3 months ago
1 like

Welcome to my world! My second winter using a gravel bike adapted for the road. An aluminium Orbea, now with Shimano's 1x 12-speed 45-10 cassette and 44t chainring. Add in Sigma Sports Vel carbon wheels with Continental 5000 32's and I'm marginally slower than my carbon BMC carbon Roadmachine. More importantly feel a whole lot more assured over pot-holes, wet leaves etc etc. Even in the summer, it's the bike that loads on the roof of the car for UK holidays where you might not know what the terrain might be like.....

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Surreyrider | 3 months ago
1 like

The answer is obviously no. A gravel bike is for riding gravel.

But hey, cycling journalists have an obsession with gravel because it's the next trendy thing.

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stonojnr | 3 months ago
0 likes

The Diverge may have mud guard mounts for Specializeds plug n play fender system, that involes you drilling holes in the mudguard to get the right fit, but they are practically useless anyway.

It's the one downside I have had with the bike, but it's stood up well to the 8 years of grief I've chucked at it, even if the original rims cracked and the hub turned to mush.

though mine isn't affected by it, its worth knowing Specialized created a mess for the rear hub for some of the Diverges, with their SCS setup & adapted gear hanger, which does makes finding suitable replacement components more difficult than it should be.

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Dunnoeither | 3 months ago
1 like

It's my 31st winter on the road and next to my two road bikes (rim and disc) I have a fixie and an endurance bike (both disc and with mudguards of course) My Gravelbike is a gravel only affair, as I don't like slack head angles on the road.
Aside from my fixie all my bikes feature a front derailleur because I still haven't managed to have any issues with any of them and I like tightly spaced cassettes. And yes I also have a turbo for when ice makes the roads unrideable.
Whatever your preference for your winter riding, just don't stop pedaling!

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Velophaart_95 replied to Dunnoeither | 2 months ago
0 likes

Slack head angles? Really? Give me a break....what ridiculous excuse. You sound like the classic roadie luddite......

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Left_is_for_Losers | 3 months ago
4 likes

Why is this even up for debate?! 

To me the gravel bike is the ultimate do it all, as a road focussed rider, the gravel bike comes out during winter for some frosty rides and times when road riding is borderline dangerous with some of the roads here, and to do something different. Plus it's a great utility bike

Other than that, the road bike is for everything else. 

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richliv replied to Left_is_for_Losers | 3 months ago
1 like

Exactly. I have a Ti gravel bike with a road (2×) setup and decent winter wheels with 28mm slicks, but also, gravel tyres for a change. It's also a tourer and a bike for days when weather looks iffy and I would rather leave the aero summer bike in the shed. Pretty much the definition of utility? Its a bit heavier than my old winter bike but then I go slower in winter and heavier is bette training.

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davebrads | 3 months ago
0 likes

I mosly agree with the sentiment only there is still an excuse to go the n+1 route. My winter/commuter bike is a Kinesis aluminium frame which offers quite lively handling and a fairly low position which is nice on the road while my gravel bike (which is actually an old cyclo-cross frame with fatter wheels and tyres) while still having quite lively handling has a much more upright position. I use the gravel bike on the road when it gets icy but I look forward to getting back on the commuter when the weather improves, it feels so much faster and smoother.

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Jimmy Ray Will | 3 months ago
5 likes

What is a gravel bike really?

Is it a reworked old school MTB, or a re-engineered touring bike? 

The more I read, the more I lean towards a modern touring bike... bikes none of us would be seen dead on 10-15 years ago are now all the rage. And who says marketing doesn't work? 

The above aside, my gravel bike has morphed into winter bike... 28mm road tyres and guards. There is a club gravel ride on Saturday, so am going to see if I can get 40mm gravel tyres and mudguards to work with sufficient clearance. If so, those tyres might just stay on all winter. 

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stonojnr replied to Jimmy Ray Will | 3 months ago
1 like

Depends I think, alot of people in the UK equate gravel = MTB, ride a Diverge on some of those gravel races or sportives, you'll be spat out the back in the first mud section.

Whereas Specialized developed the bike in the USA as a beefed up road bike that could handle those thousands of miles of compacted gravel trails they have, that a road bike just couldn't handle.

The rework of it shifted it more towards MTB lite I think. You don't need 40 & knobbly tyres for gravel.

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Dunnoeither replied to Jimmy Ray Will | 3 months ago
3 likes

The differences in geometry and spec between a touring bike and a gravel bike may appear subtle to some but I think they result in a ride that justifies a separate category. I believe that the success of gravelbikes isn't just marketing. They serve sportive riders who aren't tarmac or off-road only but don't want a fleet of bikes. They come with the possibility of being two or three bikes in one. Far more versatile than a road bike and a lot sexier and more advanced than most touring bikes.

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Jimthebikeguy.com | 3 months ago
3 likes

Gravel bike (or 'bike' as i like to call it) for all year round. Its the future.

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Adam Sutton | 3 months ago
3 likes

Aside from the Brompton a gravel bike is my bike.

Mudgaurds are never off, it gets ridden in all weather and the permanent pannier rack makes it a go and grab for commuting and shopping. Besides with the state of the roads a gravel bike with wider tyres makes sense.

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chrisonabike replied to Adam Sutton | 3 months ago
4 likes

Am considering that style for my next ride now.

TBH if you ride on the roads in Edinburgh- especially during winter / spring, every bike is a "gravel bike"...

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Adam Sutton replied to chrisonabike | 3 months ago
1 like

I have had my Ribble CGR AL since 2019 and it has been very good. It could do with a proper strip down and service now if I am honest, but has survived winter commutes and being taken well off the beaten track at weekends regularly.

The only niggle I have had is the deraillieur hanger fits with two tiny screws and then the bolt through axle screws into it, as a result they can come loose and the first time it took ages, plus the LBS scratching their head before the source of the noise was tracked down.

I stuck with the Schwalbe G-ones @40mm for tyres as they seem pretty good all rounders, but did switch them to tubeless last year.

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cyclisto replied to Adam Sutton | 3 months ago
1 like

Seems like a very well thought out stable. I have something like a gravel bike before gravel bikes became popular. Used only in road, apart when mapping skills are overestimated. I would feel unconfortamble riding tires narrower than 32c in road though I don't have a folder, but I would often need it, so a Brompton is very enviable.

My only problem is that is gravel bikes sold still have most of them too low geometry for the often lazy rider like me. There are a few exceptions like the Silex and some Marin though.

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Adam Sutton replied to cyclisto | 3 months ago
0 likes

I am not that across the detail in geometries, but mine seems more relaxed erring towards enduarance. It suits me as I am far from flexible and could imagine finding a full on road bike quite uncomfortable.

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kil0ran | 3 months ago
4 likes

A gravel bike is my year round ride now. The older Revolt had essentially the same front triangle geo as a Defy so it rides mostly the same, just the longer wheelbase making it a bit less responsive. Carbon wheels and 28mm tyres for summer, 38mm for winter under mudguards.
I think the only challenge is that gravel is a broad church these days. Plenty of aggressive race machines with limited clearances and no eyelets. New GCR from Decathlon a case in point. And then there are the bikes at the bikepacking end which are perhaps a bit too relaxed for engaging road riding.

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Lozcan | 3 months ago
3 likes

State of the roads round here, the only choice. So much flooding I got waterproof trousers and socks !!

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Losd | 3 months ago
1 like

The ultimate winter ride is inside, strapped into a turbo trainer. Fight me.

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Jack Sexty replied to Losd | 3 months ago
4 likes

It's catching on already... 

 

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andystow replied to Losd | 3 months ago
11 likes
Losd wrote:

The ultimate winter ride is inside, strapped into a turbo trainer. Fight me.

Incorrect.

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Pot00000000 replied to Losd | 3 months ago
7 likes

That's not a winter bike, it's just a bike 😜

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Backladder replied to Losd | 3 months ago
3 likes
Losd wrote:

The ultimate winter ride is inside, strapped into a turbo trainer. Fight me.

You've obviously never ridden in a velodrome!

Avatar
Daveyraveygravey replied to Losd | 3 months ago
2 likes

If you don't like actually riding...

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