Can you ride a gravel bike on the road? The simple answer: Yes, of course! But if you’re asking this question, you’re probably interested in using a gravel bike instead of a road bike for more dedicated road use. Maybe you want to mix up your riding. Maybe you want to join your local road group rides. Maybe you want to race!
So why not just get a road bike? Well, not everyone has the budget or space for a multi-bike quiver. A gravel bike already works well on the road, but the great thing about gravel bikes is that they’re so versatile, you can just swap out the tires (and maybe chainrings) to get them to excel on pavement. Here’s what you need to know.
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How to convert a gravel bike for road use
I’ve covered the key differences between road and gravel bikes before, and the two elements that matter most when adapting a gravel bike to road use are the tires and gearing. Of the two, tires are the most important change, and for many riders, it's the only change they will need to make.
Gravel bikes are designed around 38-45mm wide tires. These tires usually have some sort of tread to handle a wide range of surfaces, including pavement, but ultimately they have to excel on dirt and gravel.
If you’re going to spend more time on the road, a “slick” tire is preferable. This minimizes rolling resistance for more speed and maximizes the amount of rubber contacting the road for more grip when braking and cornering.
Don’t just slap any slick tire on your gravel bike though. Most modern road tires are 23-28mm wide, and that is likely too narrow for your gravel bike for a couple of reasons. First, since gravel bikes are designed around 38-45mm tires, their geometry (fork trail, bb drop, etc.) is matched to that tire size. Going to a significantly smaller tire will drastically change the handling of your bike, making it feel twitchy, nervous, or too low to the ground.
Second, most gravel bikes come with wheels with wider internal rim widths designed to support wider tires. It is possible the rims on your gravel bike will be too wide for a narrow road tire. You may risk damaging your rims because your tires aren't wide enough to adequately protect the rim walls from the road or trail surface. Or, you may square off the profile of your tires so much that it negatively affects handling and performance.
My recommendation is to choose tires 28mm or wider. If speed is your biggest priority, a 28mm slick tire will significantly decrease weight and reduce rolling resistance, turning your gravel bike into a road-going rocketship. 30-32mm tires are another good (and in my opinion, better) option because they provide a bit more grip and comfort. Nowadays, there are even slick gravel tires in the 35-40mm range. These will be a bit heavier and slower than a true road tire, but they provide a lot of comfort, won’t affect the handling of your gravel bike, and will even allow you to transition between road and gravel without much issue.
One final thing to note — pay attention to whether the tires you purchase are compatible with your rims. This is mainly a concern if you have hookless rims. If you do, you’ll need to purchase tubeless tires that are compatible with hookless rims to ensure they fit securely.
Also, if you want to regularly ride both road and gravel on your gravel bike, it can be a pain to switch your tires, especially if you’re set up tubeless. Because of this, some riders will purchase a second wheelset set up for road use with slick tires. This allows you to easily swap between a gravel and road setup depending on what you want to ride on a particular day.
Gravel bikes use either 1x or 2x drivetrains, and they place a greater focus on easy gears which are better for steep and loose gravel climbs. Road drivetrains, on the other hand, are usually 2x, and because road riding is typically faster, they will have a bigger top gear to achieve high top speeds. When riding a gravel bike on the road, riders can “spin out” their biggest gear, meaning it isn’t hard enough to continue pedaling at high speeds.
Spinning out is most common with 1x drivetrains, which typically have a smaller chainring. But it can also happen on a 2x if you’re fast enough. The only solution is to get a larger chainring(s). Depending on how much larger you need to go, you may also need a new chain.
A lot of riders setting their gravel bike up for road riding worry about this, but my advice is to leave your drivetrain alone unless you are regularly spinning out your hardest gear. Gearing is usually only a concern for very strong riders and racers trying to stick with fast groups or regularly riding in the high 20mph range. Personally, I've had no issues doing fast road rides with a 42x10t top gear. If you’re curious, you can use an online gearing calculator to figure out the top speed of your bike with your current gearing.
My favorite road tires for gravel bikes
If you want to slap some slicks on your gravel bike and hit the road, what tires should you choose? These are my favorite slick tires for dedicated road use or mixed road and gravel use.
Panaracer GravelKing Slick
Width options: 26mm, 28mm, 32mm, 35mm, 38mm
Panaracer’s GravelKing slick is the classic do-it-all tire. Despite its name, the supple casing rolls fast on pavement and comes in sizes up to 38mm for riders who want a more versatile mixed surface setup or who don’t want to change their bike’s handling. All GravelKing tires are tubeless compatible and are also available in plus (+) versions that provide extra puncture protection.
Challenge Strada Pro & Strada Bianca Pro
Width options: 25mm, 27mm, 30mm, 33mm
Challenge tires are handmade in Italy and feature super-supple high-TPI casings that roll exceptionally fast. Strada tires are pro-level race tires that come in wider sizes designed to handle rough pavement and cobblestones. Sounds perfect for a versatile gravel bike! The Strada Pro is a bit lighter and comes in 25mm, 27mm, and 30mm sizes. The Strada Bianca Pro comes in wider 30mm and 33mm sizes, and it’s a bit more robust to handle more rugged surfaces. Both models come in clincher and tubeless versions.
Vittoria Corsa N.EXT
Width options: 26mm, 28mm, 30mm, 32mm, 34mm
The Corsa N.EXT is a nylon-casing version of the legendary Corsa road racing tire. Like the standard Corsa, it is one of the fastest-rolling road tires I’ve used, but the nylon casing is tougher and more puncture resistant to handle daily use. I tested the Corsa N.EXT on my own road bike and have since replaced the Continental GP5000 S TR as my go-to road tire. It comes in clincher and tubeless versions.
ENVE SES Road
Width options: 25mm, 27mm, 29mm, 31mm
The SES road tires are ENVE’s first foray into the tire game. They’re designed to be versatile enough to roll fast on pavement but are tough enough to also handle broken pavement, dirt, and gravel roads. A super versatile all-rounder, all SES road tires are tubeless compatible.
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