Combined MTB/Gravel-ish bike? - input welcomed!

I’d appreciate input from you good folks on the following, as a bit of a sanity check… :grin:

I’m looking for a style of bike - a compromise bike - capable of being ridden satisfactorily on the off-road stuff near to me, plus a few tarmac lanes linking up the off-road stuff.

Now, I’m in the UK’s peak district, and this off-road stuff ranges from manicured cycle trails along disused railway lines, easy canal towpaths through to so-called bridleways. These bridleways vary, but they often can be pretty rough & rocky and very steep, many being 18th/19th Century packhorse trails that have slowly deteriorated.

99% of my adult cycling has been on road bikes, but I started to ride this local off-road stuff over the spring and summer with a pal when the weather was fine and the trails were bone dry. I started off on my (all-)road bike using my existing 32mm Gravel King slicks, enjoyed that, so then fitted some 35mm Gravel King SKs, being the widest tyres the frame would take. Like this:


On the flatter, smoother (non-rocky) stuff, this was good, and on-road obviously it was great. And compared to the slick 32mm tyres, it was great on the rougher stuff.

But on the downside, though, position on the bike remained less than ideal, being too low on the front; the 42mm drop bars were a struggle in terms of control particularly going down rough, steep descents; more grip and more bump absorbency were needed; 1:1 gearing was insufficient.

To help, I decided to resurrect an old hybrid bike that I’d been using as a turbo trainer bike: fitted the 35mm Gravel Kings to it; lowered the gearing by nearly 25% vs. the road bike down to a bottom gear of 0.76; fitted a RedShift suspension stem. Sort of like a very old skool rigid MTB, I guess. Like this:


This was much better than the all-road bike: not materially slower on the short road stretches but plenty better off-road: much better control from having wider, flat bars (although they’re v narrow by modern MTB standard being just 540 or 560mm if I recall); substantially lower gearing meant less hike-a-bike on the steepest/rougher uphill sections; suspension stem meant more comfort or more speed on the bumpier, rockier stuff.

But, for the MTB-type trails (the rough, steep, rocky or very loose gnarly bridleways) this is clearly still a long way from being the ideal machine, meaning it feels pretty iffy (dangerous!) on some of this stuff, and still requires a good slug of hike-a-bike. I don’t mind being “underbiked” - in fact, that’s part of the appeal here - but on this setup I’m still too underbiked for a chunk of the stuff I’m trying to ride…

What I think I need is: more grip, more bump/shock absorbency, lower gearing still.

While I don’t know a huge amount about MTBs, from kicking the idea around and speaking to a few people I think what might work well for me on what I’m riding would be:

  • a light-ish, 29er, hardtail, XC bike, with 100-120mm front suspension, with tyres that are narrower than most people might use (maybe use Gravel tyres?), and with narrower bars (~600+ mm? )than is today’s norm, to help me remain faster on the flatter stuff or on the tarmac bits, but which to me with my roadie background will still seem pretty wide and give decent control.

Because of how rough some of the stuff I’m trying to ride is, I think a gravel bike - as I’ve pretty much shown myself with my existing setups - is too compromised in terms of steering control, insufficiently low gearing, grip and shock absorbency. Also, because of where I live (being right next to these trails meaning I can be off-road within minutes) and my desire just to ride local loops, the amount of tarmac I need to ride on linking up the off-road stuff is low to very low, and so the road-bike characteristics, such as top-end gearing/speed and aerodynamics, of a typical gravel bike (vs. MTB) aren’t such a draw for me.

Does this line of thinking make sense? Or am I way off mark?

As I said, any input welcomed - Cheers!

If this is true, I would just go with the 29er hardtail but not worry about making tire or handlebar compromises like you’re suggesting. I don’t think the compromises you’re suggesting are going to be worth it, personally, and I think your grip issues won’t be solved as effectively by running gravel tires on a MTB. If you want a gravel setup that can handle more, another option to consider is a gravel bike that can take 650b wheels with MTB tires. The hardtail will be better on the bridleways but the gravel bike with 650b wheels will likely be a little better for the road and mellower path sections while still giving you some but not all the benefits of the hardtail on the bridleways. Not being from the UK, I don’t really know just how technical the bridleways are as to whether the gravel bike will be enough, but I think ultimately it’s going to come down to personal preference either way.

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I’d probably be looking at a hardtail of sorts, 29 inch wheels and fast rolling tyres. Xc trail fork with lockout too.

I’d not worry about narrower bars either, and tbh 600mm ones aren’t going to be easy to get (my 2005 era bike has wider bars). You could grip either side of stem it anyhow if you wanted an aero section.

This way it’s a proper xc bike so you can hammer off road if it takes you and you’ve not compromised it. Plus the lakes looks bloody awesome for mountain biking last time I was there.

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Thanks for the input. I suspect you’re probably right here. You can probably see that, because of my roadie background, I’m sort of fighting having a regular MTB, even though that may be the most appropriate tool. I still think I could run decently narrower bars than is the norm nowadays and have it still work for me OK. eg. I’m not too interested in descending quickly on the off-road stuff - just more safely/comfortably than at present. I’m a lot more interested in climbing quickly, and be decent on the flatter stuff, hence the desire to keep the bike lighter in weight and tolerate less grip and bump absorption than most people might opt for.

On the rougher stuff, nearly everyone I see is on an MTB, more often than not dual suspension. Those on CX/gravel bikes are very rare and clearly underbiked for that terrain. I did want to build a gravel setup, because I like road-style bikes and drop bars, but my experience to date tells me that it’s not really a suitable tool for the rides I’m hoping to do. Most of the people on the flatter stuff are also on MTBs, but wide-tyred drop bar bikes show their face a touch too. I suppose the issue I have is that I’m trying to combine a wide range of terrain and surfaces into a single ride, so whatever tool chosen will involve compromises.

I haven’t ridden a road bike in a couple years and use my 29er HT for every kind of ride you’re describing.

29ers are one of the best things that ever existed. Mount some 2.1” Vittoria Terrenos and you’re set. Let the bike run and it’ll roll over almost everything!

Modern XC bike geometry is evolving toward slacker head tubes, short stems, and steeper seatpost angle. Wider bars work better.

Lots of good forks out there. If you’re looking for a 120; then RS Pike, Fox 34 are both good options. I use a FOX 32, it’s 100mm.

Love your hybrid.
Hope this helps!

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OK, so sounds like I’m on roughly the right track. I’d forgotten to mention a remote lockout, but that’s on my list too - thanks!

Noted re the bars.

Something to consider…

That’s all encouraging to hear - and thanks for the kit/component suggestions. Those Terreno tyres look like the sort of thing I was imagining. :+1: ( although it might be a bit too slick). Something for me to look into.

Like a lot of others I reckon a 29” HT is the go. You could maybe keep standard(ish) width bars and run some TOGS or mini aerobars inboard of the grips for the road sections, which would get your arms in narrower?

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If you need a more aggressive tread, the I recommend Vittoria Mezcal. Road or dirt, they’re fast!

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I would get a full suspension bike. Here’s why: if you ever feel beat up after a ride, FS sure makes the rest of the day pleasant. I started on the dirt riding before suspension was an option. I’d say your road bike compared well with that thing. Then I had a HT, because I was a weight weenie. Then, I moved to more travel FS. It is super fun and I feel more confident and safer on it.

If you are all about the HT, get a dropper post. Going down steep hills with vs without is worlds apart.

My two cents.

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I had to look up TOGS! I do often use a “thumbs-over” grip when climbing - who knew there was a gizmo to help?

I had thought a little bit about clip-on aerobars after watching a Dylan Johnson vid last week, but had guessed they’d probably be a bit OTT for my use case. I’ll bear them in mind though.

One thing I’ll definitely fit, though, is bar ends! Love them. For years I used that Spesh hybrid pictured above as another road bike: it had slick tyres, road chainrings/cassette, lower bars etc, and the bar ends gave me a hand position akin to being on the hoods on a drop bar bike, stretching me out further and lower than if I was holding the grips conventionally . That’s part of the reason why on this future MTB I’d consider using narrower bars than is the convention nowadays, trading off-road control for on-road/flat-trail aero.

The perfect setup for you would be a light weight carbon hardtail, with light weight carbon wheels with 25mm internal width and mounted with Continental Race King Protection MTB tires. The Race Kings test as the fastest rolling MTB tires. If I were doing lots of flat gravel sections I would also mount on some short, clip on aerobars for a different hand position and because aero is fast.

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Thanks for that. If I rode only the rougher off-road stuff then I think that full suspension would be the best tool for the job. But because of the other smoother, flatter stuff and road sections I’ll also be riding, I feel that full suss is too “overbiked” for those. To avoid that, then as a compromise I think I’ll be happier being a bit underbiked on the roughest stuff. I had considered a rigid MTB also, maybe with plus tyres, but feel (am guessing really!) that a lightweight, hard-tail, xc 29er might be the sweet spot for me.

I suppose there’s no right or wrong answer, just personal preferences. My reason for posting my question here was really as a sanity check to make sure I was I thinking on roughly the right lines, and from feedback received it seems I probably was, so that’s good and I appreciate the input from everyone. :+1:

Was thinking about this, an epic ultra style race full sus might also be a good option, it’s going to be fast and suitably different to any other bikes.

If you end up with a ht with short travel lockout forks and fast XC tyres just how different is it to a gravel bike with phat tyres?

I have a 140mm 27.5 trail bike, gravel and race bikes and tbh they’re all totally different and scratch the itch that’s needed. My mtb is 4 years old and 29ers have come on leaps and bounds so if I was getting a new one it’d be a fun 120mm 29er. Plus with my mtb friends I don’t need a super-fast bike, I’m always slower downwards but start pointing upwards and TrainerRoad comes to the rescue and I’m crushing them!

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I thought of one more thing.

“Aero” handlebar extension.

You can get into a sort of preying mantis position for long straights without grabbing the crown of the fork.

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Is your budget for new or used?

So many options for you out there from FS with lockouts like Scott Spark or Orbea Oiz, or hardtail like the Canyon Exceed. And somewhere in the middle is the new Trek Supercaliber that has only 65mm of rear wheel travel.

I think as you are not a mountain biker you’re making a fair amount of assumptions about what is capable on modern MTB’s.

You can get very fast rolling tyres such as the Vittoria Mezcal or Maxxis Aspen. All tyre brands have near slicks in their range.

Certainly research via sites such as MBUK and read through their reviews of bikes and equipment.

But whatever you do, get a dropper post.

One last thing. Modern handlebars will not cut down to 600mm and then allow you to push the grips inboard using barends as the bars will flare too much and prevent the brakes from clamping on. I think that you would be comfortably surprised with a 740mm width and look at something like the Ergon grips with the little bullhorn on them such as the Ergon GP2 or GP3.

Good luck in your bike choice :grin:

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I’m sure full sus could work very well and be very capable. But, I’d like this machine to be as simple and as low-maintenance as it can reasonably be (while still able to do “a job”) and not cost the earth…

Regarding a hardtail with lockout forks and fast tyres vs. gravel bike with big tyres: I think the key difference, and where the latter bike fails for my use case, is gearing and steering. The two bikes I mentioned above that I’ve used to date on these routes have convinced me that an MTB-shaped machine is much better suited because drop bars and associated gearing don’t really cut it - too compromised IMO. I’d thought about something like a Mason ISO, for instance, but my head says the ratio of lumpy, rough, steep stuff to flatter stuff means that type of bike probably isn’t the best tool.

In a way, I’m attempting to have 2 bikes do the job of your 3. My road bike is an “all-road” bike, normally running 30-32mm tyres (or occasionally 35mm GK SKs as in the pic above) plus it now has a GRX 2x groupset giving a bottom gear ratio of 0.91. So on a road-ride I can also handle a bit of tamer trail riding, which helps open up a few route choices for me that help avoid traffic and add a bit of interest.

This new bike is intended to allow rides combining those same tamer trails (plus bits of tarmac where needed) with the rough, steep trails/bridleways that I have on my doorstep, but which I’ve not previously been able to ride on. It’s intended as a bit of fun for me - a tool that gives me access to these new (to me) bike routes for a quick hour or two, places that previously I might have walked or hiked to, but fancy getting out more quickly to via bike. I’m in my early 50s, have no prior MTB skills and I’m not racing anyone downhill off-road :open_mouth:. But, I am fairly fit (TrainerRoad :+1:) and like to climb fast, hence a light-ish bike appeals to me.

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Good question, @handynzl, re the budget. I don’t think this machine will get massive amounts of usage from me - between TR, road-rides and a spot of trail running, this new bike is an extra nice-have. I’d prefer it to be as simple a machine as possible, maintenance-wise, and don’t think it’s sensible for me to get real spendy with it. So that rules out some (all!) of the bikes you’re mentioning, as good or as suitable as they might be!

You’re dead right about my MTB “knowledge”, which was zero and is now only a fraction above that :grin: . I’ll take aboard your comments re tyres, dropper and bars. Those Ergon grips definitely looks the part.

Thanks for the input :+1:

Ah, I think then a nice trail ht sounds a good plan, don’t get a too aggressive xc race frame for fun factor.

Would 100% make sure you have a dropper post.

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