My last MTB was a 2014 alloy XC hardtail, and in 2022, 2 years after buying my first gravel bike I had only ridden the MTB twice. My partner had used it another couple of times to go to the local park in the snow, but that’s it. It wasn’t up to scratch for trying to enter my first XC race either, so I sold it.
By this time I had 3 gravel bikes - the OG carbon racer from 2020, a custom Ti bikepacking/winter rig, and an entry level alloy commuter (which doubles as ‘my partner’s bike’ on the 4 occasions a year that she wants to ride). Each gravel bike can use any one of about 7 different wheelsets, from 650bx47 knobbly at one end all the way to Roval Rapide CLX IIs at the other end (borrowed from my Tarmac).
The 650x47 Senderos will take me pretty much anywhere I was willing to go on the MTB beforehand (though sometimes requiring significantly more care in riding). 700x40c tyres with moderate tread take me pretty much anywhere I’d usually care to go though.
I do now want to buy another MTB but at this point, given the capability of the gravel bikes, I don’t think I’d consider another hardtail, and will likely be looking for something in the long travel FS XC / downcountry range (110-120mm front and rear) to make sure it definitely lends me some capability that I don’t currently have, but that it’s still nimble enough to try my hand at XC racing if I so choose.
That’s my N=1. If I was advising someone else I’d probably make the whole conversation about how close your nearest MTB trails are and how you feel about driving to start your rides vs riding to the trails. I’m pretty close to the centre of a city and don’t care to spend time driving to trailheads very often so even though it’s fairly quick to get into the countryside from here, pretty much any off-road ride I do is going to be a mixed surface ride with 30-60 minutes of tarmac at either end of it. That sort of seals the deal for me. If I lived 20 miles away from here in any direction the prospect might be very different. That’s how I’d make my assessment if I were you.
The right bike depends on the characteristics of the trails.
A gravel bike works best for gravel roads.
If the trails are dirt singletrack with roots and rocks, a MTB will work better.
Go for a test ride / run / walk down the trails and take a look. Or ask people locally about what kind of bike works best.
Gravel bikes quickly get outmatched on MTB terrain (don’t believe the advertising hype that you see for the likes of the Chamois Hagar riding on MTB trails). I’ve ridden on green (easy) MTB trails on my gravel bike, and it’s not fun as soon as that trail points down. You get shaken to pieces.
My “gravel” bike is built up from an assortment from my spares box and secondhand parts found on eBay
Frame 2010 Specialized Hardrock size L (I’m 6’1” so would normally be on an XL)
Rockshox Reba adjusted to 80mm
Shimano XT tubeless front wheel
Mavic crossland UST rear wheel
Schwalbe Racing Ralph TLR 26x 2.2” tyres
Shimano XT 40:28 chainset and 11:32 10sp cassette
Ultegra shifters paired with an old 9sp XT rear derailleur
42cm compact drop bars from chain reaction cycles.
On the road the long wheelbase means the handlings not as sharp as a road bike. The tyres drag more obviously, but the drop bars make it so much more aero than with MTB bars. it’s faster and more comfortable for long rides.
On Gravel the large volume tyres give a comfy ride and loads of grip in the corners. As it’s essentially a HT MTB it can cope with some really rough stuff.
Single track is loads of fun the narrow bars allow for some really tight lines. It’s only really steep downhills that I struggle,what with the head down bum up position.
I was having this debate recently and settled on a FS XC MTB. The deciding factors for me were the following:
I live five minutes from the trails,
The trails all connect to a lot of gravel roads and the C&O,
I’d rather have more bike than not enough,
I can easily add a larger chainring if I feel like I’m spinning out vs the challenge of adding suspension,
The XC is more versatile across lots of events (even if I leave some efficiency on the table).
Overall, it’s a question of what makes sense for you given your situation. Considering where I live, the XC made too much sense to go any other way. Ideally, I’d have 10+ bikes, but the XC allows for the greatest versatility while keeping the bike count low…(N+1)<S when S=spouse’s breaking point…do NOT upset the spouse .
You must have a massive amount of self-control, I keep finding myself on those on my roadbike all the time
A XC MTB is probably the most versatile if you want to explore the unknown. Its more forgiving if you stray into rocky or steep terrain, and the downside is mostly that it is just a bit slow on the road or on easier trails. A gravel bike will be faster on the road, and maybe more fun on easier trails, especially if you have off-road skills, but it wil struggle with chunky rocks and very steep stuff.
I ride “gravel” (as you said we don’t really have that here) in the summer on my cross bike with 35mm tyres. Its mostly fine, but it is quite easy in the hills to end up on tracks where you really want a MTB. It’s possible to get around on a cross bike, but its slower and rougher.