Road cycling looks and feels a lot different this year. As more riders are taking their road bikes on dirt roads and even tame trails, the bike industry is responding with a new breed of machines dubbed adventure bikes, which combine comfortable road-bike geometry with disc brakes and beefy tires that can soak up rough surfaces.

Former pro road racer Don Powell, the founder of cycling clothing company Panache, has bought into the adventure bike concept, recently purchasing a Niner RLT 9 from the Fort Collins brand.

“I bought that bike for two reasons. One, the style of riding and places to ride are evolving, from pavement to dirt to gravel and even trails. I wanted a bike that would be able to do that. At the same time, I wanted to simplify. I didn’t want to have a cyclocross bike and a road bike and a mountain bike. I can ride this one anywhere.”

Powell is not alone. Panache hosts weekly “rowdy rides” from its Boulder offices, where groups will ride a combination of crushed-gravel paths, pavement, dirt roads and some singletrack trails. Meanwhile, out in Lyons in February, a few hundred riders who raced the Old Man Winter Bike Rally exemplified the passion for this new style of riding.

A Clean Slate

A few manufacturers are experimenting with the very definition of a road bike. The most dramatic is Cannondale’s Slate, which features smaller wheels, plump but slick tires, drop handlebars and a suspension fork.

“Riding road bikes on dirt keeps things interesting,” said Cannondale’s James LaLonde. “Road bikes like Slate allow you to explore roads and trails beyond what you’re comfortable taking your race-ready road bike on.”

These new-school road bikes let riders loosen up, LaLonde said. “It’s a subtle reminder of why we were all so attracted to bikes in the first place—they’re fun and allow us to explore and choose a new path of adventure.”

Ride What You Have

Many riders on the Front Range are enjoying this new style of riding on old bikes, whether their road bikes with wider tires or their cyclocross race bikes. Web developer Scott Upton races cyclocross in the fall, but rides his ’cross bike year-round on and off the road.

“I prefer to ride on dirt whenever possible,” Upton said. “On dirt roads, there are fewer cars, better views, and a greater challenge. Plus, they take you off the beaten path. My ’cross bike is faster than my hardtail mountain bike and has more tire choices than a road bike.”

“Simply swapping racy 23 or 25mm tires for 28mm rubber with flat protection hugely ups a road bike’s versatility,” he said. “Sure, you have to be careful on gravel-covered descents, but it’s manageable. If you’re careful, you can even get away with road bikes on rockier jeep roads, like Switzerland Trail. And disc brakes are only making such off-road forays safer on road bikes.”

Cycling coach Frank Overton is another all-road rider who runs his cyclocross bike year round for a simple reason: options.

“I ride a cyclocross bike on the road because I have one bike that handles both road and trail, so when I go out for a ride, I can spontaneously take any turn I want,” Overton said.

Isn’t It a ’Cross Bike?

Specialized has long prided itself on making highly specific bikes for different types of riding, and adventure bikes are no exception. The Diverge is the California company’s ride for exploratory road riding.

“Where our road and ’cross bikes are designed to perform and win in a racing environment, our adventure bikes are designed more to be the trustworthy jack of all trades,” said Specialized’s Sean Estes. “Racing is rarely considered a priority for adventure riders, instead utility and comfort reign supreme. Our adventure bikes are designed to perform on pavement and further allow riders to push beyond onto dirt without having second thoughts.”

Compared to a road bike or even a cyclocross bike, adventure bikes in general and the Diverge in particular feature stable front ends thanks to a relaxed front geometry, so you can cruise confidently over washboard or down dirt descents. The Diverge also has rack and fender mounts.

At Niner in Fort Collins, marketing and events coordinator Brad Cole said that he’s seeing people riding road bikes on “singletrack, backroads, jeep roads—anywhere with a trail to somewhere new.”

As for why someone would want to choose an adventure bike over a cyclocross bike, Cole said it’s a matter of priorities and the resulting differences in design and handling.

“A cyclocross bike is intended for racing, and on the road less travelled it’s still very capable and feels exotically fast. But sometimes you want to relax and enjoy the ride and that’s where these adventure bikes become appealing,” Cole said. “They are more like high-efficiency gravel cruisers that you can ride for long hours without a lot of rider input. You can use either, but the majority of us can do with a larger tire than 33c [as on a ’cross bike] and the comforts of an adventure-focused product. Less race, more fun.”

“Typically these ‘new road’ or ‘alternative road’ bikes like our RLT have a slackened head angle, a lower bottom bracket, increased tire clearance and slightly longer chainstays; these traits provide control on the rockiest of roads.”

It’s about the tires

Whatever the type of bike, the most important piece of the equation is where the rubber meets the road: the tires. Former mountain bike racer Johs Huseby is a passionate dirt-road rider who now works to develop product for the boutique tire brand Clement, which specializes in this style of riding.

Besides the subtleties of balancing high puncture protection with low rolling resistance, the main thing is just getting a bigger tire.

“Having a wider tire on dirt roads gives you more comfort through larger volume. It also gives you the ability to run a lower overall air pressure,” Huseby said. “A more voluminous tire also gives you greater surface area contact and thus more traction. Most of the good gravel tires have some tread, which helps on loose or broken up surfaces.”

At Panache, Powell sees another reason for the popularity of new road riding beyond the commonly cited quiet, safety and adventure: “We don’t have racing heroes anymore,” Powell said, referring to the falls from grace of athletes like Lance Armstrong. “And we no longer feel the need to have the race bike of those heroes and to emulate them in what they ride and how they look. What’s emerging or re-emerging now is riding the bike for the sake of riding the bike. Having fun. And with the big tires, disc brakes and overall great bikes, the technology is there to back you up.”

Check out these bikes for the road less traveled.

With wide tires to smooth out rutted roads and disc brakes to keep you under control on steep descents, adventure bikes open up your options. Here are six of the best.

Norco Search Ultegra

Carbon fiber frame, DT Swiss tubeless wheels, Shimano Ultegra components and hydraulic brakes and Clement X’Plor USH 35c tires … you get a lot of bike here for the money.
$3,450; norco.com

Cannondale Slate Force CX1

The wildest of the bunch, the Slate features 650b (27.5 inch) wheels and a suspension fork—things you’d only normally find on mountain bikes. The ‘one-by’ single-ring drivetrain furthers the MTB vibe, but the slick tires and drop bars insist that the Slate is, in fact, an adventure road bike.
$4,260; cannondale.com

GT Grade Carbon Ultegra

There’s a lot to like here: A carbon frame hosts Shimano Ultegra drivetrain and hydraulic disc brakes, and the whole package rolls on Stan’s No Tubes Grail Disc tubeless wheels.
$3,499; gtbicycles.com/gorogue

Niner RLT 9 3-Star

This bike out of Fort Collins can handle both 700c road wheels and, true to the company’s name, 29-inch wheels, with up to 1.75-inch tires.

$2,500 (options run from the $2,000 2-Star up to the $5,500 5-Star); ninerbikes.com/RLT9

Specialized Diverge Comp

The Diverge line ranges from $850 to $5,500. This model comes with tubeless wheels, Shimano 105 drivetrain and hydraulic brakes, plus mounts for racks and fenders.
$3,300; specialized.com/diverge

Diamondback Haanjo Trail

A good value option with an 11-speed Shimano Ultegra drivetrain and hydraulic disc brakes, HED wheels and Kenda Happy Medium 40c tires.

$2,300; diamondback.com

—Ben Delaney is the current US editor-in-chief of BikeRadar and the former editor-in-chief of VeloNews.