When I first got into cycling via the sport of triathlon, one of my favorite places to train and ride was my family's cottage in the Muskoka area, about two hours north of Toronto. To get to the paved roads, I had to ride 5 - 10km over gravel roads at the start of each ride, and then also at the end of every ride. Thus I became used to and adept at riding on the gravel and dirt early on.
Whenever I am out riding my road bike and the road turns to gravel, I typically just keep going. For me it's always been part of the adventure. And if you know what you are doing, riding on gravel is not as challenging as it first seems. I wrote a primer on rough road, and gravel road riding a few years ago. You can see it here.
In and around cities and even on further out into the country, there has been a movement over the past 20 years to pave many roads, that were at one time gravel. However, if you keep heading on out from suburban areas, eventually, some/many roads turn permanently to gravel!
Here's perhaps the best thing about riding on gravel roads - few if any cars! On a recent two hour ride on gravel roads, I encountered one vehicle. They stopped and wanted to know if I was OK or lost! That never happens on paved roads these days! With cyclist/motorists confrontations at an all-time high and growing - this very fact alone, makes gravel road riding appealing. Life does seem to be more laid back on gravel!
As noted above, a road bike, can handle the gravel very well - you may need to go slower and pick your way through some of the rougher spots, but a ride on a gravel road is not a time trial. As interest has built, some bike manufacturers have started to make gravel road specific bikes. Overkill, you may say . . . read on!
Raleigh Canada was good enough to send me one of their Tamland series bikes for a test ride. For several weeks a put the Tamland I through it's paces, including the 2 hour ride noted above. Compared to my normal road ride - the Tamland I is much better choice for the gravel. The longer wheel base, lowered bottom bracket, and relaxed geometry, all add up to a much more stable and confident feel on gravel. You can really roll along at speed.
Other features of the bike - the fat 700 X 40 Clement gravel specific tires, the Shimano 105 drive-train, and the TRP Spyre mechanical disc brakes, allow you to really start to roll with precision and control after you get used to being on the gravel.
Now, this is no light-weight, but the Reynolds 651 chromoly steel frame, is extraordinarily rugged, and the mass, actually adds to the confidence when you are bombing along in loose gravel and over washboard! You feel . . well . . grounded!
When you have a bike like this, the mind really starts to wander . . . where could I use this? Where could I ride it? Obviously, it was designed for the gravel - but the bike would also be an awesome urban commutator - with ample room for fenders, plus the benefit of being able to handle the terrible pavement that now seems to be common place in many older cities. It would also make a great touring bike - and with a change to lighter/narrower tires and wheels it could also be a great machine for the odd century ride or Gran Fondo.
The Tamland could also be pressed, again with different tires, into use in cyclo-cross racing, but the geometry is a bit off of what a true CX bike is all about. That being said, light trail use, even in the mud, would be well within the bikes capabilities.
For a dedicated road rider, who's not interested in a full blown mountain-bike, or the triathlete who wants a second non-TT bike, something like the Tamland, makes an awesome choice. You really can't go wrong!