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How to Choose the Best Gravel Bike for Your Next Adventure

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best gravel bike

Updated: 3/21/18

A gravel bike may be the most versatile bike on the planet. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to go where the pavement ends or where the gravel, ruts and washboards begin, then a gravel bike may be your next n+1. You don’t have to race gravel grinders to enjoy the heck out of these bikes. First things first: What exactly is a gravel bike? And, more importantly, is it actually useful or a clever creation invented to sell more bikes?

Think of it this way: if you left your road bike and cyclocross bike alone in the garage all winter, a gravel bike is what would likely appear by spring. Gravel bikes are the perfect marriage between these two steeds. Designed with the comfort and geometry of a road bike, gravel bikes also feature the disc brakes, durability and wider tire clearance of a cyclocross bike. Yet they’re faster than a mountain bike over bumpy terrain.

Depending on how you look at it, a gravel bike is either a super comfy cross bike or a bomb-proof road bike.

Riding on gravel, dirt and fire roads is hardly a new concept and many hard-core roadies would argue that their current bikes are well-equipped for this.

And they’re correct, but…

Call me soft, but when dirt is on the docket all day, a little extra comfort and stability makes a difference, especially when you’re in a racing situation. How many times have you been tearing down a dirt road and wished for a little more comfort, stability and control?

Those with long cycling commutes or who favor bike touring, will appreciate the nuances of a gravel bike as the hours wear on. If you’re into long, endurance races, like the day-long and even multi-day gravel grinder events that are suddenly all the rage, you’ll do just fine on a cyclocross bike, but a gravel grinder hits the sweet spot. At the end of the day, your lower back and neck will thank you. 

gravel grinder bikes

What exactly is a gravel bike?

Let’s take a closer look at this unique design.

Geometry:

Also referred to as an all-road or adventure-road, gravel bikes feature a longer wheel base and longer frame, making them more stable at speed, while increasing comfort and stability over unpredictable surfaces.

Like an endurance road bike, a gravel bike is designed for comfort over the long haul and features a more relaxed geometry, slacker head angle and taller head tube than an endurance road bike.

To further increase comfort, there’s usually additional dampening in the frame and fork and seat posts tend to be narrower and more flexible. They feature a lower bottom bracket than a cyclocross bike, which aids in their quick cornering. Gravel bikes aren’t flexible noodles: they’re fast, agile and responsive.

Gearing:

Gravel bikes can handle a wide range of gearing options. Typical gearing for a gravel grinder race is a 50/34 compact with an 11/32 or 11/28 cassette. Many bikes keep it simple with a 1x drivetrain (a single chainring in the front) and a large cassette in the back.

Mountain bike cassettes are also common. Wider tires are often paired with a large cassette to assist in grinding up long, sustained climbs and muscling over punchy off-road terrain.

Brakes:

A characteristic all gravel bikes have in common is disc brakes. Even an entry level gravel bike will have disc brakes. While mechanical disc brakes will work just fine, I suggest hydraulic brakes, which resist dirt and water better than mechanical. Plus you’ll enjoy a greater power transfer from the stiffer hub, allowing you to skimp on pricey wheels if you so desire. 

Internally routed cables will also aid in crisp shifting and braking.  

You can learn more about disc brakes here.  

Wheels and Tires:

Compared to an endurance road bike, a gravel bike has massive tire clearance. Currently, I’ve seen bikes that can handle up to 55mm. Compare this to a 28 or 32mm tire, often the limit for an endurance road bike. Many cyclocross bikes also have tire width limitations because of UCI regulations. 

Wider tires and wider rims are features of a cyclocross bike and many wheelsets are also tubeless ready. Want even more stability and traction? Gravel bikes can handle 29er tires.

Because of the disc brakes, it’s common to find a thru axle on gravel bikes instead of a quick release. Just be aware that these aren’t compatible with all bike trainers and car racks.

As you can see, there are loads of wheel and tire options.

Some of the most popular gravel bike tires are:

 

Other unique features:

It’s common to find mudguard, fender and rack mounts on a gravel bike. The Giant Revolt 2 has an integrated mudguard on the downtube, which is pretty cool.

Comfort is key, so wider handlebars are also commonplace on these bikes.  

Gravel Bike vs Cyclocross Bike

I’ve often argued that a cyclocross bike is a do-it-all machine. You could buy a cyclocross bike and use it in much the same way. For short off-road rides or commutes, this isn’t a bad idea and could save you some money, especially if you can get your hands on a used cyclocross bike.

However, your back and rear end might be better off on a gravel grinder if you plan to go on extended jaunts. This is where the more relaxed geometry of a gravel bike pays off over a cyclocross bike, which tends to feel more rigid and unforgiving.

Gravel bikes are designed for both comfort and speed over technical terrain.

Related: More Cowbell for Less Cash: the Best Cyclocross Bikes Under $1,500

The Best Gravel Bikes for 2018

For the competitive racer: Salsa Warbird

 

salsa-warbird

One of the early adopters of gravel racing, Salsa’s Warbird is a favorite among racers. Designed for maximum power, the Warbird’s stiff carbon frame is available with a Rival, Force or Ultegra drivetrain and the 105 features aluminum. Internal cable routing and triple water bottle capacity make this a fun and fast all-day machine.

Salsa coined the phrase “adventure by bike” and the Warbird line is no exception to that spirit. Knowing that comfortable is fast, they designed the Warbird to take hours of vibrations with grace and keep the rider in a comfortable, confident position. Several carbon and an aluminum frame option are available.

 

3T Exploro

Noted as the world’s first aero gravel bike, the Exploro borrows road race bike technology and combines it with true mountain bike tire clearance for 700c, 29er or 650b tires. Internal cable routing, multiple water bottle cage options, and a rear thry axle complete the package. Mat Stephens won the men’s 2017 Dirty Kanza on this bike.

 

Most Comfortable Gravel Bikes: 

Cannondale Slate

Cannondale broke the mold with the Slate by equipping it with an eye-popping short-travel Lefty fork. The frame features compliant chainstays and a rear thru-axle. The bike is built around 42mm 650b tires, rather than the traditional 700c wheels on most other bikes in its class. On that point, it’s hard to pen the Slate into a class with other bikes. It’s comfy, it’s quick, and it goes anywhere you pedal it.

best gravel bikes 2018

 

Trek Checkpoint

Trek employed a rear IsoSpeed coupler, I kind of micro-suspension seat tube, to their endurance road bikes several years ago and have applied it to the Checkpoint, a new family of gravel-oriented bikes. The Checkpoint is available in carbon and aluminum (IsoSpeed is not present on the aluminum models) for men and women, and features braze-ons for racks and fenders, as well an an adjustable-length chainstay for fine-tuned handling or to accommodate a singlespeed drivetrain.

 

The Quiver-Killer

Surly Midnight Special

If you prefer the feel of steel because it’s real, Surly has just added the Midnight Special to their lineup of famously tough and versatile bikes. A road bike with room for fat treads also has braze-ons to slap on all kinds of goodies. If your storage space and budget don’t leave room for an arsenal of bicycles, the Midnight Special could be your daily commuter, bikepacker, 27.5”-tire monstercross trail slayer, and gravel racer, all with minimal modification from one form to another.

 

Specialized Diverge

The fastest growing sector in Specialized’s 2017 line was the gravel bike. If the Diverge is any indication of gravel’s future, it certainly looks fast and fun! The adventure bike is equipped with 20mm Specialized Future Shock borrowed from the popular Roubaix. Couple this with wider tire clearance, disc brakes, stealth dropper compatibility and even fittings for fenders a rear rack and you’ve got a bike that allows endless adventure possibilities.

Best Budget-Conscious Grinders

Raleigh Willard

Raleigh packed a lot of comfortable features into this sub-$1000 do-it-all bike, including vibration damping stem and seatpost, 40mm gravel tires, and a carbon fork. The Sora drivetrain and aluminum frame will keep the price down, but the bike certainly won’t keep your from any potential backroad bliss.

best gravel bikes under 1000

Diamondback Haanjo Tero

Diamonback never fails to provide quality bikes for riders with financial limits, and the Haanjo Tero completes the budget-concious end of the spectrum of the Haanjo line competing as a strong contendor for best gravel bike under $1,000. While the top-end Haanjo features all the bells and whistles that modern bicycle technology can offer, the Tero keeps it simple and humble with an aluminum frame, steel fork, 2×8 speed drivetrain, and mechanical disc brakes. This bike will go anywhere and do anything without breaking the bank in the process.

Best Women’s Specific Gravel Grinder: Diamondback Haanjenn Comp

best women's specific gravel grinder

Diamondback offers an entry level gravel grinder for women, one of the few on the market. A SRAM Apex drivetrain, aluminum frame and carbon fork make for the perfect off-road adventure machine.

 

Other Gravel Bikes to Consider:

GT Grade

GT Grade Alloy or Carbon

A true pioneer in the gravel bike realm, GT’s Grade sets the standard. You can choose between an alloy or carbon fiber frame. Both have the same geometry, and while the carbon looks sleeker and saves you some grams, the alloy is also a solid bike, but doesn’t ride quite as smoothly as its carbon compatriot.

Both ride more like a road bike than a cross bike, but the Grade’s off-road abilities go above and beyond your favorite road machines.

Offering an extended range for its 2017 models, GT’s Carbon Grade frames come with either Tiagra, 105 or SRAM Red or Force drivetrains and each have their own unique paint schemes. One of the best gravel bikes under $1,000, the GT Grade Alloy is specced with Shimano Claris. Alloy 105, Sora and Tiagra models are also available.

 

Ridley X-Trail

 

gravel bikes reviews

Ridley has solid offerings in both the road and cyclocross markets, so how does their gravel grinder stack up? According to Ridley the X-Trail more closely resembles their road bike geometry, more specifically the Fenix, and rides more like a road bike too.

Models haven’t changed much for 2018 and you can still get your hands on some good deals on late 2017 models.

The X-Trail C30  has a mix of 105 and Ultegra components, uses ultralight unidirectional carbon and can accommodate tires up to 40mm. The 2017 C40  is built on high modulus carbon with a 105 drivetrain.

If you need to save some cash, check out the X-Trail A20, featuring a triple butted aluminum frame and a 105 drivetrain. You’ll find these bikes ride fast like a road bike, but with the fearless ability to handle any off-road challenges with ease.

 

 

Diamondback Haanjo Trail

 

 

Best gravel bikes under 1500

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A full carbon frame and fork, 11-speed Ultegra drivetrain, hydraulic disc brakes and room for tries upwards of 44mm with tubeless ready wheels, make this well-equipped to tackle whatever the trail ahead throws at you.

 

Raleigh Roker 

raleigh-roker-comp-2016

Another solid model is the Raleigh Roker, available in both the Roker Comp, with a carbon frame and 105 drivetrain and hydraulic disc brakes as well as the Roker Sport with Tiagra and mechanical disc brakes.

If you’re looking for an aluminum gravel bike, the Raleigh Willard is a solid choice. A carbon fork helps to dampen the terrain.

If steel is more your flavor, check out yet another nod to a weatherman with the Raleigh Tamland.

 

Want even more cycling hacks or to connect with a community of like-minded cyclists? Join us in our free Facebook Group.

 

References:

The Gravel Cyclist: Tips and Concepts for Gravel Bike Setup

Bike Radar: Defining the Gravel Race Bike 

 

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