One of the newest categories in the cycling industry, gravel bikes truly cater to thrill-seekers (after all, they are also known as “adventure bikes”). These bikes are made to go absolutely anywhere and constructed to stand up to the toughest terrain.
The well thought design of a gravel bike is intended to weather the elements with ease and assure cyclists that they can travel uncharted paths. Also, there is nothing stopping gravel bike owners from enjoying a leisurely Sunday afternoon ride on safe and predictable terrain, too.
These are great all-around bikes for those who favor adventure and need a reliable and dependable everyday bike.
In this article, we will look at the features and characteristics of gravel bikes, what distinguishes them from other types of bikes, and what you should consider when shopping for one, whether at your local bike store or online. We will also share our top choices for gravel bikes to get you started.
The Components of Gravel Bikes
Gravel bike frames are most commonly made of carbon and aluminum. A smaller number are made of steel or titanium, but chances are you will end up with a carbon gravel bike if you have a higher budget or an aluminum gravel bike if you are on a tighter budget.
Carbon bikes are incredibly lightweight, which is why cyclists favor them. Those interested in speed (and let’s face it: most thrill-seekers are) often prefer a carbon frame.
Because the budget can be one of the most important factors in gravel bike shopping, an aluminum frame presents a solid alternative for those who cannot afford carbon. These frames can save shoppers hundreds of dollars while still giving them a durable and reliable frame that should last for years and stand up to tremendous wear and tear.
When shopping for gravel bikes, you will have two-wheel options: 700c wheels or 650b wheels, with the former being the most common.
The best overall performance on gravel bikes is attributed to 700c wheels. They are narrower and usually lighter than 650b wheels, which means they roll faster across most gravel.
Although 700c are more common, this does not mean you should rule out 650b options just yet. A 650b wheel might be the better choice when comfort is a top priority. Perhaps if your identity is nestled somewhere between adrenaline junkie and couch potato, the gravel bike with the 650b wheel could be a better compromise.
The 650b wheel is heavier and rolls slower than the 700c, meaning it will be smoother when crossing obstacles. If you do not want to sacrifice speed or expect that you will only be using your gravel bike on mild terrain, stick with the 700c wheel and tire sets.
Even adrenaline junkies need to slow down sometimes, and there is perhaps no more important component in your gravel bike than your brakes. This is an area where you want high functionality and reliability, but you also want a bike that fits your budget. You should never have to sacrifice safety in less expensive bikes.
As you shop for gravel bikes, you will notice two choices regarding brakes: mechanical disc brakes or hydraulic brakes. The former uses a cable system to slow your bike, while the latter uses fluid. Some cyclists prefer hydraulic because they give you more stopping power with less effort than a mechanical disc brake.
Also, hydraulic brakes aren’t affected by mud, and trail debris like disc brakes are. This superior performance comes with a higher price tag, so a good old-fashioned disc brake will have to do if you need a more budget-friendly bike.
The best tires for your gravel bike will depend on the percentage of time you spend on rough terrain. You might be someone who rides primarily on the roadways with occasional excursions to rough terrain, or perhaps you are shopping for a gravel bike that will, in fact, be used the majority of the time on gravel or other rough paths.
If you are going to use the bike primarily on roads, you can look for a 30 to 32mm tire. If you are splitting your time between smooth pavement surfaces and rough terrain, your bike should have a tire in the 35 to the 38-millimeter range.
Finally, if you are truly staying off the beaten path at all times, and you are the type of cyclist who will be frequenting nothing but uneven terrain like a gravel road, your gravel bike should have a 40-millimeter tire (or wider).
Another important consideration when it comes to tires is upgrading to tubeless ones. This newer technology is ideal for off-road cycling, but it can sometimes be challenging to convert a bike you already own to tubeless tires. We recommend checking with your local bike shop before upgrading.
Drivetrain and Gears
Just as you need to consider the variety of terrain you encounter when it comes to tire choices, you will need to think about this with drivetrain and gears as well.
Gravel bikes are typically going to have two drivetrain options, which are
- 1x: a single front chainring and fewer gears
- 2x: two front chainrings and more gears
Some bikers prefer the 1x just because they are simple and lighter in weight. They are fine for use on rolling terrain. But if you are constantly tackling steep climbs, you probably want a 2x drivetrain, which will have an easier gear for your uphill battle.
The suspension is not going to be standard in your gravel bike shopping. But this does not mean it does not exist.
If you aim to increase comfort, consider the added suspension features with bikes like the Trek Checkpoint SL 6, Moot Routt, Specialized Diverge Sport, and Cannondale Kingpin.
After all, it is not unreasonable to think that even some adventure-seekers want to experience comfort, too!
If you are the type to jump on a gravel bike and just ride where the day takes you, you will definitely need plenty of mounting locations for water, food, and gear. A good gravel bike will offer you multiple mounts to ensure you can carry along all of the essentials you need without being unnecessarily weighed down.
Gravel Bikes Compared to Other Bikes
If you are new to adventure bikes, you may find yourself overwhelmed by all of the choices. Unless you are an avid cyclist, you might be the person who thinks, “aren’t all bikes pretty much the same?”
This would be akin to thinking all motor vehicles are ultimately the same. However, we know that there is a world of difference between a compact hybrid car and a gas-guzzling “monster” truck. The world of cycling also has a vast array of choices, meeting every need from a triathlon to a leisurely Sunday afternoon pedal at the beach.
When shopping in the niche category of gravel bikes, you may wonder about the overlap and differences between road and cyclocross bikes, and we will take a look at that here, in three sections: frames, mounts, and tires.
- Frames: Gravel bikes will have lower and longer frames to give riders more stability during a long descent. A cyclocross bike will have higher bottom brackets to clear obstacles.
- Mounts: Gravel bikes will have more mounts than road or cyclocross bikes, built with the expectation that a cyclist on a gravel bike may be out in longer stretches without places to stop. Therefore, she will need more gear mounted on the bike to eat and stay hydrated along the way.
- Tires: Gravel bikes may come with 45mm or even 50mm tires instead of the 30mm road bikes or 40mm cyclocross bikes. These tires are certainly heavier, but they are needed on bumpy pathways.
But I Already Have a Mountain Bike – Do I Need a Gravel Bike?
A mountain bike will do the job if you are an adventure seeker, and we are not suggesting you need to get rid of it just because a niche category now exists.
However, some cyclists might prefer the fact that a true gravel bike will be significantly lighter than a mountain bike and will also offer more mounts. In this way, a gravel bike is a better choice for those who are likely to split their time between pavement and gravel.
The Best Gravel Bikes for Every Budget
Here are our top choices to consider to take some of the work out of your gravel bike shopping.
Cannondale Topstone 105
The Cannondale Topstone is a top choice among gravel bikes, with a versatile and durable frame and many other outstanding features. Like their popular road bike – the Synapse – this gravel bike has tubeless carbon wheels that keep the overall weight down. Riders also favor it for an effective and well designed rear suspension.
- Bottom bracket-FSA cartridge; Chain-KMC X11, 11-speed; Crank-FSA Omega AGX+ Alloy, 46/30
- Fork-BallisTec Full Carbon, 1-1/8” to 1-1/4” steerer, 55mm OutFront offset, flat mount disc, internal routing, 12×100 thru-axle
- Frame-SmartForm C2 Alloy, 12×142 thru-axle, tapered headtube, flat mount disc, StraightShot internal cable routing, multiple gear/bottle mounts
- Front Hub: Formula cartridge bearing, Centerlock, 12x100mm
- Rear Hub: Formula cartridge bearing, Centerlock, 12x142mm
- Rims: WTB ST i23 TCS, 28h, tubeless-ready
- Spokes: Stainless Steel, 14g
- Tire Size: 37
- Tires: WTB Riddle, TCS Light, 700 x 37c, tubeless-ready
- Wheel size: 700c
- Brake levers: Shimano GRX 600 hydraulic disc
- Brakes: Shimano GRX 400, hydraulic disc, 160/160mm RT54 rotors
Canyon Grail AL 7.0
The newest Grail is available in 7 frame sizes to fit any rider and offers outstanding value to those looking to purchase their first gravel bike.
- Bottom bracket Token Ninja Lite BB4124 PF 86.5; Thread-Fit Technology reduces chances of bearing misalignment. BB86 road standard, compatible with 24 mm axles, weight 83g. Crank – Shimano RX 600.
- Canyon Grail AL disc, Aluminum 6061, weight 1480g; Fork: Canyon FK0070 CF Disc,
- Carbon, Steerer 1 ¼”, Axle dimension 12 x 100 mm, flat mount brake
- DT Swiss C 1850 Spline db
- Rim material: aluminum
- Rim Height 23mm
- Inner width 22mm
- Weight 842g
- Canyon Thru Axle
- Tire: Schwalbe G-One Bite 40mm
- Brake levers: Shimano GRX RX 600 11s
- Brake Rotor: Shimano RT 70, Disc Mount: Centerlock
Diamondback Haanjo 5C EXP
Diamondback has been producing quality bikes since its start with BMX in 1977, and their adventure and gravel line is no exception. Their Haanjen and Haanjo bikes are adventure-ready in design and built to be taken off the beaten path.
- Rear Derailleur: Shimano XT M770 Shadow, 9-speed
- Front Derailleur: Shimano Deore M591, 31.8mm clamp-on
- Crankset: Shimano M591 Triple, 48/46/28t
- Frame: DB Carbon Alternative Road Frame, Endurance Geometry, disc, 12x142mm thru-axle
- Fork: DB Gravel Disc, full carbon, tapered 1 1/8″-1 1/2″ steerer, 12mm thru-axle
- Hubs: 32-hole, 6-bolt, 12mm thru-axle, sealed cartridge bearing
- Spokes: 14g Stainless Steel
- Tires: Schwalbe Smart Sam, 27 x 2.1″
- Rims: HED Tomcat Disc, 32 hole
- Brake Caliper: TRP Spyre 2 piston
- Brake Lever: TRP RRL Alloy
- Brake Rotor: TRP 6-bolt
Donnelly’s boast about the G//C-Force is that this is a “true gravel bike, built from the ground up”. If you have top dollar to spend on a gravel bike, this is a solid choice built for performance that will not let you down.
- Rear Derailleur: SRAM Force 22, long cage, max cassette 11-32
- Front Derailleur: SRAM Force 22, braze on yaw w/chain spotter
- Crankset: FSA SL-K Modular BB386Evo Adventure
- Donnelly hi-modulus carbon fiber, 12×142 mm thru-axle, flat mount disc, OSBB
- Donnelly Ushuaia wheels, tubeless-ready, 6 bolt disc, with Donnelly X’Plor MSO700x40mm tires
- SRAM Force Hydraulic disc brakes front and rear
Giant Revolt Advanced 2
With a 2018 debut, the Revolt Advanced from Giant is a high-performing all-rounder gravel bike. The lightweight composite frameset coupled with gravel-riding geometry makes this bike an excellent and durable choice.
The Revolt Advanced frame is integrated for disc brakes, with clearance for tires up to 45c. This bike is built to withstand the bumpiest of rides with ease.
- Rear Derailleur: Shimano 105
- Front Derailleur: Shimano 105
- Crankset: Praxis Alba 32/48
- Advanced-Grade Composite, 12×142 mm thru-axle, disc
- Rims: Giant S-X2 Disc wheelset
- Hubs: Giant S-X2 Disc wheelset
- Spokes: Giant S-X2 Disc wheelset
- Tires: Giant Crosscut AT 1, 700×38
- Shimano 105 hydraulic
Moots Routt YBB
The Routt YBB incorporates Moots YBB “Softail” micro-suspension design, which was first introduced on their mountain bikes in the 1990s. This high-performing gravel bike can be upgraded in a wide variety of finish designs, and the frame and fork can accommodate up to 50mm tires. The proprietary 6/4 titanium 3D-printed flat-mount disc brake mount provides the ultimate performance in gravel bikes, and seven different size options provide a Routt YBB suitable for every rider.
- Moots Flat Mount Disc Cross Carbon (Black)
- Astral Wanderlust/Astral Approach – Black (SH11, XDR)
- Shimano GRX BR-RX810 Flat Mount W/SM-RT800 160/240 CL Rotors
See Moots site for a wide variety of options and upgrades.
Niner RLT 9
The Niner RLT 9 tagline is “rugged, versatile, attainable”. An affordable aluminum bike while also durable, the RLT boasts many outstanding features at a price point that is easier on the wallet than many of the other gravel bike models.
The aluminum on the RLT 9 is welded with hydroformed aluminum tubing after the tube is optimized for strength and durability. The result is a bike made from affordable materials and made to withstand any off-road adventure.
The carbon fiber fork is light and stiff, and the RLT 9 can also accommodate tires as wide as 700x50c.
- Front derailleur: Shimano Ultegra R8000
- Rear derailleur: Shimano GRX800 GS 11SP Shadow Plus
- Cassette: Shimano Ultegra HG 800 11SP 11-34T
- Crankset: Easton EC 90 Carbon 47x32T
- Niner Hydroformed 6061 Aluminum; Integrated bottle, bag, rack, and fender mounts; flat-mount: 12×142 Thru Axle
- Front Wheel: Stans Notubes Grail CB7, Neo Ultimate Hub CL 100x12mm Front
- Front Tire: Schwalbe G-One Allround EVO Super Terrain TLE Addix Speedgrip, 700×45
- Rear Wheel: Stans Notubes Grail CB7, Neo Ultimate Hub CL 142x12mm Front
- Rear Tire: Schwalbe G-One Allround EVO Super Terrain TLE Addix Speedgrip, 700×45
- Shimano GRX 800
Norco Search XR A2
The Search XR A2 comes in five different sizes to suit any cyclist with an aluminum frame and an affordable price point. Generous tire clearance makes this a high-performing gravel bike that is built for durability. It is a great choice for bikepacking adventures, and its optimized fork design provides maximum comfort and reduced rider fatigue.
- Frame: Butted X6 Aluminum, Smooth Welds
- Fork: Search XR Carbon
- Headset: Integrated Sealed Bearing
- Front Derailleur: Shimano GRX FD-RX 400
- Rear Derailleur: Shimano GRX FD-RX 400, Shadow RD+
- Cassette: Shimano CS-HG50, 11-36T, 10 speed
- Crankset : Shimano GRX FC-RX600, 46/30T
- Front Hub: Alloy 12x100mm, 6 bolt
- Rear Hub: Alloy 12x142mm, HG, 6 bolt
- Spokes: Sapim Leader Stainless Black
- Front Tire: Vittoria Terreno Dry, 38mm
- Rear Tire: Vittoria Terreno Dry, 38mm
- Front Brake: Tektro MD-C550 Dual-Piston Mechanical Disc
- Rear Brake: Tektro MD-C550 Dual-Piston Mechanical Disc
- Brake Levers: Shimano Tiagra ST-4700
Salsa Warbird Carbon Apex 1
Lauded as the industry’s first gravel race bike, the Warbird is a beast on and off the trails. Offering top speeds while not sacrificing comfort or control, this gravel bike features geometry that provides increased stability on the bumpiest of rides.
The Warbird climbs well and keeps riders comfortable for hours of gravel riding and adventuring off the beaten path.
- Frame: Warbird Carbon V2
- Fork: Waxwing
- Rear Derailleur: SRAM Apex 1
- Cassette: SRAM PG 1130, 11-42t
- Crankset : SRAM Apex 1 X-Sync, 42t
- Front wheel: WTB Serra 12×100 mm hub, WTB ST i23 TCS 2.0 28h 700c rim
- Rear wheel: WTB Serra 12×142 mm hub, WTB ST i23 TCS 2.0 28h 700c rim
- Tires: Terevail Cannonball 700c x 42mm, Durable, Tubeless-Ready
- Front brake (rotor): Flat Mount 160, flat mount rear standard, 35mm thickness, 42 mm bolt length
- Rear brake (rotor): Flat Mount 140, 140-160mm, flat-mount frame standard 20mm thickness, 27 mm bolt length
There is a perfect fit for every budget and every body type with so many high-quality gravel bikes to choose from.
Before ordering online, it is always a good idea to visit your local bike shop to seek advice on the right bike for you, which will depend not only on your budget but also on your riding style and preferences, height and weight, and more.
The experts can point you in the right direction and ensure the gravel bike you choose will have you out enjoying the trails in no time.