How to Choose the Right Gravel Bike For You

Jesse Southerland
Photo credit: Cody Mann TEST NOT FOR USE
Photo credit: Cody Mann TEST NOT FOR USE

From Bicycling

Key Points

  • The bigger the tires a gravel bike accepts, the more places you can easily go. Gravel bikes are all about expanding the terrain you can ride.

  • Rugged roads require easier gearing. You want your lowest gear ratio to be at least 1:1, if not easier.

  • Gravel bikes run the spectrum from aerodynamic and minimalist to pack mules equipped with lots of mounts and other add-ons. Where and how you plan to ride determines which end of that spectrum is right for you.

You do not need to buy a new gravel bike to start riding gravel. Cyclists have always ridden road bikes on cinder paths, simple trails, and on dirt and gravelly roads. You can just put on the biggest, burliest tires that will fit your road bike, or the skinniest tires that will go on your mountain bike, or just grab your cyclocross bike as it is, and give gravel a go.

But as you get deeper into the scene, you should consider getting a bike specifically made to optimize your experience on gravel rides. It will make all your riding more fun, more efficient, and may also expand the horizons of the types of gravel routes and events you can do.

When I first dipped my wheels into the gravel scene (before it really was a scene), I’d raced Hell of Hunterdon (a Mid-Atlantic spring classic in New Jersey with multiple gravel sectors) and Monkey Knife Fight (another early spring event that featured 13 timed, gnarly gravel climbs in eastern Pennsylvania) on a Trek Madone road bike outfitted with 23mm tires with tubes, and I had zero flats. Granted, they were pumped to 110 psi, and I was bouncing around like a ping-pong ball, but I made it. A few years later, I did D2R2—a rugged randonnée in western Massachusetts—on a Pinarello Prince road bike with slightly wider 25mm tires. As I was white-knuckling and Hail Marying my way down rutted, loose, steep descents, I was definitely having a bit less fun. But I still managed.

But once you get onto something like true Midwestern B roads, where the gravel is deep and fist-size, a tricked-out road bike isn’t going to cut it. Neither the Madone nor the Prince would have made it more than about 15 miles in the Flint Hills of Kansas. The deep and chunky gravel would chew the road tires to bits. Even if I could squeeze in 30mm tires, there’d be no more than a few centimeters of clearance at best between the rubber and the frame, so the region’s sticky mud would pack up and bring me to a halt.

The first time I did Dirty Kanza and Rebecca’s Private Idaho, I went with my Specialized Crux cyclocross bike with Trigger 38c tires. It was and still would be a perfectly capable companion. But cyclocross bikes can have limitations, especially in terms of tire width, carrying capacity, and comfort and stability. Cross bikes are designed for short, hard, twisty races when you’re not carrying anything more than your race face. They’re not necessarily built for holding a straight line when you’re hauling down a chattery gravel road at 25 mph. Also, though most cross bikes can accept pretty wide tires, the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale, the world governing body for the sport of cycling) limits tire width to 33-35mm max in championship races, so the bikes are not necessarily made to be outfitted with the huge mountain bike tires that many gravel bikes accept.

Speaking of mountain bikes: You obviously can ride a mountain bike anywhere you’d also ride a dedicated gravel bike. Many folks equip lightweight hardtails with skinnier tires and get after it. But your hand positions are limited on a flat handlebar, and generally speaking, a mountain bike is less aerodynamic on the open road, which makes for slower going. If it has suspension, it will also be heavier and probably less fun.

The beauty of today’s gravel bikes is that they take the best elements of all these other bikes and roll them into one. Unless you also do a lot of serious technical mountain biking, it is the bike to buy. It can be the one bike you need and want for everywhere you ride.

Types of Gravel Bikes

As with all aspects of cycling, you can choose from a wide variety of gravel bikes, ranging in price from under $1,000 to over $10,000, with most mainstream bikes falling in the $1,500 to $3,500 range. Generally, more expensive bikes are lighter and come equipped with higher-end wheels and components.

No matter what, you’ll find a bike that fits your budget. The more important decision to make is to determine what kind of gravel bike suits the kind of gravel riding you want to do. Here are some common types of gravel bikes and what they do best.

➥ All Road

The gravel category begins with all-road bikes. These are practically indistinguishable from endurance road bikes and have clearance for tires with widths in the mid-30 millimeters. Allied's Alfa Allroad, the Trek Domane, Scott Addict Gravel, and Liv’s Avail Advanced are good examples of this “gravel lite” end of the category. They’re fast, quick-handling, and work great on smoother dirt roads but don’t have the geometry, features like extra mounts, or tire clearance for gnarlier adventures or long-haul trucking on chunky B-roads.

Photo credit: Matt Rainey
Photo credit: Matt Rainey

If you’re leaning more toward the road, but want a bike that is fun and capable when the pavement gives way to dirt and gravel, these are a good choice. As you’d expect, however, if you opt for a road-centric bike, you’ll need to be more careful about picking your lines on the rugged descents.

➥ The All-Arounder

This is the biggest category, covering dozens of bikes. The All-Arounder is designed for general gravel fun, gravel grinders, and mixed terrain rides. It will usually take up to about a 38mm to 45mm tire on 700c wheels. You’ll find extra mounts for some bottles and bags. You can turn some All-Arounders into Monster Truckers by equipping them with 650b wheels and large tires, if gnarly off-roading is your game.

Photo credit: Trevor Raab
Photo credit: Trevor Raab

Salsa’s Warbird is a classic example of an All-Arounder. One of the original gravel race-specific bikes, Salsa’s flagship gravel racer remains a darling of the gravel event scene. The larger-size Warbird can accommodate three water bottles inside the front triangle and another under the down tube. You’ll find bosses on the fork for additional bags and bottle cages and mounts for fenders and racks. You can outfit it with 700c or 650b wheels, which fit up to 45mm or 2.1-inch tires respectively. This bike can handle pretty much anything that comes its way.

Increasingly, All-Arounders feature the suspension elements mentioned earlier that help absorb some of the road chatter and keep your wheels planted where you want them.

➥ The Workhorse

Most All-Arounders have attributes of this category, but there are bikes that are pure Workhorses. They tend to be sturdy and stable with lots of mounts on the frame. They prize stability and comfort over lightness and speed.

The Surly Straggler is a perfect example. Surly prides itself on making steel bikes for riders who don’t take themselves too seriously. In that vein, bikes like the Straggler are most definitely sturdy workhorses, not lightweight racers. You can run 650b or 700c wheels (take advantage of the horizontal dropouts to adjust the wheelbase) or turn it into a singlespeed, and bolt on bags, fenders, and racks galore for a bike tour.

Photo credit: Mitch Mandel
Photo credit: Mitch Mandel

That’s not to say you can’t find lighter weight Workhorses, like the Norco Search XR, which is literally outfitted with enough bottle mounts—two in the main triangle, one under the down tube, and two on the fork—to schlep more water than a pack mule. Take advantage of the myriad rack mounts to strap on frame packs and panniers and go bikepacking for the weekend. Or haul ass on the thing. The all-carbon frame and fork are fairly light, and the relatively tight rear triangle gives it some snap and makes it an admirable climber. There’s room for 2.1-inch tires on 650b wheels or 45mm on 700c wheels with ample mud clearance to spare.

➥ The Aero Gravel Bike

Photo credit: Matt Rainey
Photo credit: Matt Rainey

Yep, aero gravel bikes are a thing. The 3T Exploro, the first aerodynamic gravel bike, was billed with the tagline Go slow faster. It sounds funny, but anyone who’s ever battled a Midwestern headwind for six or seven hours can appreciate the need for all the low-speed (which is technically sub-20 mph) aerodynamics they can get.

Exploro’s ginormous squared-off down tube draws airflow off high-volume tires (up to 50mm wide) and over your water bottles with minimum drag. It also hides other wind catchers such as cables, hoses, and even the seatpost clamp within the frame. I raced this bike my second go-round at DK200 and can say it’s magically fast. I will also say that it’s not necessarily the smoothest ride (one Bicycling reviewer described it as a jackhammer)—which is to say, you can’t have everything in one bike. A stiff aerodynamic bike will not necessarily be the most comfortable ride.

➥ The Super Gravel Bike

To really get out there, far away from cars, and to stay out there for a longer period of time, you’ll do best with a Super Gravel bike (a.k.a. an adventure-touring bike or bikepacking bike). Super Gravel bikes have clearance for monster tires (aka 29 x 2.4” mountain bike size), and more mounts for bottles, bags, and cargo carriers. And where a gravel bike is more like a road bike with bigger tires, a super-gravel bike is longer and slower-steering like a mountain bike. It’s also designed to take a drop bar, which offers many advantages for long days in the saddle. These bikes are essentially drop-bar mountain bikes, and they’re growing in popularity.

Photo credit: Trevor Raab
Photo credit: Trevor Raab

A quintessential Super Gravel bike is the Salsa Cutthroat, which boasts a long, slack high-modulus carbon frame and super-compliant fork so you’ll barely feel a thing no matter how aggressive the gravel gets, and includes more than 20 frame mounts for secure, convenient carrying capacity for days. Another is Evil’s humorously named, insanely long Chamois Hagar. By pairing the low slung stability of its popular The Following trail mountain bike with an aggressive pavement pedaling position, Evil has created an eyebrow-raising bike that is super fast, crazy stable, and a blast over a variety of terrain.

➥ The Pedal Assist

Currently, there’s only one gravel e-bike available. But that’s sure to change. Yamaha Motor Corporation released the first pedal assist gravel bike, called the Wabush. If you want to go fast and fly up hills with minimum effort, this bike will let you achieve that mission.

The Wabush, like most e-bikes, has four levels of power assist up to 20 mph (at which point the motor stops assisting) and a max power output of 500 watts. It weighs in at 42 pounds, so it’s going to corner, descend, and generally handle differently than a lighter, standard bike.

You also need to consider range. E-bike batteries don’t last all day. And if you run out, you’re stuck pedaling a bike that’s easily twice as heavy as a regular bike. Also note that many events don’t currently permit them. That might change, but it’s something to bear in mind if you’re planning to take place in organized events.

Choosing a Gravel Bike

There are so many sweet bikes on the market, it’s easy to end up with a raging case of analysis paralysis when trying to decide which one is right for you. We have plenty of reviews to help you choose one — and you should use those to find your next new bike. But here’s our best advice on what types of bike and what features to look for.

First: Ask yourself two questions.

Where am I mostly going to ride it? This is a biggie, because gravel can mean a dozen different surfaces from sand to singletrack, depending on the event and the off-road paths you ride. Will most of your riding be on well-maintained gravel roads that are road-bike friendly? Or will you seek adventure on barely maintained ox-cart paths pocked with deep ruts and rock gardens? That will impact how much tire clearance you need, how much stability you want, and how much vibration dampening you should look for. Will you be riding mostly flat to rolling terrain? Or does the elevation profile resemble Jaws yawning? Is it sandy? Prone to peanut butter mud? Hard-packed and fast? Surface and terrain influence your drivetrain and gearing selections. A 1x drivetrain (with just a single chainring) might be perfect for a flat or gently rolling landscape, but it will leave you searching for an extra gear when you head into steeper, hillier territory.

How am I going to ride it? Is your goal to win your age group at your next gravel ride? Will you be doing mostly shorter events? Or do you plan on going out for all-day affairs? Do you want to go bikepacking? How you answer determines whether you should prioritize weight or durability; whether you’ll want a frame with mounts for fenders, racks, bags, and spare bottles; and if you want to consider added elements like dropper seatposts.

Once you’ve answered those questions, it’ll be easier to determine the main features you should look for.

➥ Frame Material

Long gone are the days when you could easily categorize a bike based on the material used to build it. The geometry, layup, construction, and shaping of the tubes play as much a role in how a bike feels and rides as what it’s made of. Generally speaking, however, these are the frame materials you can choose from and their defining characteristics:

Carbon fiber is light, stiff, and dampens road surface vibration. It’s also generally the priciest. Although carbon is strong, it’s not immune to cracks if bashed hard enough. It’s great for racing, but not necessarily what you need or want for bikepacking.

Titanium is fairly bombproof and also dampens road chatter quite nicely. It’s popular in the aerospace industry because it’s half the weight of steel (and doesn’t rust) and twice as strong as aluminum. It’s also expensive and not easy to find outside of smaller bike manufacturers like Moots and Sage.

Aluminum (or alloy, which is mixed metal) is stiff and light. It’s generally a little heavier than carbon, and can deliver a slightly harsh ride because it’s stiff (but good tires take the edge off for sure). It’s also relatively inexpensive, making it an attractive choice if you want a lighter, racier bike but carbon is outside of your budget.

Steel is lively and comfortable (which is why it’s so popular in touring and bikepacking bikes), but does tend to be heavier than the other materials. Chromoly (a light, strong steel), though, is a good gravel option if you’re seeking the ride quality of steel without the weight.

➥ Snap vs. Stability

Some bikes deliver greater stability; others climb and handle more quickly. The one you choose depends on your terrain and personal preference.

Even the experts can’t always agree on how geometry affects ride quality. But generally, the slacker (70- or 71-degree head tube) and longer your bike is, the more stable it will be. That means it’ll be easier to descend and hold your line on sketchy terrain. The steeper (72- or 73-degree head tube) and tighter the bike is, the more nimble it is. So you’ll find that it handles and climbs quickly, but may be more of a handful to keep on line when bombing down a descent.

➥ Gear Range

Gravel gearing is generally lower than road gearing because of the big tires. As your bike’s tires get bigger, it takes more oomph to put them in motion, especially in challenging conditions and on difficult terrain. And — news flash — Kansas is not flat. Nor is Oklahoma. When riding in either, as well as places like Colorado, Utah, Vermont, California, Pennsylvania, and well, pretty much everywhere short of Florida, you’ll need a wide range of gears—especially those at the lower end—to get you through all the (sometimes ridiculously steep) ups and downs and everything in between. Options abound and gearing is evolving so quickly that sorting through all the tech can get bewildering, but for most people just getting into gravel, the most important things to do are:

  • Get a setup in which the lowest gearing ratio is at least 1:1, if not easier. That means your front chainring and rear cog are close to the same size. (If the rear cog is bigger than the chainring, it gets even easier to pedal.)

  • Get a wide gear ratio with as few big jumps between cogs as possible. You want the difference between your hardest gear and easiest gear to be as big as possible so you can go really fast when you want and spider-crawl up walls when you need to.

➥ Drivetrain Configuration

You will have to choose whether you want a 2x drivetrain — the more traditional setup, with two chainrings in the front and a cassette in the back — or a 1x drivetrain, which dispenses with the front derailleur and has a single ring in the front and a super-wide-range cassette in the back. (Also note that those are pronounced “two-by” and “one-by.”)

Photo credit: Trevor Raab
Photo credit: Trevor Raab

The 2x generally has a wider array of gears with smaller jumps between them, which helps if you’re going to be riding a lot of smoother surfaces and doing high-speed pack riding (especially on pavement or firm surfaces) because you'll want to fine-tune your cadence to find that perfect gear. But two rings are obviously heavier than one. You also have a front derailleur, which can get gunked up on sloppy courses, adding to weight and poor shifting performance.

Photo credit: Trevor Raab
Photo credit: Trevor Raab

The 1x is lighter in weight, and generally better in heavy mud conditions because there are fewer components to get gummed up. This system also works well with a dropper post, because you can use the left-hand shifter to activate the post. But even though you have a wide gear range, there can be big jumps between gears. Manufacturers are trying to remedy that situation by adding more cogs, but with 1x it is not uncommon to find yourself searching for an in-between gear you don’t have.

➥ Tire Clearance

You don’t appreciate how important this one is until you’re 40 miles deep in red dirt country, it starts raining, your bike packs up with enough clay to build a mud hut, and you come to a standstill. Check how much space you’ll have between your wheels and your frame when your bike is set up with your widest tires. Now imagine those tires caked in mud. Will they still roll?

Photo credit: Cody Mann
Photo credit: Cody Mann

➥ Brakes

Disc brakes are really the only answer for a gravel-specific bike. In fact, it’s easy to argue that the adoption of disc brakes on the road and in cyclocross opened the door for the invention of gravel bikes. Disc has better stopping power than rim brakes in sloppy conditions, and creates room for those big tires. The decision you have to make is between higher-end hydraulic disc brakes that use brake fluid to actuate the caliper, or more basic mechanical disc brakes that are cable operated. Although hydraulic brakes allow you to use less pressure for the same amount of braking power, today’s mechanical brakes work just fine, especially if cost is an issue for you.

Photo credit: Cody Mann
Photo credit: Cody Mann

➥ Handlebar

Most gravel bikes come equipped with traditional drop bars. A popular option is a flared drop bar. These angle out to deliver more stability and control on technical descents. They also allow alternate hand positions (which is most welcome during eight- to 17-hour days). Just be sure that you can comfortably reach the brakes when you’re in the drops. Brands like 3T scale their flared bars according to size to accommodate riders’ larger and smaller hands.

Photo credit: Matt Phillips
Photo credit: Matt Phillips

Line up for an event in the midwest and you’re bound to see clip-on aero bars. On a fully loaded, frame bag-outfitted gravel bike, this looks Frankensteinish. But once you’re out there in the prairie, it makes more sense. You spend a lot of time going straight into the wind, often all by your lonesome.

But aero bars are banned from some gravel races (just as they are in many mass-start road events) for a really good reason: When you’re hunkered down on aero bars, the position is less stable, you have less control over your bike, and your hands aren’t close to your brakes. If you don’t have experience with aero bars, it’s probably wise to skip them. Your bike is already going to feel a little wonky with all the extra weight of your bottles and gear, and you’re going to be pedaling over uneven terrain. Adding aero bars to the mix just increases your risk of losing control and crashing. If you are experienced with riding aero bars, and you really want to clip them on for added hand positions and aerodynamics, check the rules first. Then be smart and stay off of them until you have plenty of open space to use them safely.

➥ Wheel Size

Increasingly, gravel bikes are being offered in two wheel-size options: 650b (smaller, like a mountain bike) or 700c (larger, like a road bike). Like all things gravel, the one you choose comes down to where and how you plan to ride. (Note: You generally can buy both wheel sizes and swap as you see fit, but that’s obviously an additional investment.)

With 650b, you can use a small mountain bike tire, which enables you to ride your gravel bike on more mountain-bike-like terrain and rugged roads. Wider tires also let you run lower tire pressure, which increases your comfort over many hours in the saddle. If you’re going to be hitting singletrack and using your bike more like an adventure seeker on raw, rugged terrain, 650b is a good choice. The smaller wheels are also quicker to spin up, which is good in certain technical situations, but they have more rolling resistance and don’t hold their momentum as well as larger wheels, making them less ideal for smooth roads and pack riding.

The larger 700c wheels have less rolling resistance and maintain momentum better. They also feel more responsive, like a road bike. This is a good choice for most gravel events. It’s also the best choice if you are going to use your gravel bike more like a road bike, riding on pavement, tow paths, rail trails, and with groups. You also can find nearly any tire you like in this size. Tire width is generally limited to about 38 or 40mm (though manufacturers are continually pushing those limits), which reduces your traction and handling on very loose or rugged terrain.

➥ Bonus Features

Gravel bikes are often outfitted with lots of extras that make long days over rough terrain easier. Here are a few you may want to consider, depending on your gravel riding goals.

Dropper seatposts, popular on mountain bikes, allow you to lower your saddle to get your weight down and back, which greatly improves your stability and control on steep, technical terrain. To work the dropper you press a lever on the handlebar (on 1x setups you can use the left side shifter) and put your weight on the saddle to drop it; you press again, with your weight off the saddle, to return it to full length. You don’t need one, obviously. But if you’ll be taking your bike on trails or on steep, rough roads, they’re great to have. If the bike you’re considering doesn’t have one, you can check if it’s dropper post compatible and have one installed later on.

Most gravel bikes have at least a few mounts for bags, bottles, racks, and/or fenders. If you know you’ll be heading out into remote territory and want to be able to carry a maximum amount of stuff, look for a bike that has extra mounts for a third bottle cage and rear racks, and maybe even on the fork legs for additional carrying capacity.

Photo credit: Trevor Raab
Photo credit: Trevor Raab

Most drop bar bikes are fully rigid. But as more people ride their gravel bikes on mountain bike terrain and/or spend the better part of the day bucking and bouncing over chunky, unmaintained roads, more manufacturers are building more shock absorption into their frame designs or even offering a little suspension to take the edge off. Some have suspension upfront like Specialized Diverge’s Future Shock, which floats the handlebars, or Lauf’s Grit fork, which has a leaf spring design. In some bikes, rear suspension is worked into the design, like Salsa’s Class 5 Vibration Reduction System (VRS), which pairs wishbone-shaped seat stays with flattened chainstays and removes the bridges from both to absorb road vibration in the rear, or Cannondale Topstone, which relies on flexing the frame’s carbon fiber to provide rear travel. Others offer bump-absorbing features like Specialized Diverge’s Terra seatpost, which flexes, or Trek’s IsoSpeed decoupler, a mechanical pivot between the seat tube and top tube that adds compliance to the rear of the bike. At this time, there’s only one full-suspension gravel bike, Niner’s Magic Carpet Ride (MCR). Having full suspension comes with a weight penalty, but it absolutely takes the edge off of everything; improves descending, traction, and cornering; and lessens fatigue. It’s an intriguing development, and one that is sure to have its share of imitators. ❖

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

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