Bikes are now being made for very specific or variable kinds of terrain. The fat bikes are masters of snow and sand, road bikes are, well, perfect for the road. There are also gravel bikes, and they are, as one enthusiast says, “drop-bar machines… with longer wheelbases than a normal road bike, more upright positions, lower bottom brackets for stability, and clearance for wider tires.” Meant to be great on pavement, they are also fantastic on dirt roads and, of course, gravel.
Yet, as it is still an emerging area of the bike world, you won’t find a lot of fixed rules about what makes a gravel bike a gravel bike. As that same enthusiast noted, “Road bikes have always existed on a continuum, from light, fast, aggressive race models to longer, stable touring machines. The gravel movement has a similar scale.” That means you’ll find them designed for better steering or for speed, you’ll find them with different wheel sizes and even frame designs.
So, to keep it all as simple as possible, it is best if you look at a gravel bike as one that is often happy on paved roads as well as in mud or dirt. It is a bike you might be able to easily use if you commute on a regular road, but also add a shortcut across a field or along a private, dirt path to get home. As another cyclist said, the ideal conditions for the gravel bike are “Tracks that are too technical for a road bike, yet too fast for a cyclo-cross bike.”
If you enjoy riding farm roads, pavement, cobblestone streets, layers of crushed gravel or pebbles, and single tracks, the gravel bike is likely the right option for you. They are adaptable and rugged, and yet are fine for everyday commuting, training or just about anything else.
And though that makes them sound like an easy bike to select, there are many factors to consider as you narrow down your options for the ideal gravel bike for your needs. Shortly, we’ll look at nine of the top-rated and most frequently purchased options, but before that, let’s consider some of the factors that set the these bikes apart from the rest of the crowd.
The build of a gravel bike is similar to a racing bike but is a great deal more relaxed. You’ll see a head tube taller than normal and an angle that allows more relaxed steering. Bottom brackets are often set lower than cyclo-cross models, and they usually have longer wheelbases to give them a lot more stability on roads as well as gravel. They are designed for comfort, and so you also get more stand over height.
The design of disc braking systems for most gravel bikes means that there is no brake caliper on the rims, and this means the bikes can have frames and forks sized for larger tires. These tires, then, afford a more comfortable ride along bumpy or rougher surfaces, while also ensuring better grip with whatever material or surface the bike traverses.
And about those disc brakes…all gravel bikes use them. They use disc and hydraulic discs to offer a lot more braking power. This enables you to handle those unpredictable conditions, but also get optimal braking efficiency whether in the mud or the rain, snow or slicker surfaces.
All the Rest
Control is about more than brakes and tires, though, and you’ll want good drop bars that ensure you have total control during any sort of slide or skid. Yet, be sure that they have adequate positioning to enable you to ride in your preferred posture and read the terrain at all times.
And as to options for cranksets and drivetrains, you’ll find gravel bikes offer the same wide-ranging options. A rule of thumb, however, is to invest in the best you can afford as these will usually pay you back in comfort and performance.
And weight? That’s a very interesting issue with gravel bikes. Many experienced riders say that they don’t give a huge amount of thought to this one factor. Instead, they look more at the performance, robustness, and even the longevity of a bike over the basic weight of the ride. If you are going to race your gravel bike, though, weight may come into the equation.
Lastly, you should note that many manufacturers equip gravel bikes with lots of connectors for everything from mudguards to gear racks, water bottle cages and pannier racks, and this makes them a great choice if you like to do traveling onboard a bike.
So, there are not a lot of hard and fast rules about gravel bikes just yet. They are still a wildly popular and emerging area of bike technology. For now, we give you nine of the most highly rated options from which to choose your new gravel bike or your next one!