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How to buy a gravel bike

Here are some key things to think about when buying a gravel bike if you're in the hunt for a bike for some off-road fun and adventures

Stu Bowers
28 Apr 2020

By their very nature 'gravel', 'all-road', 'adventure' - call them what you will - bikes have both versatility and robustness aplenty, and may well be the closest we have ever come to a genre of bike that can do (almost) everything well.

Most gravel bikes, with a pair of road wheels thrown in (or just a switch to road tyres), will serve you well for everything from the daily commute right up to ripping it up on the local chaingang or group rides and yet equally with tyre clearances now commonly up to 47mm and even beyond (with almost all now compatible with 650b wheels too), it's easy to switch the set-up to cater for quite varied and even quite extreme off-road forays.

But with this sector of the market flourishing, there are myriad options, some brands even having multiple gravel bikes within their own stables, so where do you begin?

Know yourself

The first thing is to have a think about what you really see yourself doing with the bike.

Think about where you would put yourself on a spectrum that spans from, at one end: just using a gravel bike as a more versatile, utilitarian vehicle for a bit of everything, but most likely predominantly road use, with perhaps an occasional light gravel/off-road ride, all the way up to a fully-laden, self-sufficient round-the-world trek.

We'd wager most people will be far nearer the first option and as such unless you are sure you are going to come good on that dream of heading off into the sunset on a voyage of personal discovery by bike, there may be little point choosing the most ultra-burley, rugged bike, as it will just hold you back in other areas.

So then, another question to ask yourself might be; what things are most important to you in a bike?

Is it weight? Speed? Big tyre clearance? Do you want to try a gravel race or off-road sportive? Or try your hand at some bikepacking, even if it's only relatively close to home?

You may also want to consider your current level of off-road skill/experience. Are you likely to take a few tumbles getting to grips with riding on the rough stuff (there's no shame in admitting that, especially if it helps you buy a bike that won't get wrecked so easily in a fall).

All of the above are factors that might help steer you in the direction of a certain style of a gravel bike.

Basically, being clearer about what you want from the bike will help a great deal and make it much easier to narrow down the options.

There are certain brands that cater well for those seeking something light, fast and racy, such as for example the Cervelo Aspero, Vielo V+1, Colnago G3-X and 3T Exploro (to name but a few), versus brands that tend to lean more towards the long-haulers and adventure-seekers, for example, Mason InSearchOf, Surly Straggler, Salsa Cutthroat and Kinesis Tripster ATR3 (again to call out just a few).

Furthermore, if the thought of a silky smooth off-road riding experience appeals, or you are coming at gravel riding from more of an MTB background, then the recent emergence of bikes with active suspension systems, notably Niner's MCR 9 RDO, BMC's URS and of course, one of the forerunners in this regard, Specialized's Diverge, might well appeal.

Material things

One of the first decisions you should consider, perhaps, is what frame material will best suit your pocket and riding ambitions.

Many brands have stuck by carbon as the material of choice, for the same reason it has such high-appeal on road bikes: it's light and stiff whilst its attributes can concomitantly still be tailored to deliver improved comfort and so on.

But there are those that fear carbon does not have sufficient resistance to impacts in the event of inevitable crashes and spills, or even concerns over debris being thrown up from the trail.

By way of reassurance, though, these concerns are to the greater extent unfounded, as carbon frame manufacturers will likely have taken steps to reinforce those areas most at risk, but, if alternatives to the black stuff do seem appealing, then Mason Bikes founder, Dominic Mason, makes a good case for metal frames.

The case for metal as the perfect gravel bike material

‘Metals tend to say to people, “dependability”,’ says Mason. ‘Carbon is infinitely more tuneable, and its strength-to-weight makes it superb as a frame material, but it simply isn’t as impact-resistant and I feel you can still make superb bikes out of metal.

‘Titanium is to my mind the best all-round material for a gravel bike,’ he adds. ‘It has a lovely smooth ride feel, and it can still be light. If you drop it on a rock you won’t punch a hole in it.

‘People refer to Ti bikes as “life bikes” and as a frame material for fast off-road gravel experience, it’s brilliant. Granted, it’s still expensive, but no more so than carbon.

‘As an aside, we’re also finding that people love the romantic notion of someone making their bike by hand. Being crafted and touched by human hands – people love the idea of that.

‘Plus the raw finish of titanium and the welds and so on give people that sense of being handmade. Sometimes that makes them feel more secure about their purchase.

‘Steel is still a very popular choice too, but I think more for the bikepacking or expedition riders who feel it gives them the chance to repair a damaged frame wherever they may be in the world.

‘Even a local garage might be able to weld steel, but if you break carbon you’re pretty stuffed.’

Geo catch

Something else to consider when purchasing a gravel bike is the likely changes to expect in geometry compared to a road bike.

It is highly likely the actual frame size you require will be the same (i.e. if you ride a 56cm road bike you are most likely to be the same for a gravel bike) but there will be some subtle changes to look out for. Stem length is one.

Expect stems to be noticeably shorter. The trend in many gravel bikes is to have a longer top tube and subsequently, brands spec a shorter stem length in order not to increase the reach. This is done to move the rider's centre of gravity rearwards (more towards the middle of the bike) which will improve stability on rough ground and descending at speed.

To the same end, expect lower bottom bracket heights and also overall longer wheelbases. These are such subtle changes you may not even be aware of them, but rest assured they are working behind the scenes to improve the bike's capabilities off the beaten path.

One ring or two?

Selecting gearing is a little bit like choosing tyres. It’s heavily dependent on where you ride, the severity of the terrain, your riding style, fitness level and so on.

The good news is there has never been more choice when it comes to gear ratios, so you should always be able to get what you need.

Many gravel bikes are now ditching double chainsets in favour of 1x drivetrains. Whilst it might at first seem like reducing the overall number of gears is restricting the bike's versatility, the current crop of groupsets available from Sram and Shimano have been carefully considered to make certain 1x can offer, in some cases, an even broader range of gears.

Wide-ranging cassettes from 10-33t (Sram) and 11-34t (Shimano), or even as large as 10-50t (Sram) or 11-46t (Shimano) for instance, means there's heaps of available choice, that can result in having a greater extent of gears at either end of the range.

There are also certain other advantages to 1x set-ups when it comes to gravel riding.

Aside from saving weight, losing the front derailleur greatly improves rear tyre clearance behind the seat tube and means fewer components overall to maintain.

That can be beneficial when you’ve got mud and filth to contend with. Also, a single chainring set-up reduces the complexities of shifting. You only have one shifter to worry about, simply up or down the cassette.

Bringing across technologies learned and proven beyond any doubt on mountain bike drivetrains, Sram pioneered the 1x drivetrain initially for cyclocross racers, but that now carries over perfectly into the gravel bike scene.

Those technologies include such things as clutched rear derailleurs to improve chain retention, and specific chain rings with an alternating wide-narrow tooth pattern to reduce the chance of chain drop over bumpy terrain.

Shimano also recently launched a dedicated drivetrain for gravel - called GRX - in both mechanical and Di2 versions. There are both 1x and 2x options.

Buy the Shimano GRX groupset from Merlin Cycles for £749

If you go for a 1x set-up, both the chainring size and cassette range need to be given careful consideration. A more road-focused rider may wish to have a higher overall gearing and smaller jumps between gears, which might mean a chainring in the region of 44t to 48t paired to an 11-28t or 10-28t (if using Sram) cassette.

A set-up to favour more off-road riding would likely require a smaller chainring size – in the region of 40t to 44t – paired with a wider-ranging cassette, for example, 11-32t or 10-33t (if using Sram).

With Sram's latest groupsets using 12 speeds, that added 'extra' sprocket (compared to Shimano's current 11 speed) helps greatly to ensure a more even spread of gears and mostly smaller jumps between.

And crucially Sram's cassettes now also start from a 10t sprocket (the norm being 11t), which immediately means the chainring size can be smaller, and the overall range of gear options available to the rider can hence be wider than on previous 2x systems.

Cannondale Slate gravel ride

Bouncing back: The cases for and against suspension on a gravel bike

Cannondale was the first big brand to release a dedicated gravel bike with suspension back in 2015, when the Slate raised eyebrows with its distinctive single-legged Lefty fork.

Specialized went down a more subtle route for its Diverge and Roubaix bikes with Future Shock, a spring between the headset and stem designed to isolate the rider from road shocks and dampen vibration.

Buy the Specialized Diverge from Tredz

The question remains, though, whether suspension systems are necessary on a gravel bike at all. ‘Gravel bikes are increasingly blurring the lines between road and MTB,’ says Chris Trojer, European marketing manager at suspension fork manufacturer Fox.

‘A gravel bike offers new possibilities and suspension on these bikes is just the next logical step in my world.’

Not everyone agrees. ‘For me, the key reason people love gravel bikes so much is that they retain the speed of a road bike,’ says Gerard Vroomen, co-founder of Open Cycle. ‘Gravel bikes may not be as fast as full-suspension mountain bikes on some trails, but that isn’t the point.

‘A gravel bike should also be fun on the paved sections leading up to the gnarly stuff, so adding suspension just to make it more capable on tough sections but losing speed on paved and other easier surfaces isn’t a direction that makes sense for me.’

Cannondale’s David Devine makes the case for suspension systems, however, by arguing that suspension brings two types of comfort to a bike. ‘We consider both mental and physical comfort,’ he says.

‘Mental comfort comes from the confidence of feeling in control, and suspension targets this aspect of control, so riders can have fun bike rides. The physical comfort is just a fantastic by-product.’

That sinking feeling: Are dropper posts too close to MTB for comfort?

Dropper posts were born in downhill mountain biking.

The ability to instantly (at the press of a button or lever) drop the seat down helps to rapidly shift body weight downwards and rearwards, lowering a rider’s centre of gravity to increase stability and control on steep, technical descents.

The jury is still out, though, on whether it has a place on a gravel bike. There is an argument that if the terrain you’re on is extreme enough to require a dropper post, the chances are you’re taking the notion of gravel riding a step too far and should really be riding a mountain bike.

The dropper post is certainly a significant step away from the more traditional aspects of the road/gravel crossover, and it won’t sit well with the purists.

Many will see it as unnecessary weight for a feature rarely used. However, that hasn’t stopped several brands from developing products to suit the gravel market, such as Rock Shox, Specialized, Thomson and Pro to name a few.

Another downside might be the need to route another cable or hydraulic line (although, rather neatly, if using a cable-operated 1x drivetrain the unused left-hand shifter can be used to operate the dropper post), so a wireless version such as the new Rock Shox AXS post might make the technology more tempting.

A bike for all seasons: Versatility gives gravel bikes broad appeal

While the initial influx of gravel bikes may have been created off the back of a niche, the latest models are being seen as versatile ‘do-it-all’ bikes with a broad appeal. Riders who can’t afford (or don’t have the space for) a range of different bikes are recognising that this category might just be the ‘one’.

It can be a road bike, winter trainer, off-road bike, commuter, tourer and anything in between. The good news is the burgeoning scene has also led to a glut of new price-pointed options to make them as accessible as possible.

Brands such as Canyon with its Grail AL and Cannondale with its Topstone have both recently launched new models targeting lower price points (from £1,099 and £899 respectively).

Buy the Cannondale Topstone Sora for £950 from Evans Cycles

Equally, Kinesis has recently launched its aluminium G2 bike, taking cues from its pricier sibling, the titanium Tripster ATR, such that it benefits from technology learned in the more expensive realms.

So in the current market it seems it doesn’t have to cost the earth to get down and dirty.