Capable of handling different road conditions, including pavement, inclines, and gravel. Sturdy aluminum frame and 8-speed Shimano drive train provide a comfortable ride. Disc brakes are responsive, even in loose gravel. Comes in different sizes.
Priciest option on our shortlist, but it has a lot to offer.
Has a good amount of stiffness along the frame to hold up to the normal abuse of gravel races. Can accept a wide variety of tire widths for different amounts of traction versus speed.
Too heavy for professional gravel bike races.
A stiff frame provides plenty of support over rough terrain. Lightweight materials make it easy to carry the bike around during professional races. Comes in many sizes.
Not as flexible as proper carbon frames.
Frame shape and construction balances many riding disciplines including gravel racing, mountain biking, road riding, and general use. Easy to store and carry when not in use.
Sacrifices some frame durability for general use riding.
The gravel bike is a relatively recent, but extremely popular, cycling development. The best in this category offer the perfect combination of on-road pace and off-road control. The challenge comes in picking the right model.
You'll want to carefully consider which frame size and material work best for your needs, and you won't want to forget the other features like seat posts and gears.
Many cyclists spend a lot of their riding time on pavement. It's tempting to take that side track or follow that interesting trail, but a road bike just isn't built for it. Mountain bikes are great on really rough terrain, but the gears and riding position don't suit fast road use.
The gravel bike (or adventure bike) is the ideal solution. At first glance, these bikes look a lot like full-on road bikes – most have drop handlebars – but there are differences:
Frame: The frame geometry is carefully altered to be shorter than that of a road bike, with a steeper steering head angle, but not as extreme as a mountain bike. It balances the need for straight-line road performance with off-road maneuverability.
Tires: The tires are wider, with deeper tread, to provide extra grip on loose surfaces.
Position: The riding position is a little more upright.
Balance: The pedal crank is set nearer the ground, lowering your center of gravity and thus improving balance.
The result is a bike you can still ride fast on the road that also has the ability to handle gravel lanes and dirt paths. For most of us, it's the kind of adventure riding that's much more common – and more easily accessible – than your nearest mountain!
Hybrid bikes are a similar idea, but these are focused on comfort rather than sport. You'll still get plenty of gears to handle different riding conditions, but the riding position is much more upright, and there's more padding in the saddle. Tires are for roads, with limited trail ability. Hybrids are designed for the city slicker who likes to take a ride through an urban park or along the river every once in a while.
A modern gravel bike can incorporate many different materials and technologies. Let's look at how each affects your choice.
Frames are often a one-size-fits-all deal. On cheaper bikes, you'll mostly see words like "adult" or "teen." Better gravel bikes offer a range of frame sizes. If you ride regularly, and particularly if you ride more than a few miles at a time, it's important to get the right size frame for your height. If you don't, you'll not only be uncomfortable but you also won't have the balance and control you want on loose surfaces.
The gravel bike’s frame can be made of steel, aluminum, or carbon fiber.
Steel frames are the cheapest option. Chromoly steel is a chromium and molybdenum alloy that's lighter than ordinary carbon steel and allows flex. These frames are strong, and will take plenty of knocks, but they are also fairly heavy.
Aluminum frames are much lighter than steel, an advantage both on- and off-road. Aluminum isn't as strong, but its weight advantages are such that it's the most popular frame material for both good mid-range and high-end gravel bikes.
Carbon is incredibly light and can be immensely strong, but it's expensive and not necessarily durable. It's very rigid, so impacts can cause stress fractures and, in extreme cases, even shattering. Carbon-framed gravel bikes do exist, but it's far more common on high-end road bikes, where impact isn't generally a consideration.
Composite: Increasingly common on mid-range and high-end gravel bikes are composite frames in which different materials are used at specific points, especially around the bottom bracket (where the spindle for the crank fits). These sections are designed to increase impact resistance – almost like a form of suspension.
When it comes to wheels and tires, the choices can be confusing, particularly sizes. Unfortunately, our research shows there’s no real standardization in terms.
Children's gravel bikes often state tire sizes in inches: 24 inches is common.
Adult gravel bikes sometimes use inches but more often use expressions like 650b, 700, or 700c.
650 wheels have 26-inch diameter rims.
650b means 27.5 inches (the confusion is because 650b is a measurement that includes the tire).
700 sizes range from 27 inches (wheel only) to 29 inches (tire included).
So, how do you decide which is best? Although you'll find numerous wheel and tire combinations, these are the most common we encountered:
700 wheels with 40mm tires: The larger wheel offers more straight-line stability. The smaller tire means you've got less contact area, so you'll go faster for the same amount of effort. This is a setup biased toward road use.
650 wheels with 47mm tires: The smaller wheel but fatter tire means more comfort off-road. You'll also have more grip. In most cases, you'll have fewer punctures with a fatter tire – it absorbs more impact. This is a setup biased toward trail riding.
There are many more 700 gravel tires than 650. Unless you're a committed long-distance adventure rider, the 700 is probably the easier option. Of course, it's always possible to change wheels later, and some enthusiasts have a pair of each.
Tubed versus tubeless tires
While the majority of gravel tires are still tubed, tubeless variants are becoming popular. These tires can't be fitted to all rims, and they’re more expensive, but they’re less prone to punctures. You can also get tire sealants to repair your tubeless tire on the spot, or that you pre-fill – you might never even realize you had a flat. That could be a major benefit if you're traveling any distance.
You'll find caliper (rim) brakes on hybrids, but most gravel bikes have disc brakes for superior stopping power. These are either cable or hydraulically operated.
Hydraulic brakes seem like the up-market option, and they do have more braking “feel.” However, much less can go wrong with cables, and unless you're a competitive cyclist, it's unlikely you would notice much difference.
Carbon forks: These reduce front-end weight, making it easier to turn, particularly on gravel and dirt.
Seat posts: These have become surprisingly complex: not only do you have carbon options to save weight but you now also have “dropper” seat posts that are pneumatically activated so you can change seat height while you ride!
Seats: The seats tend to offer more padding and springing than the razor blades you find on some road bikes, but they aren't necessarily luxurious. Fittings are universal, so it's an easy change if you want a little more comfort.
Gears: It might seem odd that we've left gears until last, but in our view they’re less important than many people might think. You'll likely get an absolute minimum of 15 speeds, which is plenty. In fact, while cheap gravel bikes might offer as many as 24, high-spec machines aimed at the serious enthusiast have as few as 10. Twist-grip selectors are common, but levers/paddles are more precise.
The range of gravel bikes is enormous, which is excellent news for the bike buyer. Even those looking for an entry-level adventure bike have plenty of choices, as long as you don't mind a couple of compromises. You can expect to pay from $200 to over $4,000 for a gravel bike, depending on quality and features.
Inexpensive: Cheap gravel bikes start at around $200. Steel frame, wheels, and tires are designed for both street and trail, but most everything else comes out of the same parts bin as any road or mountain bike. You'll get 15 or 21 gears, twist-grip shifters, and cable-operated caliper or disk brakes. If you want a basic leisure bike, these are fine for the ride to work and the occasional run along a gentle woodland path. You'll find decent hybrids, with an aluminum frame and front fork suspension, for around $100 extra – although you can pay up to $500, depending on quality.
Mid-range: If you like to challenge yourself and are going off-road regularly, you'll need to invest more. You'll find a great all-rounder that will handle serious weekend use for around $600 to $1,200. That's quite a spread, but there's tremendous variation. Some bikes will be steel framed, others aluminum. Shifters will probably be lever operated. Brakes might be cable or hydraulic disc. You sometimes get carbon forks. You'll find frame-size options, too.
Expensive: In this price range, you're really choosing from the very best equipment available. Lightweight yet remarkably strong. Superbly built. It's not difficult to spend $2,000 or more. If you want the ultimate gravel bike, it can be more or less individually tailored – for a price. A probable starting point would be $4,000, though you can pay more than that just for a carbon frame!
There’s no substitute for practice. If you’ve never ridden off-road before, it can be both an exhilarating and slightly scary experience. The big difference with loose surfaces is you’re likely to slip and slide a bit. Learn how your new bike handles on different terrain. The more you ride, the more your skills and confidence will grow. Take on small challenges and build up. Gravel riding is fun, but gravel rash is not!
Give your bike a good clean after every ride. Gravel bike riding might not leave your bike covered in mud like mountain biking can, but dust and fine grit will find its way into gears, brakes, and bearings and cause extra wear and tear. Fifteen minutes with a brush and some soapy water will extend the life of your bike. Regular maintenance (following manufacturer’s instructions) will make sure it doesn’t let you down in the middle of nowhere.
Q. What’s the difference between a gravel bike and cyclocross bike?
A. They do look similar, but there are important details that differ, particularly in the geometry. A gravel bike is usually longer, and the steering head angle is less shallow. It’s a compromise between a bike that handles gravel tracks and rough terrain and one that gives you good stability for fast road riding.
A cyclocross (or CX) bike is shorter, and the steering head angle is more extreme. It’s all focused on the trail, designed to give you the ability to turn the bike quickly when you need to.
You can often fit panniers or frame bags to a gravel bike for long-distance touring. You won’t find the same on a cyclocross bike, which is focused on off-road ability.
Q. Could I just put gravel tires on my road bike?
A. It might be possible, depending on your rims, but it’s not recommended. Even if you can get tires to fit, they’ll still be relatively skinny. You won’t get a lot of grip. And that’s only part of the problem. A road bike is far less robust than a good gravel bike. Frame geometry is another issue. Road bikes are designed for good straight-line stability on tarmac or concrete, they aren’t so good at coping with slides and quick changes of direction on gravel and loose dirt.
Q. What is a 1x drivetrain?
A. A 1x drivetrain has just one chainring on the crank (with the pedals). Mountain bikes and road bikes usually have two or three chainrings at the front and a gear cassette at the rear, giving as many as 30 gears. This give lots of possible combinations (particularly for steep terrain), but it means drivetrains are complex, with lots that could go wrong. They’re also hard on chains.
On a gravel bike, you’re unlikely to tackle extreme gradients, so you don’t need as many gears. As a result, the mechanism can be simpler and more durable. It is lighter, as well as easier to understand because there’s only one lever to operate!
As yet, budget and mid-range gravel bikes still mostly use 2x and 3x drivetrains. It’s economical. There are lots in production. However, with high-end (particularly custom-built) gravel, cyclocross, and mountain bikes, 1x drivetrains are increasingly common.