Although road has long reigned supreme in the sport of cycling, more and more riders are turning away from the tarmac in search of the path less pedaled. And it’s for good reason. With drivers being more distracted than ever — whether that be because of a fixation on their phone, an obsession with their appearance, or, quite simply, an annoyance with those on two wheels — these days, the road is no place to be out riding a bike. Rather than taking your chances and playing the odds of whether you’ll make it home in one piece, do yourself a favor and grab a gravel bike.
Because let’s face the facts. Gravel is one of the best things that’s happened to bikes for quite some time. Not only can you ride safely without worry; you can also explore some incredible scenery under the power of your own legs. And while it’s a scene that’s predominantly predicated on having fun if you’re coming from a racing background, there’s more than enough competition to go around — with gravel, you can have it your way. So, whether you’re after an option with some monster truck tires or one that can efficiently cut through the wind, our guide has a bike for your needs. Below we’ve included some careful considerations to get you started before taking a deep dive into each offering. What are you waiting for? Read on to see what we’ve picked for the best gravel bikes.
Equipping Yourself For Adventure
Key Features To Watch Out For
When it comes to time to buy a gravel grinder, your priorities will be different than those for a road, mountain, or even cyclocross bike. Granted, you’re more than welcome to go out and find yourself a lightweight race-ready steed, but some extra grams here and there will have far less effect on your overall riding experience than, say, a bit of built-in suspension would.
Tire Clearance: Above all else, it’s important to find an option with ample room for rubber, so try to buy a bike with as much clearance as possible. You’ll not only save yourself unnecessary fatigue caused by riding over rough roads but also expand your possible areas of exploration. Should you want a more exact approach, it’s best to tailor your tire clearance to the type of gravel you’ll be riding. Bikes with less clearance will typically have a tighter geometry, making them faster over smooth surfaces and much more responsive through turns. However, a bike with bigger tires will allow you to ride much more varied terrain.
Wheel Size: Unlike road and cyclocross-specific models, many gravel bikes on the market are available in multiple wheel sizes. 700c — also known as 29-inch — has long been the industry standard for its superior rolling weight and overall efficiency. That being said, 650b — also known as 27.5-inch — is quickly becoming more common for its versatility. While it’s not quite as quick as 700c head-to-head, it allows for a much wider variety of tire profiles, be they ultra-wide or super-knobby. It’s worth noting that 650b x 47c tires have the same diameter as 700c x 28c options.
Suspension: If you’re interested in taking your bike to the trails, it’s to your advantage to grab a model with some sort of suspension system. Because let’s face it. Lacing up your wheels with a set of wide 2.4″ mountain bike tires will go a long way towards your comfort, but without something else to share the load, you’ll be the one absorbing the worst of the bumps. In most cases, a micro dampener or a set of pivoting seatstays will be plenty; however, short-travel suspension forks are becoming increasingly popular in gravel applications. Buyer beware though — while suspension will most certainly improve your comfort, it also results in some added weight.
Accessory Mounts: Any time you venture out on two wheels, it’s important to equip yourself for the unexpected, and when it comes to gravel, this proves especially true. As such, you should look for bikes that come with plenty of mounting provisions, whether that be room for a third bottle cage under the downtube or support for cargo carriers on the fork legs. Granted, you might not need them for quick jaunts around town, but if you’re going to be riding long spirited solo efforts, you can never be too prepared.
Horses In The Race
Although it comes in at the lowest price point on the list, that’s not to say that the Kona Rove is any less capable of an all-road performer. On the contrary, it comes with tons of features that make it great for gravel grinding, such as a robust 9-speed Shimano Sora drivetrain, a set of Tektro C550 mechanical disc brakes, and a plush WTB volt saddle. However, the real star of the show is the wheelset. Riding on a pair of WTB ST i23 TCS 2.0 rims wrapped in Venture Comp DUAL 650x47c tires, the Rove has more than enough rubber to get up and over any obstacle standing in its way.
The resident hipster of the bike industry, Surly was into gravel before it became cool. As such, it should come as no surprise that they’d land a spot here — especially with an offering like the Straggler. A longtime cult classic among those looking to mix it up on and off the tarmac, it comes with clearance for up to 700 x 41c tires, plenty of mounting points for racks and fenders, as well as forward-exiting horizontal dropouts — meaning you can even run it single speed should you choose to. And when you consider that it’s specced with a SRAM Apex 1x drivetrain and a set of wide Salsa Cowbell handlebars, it’s less a gravel grinder than it is a mountain bike for roadies.
Honed in the headwinds of the Unbound Gravel — the toughest gravel race in cycling — the Checkpoint is an option that’s well-equipped for exploration off the beaten path. For starters, the frame is made from Trek’s 300 Series Alpha Aluminum and the fork is made from lightweight carbon fiber, a combination that provides the perfect balance of stiffness, vibration dampening, and weight. What’s more, the Checkpoint also comes with a Shimano GRX RX600 drivetrain, giving you plenty of gear range to get over tough climbs and powerful hydraulic stopping power on sketchy descents. Add to that some tubeless compatible rims for running lower tire pressures and a 3S chain keeper for secure drivetrain management, and you have a gravel bike with all-road performance provisions in spades.
All City Gorilla Monsoon
Were you to pair the geometry of a 90s steel mountain bike with an assortment of eye-catching custom frame details, the All City Gorilla Monsoon is what you’d get. Made from All City’s high quality 612 Select tubing, it’s fitted with mounting points aplenty, allowing you to do everything from fully-loaded grocery runs to self-sustained bikepacking trips with ease. And because it’s shipped standard with a dropper post, it’s ready to take on the steepest drops the trails have to offer. But the best part is that because of its 2.4″ (or 42mm) tire clearance, there’s more than enough room for you to mount that monster truck level rubber.
Specialized Diverge Sport Carbon
When Specialized first introduced Future Shock dampening system to the Diverge line, it changed the gravel industry forever. That’s because it functions much like a standard suspension setup, absorbing impact at the handlebars and isolating you from the frame in order to make for an incredibly compliant ride. And that’s not all — for the latest edition of the Diverge, Specialized has also given it some reworked gravel geometry, an addition that means it’s incredibly stable over rough surfaces while still being plenty responsive to take on twisty singletrack. Top it all off with a lightweight FACT 8r carbon frame, a set of short-reach Hover handlebars, as well as a wide-ranging drivetrain, and the resulting bike is one that’s ready to tackle any exploit.
Canyon Grail CF SL 8
At first glance, you might think that the Grail’s bi-plane handlebars are merely a marketing gimmick; however, looks can be deceiving and, in that respect, you’d be wrong. In practice, the bar allows for more hand positions than any other offering on the market, giving optimal control and comfort no matter what terrain you’re riding. Paired with Shimano’s GRX800 groupset — which has a clutch rear derailleur for reliability, indented hoods for grip, and massive rear cassette for climbing — it makes for a bike that’s purpose-built for gravel grinding dominance. If you’re after for an offering that’s as at home taking race wins as it exploring on the weekend, look no further than the Canyon Grail.
Santa Cruz Stigmata
Part podium-clinching cross bike, part trail-ripping mountain bike, the Santa Cruz Stigmata is an option that can hang with the best the industry has to offer. That’s because it clears up to a 2.1” 650b/45mm 700c tire, includes three bottle cage mounts, and rolls on a build-specific Reserve wheelset. And that’s not even addressing the Force AXS/X01 drivetrain. In addition to being completely wireless — meaning it’s unbelievably accurate and maintenance-free — it’s also compatible with a wide-ranging mountain cassette. To put it another way — the Stigmata is as much an endurance ride for spirited solo efforts as it is a drop-bar singletrack shredder.
Cannondale Topstone Lefty 3
This iteration of the Topstone rolls the best of Cannondale’s past gravel bikes into one capable all-road package. With articulating seat stays and a 30mm Lefty Oliver fork, it toes a careful line between a light-duty mountain bike and an over-built gravel bike, allowing you to mix it up over all kinds of terrain. What’s more, it comes fitted with an assortment of the best mechanical GRX components Shimano has to offer, such as some 600 shifters for confident steering control and an 800 rear derailleur for an ultra-wide range. Riding on a set of 650b x 47c tubeless-ready tires, the Topstone Lefty 3 makes for one of the most comfortable rides you can buy.
3T Exploro MAX
Back in 2016, 3T shocked the cycling world with the Exploro, the first gravel bike to ever be engineered for aerodynamic efficiency. Never one for complacency, 3T has now split up the Exploro into a three-piece line, with each model carefully tailored to a different kind of riding. As its name would imply, the MAX was designed to get you through the gnarliest of gravel events, relying on a combination of some super chunky tires and an incredibly compliant frame in order to keep you making forward progress. However, that’s not to say it’s any less aerodynamic than its predecessor. On the contrary — 3T carefully crafted it with a closely trailing downtube and a super-narrow headtube in order to cut through the wind with ease. When paired with a set of 3T’s fast-rolling 700c wheels, it quickly converts into a race-ready ripper.
Niner RLT 9 RDO
Based out of Fort Collins, Colorado, Niner is a mountain bike-forward brand that comes well-versed in the demands of off-road readiness. Their RLT (Road Less Traveled) 9 RDO is a carbon fiber race bike that’s not just lightweight, stiff, and fast but also forgiving enough to be ridden over the long haul. Fitted with 26 different threaded mounts, it’s as much a gravel bike as it is a do-everything multi-tool. In practice, this means that it can handle just about anything you could throw at it, whether that’s keeping up with a quick paceline or embarking on a multi-day solo adventure.
Salsa Warbird Carbon
Designed to be the fastest gravel race bike in the Salsa stable, the Warbird is a model where every detail has been carefully considered to ensure that riders have the best possible advantage. For instance, it comes with a Class 5 Vibration Reduction System, a series of specifically shaped tube profiles made to flex outwards during impacts and save the rider from hand-numbing chatter. But that’s not all — Salsa has also given the Warbird a gravel-specific geometry, with a slack top tube for all-day enjoyment and a low bottom bracket for stability at speed. And when you finish it off with a smooth-shifting Shimano GRX 810 Di2 electronic groupset, the result is a gravel bike that ensures absolutely no effort of yours is wasted.
If you want one of the most purpose-built gravel bikes in the game, OPEN’s WI.DE. (Winding Detours) is easily your best bet. Sure, it carries quite the hefty price tag; however, nothing else really compares when it comes to all-road ability. For though it can clear up to a 2.4″ tire, it’s still perfectly capable of running road cranks, meaning that in addition to being able to conquer extreme terrain, it’s also surprisingly spritely on the tarmac. And because of features like double-drop chainstays for stiffness, Smartmount for direct brake caliper fitment, and a zero-setback seat tube for efficiency, the WI.DE. is perfectly suited to life as a fast-rolling race bike. If imitation is the best form of flattery, then OPEN must be doing something right — these days, they have no shortage of copycats.
The 12 Best Mountain Bike Trails In America
One of the main benefits that gravel bikes bring to the table is their all-road ability. If you’re looking for some sweet spots to shred some dirt, be sure to check out our guide to the best mountain bike trails in America.
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