Gravel and all-road are terms used for this rapidly growing segment of the road bike market. These bikes have generous tire clearance and geometry that is more stable and forgiving than traditional road bikes.
Gravel bikes were born out of the American Midwest, where racing on gravel roads took hold a decade ago and has steadily gained popularity. In the early days, riders tackled these endurance events on cyclocross bikes with the largest tires that would fit between the stays. Today, there are numerous purpose-built machines that gravel-curious riders can choose from.
Key elements of a gravel bike
Four key features can usually be used to distinguish a gravel bike from a traditional road bike.
First and foremost, gravel bikes have wider tires. Since these bicycles are designed to traverse miles of unpaved roads, their tires are substantially larger. Likewise, mud clearance is also a concern in these conditions.
Tire widths range anywhere from 30mm to 48mm. In addition to 700c wheels, it is also common to see smaller diameter 650b wheels used with higher volume tires.
Most gravel tires feature a fast-rolling center tread with knurling or side knobs to improve cornering ability on mixed surfaces. Tubeless tires are also commonly found on gravel bikes, because the latex sealant provides a degree of insurance against punctures.
In addition to wider tires, gravel bikes have geometry that favors stability and comfort.
The wheelbase of a gravel bike is longer than most road bikes thanks to longer chainstays and slacker head tube angles.
Head tubes are generally taller as well, placing the rider in a more relaxed, upright position. Bottom brackets are often lower, which gives the rider the sensation of riding in, rather than on the bicycle.
The end result of these geometry differences is a more comfortable, confidence-inspiring and forgiving ride than one would find in a typical road bike.
Gearing is another area where these bikes diverge from the pack. Given the terrain, many gravel bikes feature compact or smaller gearing and wide-range cassettes.
Cranksets with 50/34 or 48/32t are common. Likewise, many gravel bikes come with 1x gearing with wide-range cassettes.
In addition to wide tires, relaxed geometry and low gearing, many gravel bikes have active or passive suspension systems built into them.
Much like bikes in the endurance road category, these features could take the form of slender chainstays, a bowed top tube, or a skinny seatpost, all of which are designed to flex in order to absorb road chatter.
Some gravel bikes take things one step further by using short-travel suspension forks such as the Lefty Oliver or aesthetically odd but very effective Lauf Grit fork.
How much do I have to spend on a gravel bike?
Well, that depends on what you define as a gravel bike. A used cyclocross bike, for example, could work perfectly well as a gravel bike and cost you a fraction of the cost of even the most basic 'true' gravel machine.
If you're looking at a purpose-built gravel / all-road bike, expect to pay around £800 / $1,200 for an alloy frame with entry-level components.
A mid-range build from a major brand will likely cost in excess of £2,000 / $2,800 but should feature a carbon frame and hydraulic disc brakes. As is normally the case in the cycling world, it’s possible to spend a small (or not so small) fortune on a custom-built bike should you wish.
Best gravel and adventures bikes 2018
- £2,499.99 / $2,899–$3,499
- Tire clearance: 650b x 42mm
Credit where credit is due: Cannondale got out ahead of the gravel trend compared to the other big companies. Sure, small brands like Salsa have been at it for years, but Cannondale’s 650b front suspension drop-bar bike pushed the gravel envelope early.
With clearance for up to 42mm tires and 30mm of suspension on the Lefty Oliver, the Slate gives you options.
- £2,399.99–£3,500 / $2,499–$4,299
- Tire clearance: 700c x 2.4in
Speaking of small companies that have been banging the gravel drum for years, Salsa has a whole range of gravel bikes. While the Warbird is the American company’s gravel racer, the Cutthroat is its burly bikepacking sibling.
There is no mistaking this guy for an endurance road bike. Consider: 445m chainstays, four-bottle capacity on small frame and five bottles on M–XL frames, rack ready, top tube bag mount ready, one or two chainring ready.
With its slack geometry and enormous clearance for up to 2.4in tires plus, the Cutthroat is essentially a rigid 29er with dropbars. If your idea of a great ride finishes on a completely different day than when it starts, check out the Cutthroat.
- £799—£8,500 / $1,100—$9,000
- Tire clearance: 700c x 42mm or 650b x 47mm
Specialized introduced the FutureShock on its Roubaix endurance road bike, and while some of the BikeRadar crew loved it, others found it a little weird for a road bike.
But a little suspension for the gravel? Now we’re talking.
The Future Shock still is undamped, but it has a stiffer spring on the Diverge, which boasts a low bottom bracket and slack front end for stability in the rough stuff, and tire clearance for 42mm 700c tires or 47mm in 650b.
- £3,950–£5,800 / $2,999–$6,800
- Tire clearance: 700c x 40mm or 650b x 2.1in
On the opposite end of the spectrum from Cutthroat's ‘strap your tent and sleeping bag on’ ethos, you have the 3T Exploro, an aero gravel race bike.
Sure, you can find plenty of stiffer, lighter endurance road bikes that might be faster on light-duty gravel, but the 3T Exploro is a legit gravel bike, with clearance for 40mm tires in 700c or up to 2.1in in 650b.
3T claims the Exploro with 40mm knobbies and two water bottles is faster — aerodynamically — than a round-tube road bike with 28mm tires and no bottles, when tested at 20mph.
Norco Search XR
- £1,599–£3,999 / $1,999–$4,199
- Tire clearance: 700c x 45mm or 650b x2.1in
A few companies have gravel race bikes that aren’t too dissimilar from road bikes — stiff and fast. And some of the smaller core gravel brands have gone off the deep end with bikepacking weirdness. But if somewhere in between sounds right to you, let us introduce the Goldilocks of gravel, the Norco Search XR.
The Search can handle the big tires if you want that. And mounts can be added at discreet points if you want to add fenders or load on racks. And yes, you can load up bottle cages on the fork as well as the frame if you’re into that.
The Norco is an excellent, all-around gravel bike that is a joy to ride, damping the rough chatter a bit without feeling like a plodding mule.
Norco sells this in steel and carbon versions, with not only size-specific frame design but size-specific wheel choices, so shorter riders can get the same geometry as larger riders without toe overlap.