A Beginner’s Guide to Gravel Bikes

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You’ve heard the buzz around gravel bikes. They seem more versatile, something between road and off-road, so you’re interested in finding out more.

New models hit the market regularly, but what are the differences between them? What sets them apart from road or cyclocross bikes, anyway? 

You’re thinking of getting a new bike and are considering a gravel, but where do you start?

We’re here to educate you about gravel bikes and so you can decide if they’re for you. Let’s jump in.

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Is Gravel Riding for You?

One thing you must consider before anything else is where you live. Gravel bikes are fantastic for riding car-free terrain in the open air in rural surroundings, but is this type of terrain close to where you live? 

If the answer is yes, verify that your future playground is open to the public.

If the answer is no, a gravel bike is still a good choice for its versatility. If you don’t plan on riding off-road, or doing very little of it, gravel bikes are comfortable and perfectly at home as an everyday commuter, on the paved road for non-competitive riding and training, or even as a touring bike.

Gravel bikes are a great alternative for road cyclists looking for comfort in a less aggressive road geometry. Their fork clearance accepts wider tires run at lower pressures, typically tubeless, which add suspension properties to the bike. More space upfront means adding fenders for foul weather or fixing baggage is snap thanks to multiple braze-ons.

If you’re wondering how much you’ll need to spend, there are bikes to match every budget. Gravel bikes share the same principles, so once you understand the differences, you can choose the one best suited for you and your wallet.

As with road bikes, the drivetrain, components, frame material, and wheelsets define much of the price tag.

Types of Gravel Bikes

There are differences between gravel bikes depending where they fall into the spectrum. 

The gravel spectrum is the range of surfaces, from hard packed road-like conditions to pure mtb-like trails. Some models execute their function better at one end of the spectrum than the other. 

Most gravel bikes models fall somewhere in between. But how do you know?

A bike’s ability to navigate different terrains successfully is based on its tire clearance. Most gravel bikes accept tires starting around 38 mm, some are limited to 32 to 35 mm, and others can accept upwards of 50+ mm which flirt with mountain bike widths. 

The more tire clearance, the more versatile the bike is.

Most road bikes with tires between 25 and 28mm can handle smooth, well-maintained, hard-packed dirt roads, while endurance or all-road road models with 28 to 32 mm tires step it up a notch, tackling rough dirt roads riddled with potholes and loose gravel.

Gravel bikes really come into play when tire widths reach at least 33mm.

Gravel bikes are designed for dilapidated roads with some ruts, sand and small rocks, and neglected single-track like trails, littered with layers of loose and larger stones. The first is best suited for 33 to 38 mm tires, and the second, bikes with enough clearance to accept 38 to 42+ mm widths.

Some models like the Cerveo Aspero and the Bombtrack Hook EXT bypass fixed widths by allowing the use of 700c or 650b wheels. You’ll have to purchase a second set of wheels to benefit from the increased versatility, but the space gained with 650b wheels means you can run even wider tires. Bike specifications should identify wheel and tires sizes for both if it has this capacity.

Geometry between models varies as well.

Bikes more on the road end of the spectrum are faster and well, feel like a road bike, so you’ll be stretched out and in a lower position for improved speed and aerodynamics. As you climb the spectrum, shorter reach and higher stack heights place the rider more upright for enhanced comfort and traction.

So how do you recognize the differences between models?

Simply by comparing frame geometries listed in the specs. Note the head tube angle, chainstay and top tube lengths, and the reach and stack. This handy online tool helps build the comparison for you.

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The drivetrain is the last major element that influences where a gravel bike falls on the spectrum. The growing popularity of this movement has introduced gravel-specific gear ratios and components.

Sit tight as we cover this subject further down.

Can I Use A CX Bike as a Gravel Bike?

The short answer is yes, since CX bikes were some of the first used to start this trend.

However, there are several important differences that set them apart. Cyclocross bikes are built for speed and racing and have aggressive geometry to match. Cyclocross gear ratios aren’t ideal for gravel riding and climbing with a lot of baggage weight either.

Gravel bikes have more tire clearance, longer seat stays for rider comfort and improved traction, and braze-ons for baggage and cages.

Owners of CX bikes can make modifications for gravel, but tire clearance is unchangeable, often limited to >32 mm. Models such as the Cannondale SuperX (circa 2018) were marketed as gravel friendly but have since been eclipsed by dedicated models.

Which Frame Material is Ideal for A Gravel Bike?

Your choice of frame material is important but less so than geometry, tire clearance, and choice of drivetrain. Like road, gravel bikes are made from alloy, steel, carbon, and titanium, and each material has its own manufacturing process and ride feel.

Preference aside, budget plays a larger role in which material is best for you.

  • Alloy frames are the most cost-effective and dominate lower price points. However, don’t scoff at aluminum, it has proven itself over time thanks to its strength while being stiff and fairly lightweight. It’s reputed for giving a harsh ride, but this is unfair since the amount and quality of the aluminum used and how it’s manufactured make the difference.
  • Steel is real, as the saying goes. It’s a heavier material, so why is it so popular? Steel riders are a breed apart and cite different reasons, but its durability, low maintenance, and craftsmanship are high on the list. As a material, it’s not too stiff and moves with you producing a lively feel.
  • Carbon is often the lightest of the four materials. It’s more expensive than steel and alloy but cheaper than ti. A carbon gravel bike will be lightweight, rigid and very responsive. As a material, carbon is more versatile since frame layups can be tailored for compliance and stiffness.
  • Titanium is considered the best of the crop for frame materials, but it’s the most expensive. A high-end Moots ti gravel bike beats them all at 8.4 kg/18.5l bs, but this is not always the case. Most days, ti weight falls between carbon and aluminum. It’s a premium product for the comfort and image that comes with owning it.

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How is a Gravel Bike Fit Different from A Road Bike?

While gravel and road bikes look the same, they are different, starting with their geometries. Road bikes are more responsive and force a more aero riding position because they have a higher bottom bracket, shorter wheelbase, and a steeper head tube angle.

A road or endurance bike can handle smooth non-paved terrain, but their skinny tires quickly show their limits when riding in the loose stuff.

Gravel bikes aren’t as fast or responsive because the rider is more upright.

Their bottom bracket is lower, the wheelbase longer, and the head tube angle more forgiving.

Combined, these factors improve stability when tackling obstacles and loose material on technical descents. Larger tires run at lower pressures on gravel bikes make them more comfortable and improve traction too.

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What Type of Gearing Is Used for Gravel Bikes?

You’ve got a choice of a 2x or 1x gearing on gravel bikes. 

Roadies will be more used to a 2x set up, but the 1x is more common. 1x allows you to run wider tires as there is no front derailleur to take up space, you’ll save a bit of weight, about 250g as compared to 2x.

A third, and disputable, the advantage to a 1x is that your bike just looks better. To make up for the lost chainring upfront, the rear cassette will be larger with greater steps between gears. To keep the chain from dropping, a 1x chainring must be narrow-wide in design.

2x setups have close to double the number of gears and use a smaller rear cassette, which means tighter steps between changes, something familiar to roadies. The required front derailleur limits the tire size you can run. You’ll have a bigger top gear, but this isn’t an automatic advantage, it depends where and how you ride. Lower gears are more where it’s at with gravel.

Either a 1x or a 2x setup will benefit from a rear derailleur with a clutch. Most of today’s gravel groupset rear derailleurs come with one already. It’s a built-in tensioning system that keeps your chain from falling, reducing noise and chain slap in the process.

Shimano and SRAM are the leaders in gravel groupsets, but Rotor (1 x 13) and Campy (Ekar) brought the first 13-speed 1x groups to market.

Both Shimano and SRAM offer 1x and 2x options with GRX/GRX Di2 (Shimano) and E-tap AXS, Force 1x, and Eagle. There are many 1x and 2x (48/31 or 46/30 rings) gear ratio combinations, consult your preferred brand for specifics.

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Are Wider and Tubeless Tires the New Norm?

While tubeless is slowly inching its way into road bikes, it has already arrived on gravel. Most gravel bikes come stock with tubeless, or tubeless-ready, wide rims and tires. Running wider tires at lower pressures is faster, more resistant to punctures, and makes the ride a lot more comfortable.

Gravel tires fall between 33 and 50+ mm, but can pretty much clear anything with a 40mm tire.

A gravel ride may see pavement, hard-pack, loose and soft trails which makes choosing one difficult. Finding the right balance between tread grip, rolling resistance, and puncture protection is the trick. Picking the wrong tire can spell disaster.

There is no one-tire-fits-all choice, so be prepared to invest in a few models and make changes depending on the weather and terrain. The trail of some gravel bikes means they can switch between 650b and 700c wheels without affecting the bicycle’s geometry. Running a larger volume tire on smaller wheels (650b) wheels provides even greater comfort, traction, shock absorption, acceleration, and puncture resistance.

However, 700c wheels have better-rolling resistance, and for the same distance, a will complete the distance faster than a 650b. Having a larger diameter also means more rolling momentum, making it easier to sustain your speed than with a smaller wheel.

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Why Are Disc Brakes Used for Gravel Bikes?

Bring on the rain and mud. Disc brakes offer added security and stopping power in all weather conditions, hence their use for gravel bikes. Nevertheless, their true value lies in tire clearance. 

By adopting disc and not traditional rim brakes, gravel bikes can accept a wider range of tire widths and, for some models, fit 650b and 700c wheels.

There are two forms of disc brakes, hydraulic and mechanical. 

  • Hydraulic is the most common and preferred as the system is closed.
  • Mechanical disc brakes, often found on less-expensive models, have a cable that runs through a housing to engage the brake pads. As this system is open, it’s more susceptible to contamination and damage.

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Are There Any Gravel Bikes Specific Components?

The gravel niche has seen the arrival of new components you never knew you needed. Everything from flared handlebars for better control on technical descents, and hover bars for their comfort and suspension effect, to suspension forks, and dropper seatposts have made their way onto the gravel scene.

There’s no mystery behind gravel suspension forks. They’re a stable in mountain biking, and the terrain gravel and mtb share explain its natural migration.

Dropper seat posts, also borrowed from mountain bikes, have done the same, but do you really need one?

Drop your seat for steep descents and raise it again for more efficient climbing. If you’re running a 1x setup, they bring a new use for your left-hand shifter.

Are There Any Accessories for Gravel Bikes?

Who doesn’t love to treat themselves to a new bike accessory once in a while?

Small to larger purchases rekindle the love affair with your bike and riding. Accessories worth their weight in gold are best, and the gravel category is not lacking in choice. Gravel bikes are the modern cycling workhorse, so you can load them up and take gear and supplies with you, making them perfect for backpacking.

Depending on where your bike falls on the spectrum, your frame will have more or fewer bosses / braze-ons (pick the name you prefer). If backpacking or adventure riding is your thing, you’ll need to think about carrying supplies. And for that you need baggage!

The gravel market has bags for pretty much anything you want to carry. You’ll find them on the handlebar, frame, top tube, and oversized under the seat. Throw a rack on your bike and you can carry panniers too. You’ll need space to carry camping equipment, batteries, food and water into remote areas.

Fenders will keep you dry and cleaner than without, and there is fantastic high-beam LED flood-type lights for any night riding on your schedule.

Gravel-specific shoes, clothing, and even handlebar tape exist today. The gravel world is your oyster.

How Much Will A Gravel Bike Cost Me?

Similar to other cycling disciplines, gravel bikes come in a wide palette of prices. 

Now that you’re better informed, you’ll be able to discern the differences in price, and determine which one is ideal for you. One bike may not satisfy all your needs, so keep your expectations realistic and remember you can always buy upgrades later.

If budget preoccupies your thoughts, or you still aren’t sure if gravel biking is for you, the good news is that this niche has been around long enough that you can probably find some good used ones on the market. 

Whether you purchase new or used, put your gravel knowledge to use when selecting. Let’s look at some price points.

Entry-Level (Up to $1,500)

At the entry-level price point, you can expect an alloy frame with a carbon fork, a mechanical 2x setup (10 or 11-speed), tubeless-ready rims, and mechanical disc brakes.

You’ll have fewer braze-ons, exterior routed cables and an average weight of 10 to 11 kg (22 to 24 lbs).

Mid-Level (Up to $4,200)

Enter carbon frames and forks, 1x mechanical drivetrains (11 or 12-speed), wide-rimmed tubeless tires, hydraulic disc brakes, internally routed cables and more braze-ons resulting in a bike that’s touring and backpacking friendly that weighs 9 to 10 kg or (19.8 to 22 lbs).

Top End (Up to $12,500+)

If you’re going all out, a top-end gravel bike can be made of steel, carbon and ti and come with a carbon fork, some suspension in the form of a fork or elastomers, and potentially a dropper post. 

Hydraulic brakes are standard along with wide-rim tubeless tires, a 1x (12 or 13-speed) electronic drivetrain with internally routed cables. Generous clearance, loads of rack and bottle mounts, and the option of running 650b or 700c wheels. 

Top of the line gravel bikes weigh between 8 to 9 kg (17.6 to 19.8 lbs.).