Personal Trainer & Cycling Instructor
Robbie from “Riding with Robbie” is a Personal Trainer living in in Norfolk, UK. He has bikepacked all over the World, and also raced ultra distance at a top-level. He has worked closely with industry leaders such as Shimano.
I love gravel bikes. They recently have become trendy and quite rightly so. I firmly believe a gravel bike will be the best bike you will probably ever own. I don’t own many bikes because I don’t need to, as my gravel bike can do it all.
What makes a good Gravel bike?
When it comes to gravel bikes and what makes them unique, they can be used for so many different cycling disciplines, and that’s personally what I think makes them epic. A jack of all trades and a master of Gravel is how I described gravel bikes when I was working in a bike shop. So what makes a good gravel bike.
- Good tire Clearance 40c a minimum
- Robust Frame that can handle the rough stuff
- Suitable geometry to handle off-road riding
- Flared handlebars for control
- Disk brakes
How good can a gravel bike be in this price range?
Well, gravel bikes are not about high money and big technology. They are about just going out and having fun. Many gravel bikes you will find have 1x groupsets and don’t often come with weight-saving equipment, which drives the price down quite a substantial amount. You can get an excellent gravel bike for not much money. There are also some costly gravel bikes. These will have features such as electronic gearing and feature a lot of weight-saving carbon components.
How Did We Rate the Bikes?
Rating a gravel bike, I look at
- Frame Material
- Wheels and Tyres
- Anything unique
The bikes you need to know about
- Cromo Steel Frame Internal routing
- Microshift 1×9 Groupset
- 650B Wheelset 47c Tyres
- Lots of mounting points and rack eyelets
The Marin Nicasio is a beautifully simple bike. It is back to basics here. The Frame is solid Cromo Steel with a small rear triangle to help off-road control. It even sports steel forks. The Groupset, although 9 speed, screams simplicity and has an extensive range. The wheelset is 650B which is made for some rough stuff, which means you can fit massive tires in, and the bike comes with whopping 47c tires as standard. The brakes are cable, although good hydraulic is much better.
Cannondale Topstone 4
- Aluminum Frame Internal Routing
- Microshift 1×10 Groupset
- 700c with 37c tires
- Carbon Forks
I personally like the Topstone a lot, and it is the opposite side of gravel bikes compared to the Marin Nicasio+. It sports an aluminum frame which is going to be stiff and light. The bike is set up more in the road bike style than many other gravel bikes but does offer the tire clearance to get the off-road fun in. It also has carbon forks which are going to make this bike feel light and responsive too. The next thing to think about is the wheelset. It’s 700c which is road bike size and slightly bigger than the 650b wheels other gravel bikes might have. This will be better for the road and the lighter off-road stuff. 37c tires are smaller than most gravel bikes but will get you down some rough routes. The Groupset is more advanced than the last, being 10 speed and sports hydraulic brakes.
Giant Revolt 2
- Aluminum Frame Internal Routing
- Sora 2×9 Groupset
- 700c with 38c tires
- Carbon Forks
When the original Revolt was first released, I couldn’t get over how cool a bike it was. Firstly it looks like an absolute machine. The Frame is lightweight and Aluminum, and the forks are carbon. It has a great design in having a small rear triangle and super short chainstays, which will make this bike handle amazingly on the road and trails. Unlike the other 2 bikes you have read about already, it has a 2x groupset. This will give you more options of gears compared to the other bikes but not necessarily more range. Hydraulic brakes as standard, which is excellent. The wheelset is like the Topstone a 700c, and although coming with 38c tires, the bike can handle up to 45c tires, which is incredible.
Trek Checkpoint AR4
- Aluminum Internal routing
- Shimano GRX RX400 2×10
- 700c 40c tires
- Rack and light mounts
Coming in from Trek is the Checkpoint AR4. This is a very striking bike. It is similar to the TopstoneTopstone in the fact it has a road bike style to it. The Frame is lightweight Aluminum with Carbon forks and weight just over 10kg, which for a gravel bike is very light. The Groupset is a very impressive Shimano GRX RX400 2×10. This Groupset, by far, in my opinion, is just exceptional for Gravel. It has flat top shifters and is designed purely for the road and the rough stuff. The hydraulic brakes will be incredible on this compared to other groupsets. The wheels again are 700c but have bigger 40c tires than the other bikes on this list with 700c wheels. It can also go up to 45c if required. I love that it has rack mounts and light mounts, making it accessible for all types of riding and touring.
State Bicycle Co x National Park Foundation 4130 All Road Joshua
- Cromo Steel Frame
- State Bicycle 1×11 Drivetrain
- 700c or 650b
- Very customizable
I love what State has done with this bicycle. They offer a perfect basic bike and the option to upgrade at an extra cost. Firstly the Frame, Chromoly Steel with a relaxed geometry. The forks are Steel with an opportunity to upgrade to carbon. The drive chain is the State bicycles 1×11. This offers the most options on a 1x groupset compared to the other 1x bikes on this list. It has cable brakes which will do but hydraulic is better, in my opinion. You can pick your wheel size. The 700c will come with 38c tires the 650b will come with monster 2.1-inch mountain bike tires. I love the big tire look, but they do slow you down massively on the road.
I love that State offers all the options to build the gravel bike you want, unlike other companies who choose what they recommend. That is such a lovely touch. I wish more bike companies did this.
Tommaso Sterrata Shimano Claris R2000
- Aluminum Frame
- Shimano 3 x 8 Speed Groupset
- 700c with 40c Tyres
- Triple Crank
The Tommaso Sterrata is very different from other bikes on this list. The Frame is lightweight Aluminum and sports carbon forks. The Groupset is a triple front crank. This offers a much more gearing range than the other bikes, but it’s pretty old technology now but is still sort after in the industry. The brakes are basic cable that will work, but you will find it not as efficient as other bikes’ hydraulic brakes. The wheelset is 700c and comes with 40c tires, so it will get you off-road and have some fun off-road.
This bike is the cheapest. It’s very good but spending a bit more will get you something much better in my opinion.
Specialized Diverge E5
- Aluminum Frame
- Shimano Claris R2000 Groupset
- 700c with 35mm Tyres
- Carbon Fork
The Specialized Diverge is an excellent value-for-money bike, and I can highly recommend this to anyone. The Frame is very well designed. It is going to suit someone who loves road riding and wants to do the occasional gravel ride. The carbon fork is a nice touch too. The Groupset is the Shimano Claris and the same as the Tommaso with the cable brakes. The wheels are 700c, and it has smaller 35mm tires. What I love about this bike is the value in the Frame. It’s a great starter bike to upgrade on as you get more into riding. The components are basic, yes, but to get you started is perfect.
What’s the best frame material for Gravel Riding?
When it comes to frame material, each one has its advantages compared to the other, and they all will benefit you in one way or another.
Aluminum frames are lightweight and very stiff. These make a quick and robust bike. The cost of the frames is low, and the manufacturing process is straightforward. When it comes to Gravel biking, Aluminum is great, but on smaller tires, it is less forgiving than a material such as Steel. It is very robust in case you fall off and as far as value for money goes is excellent.
The next material is Steel. Steel, like Aluminum, is a metal compound but has very different properties compared to it. Steel is heavier than Aluminum, but it is much more forgiving. So when you’re flying over rocks, it’s going to handle it better. It’s the cheapest material to produce and can even be very easily repaired. They say nothing rides like a steel bike, and I agree it’s fantastic to ride.
Carbon Fibre is what many people go for, and it is a fantastic material. It is incredibly lightweight and stiff. This makes the bike very unforgiving. It is by far the fastest material that you will see in the bike world. It is costly to produce, though, and it can break much easier than other materials if crashed. It’s the choice of pros, and I would highly recommend it if you have a big budget but be careful not to crash or drop it.
Gravel Bikes vs. other types of bikes
Gravel Bikes vs. Mountain Bikes
Mountain bikes are excellent in the fact they can do a lot and pretty much go anywhere. Though a gravel bike against a mountain bike, there are some significant differences that you must consider.
- Most gravel bikes don’t have suspension.
- Gravel bikes have drop bars, and mountain bikes have flat bars.
- Gravel bikes have smoother tires than mountain bikes.
- Gravel bikes are not made for very rocky terrain.
- Mountain bikes are much smoother off-road than gravel bikes.
Gravel Bikes vs. Hybrid bikes
Hybrid bikes are generally for people that look for a very comfortable ride. They come in as a less aggressive mountain bike with smooth tires or a flat bar road bike and are often seen in cities or on commutes. How do they differ from Gravel bikes, though?
- Hybrid bikes have flay bars gravel bikes have drop bars.
- Hybrid bikes typically have smoother smaller tires.
- Hybrid bikes geometry is very different and much more relaxed compared to gravel bikes.
Gravel bikes vs. Road bikes
Many cyclists use a gravel bike as a road bike as it gives them many more options for riding different disciplines if they want to and offers a more comfortable geometry than road bikes. What are the main differences, though?
- Road Bikes have much smaller tires.
- Road bikes typically are more aggressive.
- Road bikes won’t go off-road as Gravel bikes will.
- Gravel bikes usually have a more comprehensive range of gearing.
What to look for when buying a Gravel bike?
When I’m looking for a Gravel bike, I believe that you need to take the time to look into if the bike you want is the bike for you. The best thing to do is start thinking about what you want the bike to do before you pick a bike, then match up the characteristics to make sure the bike suits your needs. Some people want a gravel bike for mainly road, and some want to be off-road all the time. In this section, I want to run through the different parts of the bike and what characteristics will suit certain types of riding.
If you are looking for a bike to mainly use on the road and have the option for some off-road riding, I will start looking at Carbon and aluminum bikes. These will be faster and stiffer and suit the road much better. They will be a harsher ride, though, and the geometry of these bikes can be more aggressive. If you are looking for an off-road bike, I would be at Steel and some aluminum bikes. Although a steel bike would be slower, it would be more comfortable and much better soak up the bumpy terrain. You also want to look at mounting points for items such as panniers. If you’re planning on going touring, then you’re going to benefit from these.
For a bike more on the road, id start looking at a 2x setup compared to a 1x setup. This gives you a similar range but much more options throughout the range of gears when you are out riding. For off-road id personally go for a 1x as it has fewer options but is easier to move around the range of gears quickly.
Wheelset and Tyres
When it comes to wheels and tires, I find for the road. The 700c wheelsets will be much more suited. They usually have smaller tires and roll with much less resistance compared to smaller wheels with bigger tires. 650B wheels are smaller and usually have bigger tires on them. These are much better off-road and will be suited to someone who likes a technical trail as they are much more efficient for grip and control.
You also need to look at accessories. Handlebars, when it comes to gravel bikes, usually are flared. This means they are wider at the bottom of the drops and give you more control while riding. If you are off-road a lot id go for a bike with more oversized flared bars. If you are on the road a lot id go for a smaller flared bar. Pedals are also an important part. If you are on the road often, use road pedals such as SPD-SL or Look. If you find yourself mainly off-road, I will go for SPD or Flat pedals. Another accessory to think about is saddles. I love a racing saddle for the road, but when it comes to doing a lot of off-road, I’m looking for a saddle with a bit more padding. Saddles are a very personal thing, so make sure you do try a few.
Are Gravel Bikes the Same as Hybrid Bikes?
They are not. Gravel bikes typically have drop bars and are similar to road bikes with bigger tires. Hybrid bikes are more like less aggressive mountain bikes. They have flat bars and sometimes even suspension.
Can you use a Gravel bike touring?
Yes, I believe it’s perfect for touring. I take my Gravel bike bikepacking all the time. Most come with mounts for racks, and they are light and comfortable to ride.
How fast do Gravel bikes go?
On Gravel faster than any other bikes. On-road, a little slower than road bikes as the tires lag more and they are heavier. On mountain bike trails that are technical, probably a fair amount slower than a mountain bike but depends on the rider.
Why are some Gravel bikes so Expensive?
These Gravel bikes will have unique features, such as electronic gearing and suspension stems and dropper posts. They will also be much lighter. They will cost more, but they will be more efficient when being ridden.
Gravel bikes, I think, are fantastic. They offer the user so many options, and when I get people to come to me personally asking what bike should they start with to try cycling, I will always recommend a gravel bike. The same goes for anyone who just wants to own one bike.