This won’t be a popular comparison among cyclists with a disdain for all things car related. But it’s undeniable. The gravel bike category in cycling is being driven by the same forces that created the sport utility vehicle (SUV) category in the automotive industry.
A gravel bike combines many of the best attributes of road bikes and mountain bikes; an SUV combines many of the best attributes of cars and trucks. The result is maximum utility and usefulness. You can take them on paved and dirt roads. They’re safer, more stable and more comfortable to ride/drive on varied terrain. Today, the SUV is the most popular and profitable automotive category…to the point where Ford is ceasing production of most passenger cars.
The SUV trend began in the ‘80s, while the gravel revolution in cycling is just getting started. So it will be some time before this new category completely dominates, and a company like Trek or Giant stops producing road bikes altogether (if that ever happens). But this is the path we’re on.
A gravel spectrum is forming that is similar to SUVs. It’s essentially the bridge between road and mountain bikes. You have gravel bikes that are really just road bikes with more tire clearance. At the other end of the spectrum, you have gravel bikes that are really mountain bikes with drop bars. And everything in between.
I’m in a unique position in that I straddle these two worlds by covering both high-performance gravel bikes and SUVs. As I ride and drive new models, the comparisons occur to me quite naturally i.e. “this X gravel bike rides like the Y SUV drives,” and vice versa. What’s more, there’s a common theme around competition and racing. The utility of SUVs now extends to bonafide track driving, while high-end gravel bikes are purpose-built for courses like the Dirty Kanza and Crusher in the Tushar.
If you’re familiar with either side of this equation, then the following comparisons will help you to decode the other side.
The Canyon Grail CF SLX 8.0 eTap is the Audi Q8 S-Line of gravel bikes
The premium version of the Canyon Grail ($5,000) features the unique CPO7 Gravelcockpit CF bar and stem, which provides an additional level of hand positions. The lower tier is ideal for grinding out long road sections with better aerodynamics. It also features the unique S15 VCLS 2.0 CF seat post, which provides a small measure of leaf-spring-like suspension. It’s not immediately noticeable, but check back around mile 150, and your lower back with thank you. The spec is also superb, including some of my preferred gravel components: Schwalbe G-One Bite 40c tires, the SRAM “mullet” build with 12-speed Eagle AXS, and DT Swiss GRC 1400 Spline gravel wheels. It’s built for speed and competition.
The Audi Q8 ($68,200) shares the same German roots as Canyon, and it’s evident in how the two are designed and engineered. The Q8 combines performance and luxury, aesthetics and comfort like no other Audi SUV. Powered by a twin-turbo V6, it puts out 335 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque, which launches it from 0-60 in 5.6 seconds. That’s not blistering fast, but it’s also spacious enough for five adults with gear. Like the Grail, it handles a huge range of terrain thanks to quattro all-wheel-drive for multi-surface traction; all-wheel-steering for high-speed stability and low-speed maneuverability; and adaptive air suspension for high-clearance situations. This isn’t a family SUV; that’s the Q7. The Q8 is for those who need the utility of an SUV and want the driving dynamics of a touring sedan.
The Evil Chamois Hagar is the Range Rover Sport HST of gravel bikes
The Chamois Hagar ($2,800 frame set) dropped on the gravel scene at Grinduro last year, and it’s caused a bit of a stir. It’s effectively a new category, which is defined by it’s full-send capability on singletrack trails and bomber descents. It’s the first gravel bike to accommodate 29 x 2.0 inch (700 x 50c) tires, which is a proper mountain bike size. The geometry puts the rider lower and further back between the axles; the wheel base is 100mm longer than typical gravel designs; and a dropper post is standard. Nevertheless, the upright riding position is consistent with standard drop-bar bikes. While most gravel bikes are at their limit or beyond on rowdy descents, the Chamois Hagar actually seeks them out.
Likewise, Land Rover’s roots are firmly anchored in the world of hardcore, off-road driving aka tackling the Paris-Dakar Rally and superbly navigating the African bush. The Range Rover Sport HST ($82,950) embodies that heritage, but it’s also a superb road machine with a distinctive presence and design. The power plant includes a 395-horsepower, turbo 6-cylinder that’s matched with a Mild Hybrid (MHEV) system to capture energy loss and increase efficiency. The interior is exceptionally plush—even opulent—with a suedecloth steering wheel, aluminum paddle shifters and Windsor leather seats with suedecloth bolsters. There are more powerful variants of the Range Rover Sport with up to 575 horsepower, but they sacrifice ground clearance and off-road capability.
The Open UPPER is the BMW X3 M Competition of gravel bikes
The Open UPPER ($4,500 frame set) is the premier gravel model from the boutique builder—a self-proclaimed two-man company. The UPPER is incredibly light at just 890 grams for the frame. As a platform, it can take many directions. It’s just as viable as a road bike as it is a gravel bike. With 700c wheels and tires up to 40c in width, it’s blistering fast on paved as well as dirt roads. With 650b wheels and proper mountain bike tires up to 2.1 inches, it’s at home on singletrack and rougher routes. No matter how it’s configured, the UPPER inspires confidence and pushes you to go faster. It’s a true gravel PR machine.
Just as the UPPER is the premium version of the UP, the BMW X3 M Competition ($76,900) is a step above the standard X3 M, which is still an amazing compact SUV in its own right. But the Competition is truly designed to take it on a track. The twin-turbocharged, inline 6-cylinder produces a whopping 503 horsepower; that’s 30 more than the X3 M. As such, the Competition launches from 0-60 mph in 4.0 seconds flat and posts a top speed of 177mph. Like the venerable M5 Competition, you can program performance aspects of the engine, suspension, steering and transmission to suit any situation. The xDrive all-wheel-drive system cannot switch to 2WD i.e. there’s no drift mode. However, there’s tremendous bias toward the rear wheels, even more so in M Dynamic Mode, which allows for controlled tire spin and drift-like driving.
The Pinarello GREVIL+ is the Lamborghini Urus of gravel bikes
The GREVIL+ ($6,000 frame set) borrows liberally from Pinarello’s successful road racing flagship, the Dogma F12. The frame integrates the same carbon fiber asymmetric design, whereby the drive side is stiffer to absorb pedaling load, while both the fork and chainstays/seatstays are designed to flex and absorb shock. Tire clearance was a complaint for me on both the Dogma F8 and the F10 road bikes, which were capped at 25c. Fortunately, the Grevilplus accommodates 700 x 42c as well as 650b x 2.1-inch tires for maximum range and utility.
Pinarello is often described as the Ferrari of bikes, and that may be the case on the road. But when it comes to gravel, the Lamborghini Urus ($200,000) is the closest comparison. This is the first Super SUV with a jaw-dropping 650 horsepower and 0-60 time of 3.2 seconds, making it the fastest SUV on the planet. Shift into Corso Mode (it means “beast” in Italian, I think) for going flat-out on asphalt race tracks. Or drop into Terra Mode for dirt, Sabbia for sand and Neve for snow. No matter the mode, the Urus driving experience is in a class of its own. And like riding a Pinarello on group rides, it’s certain to turn heads and start more than a few conversations.
The Specialized S-Works Diverge is the Mercedes AMG GLC 63 of gravel bikes
S-Works and AMG mean the same thing: Race-bred performance at the highest possible level. The flagship Diverge ($10,000) features a sub-900-gram carbon frame that’s been outfitted with the finest SRAM AXS 1X gravel drivetrain: Red eTap shifters, levers and disc brakes that are mated to an XX1 Eagle 12-speed rear derailleur and Eagle 10-50t cassette with Red eTap cranks. The Roval CLX 32 Disc 700c wheels can handle up to 42c tires, and 2020 is the year of the dropper post for gravel bikes. The Diverge uses the Manic Dropper with 50mm of travel. You’ll be hard pressed to find a bike that creates more of a competitive advantage on today’s gravel race routes.
If you find yourself driving the AMG GLC 63 with a friend, it will inspire conversations about Formula 1. Because that’s the technology that underpins this track-worthy grocery getter with a 4.0-liter, twin-turbo V8 and 469 horsepower. The S variant with an additional 34 horsepower clocked a lap time of 7.49.369 minutes on the North Loop of the Nürburgring, making it the fastest SUV in the world. Indeed, the MBUX Infotainment system includes an AMG TRACK PACE view, which puts circuit graphics, bends, braking points, delta speed and absolute times…in the head-up display! The intent to take this to a track could not be more compelling. But if you’re talking about F1 and mention the Mercedes team, it will trigger the voice controlled AI assistant…every time you say, “Mercedes.”
The Trek Checkpoint SL 7 is the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk of gravel bikes
Trek’s top-of-the-line gravel bike, the Checkpoint SL 7 ($6,000), doesn’t push the performance envelope like the Pinarello or Specialized. It’s not as exotic…or expensive. Nevertheless, it still features an OCLV Carbon frame, which is a superb platform. It just lacks the racing component spec. That said, you still get SRAM AXS wireless shifting with the 1X Eagle 12-speed gear range. It comes with 700 x 40c tires, and this appears to be the clearance limit in the rear. But with ample mounts for racks and bags, it also makes for a high-performance touring or bikepacking machine.
Just as Trek is the all-American bike company, Jeep dates back to WWII as the original off-road driving brand. But the Grand Cherokee Trackhawk ($87,095) combines that dirt heritage with some Detroit muscle-car power. Under the hood you’ll find a 6.2-liter supercharged V8 that cranks out 707 horsepower and 645 lb.-ft. of torque. What!? That’s not a misprint. You’ll reach 60mph is just 3.5 seconds, with help from launch control mode, and then top out at 180mph. The drivetrain features five different modes: Auto, Sport, Track, Tow and Snow. This illustrates its massive range and versatility. For example, in Track Mode transmission shift times are reduced 68 percent to 160 milliseconds versus Auto Mode; stability control, four-wheel-drive and steering systems are set for ultimate track performance; paddle shifters are enabled; the suspension is set to full firm to deliver maximum vehicle performance capability on smooth, dry surfaces; and it uses a 30/70, front/rear torque split. Boom!