Take a look at some of the best gravel bikes we’ve ridden, tested and seen for 2022. We’ve listed some of our best riding, buying and window shopping tips for the latest gravel bike tech below. Whether it’s a sub-$3000 entry-level bike or something truly exotic see what gravel bikes you can start getting dirty.
WHAT IS A GRAVEL BIKE?
First and foremost, it starts with a frame that can accommodate anywhere from 38mm to 50mm tires. (So, don’t let anyone tell you a cyclocross bike that is bound by 33mm tires is a gravel bike!) After that, wider handlebars, different geometry, and now even suspension and dropper posts are all trending aspects of gravel.
This might sound like a mountain bike to some, but trust us, gravel has more in common with pure, paved road bikes than modern mountain bikes. For us, the dual-purpose versatility to ride on paved or unpaved roads is what makes them a great option for many cyclists. Gravel bikes also tend to have a more stable geometry that is also good for entry-level riders.
Just as it’s proven true with road bikes, the larger treaded tires also offer more traction, which is never a bad thing. Look for a bike that offers more tire clearance than you predict you will need, as you will also need room for mud and debris if the adventure gets extra eventful.
Gravel (and their kissing cousin, cyclocross) bikes often get lumped together because both are suited for non-paved roads. However, cyclocross bikes really prioritize racing with a priority of speed and quick handling (with less tire clearance), while gravel puts compliance and tire clearance on the top step. As such, ’cross bikes are more race-oriented in build spec and geometry.
LIKES AND DISLIKES
Like all things bike-related, personal choice is what’s best to rely on for picking and choosing your new bike and components. At this stage we can say that we aren’t on board with the super-flared and wide handlebars. Sure, they may be trendy, and they do offer an advantage in some circumstances in the dirt, but on the road, they feel far too awkward. For us, a slight flare in the drop is acceptable, but many gravel bars are getting bumped out 4–8cm at the hoods, with the drops placed at an even wider gap.
Gravel has also encouraged many to push the limits on what a drop-bar bike is capable of. This has led to further adaptation and borrowed tech from the mountain world, like dropper posts and suspension forks. Since gravel bikes follow the footsteps of road bikes, most come with 27.2mm seatposts, which means that they don’t fit the larger mountain bike dropper posts. But never fear, there is now an entire segment of gravel dropper posts.
Suspension is the other category that has been hitting the gravel segment with the newfound ideas of perceived need. And depending on how and where you ride, a suspension fork could make all the difference in the world, but remember that the added front-end weight will affect the ride. For most gravel riders, it’s the high-volume tires that will definitely bring the most trouble-free type of suspension.
Lauf was one of the first brands to introduce a gravel specific fork with their unique leading link fork that provided
30mm of travel. Fox, X-fusion and Rockshox have also hit the market with suspension forks that closely resemble their mountain bike offerings, only with less travel (40-50mm) and fitment for 12mm thru axles as well
as compatibility with flat-mount brake calipers.
The biggest talking point for gravel bikes are the many drivetrain options. While 1x cranks have been embraced as a “gravel drivetrain,” for many riders, having the wider capabilities of a 2x remains the better option. But, of equal note is the variety of wide-range, gravel-friendly cassettes, which can vary in gear spreads from 11-34 to 9-42 and 10-52. Key to this discussion, too, is where you live and what kind of riding you do.
If you’re taking our advice, we would say that if climbing is part of your regular routine, it’s important to have a minimum 1:1 gear ratio—and we’d usually recommend an even lower gear. This is because making steep climbs in the dirt is often harder than doing so on the road. Not only do you have less momentum leading into a climb, but there’s also the added rotational weight and rolling resistance of the larger tires that help slow things down.
FRAMES, WHEELS & TIRE PRESSURE
Just like road bikes, gravel bikes come in all different frame materials, with carbon fiber being the choice for performance-oriented riders. Aluminum is popular for those that are on a budget and want to test the water before diving in. The true underdogs (in terms of marketing) are steel and titanium. Not only do they have good ride characteristics, thanks to their material, but they are unbeatable when it comes to durability, and that’s something many want when on an epic adventure.
In order to fit larger tires, gravel bikes have slightly longer chainstays, which make the back end of the bikes longer. Gravel bikes also tend to have slacker head tubes when compared to road bikes. This all adds up to a longer wheelbase to provide added stability at higher speeds over loose, bumpy ground.
We talked about tire size when it comes to frame design, but tires themselves are continuing to expand. The number-one thing that everyone riding gravel should adopt is tubeless tires. Simply put, they make all the difference in the world when it comes to fighting flat tires, which are definitely more frequent in the dirt.
There are two main wheel sizes—650b, which are normally intended to run larger (mountain bike size) tires, and the more common 700c (aka 29er) that spans the entire range of sizes. Larger tires mean more air volume, which leads to needing less pressure (usually in the 20–50-psi range). These lower pressure settings can add compliance but, more important, traction is always an advantage in the dirt.
Last but not least, before picking out a new gravel bike, think of how you are going to use it. Like everything else, the gravel segment is now home to a handful of subcategories. There are bikes designed for racing and touring, each of which often dictates the component and accessory selection spec’d.
The more adventure-oriented bikes have a more utilitarian orientation and normally have at least three bottle-cage mounts, as well as countless other eyelets for bags and such. One of our favorite bag locations is the top tube, where we store easy-to-grab snacks so we don’t have to reach in our pockets while on rough roads.
At the end of the day, gravel bikes have greatly expanded the available route options and can offer a new adventure or challenge to those that have years of road experience. And, that’s a good thing.
As we all know, for the first few decades of the Tour de France (and likely most other road races at the time) a preponderance of the races actually took place not on paved surfaces but dirt, aka gravel. And recently, as I was replying to another gravel critic complaining about our enthusiasm for gravel, the thought occurred to me: do you think cyclists in the ’40s and ’50s were as much up in arms about the growing emphasis of paved road riding as so many of today’s gravel critics have been to the experience and technology aimed at multi-surface riding?!
As it is each year when we put together our annual “Gravel” buyer’s guide, the sheer obviousness of just how big this still maligned stepchild of road riding has gotten just leaves me amused. For many years we’ve taken the slings and arrows of those who said gravel riding was not a “real” sport, that the bikes were an abomination, that the sport would never catch on, and, best of all, that it had no place in the pages of Road Bike Action.
Sure, this site’s title points to the pavement, but, as we’ve argued before, specific nomenclature notwithstanding, it’s not like Road & Track Magazine had to change their name when they embraced the comeuppance of the SUV market and began including them in their pages.