The best gravel bikes have come along way in a short time. Recently we have seen a lot of innovation in the gravel scene and the tech still doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Brands continue to seek ways to make the best gravel bikes faster, comfier and more capable of bigger off-road adventures, and as a result, gravel as a discipline is forever being redefined, with ever smaller niches being created, tailoring bikes to specific terrains and riding desires.
Just a few years ago gravel bikes were often no more than endurance road bikes or cyclo-cross bikes that had a bit extra tyre clearance. Gravel bikes have now truly opened up a new genre that fills the gap between lightweight mountain bikes and carbon road bikes end. Companies are leaving no stone unturned and are experimenting with gravel-specific geometry, componentry and even suspension.
With gravel rides matching distances that are done on the road, it’s unsurprising that there are serious gains to be had in both comfort and speed by producing a bike that can manage the bumpiness that comes with off-road riding. Suspension appears to be the new hot topic for gravel with many brands releasing bikes that offer unique approaches to taming rough tracks and trails beyond the tarmac.
The best gravel bikes you can buy today
Cannondale is a brand that isn’t afraid of innovation and the Topstone represents this notion. Cannondale’s new Kingpin suspension system provides the Topstone with a claimed 30mm of bump- and vibration-absorbing travel at the saddle. To maximise the effectiveness of flex zones that are engineered into the rear triangle and top tube Cannondale has used a special LockR thru-axle pivot to connect the seat stays to the seat tube. Each frame size benefits from Proportional Response Construction. By using a specific carbon layup, the frames flex and stiffness characteristics are tuned for the rider's size.
The Topstone benefits from Cannondale’s Outfront offset theory which has proven successful on Cannondale’s cyclo-cross and mountain bike ranges. By increasing the fork's offset, they can take advantage of the stability characteristics from a slacker head angle without sacrificing steering agility.
Attention to detail in the Topstone is superb and the frame features three bottle cage mounts, a top tube bag mount, dropper post compatibility, clean internal routing and it comes with Cannondale’s integrated speed sensor. Tyre clearance gives options for fast 700c x 40mm tyres or cushy adventure friendly 650b x 48mm tyres.
BMC might be late to the gravel scene but its new URS, short for UnReStricted, is a thoroughly progressive bike that is at the forefront of gravel technology for 2020.
BMC is another brand looking beyond simple frame compliance to offer comfort and has brought Micro Travel Technology (MTT) Suspension to the URS from its cross-country mountain biking race frames. It's not just about comfort as BMC claims that the MTT improves traction, ideal for loose surface conditions or climbs.
BMC has used what it calls Gravel+ geometry, undoubtedly inspired from mountain bike technology, to give the URS a slack 70-degree head angle and long front end creating a bike that offers a composed yet lively ride.
The URS will fit a 700c x 45mm (650b x 47mm) tyre and comes specced with tubeless-ready 42c WTB Resolute’s. Attention to detail is second to none with BMC’s integrated cockpit system, hub dynamo cable routing, integrated protection from rock strikes and chain slap plus mounts for three bottle cages and a top tube feed bag.
GT launched the Grade just as the gravel revolution began and its 2020 model shows the company is still exploring ways to innovate. GT has specced the new Grade with a flip-chip fork which shares a similar concept to Rondo’s system. GT’s version is more horizontal and changes the offset from 55mm for quick agile steering to a 70mm ‘low-trail’ mode for steadier controlled steering when loaded with bikepacking luggage.
GT for a long time has touted the strength-giving properties of the triple triangle that has featured prominently on its mountain bikes for decades. Now by detaching the stays from the seat tube, GT can use the same iconic triple-triangle silhouette with what it calls Dual Fibre Dynamics to offer increased levels of flex in the rear of the bike to reduce fatigue on long rough rides.
GT finishes the Grade with some nice touches that will appeal to the adventurously inclined riders such as Anything Cage mounts on the forks, dropper post compatibility, three bottle cage mounts and top tube feed bag bosses.
The Diverge Expert sits third-best in Specialized’s adventure line, only bettered by the extravagant S-Works and Pro model. With the Diverge comes the Specialized Future Shock 2.0 system, the ethos behind this system is that smooth is fast. By using an adjustable hydraulic damper mounted in the head tube the Diverge has 20mm of travel to smooth out trail and road vibrations. This is combined with the newly increased tyre clearance (700cx47mm, 650bx2.1in) to offer even more compliance.
Specialized has finished the bike thoroughly with adventure-ready mounts for three bottle cages, racks, fenders and is has borrowed the SWAT frame storage that already features on their Stumpjumper range.
While gravel bike trends are seeking bigger tyres and extra compliance there will always be riders on the other end of the spectrum that seek stiff and aggressive gravel bikes for racing gravel Fondo's like the Dirty Kanza. The Basso Palta is one of the latter bikes.
The Palta’s road inspirations are obvious with its sleek racy lines and aggressive geometry, with this comes its ride qualities. Comfort has been sacrificed for speed and the Palta seeks to cover all terrain types at a fast pace whether open gravel roads, technical tracks or tarmac.
The Palta will take a 42mm tyre although there is no 650B compatibility - after all, this bike is about speed, not comfort. The frame is nicely finished with neat internal routing, vibration dampening seatpost and three bottle cage mounts to allow plenty of water or some storage for essentials items. Basso offers the Palta in four colourways as well as an optional 'Palta Endurance Pack' (20mm stem spacer to improve comfort) or 'Palta Mudfest Kit' (front and rear mudguards).
Check out our Basso Palta Review at Cyclingnews
Devinci is a brand best known for its mountain bikes which are designed to shred some of the gnarliest trails on the planet. So it is no surprise that when it set out to design a gravel bike the result is one that is hugely capable on any terrain.
This is down to its longer, slacker and lower mountain bike-inspired geometry as well as a 50mm offset fork for precise handling characteristics. The rough-stuff potential is further aided by the Hatchet’s ability to fit some very chunky rubber (700c x 45mm or 650b x 2.1in). The specs reflect Devinci’s vision of hardcore gravel riding as the Hatchet GRX LTD comes stock with a dropper post and some wide DT Swiss G1800 gravel wheels.
The frame details are all well thought out by Devinci. Three bottle cage mounts, as well as a top tube mount, offers loads of storage for long rides. Full internal cable routing is inclosed in foam-lined tubes to reduce rattling and an access panel by the bottom-bracket shell eases maintenance. If you wish to run 650B wheels then a 10mm spacer is available which sits under the headset to correct the geometry.
Canyon originally released the Grail in 2018 to a divided and confused audience thanks to the radical Hover bar design. There is good reasoning behind the design and Canyon has stuck with the newly termed 'Grail Cockpit' for their 2020 Grail CF range.
The reasoning behind the Hover bar is to improve both comfort and control without resorting to an active suspension system. The floating section has a built-in flex area giving extra compliance when on the tops or hoods. When in the drops the lower bar gives something to hook your thumbs around for extra grip on descents.
The geometry is not far removed from Canyon’s endurance road range although Canyon has increased the wheelbase, by stretching the reach and shortening the stem, for improved stability. The result is a bike that excels at long days in the saddle that are likely to span various surfaces, remaining efficient on the road while floating over the rough stuff when off-road.
The world of gravel is a far departure from the extremes of enduro and downhill mountain biking where Nukeproof has seen so much success. Nukeproof’s Digger Factory brings a unique approach to the gravel scene that will undoubtedly appeal to mountain bikers that are looking for a bike for winter training miles or a capable adventure bike.
Versatility has been a key consideration by Nukeproof and the Digger will happily eat up the training miles, churn out the midweek commuter miles before heading out for a weekend's adventures thanks to the blend of road and mountain bike geometry. The frame is suitably overbuilt for a bike that doesn’t shy away when gravel riding starts to approach mountain bike territory.
The Digger Factory's parts list is packed with mountain biking DNA to create a bike that wants to get rowdy. Unusually the Digger comes specced with 650b wheels and 47mm WTB Sendero tyres which, combined with a dropper post, short stem and an ultra-wide 480mm handlebar, give the Digger Factory a confident and controlled ride.
In Iceland, they have more gravel roads than they do paved, so it's unsurprising that Icelandic bike company Lauf is one of the industry leaders in the gravel scene. Starting out with its unique carbon leaf-spring suspension fork the company has gone on to build what it envisions to be the perfect race-ready gravel machine.
The obvious talking point of this bike is the fork which will no doubt attract a lot of attention. The Lauf Grit SL fork use frictionless carbon leaf springs to offer 30mm of chatter-stifling performance without the weight and maintenance penalties that come with traditional telescopic forks.
Lauf’s progressive Long 4 Speed geometry further enhances off-road performance by combining a long top tube, short headtube, short stem and slack head angle to give a very stable yet aggressive riding position. Despite the frame weighing a respectable 1,070g the True Grit frame meets the ISO standard for mountain bike frames so should be more than tough enough no matter what the terrain.
While many gravel bikes are billed as the convergence of road and off-road, and a platform that offers the ultimate versatility, Rondo takes it one step further by offering two different geometries in one bike with its Vario Geo concept.
This is achieved using a Twintip fork that houses a flip-chip in the dropout that alters the bikes head/seat angle (0.5-degrees), handlebar height (10mm) and fork rake (13mm). The low setting gives the Ruut an agile and aggressive characteristic suited to road riding and everyday gravel but once flipped into the high position the steering becomes relaxed and steadier for control on rough descents or when loaded with bikepacking bags. This versatility is only enhanced by its ability to fit a chunky 57mm tyre when using 650b wheels.
The oddly kinked top tube is more than a design aesthetic and works with the kinked seat stays and scooped out seat tube to make the Ruut CF1 more compliant when peddling over rough surfaces.
Truly blurring the lines between gravel and mountain bikes, OPEN describes its WI.DE. as a bike for ‘extreme gravel’. The WI.DE. fits some seriously big tyres and will swallow up a 700c x 47mm tyre or a whopping 650b x 2.4in if you're wanting to tackle some seriously gnarly terrain. This has been made possible by the double dropped stays and while it is 1x only there is still clearance for a road crank. With tyres so large the OPEN WI.DE. simply monster trucks over rough terrain and offers huge amounts of grip in the corners.
There is more to the WI.DE. than big tyres, OPEN has thought carefully about the carbon layup and used a blend of carbon types, utilising their properties or as OPEN refer to it TRCinTRS: the right carbon in the right spot. This results in a frame that can keep up with the performance of the aggressive tyres yet only weigh 1,040g. Further manipulating of tubes gives the frame stiffness where it’s important and flex where it is needed to smooth out any vibrations that the tyres don’t.
Trek has brought the best bits from its fast endurance Domane and race-winning Boone to create the Checkpoint SL, a bike aimed directly at epic gravel races like the Dirty Kanza or Land Run 100.
It was a no brainer for Trek to spec the Checkpoint with its IsoSpeed Decoupler after it’s proven success on the Domane and Boone. By decoupling the seat tube Trek has been able to enhance compliance which is vital for endurance gravel events.
Trek has interestingly also specced the Checkpoint with adjustable Stranglehold dropouts, this is a horizontal dropout system with 15mm of adjustment. This offers several advantages for a bike that is likely to experience a variety of terrain. Positioned all the way forward will make handling feel sharper or the wheel can be slammed back to increase the wheelbase and stability at speed. A third advantage is that if you suffer a catastrophic mechanical issue with your derailleur the Checkpoint SL can be set up single speed allowing you to keep on riding.
What to look for in a gravel bike?
Taking inspiration from endurance road bikes, gravel has further evolved to suit rougher conditions. Longer wheelbases and slackened head tube angles enhance stability when travelling at speed on harsh terrain and bottom brackets have got lower to improve cornering performance. Some progressive gravel bikes now have geometry figures that could be mistaken for cross-country mountain bikes of five years ago. These bikes excel at extremely severe terrain and singletrack as well as being well suited to multi-day adventure riding.
For most riders picking the right bike is about finding a balance between being confident and comfortable on a ride without sacrificing too much speed. With many bikes now available with the option of running a choice of 700c and 650b wheels, finding a balance between a fast bike and a comfortable bike is far less of a compromise.
2. Wheel size
The wheel and tyre size debate seems to be a common theme in most disciplines of cycling. While some will say that gravel is best ridden on voluptuous 650b x 50mm+ tyres it can’t be ignored that Dirty Kanza saw a lot of competitors opting for fast-rolling 700c x 35mm. In reality, there is no one wheel size or tyre width to suit everything. What you ride should reflect your terrain, riding style and the tyre limitations of your bike. Luckily most of the best gravel bikes allow the option to run either 700c or 650b so it is possible to experiment with different setups to see which works best for you.
Larger 700c wheels will generally roll faster on smoother surfaces as well as improving rollover capability thanks to their greater diameter. Smaller 650b wheels have become popular as they allow a higher volume tyre to be fitted beyond a frame's 700c max-width. Increased tyre volume, when running lower pressures, allows the tyre to absorb bumps better as well as yielding more cornering grip thanks to the increased tyre footprint. This makes them better suited to very rough terrain and bikes laden with bikepacking bags.
While large volume tyres with low pressures can do a fantastic job of smoothing out rough roads, they come with their disadvantages. Lower pressures can increase rolling resistance on smooth surfaces while also presenting tyre damage on rough terrain. By introducing suspension systems for gravel bikes the rider gets the benefit of extra comfort without compromising tyre pressures or component choices. Gravel suspension can be categorised into two types, active and passive.
Passive systems rely on built-in compliance using slender tube shapes and blends of carbon designed to be flexible. The advantages of a passive system are that they add very little extra weight and are maintenance-free.
The active suspension takes the form of suspension forks, stems and seatposts or pivoted flex that uses a damper. These systems will all use a damper and pivot points to absorb impacts and vibrations. Active systems usually offer a more isolating experience as they have more travel and can better manage the direction of absorption.