Gravel bikes are really increasing in popularity – and for good reason! A gravel bike has a lot to offer, allowing the rider to mix up their riding on a machine that can handle the rough stuff without sacrificing too much for the tarmac! Here, we help you navigate which gravel bike may work best for you with a deep-dive into the features on offer.
A gravel bike is broadly similar to a road bike – a rigid frame, and (generally) drop handlebars – so you can make good progress on the road. However, the wider tyres, lower gearing and more stable handling means you can also get off the beaten track and ride rougher terrain.
Riding gravel allows you to link up routes in new ways, stitching together farm roads, forest trails, byways and bridle paths alongside roads for endless new adventures! Before you get there though, there is a bewildering array of variations on this theme out there: from bikes that share most of their DNA with race-ready road bikes to machines that look pretty familiar to any 90s MTB aficionados.
As with the majority of bicycles, the most common frame material options are aluminium, steel and carbon.
Steel has stood the test of time. Durable and comfortable, the choice of touring cyclists everywhere is a great choice for the rough stuff too – and it can be easily repaired, if you ever manage to cause it any real damage. The only downside is that steel frames can be either a little weighty, or rather costly.
Aluminium keeps the weight down without a steep price tag, so this is a very popular option. These days, thanks to fancy hydroformed tube shapes, it's often very comfortable too!
Carbon frames are generally the lightest on offer, and the carbon fibre layups allow designers to spec stiffness or flexibility in different areas to create a bike with both efficient power transfer and a comfortable ride quality. Bear in mind that carbon frames do benefit from a little extra protection from bags, and keep an eye on the manufacturer's weight limit if you're loading up for some bikepacking.
The variety of tyre options available is key to the versatility of the gravel bike: you can happily run 32mm slicks one day and as-big-as-will-fit mud tyres the next. Check out the clearances on the bike you have your eye on: wider tyres means more air volume so you can run lower pressures, improving both grip and comfort. Many gravel bikes are also designed to accept both 700c (road standard) and 650b wheels – the smaller 650 wheel allows a wider tyre for the same combined wheel+tyre diameter, for a bigger contact patch with the road or trail.
Firstly, the riding position also tends to be a little more upright, borrowing the taller head tube and shorter reach from the endurance end of road bike design. In fact, many bicycles pitched as endurance road bikes now come with the tyre clearance to handle light gravel riding.
As you slide up the scale of off-road gnarliness, you'll find manufacturers designing frames with longer wheelbases, slacker head and seat tube angles, and bigger still tyre clearances. Bikes like the Genesis Fugio are even fitted with dropper posts!
Almost all gravel bikes now come equipped with disc brakes. Not only this allows more space for bigger tyres but disc brakes give you consistent, effective stopping, whatever the conditions – crucial when you are riding multiple terrains!
99% of the time, a gravel bike will be equipped with a lower and/or wider range of gears than a normal road bike. The key decision is whether you want to go for a 1x or 2x drivetrain.
Modern 1x groupsets can offer a similar range to most 2x setups, but are a simpler and more robust system generally favoured by those prioritising off-road riding. Many brands now offer sub-compact (smaller chainrings) chainsets to reduce the gearing of a traditional 2x groupset. This route is ideal for do-it-all bikes that see as much asphalt-only use as they do gravel adventure time.
Here at Brixton Cycles, we pride ourselves on our custom builds. Speccing your new bike from the ground up allows you to create the ideal setup for your needs. Not sure what your needs are or what they mean for the bike? Don’t hesitate to get in touch or come in store for a chat, and we'll work them out together.