Riding gravel is just the hottest thing about bikes. From long-distance races to short morning spins, from rough terrain to well-maintained dirt roads, so much excitement in cycling seems to revolve around taking bicycles off the sidewalk. This is not surprising given the versatility of the category.
The gravel wheel looks like a road bike with a few tricks: a different geometry, a wider gait, a gap for wide gnarled tires and often additional frame fastenings for bags and other accessories. But since gravel is such a popular and extensive category with fast – changing technologies, it also hosts a bewildering variety of options that are targeted at a wide range of applications and with very different prices, including “Halo” products that cost up to $ 10,000. What do you really need?
We went in search of an answer. In this article, we will explain to you the most important attributes of the bike that are important and those that are not, and finally determine the price range of the Sweet spot, where every extra dollar you spend still corresponds to a significant increase in performance-a point just before the price—benefit curve begins to reach the point of profit reduction.
To be clear: good products are available at lower prices and, of course, at much higher prices. We are not here to tell you that you are wrong when you spend more or less money. We are here to determine what brings you the greatest value.
What makes a good gravel bike?
Step one minute away from the specification on the manufacturer’s website. To understand where the value and performance of a bike comes from, first think about the qualitative aspects of riding: what do you want to do with the bike? With gravel bikes, four key features climb to the top, whether you’re running 200 miles or just turning a local loop.
Comfort and ride quality
Simply put, if you feel comfortable, you can drive faster and longer. More than the stiffness of the transmission or aerodynamics, comfort and ride quality are the factors that determine whether cycling is fun. And isn’t that the point?
Versatility and application
Some gravel bikes tilt to one side of the continuum or to the other, such as robust models of bike packs or stripped-down road plus rigs for easy use of dirt. Most riders want something that can handle a varied terrain. But if you are strongly inclined to certain types of driving—say polished gravel or clunky forest trails—this should certainly guide your choice.
Processing and control
Then, how a Bicycle moves, rises, and turns has a big impact on your confidence on steep or technical Relief. Some options here improve the skills of the bike for one type of ride at the expense of the other.
On lighter bikes, riding is more fun, but you can sacrifice durability or handling. This is the least important of the four attributes here, because the absolute weight differences between similar bikes are generally small. Meaningful weight loss comes at the expense of a steep premium, which, as you will see, falls far beyond our Sweet spot. In addition, the weight of a bike itself is only a small part of the general weight equation for riding on gravel, especially for applications such as long-distance racing or a bike package where you carry more equipment.
What Features Will Help You Get There
Now let’s look at the characteristics of the bike that help to create these four attributes, those that can be useful for certain types of gravel driving, and those that don’t really serve you in a meaningful way.
Look at the diagram above. The four green elements in the upper left corner have a big influence on our attributes, but have no significant influence on the price. Be careful with the yellow items in the upper right quadrant: they really affect these qualities, but can get out of control in terms of price if you are not careful. The blue elements in the lower left corner are the ones that do not have a big impact on the price or performance. Cockpit components are right on the line because they can make a big difference for your comfort, but it may not be immediately noticeable. Red items are conspicuous and have a great influence on the price, but have no significant influence on our most important performance features.
What is most important
No detail of the bike affects the quality we are looking for more than the tires. Wider tires are heavier, but have a larger contact area, which improves handling, and you can work at a lower pressure, which increases comfort. The gnarled tread can feel clumsy on the sidewalk or tamped dirt, but increases grip on loose terrain. Tires (nylon fabric to which the rubber is attached) and beads (what the tires are attached to the rim) are of great importance. Tires with wire ropes weigh more and have rigid covers that feel sluggish and stiff. Folding tires are lighter and tend to have more flexible housing, which are relatively responsive, and elastic.
This latest quality costs you two to three times as much as inexpensive versions with wire balls and stiffer housings. But in absolute terms, the cost of alignment is modest: $ 50 to $ 75 for less expensive tires versus $ 150 for nicer things. If the bike you love has cheesy tires, it can’t be a bargain because replacing the best tires is easy and relatively cheap.
One of the characteristic features of a gravel bike is the ground clearance for a wide range of tire sizes, which increases the versatility of the bike for different types of riding. The actual range depends on the style of the gravel bike. Bicycles for both Allroad oats NATO, designed to cover and light riding on dirt, can be limited to 1.3-inch tires, and the equipment bikepacking as a racket salsa fits a meaty mountain bike rubber more than 2.3 inches wide.
This choice comes with compromises. The Allroad is not suitable for rough terrain, and although the racket works with narrower rubber, its geometry does not support responsive, road-friendly handling. Many gravel wheels are suitable for tyres about 47 millimetres wide-a pleasant mid-range that is good for many situations. Pay attention to the fine print, for example, whether the wings reduce ground clearance or whether the bike is compatible with a smaller 650b wheel that can squeeze a little extra width when you buy a second pair of wheels.
The dimensions of the frame—things like wheelbase or head and seat angles—have a big impact on handling and comfort. The tilt angle of the idler head can make the steering more stable through responsiveness. Longer wheelbases give stability to descents and improve tire clearance, but can feel sluggish when accelerating. Most gravel bikes strive for versatile, capable geometry that falls somewhere in between.
It is easy to get lost in the differences of features that appear significant on paper, but may be less significant in reality. For this reason, I cannot stress enough how important it is to test your top picks. Instead, focus on what you feel during the test drives. Does the bike fit you well? You like how it responds to steering or hard accelerations? There is no better choice, just what works for you and your riding.
Gravel bikes usually have three or more sets of bottle attachments, wing mounts, and various other attachment points for baskets and frame bags. The more mounts, the more versatile the bike. There is no great drawback to adding more. Some people don’t like the aesthetics, but the reinforced holes and the various screws only slightly affect the weight of the bike. With the exception of custom frame builders who offer additional mounts, no bicycle manufacturer takes more just because the frame has more mounts.
What Sometimes Matters
Companies use widely differing approaches. Specialized offers a front suspension with a small (20 mm) wheel stroke. Other brands, such as Cannondale and Niner, make bicycles with suspension, which offers a considerable number (30 millimeters or more) of front and back cushions. Trek uses a minimal rear suspension, which simply helps to dampen high frequency vibrations. The giant, like many brands, uses no suspension at all. In general, if you need a bike for very difficult routes, the suspension can be valuable. But for most types of gravel driving, the advantage is less obvious, and the extra weight and bounce can be uncomfortable on smooth terrain. The suspension also adds cost and complexity, which can lead to reliability and maintenance.
Personally, I feel that the small amount of suspension may not be worth it. The choice of tires is a much more economical way to solve the problem of ride quality and comfort, especially given the ground clearance of most gravel bikes, as well as the low pressure and reduced risk of descent that Tubeless technology offers. This is to some extent due to personal experience: I spent many months on carbon Trek Checkpoint SL6 with the system of rear IsoSpeed and aluminum checkpoint ALR5 full with hard rear end. For me they are interchangeable, only one costs much more.
You will probably be most sensitive to changes in the weight of a bicycle in the wheels, especially at low speeds, such as steep climbs. Lighter wheels help to make the bike more sensitive to acceleration changes. However, this often means the transition from aluminum to carbon rims, which is much more expensive because bikes with such rims also tend to upgrade other components that have less impact on attributes such as ride quality or handling. Instead of going down this route, if you really appreciate light weight but want to stay on a budget, buy a less expensive bike that probably has lower but functionally similar parts, and put the savings on a second pair of wheels made of carbon or lighter aluminum. Two pairs of wheels with tires of different widths and tread can essentially create two bicycles from one.
Nowadays almost all gravel bikes have disc brakes. There are two main types: wire rope (sometimes referred to as mechanical) and hydraulic. Hydraulic ones have better braking capacity and modulation with less manual force on the lever and are more reliable with less maintenance. All bikes in our sweet-spot price range are supplied with Hydros. Don’t get carried away by the differences from brand to brand; SRAM, Shimano and Campagnolo are proven designs that work well.
Two things need to be considered here: the gear range and the total number of gears. The gear range refers to the distance between the largest and smallest gear. If everything else is the same, the wider the range, the better. Very small gears are useful for steep climbs, while large ones help to maintain speed on long descents that are not steep enough for the shore. A larger total number of gears means that the jump from one gear to another decreases, so it is easier to find one that offers a comfortable cadence.
In most cases, the differences in the gear range between the different 11-speed gears are quite minimal. a 12-speed transmission such as the SRAM Electronic Force eTap AXS or the new Ekar Campagnolo 13-speed system will have a wider range and smaller transitions from gear to gear. But the price increase is significant, and the benefits may not prove worthwhile.
Apart from the number of gears, the biggest choice you make has nothing to do with the price: whether you want a bike with a one – or two-strand transmission. Unicycle gearboxes are simpler and better at keeping chain tension on bumpy terrain, but have less common gears than 2x and they sacrifice part of the range for low lift gears. Some bikes are only compatible with 1x gearboxes, so check before buying if you ever want to change.
What does not matter
Every bicycle company has fancy names or abbreviations for its carbon technology, which is divided into quality levels. Brand to brand, they are generally interchangeable (FACT Specialized is not much better than OCLV Trek). This is because most of it is very similar: a mixture of medium and high modular carbon coming from one of the few raw material manufacturers in the world.
That will get some people in the industry to separate me from the church, but: they don’t need carbon fiber. It is a fantastic Material that has opened up new possibilities in the design and capabilities, and it is certainly lighter and also stiffer in the power transmission and absorbs vibrations better than aluminum. Especially for gravel bikes (as they usually carry more weight in the equipment), the question remains whether the carbon is worth a substantial price premium. This is a really good thing, but the bicycle industry has long been making high-quality, robust, comfortable frames made of aluminum and steel that are much cheaper.
Focus on which brand of components you like best during your test drives—if the shape of the Shimano lever is better in your hands or if you prefer a SRAM shift instead of a specific group. Component companies exchange materials and technologies through a variety of products. For example: Shimano Dura-Ace, Ultegra, 105 and GRX 800 and 600 lines are all 11-speed groups that share design and design. Even the Tiagra and GRX 400 10-speed groupsets have much of the same technology, albeit with larger gear jumps or a smaller gear width, as well as different materials that only slightly affect weight and durability.
The best cost and performance for a dollar in gravel bikes is between 2,000 and 3,000 dollars. In this price range, you get upgrades for frames, wheels and other parts that significantly affect ride quality, versatility, handling and weight. These include an 11-speed transmission with tighter gear to gear transitions; hydraulic disc brakes; tires with folding sides and higher-quality housings; and also aluminum or carbon frames, which have a common design and technology with the most expensive models in the lineup, with a modest weight.
Chart: Up to $ 3,000 you get a significant benefit for every extra dollar spent. After that? Much less return on much larger investments.
Under the Sweet Spot
Below the threshold you will get the same frames as the $ 2,000 aluminum models, but you will compromise on the details. These include lower drives such as Tiagra/Sora Shimano or Apex SRAM, which have ten rear speeds and do not share as much technology and technology with better groups; tires with wire straps that have hard housings; wheels made from heavier, cheaper, less durable materials and which may not be compatible with tubeless; and disc brakes with rope drive. Cost savings are sometimes not worth what they sacrifice. If you have a budget of $ 1,500 to $ 1,750, take a close look at whether you can spend that extra $ 250 or $ 500 to get the best bike for that money. If your budget is $ 1,200, this relatively big jump may not be worth it.
Above the Sweet Spot
At higher prices, you’ll find ever lighter carbon frames and wheels, electronic gears, and a growing availability and quality of suspension. These bikes can offer slightly better handling and ride quality, but the price is starting to rise dramatically. You can easily spend $ 6,000 or more and get a bike that’s not even nearly twice as good as a bike for $ 3,000.
Chart: The least expensive aluminum Bicycle (left point), the least expensive Carbon bike (right point) and the comparably-equipped aluminum Bicycle (center) in the statement of each company. Note: The giant does not have a comparatively equipped aluminum bike with its cheapest Carbon Rise.
Final solution: aluminum or carbon
Your biggest choice might be whether you want a carbon frame or an aluminum frame. The difference between the comparatively equipped versions is between 400 and 800 US dollars. If you decide you want carbon, you’ll find good bets starting at $2370 with Marin’s Headlands 1. From there, s Giant Revolt Advanced 2 ($2500), Jamis’s Renegade C2 ($2600), Canyon’s Grail CF SL 7 ($2700), Specialized’s Diverge Sport Carbon ($2900), Trek’s Checkpoint SL 5 ($2900) and Salsa Warbird GRX 600 ($3100) – all these are excellent options.
But I would advise you to look at aluminum or steel bikes that will save you a lot of money without having a significant impact on comfort or versatility. Good options for aluminum frames are the Cannondale Topstone 1 ($1,950). Canyon Grail 7 ($2000), Specialized’s Diverge Comp E5 ($2100 and rare aluminum gravel bike with trailer) and Trek’s Checkpoint ALR 5 ($2100). As for steel, the Jamis Renegade S2 ($2100) is a very powerful machine for the entire surface.