How to choose a gravel bike

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Go gravel riding if you want an off-road adventure, a freeing cycling experience, a new way to race, or all three. You’ll want the right bike for the job(s) of course, here’s how to choose a gravel bike.

All-road, multi-surface drop bar, monster road, and even “non-traditional-use-drop-bar” can hardly contain the identity of gravel bicycles, which have given riders access to new kinds of adventure, new expressions of athleticism, and simply new ways to enjoy riding a bike.

Gravel biking has become neutral ground for experienced and beginner riders alike to turn the pedals without having to deal with traffic or possess special skills, where “escape” is less about getting away and more about going to…a destination, a finish line, a personal goal, a sense of satisfaction. But can a gravel bike serve all your purposes in a single bike? It can when you realize that if you can only have one bike, then let it be a gravel bike. Here’s why.

This gravel bike buying guide will discuss:

  • What is a gravel bike and its main advantages.

  • What to consider in terms of costs, frames and components, gearing, build, and positioning.

  • Additional accessories to consider alongside your gravel bike purchase.

What is gravel biking?

Thousands of kilometres, miles, leagues etc. of unpaved roads meant for farming, logging, rural transit, or unmotorized access can be found lacing the continents worldwide. Too rugged for road riding and too tame for mountain biking, these roads unshackle riders that are bound by pavement and/or their own withering sense that they need special riding skills (not true).

Gravel biking is a form of cycling that combines elements of both road and off-road riding on unpaved surfaces. No one needs shaved legs, the word “gnar” goes unspoken, and one need not be fast or fit to go gravel biking.

Some may argue that you don’t even need a so-called “gravel bike,” which may be true but same as you wouldn’t use a serrated knife to chop an onion, why wouldn’t you use a gravel bike for gravel biking?  

Gravel bike facts

Daring bicycle brands that took chances on this new trend in the early days of gravel designed bikes in line with what they knew (road or off-road).

The resulting gravel bikes’ success relied on what users wanted, which they themselves were still trying to figure out. A dedicated road rider for example, might feel instantly more comfortable on a gravel bike from a brand better known for its road models.

Without pesky governing bodies to dictate what was (or was not) a gravel bike, manufacturers had the creative freedom to define the concept on their own terms; gravel bikes have been in a constant state of evolution from the start.

Manufacturers have since zeroed in on what makes a good gravel bike, which generally features these characteristics:

  • Drop bars, flared in some instances

  • More relaxed frame geometry for comfort over long distances

  • Wide tyre clearance, up to 54 mm

  • Multiple mounts for gear, mudguards, extra water bottles etc.

  • Suspension (optional)

Gravel bikes vs. road bikes

Gravel loyalists might defend gravel as in a league of its own, and they’d be right because of obvious differences in riding surfaces, tyre sizes, and where to ride (not in traffic, thanks).

Yet at a distance, a gravel bike’s shape is close enough to a road bike that roadies can ease into gravel riding without feeling totally alienated for lack of off-road skills. Gravel riding also trends toward fun, which has way more universal appeal than suffering and/or intimidation do and so the barrier to entry is lower with gravel biking.

Bike brands that forged their reputations with road bikes tricked out with all the elite features for high performance adapted to gravel with road-centric models, while mountain bike manufacturers produced their own version of mountain-centric gravel bikes.

These different approaches worked too, because gravel bikes weren’t one or the other (road or mountain bike) but rather the sole occupant and leader of their own category.

Cyclocross bikes also has key differences that distinguish it from gravel bikes that deserves its own mention and article.

Why you need a gravel bike?

Faster than mountain bikes on the road and better than a road bike at handling varying terrain off-road, gravel bikes inhabit all the clichés: “the Swiss army knife of bikes, jack of all trades, two-wheeled multitool” etc. and while this may be becoming less true as gravel bikes find their niches in racing and touring, they have more versatility than road and mountain bikes combined.

Yet they aren’t without their pros and cons:

Gravel bike pros

  • Versatile, go-anywhere bikes
  • Get many bikes in one with a few simple gear swaps
  • Perfect bikes for anyone who refuses to commit to a single cycling discipline
  • Relatively uncomplex bikes, making them easier and cheaper to maintain

Gravel bike cons

  • Becoming an expensive trend
  • Slower and heavier than a road bike
  • Lack the agility of a mountain bike

Gravel bikes’ sheer versatility provides more than enough incentive to discover new places to ride when what’s beneath the wheels becomes less of any issue. The type of terrain that you can throw under a gravel bike are a test of your vocabulary.

How many of these have you ridden?

  • Carriage path
  • Alley
  • Roman road
  • Dirt road
  • Ice road
  • Street
  • Tree tunnel
  • Agricultural road
  • Avenue
  • Bridleway
  • Double track
  • Singletrack
  • Camino
  • Green lane
  • Battle road
  • Trail
  • Sunken lane
  • Towpath
  • And of course, gravel road

What is the cost of a good gravel bike

If we told you that you’ll probably spend $4,530 or more on a respectable gravel bike, we wouldn’t blame you one bit if you shot back with, “What’s a ‘respectable’ gravel bike?”

Quite frankly, you can spend $12,370 and more and get a gravel bike that’s bound for a podium finish, can haul gear for days, or can satisfy your unbridled sense of adventure. You can also spend a lot less and get the same amount of satisfaction because at the end of the day, it’s still a bike, and the range of prices for a gravel bike help keep gravel riding accessible.

Shop all gravel bikes

Spending less on a gravel bike doesn’t automatically mean that it’s less quality – especially when you consider the enormous second-hand bike market that’s out there.

Know the difference between a cheap and an expensive bike and you could score a ride above your pay grade but within your budget. Same as with other bike types, a gravel bike’s price depends a lot on its frame and fork composition, and the quality of its components.

Gravel bike frames and components

Frame material

  • Aluminum, or aluminum alloy, was one of the first alternatives to heavier steel for crafting bike frames. Aluminum’s lower weight and ability to form tubes into different shapes made it very appealing. It’s also much more affordable than carbon fiber or titanium. Aluminum 6061 is most commonly used for bike frames; however, aluminum isn’t known for comfort. Light, durable aluminum has a reputation for being unforgiving on bad roads, yet it can take a beating, which makes it a good choice for gravel.

  • Carbon fiber, which used to be reserved for only the best road bikes, is now being used to craft many different types of bikes – like gravel. The process for making carbon fiber frames allows engineers to target specific zones where the bike should be stiff for power transfer and where it should be more compliant for comfort. The bottom bracket area, where most power transfer happens, is usually super stiff to make sure that every watt is going to the rear wheel. The seat stays, which support the rider, can be designed to flex and absorb vibrations from the road. Carbon fiber’s extraordinary potential as a frame material also makes it more expensive than metal and slightly more fragile if not properly handled.

Frame sizes

  • Unless a manufacturer chooses to invent its own sizing standards, gravel bikes share the same frame sizes as road bikes. If you’ve got your eye on a specific gravel bike, visit the sizing section of the manufacturer’s website to get an idea of how their bikes are sized. Before you go there, grab a cup of coffee and get smart(er) with this general road bike sizing guide.

Wheel sizes

  • Gravel bikes are generally divided into two-wheel sizes: 700c and 650b. 700c is what you’ll find on most road bikes, while 650b’s (which are the same as 27.5”) are popular with riders who want greater traction and more cushion on rough terrain. The difference between the two sizes is small enough that most frames will accommodate either one or the other. The deciding factor is your personal preference: 700c wheels typically roll faster, while those who want a more comfortable ride or mountain bike-like handling would go for 650b wheels and larger tyres.


  • Tyres are one of the defining characteristics of a gravel bike and they aren’t so much a matter of one tyre being better than another, but rather what tyre is best for the surface where it will be ridden. Unlike road tyres where you want to reduce rolling resistance on paved surfaces as much as possible, gravel tyres tend toward wider widths with a tread for traction. Tyre widths typically run between 32-45 mm; however, some frames will accommodate tyres up to 54 mm.

  • Wider tyres have greater air volume and work well under lower pressures to broaden the tyre’s contact with the ground and improve traction. Lower pressure also provides a more comfortable ride, thanks to the additional cushion afforded by letting a little air out of the tyres.

  • Tubeless tyres have become the choice of serious gravel riders who prefer them because they can be run at lower pressure (better traction, more comfort) and because tubeless technology reduces the likelihood of pinch flats.

Gravel gearing

Bike manufacturers who rushed their concepts of gravel bikes to market should earn some applause for being among the first – even if the bikes repurposed parts from road bikes and called them “gravel.” Early adopters were quick to discover that road gearing was too high for steep, loose gravel roads.

Drivetrain manufacturers, Shimano, SRAM, and Campagnolo wasted no time in creating systems dedicated specifically to gravel. What matters in choosing the perfect drivetrain is your personal preference. Both SRAM and Shimano offer 1x and 2x options, while Campagnolo is only available in a 1x13 system.

Shimano GRX – The standout features that make the GRX a gravel system are gear ratios that make sense on terrain that’s characteristic of gravel riding (steep, loose, uneven, etc.), gravel-specific ergonomics, and multiple handlebar positions for braking.

SRAM XPLR – SRAM recruited the best components of the brands under its name and created its XPLR system. SRAM, RockShox, and Zipp contributed Red, Rival, Force, eTap AXS, Rudy, and Reverb to help riders define their own gravel riding style. The real standout is gearing for gravel, which SRAM has manifested in a 10-44T cassette and matching derailleur. The big gear range has been optimized for gravel climbs and tight jumps for fast riding on the road.

Campagnolo Ekar – With claims to be the world’s lightest gravel groupset, the Ekar was conceived from the beginning as a 1x system that gives the rider smooth cadence progression without unnecessary gear overlap thanks to single tooth jumps in the small sprockets and larger jumps in the bigger sprockets.

What to consider in a gravel bike build

Gravel roads are different throughout the world, so it makes sense to build (or equip) a gravel bike with components that suit the riding environment.

Some components are non-negotiable (disc brakes, for example) while others are uniquely tuned to specific riding conditions.

The following components are the most common considerations for your gravel bike build:

  • Brakes – Disc brakes are the norm because of their superior stopping power, no matter what’s coming down from above or what’s underneath the wheels. Mechanical or hydraulic disc brakes are your two options and they each have their advantages. Mechanical brakes are easy to set up and repair yourself, which makes them more affordable, while hydraulic brakes are the gold standard in braking for their consistency and reliability.
  • Handlebar – In addition to gravel-specific gearing, gravel bike handlebars got a redo as well to be wider, more ergonomically comfortable, and more stable. Bars got flared and swept upward to provide greater rider comfort and more control when riding for extended periods of time over unforgiving terrain. Multiple hand positions also emerged as an important feature for both endurance racers and bikepackers alike, who can spend days riding with little rest in between.
  • Suspension – In the early days, “gravel” and “travel” seemed mutually exclusive, with only a few suspension manufacturers daring to design forks for the trend. Since gravel has proven its staying power, suspension forks for gravel have become standard. They’re getting bolder too, by going beyond the 40 mm accepted travel maximum to reach 60 mm.
  • Gravel bike pedals – As one of the three contact points between you and your bike, your pedal choice takes precedence – especially when a single gravel ride can last 12 hours or more. In the past you had two choices: flat or clipless pedals and, while that’s still generally true, variations on each give you options. Flat pedals allow you to wear street shoes if your ride includes stops where you’ll need to walk around. Flat pedals with spikes give your shoes greater grip when pedaling, which may be safer too. Flat pedals tend to be heavier than clipless pedals. Clipless pedals and cycling shoes designed for off-road riding enable better power transfer, a more uniform pedal stroke, and more stable pedaling on rough terrain. These pedals are usually dual-sided and allow your foot a degree of float while clipped in. Installing pedals on your own is one of the easiest upgrades you can do.

Make building up your gravel bike for comfort a priority because you’ll be able to go farther and faster with a bike that’s oriented around you.

How to improve your riding position

Within the span of a kilometre or mile, you could be riding on hardpacked dirt, sand, pavement, crushed stone, or even rail ties, which means you need to be positioned to react quickly to abrupt changes in riding surfaces and not locked into one position. The best position for gravel riding is a relaxed one.

Start by getting the right bike size – this will accomplish a lot in terms of your comfort because you won’t have to constantly compensate for a bike that’s too big or too small. In addition to gravel-specific components that contribute to your comfort, like handlebars and suspension forks, you can improve your comfort by swapping in a shorter handlebar stem for a more upright posture.

One more component that can pay big dividends to your comfort is your seatpost. A carbon fiber seatpost will be lightweight and absorb vibrations, or a suspension seatpost will soak up vibrations and more for less money than a carbon seatpost.

We can’t say it enough, get comfy on your bike because it will affect how you ride both now and in the future.

Gravel bike essentials

There are a few “add-on” gravel bike accessories that really belong on your bike from the start. These gravel bike gear essentials add up to greater safety and ride enjoyment when you turn off the beaten path.

Mudguards – It’s not only what’s coming down from the sky but what’s being churned up from the ground, which includes water, slush, mud, sand, and salt – sometimes a cocktail of all five. Mudguards can be clipped or bolted on to protect your bike from contaminants that eat your components and paint. If you do get caught in the rain/snow/salt spray, it’s never a bad idea to clean your bike.

Frame bags – Having places to store things, like food, clothing, and tools, which don’t interfere with pedaling, will help you be prepared for sudden changes in weather or unexpected detours that make your ride longer than planned.

Lights – At least a rear light will keep you out of trouble with the law where rear lights are mandatory. While you’re at it, mount a front light to see and be seen in case you’re out after dark. Brighter is better.

Get a gravel bike if you want to ride outside the limits…of town, city, road networks, and other cycling disciplines that lack the versatility of gravel riding.

Get a used gravel bike if you have big aspirations for multi-surface riding, racing, and/or touring but only have the budget for one bike.

If you need inspiration to make old riding routes new again or to explore new territory, get a gravel bike. When you choose a gravel bike, what you’re really doing is giving yourself permission to go beyond and live outside your limits.

Call an expert

If you need help or assistance during your buying process, you can call one of our cycling experts that will be the resource for all your questions regarding the models, types or brands of gravel bike you're looking for!

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Further reading

Whether you’re a seasoned cyclist or casual commuter, or someone who rides on smooth roads, gravel trails or mountain paths, selecting your faithful two-wheeled companion should take into account several criteria; type of riding, surface, intensity and frequency. Here are a few tips to help you choose the perfect bike.

You may be wondering what to bring on your epic gravel ride? Here’s our complete kit of essentials for a long day on dirt roads!