Whew! It’s almost 2021 and finally, finally, we think it’s safe—once and for all—to say that gravel riding is legit!
As if every major and tradition-bound bike brand adding gravel bikes to their lineup wasn’t enough; as if the sweeping popularity of gravel bikes and gravel bike races as evidenced through meteoric bike sales and event participation wasn’t enough; and as if the added sense of safety that many gravel riders found by being able to avoid crowded streets wasn’t enough to convince the skeptics, we didn’t know what more we could add.
But wait, just as we were putting the finishing touches on this issue, we received our first sample of Campagnolo’s gravel-specific Ekar component group. Yep, after seeing the shift in market popularity these last few years, the venerable Italian component maker made their first move back to the dirt following their foray into mountain bike components in 1990. Campagnolo goes gravel—how’s that for significance?
Although we’ve never understood what exactly was the cause for so many cyclists to harbor such enmity over what’s essentially just a road bike with bigger tires, we were never dissuaded from our mission to help promote the new bikes and the evolving technology directed at them. After all, what’s not to like about a road bike that, by design, can only add to your sense of adventure by being able to continue rolling when the pavement ends?
THE DIRTY DEEDS
• Just as the road bike-specific category has splintered into a handful of subcategories, so, too, has the gravel bike market become more varied in recent years. Where we once started off with repurposed cyclocross bikes, given the wide range of usability, we now have purpose-built gravel rigs that span the specific use of everything from touring to racing.
• Oh yeah, cyclocross, remember that?! There is no doubt that the flexibility of gravel bikes has taken much of the wind out of the domestic cyclocross market. What’s the key distinction between the two, you ask? Rules, of course.
Owing to cyclocross being a recognized sport (born in Europe) with oversight by an international sanctioning body (the UCI, which is based in Switzerland), there are certain technical limits that a cyclocross must meet to be deemed legal to compete. And, it all comes down to one thing—tire size. When racing a UCI-sanctioned event, your tires’ size cannot exceed 33mm in size, which would be an affront to any self-respecting gravel bike that’s optimized to excel with 38mm-and-bigger rubber.
• So, what exactly is a gravel bike? Like we said earlier, it’s basically just a road bike with room to run bigger tires. You can also expect to find different frame geometries (longer wheelbase and slacker angles), added bottle mounts, fender and rack mounts, and much lower gearing to allow for efficient pedaling for slow-speed sections and climbing. In fact, suspension can now also be added to the list.
• As much as we are fans of gravel bikes, we are not fans of some race-inspired gravel bikes that borrow frame-specific carbon seatposts and one-piece handlebar/stem combos from their road bike brethren.
Riding off-road is all about increased adventure and technical riding, which, in the event of a crash, can have higher consequences on the frame and components. We’ve seen broken seatposts and handlebars out on the road, each that can bring added complexity and cost if not easily replaceable. Keep it simple!
• Easily the biggest boon to gravel riding has been the surge in both tubeless-tire technology and the move to wide-ratio gearing. Both can tip their hat in appreciation to the mountain bikers who initially moved the needle decades ago.
As messy as tubeless can be at first, if you plan to ride off-road, it’s really the best method of fighting flat tires, but remember to always carry a spare tube with you. The biggest downside here is the complex interface between tire and rim makers, which can make fixing a flat or mounting tires downright impossible. As intractable as the process can be with some tire/rim combos, there are a few tips to make it somewhat easier.
• When it comes to gearing, we still remember the early days of test riding new gravel bikes that were spec’d with cyclocross gearing that literally made us turn around on a steep climb when we ran out of gears (with a 36×28 gear). With the advent of front and rear gravel-friendly gearing from all three drivetrain makers, we can now pedal up that same fire-road climb with the appropriate cadence (with a 40×42 gear). Of course, with some bikes spec’d with SRAM’s Eagle cassette, you can go as big as a 52t cassette! The bottom line? Pedaling up a hill is better than walking.
• As for the tires themselves, there are more tread patterns out there than there are dirt roads to use them on. First and foremost, make sure they are tubeless-ready. Next, consider the type of riding you’ll be doing. With most of our gravel rides starting out on the pavement, we’re fans of the “file” tread pattern that provides low-rolling resistance and adequate traction on the hard-packed trails we ride.
Remember, too, just as it’s true with high-volume slicks, traditional air-pressure numbers are no longer viable with gravel tires. If you’re using anything bigger than 36mm rubber, it’s rare to ever inflate them to anything over 40 psi.
• Last, two additional gravel-specific talking points concern flared handlebars and dropper seatposts. We remain mixed on the former and not fans of the latter, but the advantages of both really come down to personal preference.
Owing to their wider stance, flared handlebars (available with a variety of flare) can provide better control through the rough stuff, but for some, the position feels too awkward, especially when riding on the street.
• We’ve tested a few bikes with dropper posts, and although they may be all the rage with the accessory-crazed mountain bikers, we have yet to find any consistent need for them given especially that we never ride sections as extreme as the mountain bikers. And when it comes to fire-road cornering, we prefer to keep the saddle high and pinched between our legs for better bike control and steering.
• The most important thing to say about gravel bikes—just as we’ve been saying for years—is that their comeuppance has only been a positive thing for the bike industry and sport of cycling alike. Where some see gravel bikes as some kind of threat, the only thing that they threaten is the single-purpose experience that road bikes have perfected over the years. While road bikes remain as fabulous as ever, a gravel bike’s dual-purpose ability only brings added opportunities to make your rides more adventurous. And, we can all use some added adventure in our
SAGE STORM KING
The American-made titanium frame is available in seven sizes or custom for $3600. Dropper-post-friendly with room for up to 50mm rubber and three bottle mounts, what sets this model apart is the all-new Campagnolo Ekar 1×13 drivetrain. Yes, Campagnolo now offers a gravel-specific drivetrain that from our initial testing is impressive with a choice of three different cassette options. The levers maintain their independent controls on the right with single-operation left lever. Speaking of brakes, like all Campagnolo disc brakes, which are in our opinion the best on the market and set the standard for feel and modulation,the Ekar binders work just as well.
Price: $3600 (frame), $9500 (as shown)
KHS GRIT 220
The 220 frame is 6061 double-butted aluminum with an abundance of mounts, which allows the bike to be compatible with racks, fenders and even bike-packing essentials. KHS offers four different builds, ranging from a chromoly frameset at $829 with quick releases to a $2799 carbon bike with front and rear thru-axles.
KONA ROVE LTD
When it comes to picking a gravel bike, Kona’s butted-chromoly Rove frame features a tapered head tube and full carbon fork. Shimano’s GRX drivetrain and brakes keep this beast running like a dream during nasty, muddy conditions. The Rove LTD is the perfect blend of function and aesthetics and is ready for your next adventure.
OTSO WARAKIN TI
Unique with the Warakin Ti is the Tuning Chip rear dropout, which can lengthen or shorten the wheelbase by up to 20mm and raise or lower the bottom bracket by up to 4mm. Complete builds with Shimano GRX start at $3950, with the frame/fork going
CANYON GRAIL CF SL 8 ETAP
The Grail immediately attracts you to the novel dual-plane handlebar, but as with most Canyon bikes, there is an abundance of small details that keep the intrigue level high. Available in both aluminum and carbon versions starting at $2000, thanks to their consumer-direct sales model.
MASI INCANTO TI
Masi has their new 3/2.5 butted titanium Incanto frame with a dropped-yoke chainstay, internally routed front triangle, dropper compatibility, and can be built as 1x or 2x. There is room for 700x45mm tires, and the frame is 700c- or 650b-compatible. Whether you choose this Shimano GRX 1x build or maybe even the new Campagnolo Ekar, the durability of titanium is perfect for gravel.
3T EXPLORO RACEMAX
Owing to the bike’s profile and tube shapes, the new RaceMax is as shapely a frame as any we’ve ever encountered. From the curved seat tube to the downtube that widens from 46mm to 75mm to “hide” water bottles from the wind, the frame is designed to roll on either 700c or 650b wheels. The most notable difference between the old and new version is the double-drop chainstay design borrowed from the Open WI.DE.
LAUF TRUE GRIT RACE AXS
The Icelandic brand has now gone consumer-direct, which means the same great bikes at even better prices. Along with their proprietary suspension fork, the True Grit is also built with their special glass-fiber-integrated carbon handlebars to bring even more compliance. The bike is sold in four builds, and now available in sizes XS to XL.
NINER RLT 9 ALLOY
Niner’s RLT 9 lineup consists of three versions—carbon (RDO), steel and alloy. All three are offered in 650b or 700c builds with their carbon fork paired with all models. The alloy frame is the balance between price, performance and weight, but most impressive is that Niner tests all their bikes to the more demanding test standards that mountain bikes require.
Michele Favaloro builds carbon frames, but steel is where he started. The TIG-welded Race with brazed details, tapered carbon fork, integrated seatpost clamp and headset will set you back $2490 for the frameset. The complete bike uses SRAM Rival 1x 11 with FSA K-Force light AGX 650b wheels. Made in Italy and in custom sizes.
Franco is probably best known for their road catalog but also have something for those willing to get a bit dirty. Franco offers the Grimes as a frameset for $1950 and in six build kits that range from the $2450 SRAM Rival spec to the $5950 SRAM Red eTap AXS option. All models use a 1x drivetrain, so this 2x Shimano GRX Di2 kit is a special order.
Price: $1950 (frameset)
Obed is what happens when one of America’s top titanium frame shops decide to try their hand at providing consumer-direct carbon bikes. The Boundary is equipped with mounts for up to three bottle cages, as well as front and rear bags, and is available in five sizes and seven component builds starting at $2600.
Zerouno released the Fanga, a drop-bar, carbon gravel bike. The Fanga is available in two levels—the R and the top-tier SL. The SL frames are made in Italy, while the Rs are imported from Taiwan. Zerouno claims a reasonable frame weight of 980 grams for the SL model.
Price: R, $1990 (frameset); SL, $3290 (frameset)
MARIN GESTALT X10
The alloy Gestalt X extends the possibilities of the Gestalt by adding 700×45 or 650Bx47 tire clearance, lowering the stand over, only offering a 1x drivetrain, adding dropper post routing, as well as a new geometry. Overall, the more adventurous X version is ready to take things further off the beaten path at a great entry-level price.
If there was one gravel bike that grabbed the headlines last year, it would be Open Cycle’s WI.DE., which was basically a two-wheeled monster truck. Thanks to the double-drop chainstays, the WI.DE. has room for massive 2.4-inch/650b or 46mm/700c knobby tires. Beyond its ability to climb any obstacle, the Open scored for its terrific handling, even on the road. Complete bikes are spec’d with SRAM 1x for $5900. Frames available in five sizes.
Originally their cyclocross entry, Pivot has redesigned their Vault with gravel in mind. While it still plays well as a ’cross bike, the new design brings added tire clearance, thanks to the double-drop, asymmetrical chainstays that offer room for up to 47mm tires. Key, too, is the integrated compliance with their new Iso Flex seatpost technology.