Brian McCulloch cut his teeth racing professionally on the road for over a decade and like many other forward thinking racers, made a successful transition to gravel racing, highlighted by a win at the 2018 Belgian Waffle Ride. We had a chance to chat with McCulloch ahead of the Rock Cobbler, he broke down what gear and upgrades are worth considering to improve your experience at your next gravel event.
What makes a gravel bike? First and foremost, it starts with a frame that can accommodate anywhere from 38mm to 50mm tires. (So, don’t let anyone tell you a cyclocross bike that is bound by 33mm tires is a gravel bike!) After that, wider handlebars, different geometry, and now even suspension and dropper posts are all trending aspects of gravel.
This might sound like a mountain bike to some, but trust us, gravel has more in common with pure, paved road bikes than modern mountain bikes. For us, the dual-purpose versatility to ride on paved or unpaved roads is what makes them a great option for many cyclists. Gravel bikes also tend to have a more stable geometry that is also good for entry-level riders.
Just as it’s proven true with road bikes, the larger treaded tires also offer more traction, which is never a bad thing. Look for a bike that offers more tire clearance than you predict you will need, as you will also need room for mud and debris if the adventure gets extra eventful.
Gravel (and their kissing cousin, cyclocross) bikes often get lumped together because both are suited for non-paved roads. However, cyclocross bikes really prioritize racing with a priority of speed and quick handling (with less tire clearance), while gravel puts compliance and tire clearance on the top step. As such, ’cross bikes are more race-oriented in build spec and geometry.
Like all things bike-related, personal choice is what’s best to rely on for picking and choosing your new bike and components. At this stage we can say that we aren’t on board with the super-flared and wide handlebars. Sure, they may be trendy, and they do offer an advantage in some circumstances in the dirt, but on the road, they feel far too awkward. For us, a slight flare in the drop is acceptable, but many gravel bars are getting bumped out 4–8cm at the hoods, with the drops placed at an even wider gap.
Gravel has also encouraged many to push the limits on what a drop-bar bike is capable of. This has led to further adaptation and borrowed tech from the mountain world, like dropper posts and suspension forks. Since gravel bikes follow the footsteps of road bikes, most come with 27.2mm seatposts, which means that they don’t fit the larger mountain bike dropper posts. But never fear, there is now an entire segment of gravel dropper posts.
Suspension is the other category that has been hitting the gravel segment with the newfound ideas of perceived need. And depending on how and where you ride, a suspension fork could make all the difference in the world, but remember that the added front-end weight will affect the ride. For most gravel riders, it’s the high-volume tires that will definitely bring the most trouble-free type of suspension.
Lauf was one of the first brands to introduce a gravel specific fork with their unique leading link fork that provided
30mm of travel. Fox, X-fusion and Rockshox have also hit the market with suspension forks that closely resemble their mountain bike offerings, only with less travel (40-50mm) and fitment for 12mm thru axles as well
as compatibility with flat-mount brake calipers.
The biggest talking point for gravel bikes are the many drivetrain options. While 1x cranks have been embraced as a “gravel drivetrain,” for many riders, having the wider capabilities of a 2x remains the better option. But, of equal note is the variety of wide-range, gravel-friendly cassettes, which can vary in gear spreads from 11-34 to 9-42 and 10-52. Key to this discussion, too, is where you live and what kind of riding you do.
If you’re taking our advice, we would say that if climbing is part of your regular routine, it’s important to have a minimum 1:1 gear ratio—and we’d usually recommend an even lower gear. This is because making steep climbs in the dirt is often harder than doing so on the road. Not only do you have less momentum leading into a climb, but there’s also the added rotational weight and rolling resistance of the larger tires that help slow things down.
FRAMES, WHEELS & TIRE PRESSURE
Just like road bikes, gravel bikes come in all different frame materials, with carbon fiber being the choice for performance-oriented riders. Aluminum is popular for those that are on a budget and want to test the water before diving in. The true underdogs (in terms of marketing) are steel and titanium. Not only do they have good ride characteristics, thanks to their material, but they are unbeatable when it comes to durability, and that’s something many want when on an epic adventure.
In order to fit larger tires, gravel bikes have slightly longer chainstays, which make the back end of the bikes longer. Gravel bikes also tend to have slacker head tubes when compared to road bikes. This all adds up to a longer wheelbase to provide added stability at higher speeds over loose, bumpy ground.
We talked about tire size when it comes to frame design, but tires themselves are continuing to expand. The number-one thing that everyone riding gravel should adopt is tubeless tires. Simply put, they make all the difference in the world when it comes to fighting flat tires, which are definitely more frequent in the dirt.
There are two main wheel sizes—650b, which are normally intended to run larger (mountain bike size) tires, and the more common 700c (aka 29er) that spans the entire range of sizes. Larger tires mean more air volume, which leads to needing less pressure (usually in the 20–50-psi range). These lower pressure settings can add compliance but, more important, traction is always an advantage in the dirt.
Last but not least, before picking out a new gravel bike, think of how you are going to use it. Like everything else, the gravel segment is now home to a handful of subcategories. There are bikes designed for racing and touring, each of which often dictates the component and accessory selection spec’d.
The more adventure-oriented bikes have a more utilitarian orientation and normally have at least three bottle-cage mounts, as well as countless other eyelets for bags and such. One of our favorite bag locations is the top tube, where we store easy-to-grab snacks so we don’t have to reach in our pockets while on rough roads.
At the end of the day, gravel bikes have greatly expanded the available route options and can offer a new adventure or challenge to those that have years of road experience. And, that’s a good thing.
NINER RLT 9
The Niner RLT line of bikes comes in carbon, steel and alloy frame options. The alloy RLT 9 is offered in six build options, ranging from $2599 to $5099, as well as a frame only for $1199. The alloy frame finds the right balance between price, performance and weight.
KONA ROVE AL 650
The Rove AL 650 starts the five-bike Rove family of gravel bikes at just under $1000. The aluminum frame is built with a 2x drivetrain for added versatility and rolls on 650b WTB wheels. The Rove lineup is pocketbook-friendly with a top priced spec at $2599. Choose between 1x and 2x builds, alloy or steel frames, as well as 700c and 650b wheel options.
Litespeed’s Watia blends performance and endurance geometries for a well-rounded gravel bike with a classic titanium aesthetic and ride quality. Frames are available starting at $2115 for an externally routed option with the most expensive build, topping out around $6500.
SCOTT ADDICT GRAVEL
Scott is continuing to merge race-oriented aerodynamic designs into their gravel line with airfoil tube shapes and lowered seatstays. There are three Addict Gravel models with Shimano and SRAM components, as well as a women’s-specific Contessa Addict gravel bike. The builds range in price from $3000 to $8500.
With a hint of gravel potential, the All-Road is built with T800 carbon tubes with lugged joints. Available in five sizes with customizable geometry and finishes through the MyCipo personalized paint program.
Price: $4390 (frameset)
PIVOT VAULT PRO
Though most famous for their class-winning mountain bikes, Pivot has been in the drop-bar business for years. Originally designed as a cyclocross bike, the Vault has been redesigned for the rigors of gravel riding with added tire clearance and the proprietary Iso Flex seatpost for added compliance. Models to choose from come with both 1x and 2x drivetrains.
LAUF TRUE GRIT RACE
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, ranging from $2790 to $6590, and is now available in sizes XS to XL.
CANNONDALE SUPERSIX EVO SE
Not to be confused with the new SuperSix Evo CX cyclocross bike, the SE is a gravel race bike. The SE ships with a 2x SRAM Rival AXS drivetrain that is speed-oriented but still features a better than 1:1 ratio, thanks to the 46/33 crank matched with the 10-36t 12-speed cassette.
The Grizl is offered in SL and SLX carbon options, and they ship with large 45mm tires. The frame leaves room for up to 50mm tires, and this makes it a great option for the racer or the adventurer. Canyon is even offering a build with the new RockShox Rudy Ultimate suspension fork and 1x gravel-specific SRAM AXS XPLR groupset.
LOOK 765 GRAVEL RS
The famous French road brand Look has jumped into the new dual-purpose bike category with the 765 Gravel RS that’s available at four price points and unique colorways. The carbon frame has been tuned with a specific layup for gravel, and also features asymmetric chainstays.
3T EXPLORO RACEMAX
The RaceMax is as shapely a gravel 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 versions is the double-drop chainstay design borrowed from the Open WI.DE.
RODEO LABS TRAILDONKEY
From the mountains of Colorado comes this dedicated gravel bike brand that offers a family of dirt-oriented bikes in your choice of carbon, steel and titanium frames. The TrailDonkey is available as either a frameset or a complete bike in six different builds.
Price: $2650 (frameset)
The Arcadex marks Bianchi’s first official leap into the gravel world. Built with Shimano’s gravel-specific GRX 800 drivetrain, the Arcadex rolls on alloy Alex hoops with room for up to a 42mm tire. There is also a ($200) lower-priced version that uses a Shimano GRX 600 drivetrain.
SAGE STORM KING
The American-made Sage Storm King has been one of our favorite titanium gravel bikes, and now there is the GP version. The geometry has been slightly modified to pair with the new RockShox Rudy XPLR 40mm suspension fork. Get rowdy with confidence or just add compliance for long rides, you choose.
With its signature dropped chainstay, frame clearance for up to 40mm tires and excellent handling, this is the bike that broke the gravel category wide-open.Two models are available with the $4500 UPPER frame weighing 180 grams less.
FELT BROAM 60
The Felt Broam is intended for the bike-packing crowd, endurance riders, and anyone looking for a great riding bike with massive tire clearance and room for bags and fenders. The 60 is the most affordable option, offering plenty of bang for the buck. Disc brakes and 2x drivetrain make it a perfect all-road option for those looking for new routes.
SPECIALIZED CRUX PRO
Long the cyclocross go-to for Specialized, the all-new 2021 Crux has now morphed into a more gravel-friendly bike. Available with both 1x and 2x drivetrains and 38mm tires, but there is room for up to 47mm, so while the Crux is more gravel than ever, it remains their race option for CX or gravel.