WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT GRAVEL
• 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.
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• 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
THE LATEST 8 GRAVEL BIKES OF 2021
The concept of building a gravel bike for this legacy Italian brand pitted the (modernist) son versus his (traditionalist) father, and in the end, the Italian-made bike became a best seller.
Price: $3495 (frameset)
Bianchi has introduced two versions of a brand-new gravel bike platform that starts at $3400, and both run with Shimano GRX 1x drivetrains. There’s tire clearance for up to a 42mm tire, and there are five
BLUE COMPETITION CYCLES BLUE HOGBACK
Blue Competition Cycles has two versions of the Hogback—this standard model and the Hogback Race, which is an aero-optimized frame. A Hogback frame starts at $1995, but by utilizing Blue’s “Build Your Own” program, you can build the bike of your dreams. Five sizes available that fit up to 42mm tires.
BMC URS 01 ONE
Starting off at $2999, BMC’s family of gravel bikes also includes the cream-of-the-crop 01 that specs a 12-speed SRAM AXS Red drivetrain, Enve wheels and their own rear suspension design. The integrated frame protectors are a nice touch.
You’ll find a wide range of price points in Cannondale’s gravel catalog that includes three models, which feature their own one-sided Lefty suspension fork with 30mm of travel. But, there’s also the entry-level Topstone One, which is available in five sizes with a Shimano GRX drivetrain.
CANYON GRAIL AL 7
The consumer-direct giant, Canyon, has a full crop of gravel bikes, with the new Grail AL7 starting the line off. The aluminum frame uses a standard handlebar and stem, and the price is spot-on with carbon DT Swiss wheels and a Shimano GRX drivetrain.
SAGE STORM KING
The American-made titanium frame has room for up to 50mm tires and is available in seven stock sizes for $3600, but can also be built-up to include a wide range of drivetrain and component options, including this beautiful example that uses Campagnolo’s new 13-speed Ekar gruppo.
CERVELO ASPERO 5
For 2021, Cervelo is rolling out some beautifully finished gravel bikes under the Aspero banner. Three models and a frameset in six sizes are available with your choice of electronic drivetrains from SRAM or Shimano.