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man on Kana Libre bike

The Best Gravel Bikes of 2021

Looking to grab adventure by the drop bars? From roguish roads to multiday bikepacking trips, we’ve swung a leg over the best gravel bikes of 2021.

As trails become more crowded and phones distract drivers on the road, riders are turning pedals toward remote stretches of backcountry gravel. It’s arguably safer, makes you a better rider, and is undeniably fun.

Gravel bikes pull speed from the road and fold in stability and handling from the mountain. The handlebars and angles look like a road bike, but there’s more clearance to run fatter tires.

Groupsets can run wide 2x chainrings to more mountain-ish 1x cranksets, capable of matching the abrupt ups and downs of backcountry roads. Making sense of it all can lead to endless midnight doomscrolling. But that’s not how we like to choose a bike.

We’d prefer to wrench our pedals to the cranks, swing a leg over the top tube, and get a sense of that elusive feel of the bike. Bodies on bikes. Dirt under tires.

For gusto, we’d bring them all to a remote stretch of land, put the rubber on the road, hop on sandy trails, and crush them over rocky double tracks. Ideally, we’d grind them up steep climbs and bomb down the backside.

We’d put them away dusty, take notes, and then grab another next bike and do it all over again. That’s how we’d do it.

And, this past spring, that’s exactly what we did.

Scroll through our picks for the best gravel bikes of 2021, or jump to a category below:

The Best Gravel Bikes of 2021

Best Overall Gravel Bike: Specialized Diverge Pro Carbon

Specialized Diverge Pro Carbon

In a sea of familiar geometry, the Diverge ($7,500) is a standout. Specialized clearly put some thought into how fit translates to feel. The wheelbase is long, but the short chainstays put your weight over the rear tire.

The fork’s offset and trail strike a balance of stability and nimbleness. The stem angles up, and the reach is longer. The bottom bracket is the lowest of the bunch we tested.

By the numbers, this gives the bike a longer wheelbase. In the saddle, it gives you a clear feeling you are riding inside the bike, rather than on it. The result is a bike that rips on roads and singletrack but feels most confident on variable terrain.

While fit is king, the accolades don’t end there. The bike is stacked with components that elevate the Diverge to the top of our list.

Specialized integrated its latest Future Shock 2.0 inside the head tube. The dial on the headset allows you to unleash the hydraulic damper up to 20 mm of travel in the front. Or you can lock it out entirely for stiff handling on the climb. The damper is immediately responsive and easy to dial on the fly.

specialized diverge pro carbon

The Diverge is brandished with mounts on the top tube, down tube, fork, and the traditional water bottle mounts. You want to bring it on that 400-mile bikepacking race? It can do that. Scratch that — it encourages it. Specialized has pretaped the high-wear areas where you might lash a bag.

Our Diverge came with Specialized’s aftermarket accessory mount kit on the stem and a bag of mount accessories. It’s well-positioned off the front of the stem and allows you to easily pair with your Garmin, Wahoo, Karoo, etc.

Inside the down tube hides the uniquely Specialized SWAT storage port. Ours came loaded with gummy worms (which is the quickest way to a gear tester’s heart). While we can’t promise the sugar pantry will be stocked, it’s a great place to stash extra food, your tool kit, a tube, or even a wind jacket.

Trimmed with Specialized’s own proprietary 700 x 38c tires off the floor, the Diverge is a truly robust gravel tire. If you want to go beefier, the clearance supports up to 700 x 47c 2.1 inches on 650b x 2.1 inches. It’s plenty of traction for most obstacles you’ll encounter.

Power is directed to the bike by Campagnolo’s new 1 x 13 groupset. It’s reputedly the lightest of its kind on the market.

The paddles and levers are easy to control from both the drops and over the hoods. We did find the range a touch finicky in the middle range. It’s a lot of gears to squish inside a single cassette.

Looking at the Diverge, all of this greatness is hidden behind its inconspicuous silhouette. It’s not showy, there’s no funky geometry, and the lines are well within the bounds of normal. It’s the nuance of ride, feel, and cleanly integrated design that culminates in a truly fantastic bike.

The Diverge Pro Carbon we tested will set you back $7,500. While not the most expensive bike in the Diverge stable (that award goes to the top-shelf S-Works model), it’s a hunk of change that prices the Pro out of reach for many.

However, the same geometry and designs trickle down to less expensive Diverge models. There’s something available for everyone’s budget.

GJ Gravel Scale: 3. Although it can comfortably chew through paved roads, the “in the bike” position puts you upright and feels most capable off-camber and in the rough.

  • Material: Carbon
  • Drivetrain: Campagnolo Ekar gravel-specific groupset. 1 x 13 (38t x 9-42t)
  • Brakes: Hydraulic
  • Clearance: 700c x 47 mm (tested); 650b x 2.1″
  • Weight (on our scales): 20 lbs. 1 oz.
Pros:
  • Future Shock 2.0 (giving the bike 20 mm of suspension)
  • SWAT internal storage
  • 700mm or 650b wheels
  • Fantastic fit positions you “in” the bike
  • Reach and slack is exceptionally comfortable
  • Range of models for price
Cons:
  • For the price of the Pro Carbon, we’d expect electronic shifting
  • Upright geometry may not suit riders who want pure speed
  • 13-ring cassette didn’t shift as cleanly as less compact 11-ring cassettes

Check Price at Specialized

Best Bargain: State All-Road

State AllRoad bike

Gravel curious? Want one bike that can toggle between road and gravel? State Bicycle Co. makes it easy to get into a bike with a no-haggle price that won’t leave you asking if you got a deal. Every All-Road is offered at a flat rate of $1,399.

To keep the price down, State uses its in-house brand drivetrain and cockpit (stem, flared bars, and seat post). The brakes are mechanical, and the frame is tried-and-true 6061 aluminum.

More road-friendly than upright, the geometry isn’t revolutionary. It’s a comfortable bike that doesn’t break the bank.

So, what does a $1,400 bike get you? Quite a lot, actually.

They’ve managed to route all the cables internally to the mechanical brakes and drivetrain. This is a win for those who prize a clean-looking bike or want to strap bike bags to the frame.

state all-road bike
Photo credit: State Bicycle

The All-Road ships with a carbon fork, buffing out the clatter on gravel roads. If you’re looking to mix it up for overnight adventures, you can upgrade the All-Road with State’s Monster Fork. It’s a more robust carbon fork with three mounting points to carry water bottles or mount gear cages.

There’s clearance for either 700c or 650b wheels that come from State wrapped in Vittoria rubber. The wheels are secured to the bike with 12mm thru-axles.

Not sure which wheel to buy? You can purchase both at once for an extra $400 — laced with inflated tires, rotors, and a matching cassette that swaps out with ease.

To make getting out on the bike easy, you can purchase pedals, a water bottle cage, a lock, or upgrade the saddle with a variety of drop-down options through State’s site.

In the saddle, the road-ish geometry feels snappy and capable, shifting through hills with ease. The mechanical brakes were comfortably secure on steep, sandy singletrack. The geometry puts you over the bars and feels less upright than other 1x’s on the list but doesn’t feel particularly racy.

If you are on the fence about dabbling with gravel or are in the market for an affordable road bike that can transform into a capable gravel bike or commuter, the All-Road is an easy way to cross over into the sport. Is $1,400 still too much? State offers a steel All-Road for $850.

GJ Gravel Scale: 2. The All-Road is the Swiss Army knife of bikes. Ride it on roads or kit it out for rugged bikepacking tours. It’s affordable, utilitarian, and has options to upgrade.

  • Material: 6061 aluminum (carbon fiber fork)
  • Drivetrain: Ours came with SRAM Apex. Going forward, the All-Road will ship State Bicycle Co. proprietary All-Road. 1×11 (40t x 11-42t)
  • Brakes: Mechanical
  • Clearance: 700c x 38 mm; 27.5 x 47 mm (tested). You can purchase both wheelsets for an extra $400.
  • Weight (on our scales): 21 lbs. 13 oz.
Pros:
  • Inexpensive and simple pricing
  • Aluminum frame is light and stiff
  • Versatility; supports both 700mm or 650b wheels
  • Carbon fork with the option to upgrade to a bikepacking-friendly fork
  • Relaxed geometry for riding
Cons:
  • Lacks top tube mounts and underside down tube mounts for longer distance rides
  • The handlebars run narrow, limiting control

Check Price at State Bicycle

Best of the Rest

Scott Addict Gravel 10

Scott Addict Gravel 10 bike

The Addict Gravel 10 ($5,500) borrows judiciously from Scott’s stalwart road line. The geometry is slightly modified to put you more upright in the cockpit.

The reach is shorter, the slack is a touch more, and the bottom bracket has more clearance. But the ride remains quick as you’d expect from its prodigious road pedigree.

The 2x groupset provides ample shifting range, allowing micro-adjustments between gears. This makes the Addict a great bike for long stints in the saddle on flats, where your main competition is one-on-one with the wind.

The compromise is clearance. There’s not a lot of it, capping the bike to the stock 35s.

GJ Gravel Scale: 1. The Addict is a stiff carbon bike that feels fast on roads and groomed gravel. The stock 35mm tires don’t leave a lot of protection from rough trails and leave little wiggle room to let air out for a smoother ride on coarse terrain. And the stay clearance limits mounting wider tires.

  • Material: Carbon
  • Drivetrain: SRAM FORCE AXS 2 x 12 (46/33t x 10-33t)
  • Brake: Hydraulic
  • Clearance: 700c x 35 mm
  • Weight (on our scales): 18 lbs. 7 oz.
Pros:
  • Fast ride
Cons:
  • Little clearance to run tires larger than the stock 35mm tires
  • Geometry is the most road-like on the list, which may leave some riders wanting more stability and protection

Check Price at Scott Sports

Framed Basswood

Framed Basswood bike

Framed is a direct-to-consumer brand that offers a lightweight carbon bike at a reasonable price. While the weight competes with the likes of 3T, OPEN, and Scott, it runs nearly $2,000 less than the competition. And it still manages to trim the bike with carbon wheels and Force AXS (electronic shifting).

If you haven’t tried it, electronic shifting is a game-changer, allowing you to change gears — even on hills — with just the tap of a finger. On longer rides, this greatly reduces hand fatigue.

By the numbers, the wheelbase and effective top tube are longer. In the saddle, the Basswood definitively has more road manners and was most comfortable on straighter lines. It’s exceptionally stable in the drops, and the levers are easy to reach, so you can take advantage of the wireless shifting.

For those looking to tour with their gravel bike, the Basswood cleanly routes all cables internally. The main triangle can swallow a frame bag or easily mount two water bottles under a half frame bag.

If you are on a budget but want to reap the benefits of a carbon bike, the Basswood offers an SRAM Apex build that’s a great base with mechanical shifters. You could upgrade the build over time.

A third set of bosses runs under the down tube for additional water. Trimmed with alloy wheels, the SRAM Apex can be yours for $1,700.

GJ Gravel Scale: 2. The Basswood is a lightweight carbon bike that has more clearance and bosses than Scott’s Addict, supporting long journeys on backroads. The longer wheelbase gives it a bias for less technical gravel.

  • Material: Carbon
  • Drivetrain: SRAM Force AXS (42t x 11-42t)
  • Brakes: Hydraulic
  • Clearance: 700c x 40 mm
  • Weight (on our scales): 18 lbs. 11 oz.
Pros:
  • Carbon frame and wheels
  • Plethora of mounts
  • Ample clearance for mud
  • Long wheelbase feels fast
  • Alloy options for lower-priced bike
Cons:
  • The geometry put us in a more road-like position, which clashed with the 1x gearing
  • It didn’t feel as confident on rough, steeper roads

Check Price at Framed

Alchemy Ronin

Alchemy Ronin bike

Alchemy’s Ronin ($9,000) is for the rider who appreciates top-drawer parts. The frame alone lists for $4,000, with full builds starting at $7,500 and topping out at $10,500.

Ours came trimmed with ENVE carbon hoops and bits and wireless shifting. As you would expect, the gears shifted flawlessly, automatically feathering between gears on the fly.

By the numbers, the Ronin has a moderate wheelbase paired with slacker head tube and seat tube angles. The calculus of the numbers makes the bike feel planted on long rides.

With the Ronin, you are buying quality craftsmanship and attention to detail. The Colorado shop offers custom geometry and can even paint your bike to your desired color spec.

If you are willing to fork over $4,000 for just the frame, why not go all-in? If “no expense spared” is part of your vernacular, Alchemy’s new carbon Ronin is worth a look.

GJ Gravel Scale: 2. The Ronin is the thoroughbred of gravel. Carbon down to the ENVE stem, the bike is for the rider seeking speed on long day rides. Designed around a maximum 45mm tire — our favorite tire width — the bike performs best on long backroad rides.

  • Material: Carbon
  • Drivetrain: Shimano GRX Di2, 1x (42t x 11-40t)
  • Brakes: Hydraulic
  • Clearance: 700c x 42 mm or 650b x 2.1″
  • Weight (on our scales): 19 lbs. 1 oz.
Pros:
  • Carbon frame and wheels
  • Variety of quality groupset options
  • Ample clearance (for stock 42mm tires)
  • Geometry feels confident and fast
Cons:
  • Minimal bosses
  • Maximum 45mm clearance and geometry limits the bike’s tire width
  • Expensive entry. Frame starts at $4,000 with a base build at $7,500

Check Price at Alchemy Bikes

3T Exploro Max (Eagle AXS 1x)

3T Exploro Max bike

The Exploro Max builds on its venerable Exploro ($5,900) by borrowing aero qualities from 3T’s road-dedicated Strada. Most notably, the seat tube closely arcs around the rear tire.

The curved frame creates a foil around the tire, shielding the tire from air resistance. The down tube also fattens out, similarly preventing drag around the water bottles.

What the bike gains in aero (speed), it loses in clearance. Our demo arrived wrapped with a 2.1-inch pure mountain bike tire.

Both chainstays drop below the bottom bracket, allowing a bike kitted with 1x to swallow up to a 2.4-inch tire (which effectively adds 1mm to the overall wheel/tire diameter). It integrates with the bike beautifully but leaves very little clearance. This becomes more pronounced on spring gumbo mud.

The fit is more road-ish and is wonderfully comfortable, allowing you to hammer for long distances. This is no surprise. The engineer behind the bike’s design is one of the founding fathers of the modern-day tri-bike — Gerard Vroomen, who cofounded Cervélo.

It’s worth noting the crank was the smoothest of the bunch. There was very little friction in the bottom bracket, which translates to more efficient riding in the saddle.

My personal gravel bike is a 3T Exploro, and I’ve ridden it with confidence around the world. From Colombia to Nicaragua and on ultradistance bikepacking races, the Exploro is equally comfortable on pavement, back roads, and everything in between.

I love it so much that I bought my wife an Exploro of her own. She uses it as her primary bike for road, gravel, and tame singletrack. Because of its ability to fluidly transition from 700c to 650b, it’s also a top choice among club riders who want one bike for cyclocross, gravel, and road.

GJ Gravel Scale: 2. The geometry of the 3T puts the rider in the bike, creating a heightened sense of trust on rough terrain. While it can run a pure mountain bike tire, there isn’t a lot of clearance for muddy conditions that demand that sort of traction. If you ride the gnar, 700 wheels with 45s will give you more clearance.

  • Material: Carbon
  • Drivetrain: SRAM Force AXS eTap Di2, 1x (42t x 11-50t)
  • Brakes: Hydraulic
  • Clearance: 700c x 42 mm; 650b x 61 (2.4″)
  • Weight (on our scales): 19 lbs. 1 oz.
Pros:
  • Upright and tight position creates cockpit-like comfort in the saddle
  • Flat drop handlebars are comfortable on the hands
  • Geometry feels confident and fast on variable terrain
  • Versatility. Can run either 700c or 650b (with up to 2.4″ tires)
  • Short-chain stay encourages nimble handling
  • Can run as a 2x
Cons:
  • Minimal clearance when running fat tires tires
  • “Crunched” cockpit may not fill all
  • Proprietary seat post limits options
  • Angle and location of seat post bolt makes it harder to adjust saddle height

Check Price at 3T Bike

Look 765 Gravel RS

Look 765 Gravel RS bike

The geometry of the Look 765 Gravel RS ($4,000) strikes a capable middle ground between road and trail. A shorter reach and a longer head tube put the rider in a more upright position. Shorter chainstays pull the rear wheel under the body and add stiffness to the ride.

On the front end, the package is tidy and robust. The stem and head tube cleanly integrate with the fork and fat, oversized down tube, giving it more front-end rigidity.

Yet, the overall wheelbase is long, yielding flex and comfort on longer rides. Examine the seat stays, and you’ll see the thin rods flatten out around the wheels, effectively damping rough shingle.

The 765 comes stock with 700c hoops laced with 40mm tires, and there’s room for 2.1-inch tires for those rides when you want more. The internal triangle is racked with bosses allowing multiple bottle mounts. Both the top tube and down tube have additional bosses.

The combination mobilizes a bike that is simultaneously aggressive and nimble, yet capable and comfortable for long rides. And that’s precisely where Look wants to be — a fun bike that lures you to ride anything with confidence.

GJ Gravel Scale: 2. The oversized tubing of the Look allows you to bash through rough terrain. The thin chain and seat tube stays have flat sections that work as a leaf spring, buffing out rougher trails and adding a touch of compliance. It’s a great choice for roadies who want to hammer on gravel.

  • Material: Carbon
  • Drivetrain: Shimano GRX (48 x 31t front x 11 x 34t rear)
  • Brakes: Hydraulic
  • Clearance: 700c x 40 mm or 650 x 2.1″
  • Weight (on our scales): 20 lbs. 1 oz.
Pros:
  • Beefy carbon is stiff and fast
  • Ample bosses to mount up for long adventures
Cons:
  • The Clydesdale of gravel bikes; not everyone needs the rigidity the Look offers

Check Price at Look

OPEN WI.DE

OPEN WI.DE bike

Another bike developed with Vroomen Engineering, the OPEN WI.DE’s geometry ($5,900) is nearly identical to 3T’s Exploro Max, down to the dual dropping chainstays (and coincidentally, price).

Both allow massive 2.4-inch tire clearance, and both have that snug-cockpit type fit and spritely handling from the shorter wheelbase. No surprise — the ride is very similar.

The OPEN WI.DE (Winding Detours) addresses some sacrifices for speed we saw in the 3T. Without tucking the rear tire into the frame, the OPEN has more tire clearance, and the internal cable routing ports pair more cleanly with top tube bags.

Maybe the most significant difference is what’s not there. The OPEN doesn’t have a mount for a front derailleur. Instead of 42 teeth, the front chainring has slightly lower gearing at 40t. This falls in line with the added clearance. The OPEN simply feels more at home on rougher terrain.

GJ Gravel Scale: 3. The added clearance, bosses, thru-axle threading, and cleaner cable routing make the OPEN our preferred choice for backcountry rides. It’s less finicky. When speed really matters, we’d lean toward the 3T Exploro Max.

  • Material: Carbon
  • Drivetrain: SRAM Force AXS 1x (40t x 10-50T)
  • Brakes: Hydraulic
  • Clearance: 700c x 46 mm; 650b x 61 mm (2.4″)
  • Weight (on our scales): 18 lbs. 6 oz.
Pros:
  • Upright and tight position, yielding cockpit-like comfort in the saddle
  • Clean internal cable routing
  • Geometry feels confident and fast on variable terrain
  • Versatility. Can run 700s or 650b with up to 2.4″ tires
Cons:
  • “Crunched” cockpit may not fill all
  • Can only run as a 1x

Check Price at OPEN

Ritchey Outback (Frame Only)

Ritchey Outback bike

It’s safe to say cycling would not be what it is today without Tom Ritchey. Back in the ’70s, Ritchey helped pioneer the “ballooner” revolution, fabricating some of the very first 26-inch mountain bikes in the Bay Area.

Many of his innovations — including hub spacing standards, mountain bike tread, and the 120tpi tire — have become industry standard on today’s bikes.

The Outback ($1,550) has classic mountain bike lines with modern upgrades. The slack angles are framed with TIG-welded steel tubing. The head tube angle is slacker, the reach is a touch shorter, the wheelbase is longer, and the stack is low.

At slow speeds on curvy trails, the Outback can feel a little twitchy. This is due to the longer wheelbase. It wants to go all day on long, drawn-out roads. Fitted for fenders and ample bottle cages, it’s capable of doing so.

Ritchey ships the Outback as a frame only. With flat bars, this Outback could be mistaken as a retro mountain bike. But you’d lose experiencing Ritchie’s WCS Beacon Handlebars, which our bike shipped with.

They were among the best handlebars we rode with all week and took shine with every descent. It provided supreme confidence in the drops at speed.

GJ Gravel Scale: 3. Classic mountain bike geometry we’d expect from Tom Ritchey with ample bosses to mount bottle cages, panniers, or bikepacking bags. The number of mounts and laidback geometry make the Outback a cult favorite among bikepackers and tourers.

  • Material: Steel is real
  • Drivetrain: Ritchey sells frame only; our demo was tested with Shimano GRX (40t x 11-42t)
  • Brakes: Mechanical
  • Clearance: 700c x 48 mm; 650b x 2.0″ (tested)
  • Weight (on our scales): 21 lbs. 3 oz.
Pros:
  • Upright and tight position, yielding cockpit-like comfort in the saddle
  • Classic mountain bike geometry is comfortable
  • Drop bars are among the best for descending
  • Versatility: Can run 700c or 650b with up to 2″ tires
  • Carbon fork with bosses for cages
  • Beautiful TIG-welded frame
Cons:
  • Long wheelbase puts tire behind the rider, causing the bike to lose traction on some sandy ascents
  • Exposed cable routing can get in the way of many modern frame bags

Check Price at Ritchey

Lauf True Grit, Race AXS

Lauf True Grit, Race AXS

The key to a great gravel bike is versatility. It’s rare for a bike to be able to hammer the flats and tackle the rough. It’s the latter where most fast bikes’ capabilities begin to thin. Most just don’t have the chops when the terrain gets prickly.

To that end, Lauf designed a gravel bike around its groundbreaking leaf-spring fork, giving riders both a racy fit and 30mm of front travel.

The suspension functions like a diving board, compressing and rebounding with the terrain. Unlike most shocks, the fork is maintenance-free. There are no moving parts to service, allowing it to suck up an all-conditions beating.

While the fork gobbles up the cobble, Lauf pairs the bike with its Smoothie handlebar. Military-grade glass fiber is woven into the carbon fiber, shushing micro-vibrations that can cause hand fatigue.

The bars cut forward at a sharp 90 degrees before sweeping back into the drops. The design makes it supremely comfortable in all hand positions.

The True Grit’s ($4,880) long wheelbase puts you in a powerfully fast stance for the long haul, more in the drops than the Diverge. All cables are routed internally, giving the True Grit a truly sexy silhouette. It’s made to go fast over harsh terrain.

Capable of going all day begs the question: Could you bring it overnight? The lack of bosses encourages more fast-and-light pursuits. While you could easily strap on a saddlebag, using a handlebar bag for heavy lifting would work against the fork.

GJ Gravel Scale: 3. The True Grit has a wider wheelbase that provides comfort on long rides. The Lauf Fork allows you to do so on cobbled terrain.

  • Material: Carbon
  • Drivetrain: Wireless SRAM Force AXS 1x (42t x 10-50)
  • Brakes: Hydraulic
  • Clearance: 700c x 40 mm
  • Weight (on our scales): 18 lbs. 11 oz.
Pros:
  • Leaf-sprung suspension fork (30mm suspension that’s virtually maintenance-free)
  • Smoothie handlebar “flexes” and comfortably supports a variety of hand positions
  • Racy geometry with suspension
  • Reach and slack is exceptionally comfortable and fast
  • Post-ride multitool included (bottle opener bolts to front derailleur mount)
Cons:
  • Seat post collar easily slides off the seat tube when the bolt is loosened
  • Sizing XS-XL can put you between sizes

Check Price at Lauf

Kona Libre CR/DL

Kona Libre CR/DL

Kona cemented its roots in the Pacific Northwest mountain biking scene in the late ’80s with an iconic sloping top tube design. Sporting a familiar sloping top tube, it’s no surprise that Kona’s Libre ($3,800) was the most mountain bike-like of the bunch.

It was also the most comfortable gravel bike we tested. The Libre feels playful and begs to be ridden hard.

A lot of this can be attributed to the tall head tube and longer reach, paired with a shorter stem. The geometry and handling feel cozy in the rough.

Kona also added wider handlebars that help stabilize the ride when the going gets rough. For truly mountainous conditions, the Libre has a dropper post. When engaged, it puts your weight low over the rear wheel, giving the bike superhero powers. The Libre was able to navigate terrain no other bike on the list could touch.

The Libre is finished with loads of mounts and internal cable routing, allowing it to transition from daylong rides to overnight jaunts.

Potential buyers should take a close look at Kona’s size chart before pulling the trigger. Frames run a size or two smaller than typical frame sizes.

GJ Gravel Scale: 4. The Libre feels like a mountain bike with drop bars. The wide handlebars, tied with the dropper post, make it the most competent bike for riders who want to tackle that singletrack at the far end of the gravel strip.

  • Material: Carbon
  • Drivetrain: Shimano GLX (40t x 11-42t)
  • Brakes: Hydraulic
  • Clearance: 700c x 45 mm
  • Weight (on our scales): 20 lbs. 5 oz.
Pros:
  • You can throw this bike around with confidence
  • Wide drop bars provide added stability
  • Ample space in the stays for 650b
  • Dropper seat post
  • Reach and slack is exceptionally comfortable
  • Lots of bosses to mount bottles and cages
Cons:
  • Stack height and slack won’t suit riders who prioritize speed over comfort
  • Graphics may not appeal to everyone

Check Price at Kona

Taking Our Gravel Bikes on the Road

We invited some 30 brands to participate in GearJunkie’s gravel week in southern Utah. With demo bikes in high demand, some 20 brands obliged.

Other than being mounted with tubeless tires, there were no “media” special upgrades. Bikes were specced and ridden with OEM parts, as you or I would buy them off the floor.

Our test course in Saint George, Utah, started on pavement before it crossed the border into Arizona, where we scouted a smear of double track in the desert. The route had a bit of everything: sand, buffed gravel, broken earth, sharp turns, straits, climbs, and descents — enough to get a sense of how each bike felt and handled on a variety of terrain.

GearJunkie Gravel Scale

The chasm between tarmac and trail is deep. To bridge the gap, brands have built out a corner of the market with varied geometry, tires, and gearing. Some bikes veer toward smoother gravel, while other designs are capable of maneuvering singletrack with ease.

To that end, we’ve put the bikes on a scale of 1 to 4. A 4 doesn’t imply the bike is better than a 1. Rather, think of it as our gravel version of the Yosemite decimal system. It highlights the preferred terrain the bike is designed for.

  1. Gravel Light: Capable on groomed gravel B-roads and quick on the tarmac. Limited bosses for mounting cages.
  2. Coarse Gravel: Capable on road and gravel. Unless your last name is Sagan, don’t expect to lead the Sunday road peloton.
  3. Rough Logging Roads: Provides better stability on rough terrain.
  4. Mountain Curious: Capable of navigating unmaintained roads with near mountain bike stability.

Are there gravel bikes we missed? Indeed. And we look forward to testing them and adding them list as we get more hands-on experience.

Buyer’s Guide: How to Choose a Gravel Bike

Do I Need a Gravel Bike?

As a person who grew up with simple means and one bike — no. Like running shoes, one bike can work. But just like running shoes, you will eventually appreciate the benefits of a tool for the task.

A gravel bike has a more relaxed head tube angle (called slack) and longer chainstays (for stability). This gives the bike a longer wheelbase (the distance between wheels).

The stem might tilt up a touch more than their road siblings, yielding a more relaxed, upright position in the saddle (feeling less “over the bars”). A gravel bike feels more stable and comfortable on rougher surfaces than its road counterpart.

Gravel bikes typically have a lower bottom bracket, with gearing capable of quickly matching grades that tilt toward the sky. Added clearance can allow you to swap out wheelsets, opening your cycling options.

It’s not the elusive “quiver killer” we all yearn for. But it’s slimmed my rack down to three bikes. Which, in a world of N+1 bikes, isn’t bad.

man riding gravel bike

Where Do You Ride?

Before you open up your wallet, reflect on where you ride. It’s the single most important indicator to consider when choosing any bike.

And on gravel, racing down a stretch of gray canvas toward infinity is entirely different than linking turns on abandoned logging roads. With that answer in hand, it’s time to look at the geometry table.

Interpreting the data on a geometry table can be like reading the Mars Rover launch code. There is one number you need to know, and a few others that will reveal how the bike might handle.

If you don’t know your size, find your ideal top tube length (the length between the center of the head tube and the seat tube on the horizon — also called the effective top tube or ETT). You may already have this number from another bike you’ve ridden. There are a few calculations online to help find this number, or you can get sized up at a local shop.

Because of gravel’s road pedigree, a lot of these measurements will be in metric. Many bike manufacturers allow you to toggle between metric and imperial. To cut to the chase, a few companies will include rider height to steer you toward your general size.

Most top tube measurements put you on the same frame size number (listed in cm). My average top tube measurement is 560 mm, which generally puts me on a size 56 frame. However, some companies like Kona, Specialized, State, and Scott put me on a size 54 bike. This just goes to show you should always double-check the numbers.

If you are between sizes, you’ll have the option to size up or down. Smaller will give you a sportier ride, while larger offers more stable performance. Changing your seat and cleat position can dial in your fit, and swapping stems is an inexpensive way to complete the cockpit fit.

Dig a little deeper, and you can start to decipher how a bike’s geometry impacts handling. Longer chainstays (or “rear to center” measurements) will feel more flexy and stable on longer rides. However, shorter chainstays will feel stiffer, more frisky, and nimbler.

On the front end, a fork’s rake (or offset) measures the hub’s offset from the steering axis. Longer trail (the tire’s footprint “trailing” behind the hub’s axis) implies more stability whereas shorter trail will make the bike feel more lively.

Oversimplifying it, a longer wheelbase allows the bike to flex, giving it better manners on long, less technical rides. A shorter wheelbase will feel stiffer and will be more responsive on roads.

These numbers aren’t the end-all. Kona had the longest wheelbase, but other geometry and components made it feel the most lively of the bunch.

Linking the fork to the bike, the head tube length, and angles will also affect the ride and handling. Shorter head tubes generally put the rider in a more aggressive (racing) stance, while longer head tubes push the rider more upright and into a relaxed position.

A steeper head tube angle will continue to make the bike feel more racy and responsive, while a “slacker” angle will require more effort to steer the bike. More touring and mountain terrain will benefit from more slack.

Wheel Size and Tires

Gravel bikes draw influence from both the road and the mountain. Nowhere is this more clear than with wheels.

Available in both road (700c) and mountain (650b) diameters, these numbers indicate the tires’ outside diameter (measured in mm). Plus, 650b is also synonymous with 27.5 inches, a common tire diameter used on mountain bikes.

Tire diameters are marked clearly on the tire’s sidewall, followed by a second number measuring the tire’s width. So 700 x 45c (an excellent choice and our preferred diameter for 700 wheels) implies the tire measures 700 mm in diameter with 45mm width. Similarly, a 27.5 x 2.1 measures a 27.5-inch diameter with a 2.1-inch tire width.

Generally speaking, 700c wheels can run a narrower tire, giving the bike a smaller footprint on the ground. This reduces surface friction and provided the geometry supports it, can convert your gravel bike into a capable road bike.

This is great when you want to go fast, but it reaches a point of diminishing returns when you need more traction (and more forgiveness in the rough). And this is the true benefit of the 650b. It gives you the option to wrap the wheel with a capable, grippy 27.5 mountain bike tire.

Let the conditions you ride be your north star. Select a tire with traction that matches your terrain. Outside the geometry and fit, tires are the best way to improve your ride.

Clearance is the amount of space between the fork, stays, and tubes on the bike’s frame. In some cases, the stays provide room enough to run either wheel size. You always want to leave room between the tire and frame, especially if you ride in muddy conditions, where muck can collect and cement between the wheel and frame.

Tires match the wheels. You can’t simply wrap a 650b tire on a 700c wheel. Fortunately, tires are available in a variety of widths and traction for both wheel sizes, providing great options for every bike. If you decide to run wider tires, it’s a good idea to use a rim that can manage your tire’s girth.

closeup of gravel bike tires

It’s worth mentioning most bikes that can swallow a 2.1 tire start to infringe on the drivetrain. Most bikes get around this by offering a 1x gearing solution. A 1x affords quick jumps in gear ranges to accommodate the rapidly changing topography found on the less pedestrian byways.

If you find a bike you like with two (or three) front chainrings, you’ll want to double-check the tire clearance. For example, Scott’s Addict, a 2×12 speed bike, has clearance for a 35mm tire but not much more. This relegates the bike to tamer surfaces.

Regardless of tire size, if there’s one thing we learned while testing bikes in Utah, it’s that tire pressure truly matters. Almost all the bikes sent had tires inflated tight as a drum. This worked great on the road.

But once we slipped off the tarmac, we inevitably let 15-20 pounds of air out of the tires. The ride immediately turned from rough and bouncy to soft and forgiving. A pocket air pressure gauge (and tire pump) is a good investment. It ensures that you don’t drop the pressure too low.

Periodically check your tires for wear and tear. Gravel and sand are like sandpaper on tires, dulling the sharp edges on tire tread. When a tire shows wear, it’s time to upgrade.

Cutting corners by swapping your rear and front tires won’t cut it. In fact, your front tire should always have better traction. It provides confidence as you initiate corners and turns.

Running tires as tubeless is safer and lighter. The sealant will close tiny punctures from goat heads or road debris. Always bring a repair kit with a tire plug and a new spare tube (rubber ages and can deteriorate over a year). And don’t forget a CO2 inflation kit or a hand-held bike pump.

Suspension and Dropper Posts

For truly rough conditions, a few bikes offer 20-30 mm of suspension in the fork. Don’t expect to huck jumps at the local bike park. Rather, it’s just enough suspension to take the edge off of the chatter.

Lauf’s True Grit uses carbon leaves that require virtually no maintenance. Specialized has a suspension system inside the head tube that lock out (for climbs) and open up 30 mm of suspension for the rough descent.

While many gravel bikes offer narrow diameter seat posts that allow a touch of extra flex, a few, like Marin and Kona, come with dropper posts. Is it worth the weight? It is if you find yourself descending steep, rocky roads.

A dropper can elevate your gravel game to superhero status, allowing you to tackle routes with your mountain bike buddies. These are luxuries most brands don’t offer and should be considered only if your conditions merit it.

Lauf Fork closeup

Accessories

Gravel riding doesn’t require any uniquely special gear. You’ll need the same tools you might already have for road or mountain biking.

These tools include a portable tool kit with fittings that match the bike’s bolts, a pump or inflation kit, a spare tube, a seat or top tube bag to put it all in, and the knowledge of how to change a tire. Mount a water bottle cage (or two), bring a map or device to find your way home, and get rolling.


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