What makes a great gravel bike? Well, that depends on how you define gravel. Are we talking smooth dirt roads that you can ride on your aero bike? Or are we talking bombed-out, rock-strewn trails that most people would ride on a full-suspension mountain bike?
Our Top 5 gravel bikes run the gamut from bikepacking-capable mules to aero gravel racers. Our only criteria was that each bike can handle the full range of gravel – no rebranded endurance road bikes with skimpy tire clearance allowed.
Max tire width: 650x42mm
Credit where credit is due: Cannondale got out ahead of the gravel trend compared to the other big companies. Sure, small brands like Salsa have been at it for years, but Cannondale’s 650b front suspension drop-bar bike pushed the gravel envelope early.
With clearance for up to 42mm tires and 30mm of suspension at the Lefty Oliver, the Slate gives you options.
Max tire width: 700x2.4in
Speaking of small companies that have been banging the gravel drum for years, Salsa has a whole range of gravel bikes. While the Warbird is the American company’s gravel racers, the Cutthroat is its burly bikepacking brother.
There is no mistaking this guy for an endurance road bike. Consider: 445m chainstays, four-bottle capacity on small frame and five bottles on m-xl frames, rack ready, top tube bag mount ready, 1 or 2 chainring ready.
With its slack geometry and enormous clearance for up to 2.4” tires plus, the Cutthroat is essentially a rigid 29er, with dropbars. If your idea of a great ride finishes on a completely different day than when it starts, check out the Cutthroat.
Max tire widths: 700x42mm or 650x47mm
Specialized introduced the FutureShock on its Roubaix endurance road bike, and while some of the BikeRadar crew loved it, others (err, me) found it a little weird for a road bike.
But a little suspension for the gravel? Now we’re talking. The Future Shock still is undamped, but it has a stiffer spring on the Diverge, which boasts a low BB and slack front end for stability in the rough stuff, and tire clearance for 42mm 700c tires of 47mm in 650b.
Max tire widths: 700x40mm or 650x2.1in
On the opposite end of the spectrum from Cutthroat's ‘strap your tent and sleeping bag on’ ethos, you have the 3T Exploro, an aero gravel race bike.
Sure, you can find plenty of stiffer, lighter endurance road bikes that might be faster on light-duty gravel, but the 3T Exploro is a legit gravel bike, with clearance for 40mm tires in 700c or up to 2.1” in 650b.
3T claims the Exploro with 40mm knobbies and two water bottles is faster – aerodynamically – than a round-tube road bike with 28mm tires and no bottles, when tested at 20mph.
Norco Search XR
Max tire widths: 700x45mm or 650x2.1in
A few companies have gravel race bikes that aren’t too dissimilar from road bikes – stiff and fast. And some of the smaller core gravel brands have gone off the deep end with bikepacking weirdness. But if somewhere in between sounds right to you, let me introduce the Goldilocks of gravel, the Norco Search XR.
The Search can handle the big tires if you want that. And mounts can be added at discreet points if you want to add fenders or load on racks. And yes, you can load up bottle cages on the fork as well as the frame if you’re into that.
But the Norco is an excellent, all-around gravel bike that is a joy to ride, damping the rough chatter a bit without feeling like a plodding mule.
Norco sells this in metal and in carbon, with not only size-specific frame design but size-specific wheel choices, so shorter rider can get the same geometry as larger riders without toe overlap.
Pack it, race it, ride it wherever you like.