Gravel bikes have been one of the hottest new bike styles to arrive in recent years so we thought a handy guide to what a gravel bike is and to help you decide between the different options and whether these types of bikes will be right for you when riding off road.
There are many different names that are slight variations on the same theme - along with gravel bikes, there are cyclocross bikes and adventure bikes each with their own characteristics. Hopefully this guide makes these differences between a gravel bike, adventure bike and cyclocross bike a bit clearer and helps steer you towards your perfect bike.
Contents and Quick Links
- What is a Gravel Bike?
- Are Cyclocross bikes or 'cross bikes' the same as gravel bikes?
- What are adventure bikes?
- What tyres do I need?
- Do I need tubeless tyres?
- Braking systems
- Who are gravel bikes for?
- Who are gravel bikes not ideal for?
- Our top gravel bikes
What is a gravel bike?
A gravel bike is a drop-handlebar bike that is designed to be used on road and on light mud and gravel riding and are perfect if you are looking for a very capable bike that is proficient on road or off road. Most gravel bikes will normally have extra tyre clearance for either mudguards or wider gravel tyres for when you focus on gravel roads. A lot of gravel bikes will also have mounts for rear racks, mudguards and space on the frame for bikepacking bags. Gravel bikes will come with either an aluminium frame, steel frame, carbon frame or sometimes titanium. Gravel bikes are either available in mens frames, unisex frames or women's frames (including the incredible Liv gravel bikes).
It should be said that you can ride a gravel bike for cyclocross racing as they can ride on off road, mud and grass provided it is set up with 33c cyclocross tyres or knobbly tyres so you get the desired grip on loose surfaces.
Are cyclocross or ‘cross’ bikes the same as gravel bikes?
Cyclocross or ‘cross' bikes are often confused with gravel bikes as they do look very similar but there are some key differences. The main one is intended purpose: cyclocross bikes are designed specifically to cyclocross races off road and on technical terrain (named for cyclocross races) meaning cyclocross bike geometry will have a more aggressive riding position and are not usually designed with mudguards and racks in mind (although you can still fit some bikepacking bags to the frame). Cyclocross bikes will normally come with a single front chainring (discussed further down) for more off-road riding/racing.
These days, there are massive overlaps between the cyclocross bike and gravel bike so when deciding please take into account the following factors:-
Rack mount capability - if you require a pannier rack on the bike, please make sure that this bike has the necessary mounting points as some cyclocross bikes do not.
Bicycle geometry - When choosing a bike, make sure the position is suitable for your riding and bodily capabilities. Opt for the aggressive riding position of a cyclocross bike if you are looking for flat out speed and efficiency and you are flexible enough to handle the position for extended periods. Opt for the more upright riding position of a gravel bike if you are more a leisure or ong distance cyclists.
What are adventure bikes?
An adventure bike is similar to a gravel bike or cyclocross bike but with a few tweaks. Adventure bikes still feature the drop handlebars for long distance fatigue management through the ability to change riding position. Here are the characteristics that define an adventure bike-
Drop handlebars - similar to gravel bikes and cyclocross bikes.
Wider handlebars - This is a feature so that you can fit more luggage or a bigger handlebar bag to your bike. The sort of size that could easily take a tent or sleeping bag.
Luggage racks and mudguard mounts - the same on gravel bikes but only some cyclocross bikes.
A wider but smoother tyre - designed to be efficient and comfortable on longer rides but also take on gravel comfortably.
What tyres do I need?
The answer to this depends on the proportion of time you plan to spend on tarmac and how much on gravel. If you are predominantly on tarmac, then a slicker tyre will make you much more efficient and can still be used on dry gravel. If you find you are more on the loose surfaces in wet weather, knobblier, wider tyres designed to give more grip would definitely be the right choice. This is all about getting the balance for your type of riding.
If you are racing cyclocross bikes then you will very likely need cyclocross tyres that are typically knobbly and 33c tyre width (this is the standard for official cyclocross racing at time of writing). On gravel and cyclocross bikes it is important to check the bike will allow the width of tyre clearance to accommodate your tyre width of choice.
Do I Need Tubeless tyres?
A big question these days. A lot of gravel bikes will come either set up tubeless off the peg or 'tubeless ready', meaning that the wheels can be made tubeless by adding sealant, specific rim tape and valves. On a 'tubless ready' wheelset, they will usually come with tubeless tyres but it always worth checking. The benefits of tubeless are that small punctures will seal and for off-road riders, you can run the pressure lower to give more grip on the loose surfaces but not have the risk of ‘pinch flats'. The downside to tubeless is that it can be quite messy if you do get a puncture or are changing the sealant.
This tends to come down to a personal preference decision as most people are comfortable with tubes and how to change them at the side of the road.
Modern gravel bikes will usually come in two main choices for the front gears – two chainrings on the front, or one chainring on the front and both have very clear benefits.
BENEFITS OF TWO CHAINRINGS
We would advise these gears for cyclists who are predominantly on tarmac with just a little gravel thrown in. This is because you have a higher gear for when descending, as the ‘big ring' on the front will be bigger than the single chainring on the corresponding single chainring option. This will prevent you from running out of gears too early when descending.
BENEFITS OF SINGLE CHAINRING
Taken from mountain biking, a single front chainring, or ‘one-by' is more designed for the off-road cycling - a single front chainring is far less likely to jump off the chainring when travelling over rough, uneven terrain. The other benefits are that your chain and cassettes will last longer as there is less chain wear and the overall system is significantly lighter. Compared to the double-chainring option, you will likely have a very similar low gear for steep climbs but you sacrifice the higher gears for the downhills. Most cyclocross bikes will come with a single front chainring.
Most modern gravel bikes will come with some form or disc brakes. The difference will be whether these are mechanical disc brakes (controlled by cable) or powerful hydraulic disc brakes (controlled by hydraulic fluid).
Disc brakes generally will perform better in the wet and dry and will also not wear through your rim (great if you have expensive wheels). The differences between the mechanical and hydraulic is that the hydraulic self-correct for when pads wear resulting in less maintenance and less expense replacing brake pads. Hydraulic brakes are also easier to pull so there is less fatigue on longer rides.
The cycle brake pads on disc brake bikes can be made from a firmer material so will last longer than old rim brake pads.
Who are Gravel bikes for?
Gravel bikes are truly the jack-of-all-trades as they give you so many options. The are ideal for people who:-
are looking for a bike that can handle on and off road
are looking for a commuter bike that can be kitted out with mudguards and rack
are bikepackers looking for a bike that can be loaded up with bags for equipment for long distances
are lovers of the drop handlebars of a road bike but one that can handle rough British roads
people wanting to race off-road
are looking for a bike that can be used for light touring
Who are gravel bikes not ideal for?
Of course, gravel bikes are not for everyone and that would include people who:-
Do not like the position of drop handlebars
Only go short distances and won't get the full benefit from the drops
Want a bike on the cheaper end of the spectrum
Are needing a mountain bike for serious off-road mountain cycling
Who want to be as fast or efficient on tarmac only (this would lead you to a pure road bike)
Our Picks of some of the best Gravel and cyclocross bikes
From single speeds to full-on carbon gravel machines. We have a look at some of the best gravel and cyclocross bikes that are designed for off-road gravel cycling.
The Genesis Flyer is your perfect foul weather bike. The single speed gearing means no cassette to worry about and a chain that will last a long time. With space for mudguards and wide tyres, it is the perfect winter commuter/ short distance leisure bike.
The starting point for the Silex was modern mountain bikes inspired geometry; long top and head tubes and a short stem, offering nimble, confidence-inspiring handling. It was hailed as the most comfortable and versatile bike Merida had ever made and with reliable and robust Shimano Sora gearing and mechanical disc brakes, this is excellent value, fun bicycle.
Whether your goal is to escape on gravel back roads, far from cars and crowds, toe the start line at your first cyclocross race, or simply get the most versatile bike on the road or dirt, no bike is better than the new Diverge.
It's quite simply the fastest, most capable - and just maybe the most fun - alloy bike Specialized have ever made, delivering a ride that's quick and lively, but stable and confidence inspiring when the terrain gets rough.
With an all-new gravel geometry, to category leading tyre clearance, the new Diverge represents everything thsat has been learned over more than 40 years of riding road, gravel and dirt.
The Liv Devote 1 2024 is a gravel road bike that comes more setup towards the gravel riders due to the knobbly off-road gravel tyres however you can fit a slicker tyre if you find yourself on road more often. Shimano Hydraulic brakes and Shimano 11-speed gearing makes for an excellent bike. Available in different specs to cater for a wide variety of budgets.
Versatility never goes out of style. The SILEX 400 is an adventure-ready gravel bike that is equally at home doing a rough commute or winter training laps, thanks to a durable aluminium frame, lightweight carbon fork and huge tyre clearance of 700 x 45 mm or even 42 mm tyres with fenders. Merida's MTB-inspired geometry gives you huge confidence off-road, the huge number of mounts mean you will be able to carry what you need easily, and the durable Shimano 2x10-speed GRX groupset and brakes will make short work of the ups and downs.
In terms of value, it is hard to look past Giant. The Revolt 0 features a lightweight aluminium frame with vibration damping carbon composite fork in gravel bike geometry for extreme comfort. Powerful hydraulic disc brakes give confidence inspiring stopping power and the 2 x 12 Shimano GRX gravel specific groupset offers a robust and reliable shifting even on muddy or rocky terrain.
The Liv Devote 0 is a phenomenal value, versatile bike that is at home on roads, gravel and even bikepacking. Liv gravel bikes feature women's specific geometry by shortening the reach and heightening the front end for incredible comfort mile after mile. Powerful hydraulic disc brakes give confidence inspiring stopping power and the 2 x 12 Shimano GRX gravel specific groupset offers a robust and reliable shifting even on the roughest terrain.
The Crux is the lightest Specialized gravel bike, with the exceptional capability of massive tyre clearance and performance gravel geometry. It’s not just the ultimate expression of gravel performance, it’s your one-way ticket to gravel enlightenment.
This Crux Comp comes spec'd with a reliable and smooth-shifting SRAM Rival 1 hydraulic disc groupset, tough DT G540 Disc wheels, and 2Bliss Ready, 700x38mm Pathfinder Pro tyres that hookup over nasty terrain.
The Crux range sits more on the cyclocross bike end of the spectrum meaning that full length mudguards and pannier rack would not be compatible because this is an all-out off-road race bike.
Here is the ultimate gravel bike with spec to die for and unimaginable comfort with Future Shock suspension front and rear for the perfect balance between speed and comfort on long rides, bikepacking or cyclocross racing. This bike can do it all and, as you would expect for a bike that costs £12,000, comes with top of the line SRAM Red ETAP AXS 12-speed wireless shifting that is lightweight, robust, smooth and reliable and offers incredible stopping power with SRAM Red hydraulic brakes. All of this built around the full carbon frame, forks and wheelset for unbelievable efficiency.