Gravel. The bits of road too lumpy for roadies, yet too boring for mountain bikers. The ideal terrain for bikes designed to occupy the back pages of brands’ catalogues now no one can be bothered with cyclo-cross. I jest. In fact, for once, gravel is a trend I’m fully on board with.
For me at least, the attraction is twofold — not being limited in where you go, and not having to encounter many people when you go there. It’s bliss. And while the bits of Essex I generally haunt might lack the Wim Wenders-style vistas that provide the backdrop to most gravel bike adverts, the absence of traffic and general variety means they’ll sometimes do just as nicely. Wherever you’re located and whatever your gravel-going ambitions, here are seven of our faves bikes to get you on-trend fast.
Cervelo Aspero 5
£8,699, Shop Cervelo
Brands long since stopped being squeamish about the money some people might conceivably drop on a bike that’s likely to get plastered in muck. This leaves the Cervelo Aspero 5 towards the top, but still some way off the summit, of what it’s possible to spend on a gravel bike. It’s also another neat example of the gravel bike archetype.
Definitely built for speed and not touring, it looks like a road bike, just one that’s been juiced to the eyeballs. Making it ideal if you want to go quite far very fast, it’s the sort of thing that one could easily imagine with a race board strapped to its handlebars.
Of course, this means there’s not much accommodation made for those that want to do more sedate bikepacking or trail-style riding. That said, although the geometry is suitably militant, you can still pop 650b wheels with large tyres in. With a few tweaks, it’s also been successfully used for cyclo-cross racing at an elite level.
Secretly then, like most bikes, it might actually be a bit more versatile than its marketing blub suggests.
Santa Cruz Stigmata
From £3,599, Shop Santa Cruz
Unless you grew up riding mountain bikes or skateboarding, Santa Cruz might be a new one on you. However, for high-grade grebos, no hatchback was complete without one of their stickers slapped on it. Its latest, and much improved, Stigmata is likely to continue inspiring such dedication.
Gravel bike? Turbocharged cyclo-cross racer with clearance for 45c tyres? Or just the only drop handlebar bike you own? The Stigmata serves many purposes. Despite being race-level whippy, it’s also got three bottle cage mounts and very neatly hidden fender mounts. Ensuring you don’t have to buy a second, almost identical, bike when your friend suggests you go touring, basically, it’s a bike that’s inclined to say ‘yeah, go on then’.
At the same time, it’s quick, because, duh, it’s a carbon bike that costs a lot of money yet isn’t aimed at middle-aged sportive riders. Also, get this; threaded bottom bracket. Santa Cruz is in California, they don’t even have mud there. How did they know?
From €on application, Shop Passoni
Titanium is almost uniquely suited to creating gravel bikes. Extremely forgiving if employed correctly, as a material it’s far lighter than steel. Competing with carbon in this respect, it’s nevertheless much harder wearing; a boon when your bike is likely to be attacked by both rocks and worried away at by baggage straps.
Known for specialising in bikes made of this tricky-to-work-with material, Italian bikemaker Passoni’s made-to-measure Cicloprato sits at the speedier end of the spectrum when it comes to gravel or bikepacking machines.
This is reflected in the Cicloparato’s relatively taught angles, along with the firm’s tendency to spec the bike with full-sized electronic road bike gearing. At the same time, it’s been designed to carry the latest bikepacking bags, with additional mounts on the top tube for a snack box. You can even order it to arrive with matching hand-made luggage, also crafted in the Vento region.
Using oversize tubing for the downtube, the Cicloprato is nevertheless timeless looking, a trait backed up by a threaded bottom bracket and other conventional standards that should remain serviceable long into the future.
From £2,200, Shop Specialized
Despite being almost universally loved, I’ve always found the Diverge a bit of a weird bike. Although newer versions now sport increased clearance, it still comes with 38c tyres. Sporting the sort of semi-slick design you’d previously have associated with hybrid bikes, this leaves it very quick, but potentially a little skittish.
At the same time, negating the potential harshness of such low-volume tyres, the bike’s Future Shock suspension system isolates the handlebars from the front of the bike. It’s suspension, but rather than being accommodated within the fork, it’s squeezed in between the stem and headtube. It works well but remains a bit odd nonetheless.
However, whatever else the Diverge is, it’s certainly efficient. In fact, for better maintained yet still unmetalled roads it’s hard to name a faster or more comfortable bike. Really a proper gravel racer, it’s less happy being pushed towards bikepacking or trail-going duties, so I guess pick your poison and make your choice.
Open Cycle U.P.P.E.R.
From €4,500, Shop Open
Former Cervelo and 3T designer and maker of very pointy aerodynamic bicycles Gerard Vroomen is now one half of the team behind Open Cycle. Now focused on a different set of priorities, Open makes a small range of bicycles focusing on versatility, comfort, and user-friendliness.
One of the first firms to launch a bike aimed solely at what would become the gravel segment, its U.P.P.E.R. might now not enjoy such an uncrowded marketplace, but it’s still a fantastic example of the gravel bike genre. Launching many much-copied design features, these include clearance for 40c tyres, a dropped drive-side chainstay to keep your crank’s q-factor correct while accommodating such large treads, plus snack-box mounts on the top tube.
Created from posh carbon fibre, it’s light too, weighing just 880g for a medium frame plus 370g for the fork. Being custom, you’ve also got the option to build the bike up exactly as you’d like, potentially with a little steering input from the brand itself.
3T Exploro RaceMax
From £4,399, Shop 3T
Another bike that owes its existence to Gerard Vroomen. When launched in 2016, the radical Exploro was the only gravel bike to give aerodynamics anything more than a cursory nod. However, driven by the belief that a lone rider beset by high plains’ headwinds is as valid a candidate for aero-optimisation as any time trialist, now everyone’s on-board with the idea.
A couple of iterations in, this new RaceMax version is unsurprisingly the quickest of the lot. For a bike that either slickly integrates or neatly tucks its attributes and components, the Exploro is nevertheless an extremely versatile bike. One of the few gravel bikes that markets itself as being competent on road too, it’s as happy being built up with slick 30c tyres as it is with being pointed at the dirt atop knobbly 40c wide models.
You can also go even wider and sling in a set of 650b wheels if that’s your bag. And while 3T has pioneered the use of single chainring drivetrains on this style of bike, there’s still the ability to run a conventional double chainset should you prefer.
Canyon Grail CF SL
From £2,649, Shop Canyon
While having twin handlebars might seem like being weird for the sake of it, Canyon’s Grail solves a real problem. Ride over any bumpy surface for too long and your hands will start to complain. Do it all day, and by the end, they’ll be screaming.
The Grail’s floating handlebar therefore aims to allow a greater degree of flex when riding on the top of the bar. Its lower brace then has the happy second benefit of stiffening the whole assemblage when riding on the drops. Resulting in a cockpit that’s comfy, yet still great for sprinting or muscling through rough sections, get the right size and you’ll be onto a winner.
Canyon’s direct-to-consumer model also means its bikes all tend to be great value. Translating into above-average groupsets and deep-section carbon wheels on all but the cheapest versions, the Grail is light, aggressive, and not too expensive, plus it’s got secret mudguard eyelets. So, while its angular looks and unusually handlebar may divide opinion, its ride, pricing, and practicality are more likely to be universally appreciated.