How to choose your first gravel bike?
Are you ready to ride everywhere, try out the trails and head off on an adventure? Then you’ve come to the right place!
A gravel bike is the ultimate adventure bike, used by leisure riders and competitors alike as well as being ideal for bike packing trips and journeys thanks to its adaptability.
Theres hundreds of makes and models with loads of choices, so it can be hard to know where to start. So here’s some things to take into account when choosing the right bike for you:
1. Which frame?
First things first, getting the right frame for the riding that you plan to do is crucial.
If comfort is your highest priority, then an aluminium or steel frame is ideal. They are also very robust and more easily repairable for a longer bike trip where there might be less bike shops than you are used to at home. They are also more forgiving than a carbon frame and often cheaper, but are less used at competition level.
Those who are looking for more performance or for whom weight (or lack of it!) is important a carbon frame is probably your first choice. They are generally light and responsive, ideal if you’d like to ride the bike on road a fair amount as well as on the trails. The bike will feel more like a road bike, even on sustained climbs.
A gravel bike will generally have a taller headset with an angled top tube to give a more relaxed riding position, even on rocky tracks.
Disc brakes are a given, you will find mostly hydraulic and occasionally cable operated for better feel, more stopping power and reliability in all conditions. This is very much needed in some of the off road descents!
2. Which transmission?
Fist of all, what is the transmission?! Its also called the groupset and is made up of:
A front and rear derailleur back to change gears
2 brake either hydraulic or cable operated
The crankset - the pedals, the crank arms and the chainring (s)
the bottom bracket, where the crank arms connect
the cassette - all the gears on the back wheel
Added to that are the gear cables and their outer protective casings (or wires/wireless and small batteries for electronic gears!), and the hydraulic hoses for the brakes. There’s a lot of choice in terms of which groupset for all budgets and levels.
The more you pay the lighter they are and the gear shifting will be slightly crisper. Lighter isn’t always better though as it will wear out faster. All the modern setups work well and are reliable.
At the top end of the market you’ll find up to 13 gears at the back and either a single chainring or a compact double. At the lower end of the market you’ll find double or even triple front chainrings and between 8-10 gears at the back.
The gearing! It’s the difference between the number of teeth front and back that makes an easier or harder gear. The smaller the front ring and the larger the back ring makes for an easier gear and these are expressed as gear ratios.
A fast bike for riding mostly on the flat would have 40T at the front and 10/33T at the back. And for a bike that’s good on the steep hills with a wide range of gears would have a 42T chainring and 11/52T at the back.
Single chainrings (like SRAM Eagle) are ideal for gravel riding and bike packing trips as there is less to go wrong and it’s simple. The gearing would be either 38 or 42T at the front and 11/42T at the back, giving a wide range of gears to deal with whatever your route throws at you! The Wish One SUB and Quests and the 3T Exploros that we use are perfectly adapted to the terrain on our trips with this set up.
Double chainrings can give you smaller jumps between gears making it easier to find your perfect cadence, with is good for longer trips or on the flat, such as the Canyon CF SL 6. Triples give you a lot of crossover gears and less useful gears.
3. Which tyres?
The never-ending question! These make all the difference on a gravel bike, where you rely on your tyres for grip and comfort.
The first decision to make is between tubeless (no inner tubes) or standard with inner tubes. Both have their positives and negatives, however more and more people are riding tubeless as you can ride with lower tyre pressures due to less risk of impact punctures, thanks to the sealant inside the tyre. This means you gain in grip and comfort, crucial on long off road descents with no suspension on your bike.
However if the hole in the tyre is big you’ll lose all the sealant, make a real mess and need to use an inner tube anyway. The tyre is also tighter on the rim making repairs harder.
Gravel bikes can accommodate much larger tyres than a road bike, often between 30 and 45mm and with different tread patterns for different conditions and terrain. If you like speed and ride smooth surfaces staying near the feel of a road bike, choose 30mm. However you’ll be less able to deal with more technical terrain. If you’ll be riding mostly on rockier more techie terrain choose a wider tyre with good nobbles on the outsides for more grip.
In a nutshell your tyre choice needs to be adapted to the riding you’ll be doing and as always it’s a compromise!
4. Which panniers/saddle bags etc?
Most gravel bikes have attachment points for pannier racks on the front and back forks, as gravel riding is all about the adventure! Don’t panic if your not planning to carry much kit, you won’t notice the points and its good to have them as you never know in the future…
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