Off-road, on-road, adventure trip or after work ride – you’ll only reach bike Nirvana if you’ve experienced all the horrors of road cycling. But which is the best bike on which to escape the rat race? Do you really need a gravel bike, a cyclocrosser, a mountain or an endurance bike? We tested 12 of the latest models to give you the answer.

  Move bitch, get out the way! […] I’m doin’ a hundred on the highway
So if you do the speed limit, get the FUCK outta my way”

Ludacris – Move Bitch, an anthem for disrespectful drivers everywhere

Riding your road bike on an actual road can be proper shit sometimes. Your dreams of perfectly surfaced, traffic-free mountain passes suddenly turn into a nightmare of raging tachycardia. It’s rush hour, you’re surrounded by metal boxes, and the erratic sounds of honking horns punctures your eardrums as hundreds of cars pass you at outrageous speeds, splashing sludgy water into your eyes. We’re the toughest bunch when climbing legendary mountain passes with the sole power of our legs. But we’re also the most vulnerable when fighting for space on busy roads protected only by thin lycra outfits. Roadies are switched-on and strong willed, but there’s nothing they can do when an avalanche of metal surprises them from behind. The solution is as simple as it is obvious.

A road bike to leave the road behind? – is this a bicycle revolution?

For many of us gravel isn’t just hype or a trend to jump on, but a pragmatic solution to the many problems we face as road cyclists on a daily basis. We could see this as a revolution. Or simply as going back to our roots. It’s not surprising that this trend comes from the U.S., land of massive cars and reckless drivers who often seem happy to push cyclists off the road. Tragic headlines appear time and again. The fear of being run over is real – just like a line from Ludacris’s song Move bitch, get out the way “I’m D. U. I., hardly ever caught sober and you about to get ran the FUCK over”. Some battles aren’t worth fighting anymore. Especially when true paradise may actually be closer than you’d expect. Hidden in plain sight of most riders will be networks of field paths, forest roads, and secret trails just waiting to be discovered. Both the early heroes of the Tour de France who competed on unmade roads and today’s pros who tackle the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix are proof that drop-bar racing bikes indeed belong on terrain other than tarmac.

The test field – what is a gravel bike?

The actual question should be: what sort of bike do I need for a gravel trip? The definition of gravel is as broad as the applications to which you could put one of the bikes featured here. That’s why we gathered 12 of the most exciting concepts in one big group test to help you get an ultimate overview. Our test field includes steel, titanium, aluminium, and carbon bikes – covering everything from an € 11,000 custom steed to a bog-standard € 1,700 rig. We saw fat mountain bike tires, grippy cyclocross tires, and narrow semi-slick rubber, along with suspension elements, pannier mounts, and dyno-hub powered light systems.

Bike Weight (without pedals) Frame material Tires Price
Festka One Gravel 7.80 kg Carbon 700 x 28 mm € 4,490 (frameset)
Legor Cicli LWTUA 9.35 kg Steel 27.5″ x 2.2″ € 3,170 (frameset)
Merida Silex 9000 8.04 kg Carbon 700 x 35 mm € 3,600
Moots Routt RSL 8.13 kg Titan 700 x 35 mm € 4,684 (frameset)
Open U.P. 7.68 kg Carbon 700 x 40 mm € 3,200 (frameset)
Rondo Ruut CF2 8.98 kg Carbon 700 x 35 mm € 2,999
Salsa Cutthroat Force 1 9.81 kg Carbon 29″ x 2.1″ € 4,499
Specialized Diverge Comp 9.21 kg Carbon 700 x 30/32 mm € 2,999
Specialized Sequoia Elite 11.71 kg Steel 700 x 42 mm € 1,899
Trek Crockett 7 Disc 8.51 kg Aluminium 700 x 32 mm € 3,299
Trek Procaliber 9.9 SL RSL 9.02 kg Carbon 29” x 2.2” € 7,999
Votec VRX Elite 8.06 kg Aluminium 700 x 35 mm € 2,599

*Why are there two Specialized bikes in our test field? The Sequoia and the Diverge are both popular bikes among our readers and their abilities overlap. We wanted to find out the differences to help you make your decision.

Festka One Gravel | 7.80 kg | € 4,490

Legor Cicli LWTUA | 9.35 kg | € 3.170

Merida Silex 9000 | 8.04 kg | € 3,600

Moots Routt RSL | 8.13 kg | € 4,684

Open U.P. | 7.68 kg | € 3,200

Rondo Ruut CF2 | 8.98 kg | € 2,999

Salsa Cutthroat Force 1 | 9,81 kg | 4,499 €

Specialized Diverge Comp | 9.21 kg | € 2,999

Specialized Sequoia Elite | 11.71 kg | € 1,899

Trek Crockett 7 Disc | 8.51 kg | € 3,299

Trek Procaliber 9.9 SL RSL | 9.02 kg | € 7,999

Votec VRX Elite | 8.06 kg | € 2,599

Why is our test field this broad?

We are known for thinking outside the box, breaking boundaries, and refusing categories. After all it’s easily possible that a bike you wouldn’t have considered for a defined purpose at first glance will actually suit exactly that use. Restricting our test field would have been the same as only tasting beers while searching for the perfect drink….

Our test loop: What exactly is gravel and where can I ride?

Contrary to the adverts and cool videos that feed us images of epic Icelandic adventures, wild west back country races, or sabbaticals in Patagonia to get us hooked on gravel, we see the main potential in normal after-work rides and day trips. For this reason we picked a compact but diverse 25 km test course which runs around our headquarters near Stuttgart. Here we were able to compare all bikes directly. The test course included flowy technical singletrack, gravel paths, cobbled sections, and roads with different types of tarmac. The track was completed by a steep 17 % gradient climb that fried our legs, a steep downhill section which challenged even the toughest mountain bikers among us, and a high-speed segment which pushed the riding composure of some bikes to the limit.

Test criteria: maximum riding fun!

Confidence, comfort, and the ability to attack any sort of terrain are essential virtues for a gravel bike. Depending on personal preference and intended use, criteria like speed for fast laps, adaptability for multi-day adventures, and all-round equipment for commuting play a crucial role too. Data fetishists and weight weenies might hate us for this, but our most important criterion was an emotional, subjective, and not objectively measurable one – riding fun!

What does riding fun mean? – Our test crew tells us

Robin, Entrepreneur, Ex-MTB Worldcup rider, bon vivant
“Unwinding, experiencing nature, and enjoying time with your mates – I want a bike that allows me to leave my watch at home and enjoy the time. That’s why it needs to be capable of everything. An integrated lighting system gives me the freedom to return home way after the sun has gone down – in case another cool blonde joins the mid-ride evening beer…”
Hannah, Podcaster, Ironman-finisher, pedal prancer
“When riding a gravel bike, I want to steal back time to when I was a child. I want an agile bike that not only offers comfort but is predictable, so when I’m flying down rocky, technical descents it gives me the confidence to tackle them with a smile. Freedom is riding fun.”
Manuel, Engineer, Paris-Roubaix-Expert, gourmet
“No rules, on a constant search for new directions and ready for new stuff – I expect a gravel bike to be eclectic and fast enough to stimulate my riding creativity rather than taming it. As a hard-core mile guzzler I also want to be able to feel the speed endorphins running through my veins when riding on tarmac. Riding fun starts in your head!”
Ben, Viking, Crit-Racer, gravel god
“The term gravel includes a huge group of people, from Lycra wearers using watt-meters to unshaved gipsy riders who just circled the globe. Hormone therapy and peace pipes have never come this close. My motto: always full steam ahead! That’s why I need a robust bike that’s simple and agile enough to have fun with.”
Andreas, South America conqueror, designer, pro overnighter
“It’s like gravel bikes have been created for light bikepacking. Comfort, standard components, enough mounting options for bottle holders and a large frame triangle for bag room are some essential criteria for longer trips with more than one night overstay. Steel and titanium frames are ideal for long and rough hours in the saddle, but with a little caution and frame protection carbon can often offer more comfort and lower weight.”
Duck, experienced naturalist
Quak quack quack, Quaak.
Quack quak quak Quack quack,
Quaak-quak.
Quak.

Tops & Flops

Often small details can make a huge difference: seamless integration, first-class ergonomics and carefully selected parts. Easier said than done – here are some of the tops and flops from this group test.

Tops

Single-speed? No problem! The horizontally adjustable dropouts make it possible.
Men’s envy: the Salsa Cutthroat has a six pack on its carbon body and wins our beer carrying contest. With its confidence inspiring manners the Salsa can really wear it.
Necessary evil: The SONdelux dyno hub supplies the superb Supernova lighting system with electricity. Unfortunately you can really notice the extra 250 g weight up front.
The undisputed King of Gravel: The Panaracer Gravel King SK surprised us with superb traction and excellent cornering combined with good rolling resistance on even terrain – the best tire in test.
Ready for the future: You could fit a seat dropper if you wanted to and route the cables internally – another great example of Votec’s attention to detail.
Mattia combines Shimano Ultegra Di2 levers with a Shimano XT group – the combo works impeccably and the shifting logic is similar to the SRAM Red eTap. The brakes are Shimano XTR.

Flops

The Tufo Comtura Duo 28 mm tires are not suitable for use on gravel and restrict the Festka’s off road ambitions.
Unattractive and annoying: the routing causes a big cable loop which can get in the way of your knees when sprinting. Internal cabling only makes sense if entry and exit points are correctly designed.
Only high-quality steel can offer a contemporary performance. Compared to the expensive Expert model, the Specialized Sequoia Elite in our test comes with a cheaper tube set: we noticed a difference not only in weight, but also in handling and precision.
The slender bottom bracket is extremely stiff and offers maximum acceleration. Unfortunately the rear end leaves very little tire clearance, which isn’t ideal for a gravel bike and limits use of the Festka to fair weather rides.

What’s the best gravel bike?

Even though there isn’t a universally accepted definition for gravel bikes, there is one clear winner in our test. Encapsulating all the most important criteria: riding pleasure, confidence, versatility, and comfort – our winner is the Open U.P. Thanks to a major frame update, this gravel pioneer can still prove itself against the strong competition and impresses with fantastic riding performance. Only available as a frameset (€ 3,200) it can be built in a variety of ways depending on the intended use.

Our “best in test” is closely followed by the Votec VRX Elite, which bagged our popular “best value” badge. With an affordable but very well-designed aluminium frame, superb riding characteristics, and an impeccable high-quality spec its € 2,599 price tag provides an unbeatable price to performance ratio.

For riders with special requirements we have three more interesting options:

If you have your own ideas of how a steel frame should be, take a closer look at the custom options from Legor Cicli in Barcelona. The LWTUA convinced us with the best components and proved that the pragmatic know-how of a frame builder is priceless.

The adventurers among us will be delighted with the Salsa Cutthroat Force 1, which not only offers room for a six pack, but is also ready for adventure thanks to its racing-tractor feel. Crossers and speed freaks will find the Trek Crockett 7 Disc to be the perfect compromise. From the quick evening spin to the occasional weekend cyclocross race, it’s all doable. Even if the frame is missing some love in the details.

Data fetishists and weight weenies might hate us for this, but our most important criterion was an emotional, subjective, and not objectively measurable one – riding fun!

All bikes in test: Festka One Gravel | Legor Cicli LWTUA | Merida Silex 9000 | Moots Routt RSL | Open U.P. | Rondo Ruut CF2Salsa Cutthroat Force 1 | Specialized Diverge Comp | Specialized Sequoia Elite | Trek Crockett 7 Disc | Trek Procaliber 9.9 SL RSL | Votec VRX Elite

This article belongs to the GRAN FONDO Issue #006. For the full interactive experience we recommend reading it in our magazine app for iPhone & iPad – it’s awesome – and free!

Words: Robin Schmitt, Manuel Buck, Benjamin Topf, Hannah Troop Photos: Valentin Rühl