What are the differences between gravel and cyclocross bikes? Do gravel bikes need suspension? Are mountain bikes secretly the better gravel bikes? Our comparison test included 12 gravel models and gave us many exciting results and insights: here are the seven most important.

Head to our Gravel Group Test for an overview of the test fleet: Which is the best gravel bike of 2018? We put 12 of the most exciting to test

1. Gravel is more than cyclocross

Even if there isn’t an exact definition for gravel bikes, our test made it clear that differences between gravel and cyclocross bikes can be huge. Cyclocross rigs are racing machines and therefore more aggressive, compact, and agile. Gravel bikes on the other hand are designed for touring, outdoor experiences, riding fun, adventure or even just everyday use. This means gravel bikes have to be versatile, comfortable, and safe. A less aggressive geometry is essential to vouch for a safer and smoother ride. Mounting options for panniers, bottle cages, and mudguards are just as crucial as comfort-lending details and a certain flexibility when it comes to tire choice. Many current gravel models give you the option of using either chunky 650b mountain bike tires, classic cyclocross or all-round tires.

2. The best gravel tire

Bigger 650b mountain bike tires don’t necessarily offer more traction or higher comfort than gravel or cyclocross tires. Due to their larger air volume, 650b tires with widths of up to 2.2” are significantly more sensitive to air pressure changes; if you don’t pick your optimal air pressure carefully you’ll end up with tires that feel spongy and sloppy on tarmac yet still bounce about on demanding terrain, all while offering poor amounts of traction. When inflated with an optimal air pressure though, the same tire will literally suck up any sort of unevenness and roll across gravel as smooth as a bowling ball down an alley.

In terms of traction and all-round characteristics, the Panaracer Gravel King, which is only 35 mm wide, has proven to be the best gravel tire: unbelievable amounts of grip, great riding precision, and a superb feeling of safety. Classic cyclocross tires offer similar features but usually feel too sloppy on tarmac because of their chunky cross country studs. All in all, tires and their profile have a huge impact on a bike’s off-road characteristics: the Festka One Gravel, which comes with classic treadless racing tires proved this point. After swapping the original tires with a pair of Schwalbe G-Ones, the Festka offered twice as much off-road fun and safety.

3. Frame materials are only half the truth

Aluminium, carbon, titanium or steel – the type of material frames are made of is significantly less important than the all-round concept of the bike. Aluminium is definitely the cheapest and best option when you’re after solid performance and still want to spare some money for a top-notch spec – see the Votec VRX Elite, our “Best Value” bike in this test. Titanium in itself is extremely expensive but also super sexy, as the Moots Routt RSL proves. When it comes to steel it’s important to choose high-quality (and expensive) tube sets, otherwise you just won’t get the sort of performance you’re looking for. The differences between the affordable Specialized Sequoia Elite, which uses a heavy and soft tube set and the significantly more expensive Legor Cicli, which features a custom Columbus tube set, were pretty big in terms of stiffness, precision, and weight.

There is carbon and carbon – and it comes with substantial differences in comfort, weight, and stiffness. That’s why a cheap carbon frame is often worse than a mid-priced aluminium frame. Even between high-end carbon frames there can be huge differences: our test winner the Open U.P. really impressed us with its carbon frame. Yet for an additional charge of € 1,300 you can take home an U.P.P.E.R. model, which comes with higher quality carbon fibre and a modified layup, saving 160 g without compromising the bike’s riding quality or safety characteristics.

Components are just as important as frame materials. A dampening cockpit can offer the necessary comfort for a bike that is in itself too stiff, just as a set of very stiff wheels can make an otherwise very comfortable bike with big 650b mountain bike tires, like the Legor Cicli, feel stiff and stubborn.

4. Do you need suspension?

The answer is no! Spring elements can provide comfort, but the right mix of components combined with a comfortable frame and the right set of tires with optimum pressure will give you just as much safety and control. Attenuation, the ability to reduce the severity of feedback from the terrain before it hits the rider, is crucial. After all, the job of suspension is not simply to move as much as possible, but to absorb energy.

5. What’s the best gravel group-set?

Our test field was heavily dominated by 1×11 SRAM drivetrains. The gear range of the Merida Silex with a 44 tooth chainring and a 11-42 cassette has 98% of the range of a 2×11 transmission with compact crank and 11-32 cassette. When compared to on-road use, the bigger gear steps in a 1x groupset are less relevant, as you’re less likely to ride with the same cadence over an extended period of time in an off-road scenario. The custom setup of the Legor is in a class of its own and includes a 1×11 Shimano XT rear derailleur, Ultegra Di2 shifters and a simple shifting logic similar to the SRAM eTap.

  … some of the bikes were noticeably better, leaving the mountain bike behind on gravel and flowy singletrack.

6. A mountain bike isn’t necessarily more powerful than a gravel bike

As reference we took the € 8,000 Trek Procaliber 9.9 SL Race Shop Limited and compared it against our gravel bikes. With a weight of 9,02 kg this XC mountain bike sits right in the middle of our comparison test, only with a 100 mm suspension fork and a flat-bar. Surprisingly it wasn’t able to beat the gravel bikes on a practical level. Especially when it came to precision, stiffness and cornering qualities, some of the bikes including the Open U. P. and the Trek Crockett 7 Disc were noticeably better and in some cases even more stable, leaving the mountain bike behind on gravel and flowy singletrack.

7. You are gravel

… or something like that. Fact is: you have to decide for yourself if you want to commute, go on adventures or ride fast laps away from the traffic. The range of gravel bikes on offer is huge and varied and fails to match a precise definition – and gravel is exactly a result of this sort of freedom. This means: you can, and definitely should define your own idea of gravel. Gravel is like enduro in mountain biking – it’s more of an attitude to life than a bike category.

Head to our Gravel Group Test for an overview of the test fleet: Which is the best gravel bike of 2018? We put 12 of the most exciting to test

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Words: Robin Schmitt Photos: Valentin Rühl