In search of the best gravel bike of 2021, we put 13 of the hottest models in a head-to-head test. How much does a good gravel bike cost? Which is the best model for me and which is the best all-rounder? In search of answers to these questions, we rode out over the horizon.
Table of content
- The testfield
- Where did we test?
- What makes a good gravel-bike?
- Who tested the bikes?
- The best gravel-bike in this test
- The competition
Just riding off into the distance without having to worry about whether your bike will be up to the task or not. This is becoming a priority for more and more riders and gravel bikes promise to do just that! As all-rounders, there’s almost no obstacle big enough to stop them, building a bridge between paved roads and natural terrain. We put the 13 most exciting models of the 2021 season to the test and found out which bike is the best all-rounder. In a segment as diverse as the gravel bike market, you’re guaranteed to find a model that suits you. However, you’ll have to be honest with yourself about what you need your bike for, as after navigating all the different categories, you’ll still find huge differences between bikes marketed for the same purpose. But do this and find the right bike, you’ll see a whole new world of possibilities open up before you. Fortunately, our group test is here to help make your decision a whole lot easier and explains in layman’s terms which bike will suit you.
Gravel is pure hype!
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a brand that hasn’t launched a new off-road bike with drop bars in recent times. The range of available models spans from all-road and back-road to gravel and cyclocross, to adventure and expedition, whatever that all may mean. However you interpret these buzz words, the fact is that there is more to gravel bikes than all this hype, offering pragmatic solutions to a lot of the problems that we as road cyclists encounter on a daily basis and allowing us to broaden our cycling horizons. This trend could also be described as a journey through time, a kind of return to the roots of cycling, when you rode without stress, the pressure to perform, the demands of wattage output or being aero. Even if the term “gravel” doesn’t do it justice, it represents casual and carefree pleasure on two wheels.
For a long time, it was enough for a bike brand to have one gravel bike in their portfolio. All of them claimed to be all-rounders. Although there were already significant differences between the individual brands’ interpretations of gravel at that time, a lot has changed recently: the market for gravel bikes is moving away from its “one-bike-to-do-it-all” mentality towards a more segmented approach. From gravel bikes for mountain bike trails to time trial gravel machines, you’ll find anything you can think of in the gravel universe. However, if you’re in the market for one of these bikes, this can be just as much a curse as it is a blessing! Suddenly, it no longer seems to be enough to want to ride a bike that will simply handle everything you throw at it on an adventure. Instead, you get the feeling that you have to be classified as either a gravel racer, pleasure cruiser, adventurer or commuter. However, specially optimised bike models do offer significant advantages for riders who focus on a specific discipline and know exactly what they want. If nothing else is clear, gravel is clearly no longer just hype but big business!
For us, gravel bikes are synonymous with a lightheartedness that is missing all too often these days. As a lifestyle and attitude toward cycling without barriers, prejudices and pseudo-regulations. Gravel bikes are meant to be vehicles of escape, which allow you to realise your full potential, performing just as well on your local 12 km gravel loop as on an epic adventure in the Dolomites. Together with our readers, we want to celebrate this aspect of gravel riding. The fact that there is so much hype around it is a good thing!
The test field – Which bikes did we test?
Or, more precisely, which selection of bikes constitute the best gravel all-rounders of 2021? Even before the group test, we racked our brains figuring out which models would actually have a chance of winning the title, which is how we got to the bikes in this test field. In our opinion, they constitute some of the best gravel bikes currently on the market. It was just as crucial for us to invite the brands that are of most interest to our readers, which you tell us about through our annual reader survey. In addition, we decided to include some exotic brands such as Ritte, Fustle and ARC8, which, due to their uniqueness and special features, make for a refreshing addition to the rest of the test field.
As you can see, the test field includes two aluminium bikes, the Fustle Causeway and the ROSE BACKROAD AL, and even one made of steel, the Ritte Satyr. While the remaining bikes use a carbon frameset, they still differ significantly in their geometries, aerodynamic optimisations, as well as stiffness and compliance. That’s not to mention differences in wheel configurations, groupsets and brake setups. Despite all this, the weights of the individual bikes range within a relatively narrow spectrum of 8.02 to 9.84 kg, averaging out at 8.76 kg.
The bikes weren’t the only ones put to the test. Our support car had to work just as hard to keep up. The list of SEIKEL’s refinements on the VW Crafter 35 4Motion is impressive: chassis lifted by 30 mm, rock sliders, continuous underbody protection, snorkel, transmission vent and 410 Nm torque. The perfect gravel support car? Check!
We’re allowed to dream, aren’t we?
Why are the gravel bikes on test so expensive?
This group test aimed to find the best all-round gravel bike. Accordingly, many of the brands sent us their flagship models to test, providing an insight into the latest developments in this segment. As a result, the average price of our test field is a considerable € 5,673. Are we being aloof and unrealistic? This year’s reader survey with well over 8,000 participants showed that our readers are looking to spend an average of € 4,162 on their next bike. Whether that is a lot or a little is for you to decide. Who are we to judge how much money you want to spend on your next bike? The fact is that some of the bikes on test come in at the mid-price range of the market and almost every bike in the test field is available as a more affordably specced model. To a certain extent, our test results allow us to make conclusions about the handling of the less expensive alternatives because their geometry remains the same regardless of the price point. However, you should be aware of the fact that some manufacturers such as Trek and Specialized use lower-end carbon construction for their more affordable models, which can affect the bike’s handling characteristics. Manufacturers such as 3T, OPEN and BMC offer the frames tested here in the same quality throughout, whether its a lower-end build or the frameset on its own. That aside, we would like to note two things at this point:
Sticking to a certain wheel size, material, groupset or price range in our search for the best gravel bike would be like trying to find the best wine by comparing the varieties with the highest alcohol content. Though we might have fun, the result wouldn’t mean anything…
We’re allowed to dream, aren’t we?
What does a good gravel bike cost?
Even if you want to hear a concrete sum at this point, unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. The demands and requirements of individual gravel bikes are too varied and disparate for that. But we can reassure you about one thing – you don’t have to spend the average price mentioned above to get a good bike for the gravel. You can read here in our detailed gravel bike buyers’ guide how much you have to pay to enter the world of gravel and what you should consider when buying a bike.
Where did we test?
We tested the bikes for this group test both on our gravel test track between Leonberg and Stuttgart and on the gravel slopes of the Dolomites. The aim was not to push the limits of what is possible on the bikes but to ride them all in the same conditions, allowing us to directly compare them with one another. The endless roads of the local farms surrounding the region of St. Vigil offer everything from coarse and loose gravel to roots and poorly maintained asphalt, while the climbs and descents are steep enough to test the limits of both man and machine. On the other hand, our local test track offers long, straight and compact gravel highways. Since we’ve already tested a large number of bikes in this region, we know what bikes should be capable of on these routes. Therefore, we could use the performance of other bikes not included in this test as a reference. Since we were looking for the best all-round gravel bike, we made sure to replicate the kind of conditions that most riders are likely to encounter. We rode the bikes in every kind of weather, through woods, along gravel highways and even down some trails, sometimes taking it easy and sometimes pushing the limits. We rode in the best, sunny and dry conditions as well as in the pouring rain and on correspondingly soggy ground.
During our time in South Tyrol, we stayed at the Excelsior Dolomites Life Resort. Here, you’ll find everything that an athlete’s heart desires!
Our test criteria – What makes a good gravel bike?
“Born ready.” “Do-it-all.” “No limits.” A good gravel bike needs to be all of these things, ready to tackle whatever you throw in its path. It should offer a high level of stability and optimal all-round characteristics while remaining comfortable enough for long days in the saddle! To be suitable for a wide variety of uses, the bike should also be light and agile enough for a quick after-work lap and sufficiently adaptable for multi-day adventures or everyday commutes. Besides this, the ideal gravel bike shouldn’t only perform flawlessly but also score highly in terms of workmanship and style. If you’re going to do something, you might as well do it right. Right? But ultimately, that should all sum up to the overriding and most important criterion of all: having fun! Those looking for lab results may question whether this is something that can be measured. Luckily, the answer is a resounding yes. We’ve broken down the individual criteria below.
We paid attention to how agile the bikes are on a scale from lively/playful to stable/sluggish. Does the handling feel nervous when quickly changing direction or maybe even tend toward speed wobble? How does it respond to the rider’s input and how does the bike’s cornering behaviour change on different surfaces? A good gravel bike is characterised by a perfect balance between agility and composure. Its response to input from the rider should be direct without feeling nervous. The ideal recipe for this cocktail is a well-coordinated mix of geometry, weight distribution, riding position and torsional stiffness of the frameset. You will never taste just a single ingredient in a good cocktail!
Confidence, control and trust…
… are especially important the moment you veer off perfectly tarred surfaces and head off into the unknown. A bike that’s easy to control not only helps you reach your destination in a more relaxed manner but also helps you enjoy the ride more as you can take in the experience instead of having to concentrate on getting around the next bend. Intuitive handling and brakes that offer easy modulation are just as important as an even weight distribution on the bike and tires that offer sufficient grip whenever you need it. Of course, the bike should also be sturdy and reliable. It’s only when you know that you can rely on your bike to get you safely to your destination that you’ll have the confidence to head out into the unknown.
Too much compliance can turn any ride, no matter how beautiful the scenery, into a nightmare of vagueness. However, the same applies to unnecessarily stiff bikes that pass even the smallest irregularities on to the rider with zero damping. Therefore, the overall comfort played a crucial role in our assessment of each bike. We weren’t concerned with the ergonomics of contact points like the saddle, as this aspect always depends on personal preference. Instead, it’s the damping of the complete system that was important to us – the suppleness of the tires and how they interact with the frameset and the compliance of all components together. It’s not about maximum compliance but a balanced level of comfort. For example, a very stiff frameset with high-volume tires, a very compliant cockpit and forgiving wheels can work well together, while the same components on a very compliant frameset will result in undefined and spongy handling. Correspondingly, the bike’s comfort must stem from more than just one source. If, for example, an otherwise very stiff bike is paired with a very flexible handlebar or wheels, this can harm its handling.
Components that flex should also offer some form of damping. This allows a good gravel bike to effectively dampen impacts and vibrations without feeling undefined, offering just the right amount of flex without snapping back like a spring. If the bike flexes without being dampened, the bike will wobble and will strain the rider more than it will relieve them. With the right level of comfort, you’ll be more relaxed as you arrive at your destination, staying fresher for longer, with more energy available when things get technical, making it easier to stay in control. As such, the bike’s comfort has a direct influence on the rider’s wellbeing and, in turn, the feeling of confidence, control and trust.
Acceleration and speed
Regardless of whether you’re setting off from a café, during a short sprint to catch up or during a high-speed attack on a dirt road, a light-footed bike is a quick accelerating bike, which is a bike that makes you smile. For this, a low moment of inertia is just as important as the distribution of weight. The profile and rolling resistance of the tires play an important role too. The bike shouldn’t just accelerate quickly but also be able to hold its speed efficiently. Of course, you want to enjoy the scenery on a gravel ride but you’ll also want to have the option of traversing a region quickly if you feel like it. As with traditional road bikes, the overall package can only be coherent if the weight of the components is correctly distributed and the riding position is balanced. Ultimately, personal preference plays a major role in the choice of components: do you prefer a little more carbon bling and performance or are you more interested in the robustness and reliability of metal?
Look and finish
Let’s be honest, who hasn’t caught themselves looking at their reflection in a shop window while on a bike ride to check whether their riding position is correct and they and their bike are looking good? Admittedly, some of us might be vainer than others and everyone has their own priorities, but one thing is certain, those who like the look of their bike are more likely to take it out for a ride and treat it with care. In turn, an important criterion in our assessment isn’t just that a bike is aesthetically appealing but also that the finish and workmanship are of high-quality and that every component harmonises with the rest of the build! Our hypothesis is this: the more sex appeal a bike has the more mileage it will get and the more endorphins will be flowing through your body as a result. The next criterion provides scientific proof of this fact.
Sometimes less is more, but here, more is definitely more. Having fun on the bike is a result of all of the criteria above and we regard it as the ultimate index of a bike’s quality! With Jonas in our editorial team, we are fortunate to have someone with a PhD in chemistry to help us in this assessment. However, since he didn’t think it practical to analyse each of our test riders’ dopamine, serotonin and endorphin levels after a ride, we’ve had to orient ourselves by the Theory of Gravelty, which we came up with for last year’s group test. Once again, it was time to get out the magnifying glass and slide rule:
(Laughter lines + Tears of joy)
(Mud flecks on teeth)²
Easy! Einstein would be proud of the Goodtime-Gravelativity theory.
Who tested and how do our testers define riding pleasure?
Tops and flops
Often it’s the small details that make all the difference: innovative technology, seamless integration, first-class workmanship and cleverly selected components. Here you will find all the tops and flops of the bikes from our big gravel bike group test.
Which is the best gravel bike?
Which bike is the new god of gravel? Our search for the best all-round gravel bike of 2021 took us to the top of gravel’s Mt. Olympus, from our local woods and the traffic of Stuttgart to the alpine gravel paths of the Dolomites. When we were done with our test rides, it was time for us to compare notes and discuss our findings and ultimately, we found a clear winner!
The best gravel bike of 2021:
In a head-to-head race with the Specialized Diverge, the OPEN WI.DE. ultimately prevailed and won the test, having gone up against 13 of the hottest gravel bikes of 2021.
Why? The OPEN is the ultimate all-rounder and doesn’t have any significant weaknesses in any situation. Andy Kessler and Gerard Vroomen’s gravel bike offers a balanced level of compliance and damping, all without anyone having to invent a proprietary damping system. With its intuitive and balanced handling, all gravellers from beginners to professionals will get their money’s worth. After the bike didn’t deliver an entirely convincing performance in our previous group test due to its build with the 650 x 54B wheel setup, the updated specs of the limited Pistachio Edition OPEN WI.DE are 99.9% perfect. With a paint scheme designed by tire manufacturer Ultradynamico, this build will be long sold out by the time you read this, but you can find a detailed list of components in our review. Thanks to OPEN’s unpainted option, you can go full-custom with the look of your dream bike without being limited to the stock paint options. What more could a graveller want?
Our gravel Best Buy:
ROSE BACKROAD AL GRX RX600 1X11
The GRAN FONDO Best Buy goes to the ROSE BACKROAD AL GRX RX600 1X11. Priced at only € 1,799, you get a lot of bike for the money!
With its extremely stable handling and comfortable riding position, it shines not only on gravel excursions but also serves well as an everyday commuter thanks to bosses and eyelets for mudguards, bottle cages, racks and a stand. Occasional gravellers, multi-sport athletes who also have other hobbies, or gravellers on a budget will find a reliable bike with intuitive handling that instils you with confidence and feels comfortable both on- and off-road.
Bikes that can do everything well are far from perfect. Our test field also included a few models that don’t necessarily score so well as all-rounders but could be very interesting for readers with a more specific use in mind! Anyone looking for a high-performance gravel racer, who appreciates precise and direct handling, should take a closer look at the Specialized S-Works Diverge. Trend-setting technology meets sophisticated details and results in an overall concept that scores for its lively handling and comfort.
For all friends of gravity, Fustle offer the Causeway GRX600, a gravel bike with mountain bike genes. With its progressive geometry, robust construction and numerous mounting points, it is just as suitable for after-work trail rides as it is for bikepacking adventures in rough terrain.
Bikepacking with a gravel bike
Anyone who reads our issues or visits our website regularly is unlikely to have missed our group test of the best bikepacking bikes. With the Specialized Diverge and the ROSE BACKROAD, we’ve included two models in the gravel test field that also had to prove themselves there. As we found out during that test, every bike could be a bikepacking bike, but the devil, as is so often the case, is in the detail. If you want to find out more about bikepacking, we recommend taking a closer look at this article!
The loser of this group test
The Ritte Satyr enchanted us with its high-quality tubing and combination of classic design and modern features. Unfortunately, its performance doesn’t do justice to its looks and it is the clear loser compared to the strong competitive field of this test. Why? It has a prominent toe overlap issue, the bike as a whole lacks comfort, the tires lack grip and the tire clearance of the rear end is comparatively scant. We’re not saying that the Ritte is a bad bike per se and, for example, the Satyr cuts a fine figure as an all-road bike. For this purpose, it could be an excellent choice for some. However, measured against our gravel criteria, no other bike on test had such glaring weaknesses.
Words: Benjamin Topf Photos: Valentin Rühl