Gravel tracks, tarmac, multi-day tours or post-work rides – freedom on two wheels is only complete when your bike isn’t at its limit and happily acts as your partner in crime for no questions asked riding fun. But is it gravel, cyclocross or all-road bikes that guarantee those good times? We tested 14 of the most exciting models available.
Riding on the road can be pretty dire at times. The dreams of traffic-free, perfectly tarmacked mountain roads all too often shatter when we’re forced to weave around metal boxes during rush hour with a cacophony of impatient horns and countless red lights raising our heart rate. The planned training ride quickly turns into a battle for your bit of space on the road as you try to escape the traffic. While a little tolerance and sympathy on both sides might help treat some of the symptoms of this hectic traffic, it’s usually more effective to go right to the root of the problem. And that doesn’t have to be complicated – in fact, it’s actually quite simple to do.
Table of Contents
- Back to the future: road riding becomes just riding
- What did we test?
- Where did we do the testing?
- Who did the test and how do they define a good ride?
- How did we do the testing?
- The best gravel bike 2020
- The best affordable gravel bike
- The competitors
- Tops and Flops of the gravel bikes
Back to the future: road riding becomes just riding
Hardly any brands have missed out on the chance to add an off-road capable drop bar bike to their lineup in recent years. The range of options on offer goes all the way from all-road to back-road, through gravel and cyclocross, all the way to adventure and expedition – whatever all these expressions and definitions may mean. But the thing is, these solutions aren’t just hypes and trends but offer practical solutions to many problems that we have to face on a daily basis as road riders, as well as providing the means to expand our riding horizons. You could equally see it as a form of time travel – a return to the roots of cycling when there wasn’t the stress, performance pressure or need to produce watts or be aero. Instead, you could just go out and ride. Gravel might not always be ridden on gravel, but the category stands exactly for this kind of riding – for the enjoyment of just riding on two wheels without an agenda.
According to the European Road Safety Observatory, the number of traffic collisions involving cyclists has remained stubbornly at the same level over the last years. There are sure to be many different reasons for this, but as a rule, when it’s car versus scantily Lycra-clad cyclist, the latter will usually lose out. We’re not making a call to action here though. Sometimes, you have to pick your fights, especially when cycling paradise already exists and is often just a few pedal strokes away from the busy roads. While cycling infrastructure such as cycle paths is largely still waiting to be expanded, there’s already an almost limitless network of forest roads, bridleways and hidden paths that are waiting to be discovered.
Riding bikes with drop bars, off road. on gravel seems like a revolution. In some senses it is, but at the same time, the cycling heroes of the past rode just as much gravel in early editions of the Tour de France as they do today at races like the Strade Bianche or the Paris-Roubaix. Indeed, even the 2019 edition of the Tour put on a spectacle with its 24% climbs on unpaved roads up the Planche des Belles Filles. Regardless, gravel events are also becoming ever more popular internationally, but the attraction doesn’t just seem to be about hunting down the fastest times. Instead, it’s the unique flair and genuine sense of community amongst the participants that attract people, regardless of whether they’re an ambitious podium contender – assuming there is a podium at all – or adventurous hobbyist. All in all, a move from racing bikes, to just riding bikes. #goodtimes
What did we test?
As the concept of “gravel” is understood differently by every rider, each of whom expects to ride on different terrain and in a different way, we selected a very diverse test field. For this group test, we chose 14 exciting bikes that represent very different concepts, with an on-road:off-road bias ranging from between 80:20 to 10:90. We want to offer a comprehensive guide that helps you discover what kind of solutions are currently available and provides concrete advice on what kind of bike will suit your preferences and use case. That means you’ll find bikes equipped with everything from 700 x 32C to 650 x 54B tires and prices ranging from € 1,499 to € 11,299 in our test, featuring super-light carbon, versatile aluminium and solid steel framesets along with innovative suspension systems, luggage mounts, hydraulic shifting and even an ebike.
|Argon 18 Dark Matter
|Rotor 1×13 with 2InPower power meter||WTB Nano 700x40C||€ 6,000 1|
|Cannondale Topstone Carbon Ultegra RX (watch review)||8.73 kg
|Shimano ULTEGRA R8000 with ULTEGRA RX derailleur||WTB Riddler 700x37C||€ 3,799|
|Canyon Grail AL 7.0
|Shimano 105 R7000||Schwalbe G-One Bite TLE 700x40C||€ 1,499|
|SRAM Force eTap AXS||Donnelly X’Plor MSO TR 700x40C||€ 6,000|
|Giant Revolt Advanced Pro
|SRAM Force eTap AXS||MAXXIS Velocita 700x40C||€ 4,499|
|Kona Libre AL
|SRAM APEX||WTB Riddler 700x45C||€ 1,899|
|Liteville 4-ONE Mk1
|Shimano GRX 800||Schwalbe G-One All-Round TLE 700x40C||€ 4,480|
|SRAM Force eTap AXS with SRAM Eagle eTap AXS derailleur||Schwalbe G-One Bite TLE 650x54b||€ 7,100 2|
|Pivot VAULT Team Force
|SRAM Force eTap AXS||MAXXIS Rambler EXO TR 700x40C||€ 6,699|
|ROSE Backroad GRX RX810 Di2
|Shimano GRX RX810 Di2||Schwalbe G-One All-Round TLE 700x40C||€ 3,199|
|Santa Cruz Stigmata CC
|SRAM Force eTap AXS with SRAM Eagle eTap AXS derailleur||MAXXIS Ravager 700x40C||€ 6,199|
|Specialized Turbo Creo SL Expert EVO (watch review)||13.34 kg
|Shimano Deore XT Di2||Pathfinder Pro 2Bliss Ready, 700x38C||€ 8,499|
|SRAM Force eTap AXS||WTB Exposure 700x32C||€ 4,299|
|Trek Domane SLR 9 eTap
|SRAM RED eTap AXS||Bontrager R3 TR, 700x32C||€ 11,299|
As you can see, we’ve selected one or two left-field options and haven’t let ourselves be pigeonholed by labels and categories. That wouldn’t only result in an incomplete test, but wouldn’t correspond to reality – because most riders just want to find an off-road capable bike with drop bars. If we limited our search for the best gravel bike to just certain wheel sizes, frame materials, prices or drivetrain concepts, it would be just as fruitless as finding the best wine based on the highest alcohol content. Perhaps a fun experiment for us but it wouldn’t lead to any meaningful results…
You didn’t find the gravel bike that interests you? Here are all the gravel bikes we’ve tested in the last few years that haven’t found their way into our current comparison test: DARE GFX S8 | Canyon Grail CF SLX 8.0 Di2 | CENTURION Backfire Carbon 4000 | GHOST ENDLESS ROAD RAGE 8.7 | Lauf True Grit | MERIDA MISSION CX 8000 | ROSE BACKROAD ULTEGRA Di2 | SCOTT Addict Gravel 10 | Festka One Gravel | Legor Cicli LWTUA | Merida Silex 9000 | Moots Routt RSL | Open U.P. | Rondo Ruut CF2 | Salsa Cutthroat Force 1 | Specialized Diverge Comp | Specialized Sequoia Elite | Trek Crockett 7 Disc | Trek Procaliber 9.9 SL RSL | Votec VRX Elite
Where did we do the testing?
Hidden gravel tracks far from civilisation and rough dirt paths across the steppes of Kyrgyzstan are often the setting for breathtaking marketing images that portray the feeling of freedom that gravel can give us. But you can find those “groads (gravel roads) less travelled” closer to home too. To get to the GRAN FONDO gravel testing grounds, we didn’t have to travel across continents. Instead, it was merely 2.5 hours by car. The destination: Franken, Germany in Northern Bavaria, or, more specifically the gravel paradise of Haßberge!
During our test, we were guests at Brauhaus 3. An ideal starting point for Gravel fans and connoisseurs!
Situated between Schweinfurt and Bayreuth, this sparsely populated region of Bavaria offers seemingly limitless gravel, along with some of the best German beer and wine. On the border between Lower and Upper Franken, our 20 km loop provided everything we needed to test the bikes: the finest gravel, loose ground, country lanes, singletrails, merciless cobblestones, broken-up roads and car-free asphalt.
Who did the test and how do they define a good ride?
How did we do the testing?
Secure handling and a good balance of all-round characteristics define gravel bikes just as much as good comfort for long hours spent in the saddle! In order to be equipped for different riding conditions and terrain, the bike should feel light-footed and agile for quick post-work blasts, as well as offering sufficient adaptability for multi-day adventures or the everyday commute. The ideal gravel bike has to keep on performing day in, day out, but it has to do so in style – the overall quality and finish of the bike are also important. These criteria combined eventually sum up to the most important factor of all: the elusive riding experience! Lab test fetishists may quizzically ask whether that can even be measured. Our clear answer is, yes it can. Below, we look at the individual assessment criteria in a bit more detail:
Security, control and trust…
… are especially important when you leave smooth surfaces behind and head out to discover the unknown. An easy to control bike doesn’t only help the rider to get to their destination in a more relaxed way, but lets them enjoy the journey and concentrate on the experience rather than just making it around the next corner. Stable and intuitive handling, and easy to modulate brakes are just as important as balanced weight distribution and having enough grip in all conditions. In addition, the bike needs to be resilient and reliable. It’s only if you can rely on your equipment 100% that you can go out on an adventure and get to your destination safely without any doubts or niggles.
In terms of handling, we pay close attention to how agile a bike is on a scale from playful/lively to stable/sluggish. Do fast direction changes result in a feeling of instability or unsettle the bike? How does the bike react to the rider’s steering inputs and how does the bike’s cornering change on different surfaces? A good gravel bike offers a good balance of agility and stability. The input from the rider should be translated directly to the bike, without it becoming nervous. That requires a clever balance of weight distribution, riding position, geometry and stiffness of the frame which all help define the characteristics of the bike.
Acceleration and speed
Whether you’re setting off from the brewery, sprinting up a slope or making a high-speed attack on the dirt track, a nimble bike propels you forward and leaves you with a smile on your face. Low rotational inertia (i.e. tires and wheels) is just as important as the weight distribution of the bike. The tires’ tread pattern also makes a significant difference. In addition, the bike shouldn’t just accelerate quickly but needs to be able to maintain its speed efficiently. After all, while you want to enjoy the great outdoors, sometimes you also want to cover larger distances. Similar to a road bike, the interplay between weight distribution and riding position is the deciding factor in a well rounded overall package. For example, a combination of aerodynamic rider and gravel bike with the higher moment of inertia of deep-section rims results in higher momentum but makes for slightly slower acceleration. At the end of the day, your personal preferences will play the biggest role here. Are you after a bit of carbon bling and high performance, or more interested in the robustness and reliability of metal?
Too much comfort, or a lack of it, can make your trip a nightmare no matter how nice the surroundings might be. It’s essential to understand where comfort is generated throughout the bike. We’re not talking about the ergonomics of contact points as these are subject to personal preference. Instead, the inherent comfort of the complete system is key. This comprises the damping provided by the tires and frame as well as the compliance of the parts chosen for the build. It’s not about maximum flex, but about generating a balanced level of comfort. For example, a stiff frameset can be tempered with high-volume tires, a compliant cockpit and comfortable wheels, while those same components would lead to a vague and undefined ride on a more compliant frameset. What’s important is that comfort comes from more than just one place. If an overall stiff setup relies on overly compliant wheels, that could in turn have a negative impact on the overall handling.
In addition, it’s important that compliant parts are also damped so that the gravel bike can provide suspension without the handling suffering. We want to see compliance that isn’t overly springy or uncontrolled. Undamped suspension usually leads to a situation where the bike tends to feel like it is bucking, demanding more attention and effort. The right level of comfort doesn’t only result in a more relaxing ride but means you stay fresher, more in control and have more reserves left for any tricky situations you might encounter.
Look und finish
Hand on heart: road bikers are vain creatures. We’re not just talking about the stylish jerseys and socks that flit across your social feeds, but also the dress codes of all the Velominati, Club riders and weekend warriors. That’s all good and well, but in that vein, a bike should combine an aesthetic look with a coherent build and well-considered components to score highly! Ultimately, we feel that good design results in more time spent riding, and if you spend more time in the saddle you’ll be a happier person. The scientific proof is provided in our next point.
Riding good times
“More is more” has to be the motto here. To find the exact, mathematically determined level of good times, we got out our magnifying glass and calculator, took some measurements and carefully analysed the results:
(Laughter lines + Tears of joy)
(Mud flecks on teeth)²
Easy! Einstein would be proud of the Goodtime-Gravelativity theory.
The best gravel bike 2020 – Liteville 4-ONE MK1
After more than 2,000 km of riding, we’ve reached the end: rien ne va plus! In the end, the Liteville 4-ONE Mk1 won out against the competition and secured our coveted Best in Test. Why? The modern concept of the 4-ONE is clearly influenced by the mountain bike heritage of the brand. The long reach, slack head angle and large wheelbase creates a lot of stability, yet offers good agility thanks to the ingenious geometry and clever component choices. With its agile nature and efficient ride, it’s a fantastic all-rounder on and off the road!
- maximum riding fun with perfect handling
- composed and confidence inspiring ride
- clever features and innovative details
- engineering and finish
- limited comfort
The best affordable gravel bike – Canyon Grail AL 7.0
The GRAN FONDO Best Value Tip gets awarded to the Canyon Grail AL 7.0. Its versatile frameset is an ideal companion for the daily gravel grind or your bikepacking holiday. Along with its pleasantly balanced handling and thoughtful features, it also offers excellent value for money, which inevitably leaves us giving it the thumbs up. The more basic finish, along with the compact Shimano 105 50/34 t chainrings, which require significant power off road, are what ultimately cost it the top spot.
- balanced handling
- calm and stable ride
- numerous mounting points for accessories
- compact cranks require a lot of power on steep ramps
- comparatively sluggish acceleration
This year, our group test of 14 high-quality gravel bikes from some of the most exciting brands showed that a coherent concept is much more than just the sum of its parts. We again found that the development of an off-road-capable drop bar bike requires much more than just a frame with large tire clearances. But what does that mean for you? A bike with drop bars that is able to venture beyond paved roads is not automatically a gravel bike. Cyclocross or road bikes might sometimes be able to fit over-dimensioned tires but that’s not enough. It’s essential that the bike’s geometry is adjusted to suit the specific demands of gravelling.
What might be more surprising is that our group test showed that mountain bike brands are often better at optimising their concepts for the demands of the gravel market. Characteristics such as stability, a less stretched-out position and confidence-inspiring, predictable handling set them apart for an uncompromisingly fun ride on gravel! But if you think that only dedicated gravel-disciples with a mountain biking background can benefit from these designs, you’re mistaken! Experienced road bikers will also benefit if their gravel bike handles differently from their stiff, overly agile and super precise road bike. If you’re switching out tarmac for gravel paths, dirt tracks and forest roads, you’ll be confronted with new and unknown challenges. In order to stay in control through constantly changing ground, grip and terrain, a bike with more stability is key, regardless of whether you’re a road bike veteran, long-serving mountain biker, or a leisure rider!
If you’re riding your gravel bike 99% off road and want to travel deep into unknown regions, or even ride on mountain bike terrain, you should take a closer look at the OPEN WI.DE.. The progressive concept shifts the boundaries of what is possible and offers insane off-road performance for all the hardcore riders out there. But if gravel excursions are more the exception than the rule and you’re just looking for a comfortable bike that will take you quickly and comfortably from A to B, you should consider the Trek Domane SLR 9 eTap. And for all the bikepacking enthusiasts out there. We can only recommend the Kona Libre AL for its solid build and nigh-on infinite mounting points.
With such a diverse market, there is a gravel bike out there for everyone. While, that doesn’t mean that every gravel bike will be perfect for every person, if you’re honest with yourself about what you want and where you’ll be riding, you’ll be able to find the perfect steed to accompany you on many gravel adventures to come.
Tops and Flops of the gravel bikes
Often it’s the small details that make or break a design: successful integration, a first-class finish, innovative technology and cleverly chosen components. You can find all the tops and flops of the bikes in our gravel group test here.
All bikes in test: Argon 18 Dark Matter | Cannondale Topstone Carbon Ultegra RX | Canyon Grail AL 7.0 | Cervélo Áspero | Giant Revolt Advanced Pro Force | Kona Libre AL | Liteville 4-ONE MK1 | OPEN WI.DE. | Pivot Vault Team Force | ROSE BACKROAD GRX RX810 Di2 | Santa Cruz Stigmata CC | Specialized Turbo Creo SL Expert EVO | Standert Pfadfinder | Trek Domane SLR 9 eTap
Words: Benjamin Topf Photos: Robin Schmitt, Benjamin Topf