Champagne burns in your eyes, lactic acid courses through your legs, and on the podium perches the king of the desert: the best gravel race bike of 2023. We found out what to look for to make your gravel race dreams come true. To do so, we hosted our own world championships with 9 of the hottest gravel race bikes as the contestants. Ready, set, go!
- Gravel racing ≠ gravel racing
- The test field at a glance
- What makes a gravel race bike a gravel race bike?
- What makes a good gravel race bike?
- The tech details of the gravel race bikes
- Where did we test the gravel race bikes?
- Who tested the bikes?
- Which is the best gravel race bike of 2023?
- What did we learn?
Our aim has always been to present you with the most exciting and innovative gravel bikes in one comprehensive group test. The original gravel bike promise was the prospect of one bike that can do it all. But that’s changed and gravel bikes are no longer just gravel bikes.
After conquering woodland paths, gravel roads, commutes, and pilgrimages around the world, a new group has emerged from the pack of all-rounders, with ambitious intentions to storm the podiums of this new world. With the introduction of the first UCI Gravel World Championships 2022, the topic of gravel racing has arrived in the professional peloton. Organisers are developing race formats that let us taste the dust, and brands are developing new gravel race bikes that let us dream of victory.
You may be thinking, please, not another niche! But if there is room for endurance, all-road, aero and climbing bikes, then gravel racing is well-deserving of a spot. Because off-road is where the Wild West of drop bar riding begins: no rules, 1,000 types of gravel, mud, sand or hardpack, and millions of possibilities to let off steam. Gravel racing is a new world, and one which is emerging and expanding rapidly. A world full of open questions, myths, and misunderstandings. But if you want to keep up in this world, you’ll need a gravel race bike. So off we go, full steam ahead into the gravel race niche or, in this case, full steam ahead into the desert.
In typical GRAN FONDO fashion, we hosted our very own gravel world championships, letting 9 of the hottest gravel race bikes battle it out head-to-head. With the perfect mix of good vibes, big watts, and a supersonic bang. Admittedly, this didn’t come from us but from the Spanish Air Force, which flew manoeuvres and dropped bombs within a kilometre of our test track. The first realisation we had was that we couldn’t quite keep up with the fighter jets even on the fastest gravel race bike – perhaps we should have shaved our legs. The other realisations were:
- There are huge differences between the bikes, even in the gravel racing niche.
- Looks ≠ technology. Some bikes that looked similar were extremely different to ride, while some different-looking bikes were very similar!
- Aerodynamics adhere to more than just one law, or rather one approach: the test field included many very different technical concepts for aero optimisation.
- More fun = more motivation to push yourself = more performance.
But before we can choose the ultimate gravel race bike, there are a few fundamental questions left to answer. One of them is: what is gravel racing? What does it all come down to?
Gravel racing ≠ gravel racing
“You are criminals” – with this vicious insult towards the officials, Octave Lapize celebrated the first ascent of the Col d’Aubisque at the Tour de France in 1910. A climb of this magnitude was new territory back then, but the fact that it was a gravel road was no surprise. Most of the route was unpaved at the time. In fact, the Tour de France was a gravel race, though not by choice. Today, we have to go searching for gravel roads, to indulge in car-free extravaganzas far from the asphalt. Races such as BADLANDS, THE TRAKA or the Tuscany Trail challenge the mind, legs, and bike in very different ways.
The rebirth of gravel racing took place at the start of the new millennium on the dusty farm tracks of the American Midwest. Along endless corn and wheat fields, straight gravel roads go on for miles, until you eventually reach a 90-degree bend before carrying on straight ahead until the next turn. There are just as few long climbs as there are technical descents. A gravel race bike that excels in these conditions must be fast in a straight line. The queen of these one-day races is the UNBOUND (formerly Dirty Kanza). Everyone who competes here is a winner even before the first turn of the cranks. They’ve secured one of the coveted race numbers, putting them on the starting line together with the pros and setting off on a course that looks like it was designed by the creator of Pac-Man. The classic race is 200 miles.
Wind resistance is an issue here, but if you’re thinking of time trial bars, think again. As of 2023, these have been officially banned at the UNBOUND, and the UCI also puts a stop to aero antlers in its official gravel races.
While one-day events dominate the scene in the USA, and complete gravel racing series draw both hobbyists and pros from the road to gravel, multi-day ultra-endurance events shape the scene east of the Atlantic. The Tuscany Trail or BADLANDS in the south of Spain are gruelling self-supported gravel races, with climbs that make pros buckle at the knees, and descents that beg for the comfort of a suspension fork. Without precise handling and a certain degree of comfort, a race will quickly end in a visit to the orthopaedic doctor.
Since 2022, the UCI have also got involved in gravel racing. With their own race series and the UCI Gravel World Championships, the World Cycling Federation is trying to give gravel racing a new framework. The 194 kilometre World Championships course of 2022 wasn’t very technically demanding, with long sections of asphalt, attracting World Tour professionals on tuned road bikes
UNBOUND, BADLANDS, or UCI Gravel World Championships? The races and the requirements of the bikes are so different that there is no such thing as the one perfect bike for all scenarios and rider types. Therefore, we had our test bikes put through the wringer by 6 different riders along our unique GRAN FONDO gravel world championships course, bringing each of the bikes’ strengths and weaknesses to the light of the Spanish sun. This is how our course was designed:
Whether it’s a punchy one-day event or a multi-day altitude monster, pacing and heart rate monitoring eventually fade into the background. We love speed and want to experience that intoxicating feeling of the bike making us faster than our legs.
Mud is all well and good, but also dirty and annoying. That’s why we drove off to the desert, where we found the best gravel racing ingredients: fine gravel, hard-packed ground, sand, and dust. We want to hear the gravel crunching under our tires and see the dust settling behind us in the evening sun.
For us, mountains belong to gravel racing like gin belongs to tonic. We don’t care for carrying our bikes up rock faces, but there can’t be a gravel Olympus without at least some climbing.
We take bikes seriously. To a degree. We don’t need a cheque for the winner or a trophy to show off. We want to discover, experience, and explore our limits – our motivation is ourselves, the crew, and the race feeling. Ok, we admit, the champagne shower is pretty cool too!
And don’t worry, none of us will be running around in the UCI Gravel World Championships rainbow jersey anywhere in the near future. So, we aren’t just looking for a thoroughbred race bike, but also for bikes that you can ride fast on your post work jaunt. Spoiler alert: we found both!
The test field at a glance
|Argon 18 Dark Matter (Click for review)||SRAM Force eTap AXS||Hunt 42 Limitless Gravel Disc XDR||8.56 kg [M]||€ 6,950|
|Berria Belador Allroad 8 (Click for review)||SRAM Rivale eTap AXS||Mavic SLR 32 Disc||8.68 kg [M]||€ 3,999|
|BMC Kaius 01 ONE (Click for review)||SRAM Red eTap AXS||Zipp 303 Firecrest||7.72 kg ||€ 11,499|
|Canyon Grail CF SLX 9 eTap (Click for review)||SRAM Red eTap AXS||DT Swiss GRC 1100 Spline||8.28 kg [M]||€ 6,499|
|Factor OSTRO Gravel (Click for review)||SRAM Red eTap AXS||Black Inc Thirty Four||8.00 kg ||€ 9,799|
|Fara Cycling F/All-Road (Click for review)||SRAM Red eTap AXS||Fulcrum Aerbeat 400||7.88 kg ||€ 8,298|
|Ridley Kanzo Fast (Click for review)||Shimano GRX RX815 Di2||DT Swiss GRC 1400 Spline||8.76 kg [M]||€ 6,729|
|Specialized S-Works Crux (Click for review)||SRAM Red eTap AXS||Roval Terra CLX||7.27 kg ||€ 12,800|
|Trek Checkpoint SLR 9 eTap (Click for review)||SRAM Red eTap AXS||Bontrager Aeolus RSL 37V||8.28 kg ||€ 12,999|
|Ø 8.74 kg||Ø € 6.454|
What makes a gravel race bike a gravel race bike?
So, there they are, our 9 contenders for the gravel throne. But why did we choose these specific bikes and what makes a gravel race bike a gravel race bike?
There is a huge range of drop bar bikes in the various brands’ portfolios that all claim to be fast off-road. Here, cyclocross racers meet all-road bikes, and dedicated gravel race bikes meet adventure or bikepacking bikes. The boundaries between these concepts and geometries are fluid. Our test field runs the gamut of geometries, features and components that promise to make a bike fast. But that’s just theory, and it’s only on the gravel that the winning genes can prove their worth.
Gravel bike vs all-road bike
The all-road bike is the Swiss Army knife among road bikes. Robust frame, generous tire clearance – usually at least 35 mm – a relaxed riding position, and a few clever ideas to attach your luggage to the frame. The all-road bike is a hot candidate for longer bikepacking tours, it can accompany you to the office in inclement weather thanks to mudguard mounts, and it doesn’t leave you hanging in your local home-stretch sprint. It feels most comfortable on asphalt, but – and this is where things get exciting for our gravel race bike shootout – it doesn’t mind going off-road either. Grassy paths, fine gravel and forest service roads are always on the cards. So, are all-road bikes suitable for gravel racing? We included the Fara F/All-Road to represent this genre, and we took it out of its comfort zone to see what it’s capable of.
Gravel race bike vs road bike
You’re wondering what a road bike was doing at the Gravel World Championships? Well, taking the title. The winner of the 2022 UCI Gravel World Championships was a modified Canyon Ultimate CFR – a thoroughbred road racer. However, they went to town with the modifications. For the dry Italian course, Gianni Vermeersch had 33- and 35-mm wide Vittoria Terreno Dry Tubeless tires fitted on the front and rear respectively. Canyon, however, specify a maximum tire width of 30 mm for the model. So, they pushed the tire clearance of the delicate carbon frame to the max. However, while this works well in the dry, it can become an expensive experiment in the wet. When mud and sludge get stuck between the tire and the frame, it causes scratches at best, and structural damage to the frame at worst.
Even if it seems tempting to blast along gravel roads with a light, stiff road bike, the limited tire clearance limits their use case. Ultimately, road bikes are best not to stray too far off the tarmac.
Gravel race bike vs cyclocross bike
Cyclocross bikes have more right than any to stake their claim in the family tree of modern gravel racers. The knobby tired bikes are at home in Belgium and the Netherlands where they race along muddy circuits with killer climbs. A high bottom bracket prevents pedal strikes through the corners, and a steep head angle and short wheelbase guarantee responsive handling. Cyclocross bikes are purebred racers, and on a punchy circuit with tight corners and obstacles, our gravel racing bikes would have a hard time staying on track. Conversely, the more relaxed the track, the more exhausting it becomes to keep the agility of a dedicated cyclocross bike in check, making the handling seem nervous. On long straights and hardpack highways, straight line stability quickly trumps agility.
By definition, cyclocross bikes also lack one all-important feature that gives gravel bikes the upper hand. The UCI limits the tire width for cyclocross bikes to 33 mm. That’s not quite enough to keep up with the gravel champs in all terrain. With the S-Works Crux, we’ve got a candidate in the test field that has its roots firmly in cyclocross, though the latest iteration interprets the concept a little more freely. Without revealing too much, the Crux is a very special bike.
There’s another parameter that’s much more important than categories and definitions: your own expectations of the bike. Beyond race formats and brand’s concepts, your concept of the perfect gravel race bike is what counts above all.
What makes a good gravel race bike?
Be honest, who of us is a World Tour pro? What unites us is that we don’t just measure joy in watts per kilogram. When we think of gravel, you’re likely to think of the sun as it sets on the distant horizon, clouds of dust, and hardpack. But that’s where the similarities end. Some of us dream of flowing trails, others think of endless hardpack roads, and still others hope for steep inclines and technical descents.
Instead of looking for the best gravel bike, it’s much more important to look for the right gravel bike; a bike that suits the terrain in which you typically ride, along with your individual requirements and preferences. If you want maximum efficiency and an aerodynamic riding position, comfort is unlikely to be your top priority. If you’re into speed, you may be more willing to trade agility for stability, and if you see compliance as the key to happiness, you won’t necessarily count every gram.
Gravel racing – Is comfortable faster than aero?
If we look at our line up, there are bikes at both ends of the comfort spectrum. On the one hand, candidates such as the Trek Checkpoint SLR 9 eTap, the Canyon Grail CF SLX 9 eTap, or the Berria Belador Allroad rely on proprietary damping elements and try to spare us from the additional strain of bumps and vibrations. This means that off-road terrain remains a playground for innovative technical solutions beyond classic suspension forks and shock absorbers.
On the other hand, you’ve got the BMC Kaius 01 ONE, Factor OSTRO Gravel, and 2023 Ridley Kanzo Fast: three aero racers that look like they’ve taken the wrong turn at the Tour de France and accidentally landed in the desert. The topic of aero optimisation has also reached gravel racing, and we don’t need a prophet to tell us that we’ll be discussing tube profiles and aero bars a lot more in the coming years. But what does aero actually mean on a gravel race bike?
Gravel race bikes – Is this aero or can we drop it?
The designs of the aero bikes from BMC, Factor and Ridley are derived from the respective brands’ aero road bikes. Droplet-shaped tube profiles are just as much a part of this as dropped seat stays, seat tubes that hug the rear wheel, and fins on the fork crown that direct the airflow. You’ll also find integrated cockpits and narrower handlebars with a subtle flare. If you want to benefit from these marginal gains, don’t forget to optimise your riding kit, too. In this context, a flannel shirt is more useful for cleaning your bike than for racing.
Besides the tubing shapes and details with which bike designers try to tame the wind and save a few watts, the frame geometry is a crucial aspect of cycling aerodynamics. Radical geometries force the rider into a tucked, uncompromising aero position, thus significantly reducing drag. If you’re a fast rider, these bikes will let you ride fast.
Gravel race bikes – A relaxed riding position or decoupled seat mast?
It’s a similar story with comfort as it is with aerodynamics. It’s the sum of the inherent damping qualities of the frame, structural details, and geometry. For example, a bike can have a comfortable frame with additional damping features, but uncomfortable geometry. Of course, there are other components to consider along with what we’ve mentioned above, such as the tires (and tire pressure), cockpit (including the bar tape), and the number 1 contact point, the saddle.
Brands like Trek, Canyon, and Berria resort to solutions that have a direct effect on the bike’s vertical compliance or flex. Canyon rely on the visually divisive, slightly flexible Double Decker carbon handlebar, combining it with a compliant seat post that uses a leaf spring design. Berria go one step further, integrating the leaf spring design into the rear end of the frame. The construction doesn’t just promise to dampen vibrations, but also to absorb larger impacts. But does the concept work in combination with the rigid fork?
Fara take a different approach. The relaxed geometry allows an upright riding position. However, the Scandinavian brand opt against damping elements on the handlebar or seat post. But how compliant is the frame?
A comfortable frame doesn’t necessarily need proprietary solutions with impressive sounding names. The geometry, tube shapes, and carbon layup are the main sources of compliance.
Gravel race bikes – Can you handle it?
A gravel race bike will often take you into unfamiliar terrain. Not all gravel is equal, trails can be treacherous, and an evening rainstorm can turn a friendly woodland path into a nasty mud slide. The bike’s handling is critical to how comfortable you feel, how much confidence you have, and ultimately how fast you want to and are able to ride.
Although an agile bike makes you look good in technical terrain, poor straight-line stability can get exhausting. Since more and more bikes come specced with integrated, one-piece handlebar and stem units, making adjustments is no longer that easy. Our tip: If you don’t feel comfortable after 10 km on the bike, it will only get worse after 10,000 km. In that case, you’re better off looking elsewhere.
Weighty reasons against weight savings on a gravel race bike
Did you notice something? This is our first time mentioning weight. The number on the scale is important, but the ride feel during the tests didn’t always correspond to our expectations based on the figures, showing what really counts! It’s not the weight, but the weight distribution that matters. Some bikes feel heavier than they are while others can hide their pounds with their handling and quick acceleration. We couldn’t believe our scale when – spoiler alert! – it turned out that we chose the heaviest bike as our gravel race bike champion. On the other hand, the lightest bike in the test field also delighted us with its quick acceleration and its ability to motivate tired legs to keep pushing. So, each of the two extremes left their own unique impression on our in-house gravel world championships.
When racing gravel, fun always comes first
Not everything is quantifiable, measurable, and justifiable. Gravel riding leaves room for emotions. You’re closer to nature, and thus more exposed to it, and the line between ecstasy and suffering is as thin as a skinny road bike tire. A bike that makes you feel good subjectively will motivate you to ride fast. Maybe the handling instils you with the confidence to let go of the brakes on the descents, maybe it is the feeling of a light bike on a climb that motivates to break from the bunch, maybe it’s the aero look and its perceived gains that makes you spin the cranks, or maybe it’s the paintwork that inspires you to hop on your bike – whatever makes you happy, brings you forward.
The tech details of the gravel race bikes
Brands adapt the components and accessories of their bikes to the intended use of the respective model. Ideally, therefore, a good gravel race bike is more than the sum of its parts. Nevertheless, there are aspects that have a disproportionately large effect on a bike’s character, and that are interpreted differently by different brands.
Gravel race tires – Things have started rolling
On gravel race bikes, the tires have grown with their tasks. Tire width, pressure, rim width, tire inserts… We’ve seen a lot of new trends pop up around the topic of tires. But it’s worth looking at, because a little bit of effort here can go a long way.
Tire width – Full contact
Most of our group test participants roll on 38–40 mm wide tires with a mixed tread pattern. The exception to the rule is the Fara F/All-Road. As an all-road bike, it steps into the ring with skinnier tires, relying on the less aggressive, 35 mm Panaracer GravelKing. The good news is that none of the tires made us drift out of control on our test track. The level of grip and traction is impressive and, unless you’re riding in wet conditions and deep mud, you can get away with moderately aggressive tires. We were particularly impressed with the Specialized Pathfinder Pro. The combination of a smooth centre tread and shoulder knobs ensures fast rolling on the straights and predictable cornering. They also deliver an impressive level of comfort.
When talking of tire width, you must also mention rim width. Because it’s only if the internal rim width is wide enough to support the tire that you can exploit their full potential. A tire that is too wide for the rim comes at the cost of steering precision and lateral support. Of course, we are talking about nuances here. But these are the GRAN FONDO gravel world championships, after all!
Tire pressure – A little helps a lot
Hardly anything changes the character of a bike as much as the tire pressure. When die-hard roadies leave the asphalt for the first time, they often see their world collapse: 2.5 bar?! How can you ride with such little pressure in the tires? It’s not about pushing the extremes, it’s about finding the setup that’s perfect for the rider weight, style, and terrain. This is usually a fine balance. Dropping the pressure by 0.5 bar can provide more comfort than a suspension fork, and more grip than an aggressive tire. However, too little pressure makes the tire squirm through the corners, reducing control and increasing the risk of punctures.
You’ll find various online calculators that will give the ideal pressure based on weight and terrain, but if in doubt, real world tinkering always beats theory. So, give it a try, go to the extremes and back up from there. It is important to find a good balance between off-road comfort and on-road precision, especially if the course changes regularly between off-road and asphalt. The rule is: as little as possible, as much as necessary.
Tubeless – No tubes, no worries
Of the 9 bikes on test, 7 came to the start line without inner tubes. Tubeless is the accepted standard on gravel racing bikes. A tubeless setup allows you to ride with lower pressure in the tires, because there is no tube for the rim to puncture if you hit a rock or root, bursting your hopes of victory. Dispensing with inner tubes reduces rolling resistance, and the sealant inside should heal most punctures too. That said, you’ll still need to carry a spare tube, because the sealant can fail if the hole is too big, in which case you’ll just have to stick a tube in it.
Tire Inserts – Is foam what dreams are made of?
If you go tubeless, you can go even further with tire inserts. These foam liners are placed in the rim bed to increase comfort and puncture protection. We dealt with the topic in detail last year and have come to the conclusion that, for normal everyday gravel and moderate off-road terrain, inserts aren’t capable of anything more than a set of good tires at the right pressure. However, if you want to realise your dream of a multi-day ultra-endurance event in challenging terrain, and want to squeeze the last bit of performance from your setup, check out our in-depth look at tire inserts.
Comfort on a gravel race bike – Gravel hasn’t got a tough guy mentality
The desire for comfort was long frowned upon and thought of as a lack of commitment and mental toughness. Fortunately, gravel riding has helped wipe the track clean of this nonsense. Comfort isn’t just great per se, but can also save your ass in a race – after all, you won’t be going very fast if you can’t stay in the saddle. So, let’s see how you can make your ride to the podium a comfortable one.
Well-rounded – The tires are your suspension fork
At the right pressure, a tire won’t just roll quickly and provide grip, but also spare you from impacts and vibrations.
Seated – The saddle must, must, must fit
Once you’ve found your bike for life, start looking for the saddle – or the other way around. A comfortable saddle places the pressure on the sit bones, promotes blood flow, and keeps you securely in place.
Well damped – Suspension elements are a playground for engineers
Manufacturers put a lot of effort and money into developing technical features that make gravel racing bikes more vertically compliant. We prefer linkage-free solutions that minimise maintenance and make full use of the potential of carbon fibre.
Maintaining posture – It’s only on the third day that you’ll know if the geometry works
Gravel races can often go into the four-digit kilometre range. Geometry that is efficient on the first 100 km won’t necessarily serve you on the next 900 km. With increasing fatigue, it becomes harder to maintain a tucked, aerodynamic position.
Getting to grips – With the right handlebar, you’ve got fatigue under control
The handlebar is a crucial point of contact between the rider and bike. Most handlebars today offer pleasantly flat tops and allow for different hand positions. However, integrated, one-piece cockpits occasionally overdo it and miss the target. The transition between stem and handlebar can get so big that it robs you of a hand position, and it can make fitting time trial bars difficult, too.
Gravel race bike drivetrains – Throwing a spanner into the works
The way to the gravel throne is always rocky and sometimes steep. No matter how hard we try to anticipate gear shifts in time, every now and then the rear derailleur must suffer because of our lack of concentration, shifting the chain under full load. But hey, at least the derailleur wasn’t packed with 3 kilos of mud. Gravel racing isn’t child’s play, neither for your legs, nor for the drivetrain – these bikes get ridden hard. The manufacturers have delivered.
The duel of the shifting giants: Shimano vs SRAM
At the starting line it stands 8:1 for SRAM! The American brand are well positioned in the gravel segment, establishing the 1x setup as the drivetrain of choice for everything off-road. For a change, a Shimano drivetrain is the exception in our test field.
But the Shimano GRX RX815 Di2 can hold its own. The rear derailleur shifts quickly and smoothly, the brakes are easy to modulate, and Shimano’s hoods cross the finish line in first place regarding ergonomics. They’re very comfortable to hold on to, and also take the top step of the podium in terms of looks. It’s only the shifting logic with a big and small paddle on both sides that seems somewhat dated and requires a lot of dexterity if you’re wearing gloves, though it is worth noting that this can be customised by the rider.
The SRAM AXS armada has many facets. From the new Rival to Force and the high-end RED, our test field included every wireless shifting option that SRAM have to offer. Unlike Shimano, SRAM have completely dispensed with cables, relying on wireless technology throughout. The American brand also have a different battery strategy, placing small removable batteries on each derailleur, rather than relying on one central battery in the seat tube. The SRAM batteries don’t last quite as long, but they’re easy to exchange and quicker to recharge. If you’re planning to ride very far and want to err on the side of caution, you will certainly find a place for an extra battery in your luggage. In most cases, however, your legs will give up long before the batteries do.
The hoods of Force and RED groupsets feel a bit chunkier than the GRX models. We much prefer the ergonomics of the Rival hoods, setting the trend for the next generation of SRAMs higher end groupsets, like the SRAM Force AXS groupset introduced in March 2023, which has clearly taken inspiration from the more svelte Rival levers.. However, our bikes were still equipped with the 2022 Force models. The shifting logic is convincing across the board – left to shift down, right to shift up, both at the same time to shift the front. That said, the shifting speed is less convincing. When it comes to shifting performance, SRAM can’t keep up with their big Japanese competitors.
Both shift excellently under full load. The electronic shifting behaved itself perfectly on all of the contenders, and you rather quickly forget that it’s there. All that you notice is smooth and quiet running drivetrains.
Cranksets: Is 1x better or 2x twice as good?
The million-dollar question of gravel racing is: 1x or 2x drivetrain? Our answer is as follows:
On our short world championships course, we were completely happy with the range and gear jumps offered by the 1x drivetrains. With a 40 or 42 t chainring up front and a 10–44 t cassette at the rear, we could accelerate on the descents and attack on the climbs. After 200 kilometres with all our bikepacking equipment strapped to the frame, we would probably have wanted a larger gear at the rear, or a 2x setup.
So, if you decide to go 1x, treat yourself to a wide range cassette or a smaller chainring. Sometimes, gravel races stop being about the ride, and start being an attritional slog to the finish. With a 38 or 40 t chainring up front, you give yourself some added reserves, and there is nothing better than pedalling past someone who’s pushing on the final climb.
Another way to get a wider range out of a 1x setup is with a mullet setup from SRAM. All of SRAM’s latest AXS road and gravel drivetrains are compatible with their MTB derailleurs, giving you access to the wonderful world of 10–50 or 10–52 t cassettes.
Where did we test the gravel race bikes?
A gravel race bike must prove itself in everyday life. In wind and rain, on cycle lanes and woodland paths. On your post work rides and at the weekend, and perhaps even for commuting. The hard truth is that this is how you will spend 90% of the time on your gravel race bike. Fortunately, the real goal isn’t merely the radio tower behind the petrol station, or the bike shop on your commute. It is the next adventure, the next summer. You can hear the gravel crunching, taste the dust, and see the sun. And so can we. That’s why we first hammered the bikes in muddy, wet conditions, and then took them into the desert.
This is where gravel racing world champions are born
In the north of Spain, between the Pyrenees and the ancient valley of the Ebros river, there is a garden of gravel and clay: the Bardenas Reales. Ruling over this desolate expanse is the Cierzo: a dry, cold, epic wind that has been cutting bizarre sculptures into the surrounding ice-age plateaus for millions of years. These formations rise like monuments above the vast, ochre-coloured lunar landscape, bearing names that seem to have come from Lord of the Rings. Castillo Penaflor and Cabezo de Sanchicorotta are just two of the distinctive peaks of this unique semi-desert world. The centrefold of the Bardenas, however, is the iconic Castil de Tierra – the earthen fortress.
As the wind builds castles, the water carves Barrancos. These dried-up riverbeds and canyons are the result of rare but torrential rains combined with blisteringly hot summers. In addition to the Barrancos, you’ve got countless gravel roads and trails meandering through the Bardenas. They lead to the edges of the plateaus, into the deep shadows of the canyons, and to the edge of a rocket test site of the Spanish Air Force – the Bombodrom.
Punchy climbs alternate with pump tracks, aero descents, and miles of straights. Rock slabs stick out of the hardpack like kickers, deep grooves punish inadequately inflated front tires, and millions of years of erosion have ground thick slabs of sandstone into gravel. Coarse gravel that fills potholes, fine pebbles that are speckled along steep corners, and sand that turns out to be clay when you rub it between your fingers. Watching over it all is the monument of the eternal shepherd with his faithful dog.
Here, where once the kings of Aragon ruled a deserted empire, we crowned the ruler of hardpack and gravel – the ultimate gravel race bike.
Who tested the bikes?
Which is the best gravel race bike of 2023?
At all world championships, there are winners and there are losers. We had winners, losers, and specialists that dominated on certain sections of the route and then dropped back elsewhere. We encountered a lot of useful features, unique details, and coherent, high-performance concepts. On the other hand, there were some bikes that left us a bit perplexed, that don’t seem like they’ve been properly thought through and whose concept simply doesn’t work out as intended. Above all, however, there are completely different concepts and use cases.
On the one hand, you’ve got radical aero gravel racers that make the lactic acid burn in your legs just looking at them, like the Factor and BMC, and on the other hand, you’ve got those that promise to get you onto the podium with the help of innovative damping systems, like the Canyon, Berria and Trek. Fara rely on a relaxed all-road approach, and for Argon 18, the path to gravel victory leads through rough terrain.
The best gravel race bike of 2023: The Ridley Kanzo Fast
The Ridley screams “race me!”, though in a friendly, fun way. And if you listen to the new king of gravel racing, you’ll understand why. The bike offers a majestic combination of aero optimisation and comfort, not just allowing professionals to fly along the gravel roads of this world, but also gravel beginners. The Ridley is so confident, relaxed, and fast on all terrain that it can even afford to carry a little extra weight, ultimately ascending the throne as the heaviest bike on test. The fact that you remain in control of the components and look thanks to the clever online configurator is the crowning glory, rather than being bound to whatever parts (and prices) you’re given.
Best buy: The Specialized S-Works Crux
No other bike had us get as many flies stuck between our teeth as the S-Works Crux. The playful ease with which the bike allowed us to conquer the climbs carved a neverending grin into our dusty faces. The S-Works Crux sets the bar in terms of weight, price, and prestige – especially since it makes do without any striking aero features or flashy paint jobs. The acceleration, however, is more than fitting. The Crux will easily pull away from the competition on any climb, dancing nimbly to victory in terms of riding fun.
The other gravel race bikes on test
What did we learn?
The desert is a good teacher. In addition to the dust in our socks, scars on our hands, and lactic acid in our legs, we’ve got some exciting findings in our jersey pockets.
If you feel fast, you will ride fast. Speed is all in the mind, and a subjectively fast bike encourages you to push harder and have more fun.
Aero has come to stay.
Aerodynamic optimisation will continue, and that applies to the gravel segment, too. Aero even has the potential to become its own segment. Maybe our next group test will be aero gravel.
Aero is the rider’s position.
Your riding position on the bike is vastly more important than the aerodynamic features of the frame.
If you feel fast, you will ride fast. Speed is all in the mind, and a subjectively fast bike encourages you to push harder and have more fun.
Comfort doesn’t make you soft.
A comfortable frame isn’t an unnecessary luxury, but part of a winning concept.
Less tire pressure means more grip, lateral support, and comfort. Try it out and experiment until you find the perfect setup for you.
Handlebars are getting narrower.
The times of wide handlebars with lots of flare seem to be over. Narrow cockpits dominate the gravel race bike test field.
Tired and tested
Even skinny tires with minimal tread can perform well in the dry.
There isn’t one gravel race. There is your gravel race.
UNBOUND, BADLANDS, or just the KOM to the cow pasture? You decide where your gravel race starts and ends.
There is no such thing as the best gravel race bike. It’s your best gravel race bike.
Before you start, you must know what your goal is.
The desert is an incubator for innovation as each brand pursues a different approach to making their bikes gravel world champions. The subject of aero has arrived in gravel racing, extremely light bikes turn out to be a lot of fun, and suspension is forcing engineers to break the mould of road bike design. This conceptual diversity is what makes gravel race bikes so exciting. There’s THE best gravel race bike, and then there’s the best gravel race bike for YOU. The king is dead. Long live YOUR king.
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Words: Nils Hofmeister Photos: Robin Schmitt, Jan Richter, Nils Hofmeister