We pick out some of the best gravel bikes and adventure road bikes on the market, and explain what defines the genre and what to look for
Gravel bikes and adventure bikes: the basics
Gravel bikes sit somewhere between cyclocross bikes and endurance road bikes – they’re more nimble on the road than their mud ready cyclocross brethren, but more capable of tackling rough surfaces than endurance road bikes.
These bikes are ideal for multi-terrain adventures – they’ll take you on bridlepaths and farm tracks, and of course gravel – they won’t deal so well with thick mud.
They’ve generally got a lower bottom bracket when compared with cyclocross bikes, giving a more road-like feel but making them less tailored to rocks and roots.
Wide tyres (28c+) are usually specced, with room for more, and you can expect disc brakes
What is a gravel bike or adventure road bike?
If you’ve ever gone out on a ride on your best road bike and noticed farm tracks, bridlepaths and canal towpaths as you passed, wondering where they lead but hesitating to head off the tarmac, then a gravel bike or adventure road bike may be for you.
It’s a bike which aims to meld on-road speed with off-road capability and so overlaps in design features with both road and cyclocross bikes, as well as incorporating elements borrowed from mountain bikes. It follows the trends for disc braking and for clearance for wider tyres.
A gravel bike is similar, but is designed for riding on the untarmacked roads which are more prevalent in the US and some European countries than the UK. It will have clearance for even wider tyres, which may be up to 40mm across.
Below is our pick of the best adventure road bikes and gravel bikes – read on for more details on what to look for when shopping for a knobbly tyred road bike.
Our pick of the best gravel bikes and adventure road bikes
Specialized Diverge 2018 gravel bike
When the Specialized Diverge first arrived on the scene, it was very much a ‘do it all’ bike – but updates for 2017/2018 (it’s ok, they’re available to buy already!) see it move firmly into the adventure/gravel bike family.
The American brand has added its ‘Future Shock’ front suspension to the front end, with a progressive spring on the 20mm travel so there’s no bottoming out. The bottom bracket is now lower, providing stability, and at S-Works level the bike comes with a dropper seat post. This can be purchased separately and fitted to lower ranked frames.
Disc brakes are a given, and 650b wheels can be fitted, with 42c tyres being the max.
Orro Terra C carbon gravel bike
New on the market, the Terra C from Sussex based brand Orro features a UK made fibre with vibration-busting ‘Sigmatex Innegra’ that aims to reduce the chances of frame damage. The material is embedded at the bottom bracket, chainstays and forks – areas likely to suffer attack from rough roads.
A low bottom bracket also aids stability, and there’s clearance for a 42c wheel.
>>> See it with hydraulic discs and Shimano 105 shifting for £2099 and with TRP mechanical brakes for £1799.99 here
Open U.P. gravel bike
Closer to a cyclocross or even mountain bike, we can’t help but include the Open UP – it’s got a little MTB pedigree, meaning it can handle some techy trails but still feels quick on the road. This versatile frame is both mechanical and Di2 compatible and can house 650b wheels as fat as 2.1 inches wide to standard 700c hoops. This takes gravel bike riding to new levels.
GT Grade 2018 gravel bike
GT was one of the first in line to create gravel bikes, and seeing the success take off, they broadened the range in 2017 and continued it into 2018.
The Grade is designed to ride well on gravel paths, whilst still feeling good on the road. It’s got a long wheelbase to add to stability, and comes with a 52/36 chainset and 11-32 cassette – giving plenty of options on those short sharp ascents often found off road.
Hydraulic disc brakes provide quick stopping and the tyres are comfortably wide at 32c.
Models start from £649 and travel up to £2899.99.
Cannondale Slate 2018 adventure road/gravel bike
One of the most fascinating bikes to come out in recent years, the Slate effectively kickstarted the adventure bike craze with its fusion of road and mountain bike technology.
Marin Gestalt 2 2018 gravel bike
An aluminium frame with carbon fork and Shimano Tiagra shifting, Tektro mechanical disc brakes and wide 30c tyres at a sniff over the £1k cycle to work voucher threshold.
Giant AnyRoad 1 2018 adventure bike
Suited to any road (as the title might suggest), this aluminium frame comes with carbon fork. For £1399 you get Shimano Tiagra shifting, hydraulic disc brakes, and 30c tubeless tyres.
Adventure and gravel bike frame geometry
An adventure road bike is built for a stable ride, which particularly comes into its own off road. So there will be a long wheelbase and low headtube angle which should result in controlled steering and less chance of washing out in wet or muddy conditions.
The frame will be built for rider comfort too, typically having compliance zones and often a carbon seatpost for shock absorption. The head tube will be long and the top tube short to allow the rider to adopt a more upright position to move their weight around when negotiating off-road obstacles.
Axle standards are increasingly being borrowed from mountain bikes. Although quick release wheels are still found – particularly at the rear – there is increasing use of 12mm and 15mm thru axles, which provide more rigidity to the wheel-frame junction and easier brake disc alignment. Rear axle spacing for disc braked wheels is usually 135mm, although adventure road bikes are appearing with 142mm spacing, which gives a more robust rear wheel.
Often the frame will come with mudguard eyelets and mounts for a rack too, so that the bike can be used as a rugged commuter or all-year road bike. The bars are usually wrapped in squishy bar tape for comfort and some bikes come with bars which are wider at the drops to help with steering accuracy.
Gravel bike and adventure bike tyres
You can get adventure road and gravel bikes shod with tyres of pretty much any width between 28mm and 42mm. Since they are designed to perform well on the road as well as off it, adventure road bikes will typically come fitted with tyres with less aggressive tread patterns than cyclocross bikes.
There’s not really a consensus on the best pattern, with some bikes coming with slick tyres, whilst others have file treads or low profile knobs. Depending on where you find yourself riding, it may be useful in the UK to use a set of more aggressively knobbed cyclocross tyres which afford more grip when it’s wet or muddy and are less likely to side slip when making turns on loose surfaces.
Many adventure road bikes come with tubeless or tubeless-ready tyres and rims. This allows the tyres to be run at lower pressures, as there’s no risk of pinch flats. The sealant in the tyre will deal with many leaks without loss of pressure or needing to stop for a repair.
Gravel bike and adventure bike gearing
Adventure road bikes are designed to be ridden on the road as well as off, so they have a wider range of gears than a cyclocross bike to ensure that they can be pedalled faster on the road without spinning out.
This often means a compact or semi-compact double chainset, although – as with cyclocross bikes – SRAM’s 1x (pronounced One-By) single chainring groupset is becoming increasingly popular for its simpler set-up, mud clearance and control of chain slap.
Adventure and gravel bike pedals
Pedal system choice is a matter of personal taste and dependent on riding style. If you ride predominantly on roads and well-maintained paths where you rarely need to put a foot down, then road shoes and cleats may be a good choice.
On the other hand, more demanding off-road riding may mean that you need to dismount and walk with the bike or put a foot down for stability. In this case, mountain bike pedals and shoes may be a better choice for their ease of walking, treaded soles and recessed cleats.
Adventure and gravel bike brakes
Braking exclusively uses discs, for their better modulation and more consistent stopping in dry, wet and muddy conditions.
On higher speced models the brakes will be hydraulic, whilst lower priced bikes will typically have mechanical calipers. With Shimano 105 now available with hydraulic disc brakes and the increasing use of SRAM 1x mechanicals, hydraulic systems are becoming increasingly prevalent.