First gravel bike: everything you need to know before buying
Looking to get your show off the roads? Here’s the lowdown on what to look for in your first gravel bike
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The off road cycling discipline has grown rapidly in popularity, and as a result, in just a couple of years we've seen a huge surge in gravel bike offerings from most brands.
While this now means the best gravel bike (opens in new tab) makes for an extensive category, if you're starting at the beginning, the choice can look and feel overwhelming.
This page aims to guide you through what to look for when making your first gravel bike purchase, with lots of information on ensuring you get the right fit, what to look out for and the differences you can expect within price ranges.
What is a gravel bike?
As our spotlight gravel week showed, at the heart of gravel lies adventure and exploration.
Gravel allows riders to get carried off by their bike on a mix of terrain, with the majority of it being unpaved.
As with all cycling disciplines, there is a performance element to gravel riding, with racing proving very popular, but most riders find that their love of gravel bikes is in the journey and less about the speed or time it took to get from A to B.
A gravel bike will be dropped bar with geometry that is a mix of the best endurance and sportive bikes (opens in new tab) and the best cyclocross bikes (opens in new tab). Some will take design cues from the best hardtail mountain bikes (opens in new tab), while other will err closer to the best road bikes (opens in new tab)for more aerodynamic features. All, however, will allow for wide rugged tyres that are suited to off road conditions.
Do I need a gravel specific bike fit?
When it comes to gravel riding, the only thing worse than not having a gravel bike, is having a gravel bike that doesn't fit you or match the terrain where you ride.
Before you do anything else - head over to our guide answering the 'do you need a gravel-specific bike fit (opens in new tab)' question for a more in depth answer - but in summary, you sure do need a bike fitting.
While we recommend you going to an expert, it is possible to carry out a 'Do It Yourself' bike fit at home - if this is the approach you're looking to take, check out our how-on on DIY bike fitting.
Gravel bikes will generally have a longer wheel base and be more relaxed than a road bike. This is paired with a shorter reach to the bars, while also being more upright. This all works to give riders a little more stability and predicable handling when riding on looser terrain. The more upright position will also mean the bike is comfortable for long rides, which seem to always happen when exploring off road.
If you are going down the DIY route, the key message is think agility. You'll need to move the bike around a lot more than on the road, so don't just choose a more upright one.
That said, it's vital that you factor in the sort of terrain you'll spend most time riding. From personal experience the UK gravel with its rocks, mud and short sharp inclines, varies massively from tales of long sweeping gravel roads that can be found in the US.
Ensuring that your first gravel bike is up to the job will greatly improve your enjoyment of your new hobby.
How much should I spend on my first gravel bike?
As with all bikes, the variation in price is huge and what you decide to spend on your first gravel bike is a very personal decision.
The best budget gravel bikes (opens in new tab)will be entry-level bikes and by far the cheapest on offer, assuming you don't opt for a second hand one.
Prices for new entry-level bikes will range between $1,500/£1,000 and $2,000/£1,500 and will allow you to pick up a great gravel bike to get rolling, but may be a little basic if you are coming from an experienced road or mountain bike background.
High-end gravel bikes will certainly set you back a lot more, with the likes of the range topping Specialized S-Works Crux costing an eye watering $12,250/ £11,700.
The good news is that there is a lot of wriggle room in-between these two bookend prices, so there will be a bike out there to suit your budget.
What the differences are at these price points will generally be frame and fork material, spec of the drive train and wheelset, all of which are covered below in more detail.
What frame material should I opt for my first gravel bike?
Frame and forks will have a direct impact on to the ride quality and price of your first gravel bike.
An aluminium frame will, generally, be cheaper than a carbon one. If you do come across a cheap full carbon frame gravel bike, I'd err on the side of caution. I think all of us at Cycling Weekly have found that when it comes to entry-level prices, we've found that you can get a better alloy bike with carbon forks, than a full carbon one when it comes to ride feel and weight.
Don't be put off by an aluminium frame, even if you have a carbon road or mountain bike. If this if your first foray in to gravel riding, it will be a more cost efficient choice, although be sure to check the specification of the components if you are a more experienced rider, as you'll probably have certain expectations you'll want to meet in that department.
A good quality full carbon frameset will cost you more than an aluminium one, but can dramatically lighten the overall weight of a gravel bike. If designed well it can also be a more comfortable ride, and if you're looking for performance, possibly a faster one, too.
Some people may feel apprehensive about selecting a carbon frame, concerned with its durability off road. Knowing that even down-hill mountain bikes are made from the same material should put your mind at rest, but it is worth considering what sort of riding terrain you are expecting to put the bike through. Crash damage can be hard to spot and often irreparable.
A good compromise, especially if you are totally new to gravel riding, is to opt for an aluminium frame with carbon forks and seat tube. This should provide you with just enough compliance, while balancing the weight and overall price.
The alternatives to carbon or aluminium are steel or titanium. Both are rare finds in the off the shelf gravel bike market, and are more likely to be bespoke hand built offerings. Made to measure frames can produce your dream fit, and don't even have to be wildly expensive. However, as your first gravel bike, it will be trickier to pass on if you decide that gravel riding isn't for you.
What sort of components should I be looking for in my first gravel bike?
Whether or not you are totally new to bike ownership, it's still worth checking our feature dedicated to road bike groupsets (opens in new tab), which includes gravel specific options.
While it might seem curious to read about road bike specific components when you're looking in to your first gravel bike, this is where there is a strong cross over with road cycling due to their shared dropped bar shifting and braking.
At the gravel bike entry-level you're most likely to see a hybrid mix of brands to build up the drive train and braking in order to reach a lower price point. If you are on a set budget, this is where you'll most likely have to make some compromises, eg mechanical disc brakes over hydraulic ones, and fewer number of gears, although this does depend if it's running one or two chainrings.
If you are looking at a mid-point price bracket, you'll not only likely to get a complete groupset, which will mean optimal performance, but also a dedicated gravel one. In terms of the gravel bike gearing, often this will be a single chain ring teamed with either an 11 or 10 speed cassette with a big spread ratios; 11-42t is commonplace.
The perk of a bike with a single chain ring, often referred to as 1x or 'one by' is that you can ditch a bit of weight by loosing the front mech, shifter and cables. However, it's important that you pay attention to the number of sprockets (gears) you get with 1x entry-level bikes. Often it can be just eight or nine speed, limiting the spread to 11-34t. While the size of your chainring will have a big role to play in the gear ratios on offer, it's likely that you'll be overgeared a lot of the time, or find big gaps in the gearing, without at least 10 sprockets at the back.
All the main players, Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo, offer a gravel specific groupset, as do some less well known brands such as Rotor. The perks of a gravel specific groupset is that they will be off road ready in terms of gear ratios, come with powerful hydraulic disc brakes, and can be either mechanical or electronic shifting. The down side is that even the lowest price point option will add an additional $2,000 / £1,300 to the price of your bike.
Microshift are a newer player to the market, and can be found spec'ed on the new Triban 120 gravel bike (opens in new tab). It also does offer an after market gravel bike option that's more palatable, around $899.00 / £599. This will provide a wider gear range thanks to a longer rear mech and a ten or eleven speed cassette of 11-42t, but it's only part of the groupset, with you still needing to provide chainrings and brakes.
It's really unlikely to see anything other than disc brakes on a gravel bike, so even your first gravel bike it will be case of either mechanical or hydraulic. Mechanical disc brakes keep the traditional cable pull system, but moves the braking surface from the rim of a wheel to a centre wheel rotor (disc). Hydraulic disc brakes use a fluid system to move the pads on to the rotor.
Both systems offer good stopping power off road compared to rim brakes, as they are less like to get contaminated from mud and grit. Hydraulic will be by far superior, as it offers more powerful stopping for much less effort - but it will also push the price of the bike up, so isn't usually found on entry-level gravel bikes.
Wheels and tyres
Much like the groupset and brake, the wheels and tyres specced on your first gravel bike will depend on if you've gone for an entry-level option or a bike from a higher price bracket.
It's another area where brands often have to make compromises, but most riders accept that a tyre and even wheel upgrade are some of the best gravel bike upgrades, and something to factor in at a later date - when you get to this stage, be sure to check out our guide to the best gravel bike wheels.
Entry level gravel bikes will most likely have aluminium wheels, with carbon making an appearance once you get to around the mid-price point and beyond.
Even at entry level you can expect a choice of 650b or 700c gravel bike wheels with thru axles. The difference of wheel size depends mostly on the terrain you intend to tackle, with 650b considered nimble and agile, while 700c is good for covering ground quickly. The perk of a thru axle over a quick release is that it's less likely to get pulled around and will be stronger to meet the demands of off road riding.
Tubeless ready wheels can be found at all price points, and are really worth considering converting to as they reduce the risk of pinch punctures, allow you to ride tyres at lower pressures, which provides more grip and a more forgiving ride feel.
When it comes to tyres, no matter what price your first gravel bike costs, they're likely to be between 35c to 45c in width. This high volume also helps with providing a comfortable cushioned ride, as well as improved traction, with a decent rubber to gravel contact patch.
What sort of tread you get will vary, but it's likely that your first gravel bike will be balancing every style of riding, and be neither especially aggressive or super slick.
It's one of the first areas you'll personalize on a gravel bike, so check out our specific page dedicated to the best gravel tyres (opens in new tab)to find the perfect match for you.
This includes seatpost, handlebars and stem. Again on an entry level gravel bike, these are likely to all be aluminium, which is more than adequate for most riders as it's durable and strong, so much so that some professional riders have been know to select the metal over the carbon bars and stem when racing.
Your first gravel bike is likely to be equipped with a pair of gravel specific handlebars, but that doesn't mean you will automatically find the stock pair a comfortable fit. If you are struggling to get your ideal reach, drop or flare, check out our page dedicated to best handle bars for gravel riding (opens in new tab) to help you find your perfect setup.
If your first gravel bike is priced above the entry level price bracket, you might find a carbon seat posts as standard. Although an aluminium post is perfectly acceptable, a carbon one is often considered one of the best bike seatposts (opens in new tab) as it can add compliance, helping soften trail buzz, especially from aluminium frames.
Higher up the gravel bike tree and you may find that your first gravel bike comes with one of the best dropper seatposts (opens in new tab). This will allow you to drop the saddle out the way, allowing you to move around your gravel bike more, for more grip and control, especially when descending. It's a great addition for anyone looking to tackle more technical terrain.
Whatever the saddle is on a your first gravel bike, there's a high chance you might swap it out immediately. Saddles are really personal, so many riders will exchange it for their preferred fit. As a general rule, gravel specific saddles tend to be a little wider and shorter than then road counterparts.
We've got plenty of advice on how to choose a bike saddle that's right for you and avoid the common mistakes (opens in new tab), as well a page dedicated to the best bike saddles (opens in new tab) on the market right now to ensure you keep sitting comfortably.
Top tips for choosing your first gravel bike
Whether it's your first or twenty first bike purchase, your first gravel bike will be an investment that hopefully will keep you tearing up the trails for several years, so it's something you want to get right.
Even if you end up with a direct to consumer brand of bike, there will often be an opportunity to ride most bikes before you buy. Demo days are a really great way to hop on several different makes and models back to back to help you drill down on what you want, or don't want, from your first gravel bike.
Make sure it fits
Even if your first gravel bike has a few zeros off the RRP price tag, it won't be a bargain if it doesn't fit you. Don't skip the advice section above on the importance of getting a gravel specific bike fit, it will be money well spent in the long run.
Don't forget that you'll also need to factor in a pair of the best gravel bike pedals (opens in new tab) in order to get going with your new steed. You might be wondering should I be riding with pedals I can clip into (opens in new tab). For the most part, the answer is yes as there are lots of benefits to be had for any style of riding. Although, if you are adamant this is a step too far, then pop over to our page on the best flat pedals (opens in new tab) to make sure you gain most propulsion from every pedal revolution.
Going second hand for your first gravel bike is a great way to save money, assuming that you pay heed to the making sure it fits guidance! You can cross check the specifications with the advice on this page, and you might bag yourself a bargain. If you are thinking of going down this route, our top tips for buying a used bike and what to look for in a second hand bike is a must read.
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Hannah is Cycling Weekly’s longest-serving tech writer, having started with the magazine back in 2011. She has covered all things technical for both print and digital over multiple seasons representing CW at spring Classics, and Grand Tours and all races in between.
Hannah was a successful road and track racer herself, competing in UCI races all over Europe as well as in China, Pakistan and New Zealand.
For fun, she's ridden LEJOG unaided, a lap of Majorca in a day, won a 24-hour mountain bike race and tackled famous mountain passes in the French Alps, Pyrenees, Dolomites and Himalayas.
She lives just outside the Peak District National Park near Manchester UK with her partner, daughter and a small but beautifully formed bike collection.