Aside from all the racing, riding and partying, one of the best parts of any gravel event has got to be the cornucopia of custom bikes and judicious component choices in pretty much every direction.
We could have literally spent days chatting through the personalised specs of those hundreds of the best gravel bikes – the weekend was just too short! Anyway, we've rounded up nine of our particular highlights, spanning carbon, titanium, aluminium and steel frames; massed produced models and two which were hand-built by their owners.
But before we get into that, a big shout out to Bikmo (the global cycle, triathlon and travel insurance company) which provided a secure lockup facility for everyone at the event.
Handily for us, it also doubled as an obvious focal point to hang around, meet riders and grab some shots of the bikes as they were dropped off and picked up.
Just finally, if you're wondering which of the enduro-style events on Welsh gravel is best – Grinduro or Gritfest – you can read our thoughts after riding both this year over here. Spoiler: they are both really good.
1. Maria's self-built cyclocross bike
To kick things off, we have Maria Higgins' steel cyclocrosser that's been recently pressed into gravel duties. On a first look, you might think that what's notable is the carefully colour-matched anodized aluminium, but that's just skin deep – there's so much more going on here.
Winding back to the beginning, Maria built this frame for herself back in 2015, as part of a Bicycle Academy course. The fillet brazing holding all the tubes together is proudly on show, with just a thin phosphate coating providing the necessary weather sealing.
Now seven years old, there's a host of potential compatibility headaches Maria's been having to side step around. First is the IS rear caliper mounts – once ubiquitous, now Shimano GRX brake calipers only come in flatmount and aren't inter-compatible. A post-mount caliper from Shimano's MTB arm has been bleed into the system instead.
Other points are the QR rear dropout and the by-today's-standards ungenerous clearances, allowing for only a 35mm at the rear. The more modern fork can accommodate up to 40mm, but so as not to throw off the handling, Maria has kept it to 38mm.
Finally, there's the whopping 11–50t cassette – with a largest sprocket a full eight teeth bigger than the GRX mech is actually rated for. Even with a Wolftooth Goat Link, that only brings things up to a max 46t. To handle that 50t necessitated swapping out the rear mech cage, which provided another opportunity for colour matching.
2. Liam Yates' Canyon Grizl
Next up, we have the Canyon Grizl of Liam Yates, son of TdF stage winner Sean Yates and gravel aficionado. He'll be taking on the Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan next month – but on a Canyon Exceed hardtail MTB for the greater tyre clearance. Interestingly, not for the suspension benefits, he'll be swapping in a rigid carbon fork.
But back to the Grizl – it's looking particularly menacing with those chunky Hutchinson Python tyres. Although the Grizl's clearance is nominally 'only' 700c x 50mm (2in), Liam has managed to squeeze in a 57mm on the front and a 53mm on the back (2.25in / 2.1in).
He admitted it's perhaps not the best setup for really sticky winter mud – but even with the weekend's rain, it didn't cause any trouble at all. With Grinduro being very much on the gnarlier end of the gravel spectrum, it was actually close to the ideal setup, although this is the spec Liam tends to run most of time.
Coming to the wheels, these are handbuilt by a British brand local to Liam, Strada wheels. He described what he needed from his hoops: something robust, serviceable and fast, and Strada came back with DT Swiss 350 hubs with straight-pull bladed spokes and carbon rims. Liam's also got a 55mm deep set for faster gravel events which lean towards skinnier gravel tyres.
Finally, there's the curious placement of the Wahoo mount on the top tube. Surprisingly, it's not because of a bar bag and lights taking up too much valuable handlebar real-estate, but simply because the charging port can't be accessed with his out-front mount setup. So when it needs a bit more juice, the Wahoo head unit gets popped on the top tube with a cable to the frame bag.
3. Quirk Cycles Suprachub
This one really is exquisite. Handbuilt by Rob Quirk of Quirk Cycles (who's won multiple awards for his efforts), the Suprachub is the drop-bar successor to the Superchub hardtail MTB that so impressed our sister site MBR last year.
The steel tubing of the Suprachub really stands out, with the use of lugs around the seat stay/top tube/seat post junction and around the rear dropouts where the chain and seat stays meet.
The welds are unquestionably very neat, but on the Suprachub mountain bike – which uses the same design – these have been sanded down to the point that they're almost invisible.
But invisibility isn't the point with this frame. The thin, phosphate coating was used to show off as much of the bare tubing as possible – even to the point that slight ribbons of imperfection are subtly highlighted on the seat tube.
The geometry and tyre clearance are pretty avant-garde, with a 68.5 degree head angle making it one of the slackest gravel bikes we've come across, plus the truly huge tyre clearance capable of swallowing 2.3in (58mm) tyres.
However, as the Rockshox Rudy fork can only take up to 2in (50mm) tyres, the frame's limits aren't being tested in this exactly build. That fork also means the cable routing isn't quite as neat as it could be – the frame itself is set up to be fully internally routed.
4. Stayer Groadinger UG
Here we have Max Hutchins' Stayer Groadinger UG. Cue some joke about quantum-gravel-entanglement and being simultaneously for tarmac, gravel and singletrack – up until the point it's observed...
Back to the bike, and Max must have been the person best prepared for the Grinduro course who had never ridden one of the events before.
He was running 2.0in (50mm) Maxxis tyres – down from 2.1in, due to mud clearance issues (very wise) – specced a dropper seat post, and had a permanently mounted frame bag, capable of holding all the tools, food and layers he could possibly need.
Beyond that, there are the lovely aesthetic touches, with the colour matched pedals, headset spacers, seatpost clamp and (if you can make it out) jockey wheels. All complementing the Wizard Works half frame bag. Very nice indeed.
The wheels are completely to Max's own spec, too. DT Swiss 350 hubs (this time in the J-bend version) are laced to Easton rims – a fitting accompaniment to the bar and stem that also come from the American brand.
5. Ribble CGR Al
Fun though custom build dripping in colour-matched anodized parts are – you can't escape the fact that they are typically prohibitively expensive.
As an antidote to that, we've got perhaps one of the best value bikes in terms of its componentry for the money and sheer variety of riding that can be enjoyed on it. (Or that the bike can be subjected to – depending on your perspective!)
This aluminium Ribble CGR is usually Nick Hooper's dedicated winter bike, but its remit has since been expanded to take in gravel duties as well. The workhorse Shimano 105 groupset could have done with hacking for a few extra gears – and for the conditions at Grinduro the Schwalbe G-One Allround tyres were a little slick and skinny.
But its a real testament to the versatility and resilience of the gear that it can be pushed so far from its comfort zone and yet still gamely take all that's thrown at it. Although no small part of the credit goes to Nick for keeping the cranks turning up those vicious climbs and taking on the gnarly descents.
The Ortlieb half frame bag has proven a trusty bit of kit, too, keeping Nick's gear reliably dry no matter the conditions and packing in plenty of space for food, tools and extra layers.
6. 3T Exploro
3T was one of the brands at the forefront when gravel was just becoming established, so it was great to get hands on with Stefano Franco's 3T Exploro.
The Pirelli Cinturato M 650b x 50mm (2.0in) tyres were a perfect match for the day's riding with their large amount of cushion and moderately aggressive tread. It looked like a setup that could be ridden day-in day-out, but Stefano explained that he had a second 700c wheelset that he swaps in for road riding and tamer trails.
The nice thing about a 650b / 700c combination is that it keeps the total wheel diameter (including the tyre) very similar between setups. As a result, the handling remains quite constant – whereas going between a skinny and a fat 700c setup would change things up quite a bit each time.
Quite distinct to many other gravel bars, the 3T bars employ 'out sweep' rather than flare – keeping the hoods position more akin to a standard road bike, but still increasing stability on the drops. Some people do actually prefer the position a flared bar puts the levers in, but for Stefano this setup is the most comfortable.
7. Open Up
Another example of a bike that's set up a little more for road, but still perfectly capable of taking in some gravel. The Open UP frame itself makes a great foundation for this, being quite lightweight and with a geometry that doesn't tip too far in one direction or the other.
A 48/35t SRAM Force crankset is quite big even on tarmac – with the 10–33t cassette, it gives a bigger top gear than even a 52x11 combination. So no problems tapping along at speed here. The lowest gear is about equivalent to a 34x32 combination, so still quite generous, although not quite as low as Grinduro really required.
The Boa closure saddlebag is a fun, if a little decadent choice, while the mini fender colour matches the logo, frame bolts and Tacx bottle cages very nicely.
8. Fairlight Secan
Now onto Jean-Michel's Fairlight Secan – a very lovely steel framed bike indeed. Just like Stefano and his 3T, Jean-Michel was running the Pirelli Cinturato M 650b tyres, although in a 45mm width as the 50mm wasn't released at the time he bought them.
But again, although currently set up for the gnarlier end of the gravel spectrum, this isn't a single-minded build. The GRX 48/31t crankset gives a pretty meaty top gear for road riding in the winter, once the trails have turned to mush. For those rides, Jean-Michel swaps in a 700c wheelset with Pirelli's Cinturato Velo tyres – in our eyes, one of the best winter tyres out there.
Just resting on the wheels for a little longer, the Hunt x Mason collaboration there accents nicely with the Exposure light mount up on the handlebars – all brands based in-and-around the South Downs hills in Southern England. Fairlight itself is a bit further north, in London.
9. Enigma Escape
To round things out, but still keeping a little continuity with the bike before, Max Kwan was kind enough to wheel round his titanium Escape from the Brighton-based – and South Downs cruising – brand, Enigma.
The Ritchey VentureMax handlebars are unmistakeable with their distinctive undulations in the drops. Max specced the bars on recommendation and, (fortunately) has really got on with them since, making for quite a natural hand position.
It might just be the sample we selected, but most gravel bikes here are living two lives, with that larger 48/31t GRX crankset and a set of Zipp 303 Firecrest wheels – which make for quite a speedy setup when matched with some skinnier, slick tyres.
And of course no titanium build is quite complete without a few brightly anodized components. Max has kept things subtle for now with a red headset, topcap and seat clamp – but some blingy Hope calipers are very much on the list.
Thank you for reading 20 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription
Join now for unlimited access
Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1