If you love riding on the road, but are also drawn to the idea of adventuring off the beaten path, then a gravel bike might be a great option for you.
Before we get into listing our best buys under $2000, let’s make sure we’re all talking about the same thing. What is a gravel bike exactly? Opinions vary (don’t they always??) but here are some of the basic definitions:
Gravel bikes, also referred to as adventure bikes, sit somewhere between cyclocross bikes and endurance road bikes – they’re more nimble and quicker on the road than a mud-slogging cyclocross bike, but can take much more of a beating than a regular road bike. They will generally come with a compact road bike crankset, and will come standard with gravel, rather than MTB, tires. And a gravel bike purist will insist there must be clearance to fit 35mm tires or wider. Most models come with disc brakes, and will usually feature a lower bottom bracket than a cyclocross bike, providing the feel of a road bike but compromising somewhat when it comes to clearance. It’s a bike which blends on-road speed with off-road capability and so overlaps in design features with both road and cyclocross bikes...and even borrows a little bit from the mountain biking scene.
Now here are some of our favorites that won’t break the bank.
The Diverge has a road bike pedigree, as opposed to the cyclocross background that many other gravel bikes share. With its lightweight premium aluminum frame and FACT carbon fork, it represents superior quality and great value for money.
It also has one special component over and above its competitors: Future Shock. If you’re not familiar with the concept, it takes the form of a small shock unit mounted above the front fork. The outer tube is positioned within an oversized fork steerer while the stem attaches to the telescoping inner tube. As weight is applied to the bars, the Future Shock compresses and the entire stem travels downwards in a near-vertical path – in the case of the Diverge, it will travel up to 20mm. This means that the bike has a version of an MTB front fork, and obviously adds a tremendous amount of comfort and control to the front end of the bike.
It comes with a Shimano 105 groupset and a compact 48/32-tooth chainring, and stopping power is courtesy of Tektro Spyre flat mounted mechanical disc brakes. Whilst the standard tires are road-friendly Espoir Sport wire-bead 700×30mm, the Diverge is capable of running 42mm boots with a regulation-sized 700cc wheelset or, for maximum gnarliness, 47mm when using a 27.5inch/650b wheelset.
It’s a lovely bike to ride, but more so on paved roads or smooth dirt rather than fire trails and unexplored wilderness. This is where the road bike pedigree offers something of a double-edged sword: it’s far and away the best bike we tested on paved surfaces, but struggles when it comes to the real rough stuff. As always, though, there is an exception that proves the rule... in this case, enigmatic 2-time World Champion Peter Sagan, who delights in taking his Diverge deep into the unknown. Check out the video:
When the design team at Giant came up with the CoMax, they had their eyes firmly on putting together a bike that would thrive in nasty environments. The taller headtube and increased stand-over height give it a confident, comfortable ride quality, and the stability and confidence the frame offers is designed to inspire the rider to venture out into parts unknown.
Complete with a bulletproof Shimano 105 11-speed groupset, the CoMax features a lightweight carbon composite frame and TRP Spyre C 160mm mechanical disc brakes. Giant’s own robust PX-2 wheels are supported by gravel-ready Giant P-SLX2 700x32 Puncture Protect tires. The saddle, stems, handlebars and most of the other components are in-house Giant products – none of them are light, but all of them are durable and can take some punishment.
It’s nimble and light enough to ride on the road, and it feels fine swooping through long corners and dropping down a sharp descent, but make no mistake – this is a gravel bike through and through.
It feels happiest when you take it where the road ends, where sounds of traffic fade away and you can be alone with your bike and your thoughts.
The Bish Bash Bosh is marketed by British firm On-One as “the ultimate adventure bike.” As the onomatopoetic name suggests, this bike is super-tough and ready to explore the world whatever the terrain. Blending comfortable and balanced geometry with a high quality handcrafted Toray T800 carbon frameset, the result is a sturdy and rewarding ride that begs for adventure.
The SRAM Force 1x11 speed groupset brings a host of benefits to the party. A single front chainring with 'narrow-wide' tooth profile ensures chain retention and reduces weight and the likelihood of breakdowns. The 11/42-tooth cassette offers the maximum gear options for powering up and down the trails, whilst powerful Force 1 HRD hydraulic brakes (rather than the mechanical version offered by most bikes in this class) give effortless stopping power and great modulation so you can finesse your braking efforts to suit the surface conditions.
Even though a medium-sized frame weighs in at an incredibly light 1250 g, key areas have been oversized for strength. The headtube and bottom bracket rigidity have been dialed in, whilst calculated positive flex has been incorporated into areas such as the seat stays.
Other touches let you know this is an adventure bike, not a road machine. Robust Vision Team 30 Disc wheels, an oversized and tapered headtube, mudguard and pannier eyelets, 15mm front thru-axle, 40mm tires and a steel-bodied freehub all tell the same story: get out of town and get dirty.
Niner have taken a different approach to marketing their new RLT (Road Less Traveled) stable, pitching toward a performance oriented gravel bike designed for racing and training. Road riders looking to do some off-road training to mix up their routine and mountain bike racers looking for other training options are their target market.
Sometimes, though, marketing teams aim too low, and that seems to be the case here. The RLT is much more than an alternative training tool: it’s a bike that will take you anywhere, that will perform at race level if required, that can take you on week-long bikepacking adventures and that will never break down.
The RDO carbon fork adds to the forgiving nature and precise handling of this bike, but will also carry an impressive 20 kg (45 lbs) when fitted with panniers. At the rear end, the double-butted aluminum frame will carry a further 25 kg (55 lbs), meaning the bike can be fully laden for a serious camping or bikepacking adventure.
It has clearance for 40mm tires, wide enough to handle the most distasteful of conditions. The “fire road” geometry frame is longer than a standard road or touring frame, with a lower bottom bracket and slacker head tube angle for greater control and stability.
The shifters and groupset are all Shimano Tiagra 10-speed, with a 50/34-tooth chainring and an 11/34-tooth rear cassette, providing an awesome 1:1 gear ratio to tackle the harshest climbs. The hydraulic disc brakes are also Shimano, in the form of their RS405 version with 160mm rotors.
It’s a fantastic bike that performs wonderfully on the gravel and trails but, despite the claims in the press releases, doesn’t really have the versatility to ride fast on the roads. But if most of your riding is indeed on the Road Less Traveled, the Niner is worth a look.
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The long, slack geometry of the Jari’s frame geometry provides a stable and confidence-inspiring ride no matter what the terrain – it’s great on the road, and even better on the gravel.
The A6-SL super-butted aluminum frame absorbs plenty of bumps and knocks, and the FC-440 Cross carbon monocoque fork with 12mm thru-axle will take care of the rest. The fork also boasts flat-mount disc tabs, a tapered steerer and pannier rack mounts.
Internal cable routing keeps things neat, and a low-profile bento box direct-mounted on the top tube with a 2mm silicone shouldering pad on the underside add comfort and convenience. The Clement X'Plor USH 700 x 35c tires provide ample traction in any conditions, and they get brought to a halt by TRP Spyre C mechanical disc brakes with the standard 160mm rotors. Whilst 35mm rubber comes standard, the frame clearance will allow 42mm tires to run comfortably.
Any cash the manufacturer saved on the brakes was spent on the groupset; the SRAM Apex 1X, 11-speed system with its 11/42-tooth cassette and long-cage rear derailleur is simple, neat and caters for every gearing option that should arise.
The Oval Concepts 725/325 handlebars with flared drops have the air of an old-school cyclocross racer about them but, despite their slightly awkward look, they are surprisingly comfortable on a long ride.
At 10.7 kg (24 lbs) it’s not the lightest bike in its class, but for pure adaptability and value for money the Jari is worth taking for a spin.
Coming in at $500 over budget, the Cavazzo is the most versatile bike we tested. The all-new carbon frame, constructed using a mix of Toray T800 and T700, has been engineered to be strong and light, with excellent handling that is able to adapt to the rigors of all the different riding disciplines it is able to cover.
The geometry is similar to that of a road bike but with a taller front end; essentially, an endurance road bike. Unlike a typical endurance bike, though, it comes with well-hidden pannier and mudguard lugs and enough clearance to comfortably run either 700c x 40mm tires or 27.5 x 1.9 MTB tires. See? Versatile. Getting back to the pannier and mudguard mounts for a moment: it has bosses for full 50mm mudguards and can take front and rear racks with a weight limit of 15 kg (33 lbs) on the front and 25 kg (55 lbs) behind – impressive for a carbon frame.
Apart from looking neat and keeping things clean, internal routing for all cabling means the Cavazzo’s frame is Di2 compatible if you ever decided to go the electronic route. Disappointingly, though, it comes standard with a 10-speed Shimano Tiagra groupset. This and the Avid BB7 mechanical disc brakes are the only let-downs for this bike – if Tifosi had put on an 11-speed 105 groupset and hydraulic discs then it would be a winner in every department.
Anyway, the rest of it is great. The Weinmann XC180 Disc wheels can handle plenty of abuse, the 30mm-wide Schwalbe S-One shallow tread tires are a perfect blend of road speed and gravel toughness, and the Selle Italia X1 Flow saddle is one of the most comfortable on the market. And despite the disappointment with the Tiagra groupset, the 50/34-tooth compact chainring and 11/32-tooth rear cassette offer a huge range of gearing options.
As a jack-of-all-trades, this bike probably takes the cake. It’s nearly as good on the tarmac as the Diverge, but way better when you venture off-road, and it’s almost as good as the Bish Bash Bosh when it comes to shredding gravel, but way faster on the paved stuff.
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