Gravel bikes are yet another bike industry innovation initially scoffed at by the purist brigade (see also: e-bikes, road disc bikes, 1x road) and yet, despite being just a few short years old the category is one of the fastest-growing in the sport.
That category is pretty broad, however, encompassing everything from fast, lightweight speed machines with clearance for off-road tyres (and bearing a lot of resemblance to cyclocross bikes) to laid-back adventurer seekers capable of carrying enough luggage to cross a continent.
If you want to head straight to our top picks on the Chain Reaction Cycles website, here are our favourites:
Let’s face it, if you’re a traditional roadie and haven’t already got yourself a gravel (or ‘adventure road’) bike, you’re here because you think you want one. But why? For us it boils down to two key reasons – versatility and fun. That difficulty we have in clearly defining the edges of the gravel bike category hints at a big reason for their appeal: a gravel bike can be whatever you want it to be, whenever the mood takes you. Want to head out for an after-work spin on off-road trails too rough for your road bike? A gravel bike will do it.
Fancy an epic bikepacking adventure threading together hostels in the wilds of the highlands? Check. A random Saturday ‘cross race, just to give it a try? Sure, why not? A winter training ride on broken tarmac lanes? Your city commute? A towpath ramble with the family? Yes, yes and yes.
For most of us a gravel bike – or as we like to think of them, a drop-barred off-roader – is the perfect companion for all of the ‘other’ riding we like to do, literally off the beaten path. And as more and more riders discover the pleasures of taking things off the tarmac, more and more rediscover the joy of riding for the sake of it, of getting away from traffic, of forgetting about training plans/KOMs/getting dropped, and just riding for the gosh darn sheer heck of it. Of course that’s not to say you can’t race on gravel if you want…
Gravel bikes have become popular because they can do lots of different things well, and because they are fun.
Here are some of our favourites for 2020:
For many riders a gravel bike will be an extra addition to the quiver, another option for rainy days, winter conditions or the road less travelled. For that reason it’s great to see quality options at the lower end of the price scale such as this classy Fuji Jari 2.5, the first of seven bikes in the Jari range and an absolute steal at the price. The main thing to note is the Reynolds 520 tubing that makes up the frameset – yes, this is a quality steel frame, with plenty of modern features including a tapered headtube and flat mount disc brakes.
While steel has largely been superseded as the material of choice for lightweight road bikes, its advocates (of whom there are many) still hold its ride quality in high regard, making it perfect for off-roaders where all-up weight isn’t such an issue.
Judged against other gravel bikes, the Jari 2.5 tends towards the tourer end of the spectrum, being fitted with rack and fender mounts, triple bottle bosses and even a top tube bento box mount. It’s the ideal ride for long, leisurely touring and bikepacking trips where a mix of on- and off-road riding is expected, with 2×8 Shimano gearing, Tektro mechanical disc brakes and WTB Vera Terra DPD18 wheels more than up to the job. At 700x38c, the Panaracer GravelKing tyres also prove adaptable to both paved and unpaved surfaces while the Oval Concepts 325 handlebar is purpose-built for gravel/adventure bikes with wider positioning in the drops to reduce wrist bend.
Meanwhile, further up the Jari family ladder we can choose from alloy- or carbon-framed models, topping out with the Fuji Jari Carbon 1.1 at a shade over £3k.
Vitus first entered the gravel grinder fray in 2018 with the steel-framed Substance, later expanding the range to offer carbon- and alloy-framed versions. This Vitus Substance VR-2 is one of the latter, built around a double-butted 6061 T6 aluminium frameset – with some nice touches including cable routing for a dropper seatpost – matched to carbon forks to help shave a few grams.
Vitus haven’t made many changes to the substance of the Substance (sorry) with the family frame sharing a compact geometry, sloping top tube and dropped drive side chainstay for bigger tyre clearance and compatibility with both 700c and 650b wheel sizes. In fact it’s the smaller hoops that are specced as stock, with this model rolling WTB ST light rims laced to Alex Bear Claw hubs and shod with WTB Byway 47c tyres. If you’re wondering about the character of this bike it’s the wheels that are the tell, their smaller size more suited to carving singletrack than hauling cargo.
The Substance is designed as a fun, nimble off-roader that can turn to touring in a pinch, not the other way around (although it does have rack mounts). Speaking of spec, let’s reserve special mention for Shimano’s gravel-specific GRX groupset and hydraulic disc brakes, impressive to see at this price point and an ideal match for fast gravel fun.
UK bike brand Ragley have always been one to put the ‘fiercely’ into ‘independent’, so their first foray in gravel was keenly awaited. Introduced in 2019, the Trig didn’t disappoint, being a steel-framed off-road mile muncher with solid spec sheet and a very competitive price tag. For 2020 that steel frame and great value remain, but Ragley expanded the lineup to offer two version – the Trig Gravel (ostensibly the Trig Mark II) and this bike, the Trig Adventure.
Still made from custom triple butted 4130 cro-mo tubing (now matched to a carbon fork), the Trig Adventure differs from its almost-namesake in being specced with a 1×11 SRAM drivetrain (as opposed to the 2×10 Shimano setup on the Trig Gravel) and 650b wheels (as opposed to the 700c models on the… well, you guessed it). This gives the bike a slightly different character to its stablemate, being tweaked for more challenging off-road conditions.
While the Trig Gravel can be classified as an off-road version of an endurance road bike, the Trig Adventure goes a little further along the path towards being off-road specific. Of course, either bike offers the platform to be whatever you want it to be, and can be built and rebuilt as the mood takes you. Whether 1x or 2x, 700c or 650c, gravel or adventure – the Trig can do it all.
Squint and the Orro Terra Gravel looks for all the world like a fast endurance road bike. Take it on the road for some fast endurance riding and it won’t be found wanting. Check out the spec sheet and with Shimano 105 gearing, fast-rolling Fulcrum R900 Wheels and Vittoria Zaffiro 28c tyres on board it’s hard to see daylight between this and many other bikes designed purely for tarmac riding.
But Orro have been clever in designing a bike that’s made to keep going when the road runs out, including TRP Spyre mechanical disc brakes, full carbon fork and essentially, clearance for tyres up to 35mm in width. The Terra shares the sporty geometry (and kit list) of many road-only rides but is fully intended to take gravel lanes, towpaths and bridleways in its stride.
Sure, it’s not exactly built for slicing through singletrack or descending through a rock garden but that’s not what all riders want in a gravel bike – some are looking for a fast, functional ride that won’t be thrown off course when the going gets a bit rough or conditions are less than perfect. If you’re that rider, this bike is for you.
Rondo’s intriguing RUUT range is marketed with the tagline ‘the future is beyond tarmac’ and it’s an accurate, if a little grandiose, assessment of why so many riders are taken with gravel bikes – because where they can go, cars can’t. But back to the RUUT, which describes itself as the world’s first variable geometry gravel bike thanks to innovative ‘TwinTip’ fork technology. Rondo describe it better than we can, but in a nutshell the fork rake can be adjusted by means of a patented oval insert, allowing the bike geometry to switch between steep and sporty, or slack and relaxed.
That makes the RUUT a particularly versatile proposition, especially for anyone considering a gravel bike as their only ride (the same technology also features on Rondo’s HVRT aero road bike platform, which can moonlight as a gravel bike).
For 2020 the RUUT comes in a total of eight flavours, the Polish company offering versions with steel, carbon, aluminium and even titanium framesets. This Rondo RUUT AL 2 is the entry-level bike in the range with a custom formed 6061 T6 aluminium frames matched to SRAM’s Apex 1x drivetrain, FSA crankset and mud-proof WTB Nano 40c tyres.
Kudos too for nice touches such as flared bars, a Fabric Scoop saddle and that disco-anodised front hub, complete with self-cleaning-strap-thingy to keep it super shiny.