How Do I Choose a Gravel Bike?

If shopping for a gravel bike is a chore, there are some questions you can ask yourself to make the process easier.

A gravel bike can have a wide range of properties, from a tricked-out road bike to a smaller mountain bike, so there’s no set rule to find out which one is best for you.

To answer your question, we advise you to ask yourself these three questions:

  1. What ground will I be riding on?
  2. What is my riding style?
  3. What size tires do I need?

It’s common for people to buy gravel bikes that are overkill, meaning they won’t use them to their full off-roading potential.

Of course, these machines tend to be more expensive than the lighter variants, so you can end up spending more money than you need to.

Since gravel bikes exist on a spectrum, you have ample choice when buying a model that can tackle the exact terrain you want.Figure out which terrains you want to cover and how else you may use the bike.

If you’re going to use it for commuting too, you’ll want something closer to a road bike. 

On the other hand, if you’re expecting brutal, muddy trails then you’ll want a gravel bike that’s closer to a mountain bike on that spectrum.

Consider the gravel too, is it smooth and dirt-like or is it made of large, jutting stones that need a stabler bike model to traverse?

Also consider how comfortable you are when off-road, you want a gravel bike that you can grow with and will be forgiving of your mistakes if you’re still finding your footing.

That’s why it’s important to think about your riding style. Your riding style will dictate bike geometry, which is a subject that is just as complicated as it sounds.

Find a geometry chart for the bikes you’re looking at and pay attention to these figures:

  • Trail
  • Head Tube Angle

Trail tells us what the bike was made to do. Larger trail figures (80mm-100mm) will feel more like mountain bikes, stable but with less reactive handling.

Smaller figures (55mm-62mm) will be more agile though less stable when traveling at speed.

Failing that, head tube angle can help. 71 degrees and under is mountain bike territory while higher numbers are nimbler road models.

Your place on the gravel spectrum will also determine the tires you need.

Road and gravel riders will find that the standard 700c tires suit them well while more adventurous riders should seek out a 650b wheel.

Some gravel bikes are sold to be compatible with 650b’s.

What Should I Look For In A Gravel Bike?

You should look for a gravel bike that fulfills all of your needs. By knowing which surfaces you want to tackle, you can find a bike that feels right when you’re riding it.

From there, you can figure out the frames and the wheels, along with the handlebars, but the drivetrain types are often overlooked.

With drivetrains, you have a choice between 1x or 2x components. A 2x drivetrain is better for a gravel bike that rides on smoother gravel, and maybe roads when you’re not off the trail. 

Most road bikes use 2x systems because a double chainring format minimizes the gaps between each gear.

1x drivetrains are better if you’re riding on rougher roads, particularly when combined with a clutched rear derailleur.

That’s the standard setup for a mountain biker because they allow for quick, rapid changes in bike speed. That’s great for speeding along rough terrain.

It’s also simpler than a 2x setup, making it ideal for beginner gravel bikers.

Ultimate List Of Best Gravel Bikes Under $1000

What Size Gravel Bike Should I Get?

When the size is referenced with gravel bikes, people are either referring to the frame or the wheels.

Different surfaces demand different chassis and wheel thickness combinations so that the bike can be stable when riding.

Fortunately, most gravel bikes don’t have frames that are much different from the average road bike.

If your road bike had a 54cm frame then you shouldn’t need to change this aspect of it.

You’ll need to measure the frame yourself for its centimeter figure since most manufacturers use simple labels like small or large.

Smaller frames are ideal for shorter, faster rides on your bicycle while a larger frame is better for long trips where you’ll be switching your riding positions more.

A larger frame might be warranted if the bike is also going to be used for commuting.

That way, you can fit mudguards onto the frame that’ll keep the bike relatively clean and unscratched by small stones or debris.

Larger frames will also typically have more mounting options for bags or lights, so it’s important to know what kind of journeys you’re prepping for when choosing a gravel bike.

As for wheels, you’ll find them in 700c, 650b, or off-road wheels that come in 27.5” or 29”.

The 700c wheels are the standard for road bikes and very common on gravel bikes, too. They’re fitted with tires ranging from 28mm to 40mm, though a slightly wider tire fit is possible.

They roll well on tarmac and hold when turning through corners, and most out-of-the-box 700c wheels are up to light gravel riding too.

For intense gravel riding, larger wheels are usually required.

650b wheels, often called semi-slicks or road plus wheels, come in widths from 42mm and 50mm.

You won’t find them on many bikes but the bikes that do use them benefit from a wider contact area and lower air pressures.

They handle better on rough terrain, whether that’s rough tarmac or unsteady gravel paths, though they suffer for grip on muddy surfaces where 700c wheels may do better.

You should adapt the air pressure of these tires to the surfaces you’re riding on so that their performance is consistent, making this is the clear choice for those who want versatility.

Off-roading wheels in 27.5” or 29” are typical of mountain bikes, which can make decent gravel bikes in a pinch, or with a little bit of modification.

While a mountain bike shouldn’t be your aim when buying a bike to tackle gravel, the tires can be great if mounted on a smaller setup.

That said, they are slower than the above tire types and so they’re best used when the terrain demands them.

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