How to pick the best gravel race bike: Field Test 2020
If any and every gravel bike can be raced, what defines a gravel race bike? And what makes a gravel race bike good?
These are two key questions that sat with us during our inaugural gravel bike Field Test, and the answer to both may not surprise: “It depends.”
It depends on what you consider to be gravel riding and racing. It depends on where those rides are and what the terrain is like. And it depends on your racing and riding ambitions. These are all common themes whenever we talk about choosing a gravel bike, and the reality is, gravel riding (or racing) is a different thing for everyone.
Different it may be, but there are still defining elements that all gravel race bikes, or gravel bikes intended for racing, have in common.
The gravel spectrum
To oversimplify things, many gravel race bikes take the sporty nature of a road bike and add the tyre clearance for it to go off-road.
From road bikes in disguise to mountain bikes with dropbars, a gravel race bike sits much closer to the former. And if you were looking to ditch your road (and CX) bike in favour of a single versatile chariot, a gravel race bike would likely be it.
It’s a bike that needs to be efficient across multiple surfaces, whether that’s open highway or smooth singletrack. And in most cases, the quick handling, road-bike-like position and efforts to reduce weight mean compromises to the maximum tyre clearance, the multitude of mounts and sometimes all-out comfort, too.
It’s rare to find a gravel racer that can take rubber larger than 700 x 45 mm, and it’s equally rare to find a top gravel athlete running bigger than 42s. Likewise, almost all gravel race bikes are designed to accept front shifting, adding additional on-road versatility to the bike.
Performance does come with compromises, and a gravel race bike likely isn’t the right pick if you’re looking to explore local mountain bike trails or load the bike up with every item you’ve ever bought from REI.
Elements of a good gravel race bike
Just like a road bike that’s made for racing, the key intended design outcome of a gravel race bike is one of performance. You want the bike to get you from point A to point B as efficiently as possible. And so while bikes like the Cervelo Aspero or Salsa Warbird Carbon may be two very different takes on what a gravel race bike is, they both seek to hunt down that finish line.
Gravel doesn’t, nor does it need to, re-invent anything when it comes to performance. Road and cyclocross race bikes have been refined for years, and gravel bikes simply add a little salt and pepper to the proven recipe.
A gravel race bike will closely imitate the performance-focused riding position of a good road bike. It’s a position that looks to recruit the glutes into the pedal stroke, and somewhat reduce your drag profile in the process. The overall fit may be slightly relaxed in reach and stack, but it’s not far off.
The handling doesn’t stray too far from the road or CX course either, generally keeping things agile and responsive. A gravel race bike responds with minimal input, and should be as accurate as its pilot wishes. Of course, that’s not to say the geometry is the same as a road bike: the wheelbases are longer for increased stability, the head angles are slackened and the bottom brackets are dropped to overcome the increased height of the larger tyres.
Frame stiffness is another factor common amongst fast gravel bikes. Energy into the pedals shouldn’t be wasted, and the bike shouldn’t cringe at the idea of a cyclocross-style attack. Bikes like the Santa Cruz Stigmata and Cervelo Aspero are good examples and give up little when compared to a good race bike from other cycling disciplines.
Comfort is only just starting to become a more popular consideration on the road, and it’s certainly of greater importance when off it. Super-long races like Dirty Kanza are hard enough already without being beaten up by your bike, and so a gravel race bike that allows you to keep the power down and reduce energy loss is of huge benefit. Large volume tyres are of course the most efficient spring in the system, but that doesn’t make frame comfort irrelevant. The rougher your local gravel is and/or the fussier your body, the more this element will matter.
Aerodynamics may not be high on your wish list for a gravel bike, but faster events and those rides with extended road sections will certainly benefit from reduced drag. Sure aero-optimised race machines are rare in the gravel world, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore aero altogether. Where budgets allow, look for frames with truncated profiles, and wheels with optimised designs.
And then there’s the weight. Weight matters more off-road than it does on road. Your pace and momentum are continuously in flux, hills can be steeper on gravel, and there’s less traction to haul you up in a panic. All things being equal, a lighter gravel bike is better, but such savings always come with a trade-off, and often that’s related to price. The Open U.P.P.E.R (not tested) is a perfect example of this — the frame weighs 880 g but the frameset will cost you US$4,500 / AU$6,499!
Budget versus speed
While the strongest rider will likely always be the fastest, it would be foolish to assume all bikes go the same speed. Some bikes aim to gain speed by cutting the wind, others look to do it through weight reduction, and then some do it by keeping the rider fresher, for longer. And yes, spending more, to a point, will get you a faster bike.
Our editor-in-chief Caley Fretz wasn’t wrong when he said a US$2,000 gravel bike is almost as good as an $8,000 one. The law of diminishing returns certainly plays a large role in performance bicycles. Spending considerably more likely won’t result in a bike that’s noticeably more reliable, durable or stronger. The Viathon G1 provides a clear example of this.
Rather additional money spent goes into refinement — bikes get that little bit stiffer to your input, aero starts to become a design factor, frame materials are better tuned for compliance, and bikes get lighter, too. And then the very smallest of little details are often considered, too, such as better cable routing, or dropouts that allow faster wheel installs.
This is absolutely identical to other categories of bicycles, and those chasing results and/or performance will often see the value in spending more. And whether that increased expense provides you with a tangible performance increase or simply a mental boost, it’s an advantage nonetheless.
Amongst the racing bikes covered at our Field Test, the Cervelo was the bike both myself and James Huang would choose to take home. It’s truly one of the best “quiver-killer” bikes on the market, and is exactly the sort of gravel bike to consider if you’re wanting to ditch the roadie or cyclocross machine.
That said, its fast handling and stiff ride quality unequivocally mean the Cervelo is not the best pick for everyone. Ultra-endurance racers should pick a bike that’s more comfortable in the saddle and more stable in its ways, and the Salsa Warbird Carbon or even something like the Giant Revolt Advanced (not tested at Field Test) are great examples of this.
Bikes like the Santa Cruz Stigmata very much fit into this racing category and would make a great choice, too. In many ways the Stigmata falls in a middle ground between the Cervelo and Salsa, offering a touch more comfort than Cervelo and a little more agility than the Salsa. And then even a radically-different bike like the BMC URS, while by no means a traditional race bike, could be a great choice for events that are predominantly off-road.
Finally, those looking to see their dollars go the furthest should seriously consider bikes like the Canyon Grail Al or Viathon G.1. Both represent incredible value for money to those who are savvy with their bike sizing and fit. That last element is critical to getting the best performance from a bike, and experienced local bike shops (if such a thing exists in your area) can add huge value in this regard.
And so I’ll end this article as I started it. Pick a gravel bike that suits your preferred riding style and racing ambitions. Figure out what you’re happy to compromise on, and what elements matter most to you. And most importantly, make sure it fits you.
Want more gravel? Be sure to check out the rest of the content from the 2020 CyclingTips Gravel Bike Field Test. Also, be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel so you don’t miss any of the associated videos, either.