What matters most in entry-level road and gravel bikes
A basic guide to what we look for and prioritise when shopping for entry-level bikes.
A basic guide to what we look for and prioritise when shopping for entry-level bikes.
Keen to buy a road or gravel bike but are unsure where to begin? Firstly, welcome! Secondly, that overwhelm of too much choice is no joke, and I hope this article may help steer you toward making a more confident decision.
This article won’t tell you what bike to buy, but rather arm you with the knowledge to assess all entry-level road and gravel bikes by, what you should consider prioritising, and what features aren’t worth your money.
Before we begin, I’m going to assume that you already have a rough idea to the style of road or gravel bike you seek – a topic we’ve previously covered in our How to Choose a Gravel Bike and How to Choose a Road Bike features.
“The whole point of an entry-level bike is to set someone up for success so that they become a life-long rider,” so rightly said VeloNews senior editor Betsy Welch at our Steamboat Field Test.
And Betsy’s words succinctly sum up the goal of this article, which is to help you have a positive experience with the bike. And it’s this goal that has formed the following list of approximately ordered considerations (starting with the most important).
Ok, let’s begin.
The comfort of a bicycle is commonly thrown around, but it’s important to note that there are a few different ways to view the comfort of a bicycle.
The first and most important is related to the fit of the bike and how it interacts with you. Some more performance-focussed road and gravel bikes require a further stretch to the handlebar and a sharper angle at the hips to ride the lower position. Meanwhile, bikes designed for more recreational riding, touring and/or exploring will offer a shorter and taller reach to the handlebar.
Consider your riding goals, ambitions, where you’ll be riding, and who you’ll be riding with. Most people typically ride bikes that are too stretched out and aggressively positioned for their current flexibility and structural strength, resulting in some discomfort on the bike. Cycling shouldn’t be uncomfortable, and that all starts with a correct-fitting bike.
A bike’s fit can be experienced by test riding it, but unfortunately, that is not always possible (especially with continuing pandemic-related shortages). Alternatively, if you have an idea of a bike you felt comfortable on, then the stack and reach figures within a geometry chart from the manufacturer will offer a valuable comparison into how each bike of interest may fit. And as there are no industry standards related to bike sizing (such as consistent “small”, “medium”, “56 cm”, “58 cm”, etc.), these stack and reach figures are also your tools when comparing the sizing between different brands.
Getting an appropriate fitting bicycle to suit your needs is critical as it’s not something you can easily change without potentially impacting the intended handling of the bike. It’s normal to make minor changes in fit such as changing a stem length by a centimetre or two, or raising the bars a similar amount, but if you require more than this to be comfortable, then reconsider the bike you’re looking at.
Another type of comfort is related to a bike’s smoothness, which is often referred to as a bike’s ride quality or compliance. Some bikes can feel like a jackhammer when ridden over washboard gravel roads, while others do a good job of soaking up those nasty vibrations so your body doesn’t have to. A smoother riding bike will often be more efficient (faster) on rough tarmac or gravel roads, and at the very least, it’ll leave you feeling less fatigued.
Unlike a bike’s fit, ride smoothness has more potential for change down the track. Sure, a stiff riding frame will always be stiff, but you can often add more ride comfort to a bike by changing the contact points or moving to a more voluminous and supple tyre with less air pressure inside. And in this sense, it’s worth paying attention to how much tyre clearance the bike has and whether that’s suitable for your riding needs – it’s always better to have more than not enough. Similarly, look at the seatpost and stem, and whether those are components you could easily swap with others or if they feature a proprietary fitment that limits future changes.
Unfortunately, a smooth riding frame isn’t something a quick car park test will reveal. Thankfully, this, along with fit-related comfort, are things we try to address in every bike review published on CyclingTips.com.
Many wouldn’t consider a bike’s gears to be a comfort issue, but if you have to work yourself into a hole with every climb, then the gearing is indeed related to comfort.
Generally speaking, a road bike will be geared taller based on the assumption that your average speeds are higher, that you may be pedalling on fast descents, and that traction up steep hills isn’t such an issue. Meanwhile, gravel bikes will typically offer easier gearing because your average speed is likely lower, and you’ll need to spin the pedals up loose gravel smoothly climbs to avoid breaking tyre traction.
Things get a little trickier because the bigger the tyre you use, the harder your gears effectively become. And this is important to know because there are still many bikes on the market that are supplied with gearing better suited to narrower tyres than what they are equipped with.
Speaking specifically to entry-level road bikes, you’ll find that a double chainring (2x) gearing setup still offers the best overall gearing range where you can have both easier and harder gears, all the while not having big jumps in your pedalling cadence with each shift. Modern entry-level road bikes will typically feature a compact (50/34T) or semi-compact crank (52/36T) matched to a 11-32 or 11-34T cassette.
For entry-level gravel bikes, there is merit to the easier-to-use single chainring (1x) drivetrains which feature fewer moving parts, offer better chain retention over rough terrain, and just give you less to think about with each shift. Meanwhile the bigger gaps between each shift can be beneficial to the rapid pace changes needed in off-road riding. However, the lower-cost 1x drivetrains are more limited in overall gear range, often compromising the total available range. And this compromise with 1x drivetrains remains true until you start looking at bikes with the latest 11 and 12-speed components.
Once you’re sitting comfortably, the next most important thing to consider is the bike’s control. Having control of your bike will give you confidence, which means you’re more likely to have a positive riding experience. Of course, there are a few facets to what this includes.
Top of the control list is the handling of the bike. This topic has been covered in more detail in CyclingTips’ How to Choose a Gravel Bike and Gravel Bike Geometry features. Broadly speaking (but not always the case), you’ll often find that bikes that offer a more relaxed and upright fit also offer a more relaxed and stable handling characteristic. While bikes with a more performance-leaning fit will often also feature quicker handling that requires reduced input to make it change direction.
For newer riders, especially those looking to tackle gravel, a more stable and relaxed handling bike is often better. Meanwhile, more experienced riders may prefer a more responsive bike. As distances extend, it’s normal to prefer a more stable and relaxed handling bike as it requires less focus and energy to keep steaming ahead.
The handling of a bike is a greatly nuanced topic that is impacted by frame geometry, weight balance, handlebar height, stem length, tyre selection and many more nerdy details. However, one simple detail that can help you assess the intended handling of the bike is known as the Trail figure. A shorter trail figure (under 62 mm or thereabouts) will mean a faster handling characteristic, while a longer trail figure (over 65 mm) will mean a bike that feels more stable.
What good is a comfortable bike if you can’t stop? Unexpectedly this was certainly a topic of great discussion at our Steamboat Field Test, because, as it turns out, you shouldn’t take it for granted that every bike sold today has suitably functioning brakes.
Chances are that if you’re shopping for a gravel bike, you’re almost certainly looking at bikes with disc brakes. At the most budget end, you’ll find bikes with mechanical disc brakes which use a steel cable to connect the brake lever to the brake caliper. Spending a little more gets you into the world of hydraulic disc brakes, where like a modern car or motorbike, use non-compressible fluid to transfer the force at the brake lever to pistons at the brake caliper.
Where budget allows, our preference is for hydraulic disc brakes as they produce braking power with less hand effort, offer better finite control (aka modulation), and self-adjust with pad wear.
If you do choose a bike with mechanical disc brakes, then pay close attention to how much resistance there is when you squeeze the brake lever – it should feel smooth. And check that you can lock the wheel once the brake has been suitably bed-in.
All of the above applies when shopping for an entry-level road bike, but you may also be given the choice of having rim brakes. Rim brakes remain an efficient braking option for road use and in some cases even offer better braking performance than some mechanical disc brakes. Rim brakes are also significantly lighter, easier to maintain, and typically cheaper. Unfortunately, the bicycle industry is actively moving away from rim brakes on road bikes, partly due to fashion, but also because the disc brakes are more consistent in wet weather conditions, the heat can’t impact the tyre system, and the location of the brake calipers provides more freedom for frame tyre clearance.
One other factor to consider is the reach of the brake levers. Those with large hands need not worry here, but more petite riders should ensure that the tips of their fingers can rest comfortably on the brake lever when in the drops. More expensive bikes will have a lever reach adjustment feature that lets you bring the levers in closer to the bar, but this feature may not be provided on entry-level bikes, and so it’s worth checking.
Even the best brakes in the world are useless if you don’t have any ground traction to use them. And when it comes to traction on a bicycle, tyre choice (and the air pressure within them) is everything.
The topic of gravel tyre choice is one the CyclingTips team has touched on before, and really, it’s an endless and forever-changing conversation that can differ greatly based on the terrain you ride.
If you’re shopping for a gravel bike, then you’re probably (hopefully) wanting to ride gravel. One of the biggest upgrades to any gravel bike is to have the tyres set up tubeless. Ditching the tubes allows you to run lower pressures with a greatly reduced risk of the dreaded pinch flat. That lower tyre pressure will mean a smoother ride, greater traction, and even reduced rolling resistance, too.
Tubeless or the ability to make the tyres tubeless is increasingly becoming a standard feature on even low-cost bikes. Look for a bike with at least tubeless-ready wheels and tyres. The conversion from there is relatively easy (and is another topic I’ll cover in the coming weeks).
Beyond the tubeless readiness, ask local riders or bike shop employees for advice on what width and style of tyres are popular for your local riding. If you know your terrain is full of rock and rowdiness, then you’ll want to consider something with at least a 40 mm width and some reasonably sized knobs. However, if your local gravel is mostly well-kept dirt roads, then a tyre between a 35-40 mm width, and one with a smooth centre tread and lightly knobby sides should do you nicely.
Meanwhile, for pure road riding the trend is also for wider tyres which provide better traction, more comfort, and in some cases, reduced rolling resistance. It’s not uncommon for entry-level road bikes to now feature 30-32 mm width tyres, whereas five years ago a 25 mm tyre would have been considered wide.
Whatever tyre you choose, the best upgrade you can do to any bike is free, and that’s paying close attention to the air pressure (our team like the Silca pressure calculator). Whether it’s road or gravel riding, most people run too much air inside their tyres.
Once you’re comfortable and confident, you can focus on the finer details that make a bike easy to use and reliable.
It’s hard to enjoy a ride when your bike doesn’t work, and in this sense, reliability is an important factor.
Flat tyres are perhaps the most common failure point of the modern bike, and that certainly applies to a road or gravel bike that will likely have to fend of glass, thorns, potholes, rocks, and more. As already covered, our team are big fans of tubeless tyres for gravel riding, and that’s mostly because it greatly reduces the likelihood that you’ll need to stop to fix a flat.
For road cycling, tubeless remains a bit more of a premium feature with fewer obvious benefits versus when it’s used off-road. In this sense, the general recommendation is to stick with inner tubes and a tyre that offers puncture protection. If you’re flatting regularly, your tyre setup (or the pressures within) isn’t suitable for your riding conditions.
After tyres, the drivetrain is most likely to cause headaches. All popular drivetrain options on the market today can be set up to shift consistently and with good reliability. However, proper setup is everything, and it can take a good mechanic to get the best out of cheaper components.
Regarding gauging a new bike’s reliability, look for professional and consumer reviews related to the bicycle’s moving parts (such as the drivetrain and wheels). Choose a bike with as many standard fitments (like a regular round-shape seatpost or a threaded bottom bracket) and popular-brand parts as possible. And carefully consider the ease of access to aftermarket support with your purchase as issues can arise, this is just one area where buying through a local bike shop offers obvious benefit.
Following on closely from the last point, picking a bike with standard parts fitments and known-brand parts will also help to ensure that future servicing doesn’t come with bill shock.
Entry-level bikes will typically feature mechanical drivetrains (versus electronic) and mechanical brakes (versus hydraulic). These mechanical components use steel cables that require occasional maintenance and/or replacement. It’s easier to service these components when the cables are left somewhat exposed, especially around the handlebar and stem.
Similarly, bikes with standard parts fitments are generally just simpler to work on and require fewer specialist tools. A threaded bottom bracket is vastly easier and cheaper to work on than a press-fit version. And a bike that features a regular round (ideally 1 1/8in) steerer tube means easy access to new stems and headsets.
Perhaps the hardest part to see is the hubs. Some unbranded hubs may offer great durability but can present servicing issues through a lack of available parts. This is where going with a name-brand hub, or at least a large and popular bicycle manufacturer, will help ensure that spares remain available into the future.
Do you ride a bunch in the rain? Then a bike with mounts for full-length fenders should be high on your list. Also, be sure to check that there’s ample tyre clearance so that you can run those full-length fenders with a decent-width tyre.
Similarly, if you plan on doing some big adventures, then consider what additional mounting points on the bike you’ll need. Many of the latest gravel bikes have provisions for carrying extra water, mounting racks, and bolting versatile strap-based holders to the fork blades. Not everyone needs these extras, but they’re nice to have if you plan on carrying lots of gear.
Ok, you may have got this far and wondered why I haven’t mentioned things like bike weight, frame material, and aero features. Well, when it comes to your first road or gravel bike, none of those will greatly enhance your riding experience.
Below are some extremely common areas that brands use to persuade sales in their favour. You’ll love your bike, and therefore your cycling, more if you follow the listed items above rather than those that are below.
At the entry level you’ll probably find options in steel or aluminium. You could add titanium and carbon fibre into the options mix at the high-end. However, how the material is used matters infinitely more than what the material is. Find a bike that offers the comfort and control best suited to your needs, and once you’ve done that, then your budget will likely decide the best frame material for you.
The latest high-zoot bikes with wholly hidden cables, aerodynamic handlebars, and fancily-shaped seatposts can look cool.
However, the thing to know with many of these highly integrated bikes is that they feature the latest component technologies to make the sleek designs functional. The brakes are almost always hydraulic discs, which means the brake hoses can be bent at weird angles. While the gears are often electronically controlled, again, allowing all sorts of strange twists and turns in the frame shapes.
These twists and turns aren’t good news when you’re talking about lower-level components that require steel cables to connect the lever to the final component. Those bends create friction in the system, cause cable wear points, and make future servicing more difficult than needed. Not to mention that you often end up paying more for these aesthetic features.
Save the aero-looking bikes for if/when your budget allows, and at the more affordable level, you should focus on function over form.
Weight is one of the few tangible metrics to go on when buying bike components. All things being equal, a lighter bike is typically faster, more manoeuvrable, and often more enjoyable to ride. However, things are rarely equal, and going lighter almost always means compromise in another area.
In cycling, there’s an iconic saying from bike designer Keith Bontrager – “Lighter, Stronger, Cheaper – Pick Two”. It’s a saying that, with time, has proven to be truthful. Given we’re talking entry-level bikes, if you’re focusing on weight, then you’re surely compromising strength (and reliability).
To go a little deeper on this point, I’ll advise not to focus too much on the complete bike weights that some manufacturers publish. These are often a best-case scenario weight (component weights will vary within manufacturing batches), and in some cases, the manufacturers that publish these weights are knowingly using it as a sales tool and may have equipped puncture-prone tyres or perhaps made other compromises in order to encourage a sale.
I’m not saying you should entirely ignore weight as a factor, but just put far less emphasis on it.
Watch out for bikes with a fancy rear derailleur surrounded by far cheaper-level components. This is an old selling tactic because most consumers will shop based on key and visible parts of the bike and often overlook the smaller details. A fancy rear derailleur is only worth having if the other components around it are of near or comparable quality. Thankfully this selling tactic is far less common today, but it still shows up occasionally.
So to summarise, if you’re in the market for your first gravel or road bike, put your energy into finding a bike that fits you comfortably, is well suited to your riding desires, and will provide you with confidence to use it.
I hope this article has given you some things to think about and that you’ll stick around. Happy riding!