The Best Gravel Bikes: Staff Picks

Whether you lean roadie or backroadie, these bikes can go all the places you’ll go

Ken Knapp|Erik Nilson|Published June 29, 2023

17 reviews with an average rating of 3.9 out of 5 stars
Fire lookout perched atop rocky outcrop with evergreen trees in foreground

Gravel biking, once a niche racing genre, has most definitely arrived. Beyond the asphalt confines of many American cities lie hundreds of thousands of miles of unpaved rural and forest backroads. And all of that is the realm of the gravel bike. Riders of all stripes are going there, and bike brands have taken note. Generally, gravel bikes forgo suspension in favor of wider (and grippier) tires, and feature drop bars for improved aerodynamics. These bikes are sporty enough to zip over pavement and stout enough to rumble over terra not-so-firma. Getting the riding position just right is tricky: Riders need to be able to lean in for speed, yet also rise up for comfort and balance. Luckily, plenty of bikes are built for just such a task.

We asked our bike experts to share their top picks for the best gravel bikes at REI Co-op, and these rides bridge the asphalt/outback divide in some innovative ways.


Staff Picks

For quick recommendations, check out our roundup below, or scroll down for more in-depth reviews.


For beginner gravel riders who are interested in exploring back roads and rail trails, it doesn't get much better than the approachable Salsa Journeyer Sora 700. What makes it the best gravel bike for beginners? For starters, the bike's sloping top tube allows for a very low standover height, which means getting on and off is a breeze. Additionally, the dependable Shimano Sora 2x9 drivetrain offers a wide range of gears that work equally well for grinding up steep climbs as it does cruising down hills. We also love the bike's numerous mounting locations, which means that overnight trips are fair game with the Journeyer.

Other noteworthy features of the Salsa include a hardwearing aluminum frame, fender mounts for wet-weather commuters, and the ability to experiment with 650b wheels and tires (not included) should you want to mix things up in the future. Finally, the tubeless-ready WTB rims and Teravail Washburn tires offer a nice mix of fast-rolling speed on tarmac and control off-road. Ultimately, the Salsa Journeyer Sora 700 will meet you where you're at in your gravel journey and won't hold you back for whatever your biking future holds. Buy here.

Want to get into gravel riding but not sure what type of riding you'll most want to do? Then we think the do-it-all Co-op Cycles ADV 2.3 is the most versatile bike for the job. The aluminum frame is durable and can easily handle the abuse that comes with loaded bikepacking trips. Meanwhile, the internally routed dropper post is a great match for technical washboard gravel descents (quickly lowering the seat allows for more control). The ADV 2.3 is one of few gravel bikes with a dropper seatpost, which immediately sold Cori Wright, a shipping lead in the REI Conway, New Hampshire, store. "What! A gravel bike with a dropper post. I need this bike. Riding around here is a smorgasbord of road and trail surfaces, and this bike can go everywhere I want to ride."

Furthermore, the high-end Shimano GRX 800 series 1x drivetrain is simple to operate and ideal for navigating city streets or gravel roads. Equipped with powerful hydraulic disc brakes and grippy 700 x 40c WTB Nano tires that can be set up tubeless, the ADV 2.3 doesn't shy away from occasional singletrack trails. Becca Hawk, a senior copywriter at REI, takes hers on solo gravel jaunts and bikepacking trips on a mix of gravel, road and singletrack, and her bike "handled it beautifully."

Brandon Thomason, a sales lead at the REI store in Boulder, Colorado, adds: "I have watched friends use this bike for everything from overnight bikepacking adventures to gravel racing to daily commuting. This bike has allowed them to grow in their biking knowledge and discover the joys afforded by the less-traveled gravel roads and light singletrack." Buy here.

Hitting that sweet spot between low price and quality parts is always tricky, but Cannondale delivers with the Topstone 2, making it one of the best value gravel bikes at REI. For about $2,000 you get a high-quality aluminum frame and carbon fork (something Cannondale is well-known for), a smooth-running Shimano GRX 400 drivetrain complete with hydraulic disc brakes, and tubeless-ready wheels and tires from WTB. Additionally, the Topstone 2 has plenty of mounting locations for bottles, gear and fenders. In short, the Topstone 2 checks all the boxes for a modern gravel bike and is the perfect match for most riders, all without breaking the bank.

JP Zamarron, a retail specialist at the REI store in New Hampshire, says all those features, combined with a versatile design, "make the Topstone a fantastic option for the rider looking to explore roads with mixed surfaces as well as getting into bikepacking." Buy here.

Whether you're eyeing a local overnighter leaving from the house or gearing up for a month-long trip, it's hard to beat the Salsa Cutthroat GRX 600 for long days in the saddle. The formidable Cutthroat has been designed from the ground up to excel off the beaten path and is built for two-wheeled adventures, making it our pick for bikepacking.

Specifically made for America's longest off-road cycling route, the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR), the Cutthroat has a host of thoughtfully appointed bikepacking features to see you through your next outing. Starting with the lightweight carbon frame, Salsa tuned the Cutthroat to reduce vibrations and absorb small impacts from rough roads, all in the name of improving comfort mile after mile. Next, you'll find enough clearance to fit 29 x 2.4-inch tires with room for mud to pass through, which can stop smaller clearance bikes in their tracks. "It's just a well-rounded bike, so versatile," says REI content producer Dustin Kingman, who goes on regular 50-mile jaunts on it.

The Cutthroat also offers a full suite of mounting locations for bikepacking bags and gear. (Salsa sells frame bags specifically sized for the Cutthroat lineup, which make the most of coveted storage space.) Finally, the Shimano GRX 600 drivetrain is known for its reliability and the hydraulic disc brakes provide plenty of stopping power for long mountain descents. Buy here.

For one of the best gravel bikes for touring, look no further than the thoughtfully designed Co-op Cycles ADV 1.1. Standout touring-specific features include a smooth-riding steel frame to take the edge off rough roads, and the upright riding position to ensure you stay comfortable hour after hour (or day after day). The ADV 1.1 is also smartly spec'd with a wide range Shimano 3x10 drivetrain—which includes a very easy gear for ascending mountain passes when loaded down with bags. Once you've had your fill of breathtaking views and decide it's time to head down the other side, the powerful Tektro hydraulic disc brakes do a great job of maintaining speed and control. "This bike is the right combination of quality in the components and construction that you can confidently travel long distances without much concern," says one customer-reviewer who carried 42 pounds of gear for 282 miles with no problems.

Further touring-specific features are the included front and rear racks, as well as spare spokes mounted to the chainstay (in case you need to make a roadside repair). Finally, the low-tech bar end shifters are known for their simplicity and reliability, yet are easy to service in the field should the need arise. Not only does the ADV 1.1 make a wonderful touring bike, but all these features and characteristics make it a great bike to commute on as well. Buy here.

Looking to drop some weight from your bike and improve ride quality in the process? Then we think the recently updated Cannondale Topstone Carbon 4 is a top choice. The Cannondale sets itself apart from the competition in two ways. First, the Kingpin rear suspension system provides up to 30mm of travel at the saddle and an exceptional level of versatility. The suspension effectively takes the edge off jarring potholes, ensuring an exceptionally comfortable riding experience without adding a lot of weight. Whether you're lining up for a gravel race or simply cruising around town, it's easy to reap the benefits of the Topstone's rear suspension.

In terms of versatility, it's also hard to match the smart build kit and robust set of frame features found on the Topstone Carbon 4. The wide-range Shimano GRX 400 drivetrain works equally well for steep climbs and fast group rides. Additionally, the plethora of mounting points on the frame and fork can carry days' worth of gear and food should you want to try your hand at bikepacking.
And dropping weight does not sacrifice hardiness in this case. The front and rear fender mounts are great for wet-weather commuters, and the high-volume 45c tires provide loads of traction and float over the roughest of gravel roads. Buy here.

With roots dating back to about 2013, the Salsa Warbird may hold the title as the original gravel race bike. Fast forward 10 years, and the fourth-generation Warbird GRX 810 still has "all of the specs that professionals and performance enthusiasts are looking for," says Brandon Thomason, our sales lead in Boulder. If you're going to spend all day in the saddle, comfort should be high on your must-have list. That's where one of the main talking points of the Warbird comes in: Its Class 5™ Vibration Reduction System (VRS) helps reduce rider fatigue caused by micro-impacts from rough roads.

Alan Bundy, a bike shop service lead in the REI Wichita, Kansas, store, says his Warbird has performed very well in several different conditions, even on road. He says it's ideal for "anyone who wants a bike that will enable you to go as quick as you can over any type of gravel surface." Another staffer who has logged thousands of miles in gravel events over the years describes it as "simply one of the fastest, smoothest bikes out there."

Other event-ready highlights include a smooth-shifting 2x Shimano RX810 drivetrain and powerful hydraulic disc brakes, multiple mounting locations for feed bags and water bottles, and the ability to run a suspension fork (sold separately) for exceptionally rough routes. Finally, the Warbird GRX 810 2x is available in a
whopping
seven sizes that range from 49 cm to 61 cm, fitting riders from about 4'9" to 6'3" and up, ensuring a proper match. Buy here.

Shop All Gravel Bikes

Buying Advice for Gravel Bikes

Because of their versatility, gravel bikes often appeal to riders who don't want road surface to limit their route choice, as well as to commuters and bikepackers. Gravel events are very much a thing, too. Many are also endurance epics, which means that a gravel racing bike is really just a vehicle for going harder, longer.

For a more in-depth guide with buying tips, learn more in our article How to Choose Gravel Bikes.

Consider the following factors when choosing a gravel bike:

Frame Materials

Carbon, aluminum and steel are your main choices for frame materials.

Carbon bikes like the Cannondale Topstone Carbon 4 and the Salsa Warbird are typically lighter weight and absorb vibration though at a more premium price than aluminum bikes.

Most aluminum frames like the Co-op Cycles ADV 2.3, the Cannondale Topstone 2 and the Salsa Journeyer Sora 700c Bike provide a very smooth ride. They are generally less expensive than carbon fiber. Most aluminum-frame road bikes come with a composite (carbon fiber) front fork to absorb some road vibration and give an improved ride quality.

A steel bike frame like the Co-op Cycles ADV 1.1 tends to be heavier than either carbon or aluminum, but offers the smoothest and most vibration-absorbing ride. They also tend to be more durable and less expensive than the other frame materials.

Geometry

Gravel bikes that are closer to road bikes in geometry will typically have quicker and more nimble handling and be more responsive to steering input at higher speeds. These frames usually accommodate tires up to 40 mm wide and take 700c (road bike diameter) wheels. Bikes on this end of the spectrum have head tube angles that are about 71 degrees or higher, and are well-suited for longer organized events or everyday off-road riding, including faster group riding.

Gravel bikes closer to mountain bikes in geometry will be more stable at high speeds. They're intended to be capable on rougher or more challenging terrain, including easy singletrack trails, and to ride well while loaded with gear. They can often take either 650b (27.5-inch diameter) wheels or the traditional 700c (29-inch).

Tires

Wheel size: Bigger 700c (29-inch) wheels make it easier to maintain speed; smaller 650b (27.5-inch) wheels offer more maneuverability and can accept wider tires. All of the bikes in our lineup have 700c wheels, though some are also available in smaller wheels.

Tires are a key determinant for the terrain a bike can handle. The wider the tire, the more capable a bike. Wider tires offer more cushion and grip; narrower tires will have more rolling momentum. Gravel bike tires can range from 32 mm to 50 mm (1.25 inches to 2 inches) wide for 700c wheels, or up to 54 mm (2.1 inches) wide on 650b wheels. They come in a variety of treads for various conditions.

Other Considerations

Gearing: A decision you'll make when buying a gravel bike is whether you want a 1x ("one-by") or a 2x ("two-by" or "double") crankset. This is the componentry that the pedals turn to rotate the rear wheel via the chain. 1x (11-speed) drivetrains are easier to shift and require less maintenance because they are less complex; 2x (22-speed) setups help you conserve energy over long distances and long hill climbs.

Brakes: All reliable modern-day gravel bikes come with disc brakes, which feature brake pads that grip onto a brake rotor mounted to the wheel hub. They are preferred for off-road riding because they are far superior to rim brakes in terms of power and all-conditions performance. You'll be presented with the option of hydraulic or cable-actuated brakes. Hydraulic disc brakes offer a little more stopping power and control; mechanical disc brakes save you a few dollars off the purchase price.

Frame Mounts

Gravel rides often take place along dirt and gravel roads in remote areas, so these bikes typically include additional frame mounts, which are places to attach bike bags, water bottles and fenders. They're handy if you're planning to commute, ride in gravel events, or go bikepacking where you might need to be self-supported for hours or even days. However, not all bikes include extra mounts. Take note of these features and consider what kind of riding you'll be doing before making a buying decision.

Find the Correct Bike Frame Size

Gravel bike models are available in several different frame sizes. It is important to get the right frame size for your body so you'll feel more comfortable and better handle the bike.

Like road bikes, gravel bike frame sizes may be expressed either in centimeters—which measures the length of the seat tube—or the more generic XS through XL size range.

Most bike brands provide a sizing chart listing frame size based on rider height. If a chart lacks height ranges, then measure your "cycling inseam," which is the distance from the floor to your crotch when you're wearing cycling shoes. Then look in the size chart for a standover height that's about 2" more than your cycling inseam—that's your bike size. To learn more, read Bike Fitting Basics.


About the author

Erik Nilson, a dedicated bike enthusiast based in Washington State's Methow Valley, boasts an extensive background in the outdoor industry. With over 15 years of experience, he has worn many hats, including three years as a bike mechanic and two years as a buyer for REI's bike department. Erik's passion for cycling led him to complete a one-year internship as a technical product developer with Co-op Cycles, where he refined his expertise in all things bikes. He also raced mountain bikes at a high level for about five years, gaining invaluable insights into gear and bike equipment when pushed to the limit. Erik is the founder of Cascade Gear Reviews, a niche company offering top-rated reviews on bike-related gear.