How to Choose a Gravel Bike

Published May 5, 2023

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A person rides a gravel bike on a dirt path with mountains in the background

Gravel biking has exploded in popularity as a form of adventure, exercise, racing and exploration on various types of terrain, both paved and unpaved. Many road cyclists are turning to gravel outings to ride routes where there are fewer cars, or to go bikepacking on multiday adventures that involve carrying gear on the bike. Compared to road bikes, gravel bikes offer more versatility and off-pavement capability.

A knowledgeable bike specialist at an REI store or other reputable bike shop can give detailed information on options for frame materials, frame geometry and components within your price range, so use this article as a starting point to help you find the right gravel bike for you. For several of our staff recommendations, read The Best Gravel Bikes: Staff Picks.

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What Is a Gravel Bike?

A gravel bike features a drop handlebar and allows you to cover long distances and over a wide variety of terrain. Gravel bikes tend to have a longer wheelbase to ensure stable handling; a more comfortable, relaxed geometry; wider (35 mm and up), often knobby tires to increase grip on rough surfaces; and disc brakes for powerful stopping in various weather conditions. With the variety of gravel bikes available, almost every type of rider can find the right one, whether you're a fitness enthusiast, adventure rider or a competitive or noncompetitive event rider.

Is a Gravel Bike Right for You?

If you're curious about riding unpaved surfaces or doing overnight bike trips, you may be wondering if you want a gravel bike compared to a road bike or a touring bike. Here's a quick guide.

If you want to:

Consider getting:

...mostly ride unpaved surfaces like dirt or gravel roads, 4x4 tracks or even stretches of very smooth singletrack; and you'll ride pavement to connect the unpaved portions. You may also be interested in bikepacking—a form of multiday touring that also takes place on unpaved surfaces, and thus requires a bike that can handle bags attached to a frame.

...a gravel bike
...mostly ride paved roads, and occasionally very smooth, unpaved roads. You'll primarily ride for fitness, recreation or competition....an endurance bike

...mostly ride multiday tours on pavement.

...a touring bike

For a deeper dive into the various styles of bikes available, read the REI Expert Advice article Bicycles: How to Choose.


Typical Gravel Bike Features

Here's a quick primer on common gravel bike features.

Gravel Bike Features

  • Frame, wheels and components that balance light weight with sturdiness.
  • A drop (curled) handlebar. (Though some are now available in flat bars).
  • Disc brakes that enable all-weather stopping and easier braking on rough terrain.
  • Wheels and tires that are wider than a road bike, but narrower than a mountain bike. Tires are often treaded or knobby for better durability and traction.
  • Geometry options can range from more nimble and efficient to more relaxed and stability-oriented.
  • No front or rear suspension (in most instances).

Gravel Bike Function

  • Allow riders to travel for long distances over a wide variety of terrain. Options for fitness enthusiasts, adventure riders and both competitive and non-competitive event riders.
  • Designed to excel on a variety of unpaved surfaces, from rough 4x4 paths to smooth gravel roads to occasional smooth singletrack; and to be efficient on the paved roads in between. Not suited for rides that are primarily singletrack (mountain bike terrain).
  • Designed for long rides in remote areas, or even multiday bikepacking trips. Often include extra mounts for accessories like bike frame bags, extra water bottle cages and bike cargo racks.

Key Gravel Bike Buying Decisions

Gravel riding can run the spectrum from long-distance endurance events and rides to multiday bikepacking trips carrying gear attached to the bike. The bikes themselves thus also sit on a spectrum that ranges from nimbler rigs that more resemble road bikes, to sturdier and more stable rigs that more resemble mountain bikes in terms of geometry and tire size.

Gravel Bike Geometry and Frames

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).

Tire Clearance and Wheels

Tires are a key determinant for the terrain a bike can handle. The wider the tire, the more capable a bike. 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.

Tires themselves are easy to swap, but every bike can only fit up to a certain width of tire, so one of the most important features of a gravel bike is its tire clearance: the maximum width of a tire that can fit within the bike frame or fork (usually limited by the bike's rear triangle). Tire clearance is not printed on the bike, and often, a bike can handle a wider tire than the one it's sold with. Ask a sales associate or visit the manufacturer's product page for clearance questions.

For most gravel or dirt roads, and some occasional smooth singletrack, a 40 mm tire on a 700c wheel is plenty. For riders who often ride very rough terrain, or go bikepacking, more tire clearance is wise. These types of riders may consider a bike that can clear up to a 700c x 47 mm tire, or even a bike with 650b x 55 mm wheels, as the smaller wheel diameter allows the bike to fit a 2.1-inch, mountain bike width tire.

Tubeless tires: Many gravel bikers today prefer to ride with tubeless tires and rims. These wheel setups forego the inner tube for a system (rim, tire, sealant) sealant solution that allows for inflation without the use of an inner tube and can almost immediately seal flats from small punctures. Going tubeless significantly reduces the chances of a pinch flat, and allows the rider to run lower tire pressures, meaning better traction and a smoother ride.

When bikes are sold, they usually come with tubes, but if you can, look for bikes that come with wheels and tires that have a "TLR" or "TR" (tubeless ready) or "TCS" (tubeless compatible system) label or sticker, or otherwise indicate that they can be set up tubeless. If the bike you're considering is not tubeless-ready, know that tires are easy to swap, but wheels can be quite expensive.

Learn more: How to Install Tubeless Tires


Frame Materials

Your primary frame choices are aluminum, carbon fiber or steel.

  • Most aluminum frames are very good at providing a smooth ride, and 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 carbon-fiber bike frame generally provides a more comfortable, vibration-absorbing ride than an aluminum frame. They are often lighter and more expensive than aluminum-framed bikes due to their labor-intensive manufacturing process.
  • A steel bike frame 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.

Buying tip: If you must have the lightest, then a carbon-fiber frame is going to appeal to you. However, some of the higher-end aluminum bikes (ones that are similarly priced to the least-expensive carbon bikes) can be quite light. By saving some money on the frame, you might be able to upgrade components, like the drivetrain and brakes, more than on a similarly-priced carbon bike. Steel can be an economical choice for riders who don't mind extra weight and taking a more leisurely pace up climbs.

For a more detailed look at frame materials, learn more in the REI Expert Advice article, Understanding Bike Frame Materials.


Gearing

One of the key decisions 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.

Single-chainring cranksets, better known as 1x (as in, 1x10, or 1x11, 1x12), have just one chainring in front, and are paired with 10- to 12-speed cassettes that have a wider range of gearing. This setup first became popular on mountain bikes because it was simple, eliminated the possibility of cross-chaining (being in a bad combination of front and rear gearing) and made it easier to make significant gearing changes quickly in highly variable off-road terrain. They also tend to exhibit better chain retention, a benefit for gravel riding over bumpier surfaces. But because the total number of gears on a 1x might range from 10 to 12 gears, it eliminates some ability to fine-tune to the best gear for whatever terrain you're on, making it less suitable for more intense competitive riding.

A 2x crankset has two chainrings up front, paired with a 10- to 12-speed cassette in the back, for a total of 20 to 24 gear combinations. In the past, gravel bikes sported compact cranksets, which had smaller chainrings than standard road bike cranksets. Now, many gravel bikes have subcompact gearing, giving them the lower, easier range of gears necessary for grinding up steep and loose unpaved roads and riding with heavy loads.

Buying tip: Most modern 2x and 1x gravel drivetrains exhibit similar overall gear ranges (highest and lowest gears), so whether you want a double or single crankset will depend upon your personal preference. Go for test rides and shift through gears on a hill to try each type out.


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 operate via a system that uses hydraulic fluid to transfer pressure from the brake lever to the brake caliper. They offer more progressive and stronger braking with less finger effort (helpful for riding rough terrain or when you're exhausted), and they self-adjust for brake pad wear.
  • Cable-actuated (also known as mechanical) disc brakes operate via a cable system. They need manual adjusting as the pads wear. They are often more affordable than hydraulic systems, and are easier to service, especially if you find yourself in a remote area without access to bike services. There are also hybrid disc brakes that incorporate both cable-actuated and hydraulic elements. These can offer more power than mechanical brakes, and tend to be less expensive than full hydraulic disc brakes.

Buying tip: Hydraulic brakes cause less upper-body and hand fatigue, and enable better bike control through the ability to more subtly moderate speed. They're worth the investment if you can afford it.


Brake Levers and Gear Shifters

Once upon a time, these were completely separate mechanisms located on different parts of the bike. Now, they are often integrated. The exact mode of operation can vary by the brand and model.

By test-riding different bikes, you may develop a personal preference for the functioning of one style over another. The two biggest manufacturers of bike components, including shifters and brake levers, are SRAM and Shimano. On bikes equipped with a SRAM drivetrain, a single lever located behind the brake lever is used to shift up or down. Meanwhile, Shimano models use two shifters, one to pull the cable for a shift, and a second level positioned behind the brake lever to release the cable.

Buying tip: Be sure you can maintain a good grip on the handlebars while braking or changing gears. Try shifting and braking with your hands on top of the bars as well as in the drop position. If you have smaller hands, ask if the levers have reach adjustment and how that works. It could be a simple screw adjustment or a shim addition.


A person tightens the buckles on a rear bike pannier.

Frame Mounts

Because of the out-there nature of dirt and gravel roads, gravel rides often take place in remote areas without many sources of water, food or shelter, like gas stations or convenience stores. The bikes, then, often include additional mounts for accessories like extra water bottle cages, frame bags and various racks, so that a rider can be self-supported for hours or even days. However, not all bikes include extra mounts—more race-oriented models, for example, may have minimal attachment points. Take note of these features and consider what kind of riding you'll be doing before making a buying decision.


Getting the Correct Frame Size

Most gravel bike models are available in several different frame sizes. It is important to get the right frame size for your body. It will be noticeably more comfortable and exhibit better handling characteristics than a frame that is too large or small.

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.

How do you find out what frame size suits you? Many bike manufacturers will publish size guidelines based on height, but your body's specific proportions may tip you toward one size or another. An experienced bike salesperson can often tell by looking at your position on a bike.

If you already have a road or gravel bike that fits you well, you can also look for a bike in a size that fits similarly by looking up two key numbers on a geometry chart: reach, the distance between the bike's bottom bracket and the handlebar; and stack, the distance from the bottom bracket to the top of the head tube. While measurements like top-tube length affect fit differently from bike to bike, these two numbers are standard fit measurements across models. The more critical one is reach: If, say, a bike that fits you well has a reach of 534 mm in a size 54, you'll likely fit well on a different bike that also has a 534 mm reach, even though it may be a slightly different size, like a 53.

Simply being measured to determine your recommended frame size is not the same as a bike fit. It is just the starting point. Read more about bike fit near the end of this article.


Accessories

In addition to the gravel bike itself, you may need to set aside another $60 to $100 for a set of basic pedals and $80 and up for a pair of cycling shoes. (Most gravel and road bikes are sold without pedals so that riders can choose their own pedal and cleat system.) You'll also want a full tool kit for repairing flat tires and other mechanicals on a ride, especially because gravel rides are likely to take you to more remote areas, possibly without cell phone service. For the same reason, many gravel riders also like to equip their bikes with frame bags for holding extra tools, snacks, water and layers. You'll want to be sure your frame bag fits your frame—they come in different shapes and sizes.

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At the Bike Shop


Take Test Rides

Ask if you can test ride several bikes. With the help of a sales specialist, you should be able to narrow down your selection to two or three bikes. Even though they may have similar prices and components, they will feel different to ride. Take each for a 10- to 15-minute ride, ideally over some varied terrain including a short hill. In most cases, one bike is just going to feel better for you than the others. You want a bike to become a natural extension of your body.

Buying tip: Go with the bike that feels right. Ideally, it should be suitable for your current needs as well as when your riding time and experience level increase.


Get Fitted for Comfort and Efficiency

The correct frame size is a starting point for a good bike fit. The other mandatory step is having the bike shop check and set the proper seat height for you before you head out the door.

The next step up is to invest in a professional bike fitting. This allows you to optimize your riding experience by fine-tuning your relationship with the bicycle. This service is offered by some REI stores and independent bike stores.

A professional fitting includes observation, measurement and adjustment to set your shoe cleat position, seat height and horizontal positioning, reach and drop to the handlebars, and body angles in relation to the bike. The goal is to make you as comfortable as possible on the bike and reduce or eliminate any aches and pains. It also enhances your pedaling efficiency and bike handling.


Getting Out There

While there are road rules to abide by and riding etiquette to learn, much of the gravel-riding experience is up to you to create. You can ride for 30 minutes or 6 hours. You may enjoy riding on your own or with a group of friends. If you are new to the sport, try to find a group ride, local cycling club or some willing and able friends to provide guidance. Most importantly, have fun!

Find a Gravel Class or Event at REI Experiences