How to Choose a Gravel Bike? [Beginner’s GUIDE]

How to Choose a Gravel Bike

Are you thinking about buying a gravel bike but you don’t know how to choose it? You are in the right place.

This guide explains what gravel bike type you should choose, what frame materials gravel bikes use, what wheels and tires to use for different terrains, and much more!

Let’s dive in!

Gravel Bike Type

All gravel/adventure bikes are not the same. They differ from each other in their geometry, wheel size, accessories compatibility, etc. Based on what type of rider you are, where, and how you want to ride, you should consider getting the right gravel bike type.

There are 3 main types of gravel bikes:

Gravel bikes for bike light terrain tend to have 700c wheels, narrow tires, and more aggressive, sporty geometry. They are perfect for routes with paved & dirt road sections, maintaining your fitness level, gravel races, etc.

Gravel bikes for bike rough terrain come with 650b wheels and wider tires. You can ride with them in rougher terrain like dirt roads, forest roads, single tracks, etc. The larger tire volume ensures they are better at absorbing bumps, and thanks to their smaller size, they also accelerate faster than 700c wheels. Their geometry tends to be more relaxed compared to performance-oriented gravel bikes.

Note: A lot of gravel bikes are compatible with both 650b and 700c wheel sizes. Just make sure the bike offers wide enough tire clearance for wider tires. Therefore, the difference between the 1st and the 2nd type is based on the wheel size and the tire, eventually the frame geometry.

Gravel bikes for bike touring are usually equipped with 700c wheels and narrow tires. Their geometry is more upright and relaxed compared to the gravel bike categories above. They also come with included rear and front racks. This makes them suitable for bike touring and long bike adventures.

Sources: cyclingweekly.com, shimano.com, bikerumor.com

performance gravel bike
A gravel bike with performance-oriented geometry and 700c wheels
endurance gravel bike
A gravel bike with more relaxed geometry and 650b wheels
touring gravel bike
A touring gravel bike with racks for bike touring

Frame Material

Gravel bikes usually have a frame made of aluminum, carbon, steel, or titanium. This depends mainly on the price of the bike.

The pros and cons of bikes made of these materials are the following:

  1. Aluminum gravel bikes are the most affordable because aluminum is relatively cheap and easier to manufacture than carbon. Aluminum frames are not as stiff as steel or carbon frames, but they are lighter than steel frames.
    The biggest downside of the aluminum frames is that they fatigue and corrode over time. Aluminum gravel bikes are an ideal entry-level point for beginners as well as for advanced riders with a limited budget.
  2. Steel gravel bikes are stiff and durable. They provide good power transfer, won’t crack after a first crash, and last longer than aluminum frames. Steel gravel bikes look unique thanks to thin tubes and can be repaired relatively easily.
    Their biggest downside is the weight. They are relatively heavy compared to aluminum or carbon frames.
  3. Carbon gravel bikes are very stiff and light (they offer the highest stiff-to-weight ratio). They are perfect for performance-oriented riders, or for people that want the latest and greatest.
    The biggest downside of the carbon frames is their price and the fact that they need to be inspected for cracks after a heavy crash to prevent failure under stress.
  4. Titanium bikes share similar characteristics to steel frames. They are stiff, rust-resistant, and comfortable to ride. But, they are heavier than aluminum or carbon frames, and more expensive due to high titanium and labor costs.

Sources: ScienceDirect, SheldonBrown, CyclingWeekly, Rodbikes

Frame MaterialWeight of the Bike
Carbon7.5 to 10 kg
Aluminum9.5 to 12 kg
Steel11 to 13.5 kg
Titanium11 to 13.5 kg
The estimated weight of the gravel bike depending on the frame material

The estimated weight is based on the market research I did and the comparison of weights of gravel bikes. The bike weight also depends on the components used on the bike. The more expensive gravel bikes usually have better and lighter components so their overall weight is also lower.

Groupset

Gravel bikes use 1X, 2X, or 3X shifting. Which one is the best? Let’s talk about their pros and cons.

1x chainring
1x chainring
2x chainring
2x chainring
3x chainring
3x chainring

1X shifting (1 chainring) offers the least amount of gears (usually 1×9, 1×10, 1×11). These groupsets are lighter and easier to maintain thanks to fewer parts. They are also suitable for beginners because the rider can only focus on rear shifting and does not have to think about cross-chaining.

The disadvantage of 1X shifting is obvious. The jumps between the individual gears are larger than 2X or 3X shifting, and the gear selection is limited. So, you may not always find a gear that suits you the best.

The general rule of thumb is that 1X shifting is better for mountain bike-like terrain (trails) where you need easy gears and change gears quickly when going from descent to climb and vice versa.

2X shifting (2 chainrings) offers a wider gear range compared to 1X. This is an advantage when you need to climb a steep climb and also ride fast in descents.

On the other hand, they are more prone to failure and damage due to many parts and things that can go wrong. They are also heavier than 1X shifting.

3X shifting (3 chainrings) offers the widest gear selection. Yet, it is not very widespread on gravel bikes because it is too complex and relatively heavy. It is used on entry-level gravel bikes.

Cross-chaining vs. good shifting
Avoid cross-changing to reduce chain friction and drivetrain damage. Follow good shifting best practices to improve efficiency.

Wheel Size

Gravel bikes feature 700c or 650b wheels. Which one should you choose? Well, it depends mainly on your riding style and the terrain you would like to ride in.

700c vs 650b wheel size
700c vs 650b wheel size

700c wheels have a larger diameter and use narrower tires than 650b wheels. This makes them better for light terrain and paved surfaces like the tarmac because they allow you to ride faster without spending as much energy.

According to La Velocita, 700c wheels combine the best weight, grip, and rolling resistance ratio.

650b wheels have a smaller diameter and use wider high-volume tires. This makes them suitable for rougher terrain like bumpy and forest roads, mud, single tracks, trails, etc. The knobby tires ensure that you get enough grip and adhesion.

Wider tires pressurized to lower pressure are better at absorbing bumps and other vibrations. This means your ride will be smoother and more comfortable.

If you want to ride long-distance trips on mostly paved surfaces with dirt road sections, buy a gravel bike with 700c wheels and equip them with narrow tires. For more difficult, grip-demanding terrain, use 650b wheels and wider, knobby tires.

A Word About Tires

Obviously, you can change tires. But what tires should you use for different terrains? CyclingTips team did a pretty good job at defining various gravel surfaces.

GradeDefinitionSuggested Tire Size
1Tarmac, bad paved roads with cobbles700×25 – 700×32
2Dirt roads700×28 – 700×35
3Light gravel 700×32 – 700×38
4Rough gravel700×35 – 700×40+
5MTB terrain700×38+ / 650b

Source: cyclingtips.com

Feel free to watch their full video below to find out more.

Brakes

Gravel bikes use almost exclusively disc brakes. They are perfect for gravel bikes because of their efficiency and great stopping power, even in wet conditions or deep mud. There are 2 basic types of disc brakes:

  1. Mechanical disc brakes work similarly to rim brakes – a steel cable moves the pistons, creating friction that slows the bike. The advantage is that they are compatible with standard rim shifters and are easier to maintain at home. Their disadvantage is that the steel cable can wear out more easily and break when you don’t expect it.
  2. Hydraulic disc brakes use fluid filled in the system. As CyclingAbout explains, when you pull the brake lever, the fluid rushes down to the caliper, closing the brake pads. This type of disc brakes provides braking consistency in any riding conditions. On the other hand, they are more difficult to maintain at home due to their complexity.

Cheaper, entry-level gravel bikes for around $1000 use mostly mechanical disc brakes. More expensive gravel bikes for around $2000 use hydraulic, sometimes still mechanical disc brakes. Gravel bikes above $3000 are equipped with hydraulic disc brakes. This, of course, depends on the brand and other factors.


Accessories Compatibility

Gravel bikes are compatible with many bike accessories like bike racks, additional bottle cage mounts, mudguards, etc.

They are useful for those who want to use a gravel bike for longer multi-day trips because they allow you to equip the bike with panniers and bags that will increase your cargo space.

You can use the additional storage space for storing things like:

  • Spare clothes, jacket, raincoat…
  • A tent
  • Sleeping bag
  • Maintenance tools
  • Food
  • And much more

In the following video by bikepacking.com, you find out more about the essentials for a bike trip.


Additional Features

There are gravel bikes with additional features like a dropper post or a suspended fork. These features are not very common, but they are a nice bonus because they can improve your comfort.

However, do not choose a gravel bike based on these features unless they are crucial to you. This is because they usually result in a higher price of the bike or worse components than a gravel bike for the same price.


Gravel Bike Size

If you plan to order a gravel bike online, make sure to choose its correct size to improve your comfort and avoid injuries.

Gravel bikes have the same sizing as road bikes. Their size is usually given in centimeters (48, 50, 52, etc.) or descriptive sizes (XS, S, M, L, XL, XL).

TIP: Compare geometries of gravel bike frames using the Bikeinsights tool.

If you can’t try the bike in person, it can be tricky to choose its correct size. Luckily, you can take advantage of gravel bike size charts from bike manufacturers, bike size calculators, and other methods to choose the right size.


Final Thoughts

When choosing a gravel bike, think about the type of terrain you want to ride in and your riding style. Gravel bikes are versatile, but they have their limits as well. For example, if you choose a touring gravel bike, it won’t be very suitable for more difficult, MTB-like terrain.

Depending on your budget, you can choose a gravel bike made of different materials and equipped with different quality components. Remember, a carbon gravel bike for the same price as an aluminum gravel bike will probably be equipped with worse components.

Also, get 700c or 650b wheels, mechanical or hydraulic disc brakes, and look for a gravel bike compatible with various accessories based on how do you want to use your bike.

Feel free to read the whole guide to find out more about individual topics.


How to Choose a Gravel Bike FAQ

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