If you've heard of gravel riding but haven't yet tried it, you might be wondering: what's the big deal? Can't I just ride my road bike on rougher surfaces? Road bikes with wider tires might work for smooth gravel, but for bigger explorations with varying conditions––loose pebbles, packed gravel, mud, chunky two-track, and even single track––a gravel specific bike goes a long way toward a more efficient and enjoyable ride.

The good news is it's a great time to buy a gravel bike. Thanks to the genre's ballooning popularity in recent years, nearly every bike brand has at least one (if not three!) gravel bikes on offer and the specializations range from aero gravel racing, to long two-track explorations, to multi-day bike packing. With so many options, how do you know which bike to choose? 

We put together a handy guide to take the guess work out of gravel bikes and to make sure your next (or first) gravel bike is the right one for you.

First: the difference between gravel bikes and road bikes

Before we launch into it, here's a brief primer on the basic differences between a road bike and a gravel bike because if you've ridden a road bike on gravel, you know you don't necessarily need a special bike to get off the pavement. 

Gravel-specific bikes are optimized for off-asphalt travel in three distinct ways: they have wider tire clearance, more relaxed geometry and stable handling, and can accommodate gravel specific components like rack mounts, dropper posts, suspension forks, and special steatposts that smooth out bumpy sections, also known as compliance. They also tend to be geared lower for steep climbs and maintaining traction on loose surfaces.

gravel bikes are different than road bikes

Now that that's out of the way, here's what to consider when choosing your gravel bike.

Step 1: Where & how will you ride the most

The spectrum of modern gravel bikes generally goes from more aero, efficient road bike inspired rides to more maneuverable, stable, and versatile mountain bike-style rides. Which end of the spectrum is right for you depends on where you intend to ride the most.

Let's say you like big-mile days with approximately equal amounts of gravel and pavement. In that case, the ultra-lightweight Specialized Crux with its cyclocross legacy will be a good choice. Maybe you want to do exploratory rides on two track or fire roads, in which case an all-arounder like the Specialized Diverge or Giant Revolt would be a good fit. And if you plan to toe start lines at big events like the Unbound or Steamboat GRVL, consider something on the racier but still versatile like the Cervelo Aspero, Pinarello Grevil, Crux, or Open Upper.

gravel bike adventure

Step 2: Consider the features you need


Geometry is key factor that sets gravel bikes apart from road bikes. This translates to slacker head angles, lower bottom brackets, and shorter chainstays that provide a stable, comfortable ride. They also tend to put the rider in a slightly more upright position compared to road bikes, which helps with maneuvering in technical terrain, and with overall comfort on long outings with varying conditions. 


Compliance softens bumps and reduces the rattling sensation that comes with bumpy surfaces. Bike manufacturers add compliance into gravel bikes in several ways like Giant's D-Fuse seatpost that dampens vibrations, Specialized's FutureShock that adds 20mm of front suspension, and Santa Cruz's rear triangle compliance that is engineered into the Stigmata frame. How much compliance you need in a gravel bike depends on where you want to ride most and how you want to use the bike (racing versus bike packing).

Components & features

To meet the challenge of steep off-road climbs, loose tracks, and mud, gravel bikes tend to come with lower gearing than road bikes. This equals greater versatility in the kind of terrain the bike is capable of tackling. Many gravel bikes offer the option to run a 1x or 2x drivetrain. Both can deliver a similar range, but 2x offer smaller steps between gears which can be helpful if you're carrying weight over undulating terrain.

gravel bike drivetrain

Additionally, most gravel bikes come with drop bars, but unlike the standard aero road drops, gravel bars are flared in the drop to give you a stable platform when descending bumpy surfaces. If you prefer a flat bar, that can be an option for an even more upright stance and handling.

Gravel bikes also offer an enormous amount of customization including the ability to run a short gravel fork which provides up to 60mm of bump soaking suspension. Many, including the Santa Cruz Stigmata are dropper post compatible to make technical sections more manageable.

Lastly, if you have bike packing on the horizon, you can choose a bike with frame mounts to carry your supplies. Bikes like the Liv Devote can carry up to three water bottles to get you through backroad sections with limited access to water.

Frame materials

As with road and mountain bikes, gravel bikes come in a variety of frame materials with the most common being carbon and aluminum. Carbon offers a higher stiffness to weight ratio but is more expensive, while aluminum is heavier but adds a dose of durability. For the lightest, highest performing bikes, go for carbon. If weight and performance are less important or you have a tight budget, there are plenty of good aluminum options. Titanium is also a favorite among gravel riders thanks to its stiff, lightweight yet compliant nature but it does increase the price tag.

Tire size

The range of tire size compatibility is where gravel bikes shine. Many can run up to a 47mm by 700c tire, and have the option to run a 650b wheel with up to a 2.1" mountain bike tire. That's a massive range that should cover just about every conceivable surface you will encounter on a gravel bike!

Not only do wider tires increase stability, traction, and capability on soft or muddy surfaces, they also help to provide that compliance mentioned earlier. An added bonus: if you want your gravel bike to double as a road bike, you can have a separate wheelset with smooth, narrow tires for your tarmac days that you swap with grippier, wider gravel tires for your adventure rides. With a gravel bike, you really can have two bikes in one.

Step 3: Choose your bike

Now for the fun part. Once you've outlined the kind of riding you intend to do with your gravel bike and the features you want it to have, it's time to pick a bike. Check out our featured gravel bikes, fill out our Dream Bike form or stop in any Basalt Bike and Ski location so we can help you find the perfect gravel bike for all of your off-pavement adventures.

June 16, 2023 — Manasseh Franklin