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How can I choose the right gravel bike

Frame in carbon, steel or aluminium? What about the wheels? What tyres should I choose? There are seemingly a myriad of choices that we need to to take into consideration  when choosing the right gravel bike. Let’s try and wade through them and make things a bit clearer.

The correct choice of any new bike is always a difficult one, even more so when we  talk about the many facets of a gravel bike. Bad choices at this stage can have unfortunate consequences later on, choices that can not only compromise your performance, but can put a real dampener on your enthusiasm and make things a lot less fun. So, with this in mind we need to stop for a moment, take a deep breath and think clearly about what we want from our gravel bike and get our wish list of requirements in order. As we will see, it won’t take long to find the answer to the  question: How can I choose the right gravel bike?


Frame material and geometry

Gravel has come a long way in a very short time. Since it’s humble beginnings, in just a few years gravel has become a full on cycling discipline, gaining official recognition from the UCI, cycling’s international governing body. In the mid-2000s, the first races in the United States saw a few dozen athletes showing up at the start line. Today the same races attract the attention of thousands of cyclists from all over the world. But  gravel - as we know - is not just about competition, it’s also about freedom, nature and adventure. This evolution has inevitably led to a diversification of the products available on the market. Today, carbon gravel bikes excite the fantasies of many cyclists, manufacturers competing to offer the lightest gravel bike but it is necessary to pause for a moment and identify the bikes intended use, to think about the types of terrain you ride, the routes you usually ride and the feelings you want to get from the bike.

Secondly, it is important to think about the frame measurements, taking as a starting point your own biometric data: you height and inner leg length. Like any good tailor commissioned to tailor a suit, the same can be said for the cyclist trying to find the right frame. Comparisons across sizes should be avoided, especially between different brands. It is more important to look at the geometry of the frame: the angles, height and length of the tubes.

During this phase, the help of a qualified biomechanics engineer and experienced and adequately trained bike shop staff will be able to dispel any doubts and reduce the margin of error. Also being able to take part in a test day can help enormously, as long as you are able to test a bike that is as close as possible to "tailor-made" for you.


Once the right measurements for your new gravel bike have been determined, we can then take on the question of the frame material with more confidence. This obviously also depends greatly on your available budget. Carbon fibre is certainly the material that permits greater "creativity" in the design and development phase, while at the same time managing to guarantee low weight, vertical elasticity and lateral stiffness. An operation made possible by the fact that a carbon frame can be composed of different layers of fibres with different densities which, combined with particular resins, can guarantee structural characteristics that are difficult to replicate with the use of steel or aluminum. A carbon fibre tube can be studied centimetre by centimetre and these sections can therefore have different cores depending on the responses required from the bicycle.

However, it is not said that a carbon fibre frame is always the right choice. We should give more priority to where the bike will be ridden to eliminate any doubts. For example, if we love adventure, bike packing, long distance travel, those rides where weight should not be an obsession, a steel gravel frame offers great structural characteristics combined with the possibility, should the unthinkable happen, of being able to carry out repair work with relative simplicity even if we were to find ourselves  isolated in any of the four corners of the globe. 

An aluminum frame can be a good compromise for those who are taking the first steps in the world of gravel bikes. Aluminium is a material that permits the frame builders to utilise tubes of different shapes and thicknesses compared to steel: a process that improves the strength of the frame, but which also affects production costs and consequently the final price.


Wheels and tyres

Like the frame, gravel wheels play an equally decisive role. The range of use of a gravel bicycle can be very wide: with the same bike it is possible to take part without too many modifications in a road granfondo, and at the same time venture on more or less technical dirt tracks. A wheel set up with gravel tyres that is too dangerous and unsuitable for the road surface and certain weather conditions can affect handling to the point, in the most extreme cases, of compromising safety.

As usual, it is always the intended use of the bike that dispels any doubts. Where will you be riding? What roads are usually taken? Is there a difference in altitude? Will you be racing, having fun? Or both?


A wheel with a carbon fibre rim offers the same technical qualities as we find in frames. The resistance to lateral torsional forces allows for a reactive and snappy structure when compared to an aluminum wheel. Carbon also has the possibility of offering low weight aerodynamic profiles: results that are not achievable even with the best aluminum wheels. Therefore, if we love smooth tracks - asphalt and fast fine-grained dirt roads, we want to save a few hundred grams and want to have a multipurpose product to be used on the road too, there are no doubts: a good wheel with a carbon rim, sturdy hubs. and ultra-smooth top quality bearings is the right choice.

However, having said this, aluminum should not to be disregarded, even if it cannot be compared in terms of vertical elasticity with respect to carbon. It is possible to compensate for this slight disadvantage by using a wider section tyre: the cost / benefit compromise when it comes to aluminum can be extremely valid. There are always two important requirements from any type of wheel regardless. The possibility to use disc brakes and a tubeless ready tyre.

The inner width of the tubeless ready rims allow the assembly of tyres for on-road use up to widths similar to those used in the world of MTB. 50 mm and more in some cases. However, it all depends on the technical specifications and compatibility ranges provided by the wheel manufacturers. Failure to check wheel / tyre compatibility can cause the tyre to be un-beaded during tyre fitting and riding. Other than these unpleasant unforeseen events, that can be avoided by paying the right attention, the advantages of the well fitting tyre to rim are many: greater riding comfort, reduced possibility of pinching, lower operating pressures and possible use of the inner tube in the event of a puncture. 

Last but no least important, there is a choice to be made on the type of tyre tread. Typically, 28 to 35 mm width gravel tyres are intended for fast and smooth surfaces. Tyres with a wider front section can have a more pronounced tread pattern, even up to using a studded tread for those rides on snow and ice.


Woodchipper, cowchipper, cowbell or traditional? Welcome to the handlebar family!

The choice of the gravel handlebar is a rather interesting operation. We now have modern interpretations of the handlebars used by the pioneers of heroic cycling at the beginning of the 1900s. Just search for a photo of the start of the first Tour de France in 1903. The handlebar shapes used at the time had more or less accentuated bar end flare outs depending on the cyclist's needs. The road surfaces at the time were almost non existent to say the least, so then, as today, a flared handlebar curve gives a marked improvement in terms of riding stability on uneven road surfaces.

The first thing to do however, is to measure the width of your shoulders. Then we go back to that fundamental factor - where will you be riding? Gravel handlebars may not directly comparable to those as used on road bikes, but remaining in the family of drop handlebars we can distinguish four different types.

  • Woodchipper: The Woodchipper handlebar has straight drops that turn outwards by 25˚ / 26˚ and a front flare of 38˚ (flare angle) that is similar in riding position to that of a cross country MTB with the advantage of maintaining the grip on the brake levers and the high grip typical of a road handlebar. Very open bar angles give advantages in terms of fixing bags and luggage for bike packing. These bars are suitable for more demanding routes or for those looking for the best possible storage solution on the bicycle.

  • Cowchipper: The Cowchipper handlebar has open angles of around 23˚ / 24˚ and a drop similar to the traditional compact road handlebar. While the Cowchipper retains some resemblance of a traditional road bar, its radical 24° flare at the drops boosts leverage, stability, and comfort dramatically for those long days in the saddle, whether road touring, riding mixed surfaces, or conquering that long road trip. 

  • Cowbell: The Cowbell handlebar has also become common use on the road. It lends itself to fast, competitive gravel riding. The Cowbell blends speed, comfort, and efficiency for high performance efforts on gravel and paved roads. Designed with gravel racing and riding in mind, Cowbell bars feature a 10˚ / 14˚ flare that puts your hands, wrists, and arms into a natural, comfortable position in the drops

  • Traditional: these are the classic “straight” handlebar drops adopted on the road. Drop and reach may vary, thus further differentiating the offerings in Italian, Belgian, anatomic or compact curves.



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