8 best gravel bikes for off-road adventures

Offering more freedom than your standard bike, go from tarmac to trail with these models

Paddy Maddison
Wednesday 28 April 2021 13:00
<p>We tested these on woodland tracks, dusty fire roads, smooth tarmac and potholed country lanes</p>

We tested these on woodland tracks, dusty fire roads, smooth tarmac and potholed country lanes

What’s the appeal of a gravel bike? In a word: freedom. These beefed-up drop-bar bikes boast greater tyre clearance and more stable geometry than their road-based counterparts, meaning they can take you places that regular old road bikes would fear to tread.

And while it’s true that mountain bikes can do that too, a gravel bike won’t kick up a fuss when the trail turns to tarmac.

The best gravel bikes allow you to, quite literally, take the rough with the smooth. They offer the speed and handling of a purebred road bike with the stability and sure-footedness of a mountain bike.

But hybrids they are not. Gravel bikes are built for out-and-out action, while hybrids, with their flat bars and upright riding position, are much more at home trundling around town.

If you fancy a slice of said action, you’re not alone. The gravel bike’s trademark all-road ability has made them extremely popular. So much so that they now represent one of the fastest-growing segments of the two-wheeled market.

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But with every brand making its own version, narrowing it down to the right one can be tricky. So to help you pick, we rode and rated some of the best options out there over the last six months and rounded up the best of the bunch below.

Our testing took us deep into the Northumbrian backcountry, home to enough muddy woodland singletrack, dusty fire roads, smooth tarmac and potholed country lanes to put any machine through its paces. Below are the ones we liked best..

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.

Ribble cgr ti gravel

Standing for “cross, gravel, road”, the cgr from British bike brand Ribble is designed to cover a range of uses depending on how it’s set up. This particular version boasts a titanium frame, knobbly 47mm tyres and is kitted out with Shimano’s gravel-specific GRX groupset, making it perfect for off-road adventures.

But it’s the titanium frame that really sold us. It rides beautifully on both dirt and tarmac and looks fantastic too. This sort of bike doesn’t date, it ages gracefully. We’ll still be drooling over that raw, brushed finish long after the current crop of matte-black machines have been consigned to the scrapheap.

What’s more, it’s a relatively inexpensive way to buy into a notoriously pricey frame material. A titanium frameset alone can easily set you back north of £2,000. Yet here’s a full build for only a grand more.

Canyon grail cf sl 8.0

With its unconventional cockpit, Canyon’s grail gravel bike divided opinion when it first hit the market in 2018. We have to admit, we weren’t sure when we first laid eyes on its unusual double-decker handlebar, but after several weeks of dirt, technical descents and smiles out in the Northumberland hills, consider us converted.

The grail cockpit boasts a unique “floating” top section, which Canyon claims offers extra compliance as it is not attached directly to the stem. Having tested it, we’d have to agree. Switching from the drops to the tops provides a significant reduction in chatter and vibrations, making for a smoother, more comfortable ride overall.

There is a bike to suit every price point in the grail range, but only the carbon-fibre models include the redesigned cockpit. This particular version is at the upper-middle end of the line-up and features world-class electronic shifting courtesy of Sram’s force etap axs groupset and is available in a choice of either matte grey or blue.

Specialized S-Works diverge

Most of us don’t have a spare £11,000 to spend on a gravel bike, but if you do, this is the one you want. For the uninitiated, S-Works is Specialized’s top-end line, designed to meet the demands of professional racers and ordinary folk with bulging wallets alike. The frames use a different carbon layup from Specialized’s regular bikes, making them some of the lightest and stiffest bikes around.

The S-Works diverge is the top-shelf version of Specialized’s award-winning gravel bike of the same name and comes with all the tech and trimmings you’d expect from a bike that costs more than most second-hand cars. The top-of-the-line Sram red axs etap groupset provides fluid, wireless shifting and the built-in clutch keeps gear changes smooth and reliable no matter where the road (or lack thereof) takes you.

One of our favourite parts, aside from the aggressive looks, is the future shock suspension, which provides 20mm of travel built right into the headset. It’s even got hydraulic damping that can be dialled up or down on the go.

Mason bokeh grx

Mason’s bokeh gravel bike is expensive as far as aluminium options go, but not all aluminium bikes offer this level of versatility and attention to detail. The frame itself is made in Italy from high-grade alloy and gives the bike an overall compliance that lends itself well to mixed terrain. The bike feels sporty but is stable when it needs to be and doesn’t flinch at anything thrown its way.

This particular version of the bokeh comes specced with a Shimano grx groupset, purpose built with gravel riding in mind. It makes shifting a dream, no matter the terrain and the clutch mechanism all-but eliminates chain slap.

The tyre clearance is very generous too. The frame will take anything up to a 50mm tyre on 650b wheels or 45mm on 700c. With that sort of clearance, there’s really not a lot this bike can’t take in its stride, including tarmac, which it will happily eat up provided it has the right shoes on.

Specialized diverge base e5

For those of us who might struggle to stump up the cash required for the S-Works version, Specialized offers a number of other, more economically viable routes into divergeland. Take the diverge base here for example. It offers the same progressive geometry and dashing good looks, but ditches the carbon fibre and super-technical features to bring the price back down to a much more palatable £1,099.

It’s an excellent entry-level gravel bike that holds its own off road surprisingly well for the money. It has an alloy frame which is complemented by a carbon fork for a stiff, light and comfortable ride. There are also plenty of mounting points for racks, panniers and mudguards, should you decide to extend your off-road adventures over multiple days.

We think this bike would be a good choice for anyone looking for a solid gravel bike on a budget. It represents good value for money and comes from one of the most reliable names in the game with a lifetime frame warranty to boot.

Vaast a/1 allroad

Carbon, steel and aluminium have long ruled supreme where frame construction is concerned, but American brand Vaast is on a mission to change that with its magnesium bikes. Working closely with materials supplier Allite Inc, Vaast has been able to avoid the pitfalls that have stopped other manufacturers from working with magnesium in the past, creating bikes which it claims are lighter and stronger than their steel and carbon relatives respectively.

It’s difficult to quantify those claims, but what we can tell you is that the a/1 allroad, Vaast’s magnesium gravel bike, is a lot of fun to ride. We were surprised by how much we liked the feel of this underutalised material. It rides like steel – comfortable and forgiving – but weight-wise it’s more akin to carbon fibre.

The result is a bike that glides over rough terrain, absorbing the worst of the lumps and bumps, but that feels light and nimble. There’s something about certain bikes that puts a grin on your face the minute you start pedalling. It’s difficult to pin down, but whatever it is, the a/1 has it in spades.

There are certain things that won’t be for everyone. The orange accents, for example, weren’t to our taste, and the chain has a tendency to slap on the bottom of the drive-side chainstay. But we’re splitting hairs. All in all, this is a great bike at a great price that will suit anyone looking for something a bit different.

Liv devote advanced 1

The devote is the debut gravel machine from women-specific bike brand Liv. It’s got everything you could possibly need for off-road adventures great and small, and everything from the geometry to the materials used has been fine-tuned for female riders.

The bike comes with Shimano grx for smooth, reliable shifting and braking in all conditions. It’s also dropper-post compatible, so if that’s something you decide you want to add at a later date to maximise handling on technical terrain then the option is there.

It’s also a bit of a looker. We’re big fans of the navy with the sky-blue accents, and the contoured lines and internally-routed cables all come together to make one seriously sleek-looking bike. It’s a great bike that handles like a dream and is perfect for women who want something tailored to their needs by a brand that knows.

Genesis fugio 30

OK, let’s get the obvious bit out of the way. That finish. Wow. It’s a Nineties Day-Glo delight and received compliments aplenty from gushing admirers every time we took it for a spin. But there’s more to the fugio 30 than a nice paint job.

There’s a saying in the cycling community, “steel is real”, and with its heat-treated Reynolds tubing, this all-British gravel grinder does nothing to convince us otherwise. It’s a dream to ride on even the gnarliest, rock and root-riddled sections and is surprisingly lightweight for a steel frame. It also comes kitted out with Shimano grx and a dropper post to maximise its off-road credentials.

In terms of tyre clearance, there’s plenty. The fugio 30 comes with 47mm WTB ventures on 650b wheels, which is more than ample for all but the muddiest of off-road conditions, and it’ll happily take anything up to 50mm if required. We absolutely loved riding this thing and can think of no better option for anyone looking for a proper steel-framed gravel bike with some serious personality.

The verdict: Gravel bikes

We loved Ribble’s cgr ti gravel from the moment we hopped on. It’s fun, feisty and not unpleasant to look at either. Plus, at around £3,000, it’s an absolute bargain for a titanium bike.

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